Hamilton community members process to the College cemetery to lay a wreath in honor of Hamilton's Civil War dead.
Hamilton community members process to the College cemetery to lay a wreath in honor of Hamilton's Civil War dead.

Bells in municipal towers and religious buildings – including Hamilton’s chapel bell – rang across the country on April 9 at 3:15 p.m. to commemorate the time 150 years ago when Generals Grant and Lee exited the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia bringing the Civil War to an end.

Hamilton honored alumni killed in the deadly war with a ceremony at the Chapel and a procession to the College cemetery.

College Chaplain Jeff McArn welcomed attendees and asked them to “remember where we come from and who we are as a community.”

Maurice Isserman, the Publius Virgilus Rogers Professor of History and College historian opened his remarks with an excerpt from the May 2, 1861 Clinton Courier headlined “Old Hamilton Aroused”:

“Since the opening of College, a strong military….spirit has manifested itself among the Students, which has culminated in the formation of a military company, some eighty strong….which is being drilled nightly in the science of war.  In the meanwhile, a fine banner has been obtained, which it is proposed to fling out to the breeze from the Chapel steeple, with music and oration on Friday of this week.”

Isserman continued, “Over the four years of Civil War that followed, 226 Hamilton alumni and students would pursue their studies in the ‘science of war’ with service in the Union Army.”

He reminded attendees that “It is safe to say that all 226 of them were intimately familiar with the building in which we find ourselves today, which opened its doors in 1827, 34 years before the start of the war, and very much the center of campus life in those years (not least because of compulsory attendance at daily chapel services.)  It was in these pews that generation after generation of Hamiltonians were instructed in the Christian doctrines of sin and redemption, glory and sacrifice.”

Isserman described the Hamilton slain as “ for the most part, very young men, in their early 20s, including four members of the class of 1862, six members of the class of 1863, and six from the class of 1864 (at a time when the average class size was 30).  Many more were wounded, some taken as prisoners of the war.”

He noted that among the dead was William Kirkland Bacon … the grandnephew of Samuel Kirkland, missionary to the Oneida and founder of the Hamilton-Oneida Academy, predecessor to Hamilton College. Bacon was a member of the class of 1863, who took part in the doomed Federal assault on the Confederate stronghold of Marye’s Heights in the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862 – and was one of 8,000 Union casualties that day.  Isserman noted that “The ruins of his leg was amputated in a field hospital, and three days later he died of his wound.”

Isserman said others from Hamilton served the Union, including two officers who won the Congressional Medal of Honor for valor in combat, only one of whom survived the war.  “Also worth noting are the many Hamiltonians who before and during the war, devoted themselves to the abolitionist cause, including the great anti-slavery fighter Gerritt Smith, valedictorian of the Class of 1818, trustee of the College, one of the founders of the New York branch of the American Anti-Slavery Society,” he remarked.

Isserman concluded, “We can be certain that on the April day, 150 years ago, when the news arrived of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to the Army of the Potomac at Appomattox Court House, the Chapel bell was rung in celebration of the occasion.  So it is a solemn, and joyous, and historically appropriate gesture that we have gathered here today, and rung the Chapel bell (different bell, same Chapel), 150 years later, in memory of our gallant ancestors on the Hill who gave their lives for the cause of human freedom.”

College Archivist Kathy Collett read excerpts from a poem by David Breed, class of 1867, then attendees joined in an impromptu but rousing rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” accompanied by Professor of Music Sam Pellman on the piano and Associate Professor of Music Heather Buchman on trombone. 

McArn then dedicated a plaque bearing the names of all the Hamilton Civil War students and alumni who died in that war. It will be hung in the Chapel.

The service concluded with a procession to the college cemetery, where a wreath was placed on the grave of Samuel Kirkland in honor of his grand-nephew and the sacrifice made by 24 other students and alumni, whose names were read by McArn.

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