Campus News

Baccalaureate 2011: Voices from Bowdoin's Past

Story posted May 27, 2011

“Voices from Bowdoin’s Past”
By Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster
May 27, 2011

“One thing is certain … there is a mustering among the masses the world over, and there is a disarray coming on, sooner or later.”

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Tim Foster

So were the words of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s character Augustine St. Clare to Miss Ophelia in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

This year marks the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War.

We often celebrate what is considered the turning point in the war. Our own Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his 20th Maine Regiment heroically defended the left flank of the Union Army on Little Round Top by way of a bayonet charge Chamberlain had seen only in a military textbook. Failure meant clear passage for the Confederate Army to the nation’s capital in Washington.

Remember Governor Angus King regaling you with that story at the Convening Dinner almost four years ago? And tomorrow you will walk across the Museum steps. How time flies.

What we celebrate less often is Bowdoin’s special place in the outset of the war.

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How is it possible that a small college in Maine could have such a profound impact on this critical period in American history?

Is it because of the “little woman who wrote the book that made this great war”? That’s how President Lincoln described Harriet Beecher Stowe who would write the seminal novel of the period, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

This extraordinary work—written by Stowe in her husband’s study inside Appleton Hall and in the family home on Federal Street a decade before the war—incited passions on both sides.

Stowe had, in many ways, lit the fuse that would erupt at Fort Sumter.

The words of Evangeline St. Clare to her father Augustine St. Clare:

O’, that’s what troubles me, papa. You want me to live so happy, and never have any pain—never suffer anything—not even hear a sad story, when other poor creatures have nothing but pain and sorrow, all their lives—it seems selfish.

I ought to know such things, I ought to feel about them!

Such things always sunk into my heart; they went down deep; I’ve thought and thought about them.

Papa, isn’t there any way to have all slaves made free?

Stowe’s words had an impact far and wide, but perhaps none greater than the impact they and she had on a young Bowdoin student from Brewer, Maine.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, of the Class of 1852, called Stowe a genius, and he would later recall the privilege of Saturday evenings spent with the author and fellow students on Federal Street:

“On these occasions,” Chamberlain remembered, “a chosen circle of friends, mostly young, were favored with the freedom of her house, the rallying point being, however, the reading before publication, of the successive chapters of her Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the frank discussion of them.”

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Undated portrait of Joshua Chamberlain in his Major General's uniform.

It was during this relatively quiet time at Bowdoin—when barely more than 200 students were taught by a handful of faculty—that Chamberlain’s own convictions about slavery began to crystallize.

Before the war, military service was hardly on the minds of most students. But when war broke out, Bowdoin students enlisted in large numbers.

John Deering Jr. of the Class of 1864 typified the mood among his classmates when he said: “I have determined to become a soldier, chiefly because I feel it is my duty to.”

Joshua Chamberlain was now a member of the Bowdoin faculty. While his father, his wife, Fanny, and his faculty colleagues opposed the idea, Chamberlain realized that his true patriotic calling required him to offer his services to Maine Governor Israel Washburn and to the Union.

He wrote to the governor on July 14, 1862:

For seven years past I have been Professor at Bowdoin College. I have always been interested in military matters, and what I do not know in that line, I know how to learn.

Your Excellency presides over the Educational as well as the military affairs of our state … You will therefore be able to decide where my influence is most needed.

But I fear this war, so costly of blood and treasure, will not cease until the men of the North are willing to leave good positions, and sacrifice the dearest personal interests...

This war must be ended, with a swift and strong hand; and every man ought to come forward and ask to be placed at his proper post…

I am sensible that I am proposing personal sacrifices, which would not probably be demanded of me; but I believe this to be my duty, and I know I can be of service to my Country in this hour of peril.

I shall acquiesce in your decision Governor, whether I can best serve you here or in the field…

Yours to Command,

J.L. Chamberlain

Many Bowdoin alumni heard a similar call.

In fact, Bowdoin professor Patrick Rael has found that almost 300 students and alumni—more than a quarter of Bowdoin’s living students and alumni in 1867—served during the war. This represents the highest proportion of any college or university in the North.

And Bowdoin also provided a greater proportion of leaders: 80% of its participants were commissioned officers. At Bowdoin, we do indeed graduate “leaders in all walks of life.”

It is often said with obvious exaggeration that the Civil War began and ended in Brunswick, Maine, with the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 and Chamberlain’s acceptance of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House in 1865.

Ours is an extraordinary connection—through this town and this College—to a monumental period in American history.

As you gather at Commencement tomorrow and look out at the Bowdoin Quad, I urge you to pause for a moment to remember the sacrifices of the many people who have walked here before us, including Lieutenant George Kenniston of the Class of 1861.

One of the youngest students to serve, George was taken prisoner at the Battle of Bull Run.

He was supposed to be Class Orator at Commencement. Instead, he spent his Commencement Day in Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, writing the following in his journal:

How often I have looked forward to this day… and how differently situated now am I from what I expected to be.

A regiment of Confederate troops [is] now passing. They don’t look like our boys—are no means so well drilled or well-equipped nor so good looking.

I cannot see why even with our run of bad generalship we didn’t whip the life out of them.

It would be very pleasant to drop into the President’s home tonight. They would probably welcome [me] heartily.

Even now, I am graduated from college. How odd it seems to say—“when I was in college.”

The words of George Kenniston, and a sentiment many of you will soon feel yourselves. Congratulations to the Class of 2011 and thank you for listening.

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