Whispering Pines: No Ordinary Life


John Cross ’76 flips through The General Catalogue of Bowdoin College, 1794-1950 to a random page, points his finger, and selects an “ordinary” alumnus to profile in this month’s column.

For a number of years CBS television journalist Stephen Hartman would file stories about the extraordinary lives of “ordinary” people. He would toss a dart over his shoulder at a map of the United States, go to the town or city closest to the point selected, flip through the pages of a local phone book and, without looking, point to a listing. He would then call the number and spend time with the people that he met to discover the compelling stories of their lives.

In an effort to focus attention on alumni whose stars do not shine as brightly in the firmament of Bowdoin’s history as do those of familiar luminaries, I thought that I would give Hartman’s method a try. The procedure was simple: close my eyes, open a copy of The General Catalogue of Bowdoin College, 1794-1950 to a random page, jab a finger, and then see who “the fickle finger of fate” had singled out. My subject was on page 92, in the right-hand column, two-thirds of the way down the page – Joseph Christmas Ives of the Class of 1848.

Joseph was indeed born on Christmas Day (1828) in New York City, the son of Dr. Ansel G. and Lucia Jones Ives. His father died when Joseph was 9, and his mother moved back to New Haven and ran a boarding house so that she could raise her seven sons. Joseph was tutored at Yale and transferred into the senior class at Bowdoin in the fall of 1847. At the College he maintained a low profile. He never signed the matriculation book, he joined the Athenæan Society, lived in Winthrop Hall, and was excused from having a speaking part in the fall and spring Junior and Senior Exhibitions. He was assessed an additional fee for a broken window pane on October 11, 1847 (I guess there is such a thing as a “Permanent Record” after all). Payment for his term bills was guaranteed by two distinguished members of the theological seminary in Andover, Leonard Woods (father of Bowdoin’s 4th president) and Ralph Emerson.

Joseph was accepted at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and began his studies there in June of 1848. He needed to get written permission for an 11-day leave of absence in September to return to Bowdoin to complete his exams and attend graduation in Brunswick. Clearly Joseph’s Bowdoin career followed an unusual path, with exceptions, exemptions, and financial arrangements that couldn’t be explained by the contents of his slender alumni file.

Biographical details of the life of Reverend Leonard Woods (the elder) provided the key to unraveling the mystery. Abigail, Woods’s wife and mother to their ten children, died in February of 1846. Nine months later Leonard married Lucia Jones Ives, Joseph’s mother. Until his death in 1854 Woods treated the Ives brothers as his own sons, and there is every indication that the Woods children liked their stepmother and stepbrothers. As president of Bowdoin, Leonard Woods, Jr., showed an extra measure of leniency in accommodating his new stepbrother’s educational circumstances and career trajectory.

The faith in Joseph’s abilities was not misplaced. In each of his four years at West Point he was ranked as one of the top five cadets for his class. He returned to Bowdoin in 1851 to pick up an M.A. degree, taking advantage of a 19th-century provision that allowed alumni more than three years beyond their graduation to apply for the honor, provided that they could show that they had maintained good character, paid a $5 fee, and showed up to receive their degree at Commencement.

Joseph graduated from West Point in 1852 and was commissioned a second lieutenant, beginning his military career as an ordnance officer at the Watervliet Arsenal in New York. In 1854 he was assigned as a topographical engineer for the Pacific Railroad Survey, mapping the route along the 35th parallel (essentially Route 66). The surveys for four different routes generated twelve volumes of geological, topographic, botanical, zoological, and ethnographic information that is a landmark in the history of exploration. While he was back in Washington working on the maps at the Pacific Railroad Office he met Cora Semmes, a sophisticated young woman from a prominent Maryland family. They were married in 1855, and the dashing soldier and his beautiful bride became well known in Washington social circles.

