The University of Rochester and the Civil War: Three Heroes at Gettysburg
By Bob Marcotte
Based on a talk delivered at the Department of Rare Books & Special Collections, University of Rochester, December 17, 2002.
Bob Marcotte is a columnist with the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, and the author of Where They Fell: Stories of Rochester Area Soldiers in the Civil War, published in October 2002.
On July 3, 1863 -- at the vortex of one of the most important battles of the American Civil War; indeed, at the very crossroads of our national existence -- two former classmates from the University of Rochester, class of 1859, strolled along the line of battle.
"Well, Scott," Lt. Col. Francis Pierce observed to Capt. Winfield Scott, "we ... sat beside each other in the classroom many a day; but this is a new experience. This isn't much like digging out Greek roots." 1
Pierce, of the 108th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and Scott, of the 126th New York, were two of three UR grads sharing the same patch of Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg in the lull before "Pickett's Charge." Lt. Samuel Porter, son of a noted Rochester abolitionist, was also in the ranks of the 108th that day.
That's the kind of Rochester connection that got me excited about writing a book about the Civil War soldiers from our area.
That's also the kind of connection that should excite anyone associated with the University of Rochester. For all three of these soldiers served with uncommon valor, enduring multiple wounds and exhibiting great courage on the battlefield.
That, at least, they had in common.
As for the growing enmity Porter came to feel toward Pierce? Well, that's an equally intriguing part of the story.
First let's talk a bit about the school they attended.
At that time, the UR was still a fledgling Baptist institution, chartered in 1850 in part because many of the Baptist faculty at Madison (now Colgate) University chafed at being confined to such a secluded, albeit beautiful, location as Hamilton, N.Y. 2
The UR offered its first classes in Rochester that fall in rented quarters -- the old United States Hotel on the north side of what is now West Main, but was then Buffalo Street. Eighty-two students attended the first school year, notes Arthur May in his history of the university. Enrollment averaged about 150 during the decade before the war. Though a bachelor of science was also offered, most students, like Winfield Scott, chose to pursue a traditional curriculum emphasizing the classics. 3
"Greek and Latin were constant companions of most undergraduates," May explains. But there were also classes in algebra, geometry, and trigonometry; modern history, English grammar, composition, and rhetoric, even surveying and navigation. 4
Scott's UR education culminated in his senior year, when he studied philosophy, law, religion, history, economics, Plato and Cicero, and these were but 7 of the 12 courses he took that year to complete his baccalaureate. "It was as a senior that one mounted the pinnacle of college studies, the course in intellectual and moral philosophy," May adds, explaining that this course "depended for its nature and coherence on the personality of the teacher." 5
Along the way, Scott was also a member of the Delphic Literary Society, one of two such societies on campus that fostered debates and other activities aimed at increasing their members' writing and public speaking skills.
1861 was a significant year: The university vacated the United States Hotel for its new home on Prince Street. And the nation went to war. 6
The Civil War meant a sharp, "nearly fatal" decline in the size of the student body, May tells us. Only 19 new men entered in 1864, the smallest class ever, and the youngest in average age. A mere 108 students remained on the books in 1865. 7
Small wonder: A great many prospective students had left to join the great fight to save the Union. Horace McGuire, for example, came from an impoverished background, and worked hard to earn a full scholarship to the UR. However, by the summer of 1862, when Lincoln issued his call for 300,000 more volunteers, "it became evident that every young man who could must enlist," McGuire later recalled. 8
In his life story, preserved here at Rare Books and Special Collections, McGuire tells how he "went with several other freshmen to call upon Dr. Martin B. Anderson, the President of the University of Rochester ... Dr. Anderson told us boys that in his opinion the war could not last six months and if we felt called upon to enlist to do so and if we came home alive the University would in some way make up our time lost." 9
So McGuire enlisted in Mack's 18th N.Y. Independent Artillery Battery, went off with it to Louisiana with Gen. Banks' expedition, eventually took a commission to lead black soldiers in the same theater of operations -- and ended up serving for four years. Though he never did attend UR, the university did, later in his life, "in some way make up" for McGuire's lost time: it conferred an honorary degree upon him. 10
One of the UR's most notable contributions to the war effort was a faculty member, Isaac Quinby, a professor of calculus and science who, in appearance, closely resembled his West Point classmate and lifelong friend Ulysses S. Grant. Quinby was quite a character: strict in the classroom, but also possessed of a dry humor. He was particularly fond of alcohol and tobacco, and he had an uncanny ability to hit a spittoon. Because he was a veteran of the Mexican War, he was a natural choice to command Rochester's first volunteer infantry regiment, the 13th New York. 11
At First Bull Run, Quinby fought in his shirtsleeves, and earned the admiration of many of his soldiers. He "carried a rifle and made some splendid shots -- Every time he fired he dropped a man," wrote Samuel Partridge, whose letters are also preserved here at Rare Books. 12
Alas, as the 13th began to unravel toward outright mutiny after that battle, Quinby found it harder to control a regiment of unruly, disgruntled volunteers than a classroom of college students. He resigned, but later commanded a division under Grant during the Vicksburg campaign. 13
May estimates that at least 85 of the 198 living Rochester graduates and former students entered the armed forces during the Civil War, and perhaps one of every 12 undergraduates enlisted. As I scrolled through the roster of UR graduates, I came across Jeremiah Drake, class of '52, who commanded the 112th New York, and later a brigade, and was killed amid the senseless slaughter at Cold Harbor. 14
Charles Savage, class of '61, was a captain in the 13th New York when it charged across an open field against Stonewall Jackson's men during the battle of Second Bull Run. Half the regiment was killed or wounded or captured; Savage suffered a mortal wound in the bowel. 15
Other UR grads survived the fighting to lead distinguished careers.
Elwell Otis, class of '58, a lieutenant colonel in the 140th New York, stayed in the Regular Army after the war, established the officer's candidate school at Fort Leavenworth, became military governor of the Philippines and retired as a major general. 16
William Smith Ely, Class of '61, an assistant surgeon of the 108th New York, wrote a remarkable letter after Antietam describing the death of the regiment's major, and was later Chief of Medicine at Rochester City Hospital and served as president of the Monroe County, Rochester and New York State medical societies. 17
There are three UR soldiers, in particular, that I would like to talk about tonight.
Winfield Scott was a Baptist farm boy from Seneca County who, after graduating from UR in 1859, attended Rochester Theological Seminary and became a minister in Syracuse. A staunch supporter of the fight to save the Union, he took a leave of absence in 1862 to tour the countryside, urging other young men to enlist.
"Oh, it's all right for you to talk," one of those young men challenged him. "If you'll organize a company, I'll go." 18
And that's exactly what Scott did, returning to his home town of Farmer Village in Seneca County to recruit 30 cousins, AND many of his former Sunday School students, AND the town band, AND a local glee club! They were organized as Co. C of the 126th New York, with Scott their captain. 19
Francis Pierce, 29, a Livingston County native, had moved with his family to Wisconsin as a child, then returned to stay with his grandparents in Rochester so he could attend school here. After graduating from UR the same year as Scott, he briefly taught school at Chili, was principal of the Mt. Morris Academy for a year, then returned to Rochester as principal of a military academy for young boys. 20
He, too, agreed to recruit a company of men that summer.
Assisting him in his recruiting office at 15 Buffalo Street was Samuel Porter, who had just completed his junior year at UR. Porter was a skilled baseball player with a particularly interesting family background. His parents were ardent abolitionists, and close friends and supporters of Frederick Douglass. They allowed their Third Ward barn to be used as a stop on the Underground Railroad. 21
Pierce and Porter recruited their men primarily from Rochester and the surrounding towns of Monroe County, and were organized as Co. F of the 108th New York, with Pierce as captain, and Porter as one of his lieutenants.
Pierce and Porter are especially interesting because we have ready access to their war letters. Excerpts of Pierce's letters to his friend Edward Chapin were published by the Rochester Historical Society; Porter's letters to his family are right here at Rare Books and Special Collections (and I hope at this point you are beginning to realize what a treasure trove these collections are!).
Our three soldiers arrived at Gettysburg by somewhat different routes.
Winfield Scott's regiment was sent in September 1862 to the Shenandoah Valley to join the federal garrison at Harper's Ferry, where John Brown had conducted his ill-fated raid in 1859. The 126th was made one of the principal scapegoats for the surrender of the garrison there a few days later. But in all the fingerpointing afterwards, there was nothing but praise for Winfield Scott. During the fighting he suffered a severe bullet wound in the leg, but refused to leave his men until he was faint from loss of blood. 22
The bullet was embedded deeply in a bone in his right leg. To extract it, doctors back home had to enlarge the wound. "It will be some time before Capt. Scott will be able to get about, as his wound will necessarily heal slowly," the Rochester Daily Democrat reported. 23
And yet, though he was still on crutches, Scott insisted on rejoining the regiment that winter. And though his wound was still ejecting bits of bone and even a piece of long-john, he endured some of the hardest marching of the war -- 20 to 30 miles a day -- to reach Gettysburg the following July. 24
Pierce and Porter, with the rest of the 108th, had a horrendous baptism of fire during the Antietam campaign. They were part of the second Union brigade to be thrown against the infamous Sunken Road outside of Sharpsburg on Sept. 17, 1862. At Fredericksburg that December, the regiment was hurled against the equally infamous Stone Wall on Marye's Heights during a series of assaults that accomplished absolutely nothing except to slaughter a great many Union soldiers. At Chancellorsville the following spring, the 108th was caught up in some of the fiercest fighting of the war the morning of May 3, when wave after wave of Confederate infantry charged and eventually overwhelmed the Union salient around the Chancellor House clearing. 25
Both Pierce and Porter fought bravely. We have ample evidence of that from the accounts of the soldiers they commanded. But there is a distinct difference in the way Pierce and Porter wrote about their experiences in the letters I have referred to.
Pierce, writing to a buddy, is unhesitatingly candid, describing the battlefield in graphic detail, perhaps to make a good impression. Porter, no doubt anxious not to alarm his parents, is much more discreet, offering few details of the battlefield, and downplaying the foot wound he suffered at Antietam.
But he is quite candid, and passionate, in his denunciations of Pierce. Partly this was a matter of pride: Porter blamed Pierce for passing him over for promotion. It was not that Porter actually wanted the promotion, we learn in his letters. But he at least wanted the opportunity to turn it down, so as not to lose standing with his men. 26
But there also appears to have been a deeper, underlying disagreement between the two.
Pierce, like many Union soldiers, was fighting to save the Union, not to the free slaves, and in his letters to Chapin speaks disparagingly of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and the African Americans who would be set free. "I will not jeopardize my life or become an invalid for life from exposure and fatigue, hunger and cold, simply to restore 3,000,000 of brutes to freedom," he wrote. 27
Like many Union officers, Pierce supported George McClellan, the Union commander of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan's habitual caution squandered many opportunities for victory, forcing Lincoln to look elsewhere for a commander. McClellan, too, had opposed the Emancipation Proclamation.
It is likely Pierce's views were known -- and objectionable -- to young Samuel Porter who, we must remember, came from an ardent abolitionist family. That probably explains this outburst in another of Porter's letters:
"I got tired of listening to the rant and treason of Lieut. Col. Pierce and men of his stamp," Porter wrote home in the spring 1863. Pierce, he contended, was a Copperhead of the worst kind, a man of no principle, fighting primarily because it paid well. 28
In light of Pierce's record during the war, much of this seems unfair. And yet, it is fascinating, isn't it? That soldiers could fight side by side, with equal valor, and yet be at such odds?
And so we come to the epic, three-day battle at Gettysburg, regarded by many as perhaps the critical turning point of the war, not only because Lee was defeated, but because it represented the South's last and perhaps best opportunity to win the war on northern soil. From that point on, the South, with its manpower dwindling, had to go on the defensive.
For Scott and the other soldiers of the 126th, who were still branded the "Cowards of Harper's Ferry," the battle was their first opportunity since that debacle to prove themselves. And they and the rest of their brigade did so, turning back Barksdale's Mississippi brigade late on the second day of fighting.
The next day, July 3, they found themselves alongside Pierce and Porter and the rest of the 108th at Zeigler's Grove.
The 108th "ought to have been one of the least envied of the regiments at Gettysburg," writes historian Harry Pfanz. The regiment had a thankless task, lying in support of an artillery battery, having to endure enemy sniper and artillery rounds with little opportunity to fire back. 29
Then, at 1 p.m., the Confederates opened fire with at least 100 artillery pieces as the prelude to "Pickett's Charge."
