Whispering Pines: Bowdoin at Gettysburg


On the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg 150 years ago this week, John Cross ’76 writes about “at least 58 pairs of feet that walked the rolling hills, fields, and rocks of Gettysburg in 1863 that also left their mark on the Bowdoin campus.”

This spring I made my first visit to Gettysburg on a tour organized by the Alumni Relations Office as part of the College’s observance of the battle that took place over the first three days of July in 1863. The rolling Pennsylvania countryside around the town occupies a prominent place in the landscape of the nation’s consciousness, as does President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered at the dedication of a national cemetery there. Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, The Killer Angels, and The Civil War, a 10-part documentary film by Ken Burns H’91, captured the public imagination with their retelling of the defense of a small rocky knoll at the end of the Union line by the 20th Maine regiment, led by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain of the Bowdoin Class of 1852. The desperate struggle for Little Round Top lends itself to narrative – repeated attempts by the 15th Alabama to take the hill, the courage and tenacity of the attacking and defending forces, and an improbable (and impromptu) bayonet charge by the 20th Maine to secure a clear victory.

And yet the Battle of Gettysburg is so much more than the story of Little Round Top on Day 2, and the Civil War is so much more than Gettysburg, or the sum total of military engagements between the firing on Fort Sumter and the surrender at Appomattox.

The war is known through extensive archives of letters and journals, official dispatches and after-action reports, photographs, and contemporary newspaper accounts. Historians have often remarked that the direct experience of an individual in combat is narrow, limited to what is within range of the senses.

In the decades following the war, the contradictory recollections of individual participants were gradually forged into a collective memory. Published accounts, regimental histories, and reunions of veterans groups created an interpretive landscape of monuments and memorials at Gettysburg and at other battlefield sites.

On occasion I’ve been asked how many Bowdoin alumni were present at the Battle of Gettysburg. It’s a deceptively difficult question to answer. While a given regiment may have been engaged in the battle, some members of it may have been elsewhere (in a hospital, on recruiting duty), they may have resigned or been discharged before the battle, or they may have joined the regiment after the battle.

In all, just over 300 Bowdoin alumni served the Union cause; 18 fought for the Confederacy. Another 325 alumni of the Medical School of Maine at Bowdoin were counted as Union veterans, while two alumni were Confederate surgeons. While there are bronze plaques in the lobby of Memorial Hall with the names of undergraduate alumni who served in the Civil War, there is no comparable list for the alumni of the Medical School of Maine, 13 of whom died in service. Several Gettysburg veterans sought undergraduate or medical training at Bowdoin after the war, and they are included in these numbers, although they were not alumni at the time of their Civil War service.

The brief answer to the question posed above is at least 55, if undergraduate and medical school alumni are combined; at least 58, if three eyewitnesses to the battle and its aftermath – members of the United States Christian Commission – are included. The following thumbnail sketches give a sense of how the battle was experienced by some of these alumni.

Alumni College
From the birth of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on Federal Street in 1852 and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s victories on the battlefield to William Pitt Fessenden’s political victories in the Senate and O.O. Howard’s command of the Freedman’s Bureau, it is hard to overstate Bowdoin’s role in the Civil War.

The 2013 Alumni College, “The Afterlife of the American Civil War,” offers participants the opportunity to engage with the history and culture of the Civil War era through a study of the people and places that helped shape it.

