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Beloit College in the Civil War

By Robert Irrmann


     At the end of the decade of the 1850's, the faculty and student body of Beloit College were generally republican and anti-slavery in sentiment, although not ardently abolitionist in principle or expression. While it is not always easy to recreate the attitudes of a small and very young midwestern college on the eve of the outbreak of the war between the states, Beloit College in fortunate in possessing in her Archives letters to and from her faculty, letters from students in the ranks of the Union army, diaries and letters of alumni in the service of the Christian Commission, and one lengthy student diary for the years 1860 to 1862. From these come this attempted reconstruction of the mind and the reactions of Beloit College on the even, and during the early ears of the Civil War.

     In March of 1859 Prof. Joseph Emerson, the College's earliest and greatest classicist, received a letter from a minister in York, Pennsylvania, inquiring of his chances to fill the recently vacated pulpit in Rockford's Presbyterian Church. "I am compelled to leave this place because of a difference of opinion on the slavery question. Our folks are thoroughly Southernized. ... I have not preached on slavery but two or three times in nearly four years. What brought matters to a crisis I preached a sermon on the position of our church which I had prepared by appointment of Presbytery. The subject of slavery was discussed. But the democrats called it political."1 In desperation the aforementioned minister turned in hope to the region of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. Beloit College, and the region she served, "had been from its foundation a congenial home of the spirit of liberty and union. Wisconsin had been steadily growing in that spirit, as New Englanders and New Yorkers were reinforced from 1848 onward by tides of liberty-loving Germans and later by like-minded Scandanavians [sic] and others."2

     There was an apparent belief that Beloit and the College were sound in politics and principles. A minister from the German Evangelical Lutheran Church in Watertown wrote to Emerson, asking after two college students of the former's acquaintance, and commenting on the temper of the times: "All the heads nearly here are filled with politics, but I do not go farther into Politics than Rev. Henry Ward Beecher in Brooklyn, N. Y. I hope you all of you at Beloit help us advocate the true republican cause. ... Men which are not as yet dry behind their ears must not quite to [sic] soon stretch out their hands after the highest honors of the land..."3
     Rather obviously a freshman of the class of 1864, Thomas S. McClelland [from Pontiac, Illinois] classified Democrats as men not quite dry behind the ears. On September 1, 1860, he heard the Hon. Matt. H. Carpenter speak in Beloit. "His mode of speaking was good in many aspects, still his sentiments are apt to lead many astray. If there had been a Republican speaker to reply to Mr. C. I'll venture to say he would expose Mr. C. and Democracy also."4 Matt. Carpenter's reputation was secure, however, by comparison with the student's evaluation of the banner-bearer for the Democratic party in the Election of 1860. McClelland went to Chicago to see and hear the Little Giant in early October; he was not impressed. "Today I went to see the greatest humbug exstant [sic], S. A. Douglas, candidate for the Presidency, who spoke for about two hours. ... His speech was begun by abusing Seward and the Republican party generally. When he had spoken about thirty minutes, I left and made my way into the city where I enjoyed myself hugely. At night the different Douglas Clubs formed a torchlight procession. It took forty minutes to pass the Tremont House. The horsemen went four abreast, pedestrians two abreast. Nearly all were Irish & Dutch. I was told that many were hired for the occasion. This may be a Republican tale."5

     McClelland had been prepared to develop a distaste for Douglas and popular sovereignty, for while still a Prep. Student he had heard "the celebrated colored orator H.F. [sic] Douglass, speak in Hanchett's Hall. ... Although too radical in his views on the great question of the day, yet he is as good a speaker as ever I heard. A sound, logical, and well arranged debate..."6 McClelland's republican sentiments were to be reinforced by participating in debates before the Archaean Union on the question of secession, and subsequently by hearing Edward Everett.7

