In his latest column, John Cross ’76 recalls a tumultuous spring on campus 139 years ago when President Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain squared off against the freshman, sophomore, and junior classes during the Drill Rebellion of 1874.
When Joshua Chamberlain of the Class of 1852 became Bowdoin’s 6th president in 1871 he initiated a number of changes, not the least of which was the introduction of a mandatory program of military drill in 1872. Brevet Major General Chamberlain had seen many men killed during the Civil War due to poor military training and inexperience on the part of officers whose service rank derived from their status as college graduates rather than from their knowledge of military tactics. The federal government supported similar initiatives at about twenty colleges and universities in the early 1870s, pre-dating the establishment of Reserve Officer Training programs (ROTC) by 40 years. President Chamberlain was given his choice of available U.S. Army officers to head up Bowdoin’s Department of Military Tactics and Science, and he selected Major Joseph P. Sanger, an artillery officer and Civil War veteran.
Initially students seemed enthusiastic about the military drill – it provided a diversion from studies, a chance to show off as a class on the parade ground, and the prospect of firing one of the “Napoleons” (cannons) provided by the State of Maine. During inclement weather, exercises were held within the unfinished shell of Memorial Hall. However, the positive feelings about compulsory military training soon evaporated in the face of the strict regimen specified by the 8-page manual, Regulations for the Interior Police and Discipline of the Bowdoin Cadets, issued in September of 1872. Chamberlain biographer John Pullen H’58 outlined some of the rules that The Orient found to be like “the severity of Prussian discipline”:
-“students were organized into a battalion of four companies, with the men of each company quartered together as far as practicable”;
-the daily schedule included reveille, guard mounting (2 PM), drill for 90 minutes before sunset, and retreat at sunset, with a Sunday inspection of the barracks at 9 AM;
-students could purchase an optional uniform, similar in design to a gray West Point cadet uniform, for $28.00; in 1873 a simpler uniform was required for every student, consisting of a blue flannel blouse, cap, belt, and gloves ($6.00);
-absences excused only by the president or “by a Surgeon, in consequence of sickness or disease.”
Although Major Sanger was respected by the students for his knowledge and his genuine concern for their education in military matters, student opposition to the Drill grew, resulting in petitions to the faculty (signed by 126 of the 133 students in the upper three classes) and the governing boards requesting that the drill be eliminated. The faculty did not act on the petition, since the governing boards had authority for the program. Many faculty members and others in the surrounding community were not especially fond of the Drill, especially after the firing of cannons by the Bowdoin Cadets at an exhibition at the Topsham Fairgrounds spooked horses and livestock.
In the spring of 1874 – 139 years ago this month – the simmering kettle that was the Drill at Bowdoin boiled over. Compulsory purchase of a uniform and time commitments to military training throughout the day were the primary sources of discontent. On May 19, students groaned and shouted profanities as they were dispersing after artillery practice. They were admonished by Major Sanger, one student was expelled, and four others were suspended. Three days later most of the freshmen and sophomores did not report for duty, and word spread that three classes (seniors were exempt from drill in the spring semester) had signed an agreement refusing to drill. The students pledged to submit themselves as a group to any disciplinary action meted out against any one of their number. Attempts by faculty to dislodge the students from their position were unsuccessful, and a confrontation was inevitable.
The traits that had brought Chamberlain success on Little Round Top at the battle of Gettysburg and throughout his military career – a strict adherence to discipline, courage under fire, and a force of will and determination that were uncommon even in his day – did not serve him especially well in managing the Drill Rebellion of 1874. Chamberlain’s answer (with the support of the faculty) was to dismiss the entire freshman, sophomore, and junior classes from the College. He also sent a form letter to parents (among them the mother of future polar explorer Robert E. Peary of the Class of 1877) with the following message: “If your son will sign the enclosed blank, renewing in good faith and without reservation his matriculation pledge of obedience to the Laws and Regulations of the College, and forward it to the President within ten days from date, he will be allowed to return and resume his place in his class, and this he will be expected to do without further delay.” Students who returned, but still objected to the Drill, could complete the year and receive an “honorable dismissal,” which would allow them to transfer to another college or university. Those who did not respond within ten days would be expelled.
Newspapers around the country seized on the story, and rumors circulated that Dartmouth and other colleges had offered admission to the mutineers. Chamberlain ended the speculation by publishing a letter from the president of Dartmouth that indicated strong support for Bowdoin’s position.In the end, all but three students returned, and those three eventually graduated from the College. However, Chamberlain’s apparent victory cost him support among the Governing Boards, and military drill was made an elective. Participation in the Drill was on the decline, and in 1882 the program was discontinued, bringing to an end an experiment that spanned nearly the entire term of Joshua Chamberlain’s presidency, and concluding a colorful saga that would make for an intriguing screenplay some day.
With best wishes,
John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations