All institutions of higher learning pursue truth. We here at Hillsdale College pursue truth. We also defend liberty. Defending liberty is a tradition of our college. It is a unique tradition among American colleges. It was born in the Civil War, in the blood and sacrifice of that most bloody and bitter of wars. It is memorialized in the Soldiers’ Monument that stands in front of Central Hall.
Tradition is about handing down, from one generation to the next, something of great value. It is a kind of gift, given in trust, like an inheritance. For this Veterans Day, I’d like to share the story that inspired the Soldiers’ Monument so that we may better understand our college tradition of defending liberty. The story begins at the Battle of Gettysburg in the fight to save the flag….
Saving the flag at Gettysburg
It was the afternoon of July 2nd, 1863, the critical second day of battle. Fighting was raging on the southern left flank of the Union lines. Here Confederate General Longstreet’s 15,000-man corps was attempting to circle behind the Union forces to seize the high ground along Cemetery Ridge. From there, they could then roll down on the Union lines and gain a decisive victory — a victory that could possibly win the war for the South.
Earlier in the day, Union General Daniel Sickles inexplicably ordered his 10,000 men down from Cemetery Ridge to a lower ridge running across his front. This created a large gap near a 20-acre wheatfield on the right side of his lines. Several Rebel brigades sought to exploit that gap by attacking in force. Four Union brigades had already been slaughtered trying to stop the Rebel thrust when the 4th Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment — 342 strong — was called up to join the fight.
The 4th had listened to the rumble of battle all day as they recovered from a three day, 100-mile, forced march to Gettysburg with little rest, food, or water. During the march, the heat, which approached 90 degrees, and the soldiers thick wool uniforms, heavy packs, weapons and scarcity of water struck hard. The 4th was exhausted. Yet, they were given little time to rest. When the order came to join the battle, they were issued extra ammunition. They knew then they were in for a hard fight. Indeed, the 4th would find themselves in the most desperate and devastating fight of the war in what became known as The Wheatfield.
The 4th marched to the edge of the wheatfield and were ordered to halt. They waited as their Union comrades fought the Rebs. Bullets whizzed, buzzed, and spat the ground all around them. So they laid down since they could do no firing with their comrades to their front. As they lay waiting, increasing numbers of wounded men passed through their ranks telling the 4th to “give the Rebs hell.”
Alas, the Union forces were failing, so the 4th was finally ordered to advance and reinforce the line. They marched on line across the wheatfield to the far side. But just as they began firing at the Rebs to their front, they began taking intense fire from a wooded crest to their right and rear. The 4th’s standard bearer shouted to his commander, Colonel Harrison Jeffords: “I’ll be damned sir if I don’t think we are faced the wrong way; the Rebs are up there in the woods behind us.” Indeed, three Rebel brigades were flanking them on the right. Outnumbered three-to-one, their only options were to surrender or face about and fight.
Colonel Jeffords wheeled the 4th about. But the enemy was closing too fast. They were engulfed in a “whirlpool of death” as a hail of lead swept their ranks followed by a surging tide of gray-clad Confederates, bayonets fixed, screaming the Rebel yell. The 4th’s color guard near the center of the wheatfield became a focal point of the fighting. The Rebs seized the colors — the colors the 4th had vowed to never let fall into enemy hands. Jeffords and a band of officers and men charged the Rebs in a desperate attempt to save the flag. A melee of fierce hand-to-hand fighting ensued.
With his sword, Jeffords cut down the Reb who seized the flag. But he was immediately bayoneted in the chest by another Reb. As Jeffords fell, his lieutenant, Richard W. Seage, slayed the Reb who killed Jeffords and regained the flag. But Seage too fell — shot twice in the chest by two Rebs and bayonetted in the leg by a third. In minutes, 39 Michigan men lay dead or dying.
In the melee that lasted more than 30 minutes, the flag changed hands several times. Alas, it was ultimately lost — it was literally torn to shreds. But though the flag was lost, the Rebel advance was finally stopped. The fight for the flag had saved the day, the battle, and indeed possibly the war for the Union.