     Of the Beloit College faculty, few (if any) of the key men could be accused of pure provincialism. Prof. William Porter had taught in the South before coming to Beloit in 1853, and knew at first hand something of the South's "peculiar institution". Prof. Emerson had a brother teaching in Virginia, and cousins residing in the South. So, too, had President Chapin. These men came to their conclusions on the basis of convictions and evidence balanced by opinions of those they loved and respected. But the puritan conscience of the Beloit faculty, while refraining from advocating overt abolitionist activity, could not concur in the maintenance of slavery. The attitude of the Emerson family was summarized in a letter from an Andover cousin: "The fight is for slavery. However bitter the progress or the end, I believe God will use it to deal a severe blow to that system of iniquity."8 Yet moderation in the holding and expression of that view was characteristic of Beloit College and its faculty. Joseph Emerson of Beloit made this quite clear in a letter to Mrs. Emerson, when discussing a fire-eating article that had appeared in the newspaper the Independent:

     "... I fear that you will not think that we all here have 'our feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace', if you should see in the Independent of Dec. 6th a song about 'King Corn' vs. 'King Cotton', purporting to be by 'Prof. C. S. Porter' of 'Beloit Wisconsin.' Please to observe that 'C. S. P.' is not our Prof. Wm. Porter, but Mrs. Higgins' Prof. 'formerly of Washington College, Maryland.' I am sorry to see the piece because it may be understood to be from our college, and it breathes a spirit which none of us even have and least of all Prof. Porter. He is certainly a very clear republican, and I presume never more so than now. He has as you know seen enough of slavery during his residence at the South to have his principles pretty clearly settled respecting it, and respecting the rights of extending or perpetuating it. But he is very free from any spirit of animosity or vain boasting; and I think that in a good degree the same thing may be said of the republicans of all the northwest. They are simply enjoying the blessings of liberty secured them by the ordinance of '87 and are disposed to have the new states now forming have the same blessing, but they have no hostility to the south, and will hope that the nation will not by any compromise throw open the territories to slavery so as to involve them in an endless war for the possession of them such as we had in Kansas. I presume that such a cause would produce animosities which might result forcefully, but now the Northwest is I think prepared either for a peaceful dissolution of the Union or for its continuance on fair terms under the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Excuse me, all I meant to say was that we have no sympathy in the spirit of Prof. C. S. Porter's piece, and I am sorry to see it going as from a Beloit professor."9

     When in due season the national election of 1860, and the secessionist movement, had been effected, and the Abraham Lincoln duly inaugurated, the tension grew to fearful proportions, and finally exploded in the incident of the bombarding of Fort Sumter. The reaction at Beloit was summed up by McClelland in entries of March 1st and 5th respectively:

"The friendly face of the Chicago Tribune made it appearance this morning after prayers. Nothing of very special importance from Washington. Lincoln is busy in preparing for this innaugural [sic]. News from the south say that General Twiggs was killed in a melee lately. If so, I look upon the circumstances as a judgment from God. His conduct, in surrendering U.S. property to the rebels, and acknowledging the traitorous actions of those engaged in the present secession movement, is worthy the rebuke of man and God.
"The notorious actions of Jeff Davis, Tombs, Rhett, and other nulifiers [sic] of the South are becoming disgusting even to their own constituents..."

Tuesday 5th: "The Tribune of today contains an account of yesterday's proceedings in Washington. Lincoln was inaugurated without any opposition. His address contains nothing except an exposition of the present unsettled condition of the country. He expresses his determination to enforce the laws of the U.S. His first act will be to retake the forts in the South and collect the duties in southern ports."10

By mid-April war was a reality even in Beloit. On the 15th McClelland noted that "The Chicago Tribune announces that Fort Sumpter [sic] has been delivered up to the secessionists. President Lincoln asks for seventy-five thousand volunteers to retake all government property. The Pennsylvania Legislature voted five hundred thousand dollars towards equipping an army. The governor of Ohio promises ten thousand men. There will be much slaughter before the affair is ended." [Diary, entry for April 15, 1861, page 225.] On the 17th a war meeting was held in Hanchett's Hall, and McClelland remarked that "there seems to be hearty desire on the part of the people to sustain the administration."11 By Friday the 19th, the war fever had mounted, even at the College.