The 108th, in particular, was pounded hard during this hour and a half barrage, enemy rounds snapping off tree branches, and maiming men and horses alike.
The regiment helped pull the artillery pieces back out of range when the battery ran out of long-range shot, then pulled them back in place to fire canister at the oncoming Rebel infantry.
When the brigade commander was hit, Pierce, now in command of the 108th, took his place, and earned official plaudits for his courage under fire. 30
Winfield Scott later said the sight of three Confederate divisions advancing across that deadly field was "grand beyond description." Thousands of guns and bayonets in the oncoming lines gleamed in the sunlight, so that it looked like "a stream or river of silver moving toward us."
The Confederate attack crumbled under the onslaught of Union artillery, and volley after volley of rifle fire. "The valley was full of men," Scott said. "Like a mob they surged, and were ridden upon by officers. They swept round and round in a hopeless mass, as though they were in great conflict of thought and doubt." 31
The 126th completed its revenge that afternoon, advancing beyond the left flank of the Rebel attack, then sweeping in to capture prisoners and battle flags.
All three of our soldiers suffered wounds: Pierce and Scott were only slightly hurt; Porter was hospitalized with a shoulder wound.
Indeed, that's what I find incredible about all three of these soldiers: Their willingness to suffer repeated wounds, and still return to the fray.
The following spring, for example, Scott was temporarily incapacitated while leading the regiment against the Salient at Spotsylvania on May 12. A spent round hit the Bible he carried in his pocket.
Six days later, before leading the regiment against the same salient, Scott had a premonition. "I'm going to be hit this morning," he told a chaplain, handing over his favorite silver pen. "I don't know whether I am to be killed or not; If I am, see that my wife gets this pen, and tell her I thought of her, and tell my old mother that I died game."
During the attack, a shell tore off a large portion of the inside of his right thigh. It was the fourth time he had been hit. The surgeons decided Scott was beyond repair, but the feisty captain pointed a musket at them, and demanded to be sent to a field hospital.
As he was carried to the rear, Scott called the chaplain over. He wanted that pen back! 32
His wife Helen hurried to Washington to secure a pass to the front. She was refused, but managed to talk to Lincoln personally. She got her pass, and took her husband home to recuperate. Scott's fighting days were over.
Samuel Porter suffered his third wound -- a bullet through the left calf -- at Bristoe Station in October 1863, returned to the regiment, and was wounded a fourth time -- at the Battle of the Wilderness. As usual he downplayed his injury in a letter home, describing it as "a very wholesome flesh wound above the knee disturbing no arteries and breaking no bones." 33 But he had to be brought home to recuperate. As usual, he soon returned to the regiment and served until the end of the war.
Pierce was wounded at Fredericksburg when a bullet burrowed along his scalp and a piece of shell hit his trouser but did not break the skin. 34 He was wounded again at Gettysburg when a round severely bruised his arm. Pierce suffered his worst wound during a reconnaissance at Morton's Ford in spring 1864, when he was shot in the temple and left eye, the eyeball literally protruding out of the socket. 35
Surely, one would think, this would end Pierce's fighting career. But, after recuperating a few weeks at home, he rejoined the regiment, though blind in one eye, only to be wounded again in the Wilderness. And still he remained in the ranks, commanding the regiment at Spotsylvania, where he had to be guided during a night march, so impaired was his eyesight. 36 He commanded the regiment until the end of the war, including stints as acting brigade commander, and was given honorary, brevet rank of brigadier general.
Incredible. Was it that rigid curriculum in Greek and Latin that gave UR's soldiers such backbone? Was it something in the Rochester water supply?
Pierce does not speak openly of his reasons for returning again and again to combat in his letters, at least not in the excerpts that we have. But we do sense in his letters that he was an adventuresome type, who genuinely loved Army life, and was actually exhilarated by combat. 37 Perhaps another reason for going back, again and again, can be found in his farewell remarks to his fellow officers after the regiment returned to Rochester.