Hillsdale College Roll of Honor
The three-hour fight in the Wheatfield was a “harvest of death.” Some 6,000 men were killed or wounded. Only 55 of the 4th’s 342 men were left standing. Wounded recovered the next day brought survivors to 139 — and 203 dead! Among the 4th’s ranks were more than a dozen Hillsdale College students, including Asher LaFleur, Henry Magee, Moses Luce, and Lt. Richard Seage. They are among the “roll of honor” of more than 400 Hillsdale College students who wore the Union blue during the Civil War.
Some notable facts about these 400: All were volunteers. And most, including LaFleur, Magee, Luce and Seage, volunteered at the very start of the war and served for the duration. Half became officers, several became regimental commanders and senior officers, and three became generals. Many acquitted themselves with extraordinary courage, including three who were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. And at least 60 and possibly twice that number died in service during the war and many suffered grievous and debilitating wounds.
This service record is exceptional among colleges. Consider, by contrast, the records of the other Civil War era Michigan colleges: as many active Hillsdale students served as all undergraduate students from the University of Michigan classes 1846 – 1865; 160 students served from Michigan State Normal School (Eastern Michigan); 98 graduates or former students served from Michigan State Agricultural College (MSU); 68 from Kalamazoo College; nine from Hope (Academy); and only “a handful” served from Adrian College. At Olivet College, a student company drilled three times a week and at Albion College, students “did very little as soldiers during the conflict.” So great was Hillsdale College’s Civil War service that the Detroit Advertiser and Tribune declared in June, 1864 that “probably no college in the country is better represented in the Union Army than [Hillsdale]. It has sent its young men to the war by the hundreds. They have watered with their blood every battlefield of the Republic.”
Our Defining Spirit
The Civil War experience was a defining moment in the life of Hillsdale College; it revealed, tested, and crystallized the spirit of our young frontier school. This spirit has ever since defined who we are and what we stand for as a community.
The Soldiers’ Monument in front of Central Hall memorializes this spirit. It was dedicated on June 20, 1895 — the 34th anniversary of the mustering of the 4th Michigan Volunteers. It was the work of students and alumni of the Alpha Kappa Phi literary society to commemorate the Civil War service and sacrifice of 74 of their brothers, including 13 “heroic dead.”
The monument committee desired that it be true to life — that it embody the character and spirit of those it honors. To this end, I want to point out a few things about the soldier that stands atop the monument — things that you may not have noticed or may not know — so that we may better understand the spirit of these student soldier boys and the tradition they represent.
First, he is a Christian and a patriot. After the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter on April, 12, 1861, President Lincoln threw down the gauntlet of war by calling for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion. Lincoln’s call to arms startled a reluctant North, secure and comfortable as they were in their peacetime pursuits. It was the Civil War generation’s 9/11. In this hour of peril, the eyes of the nation turned to the young, military aged men: Would they hear the call? Would the boys on the farm, in the workshop, the store, and the office, and those in the college, take up the Confederate challenge to battle and answer the call to arms? The answer was a resounding yes! And the boys of Hillsdale College lead the way!
Indeed, no half-hearted patriotism stirred the souls of our boys. The treasonous attack on Fort Sumter insulted the honor and threatened the life of the republic they loved. So they volunteered en masse. The day after President Lincoln’s call for volunteers, they gathered in front of Central Hall, formed themselves into a battalion and elected a professor as their commander. They sent a wire message to the governor: The Hillsdale College battalion is formed and ready for service. The Governor politely declined their offer. Frustrated but eager to serve, our boys left the college to join up with the volunteer regiments that were then forming. Many went back to their home states. Others, like Seage, Luce, LaFleur and Magee joined local Michigan regiments. Magee described this patriotic volunteer spirit that inspired our boys: “Each man, each boy, felt that the appeal was to him, that the call for men was the cry of Father Lincoln to his boys to gather at Washington; to rally around the home flag…. No spot could quicker answer than did this abolition college.”