"The excitement and war preparations are the only themes. Tonight a meeting was held in Hanchett's Hall. President Chapin was on the stand -- called for -- and made a speech. He uttered some noble sentiments. May of the Freshman class, Kendall of the Junior, Cooper and Powell of the Sophomore class have enlisted. Besides these one or two from the Preparatory Dept. have enlisted. ... Thousands upon thousands of Dollars are being subscribed towards paying the expenses of the war. In the South the work of getting recruits is revived.
"Our College community is thrown entirely out of its equilibrium. No student pretends to get his lessons.
"Tomorrow the Stars and Stripes will be displayed from Middle College."12

The commencement of war was to have serious consequences for both the financial affairs of the College, and for the personal finances of both faculty and students. Many Illinois and Wisconsin banks had heavy holdings in Southern securities and mortgages, and war rendered these of doubtful value, at least for the moment. McClelland, in April of '61, rejoiced at receiving a letter containing "three dollars in good Illinois money, but how long will it will remain good is more than a nonprophet can tell in these times of bank failures."13 By the end of the June the situation had worsened. McClelland wrote at length of the crisis, personal and general, in his entry for June 27th, 1861: "The most important news of the day is the reports on the condition of 'Stump Tail' Currency. There are no Illinois & Wisconsin bills passing at par. The country is in a deplorable financial condition. There is any amount of this money abroad, all of which is valueless. I am nobly in debt, and afraid to send home for money, for fear of having to lose it all. My creditors I trust will be as lenient as possible."14

     College faculty, and Beloit and Rockford industrialists, were equally affected. Prof. Emerson was warned by his brother Ralph of Rockford not "to keep any 'currency' on hand in these times even for a night", and Ralph Emerson banked his deposits daily to gain something approaching face value for the currency.15 Joseph Emerson found himself embarrassed with a possible bank failure in Beloit wherein he was a stockholder, and involved with stcokholders' liability, which seemed sorely to threaten his resources and property.16 Credits, investments, and the theory (and practice) of currency fluctuation suddenly came home with forceful illustration when freshman McClelland dealt in depreciated currency: "Today for the first time in my life I passed a Bank bill for less than its face. It was a one Doll. bill on the City Bank of Beaver Dam, Wis. Forty cents on the dollar is all it is worth now."17

     As the opening months of actual combat heightened the interest, and the fears, of Beloiters and their relatives, this changing attitude was reflected in the diaries and letters that unconsciously reveal, a century later, the reactions of the men and women of '61. The fears of a family for relatives in the now alien land was revealed in a letter to Prof. Emerson from his father in Rockford. The easy interchange between North and South was now replaced by chimerical fears. In speaking of son and nephew respectively, the Rev. Mr. Emerson hoped that "... the good Lord will bring him safely & speedily out of the rebel domain of wicked slavedom; & so of your cousin Luther and his family. They must needs be now in horrid temptation, in both senses of the term -- temptation to sin the form of living a lie, as your cousin Daniel Emerson says of himself while living lately in Missouri -- & also in peril of their lives, for I fancy that a slave-holder is not even now in so much peril of being murdered by his seemingly kind slaves as a free statesman is in danger of being murdered by his urbane host."18

     When the college year closed in July of 1861, two themes were sounded at the Commencement exercises. The Alumni Association passed a series of resolutions, protesting loyalty and patriotism, and among these resolutions declared:

     "That we, members of the 'Beloit College Alumni Association', as loyal citizens, do hereby express our utter and hearty condemnation of this wicked rebellion.

     "That in this contest we recognize the 'irrepressible conflict' which must even exist between Freedom and Slavery, and ... we reject all compromise with the Slave Power.

