As armies struggled for control of Richmond, navies clashed at Norfolk, where the first appearance of ironclad ships changed warfare forever. An officer on the sailing frigate USS Congress, surgeon Edward Shippen M1848 raised his spyglass to behold a new era: “There was a huge black roof, with a smoke-stack emerging from it, creeping down towards Sewell’s Point.” This was the fearsome Confederate ironclad Virginia.

Congress fired a thunderous broadside with 35 guns, but cannonballs bounced off the iron plating of Virginia “like hail upon a roof.” Then Virginia devastated Congress with a broadside of its own, leaving Shippen stunned amidst “lopped off arms and legs and bleeding, blackened bodies scattered by the shells, while blood and brains actually dripped from the beams.”

Forced to surrender, Congress burned, then exploded. Among its officers was McKean Buchanan C1817, brother of the Confederate admiral commanding Virginia—which faced off with the USS Monitor the following morning in an epic duel.

Monitors (warships modeled on the original Monitor) would play important roles throughout the war. Some of their huge engines were built at Port Richmond Iron Works, Philadelphia, under the oversight of Henry Towne C1865.

Several alumni perished as armies surged back and forth in Virginia in 1862. At Second Bull Run, Lt. Colonel Thomas Martin C1842 was mortally wounded as graycoats attacked his line. Bleeding in the dirt on Bald Hill, he waved help away: “Never mind me, boys. Go back to the regiment. You are wanted there.”

Charged with defending Washington, General Francis Patterson C1841 heard locomotive whistles and thought Rebels were coming. For ordering a panicked retreat, he was arrested by General Daniel Sickles. Patterson eluded court-martial by shooting himself to death in his tent.

Lee’s army invaded Maryland only to be turned back on September 17, 1862, at bloody Antietam, where 5,750 combatants died. Fighting that day was Penn professor of civil engineering Fairman Rogers C1853, who taught horsemanship to cavalrymen. After the war, the devoted equestrian designed a special camera shutter to take high-speed photographs of galloping horses and encouraged the stop-motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge at Penn.

Also at Antietam was Lt. Colonel Oliver Hopkinson C1832, son of the author of the patriotic song “Hail Columbia” and grandson of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The Philadelphia lawyer served with the First Delaware at the horrific Sunken Road, where eight of their 10 officers were casualties. Hopkinson fell with a gunshot wound to the ankle, but survived to become Penn’s oldest graduate of his day, buried at Laurel Hill in 1905 at the age of 93.

With the coming of spring in 1863, war erupted again in Virginia. John Haddock C1859 fell waving his saber in a cavalry charge at Chancellorsville. Colonel Benjamin Tilghman C1839 was shot in the thigh, but recovered enough to later command a Philadelphia regiment, 3d US Colored Troops, in action in coastal South Carolina. After the war, this chemist invented sandblasting, which speeded the carving of 274,000 Union headstones in military cemeteries.

Major Henry Whelan C1853 survived the biggest cavalry battle ever fought in America, at Brandy Station, Virginia, in June 1863. “We dashed at them, squadron front with drawn sabers, and as we flew along—our men yelling like demons—grape and canister were poured into our left flank,” Whelan recalled. “Our brave fellows cut [the enemy] out of the saddle and fought like tigers … The air was almost solid with lead.” He finally went down in a heap when his horse was shot out from under him. Whelan’s Medal-of-Honor-winning comrade in Rush’s Lancers was architect Frank Furness, who designed the campus landmark now known as the Fisher Fine Arts Library.

When guns began to roar at Gettysburg, just 105 miles from Penn’s classrooms on 9th Street, on July 1, 1863, Colonel Thomas Carter M1852, a cousin of Robert E. Lee, partly guaranteed the Confederate success on the first day of fighting. His cannons poured deadly fire from the hilltop where the Peace Light Memorial (designed in the 1930s by longtime Penn architecture professor Paul Philippe Cret) now stands. Soon the Union Army formed its defensive “fishhook,” the far right of which was anchored by dashing General Thomas “Beau” Neill C1845, formerly a drawing instructor at West Point. Neill Avenue on today’s battlefield is named for him.

The second day of fighting brought glory to Samuel Crawford, the Penn alumnus and surgeon last seen manning the cannons at Fort Sumter. Now a brigadier general, he rushed to the battlefield with Pennsylvania reserves, just in time to sweep over Little Round Top and drive exhausted Confederates back through the Valley of Death. Seizing the moment, the flamboyant Crawford grabbed a flag from his own color bearer and ran at the head of his troops. A statue of Crawford dedicated at Gettysburg in 1988 shows him proudly clutching his bullet-riddled flag.

At war’s end Crawford found himself at Appomattox, one of only two men known to witness both the alpha and omega of the Civil War.

Gettysburg proved the South’s high-water mark. At exactly the same time, an equally important battle was under way for control of the Mississippi River at Vicksburg. That town was under the command of Southern Lt. General John Pemberton, who attended Penn as an undergraduate in the 1830s before transferring to West Point.

Born in Philadelphia, Pemberton was said (apocryphally) to have play-acted the historic Battle of New Orleans from the War of 1812 in the streets with boyhood friends George McClellan and George Meade (who would become the general who won Gettysburg). Pemberton was a hero in the city, awarded an engraved sword for his exploits in the Mexican War. But being stationed in the South, plus marrying a Virginia belle, shifted his allegiances. In 1861, against the objections of his Philadelphia family (and his brothers, who joined City Troop), he offered his services to Jefferson Davis.

All ended disastrously, however: Pemberton failed to save Vicksburg, and the South’s doom was sealed. A pariah in the Confederacy for being the Yankee who surrendered Vicksburg on the Fourth of July, Pemberton eventually skulked back to Philadelphia after the war, dying at suburban Pennlyn in 1881. Protests accompanied the burial of this Rebel in the sacred precincts of Laurel Hill.


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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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