Elias Peissner
Elias Peissner (1825 - 1863)

Peissner was born in Vilseck, Bavaria in 1825. He enrolled at the University of Munich in 1843, studying philosophy and law, but was forced to leave the university shortly before graduating through an intriguing turn of events. In 1846, actress and dancer Lola Montez became the mistress of King Ludwig I. Montez also dallied with university students, including Peissner, then president of his fraternity. Her meddling in political affairs made her unpopular with the students, and Peissner’s connection with her led to his being expelled from the fraternity. Peissner then founded a new fraternity, Allemannia, which supported the King, creating political tension between the new fraternity and the existing ones. Ludwig intervened on the side of Montez and Peissner, leading to rumors that Peissner was the illegitimate son of the King, a rumor supported by the strong physical resemblance between them.

When the revolutions of 1848 struck Munich, the majority of students took the republican side, but Peissner and his fraternity rallied to the King. Peissner was expelled from the university, and Ludwig briefly ordered the university closed in February, but Ludwig abdicated in March, and Peissner was forced to leave Bavaria. He accompanied Montez to Switzerland, but she later moved to London and left him behind. Although Ludwig corresponded with Peissner and gave him money for his education, Peissner decided to start over again in the United States.

Working as a tutor, Peissner met Professor Charles Foster of Union College, who arranged his appointment as instructor of German and Latin in 1850.He also taught fencing. In 1855 he was appointed Professor of German Language and Literature, despite anti-Catholic sentiment at the college, and in 1857 became Lecturer in Political Economy, the forerunner of today’s economics discipline. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and also joined Sigma Phi. He married Margaret Lewis, daughter of Professor Tayler Lewis, in 1856; they had three children. He wrote grammars of German and the Romance languages and a history of German literature. He also became involved in politics, calling for the North to resist Southern secession his 1861 book, The American Question.

When the Civil War broke out that year, Peissner helped organize and train the Union College Zouaves, most of whose members later served as officers in the Union Army. In June 1862, Governor Morgan of New York gave Peissner permission to recruit a regiment and a commission as its colonel. The regiment entered service that September as the 119th New York Infantry. The regiment saw its first action in 1863 as part of XI Corps at the battle of Chancellorsville. The corps’ position was turned by Stonewall Jackson’s attack, and disaster ensued. Desperately attempting to stem the Confederate tide, Peissner was shot at the head of his men, and died on the field on May 2, 1863. On his death, the faculty at Union College formally expressed their, “respect for his ability and earnestness in his department, both as an Author and an Educator,….regard for his virtues as a man and a friend,….[and] admiration of his heroism in the cause of human liberty and his adopted land.”

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