“Abolition college” — that is what we were known as then. We were founded by Free Will Baptists — stout-hearted Christians who cherished freedom and abhorred slavery. When they founded our college in 1844, they wrote into the Articles of Association — that still govern our college — that it would stand for and perpetuate the “inestimable blessings of civil and religious liberty.” It would admit men and women, black and white impartially. This was something new and unique among American colleges. Indeed, it was the first time that a college was founded on these commitments in its charter. And the students who attended the college shared those same just and noble commitments. Indeed, the southern institution of slavery was an affront to their deep Christian commitment to freedom, equality and justice. Thus stirred by a patriotic spirit and righteous Christian anger, our boys felt duty-bound to act — to put down their books and take up the rifle. Quoting Moses Luce, our boys “left the college for the battlefield — the pen for the sword; homes, friends and hopes for hardships, struggles and death — to prevent the destruction of our nation and the disgrace of our flag.”
Second, the soldier atop our monument is not a famous general like you often see memorialized at places like West Point. He is a common enlisted soldier. Our student soldiers were young gentlemen of intellect and culture. Many could have pursued officer commissions, political appointments or other high-status positions. Such cronyism was commonplace. But our boys chose a different path; they enlisted, accepting the place and pay of a regular soldier in the ranks. No preferential treatment tempted them. They were not in it for titles, prestige or personal gain, but for God and country. Many would later become officers, but they did so through merit — they proved themselves as soldiers and leaders first. Indeed, Richard Seage enlisted after the attack on Fort Sumter as a private. Within a year, he was promoted to sergeant major and a few months before Gettysburg, he was commissioned as a lieutenant. He had proven himself to be a brave soldier and respected leader of men.
This says something important about the character of our boys. Unlike college boys at the elite Eastern schools, Hillsdale boys did not come from “money” or privilege. They were “western boys” who grew up on the frontier. Many came from humble homesteads. College for them was not an entitlement, it was a hard-earned privilege. Some literally walked hundreds of miles from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin just to get here. Though they had no money, the challenges of frontier life accustomed them to hardship. They were not afraid to work and earn their way through college. They did so by cutting and hauling wood for the many stoves used to heat the college. So though poor in material wealth, these western boys were rich in manly virtue.
Yet, within the ranks, a jealous feeling arose that our college boys were “stuck up.” As Christian gentlemen, they refrained from vice — they did not swear, drink to excess, play poker, or partake in camp brawls. The impression among their less educated fellow soldiers was that our boys lacked grit and the stomach to fight. Magee described how our boys dispelled this false impression and earned their spurs as fighters.
It was one year before Gettysburg, at the Battle of Malvern Hill, the last of the Seven Days’ Battles for Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign. The Union Army was beaten back by Rebel forces until they were up against the James River. A stand had to be made. It fell to the 4th Michigan to hold a critical position on Malvern Hill. On that hill our boys held a position in the front rank. In the fierce fighting that ensued, Magee recalled how nearly every college boy near him in that front rank was shot, some killed. But Magee testified that “then no college boy flinched, and each held his place, full to the front, on that awful death line, fighting until the battle was won. Then was demonstrated in that most trying hour the regiment ever knew that the college conscience, the student discipline and patriotic purpose was good for any emergency. Every college boy did his whole duty.”
Afterwards, Magee overheard fellow soldiers discussing the battle. Said one, “How like hell them college boys did fight!” Yes! Our boys were liberally educated Christian gentlemen, but when it came to real fighting, as opposed to mere camp brawls, they proved their frontier grit and acquitted themselves like real men and like true soldiers — with courage. Indeed, one of our college boys, Moses Luce, would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his courageous action above and beyond the call of duty in saving the life of his college friend, Asher LaFleur.
And this brings me to the final point about the soldier atop our monument. It is significant that he is not a soldier standing passively at the position of attention; nor is he a sentinel passively standing guard. No, he is standing tall, defiantly and proudly holding the flag aloft. But have you noticed something peculiar about that flag he’s holding? Stop and take a close look the next time you pass by that soldier as you hurry on your way to class. Notice that the staff is broken. Why? What is the significance of this broken staff?