     "That we have learned with pride and gratification that this Association has not among its members a single traitor; and that some of them are already in the Federal Army, eager to contend for our constitutional rights, and willing to hazard their lives on the battlefield in order to maintain the authority of our free government."19

     The ever balanced and judicious voice of President Chapin struck a chord of firm moderation in his Baccalaureate sermon. Slavery, secession, abolition and revolt were chief among the topics of the day for the sensitive and the interested. It was the wisdom of Chapin that "urged upon the class of the absolute necessity of obeying human law, when that law does not conflict with the divine law of God. The political condition of the country at the present time suggested the theme and he [Chapin] made good the occasion to impress on the mind of his hearers the rightfulness of obedience to constituted authority."20

     The war had left its mark on the College even by early summer of '61.21 It was to scar the town as well as the College. Day by day men went off to war, and there was a pleasant rivalry between town and college in the effort to organize and drill. In McClelland's diary entry for the end of April we can catch some of this enthusiasm, planning, and the inevitable student frustration:

"The Beloit Militia - Capt. Clark, left for Milwaukee on Friday. I understand they have been ordered to Cairo, as their field of action. The volunteer company - Captain Slaymaker, will rendezvous at Madison, Wis. It occupies the place of company six, in the second regiment of the state. The Independent rifle company is nearly full. The company has not bee accepted yet by the Governor.
"The College company - in prospectu, is about to fizzle out. When Captain Riecert put the question whether the company would stand to the compact agreed upon, some of the valients [sic] grew weak in the back, and wanted to preface their resolutions with such conditions that they virtually said they were afraid to battle for their country.
. . .
"The Faculty does not seemed disposed to make sufficient provisions for the students to drill and every thing is averse to the welfare of all...
"... The bank money of Wisconsin has become almost valueless. The number of good banks have become so few that they are published rather than the broken banks."22

     The initial burst of enthusiasm for war, and overweening confidence in a quick and easy victory and conclusion gave way to more sober reflections by the fall of the year. Prof. Emerson's father wrote early in October of '61 that "of late I feel my faith in a very slight degree shaken as to this complete triumph, the recent success of the rebels being so important, & our expences (1,200,000 per day), & the cry among us for peace at the South east being so considerable, especially in Pennsylvania & Maryland. I have all along expected the annihilation of slavery as the grand result which Providence has in view, & therefore have rejoiced exceedingly even amid our disasters, believing that they will excite the nation to greater harmony & energy in directly seeking this object."23 In letter after letter there appears this profound conviction of the New England puritan spirit that a divine mission is being fulfilled by the war: "... all this comes of a triumphant faith in the purpose of God, hereby to hasten greatly the glorious day when Slavery shall be utterly annihilated in this country, & then throughout the world. God is hastening all this in its time. Yes, I even rejoiced, though with shame & grief, for our panic stricken hosts, in the disaster at Bull Run: it was so much needed to humble our pride & rouse our energies, & to prepare our nation for what I have all along supposed we must come to before the end, that is, the emancipation of the slaves. Possibly we shall subdue the rebellion without this; but I doubt it. But if we divide into two nations it will be only to have another war just as soon as either can get ready for it; & so on untill slavery is dead."24

     It was this assurance of the hand of God in human affairs that was a portion of education in the Christian colleges of the 19th century. Faculties were stressing moral responsibility as much as grammar and rhetoric, and teachers were not mere professors but equally exemplars for their students. How successful was the faculty of Beloit College in instilling moral precepts can be caught on occasion in letters written from the battlefields.

     As war raged on its weary years, the College struggled to do its chief appointed duty in giving a Christian education to the young men who sought her guidance and instruction. Faculty, students, and alumni in ever growing numbers took their places in the Army, or with the Christian Commission. The morally sensitive kept looking for that dramatic moment when slavery would be destroyed. Prof. Emerson's father phrased it so well: "How gloriously seems hastening on the wondrous work of our age and country, the emancipation of our slaves -- and with it the emancipation of ourselves from the insolent domineering of their masters. It is the Lord's doing." But where God is, there lurking nearby is the Devil, to delay or undo God's work, and the Rev. Mr. Emerson detected the Devil's work too: "it is ... Satan's doing and that of his servant Buoregard [sic] in the masterly strategic movement of the whole of his forces from Corinth to Richmond."25

     When the freeing of the slaves became a legality, it was the exultant voice of the Emersons' friend, Mrs. Banister, that rejoiced for all:

"... God be praised! for the proclamation of Emancipation to the enslaved which He has caused to be issued by our President -- and next, with Horace Greeley, & many others who have echoed it, -- 'God bless Abraham Lincoln.'"26

     The act, the moral imperative, for which the Beloit faculty and student body had yearned, had come to pass. But two and a half years of war still lay ahead of the Union and her supporters, and the College and her Alumni would throw ever increasing numbers of men into the ranks of the Union, and give ever more of their treasure, their energies, and in some cases their life's blood to preserve the Union, and to extend the benefits of emancipation to all the enslaved throughout the nation.