"Three years of privation and danger in common have created between us a feeling that can never be obliterated," he said. "When a soldier sees others doing their duty bravely and manfully, enduring privation and hardship without a murmur or complaint, and heroically facing danger and death, it is impossible to prevent a mutual feeling of attachment and friendship springing up, that nothing else could produce." 38
Pierce, not surprisingly, remained in the Regular Army after the war, rising to captain's rank. He served out west, where he was regarded as one of the army's ablest administrators of Indian reservations. I am not sure exactly what that meant. I have not been able to determine, for example, whether he was any more enlightened about the plight of Native Americans than he was about the plight of African Americans. Or whether he was simply more effective than most in coercing Native Americans to adapt to the white man's ways. 39
Winfield Scott embarked upon a remarkable career as a Baptist missionary, founding churches in several locations. Winfield, Kansas, is named for him. He founded and tirelessly promoted Scottsdale, Arizona, where he bought land, grew citrus trees, peanuts and other crops, demonstrating that even the desert southwest could be made bountiful. His biographer, Richard Lynch, says he "accomplished more in his lifetime than most men could hope to achieve in several lifetimes." 40
Alas, Samuel Porter died at age 37 of complications from a malarial sickness that, some suspected, may have been contracted during the Civil War. He died within 24 hours of his father. 41
And so, on March 9, 1881, "there was a sad and tearful assemblage of mourners at the funeral of Samuel D. Porter and his son Samuel, at the residence on Fitzhugh street."
The caskets were placed side by side. 42
I would like at this point to express my thanks for all of the help and cooperation I have received the last few years from the staff at Rare Books and Special Collections, in particular Mary Huth. Above all, I am grateful for the remarkable collection of original letters, diaries and other documents that the University has taken such pains to preserve.
It is a truly remarkable thing, to be able to enter this place, and hold in your hands a letter that young Edward Clark wrote from his Civil War gunboat on the Mississippi River, or to leaf through the diary Hod McGuire kept while stationed at Baton Rouge, or peruse letters from Sam Partridge chronicling the growing disenchantment in the 13th, or from Charles Curtis Brown describing the panicked flight of his ill-trained cavalry regiment in the Wilderness.
You feel that much closer to the events they describe; it is as if you truly are reliving history through their eyes.
- Lynch, Richard E., Winfield Scott: A Biography of Scottsdale's Founder, The City of Scottsdale, Ariz., 1978, p. 25
- May, Arthur J., A History of the University of Rochester: 1850-1962, The University of Rochester, Rochester, N.Y., 1977, p. 10
- May, pp. 25, 37, 38
- Ibid., p.38; Lynch, p. 7
- Ibid., p. 10; May, pp. 38-39
- Ibid., p. 49
- Ibid., p. 54
- McGuire, Horace, "The Story of My Life," editor Richard W. Kaeuper, The University of Rochester Library Bulletin, Vol. XXXXII, 1991-1992, University of Rochester Library, Rochester, N.Y., pp. 21-24
- Ibid., pp. 25-26
- Ibid., p. 6
- May, pp. 20-21; The University of Rochester: The First Hundred Years, Centennial Issue of the Alumni-Alumnae Review Commemorating the University's One Hundredth Anniversary, Rochester, 1950, pp. 13-14
- Partridge letter to Francis Macomber, July 24, 1861, UR Rare Books and Special Collections.
- Marcotte, Robert, Where They Fell: Stories of Rochester Area Soldiers in the Civil War, Q Publishing LLC, Franklin, Va., 2002, pp. 37-38
- May, p. 52; General Catalogue of the University of Rochester, 1850-1928, University of Rochester, Rochester, N.Y. (no date of publication given).
- Rochester Daily Democrat and American (D-Dem), Oct. 23, 1862
- Bennett, Brian A., Sons of Old Monroe, A Regimental History of Patrick O'Rorke's 140th New York Volunteer Infantry, Morningside House Inc., Dayton, Ohio, 1992, pp. 582-583
- D-Dem., Sept. 29, 1862; Lehr, Teresa K. and Philip G. Maples, To Serve the Community: A Celebration of Rochester General Hospital, 1847-1997, The Donning Co., Virginia Beach, Va., 1997, p. 40; Lehr, Teresa K., Let the Art of Medicine Flourish: The Centennial History of the Rochester Academy of Medicine, Q Publishing LLC, Franklin, Va., 2000, p. 36.