In 1857 and 1858 Lt. Ives led an expedition to explore the Colorado River. He had a 54-foot iron-bottomed steamboat manufactured in Philadelphia, disassembled, shipped to the mouth of the Colorado, and reassembled. The expedition reached as far north as the vicinity of Black Canyon by boat (near present-day Hoover Dam) and then overland to Fort Defiance in Arizona. Ives Peak in northeastern Arizona is named for him. His report contains this memorable passage: the Grand Canyon “looks like the Gates of Hell. The region…is, of course, altogether valueless. It can be approached only from the south, and after entering it, there is nothing to do but leave. Ours has been the first and last party of whites to visit this profitless locality. It seems intended by nature that the Colorado River, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be unvisited and undisturbed.”

I had no idea where the story of Joseph Christmas Ives would take me when I first read his name, but I never expected that it would be a round trip.

His next assignment was as engineer in charge of the construction of the Washington Monument in 1859-60, although construction had been halted for lack of funds, prompting Mark Twain to refer to it as “a factory chimney with the top broken off.” Ives’s role was to assess the stability of the monument’s foundation, which required some minor work.

When the first shots of the Civil War were fired, Joseph was in California as Astronomer and Surveyor to the U.S. Commission to establish the boundary between California and the Territories of the United States. He declined an appointment as a captain in the 17th Infantry in May of 1861, and waited six months before offering his resignation. His request was rejected, however, and he was dismissed for “having tendered his resignation under circumstances showing him to be disloyal to the Government.”

Joseph Christmas Ives was then appointed as an engineer for the Confederate States of America on the staff of Robert E. Lee, where he oversaw preparations for the coastal defenses of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. He was promoted to the rank of colonel in the cavalry, and from 1863 to 1865 he was an aide-de-camp to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Ives was disliked by Davis’s wife, and he was mistrusted by others who felt that he might be a spy. From their new home in Richmond, Joseph and Cora entertained foreign dignitaries, members of Davis’s cabinet, and senior military figures. In the war’s final stages, it became apparent to many of those around him that Ives was fighting an unsuccessful battle against alcoholism; it was battle that he would lose in 1868 at the age of 39 in New York City.

By way of a post-script… among the guests in the Ives home was Cora’s cousin, Admiral Raphael Semmes, best known as the commanding officer of the Confederate ship Alabama, a steam- and sail-powered cruiser built secretly in England that became the most feared predator of U.S. commercial shipping during the war. On January 14, 1864, the Alabama overtook the Emma Jane, a ship from Bath, Maine, off the coast of India. After finding that the merchant ship had already unloaded its cargo, Semmes had the ship burned, and he put the captain and his wife and the crew of the Emma Jane ashore on the south coast of India, some distance from the nearest settlement. As it turned out, that captain was Francis Jordan, who built the large house now on the corner of Bath Road and Federal Street in Brunswick, formerly the President’s House and currently home to the Bowdoin College Office of Development and College Relations. I had no idea where the story of Joseph Christmas Ives would take me when I first read his name, but I never expected that it would be a round trip.

With best wishes for what remains of the summer,

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


  1. John, I like the approach of opening the book and pointing your finger. It reminds me of how folks in the late Roman period and into the early Middle Ages (I believe) used Vergil’s Aeneid as a source of prophecy. The scrolls were unrolled, a line was picked at random, and some form of “horoscopic” truth was thought to be gleaned. The practice was known as the “sortes Vergilianae” (the fates of Vergil, loosely). His reputed prophetic powers (based on his supposed “prediction” in his 4th Eclogue of the birth of Jesus by Christian believers) led to the English spelling of Virgil, rather than the Roman, Vergil. “Virga” was the Latin word for magician’s wand. But what’s in a name? I liked piece and the approach! For what it’s worth…TEW

  2. Al DeMoya, '72 says:

    Brilliantly written, as always. It made me think, as many of your writings do, of the line in the Alma Mater,”…poets, statesmen and each son who brings thee fame by deeds well done.”
    So this Bowdoin alumnus marries a woman whose cousin maroons the man who built your own office? This reads like an O. Henry story with that final little twist.

  3. Peter Small says:

    Another great one John.

  4. Andrew P White says:

    Fascinating, John. Thank you.