  • On July 1, General Oliver Otis Howard [1850] was in command of the 11th Corps. Upon the death of General John Reynolds, Howard assumed command of the Union forces at Gettysburg for the first day. He is credited with moving Union forces to defensible positions on Cemetery Ridge and with keeping a chaotic Union retreat from the town from becoming a rout. His efficient assistant adjutant general was his brother Charles [Class of 1859].
  • On the afternoon of July 1, the 16th Maine was sacrificed to guard the retreat of Union forces. Faced with the prospect of being killed or captured by overwhelming Confederate forces, Acting Major Samuel Belcher [1857] ordered his men to tear up the regiment’s colors (flags) so that they would not be captured. Each man took a small piece of the flags and tucked them in a boot, a cap, or a pocket. Belcher was captured along with 158 others, 11 were killed, and 62 were wounded. Lt. Frederick Beecher [1862] (the nephew of both Harriet Beecher Stowe and Bowdoin Professor William Smyth) managed to return to the Union line with 42 remaining members of the regiment. He led the remnants of the 16th Maine on Day 2 until his right knee was shattered by a shell. He recuperated back at the Smyth home (now Russwurm House) in Brunswick.
  • The lone Confederate alumnus at Gettysburg was Sidney Finger of the Class of 1861, a quartermaster in the 11th North Carolina.
  • The only Bowdoin alumnus killed in the battle was Lt. Charles McCobb of the 4th Maine and the Class of 1860, who fell during the fierce fighting in Devil’s Den.
  • Second Lt. Nathaniel Robbins of the 4th Maine [Class of 1857] was captured at Devil’s Den. He ended up in a prison camp in Columbia, South Carolina, where he was joined in the spring of 1864 by fellow Bowdoin alumni and Gettysburg veterans Charles Mattocks [1862] of the 17th Maine (captured at the Battle of the Wilderness in May) and by Charles Hunt of the 5th Maine battery (captured at Petersburg in June). Mattocks and Hunt subsequently escaped from the prison and walked nearly 400 miles before being recaptured.
  • The only plaque at Gettysburg that honors the actions of a single surgeon celebrates Zabdiel Boylston Adams [Class of 1849] of the 32nd Massachusetts, who set up a field hospital within 100 yards of the line of battle, near the area known as “the wheat field.” Adams worked on the wounded until he was temporarily blinded by exhaustion and forced to retire from the field.
  • A third Howard brother, Rowland, [Class of 1856] was a representative of the U.S. Christian Commission at Gettysburg, along with Joshua Chamberlain’s youngest brother, John [Class of 1859], and Jonathan Adams [Class of 1853]. The journals and letters of Howard, Chamberlain, and Adams create an indelible impression of the war’s aftermath at a personal scale. In the days of battle and in the weeks that followed, the three worked tirelessly to comfort wounded soldiers, write down the final words of the dying, assist in amputations, bring food and water, and try to find shelter for the wounded. It was a task that would consume them long after the armies has moved along to the next battle.

For me, the search for Bowdoin alumni who were at Gettysburg on those three days in July of 1863 has both broadened and deepened my perspective on the human costs and consequences of the red and blue lines and arrows that indicate troop movements on battle maps. At least 58 pairs of feet that walked the rolling hills, fields, and rocks of Gettysburg in 1863 left their mark on the Bowdoin campus.

With best wishes,

John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations


  1. Merton Henry says:

    A very good article! Pleased to see General Howard recognized for the key role he played at Gettysburg that first day.

  2. Don Goldsmith says:

    John- Thanks for a sterling tribute to Bowdoin’s best- and a reminder of the long history of Bowdoin’s commitment to the common good.

    Don Goldsmith ’65

  3. Roger Tuveson '64 says:

    Thank you, John, for this timely and informative WHISPERING PINES commentary. You have given fellow Bowdoin Alums more
    reasons to be proud of their Alma Mater.

  4. Thanks for this, John. You should write a book for us on Bowdoin and the Civil War.

  5. Eileen Sheedy-Currie says:

    Thank you so very much for this informative article. I wonder if the medical alumni could be listed in the science building?

  6. Dale Tomlinson says:

    John, I can’t add much to the above, but a very nice job in a brief space; and I will add my concurrence to the fact that too little of Gen. O.O.Howard’s contribution is recognized in most histories of the battle.

  7. David Larsson says:

    Wonderful work, John, so great that you traced all “58 pairs of feet.” I had no idea that there were 3 Howard brothers, all Bowdoin grads. You’ve got me wondering whether there’s any connection between Zabdiel Boylston Adams [Class of 1849], Jonathan Adams [Class of 1853], and Seth Adams [Honorary, Class of 1858].

  8. Chet Freeman '68 says:

    It is great that some “never forget what they did [t]here.” Bowdoin at least laid wreaths at Chamberlain’s grave and statue so it did not forget. Later this August Bowdoin will have a major event to remember those who benefited from “that cause for which they [some] gave the last full measure of devotion.”

  9. Jessica says:

    This was a great article, but I should point out that John Chamberlain was not JLC’s youngest brother. In order of age, the siblings are: Joshua, Horace, Sarah or “Sae,” John, and Thomas.

  10. Nancy Bellhouse May '78 says:

    A fascinating angle on an endlessly fascinating story. (I knew about Chamberlain and the 20th Maine, of course, but didn’t know all of this.)

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