University of Rochester Library Bulletin: "Gentlemanly and Determined" - The Life Story of Horace McGuire

Volume XXXXII ·  1991-1992
"Gentlemanly and Determined" - The Life Story of Horace McGuire
--Richard W. Kaeuper

The man who gradually comes to life from the somewhat faded manuscript pages of his papers is a vigorous, fascinating, and admirable human being. His story is worth preserving and worth knowing. The main source for reading that life, the Autobiography, which he wrote in 1912 at the age of 70, is published in this issue of theUniversity of Rochester Library Bulletin, with additions from his Diary and letters, all deposited in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections of the University of Rochester.

It is a story, first of all, of one young man's passage through the wrenching experience of civil war and it narrates in particular his involvement in the transformation of black Americans from slaves to citizen-soldiers which that war slowly brought about. Nearly half of the Autobiography, in fact, is devoted to the four years Horace McGuire spent in the Federal army, first as a volunteer in an artillery unit and then as an officer of African-American soldiers.    

The remainder of the Autobiography, telling of his early years and his life after the war, although written on a shorter scale, completes the picture of McGuire's own transformation. From hardship and poverty he rose in a manner that was surely more often praised than achieved amid the rigorous and competitive social realities of nineteenth-century America. In these pages the ability and sheer hard work of McGuire appear as incontrovertible facts; here the Horatio Alger storybook climb to prosperity and honor is thoroughly real.

McGuire's story in its most straightforward telling can be read in his own words in the text which follows. That story is printed as he wrote it, with minimal editorial intrusion. Annotations to this Autobiography will amplify and clarify specific details. These notes and a series of longer appendices, drawing on the additional evidence afforded by his Diary and letters, will serve to set the life in its context. 

The briefest outline of the career may, however, be helpful at the outset. His life, as his retelling of it shows, fell into three divisions: the period of struggle before the war; the war years themselves; growing success and prosperity in the post-war years.

Up to the summer of 1862 McGuire was virtually struggling to survive. His own flinty determination and constant hard work, buttressed by the support of a few friendly patrons, at last brought within his grasp the prize he sought so long, a university scholarship.

The war that had shattered the country then shattered his careful plans as well. He enlisted in the Union volunteer forces as so many others did, with a straightforward sense of patriotism and a sustaining conviction that the task at hand could soon be accomplished. He would, in fact, serve in uniform for four years and would return home to face making his plans anew.

McGuire joined an artillery unit in August of 1862 and became a noncommissioned officer. Had he enlisted instead in the 140th New York infantry, then forming in Rochester, he would have fought in the most famous battles of the Civil War, across Virginia and at a little crossroads town in Pennsylvania.

His service was highly significant nonetheless, even if the scenes he witnessed and the battles in which he fought are far from familiar today. He was, first, involved in the campaigns which eventually won Federal control of the Mississippi River as General Ulysses S. Grant moved south and General Nathaniel R Banks moved north (from the city of New Orleans, previously captured by Admiral David G. Farragut).

These continuing campaigns on the river were not initially successful. The diversionary movement by General Banks behind Port Hudson in March of 1863 was something of a fiasco, although a part of the Union fleet under Admiral Farragut got past that bastion to blockade a key stretch of the river. McGuire participated in Banks' next campaign, an effort to bypass the barrier of Port Hudson altogether by a route through the bayous west of the great river, in April of 1863. This campaign likewise brought no significant strategic results; although the Federals overran the Confederate line of defense at Fort Bisland, they failed to trap and destroy the Confederate force; soon Banks had to settle down for a regular siege of Port Hudson that paralleled the much better known siege conducted by General Grant at Vicksburg. As this Union noose tightened around Port Hudson McGuire was not there; by this time he was in a New Orleans hospital, recovering from a wound inflicted by the accidental discharge of his revolver.

Yet he was soon to participate in an undertaking that surely stands equal in importance to any particular battle or campaign, however famous. He left his artillery unit to become an officer in a regiment of troops recruited from among the former slaves.

The enterprise of enlisting black troops was hotly debated at the time in the North; in the South it produced outrage and threats of enslavement for these troops and death for their white officers if captured. McGuire applied for a position, passed his examination handily, and became a lieutenant in Banks' "Corps d'Afrique" in January, 1864. He drilled and led his men well, evidently winning their loyalty, as evidenced on what became a harrowing raid on Pascagoula, Mississippi, in the opening days of 1865. McGuire, by now a captain, also won the respect of his own superiors. At the close of the war he was entrusted with the command at Brashear City, Louisiana, where he was for a time virtually the governing authority, until a functioning civil order could be reestablished. He was then entrusted with the heavy task of dismantling the fortifications both at Brashear and at Port Hudson. He spent his final days in uniform as commander at Fort Pike on the Gulf coast near New Orleans. By act of Congress, in September of 1866, he became a brevet-major in recognition of his services.

McGuire came home that month to marry Alice Kingsbury and to start civilian life anew. After several ventures into business, with mixed results, McGuire found his natural calling in the law. Admitted to the bar in 1876, his successful career was capped by an appointment in 1905 as Deputy Attorney General for the State of New York. He may have taken nearly as much pride in the award of an honorary bachelor's degree by the University of Rochester in 1881.

Throughout his life he was sustained by the religious faith that leaves its indelible imprint on all his writings. He died in 1917, and was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester. His modest stone stands beside those for his wife Alice and his first daughter Grace, who died at age 14; the inscription says simply:

Horace McGuire
Enter thou unto the joy of thy Lord



The help of a number of friends and colleagues has been essential in preparing the McGuire Papers for publication. Useful citations, information, and advice came from Gabor S. Borritt (Civil War Institute, Gettysburg College), Larry E. Hudson (History, University of Rochester), and Charles L. Sullivan (Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College). The professional skill and courtesy of Mary Huth (Rare Books and Special Collections, University of Rochester) made working on the McGuire Papers a pleasure. Remsen Wood more than once responded to my queries with the insight which only a grandson of Horace McGuire could provide. Without the knowledge and interest of Karl Kabelac (Rare Books and Special Collections, University of Rochester), many doubtful points of local history would have remained in shadow. William Becket skillfully transcribed McGuire's handwritten text into a typed computer file. Rosemary Paprocki and Shirley Ricker (Reference Department, Rush Rhees Library) shared their time and microcomputer expertise to help turn multiple discs in variant programs into a single file speaking one language. Above all thanks go to Margaret Becket, the editor of the Library Bulletin (history bibliographer, Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester), for her historical insight, her vigor and attention to detail, her contributions to the notes, and her ability to keep us both on track.

Additional resources:

  • The register of the McGuire-Wood Family Papers