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As soldiers on the battlefield or doctors in military hospitals, Penn alumni and faculty played remarkable roles in the nation’s bloodiest conflict—serving both North and South.

BY W. Barksdale Maynard

It’s  been 150 years since Abraham Lincoln visited Philadelphia in February 1861, on his way to be inaugurated in Washington. The Union was already splintering, and with its many economic and social ties to Dixie, the Quaker City was deeply divided, but big crowds turned out to cheer Lincoln as he rode from the railroad station to the Continental Hotel at 9th and Chestnut streets.

As they greeted throngs from the hotel balcony, the city’s mayor, Alexander Henry, may have directed Lincoln’s gaze just up the street, where the University of Pennsylvania, of which Henry would soon be named a trustee, was then located. Penn had known better days. Its College program had shrunk to just 100 students, and many called the place “that medical college on 9th Street.”

But University alumni would figure significantly in the coming Civil War. Some 4,000 served in some capacity in the conflict, with hundreds taking up arms. The number of casualties has never been tabulated, but certainly the 19 Northern dead listed on an 1879 plaque in College Hall are just a fraction.

At least 200 Union Army officers were educated at Penn, including 15 brigadier generals (several of whom attended the University before winning places at West Point). But the University’s longstanding affiliation with the South meant that many graduates served the Confederacy as well, including more than 80 officers.

If the College was sputtering in the Civil War era, the medical school was famous everywhere, and the source of Penn’s greatest contribution to the national conflict: 800 alumni served as surgeons in the Union forces, while Confederate hospitals were staffed with more than 500 of Penn’s graduates.

Not all of Penn’s contributions to the era were proud ones. In the years leading up to the war, the University produced quite a few pro-slavery Fire-Eaters, whose polemics fanned the flames of secession. Penn graduates edited the pro-secessionist Montgomery Advertiser and Southern Literary Messenger, where Samuel Dickson M1819 argued in 1844 that negroes were “an inferior and degraded race” who benefited from the civilizing effects of being enslaved. If freed, they would revert to savagery. Robert Walker C1819, senator from Mississippi and Secretary of the Treasury under pro-Southern president James Polk, led the effort to annex Texas as a huge slave state. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which outraged many Northerners, was written by James Mason C1818, senator from Virginia. A friend of Jefferson Davis, he was sent to England in 1861 to curry favor for the Confederacy. His seizure from the British ship Trent by Union sailors provoked an international furor.

As slavery became the burning issue of the antebellum years, Philadelphia was the center of the so-called “scientific” study of the negro race. Samuel Morton M1820 collected more than 1,000 skulls from across the globe, then measured them to determine which race had the greatest intellect. He concluded that African blacks were so inferior, God must have created them separately from Adam, as their own lowly species. Josiah Nott M1827 popularized this separate-creation theory in his standard text, Types of Mankind (1854).

With Lincoln’s election, the South resolved to break away, and its bombardment of Fort Sumter raised the curtain on war. Samuel Crawford M1850, a surgeon at that garrison, rushed to the parapets to fire cannons as the fort doughtily answered its attackers.

Word of Fort Sumter’s capitulation on April 14, 1861, stunned Philadelphians. Penn students spilled out into College Yard when they heard the news. Although most were too young to enlist, they soon organized the University Light Infantry, drilling in gray cadet uniforms under the watchful eye of their English professor, West Point graduate Henry Coppee, whose Georgia origins seemed to hinder his chances of becoming a top Union officer.

Wealthy alumni funded the creation of military units in the city. One was lawyer William Wister C1846, who as an undergraduate had established Penn’s first organized sport, cricket. In May 1861 he organized Cavalry Troop Company, drilling on a field in Chestnut Hill where, 22 years later, his Philadelphia Cricket Club would rise.

Wister survived years of cavalry fighting, but other officers were not so lucky, and their bodies were shipped home for lavish funerals. Among them was Colonel J. Richter Jones C1821, a former judge who read Caesar’s Commentaries in his tent at night and proved a terror to Confederates in the thickets of coastal North Carolina. They singled out this “bold, dangerous, bad man” for elimination: a sniper shot him through the heart from behind a chimney. Jones lay in state in Independence Hall.

The top commander of Union forces in the East, General George McClellan, was the son of a Penn-educated doctor of the same name who founded Jefferson Medical College in 1824. McClellan enrolled at Penn at age 13 before transferring to West Point. As a young officer he visited Crimean battlefields, then returned home to Philadelphia to write an official report for then-US Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. Lincoln appointed McClellan head of the Army of the Potomac and counted on him to crush Robert E. Lee—a hope that would prove unfounded.

During McClellan’s 1862 campaign for Richmond, fighting was furious. The first Philadelphia doctor to sign up for military duty when war began, Owen Stillé M1851, lost all his equipment in the battle of Fair Oaks but nonetheless tended the injured until his own demise from sickness and exhaustion.

Many Philadelphia men were slaughtered in the murderous Confederate countercharge at Glendale, including Major Henry Biddle C1834, formerly a banker in the city. His body would be exhumed in 1865 and brought back to Laurel Hill Cemetery overlooking the Schuylkill, last home of many Union officers, including 40 generals.

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FEATURE: Penn Fights the Civil War by W. Barksdale Maynard
Illustration by David Hollenbach
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette


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  ©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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