1.     C. J. Hutchins to Joseph Emerson, York [Pennsylvania], March 23, 1859. Beloit College Archives. Emerson Correspondence.

2.     Edward Dwight Eaton: Historical Sketches of Beloit College. Second Edition (New York: A. S. Barnes and Company, 1935), page 64.

3.     Christian Sand to Jospeh Emerson, Watertown, Wisconsin, October 26, 1859. Beloit College Archives. Emerson Correspondence.

4.     Thomas S. McClelland: Diary [Beloit Preparatory Department and Beloit College, January 1, 1860-July 9, 1862]. Beloit College Archives. McClelland File. Entry for Saturday, September 1, 1860, page 188.

5.     Diary, entry for October 5, 1860, pages 193-94.

6.     Ibid., entry for February 6, 1860, page 154.

7.     Ibid., entries for January 16, 1861 and May 17/18, 1862 respectively, pages 209, 269-70. Of Everett, McClelland wrote: "... I never sand for an hour and a half so charmed with a public speech." "I think the subject matter [Origin and Causes of the War] was no better than that of Wendel Phillips, but the style of oratory was the most refined I ever saw."

8.     Joseph Emerson, of Andover, to the Rev. Ralph Emerson, D.D., Andover, Massachusetts, December 6, 1860. Beloit College Archives. Emerson Correspondence.
     See Eliza Rockwell Emerson [Mrs. Ralph] to Joseph Emerson of Beloit, Rockford, Illinois, March 15, 1861: "... now if our poor nation were in half so hopeful a way of recovery from the maladies into which slavery has plunged us, how happy should we be, & all the millions of real patriots who have any heart to pray for our common country. But how horrid a thought that not a few of even the ministers of the gospel whom Satan has found South of the black line where his seat seems so now peculiarly to be may now be deeming it their duty to pray for the perpetuity of this very evil."

9.     Joseph Emerson to Mrs. Emerson (wife), Beloit, Wisconsin, December 9, 1860. Beloit College Archives. Emerson Correspondence.

10.     Diary, entries for March 1, 5, 1861, page 216.

11.     Diary, entry for April 17, 1861, page 225.

12.     Diary, entry for April 19, 1861, pages 225-26.

13.     Diary, entry for April 11, 1861, page 224.

14.     Diary, page 232.

15.     Ralph Emerson, D.D. to Joseph Emerson, Rockford, Illinois, May 27, 1861. Beloit College Archives. Emerson Correspondence.

16.     Joseph Emerson to Ralph Emerson, D.D., Beloit, Wisconsin, March 19, 1861. Beloit College Archives. Emerson Correspondence.

17.     Diary, entry for May 15, 1861, page 229.

18.     Ralph Emerson, D.D. to Joseph Emerson, Rockford, Illinois, May 27, 1861. Beloit College Archives. Emerson Correspondence.

19.     Minutes of the Beloit College Alumni Association, July 10, 1861. Beloit College Archives.

20.     Diary, July 7, 1861, pages 234-25.

21.     Ibid., April 19, 1861, page 225.

22.     Ibid., April 27, 1861, pages 226-27.

23.     Ralph Emerson, D.D., Rockford, Illinois, October 2, 1861: "My thoughts hopes & fears about the war". Beloit College Archives. Emerson Correspondence.

24.     Ralph Emerson, D.D. to Mrs. Banister, Rockford, Illinois, October 23, 1861. Beloit College Archives. Emerson Correspondence.

25.     Ralph Emerson, D.D. to Joseph Emerson, Rockford, Illinois, July 18, 1862. Emerson Correspondence. Beloit College Archives.

26.     F. B. Banister to Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Emerson, Newburyport, Massachusetts, September 27, 1862. Beloit College Archives. Emerson Correspondence.