Bowdoin and the Civil War

(NOTE: The following text appears on an interpretive panel that currently hangs in Memorial Hall at the College. The panel will be updated to include a description of the Confederate memorial plaque, the reasons for its relocation to special collections in Hawthorne-Longfellow Library in August 2017, and information about how to view it.)

It has been said that the Civil War began and ended in Brunswick, Maine. In 1851, while sitting in a church across the street from the College, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the wife of Professor Calvin Stowe [Class of 1824], had a vision of a slave being beaten to death. It was the inspiration for her anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written in her home on Federal Street. The book inflamed abolitionist sentiments in the north and changed forever how Americans viewed slavery. At the war’s end, Brigadier General (and Bowdoin professor on leave from the College) Joshua Chamberlain [1852] oversaw the surrender of Confederate arms at Appomattox. Less than three months later, Union General Ulysses S. Grant traveled to Brunswick to be awarded a Bowdoin honorary degree in the very church where Stowe had her famous vision.

Memorial Hall
Memorial Hall was built to honor those Bowdoin men who fought to preserve the Union. Begun in 1867, construction on the building was suspended for a number of years due to a lack of funds. It was completed in 1882. The nine bronze plaques on the north wall of the lobby, a gift of General Thomas H. Hubbard [1857], record the names of 288 men who served in the U.S. armed forces. Among those listed are six recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor: Oliver Otis Howard [1850], who led the U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands after the war; Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain [1852], four-term governor of Maine and the sixth president of Bowdoin College; Henry Clay Wood [1854]; John Marshall Brown [1860]; Thomas Worcester Hyde [1861]; and Charles Porter Mattocks [1862]. Recent research indicates that more than 300 undergraduate alumni fought for the Union, a record that puts Bowdoin at or near the top of participation for any northern college. Twenty-three of these men died in service.

The Medical School of Maine
The Medical School of Maine, which was at Bowdoin from 1820 to 1920, counted 353 alumni in the Union ranks, thirty of whom were also undergraduate alumni; thirteen died in service. John Van Surlay DeGrasse, of the Medical Class of 1849, was the second African American to graduate with a medical degree from an American college or university. He was a surgeon and an officer in the 35th U.S. Colored Troops.

Slavery
From 1825 until the outbreak of the war in 1861, Bowdoin faculty, students, and alumni were actively engaged in the fight against slavery. John Brown Russwurm [1826], the College’s first African American graduate and the third African American to earn a college degree in America, co-founded the anti-slavery newspaper Freedom’s Journal in New York. He later became the governor of the Maryland Colony in Liberia, established by former slaves from America. Professor William Smyth [1822] published an abolitionist newspaper in Portland in the late 1820s and was an organizer of anti-slavery societies in Maine and throughout New England. Abolitionist and Massachusetts Governor John Andrew [1837] raised the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first African American regiment to fight in the war—an act depicted in the 1989 film Glory.

National Leaders
On the national level, Senators William Pitt Fessenden [1823], John Parker Hale [1827], and Owen Lovejoy [1834] were staunch allies of President Abraham Lincoln. Fessenden and Hugh McCulloch [1829] each held the position of secretary of the treasury for a term in Lincoln’s cabinet. Bowdoin alumni served in many capacities during the Civil War, as non-combatants working close to the front and among the wounded with the Christian Commission, and as educators, physicians, clergy, legislators, judges, merchants, and farmers in communities struggling with anxiety, loss, and economic hardship.

Grant, Chamberlain, and Appomattox
After meeting privately with Confederate General Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865, Union General Ulysses S. Grant selected Bowdoin alumnus and former faculty member Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain [1852] to accept the formal surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox a few days later, on April 12.

Chamberlain surprised Confederate soldiers at the formal ceremony by ordering Union troops to stand at attention and “carry arms” as a salute to their vanquished foes. According to Chamberlain, he was honoring the soldiers, not their cause. This simple act was said to have begun a healing process necessary after the war, and it was widely praised in the South.
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This building, Memorial Hall, stands as an enduring memorial to the Bowdoin College undergraduates who fought with courage and sacrifice to preserve the Union.

“Circumstances Unknown to Us”

Jefferson Davis (H’1858)
Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) was a fierce advocate for slavery who led the Confederacy and the fight to dissolve the Union during the Civil War.

A West Point graduate, Davis was also a veteran of the Black Hawk and Mexican wars; a member of the U.S. House of Representatives; a U.S. senator from Mississippi; and U.S. secretary of war in the administration of Franklin Pierce [Bowdoin Class of 1824]. He served as president of the Confederate States of America from 1861 to 1865.

In August 1858, during a doctor-ordered visit to Portland, Maine, Davis traveled to Brunswick and was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree at Bowdoin’s 53rd Commencement. Writing in 1927, Bowdoin historian Louis C. Hatch described the situation: “The Boards were in an embarrassing position. Mr. Davis was the Southern leader in the United States Senate and his principles were diametrically opposed to those of a majority of people in Maine; but when a man of his ability and prominence…was present at Commencement, it would have been a personal insult not to give him a degree.” At the same ceremony, the College also presented an honorary degree to Bowdoin alumnus and Maine U.S. Senator William P. Fessenden [1823], an ardent abolitionist and Abraham Lincoln’s future secretary of the treasury.

Two-and-a-half years later—when Davis was elected president of the Confederacy—there were immediate calls in Maine and at the College to rescind his honorary degree. Despite the uproar, Bowdoin refused to revoke the degree. Hatch would later describe a rationale for the refusal: “It is said that the Boards did, at one time, consider such action, but decided that when the degree was conferred Mr. Davis was a fitting man to receive it and that his later conduct had no bearing on the matter, a doctorate was given for life.”

Confederate Plaque
The centennial of the formal surrender of Confederate forces was marked at Bowdoin on April 12, 1965, with a lecture in Pickard Theater about Chamberlain’s act of reconciliation at Appomattox and with a special library exhibit of memorabilia relating to his life. In addition to these events, Bowdoin President James S. Coles dedicated a plaque in memory “…of the Bowdoin men who served with the Confederate forces 1861-1865.”

“We are gathered this evening in Memorial Hall, dedicated to the Bowdoin men who fought…for the preservation of the Union. Other Bowdoin men, led by conscience or circumstances unknown to us, saw fit to espouse the cause of the Confederacy.”

The Jefferson Davis Award
Beginning in 1960, there was a determined effort by admirers of Davis to create a lasting memorial in his name at Bowdoin. Championed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), these efforts culminated in 1972 with an agreement between the UDC and the College to establish an annual award in Davis’s name to honor a student excelling in the study of constitutional law. The award was presented each year from 1973 to 2015.

In October 2015, citing Davis’s efforts to preserve and institutionalize slavery and to dissolve the Union, the Bowdoin Board of Trustees voted to return the entire current value of the prize fund to the UDC and to discontinue the Jefferson Davis Award.

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Note: On August 19, 2017, the College relocated the Confederate memorial plaque from Memorial Hall to special collections in Hawthorne-Longfellow Library, where it can be displayed and made accessible to researchers and others interested in Bowdoin history.

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