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Stu­dents and faculty gathered around the Civil War Memorial (Hailey Morgan/Collegian)

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.

 

  • Jen­nifer Melfi

    good article. Would like to see more recent vets as well.

  • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

    Union General Daniel Sickles movement of his men far in advance of the detach­ments on either side of him nearly allowed the Con­fed­erates to flank him in force and carry the battle on the 2nd day of the Battle of Get­tysburg. Had Con­fed­erate General Longstreet fully appre­ciated how dis­rupted the Union defenses were in that sector he could have intro­duced Pickets Division and turned the Union lines near the Peach Orchard.

    For­tu­nately, Longstreet’s view of the battle in that sector was dis­rupted by clouds of smoke from union artillery and he decided the position was too strong to take in a frontal attack and he instead tried to flank the Union at Little Round Top-and we’ve all seen the movie of that engagement.