  5. Great tale, John! Thanks, Jed

  6. Gordie Flint says:

    John, What a great idea and interesting story! You did a wonderful job of research in stitching together the life of someone long forgotten. John Christmas Ives certainly turned out to be not so “ordinary” after all. Thanks for all you do for Bowdoin.

    Gordie Flint ’68

  7. Bob Spencer says:

    Good stuff! I think you have found something!

  8. Alexander Platt '76 says:


    Another superb column!

    Something else that is fascinating to consider is whether Ives and Jefferson Davis, both West Point graduates, ever discussed their Bowdoin connection while Ives served as Davis’ aide-de-camp in Richmond. After all, Ives, A.B. 1848, A.M (Bowdoin), 1851, and Davis, L.L.D,(Bowdoin), 1858.

  9. What a gem this is! Love your writing, John…more more more of this idea would be fantastic. :)

  10. Bruce Jordan says:

    Was the Ralph Emerson who guaranteed his tuition the famous essayist?

  11. Matt O'Donnell says:

    As far as we know, there is no relation. Here’s a link to a brief biography of the Ralph Emerson mentioned in the post: http://www.beloit.edu/archives/documents/archival_collections/faculty/ralph_emerson/

  12. Dick Buttner '50 says:

    Great story 1

  13. Dave Larsson says:

    Ripping good yarn!

  14. David Macomber says:

    A very interesting article. Your perspectives of Bowdoin are inspiring to common men such as myself. It makes us feel that there might be some worth to our existence. Looking forward to future articles.

  15. Gary Allegretta says:

    Thanks for your work, John

  16. Mac Campbell says:

    A well-researched and fascinating biography – I enjoy the way you approach history from a clear narrative and nonjudgmental analysis. If more historians wrote like this perhaps the “value” of a Humanities education wouldn’t be questioned by some, as Dr. Mills alludes to in his opening address.

    Good history writing should open doors and this article does that. Ives certainly lived “no ordinary” life. His description of the Grand Canyon is priceless. One wonders how much John Wesley Powell who descended the canyon from the north in 1869 would agree? And Ives apparently did his job inspecting the Washington Monument since the foundation withstood the 2011 Virginia earthquake. Finally, was it Ives’ treatment by the government or his marrying into a prominent Southern family that led him to choose the Confederacy or a combination of factors?

    Along with the return of Chamberlain’s Medal of Honor, timely pieces of this nature help to encourage more study of this era at Bowdoin and beyond, and are part of an appropriate recognition of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Nice job.

    Mac Campbell ’72

  17. Nancy Bellhouse May '78 says:

    What an extraordinary story!

    Thanks, John.

  18. Bill Shoemaker 50 says:

    A great idea and another great story. The interest shown by those replying shows that Bowdoin is truly forever.

  19. Virginia Domhoff says:

    Great recap of the life of an “ordinary” Bowdoin graduate! Point your finger again. I want to hear more about other “ordinary” Bowdoin graduates. Thanks for a great read.

    A Friend of Bowdoin

  20. Bill Dugan 1966 says:

    You’ve done it now, John. Everybody is going to pester you for more of these tales.
    We visited Jefferson Davis’ home (Beauvoir) in Biloxi, MS this summer and there was no mention of a Bowdoin connection. Their museum needs to be updated.

  21. Len Johnson '70 says:

    ‘Very well written. I appreciate the extensive research.

  22. John Dennis says:

    John, Fascinating, as always. This story makes me curious to know about the adjacent alumni who missed out being chosen for your article by the width of your fingernail!

  23. Susan Newhouse '78 says:

    Wonderful, John. Really enjoyed this story. Looking forward to next month!

  24. Well done. Ives was a complex person. His journeys, perspectives, decisions and untimely death at 39 make me wonder about his motivations and values.

  25. Thank you, John. This reminds me of James Burke’s series of science essays (and an old TV series) Connections!

  26. Sue Wemett says:

    I very much enjoyed this slightly different perspective on Ives’ life. Joseph Christmas Ives happens to be one of my favorite and most colorful ancestors, distant, as 4th cousin 5x removed. Nonetheless, this was a very personal and humanist perspective on JC’s life. Happy 187th Birthday today cousin.

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