- Lynch, pp. 11-12
- Ibid., pp. 13-14
- Washburn, George H., A Complete Military History and Record of the 108th Regiment N.Y. Vols. From 1862 to 1894, E. R. Andrews, Rochester, N.Y., 1894, p. 191; the school is referred to as the Rochester Training School, in Washburn, or the Military School in some newspaper articles.
- D-Dem, July 14, 1862; see Porter profile, Washburn, p. 301; Perkins, Dexter, "Rochester One Hundred Years Ago," Rochester History quarterly, Rochester Public Library, Vol. 1, No. 3, July 1939, p. 18.
- Lynch, p. 18; The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, prepared by Bvt. Lt. Col. Robert N. Scott, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1880-1901, Series I, Volume 19/1, p. 674
- D-Dem, Oct. 1, 1862
- Lynch, p. 23
- See Phisterer, Frederick, New York in the War of the Rebellion, 1861 to 1865, (six volumes), J.B. Lyon Co., Albany, 1912, Volume IV, pp. 3269-3282 for a summary of this regiment's recruitment, casualties and officers. This valuable compendium summarizes the Civil War service of every regiment and battery from New York state. Marcotte, pp. 80-83, 93-94 and 105, discusses the 108th's roles at these battles.
- Letter to father, Dec. 20, 1862, Porter family papers, UR Rare Books and Special Collections. Porter worried he would be in a difficult spot if he became known as the officer who was "jumped." He accused Pierce of "deceit" and swore he would never respect him again. In later letters, however, he assured his father he would do his best to get along with Pierce anyway, writing -- on Jan. 6, 1863 -- "It never was in my nature to nurse a quarrel even if I did despise a man's actions."
- Pierce, Francis Edwin, "Civil War Letters of Francis Edwin Pierce of the 108th New York Volunteer Infantry," The Rochester Historical Society Publications, Vol. XXII, Rochester Historical Society, Rochester, N.Y., 1944, pp. 167-168
- Letter to father, May 28, 1863. Porter family papers, UR Rare Books and Special Collections. Porter does not specify exactly what he believes constituted "rant and treason" on Pierce's part. However, he makes the accusation while praising another officer who, by contrast, had not become discouraged by the defeat at Chancellorsville, and remained confident of ultimate success. Copperhead was the name given to anti-war Democrats.
- Pfanz, Harry W., Gettysburg: The Second Day, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1987, p. 64
- Marcotte, pp. 134-136
- Scott, Winfield, "Pickett's Charge as Seen from the Front Line, A Paper Prepared and Read before the California Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States," Feb. 8, 1888, pp. 10-13
- Lynch, p. 29
- Letter to father, May 6, 1864, Porter Family papers, UR Rare Books and Special Collections.
- Pierce, pp. 161-162
- Rochester Evening Express (Ev. Exp.), Feb. 12, 1864, based on a letter from Sgt. John Jewell. In its Feb. 15 edition, the newspaper reported that the bullet, which had passed under the eye and lodged beneath the bridge of Pierce's nose, was extracted "a few minutes after the wound was received." Also D-Dem, Feb. 13, 1864; D-Dem, Feb. 16, 1864. A surgeon's report, dated Feb. 9, 1864, described the gunshot wound "in the anterior portion of the left temple ... The ball passed obliquely forward protruding the left eye about one inch." The report is part of Pierce's military records, National Archives and Records Administration. See also Ev. Exp. Feb. 15, 1864; Rochester Daily Union and Advertiser (UA), Feb. 25, 1864.
- Washburn, p. 191
- Pierce, pp. 156, 171
- UA, June 15, 1865
- The praise is attributed to Thomas Cruse, a West Point graduate, brigadier general and veteran Indian fighter who received the Medal of Honor. See Thrapp, Dan,Al Sieber: Chief of Scouts, University of Oklahoma Press, 1964, footnote 35, p. 335. See pp. 325-331 for a description of a gunfight that broke out when Pierce and Sieber attempted to disarm Apache scouts.
- Lynch, pp. 40-41, 95-136, 1
- Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, March 8, 1881; UA, March 7, 1881
- UA, March 10, 1881