In the Shadow of War: Alfred University, 1861

Civil War Reunion

By Alan Littell ’53

For the 19th-century founders of Alfred University, the family names would have had a familiar ring: Kenyon, Maxson, Saunders.These and others like them belonged to the nine male members - an exact tally is uncertain - of the University’s senior class of 1861. And in the spring of that year, with the American republic sundered over the issue of slavery, and with the secessionist South united in an independent confederacy, the nine Alfredians heeded President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers to fight for restoration of the Union. Moved by patriotism and religious fervor, they enlisted in two of the many infantry regiments then forming throughout New York State.

“They are as fine fellows as the world can boast,” declared a local newspaper, “and [they] enlist for victory or death.”

AU SeniorsBy and large, the graduating seniors - women as well as men - harked back to the breakaway sect of  New England Baptists who observed Saturday, the seventh day of the week, rather than Sunday, the generally accepted first day, as the Biblically enjoined day of rest and worship. 

Adherents called themselves Seventh Day Baptists. Seventh Day farm families had settled Alfred in 1807, building their log cabins and carving an evangelical community out of an upland wilderness. Three decades later, they established the single-room school that in 1857 would grow into Alfred University. Although the 21st-century University claims no religious link, until at least the early 1900s the vast majority of faculty and students identified themselves as members of the Seventh Day order and were drawn from a narrow denominational territory that had Alfred, school and village, as its seat.

The Alfred University of 1861 was no stranger to agitation for Negro freedom. The radical abolitionists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederick Douglass, son of a Maryland slave woman and her white master, had lectured at the school. Before and during the Civil War, Seventh Day Baptists - historically associated with the cause of emancipation - aided runaway slaves escaping to Canada by way of southern New York on the so-called “underground railroad.”

One of the anti-slavery activists was Abigail Maxson Allen, wife of Jonathan Allen, Seventh Day churchman and future Alfred president.  She recounted in a memoir an emotional campus war meeting that took place on April 26, 1861.

The venue was and is an Alfred landmark, the handsome Greek-Revival building known today as Alumni Hall, the University’s Office of Admissions.  In 1861, it served as chapel, auditorium and classroom.

 “It was crowded to overflowing by citizens and students,” Allen wrote, “so that there was hardly any standing room. The…gentlemen of the graduating class were called upon in turn to state their reasons for leaving their studies and all peaceful pursuits for the turmoil and uncertainty of war.

 “Every heart was stirred when two of them said, ‘we give our all - our lives - and never expect to return.’  And so it proved,” she continued, “for these two came back only in their coffins.”

One was Lucius Bacon, a 25-year-old from Charleston, a hamlet in northern Pennsylvania several miles south of the NYS line. Four months after enlisting, Bacon died of unspecified disease - most likely of the malaria, typhoid fever or “bloody flux” (dysentery) then endemic in the Union and Confederate armies.

Abigail Allen’s brother, Edmund Maxson, 26, a native of Alfred, was the second casualty.  He died in 1862 of an accidental pistol wound.

Mary Taylor, an Alfred student and close friend of Bacon’s, would later recall that she had given the young man a diary with the request that it be returned when filled.  After Bacon’s death, it was indeed returned.  It contained this prescient entry:

“I have slept on the damp ground and have chills and headache. Kenyon [Lewis Kenyon, a 22-year-old classmate from the township of Wirt, a few miles from Alfred] lies sick in his tent and I wish I could care for him.”

Wrote Taylor: “All too soon the high minded and noble hearted Bacon was gone…and my splendid soldier was a dead soldier.  As our boys began to succumb to camp life, there came to us a realizing sense of what we might expect. Not till Grant and Lee had arranged terms of [the South’s] surrender at Appomattox in ’65, did the survivors come marching home.”

Ulysses S. Grant was general-in-chief of the Union armies; Robert E. Lee, the Confederate military leader.

As Taylor’s note underscores, death and destruction were the commonplace of soldierly experience in the four years between 1861 and 1865. Mechanical inventiveness had bred an arsenal of lethal weaponry, and in this, the first of history’s modern wars, carnage was on an industrial scale. 

By 1865, the Civil War had cost the lives of more than 600,000 combatants, Union and Confederate combined, from wounds and disease. And although enthusiasm for the war tapered off as the full extent of the butcher’s bill became known, by the end of the conflict some 120 Alfred students and townsmen had served in the Union forces. Seventeen were killed in action or died in hospitals and prison camps.

In addition to Bacon, Kenyon and Edmund Maxson, the Alfred senior-class volunteers included:

-- Wallace Brown, 24, of Williamsville, a town in northern Pennsylvania southwest of Alfred;

-- Benjamin Burt, 19, from Sugar Hill, a crossroads hamlet just outside Watkins Glen, east of Alfred;

--Seymour Dexter, 20, from the town of Independence, a few miles south of Alfred;

--Thomas Saunders, 25, of Alfred;

-- Luin Thatcher, 23, of Hornellsville (now Hornell), the regional railroad hub 12 miles from Alfred;

-- Asher Williams, 25, of Albion, a Wisconsin town that, like Alfred University and the village of Alfred in the early-to-mid 1800s, was known as a center of Seventh Day sectarian identity. 

Alumni HallOn May 16, 1861, all but one of the Alfred contingent were mustered into Company K of the 23rd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment. They joined in Elmira for a two-year enlistment.  The new recruits were issued with a factory-made - not homespun - uniform of light-blue trousers and dark-blue woolen tunic. And each man would have been equipped with a .58 caliber Springfield muzzle-loader, a cumbersome if potent weapon whose conical lead bullets and rifled barrel all but assured a killing range of up to half a mile.

The men joined as privates. Thatcher later won promotion to first lieutenant, Dexter to corporal.

The sole Alfred senior-classman of 1861 not to join the 23rd was Benjamin Burt. He enlisted instead in the 34th New York, assembling in Albany. The Seventh Day clergyman Darwin E. Maxson, professor of natural science at Alfred, served as chaplain in yet another of the state militias, the 85th, though only for a few months.  Jonathan Allen, meanwhile, the University’s soon-to-be president - he taught theology at the time - briefly followed the 23rd New York south to the war zone as an observer.

The 23rd crossed the Potomac into Virginia in July 1861, but did not see sustained action until the summer and fall of the following year. In August 1862, at Manassas - styled the battle of Second Bull Run - the regiment had no sooner debouched from the woods in the first assault of the second day, reported a participant, “than they were stunned by a volley. The shattered ranks closed up and continued on.”  

Earlier, the 23rd had had its first extended taste of the ravages of war when camped in the ruin and stench of the Cedar Mountain battlefield. The men coped with the chilling horror of unattended dead in blue and gray. 

“I saw worms crawling from the face of one man,” an eyewitness recalled. “The arm and shoulder of another was drying in the sun while the feet of a third protruded from the grave.”

In September, the 23rd worked its way into the hill country of neighboring Maryland and fought at South Mountain and again at Antietam. There, through the smoke and din of enemy fire, the regiment charged the Rebel ranks but fell back almost immediately when it ran out of ammunition.  Luck had been with the men of the 23rd. Withdrawal from the field saved the Alfredians of Company K. For after 12 hours of savage combat, Antietam turned out to be the bloodiest one-day battle in American history, with 23,000 troops from both sides killed, wounded or missing.

Nevertheless, despite appalling losses, the tide of war had shifted in the Union’s favor at Antietam. According to the historians Samuel Eliot Morrison and Henry Steele Commager, Lincoln’s army “had frustrated Lee’s campaign and parried the most serious thrust at his country’s heart.” 

In their masterly 1942 reconstruction of our national past, “The Growth of the American Republic,” the two historians noted that as early as 1862 an eventual Union victory was thought inevitable if the North could maintain its will to fight.

Active duty for the 23rd New York ended in December at Fredericksburg, VA. The regiment   helped cover a tactical Union retreat across the Rappahannock River, then withdrew to a permanent camp at nearby Belle Plain Landing until mustered out, in May 1863.

After the war, surviving members of Alfred’s class of 1861 embarked on careers in a variety of occupations. Lewis Kenyon and Asher Williams, for example, became farmers; Thomas Saunders an attorney; Seymour Dexter an attorney and member of the NYS Assembly, and later a Chemung County judge. 

Wallace Brown, also an attorney, served two terms in Congress from Pennsylvania’s 16th District. In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt named him an assistant U.S. attorney general.  He died in 1926 and is among the New York and Pennsylvania veterans of the Civil War buried in Alfred Rural Cemetery.

The Alfred University volunteers had professed a simple ethos. They reviled slavery; they revered country; they sanctified religion. When these young men strode off to war, they did so with what the British historian G.M. Trevelyan - writing many years later and in another context - might well have defined as their collective epitaph: “a sense of great issues and their significance, a passionate feeling about right and wrong.”

(Alan Littell, a 1953 Alfred graduate, is former director of the University’s office of public information. Laurie McFadden, Alfred University archivist, was the researcher for this article.)

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