The President of the monument committee, Professor William Ambler, in his presentation address, explained its significance this way:
The committee having in charge the erection of this monument, desired that it should be true to life; that it should embody the idea of those whose achievements it is to commemorate; that it should stand as an object lesson, expressing enthusiastic patriotism, not a soldier at parade rest, not a sentinel on guard, but rather a fighter, one who dares, who challenges the world in the defense of right, so it selected the statue you behold, a student soldier boy, who in the midst of battle seeing the colors fall, seized the broken staff and fearlessly holds aloof the starry banner, a worthy prototype of the minute-men of the Revolution….This [courageous] spirit aroused to battle….is the very vigilance of liberty.
So, there we have it. Taking its inspiration from Richard Seage and the 4th’s courageous fight to save the flag at Gettysburg, the soldier atop our monument memorializes the patriotic fighting spirit of our Civil War student solider boys — a patriotic fighting spirit that defends liberty, that is indeed the very “vigilance of liberty.” It is the spirit of true courage that defiantly, proudly, even cheerfully accepts the challenge and embraces the sacrifice of fighting for the cause of right in defense of liberty on behalf of our republic. This is who we are. This is what we stand for — courage in patriotic defense of liberty.
Their spirit, our tradition
I want to conclude with one final point — the most important point for us to reflect on this Veterans Day. The Hillsdale College generation that erected our Soldiers’ monument, did not intend for it to merely memorialize the patriotic fighting spirit and heroic achievements of our Civil War veterans. On the contrary, as Professor Ambler noted, they intended it to be an “object lesson” for future generations — for us. They gifted this monument to us as an inheritance to establish a tradition, a tradition that would “perpetually teach a lesson of the noblest manhood and of the loftiest patriotism.” Indeed, they hoped that it would inspire “the hearts of the students of this institution with a deeper pride, as they are thus made to think how its sons proved loyal, even unto death, in the hour of their country’s peril.” Thus, in memorializing the patriotic fighting spirit of that Civil War generation, they sought to hand down this spirit to future generations — to us — as an inheritance to learn, to live and in turn, to pass on to future generations. This is our tradition.
On this Veterans Day, I feel a sense of urgency for us to rededicate ourselves to this tradition. Recent events have made it painfully and disgracefully clear that we now live in a country where such noble and patriotic Christian ideals are no longer cherished, no longer sacred, even held in contempt; where there is hardly anything anymore to teach us that respect for the flag and selfless service to the nation is not only good and noble, but expected of us as a duty of citizenship; and where the prevailing ethic taught, even in college, seems to be narrowly economic — the pursuit of individual career success with little regard for the common good.
I won’t belabor this sad point which I think is obvious to many of us. But I do think this shameful reality presents us — members of this Hillsdale College community — with a challenge. Paraphrasing the Paul in his letter to the Romans: will we allow ourselves to be conformed by the corruption of the current generation? Or will we allow ourselves to be transformed by the renewing of our hearts and minds by the patriotic fighting spirit of our Civil War brothers? And in this renewal of our hearts and minds, will we follow their example and defiantly, proudly, cheerfully fight for the cause of right in defense of liberty on behalf of our republic? Or will we prove ourselves unworthy of our inheritance and let it die as a silent memorial to times past? This is the challenge that I think is before us — you and me — now. How will we respond?
I close with two verses from a poem read during the dedication of the Soldiers’ monument:
Tell me not that these, our heroes
Are among the silent dead;
Liberty is onward marching
For the blood these brave men shed;
Thus in her they’ll live forever,
Through the lapse of rolling years;
God has bles’t the cause they fought for,
He has wiped away our tears.
In our mem’ry, too, living,
And undying there remain,
Heroes bold and men of valor
Never can eclipse their fame;
In the world’s great busy battle,
We can see their lines of blue;
They are in the ranks, immortal,
God help us to be as true.
That is my closing prayer for us on this Veterans Day — God help us to be true to the inheritance bequeathed to us by our Civil War brothers and give us the courage to carry on this noble tradition — defending liberty, for God and country.