Union College connections to the Civil War era
The Civil War claimed 67 members of the Union College community, but perhaps no loss was felt more on campus than the death of Elias Peissner, a well-known professor of German and political economy who was a public advocate for the preservation of the Union and the gradual abolition of slavery.
He also had a keen interest in military leadership.
After the fall of Fort Sumter in 1861, students formed a regiment, the Union College Zouaves, and elected Peissner as captain. By all accounts, he was a strict disciplinarian with a strong military bearing. He led the student regiment in drills and mock skirmishes on campus grounds, commanding the young cadets in a mixture of English and his native German.
In 1862, he formed the 119th Regiment of New York State Volunteers and became its colonel. Four Union alumni served under Peissner, including his brother-in-law, Charles Lewis. On the regiment’s first day of action, May 2, 1863, Peissner was killed while leading his outnumbered troops against a Confederate attack at the Battle of Chancellorsville.
The student editor of the Union College Magazine may have summed up the feelings on campus when he wrote, “We had read and talked much about the cruelty of war, but we had not realized it.”
Peissner left behind a wife, Margaret, the daughter of Professor Tayler Lewis, and two children. He was buried in the College Plot at Vale Cemetery. He is the only faculty member killed in war.
Peissner’s story is one of dozens told in a new exhibit, Profound & Poignant: Union College Connections to the Civil War Era, that will be on display in the Nott Memorial for the remainder of 2015. The exhibit also includes material on Union College and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, which will be featured in the spring issue of this magazine.
Those who served
A total of 577 alumni from the classes of 1813 to 1870 and one faculty member served in Civil War: 507 in the Union Army, 23 in the Union Navy, and 47 in the Confederate Army. They fought in major Civil War battles including First and Second Bull Run, Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Antietam, the Peninsular Campaign and Sherman’s March to the Sea. Union College war deaths totaled 61 for the Union and six for the Confederacy. (For perspective, about 900 West Point graduates served in the war with just under 100 deaths.)
While these numbers for the College may seem small in comparison to the more than three million who served in the Union and Confederate militaries, the contributions and experiences of Union alumni and others associated with the College far exceed what these relative numbers would imply.
Union alumni assumed important roles as political leaders, diplomats, war administrators and advisors. The secretaries of state for both the North and South at the start of the war were Union graduates. William Seward (1820) was one of Lincoln’s most trusted political advisors. Robert Toombs (1828) turned into a bitter critic of the Confederate government and ultimately a disgruntled military leader.
Seward, a New York senator and former governor, lost the Republican presidential nomination to Lincoln in 1860, and then accepted the position of secretary of state. Working closely with Lincoln, and after the war negotiating the purchase of Alaska, made him one of the most prominent political figures of the 19th century.
Toombs left his post as U.S. senator from Georgia to help form the Confederate government, but within two months criticized Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, whom he warned against attacking Fort Sumter. Within two years, Toombs resigned his post as secretary of state as well as his subsequent position as a brigadier general in the Confederate army, irritated by political and military leaders. John Bigelow (1835) and William James Stillman (1848) played important diplomatic roles by averting European support for the Confederacy, Bigelow in France and Stillman in Rome. Recommended by William Seward to be consul general to France, Bigelow’s greatest contribution to the Union war effort was his success in preventing the French from constructing warships that the Confederacy could have used to eliminate the Union blockade of southern ports. Well known for his photography and painting after the war, Stillman successfully deterred the Roman government from allowing Confederate citizens to obtain renewed passports without first pledging the oath of allegiance to the United States government.
Chester Arthur (1848), who would later become the 21st U.S. president, and Austin Blair (1839), called the “War Governor of Michigan,” both played important roles by supplying men and materiel for the Union cause.
Before the war, Arthur, a lawyer, argued two important cases on behalf of enslaved and free African Americans, while Blair was an outspoken abolitionist and proponent of women’s rights and equal suffrage. Once the war began, Arthur, as quartermaster general, efficiently raised, provisioned, and found housing for thousands of New York soldiers. Blair made Michigan the first western state to provide Lincoln with volunteers and eventually raised seven regiments—approximately 25 percent of Michigan men.
Several alumni rose to become prominent military leaders in the Union army, including its general-in-chief, Henry Halleck, (1837). Five were Medal of Honor recipients, one of whom, Daniel Butterfield (1849), created the haunting bugle call “Taps.” A Native American graduate, Holmes Colbert (1853), led the Chickasaw nation to an alliance with the Confederacy. General Ulysses S. Grant learned of General Robert E. Lee’s intention to surrender at Appomattox Court House in a letter from Lee delivered by a Union graduate, Charles Elliott Pease (1856), who then led a military escort for Lee back to his headquarters after the surrender. Just days before the Confederate general’s surrender, a Union alumnus, Brig. Gen. Edward H. Ripley (1862), directed the first Federal troops into Richmond and restored order to the abandoned Confederate capital.
John Starkweather (1850), a colonel in the First Wisconsin Volunteers in 1861, fought in several key battles including Perryville, Ky., where his regiment held the Union line against rebel forces. This victory ensured that Kentucky stayed in the Union and helped prevent European recognition of the Confederacy. Starkweather rose to the rank of major general by the time he left the army in 1865.
Alumni-led African-American regiments
Enlisting African Americans as soldiers in the Union Army signaled a dramatic shift in military policy and challenged the racial prejudices of most white Americans, including those supporting such regiments. Lincoln believed that in order to make these units more acceptable to the northern public, he would need to ensure that white men led the “colored troops,” as they were known in the 19th century.
Fourteen Union alumni sought and earned commissions to lead units known as United States Colored Troops (USCT), fully aware that the Confederacy had pledged punishments up to death for captured white officers leading these regiments.
All of the 14 officers from the College served capably with USCT units, but the histories of two deserve special notice. Hiram Scofield (1853) rose from a private in the 2nd Iowa Volunteers to become a brigadier general in the 47th USCT. His war diary contains entries that expressed sympathy with his black soldiers and an optimism about future race relations in the U.S. One Union alumnus, Cleveland Campbell (1855), a lieutenant colonel in the 23rd USCT, was wounded as he led his USCT troops in the battle of the Crater during the siege of Petersburg; he eventually perished from the lingering effects of the wound.
Union College’s 67 war dead included a faculty member (Peissner), the son of a faculty member and a civilian alumnus killed during a brutal pro-Confederacy raid on Lawrence, Kansas. William Jackson (1851), son of Prof. Isaac Jackson, saw combat in the first battle of Bull Run and was commended for ignoring an unauthorized call for retreat and instead leading his regiment into battlefield position. Jackson died shortly after the battle in a Washington military hospital, the result of a fever. Charles Lewis (1864), son of Professor Tayler Lewis and brother-in-law of Prof. Elias Peissner, under whom he served in the 119th New York Volunteers, was severely wounded in the arm at Chancellorsville, the same battle that claimed Peissner. Lewis remained in the army another year before receiving a disability discharge.
A state senator in Kansas, Simeon Thorp (1859), became a civilian casualty during the bloody battles between pro-Union and pro-Confederate partisans. In August 1863, guerrillas led by Confederate officer William Quantrill raided Lawrence, Kan., an anti-slavery stronghold. Thorp and three other men surrendered under promise of protection but were killed by the raiders, some of whom would go on to become members of the notorious Jesse James gang. In all, 183 men and boys were killed and the city was torched.
Congress established the Medal of Honor during the Civil War to recognize those who “shall most distinguish themselves” in war. Of the nearly 2.2 million whose efforts preserved the Union, only 1,522 received Medals of Honor. Five of these medals were awarded to the Union alumni whose valorous acts are described here.
Daniel Butterfield (1849) rallied the 83rd Pennsylvania at the Battle of Gaines Mill on June 27, 1862. Wounded in this battle and at the Battle of Gettysburg, he is credited for composing the melody for “Taps.”
John Hartranft (1853) commanded the 4th Pennsylvania Volunteers, whose members refused to fight at the first Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861 because their enlistments had expired. Hartranft stayed to fight and rallied other regiments.
Francis B. Hall (1852), chaplain of the 16th New York Volunteers, was one of only six chaplains to receive a Medal of Honor. He endured enemy fire to carry numerous wounded men from the front line.
Philip Sydney Post (1855) volunteered his brigade at the Battle of Nashville to lead an almost suicidal attack to block the enemy’s retreat. Caught in a volley that killed his horse and shattered his pelvis and spine, he survived the attack and was promoted to brigadier general.
George Newman Bliss (1860) rallied retreating Union soldiers to attack a superior Confederate force at the battle of Waynesboro, Va., where he was wounded, captured and imprisoned for four months in Richmond.