In Devotion to Principles
Published in Beloit Magazine/June 1994
By Frederick A. Burwell
One hundred twenty-five years ago, Beloit town and gown paused to dedicate Memorial Hall in honor of their soldiers who fought the Civil War.
The Civil War deeply affected Beloit College. By the end of the fighting, in 1865, the College had instructed students for only 18 years. More than 400 of those students, full one-half of all qualified by age, had served in the Union armed forces. At least 46 died for their country.
In the years after the war, President Aaron Lucius Chapin and others felt that the College and City should have a memorial honoring all who took part in the great conflict. The College, as well, needed a building to house its growing library and museum collections.
Both Chapin and Philo Columbus Pettibone, then "financial agent" for the College, raised money for what would become known as Memorial Hall (and later, the Logan Museum of Anthropology). They directed their appeals principally to College alumni and citizens of Beloit.
In 1867, the alumni numbered 132 graduates of the College, 126 former students, and several hundred college preparatory students. With the Civil War still fresh in their hearts and minds, Memorial Hall became the first campus building funded in large part through alumni donations. By the time the final ornamental slate shingle was put into place, total cost of the building added up to just over $25,000.
The College chose the Chicago architectural firm of Cochrane and Garnsey. John C. Cochrane oversaw the designing and planning of Memorial Hall. He and his next partner, Alfred H. Piquenard, were later the architects for the Illinois Capitol in Springfield and for the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines.
Correspondence and photographs in the College Archives clearly show that the prototype for the modern gothic style of Memorial Hall was Brechlin Hall, Phillips Andover Academy's then-new library building (which was razed in 1927).
Early on in the planning of Memorial Hall, the College decided that the first floor would include memorials to Beloiters' service in the war and provide space for the College museum in its first form. Then known as the "College cabinet," the museum consisted primarily of natural history specimens and a smattering of anthropological items. The second floor would serve as the library, a proposal that pleased the students, who found the library's cramped quarters on the third floor of Middle College unsatisfactory.
For the ground-breaking on May, 23, 1867, President Chapin invited the faculty and students to walk in procession to the spot where the hall was to be erected. Professor Joseph Emerson, librarian of the College, and Arthur Henderson Smith, class of 1867 and a veteran of 100 days service in the war, spoke on behalf of those honored by the memorial. Chapin was the first to break the sod, followed by a representative from the faculty and each of the classes. "Then at the bidding of the President," the Beloit Monthly reported, "three rousing cheers were given, and the company separated, feeling that a noble work was well begun."
By July, the Monthly (predecessor of the Round Table) eagerly pointed out that "the building will be one of greater architectural beauty than any yet erected on the College grounds." The College decided to construct the new building of stone rather than less expensive brick, because, as Chapin wrote in a letter to Emerson, "a monument ought to be of stone, not brick."
On July 9, the College held formal exercises for the laying of the cornerstone. The 7 p.m. program followed the Sunday baccalaureate, one day before Commencement. Professor J.J. Blaisdell, who had served as chaplain to the 40th Regiment, Wisconsin Volunteers, led off the program, followed by a number of other speakers, including the governor of Wisconsin, General Lucius Fairchild, and Captain George I. Waterman, class of 1856. President Chapin laid the cornerstone, which, among many items, contained a ball won by the famed Olympian baseball club of the College, and 50 dollars in Confederate money. Underlying the cornerstone of Memorial Hall is the original cornerstone of the Old Stone Church, predecessor of the First Congregational Church and site of the first organized College class.
Although construction proceeded, the building was not completed until 1869. In the meantime, the College wanted to compile a full record of Beloit's service in the war and asked alumni to send in memoirs and histories of their experiences on the battlefield. (These poignant and personal accounts may be perused in the College Archives.)
As the building neared completion, plan were drawn up for its formal dedication. Chapin composed a circular, which he sent to alumni and friends of the College: "We hope that the dedication of this Memorial Hall will be the occasion of a large and joyous reunion of those who have been connected with this institution, and that the edifice will ever be regarded as the hearthstone of the family, around which shall be gathered pleasant associations that will grow more sacred as the years and ages go by."
Among those Chapin invited to speak were General William Tecumseh Sherman and Congressman John A. Logan, who had conceived of and inaugurated the first Memorial Day in 1868. Neither was able to attend.
A large crowd gathered in the First Congregational Church for the initial part of the dedication ceremony on July 14, 1869. After music, the Reverend S.W. Eaton, formerly chaplain of the Seventh Wisconsin Regiment, offered prayer. According to minutes from the occasion, Professor Emerson then "read a statement commemorative of the services of the sons of the College in the war and especially of those who died for the saving of the nation." Senator Matthew H. Carpenter (R.-Wis.) delivered the principal oration, on the foreign policy of the United States (later printed as a 36-page pamphlet).
The crowd adjourned to a platform near Memorial Hall, where President Chapin explained the origin and uses of the building, now draped with the torn and tattered banners that those who fought had carried into battle. After brief speeches by several prominent military men, the Reverend Joseph Collie, first student to enter Beloit College, presented the dedicatory prayer. The exercises closed with the singing of a dedicatory hymn written by the Reverend Henry C. Dickinson, class of 1863. A uniformed artillery squad made up of students who had been in the war then fired a gun salute in honor of each of the College's war dead.
Joseph Emerson described the building as "a chaste and elegant edifice of limestone in the modern gothic style." In fact, Memorial Hall is considered one of the finest examples of Victorian gothic architecture in the area.
When Memorial Hall opened for business, the library contained 9,000 volumes. Although students were delighted with the additional space, the library was open only on Wednesday and Saturday, and then just for two hours each day. In his Historical Sketches of Beloit College, President Edward Dwight Eaton explains why: "As there was no provision for heating the building, excepting a small wood stove in the librarian's inner office, there was little encouragement during the greater part of the college year for the student to do more than secure a book and make a hasty retreat from the chill that reigned within the stone walls of the building. The conception of the library as an intellectual workshop had not yet won its way in the academic world."
By the turn of the century, both the collection and usage had grown to such an extent that the library desperately needed more space. In December 1904, the College moved the resources into its new Carnegie Library, now the Pettibone World Affairs Center. For a short time, the department of music found its home on the second floor of Memorial Hall, but in 1906-07, the Logan Museum of Anthropology moved back from Pearsons Hall, where it had resided since 1893.
Placed on the walls of the first floor are two marble plaques, one displaying the names of 43 "men of Beloit who fell for their country," the other names of 46 "sons of Beloit College who died for law and liberty." In an eloquent address presented in 1872 for the quarter centennial of the College, Professor Joseph Emerson reflected on those soldiers: "They were good men; more than half of those who lived were made officers; more than half of those who died, died from wounds. As their service was in devotion to the principles which are the soul of the manhood which the College aims to train, it has been fitly recognized by the erection in their honor of a 'Memorial Hall.'"
Emerson reminds us not only why Memorial Hall was valued and appreciated in his time, but why we must preserve this significant and historic structure for future generations. "The military record of the College illustrates its relation to all the land. Its sons were found in the regiments of 19 states, and in 19 states or territories they died for the common country, and for what they esteemed the common cause of mankind."