Dr. Sharkey's Pieces

Westminster College and the Civil War

(January 2002)

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood for me
Shall be my brother.
Shakespeare, Henry V

It is adequate testimony to the ultimately superior strength of the Union during the Civil War that across the North and Mid-West, throughout the conflict, there was relatively slight disruption of education at colleges and universities. That was in marked contrast to the experience of the South where virtually all institutions of higher education closed early in the war because of lack of students and resources.

Westminster did not lose many students to voluntary enlistment or to the later-imposed draft. Some graduates entered the Army after graduation but few before completion of their studies.

Nevertheless, the College founders of a decade earlier as well as faculty and administrators, subsequently, reflected the vigorous anti-slavery convictions of the Associate and Associate Reformed Presbyterian Churches and, after 1858, of the United Presbyterian denomination formed of the two Associate churches. New Wilmington had been a designated way station of the “Underground Railroad,” most notably in the facilities of rest, refuge and provisioning provided by The Tavern which still functions as a local dining establishment and landmark.

Equally so, many among the constituency of the College; parents who sent their sons to Westminster as preparation for the ministry, were dedicated abolitionists. But if the American Civil War became a war to end slavery by 1864-1865, it did not, at the outset in 1861, generate anything approaching majority support for abolition among the population of the North.

It is an important aspect of the intricacy of American social and political history that, as opposed to slavery as were many northern religious and secular sectors, abolition of slavery was not a declared purpose of the Union (that is, the Federal or Northern) war effort early in the war.

The Lincoln administration and the Republican party sought, beginning in April, 1861, to end secession and to postpone the on-going discussion of the abolition of slavery until the violent national schism begun at Ft. Sumter was healed.

The first year and one-half of the war did not go well for the North. In a sense, because of its far greater material, technological, demographic and financial resources, it proceeded in a more measured, almost casual, way to accomplish its objectives. By way of contrast, the South was facing potential and swift destruction in that its rural, aristocratic, plantation and slavery-based society was threatened with imminent eradication if secession could not be made permanent. Reunification on any basis would bring inevitable domination by ever more powerful urban, industrial North. Resistance to slavery by its opponents would prevail as modernization in western civilization together with the rising tide of commitment to democracy both in Europe and in the United States made slavery an anachronism. The southern way of life controlled by the wealthy white aristocracy would not long survive unless entirely sovereign. Thus the southern war effort was undertaken with greater earnestness and, initially, far greater success.

Well into 1862 northern fortunes of war were developing so badly that it became apparent that, despite gradually rising support for abolition in northern states, for the government in Washington to abruptly declare the emancipation of the slaves amidst such weak performance on the battlefield would seem an almost pathetic gesture unlikely of successful enforcement.

Both the Lincoln administration and informed sources generally believed that only from a position of strength; that is, only after a Union victory over Confederate forces in a major engagement, thereby demonstrating a realistic prospect of ultimate Union success in the war, would a declaration of emancipation seem to have the prospect of definitive enforcement across a reunified nation.

That necessary victory came in September 1862, when the Union accomplished a less-than sweeping but none-the-less real victory over the South at Antietam Creek in Maryland. That success gave President Lincoln the opportunity to convert the war into a moral crusade by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.

The victory at Antietam had another result beneficial to the North. It caused the Confederacy to abate temporarily its effort to carry the war north into Pennsylvania and Ohio and away from Virginia and the Kentucky-Tennessee theater of operations.

By way of prelude Lee’s superb cavalry commanders Stuart, Forrest and Morgan were probing for weak points permitting entry into northern territory. Had Antietam proved to be a Confederate victory, Lee would have occupied part of Maryland and John Hunt Morgan’s legion would have crossed into Pennsylvania.

Primary Union armies of the East were then occupied with Lee’s main army and unavailable to contain Confederate cavalry probes. In response to the threat to Pennsylvania and Ohio, emergency mobilization was requested by the Lincoln administration against possible incursions and until Federal cavalry could reach the area.

Representative of these efforts was formation in September 1862, of the Westminster Guards, a reserve company of approximately 100 male students -- similar in number to a regular Army company. Commanded by Professor George C. Vincent, one of the founders of the College, they were rushed south on September 15, traveling by foot, wagon, canal, river and railroad to assist in guarding river crossings into Pennsylvania. They assumed their positions on September 17 as the Battle of Antietam raged a short distance away in Maryland.

It was a truly crucial moment; that day at Antietam proved to be the bloodiest single day of the entire war. Its magnitude may be indicated by noting that on that one day in late summer of 1862, twice as manyAmericans lost their lives in the one battle in the Maryland countryside as were lost in the War of 1812, the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War combined.

Had the South been victorious at Antietam, Lee would soon have tried to continue north with the bulk of his army both to divert combat from his beloved Virginia and to replenish the strength of his troops among the lush, crop-laden farms of Pennsylvania at harvest season. The resistance of the Westminster Guards as well as of numerous other hastily-formed militia units would have proved crucial. We can only speculate upon what would have resulted.

In the event, Lee was repulsed and withdrew to Virginia. The Westminster students returned to campus at the end of September. Their adventure was truly what our era would term “a learning experience.”

Once more during the war, in the summer of 1863, the Westminster Guards would be mobilized. Once again Robert E. Lee brought his Army of Northern Virginia, as it was called, through Maryland and directly into Pennsylvania. It was his intention to turn east toward the industrial centers of Harrisburg and Philadelphia. Once again the bountiful farms of Pennsylvania together with a plenitude of other supplies in the towns along the way further lured the army.

It was the immediate prospect of a large repository of shoes at Gettysburg which caused the ill-clad Confederates to move in that direction and inadvertently brought about the single most famous battle of the war and the one that is regarded as marking the moment at which, together with the simultaneous fall of Vicksburg in Mississippi, the tide of war decidedly shifted in favor of the Union.

Once again, as Lee moved north his cavalry probed in advance. Morgan entered southern Indiana and Ohio during July. In response to the renewed threat, the Westminster Guards were again formed, armed and sent south, this time to Parkersburg, West Virginia. There they were assigned to guard a railroad and remained throughout July and August, returning to campus in September, 1863.

Morgan raided extensively before being intercepted and defeated by now highly effective Union cavalry. Morgan and some of his troopers were captured although he later escaped from prison. Lee having been defeated at Gettysburg to the east, the Confederate cavalry who eluded capture also retreated.

Although Westminster suffered no casualties among the student Guards, numerous graduates had entered the ranks of the Federal army while some students left the College before graduation to enlist. It was an era in which entire army units (companies or regiments) were often recruited locally from hometown communities by prominent men who provided uniforms and sometimes weapons for their men and served thereafter as commanders of the units.

The practice also explains why when, during battles where entire units were virtually destroyed, the result was the sudden loss of nearly every young man of a particular neighborhood or town.

Several Westminster graduates served in the 100th Regiment, calling themselves the Roundheads after Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers in the English Civil War of the 17th century, which was formed by Daniel Leasure, a prominent citizen of Lawrence County who served as its colonel. The chaplain was Reverend Robert Audley Browne, later president of Westminster College. Other Westminster men joined the 134th Regiment, companion unit to the 100th. In addition to those who suffered from ever-rampant disease and combat-inflicted wounds, six Westminster graduates died in combat on the battlefields of the war between April of 1861 and April of 1865.

The war had brought about an unanticipated opportunity for demonstration of fraternity and patriotism.

-Eugene G. Sharkey, professor of history and Peace Studies Program co-coordinator