Whispering Pines: Their Lives in Front of Them—The Class of 1866

Whispering Pines

One day in the fall of 1864, twenty-one members of the Class of 1866 posed for a photograph on the steps of the Chapel, sporting the various styles of chapeaux that their status as juniors entitled them to wear on campus. Then, as now, it was not unheard of for students to be admitted to a class, leave for financial reasons or changes in family circumstances, transfer from (or to) another college, be dismissed for academic insufficiency or breaches of conduct, or have their studies interrupted by military service. As a result, the class roster for varied a great deal from year to year, especially during the Civil War years.

The Class of 1866 in the fall of 1864

The Class of 1866 in the fall of 1864

Two members of the class had joined in the 27th Maine Infantry in October of their freshman year; Pliny Drew died of smallpox two months after enlisting, and James Bedell succumbed to diphtheria a month after that. Seven members of 1866 were not present for the photo because of military service, while another ten students who had entered with ’66 left the College for one reason or another during the previous two years. And, since there are always loose ends in the world of Bowdoin undergraduates, one student was a “no-show” for the class photograph, accounting for all forty-one members officially assigned to 1866 at the time.

A hundred and fifty years after the fact, we know some details of the lives behind the faces in the photo and the names on the class roster. In keeping with the mid-nineteenth-century pattern, alumni from the Class of 1866 were drawn to professions linked to the law, clergy, education, and business. There was quite a post-Commencement diaspora for the class, which had been drawn largely from Maine (34), with three members from Massachusetts, and one each from New York, New Hampshire, California, and New Brunswick.

The youngest member of the class (George Lord) became a U.S. Army surgeon with the 7th Cavalry, under the command of George Armstrong Custer; he died 140 years ago at the Battle of the Greasy Grass/the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana.

George Sumner was the only Civil War veteran in the photo. During his first year at Bowdoin he signed on for a nine-month enlistment and was discharged due to injury five months later as a sergeant in the 26th Maine Infantry. He finished his coursework at Bowdoin in three years and then practiced law in Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Colorado, where he served as a federal district judge.

The Bowdoin campus, ca. 1860

The Bowdoin campus, ca. 1860

Charles Beecher, the son of Charles Beecher [1834] and the nephew of Harriet Beecher Stowe, engaged in the lumber business for forty years in Brazil and Canada, settling in Vancouver, British Columbia. Charles Boardman got his start in the lumber business in eastern Canada, was a merchant in Boston and Florida, and served as a U.S. commercial agent in Quebec.

Several members of the class chose careers in education. Two became tutors after graduation—one at Bates (Joseph Fernald) and one at Bowdoin (John Fellows)—but they would both be dead from disease within three years of their graduation.  Fellows was replaced by the lanky classmate sprawled on the bottom step in the class photo, Henry Leland Chapman, who would spend the rest of his life as a revered member of the Bowdoin faculty, teaching Latin and English from 1869 until his death in 1913. The pensive student in the white cap sitting behind Chapman was Frederick Gerrish, whose future held forty-four years as a professor of the Medical School of Maine and thirty-four years as an Overseer of the College. My candidate for “riverboat-gambler-look-alike”—Hiram Lawrence (standing in the center of the back row)—became a beloved elementary school principal for thirty-eight years in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Lawrence is leaning on Delavan Carlton, who taught music in Michigan before trying his hand at farming in North Dakota.

George R. Williams entered with the Class of 1865, although in the 1864 fall catalogue he was listed with the Class of 1866. He transferred to Dartmouth late in 1864, graduating there in 1865. Williams entered into the practice of law and was involved in silver mining in the Nevada Territory, California, and Arizona. From 1880 to 1885 he was in Tombstone, including the day (October 26, 1881) when the West’s most famous gunfight occurred on Fremont Street (a few doors down from the O.K. Corral) in which Wyatt Earp, his brothers Morgan and Virgil, and Doc Holliday faced off against Billy Claiborne and the Clanton and McLaury brothers. The last surviving member of the group in the photo, Williams died in Oakland, California, in 1934, at the age of 95.

Edwin Searle Rogers ’65, with his DKE pin

Edwin Searle Rogers ’65, with his DKE pin

The fall 1864 college catalogue listed Edwin S. Rogers as a member of the Class of 1866. He and his Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity brother and classmate Leander O. Merriam, had left Bowdoin to join the 31st Maine Infantry in the spring of 1864 (their junior year), and they were reassigned to 1866, in the expectation that they would finish their coursework and graduate with the group in the photo. Rogers would become part of an iconic story of the “brother-against-brother” struggle of the Civil War. The story of the death of Lt. Rogers on June 8, 1864, in Cold Harbor, Virginia, was told in “Brothers in DKE,” a poem written by John Clair Minot of the Class of 1896.

Rogers had been shot, and as he lay dying, a Confederate officer noticed Rogers’s DKE fraternity pin  and identified himself as a fellow DKE from the Psi Chapter at the University of Alabama. According to Minot’s account, the officer comforted Rogers, who was too severely wounded to be moved and died during the night. Rogers’s family in Patten, Maine, later received a letter that told of Edwin’s dying words, along with a lock of his hair and his diamond-shaped DKE pin.

Minot’s account has been repeated many times to the members of DKE chapters, although some have wondered how much of the story was based in fact and how much represented embellishment to suit a romantic narrative. Over the years, no group has devoted more energy and scholarship to examining the historical context and details of the story than members of the Psi Chapter at the University of Alabama, who have sought to identify the Confederate DKE. Recent efforts, led by the tenacious and meticulous scholarship of T. Semmes Favrot, the historian of the Psi Chapter of DKE, have subjected Minot’s poem to “ground-truthing” to discover the battlefield circumstances (i.e., the date when Rogers was shot; the likely location of where he was shot and where he died within the shifting battle front); where he was buried (in Cold Harbor, although there is also a marker in his hometown of Patten); and if his family ever received the letter, the lock of hair, and the fraternity pin. Favrot’s research confirmed that Minot was off by several days (Rogers was shot on June 7, not June 3), and that it was not during a charge, but while he was directing a picket line.

On a road trip to Maine, Favrot contacted members of the Rogers family and he located and photographed Edwin’s pin. He also reported an account from an unpublished memoir by Edwin’s classmate and fraternity brother, Leander Merriam:

“It was also here that we lost another officer in whom I felt a special interest.
Lieut. Edwin S. Rogers of Company “E” was a college classmate with me…
On the morning of June 7th, he was sent out in command of the picket line
and was shot through the lungs by a rebel sharpshooter. He was so near the
enemy lines that we could not get to him and he was taken by them…
the rebels started him toward Richmond as a prisoner, but it was so
evident that he could not live, they left him in a farmhouse on the way,
where he died.”

Brothers in DKE, Class of 1866. Leander O. Merriam is second from the right.

Brothers in DKE, Class of 1866. Leander O. Merriam is second from the right.

Sergeant Merriam was wounded, discharged, and returned to Bowdoin, graduating with the Class of 1866. He was photographed with his fellow DKEs from 1866 in his senior year. He taught school in and was in the lumber business in New Brunswick for a number of years, before moving to Minnesota, where he managed a railroad transfer company for thirty years.

To see a little over half the Class of 1866 arrayed on the steps of the Chapel in the fall of 1864 with their futures in front of them, already visited by death and uncertainty from war, invites an exploration of their lives. Biographical details animate sepia-toned images and transform names into people whose lives and experiences intersected with historical and social contexts. The forty-one members of 1866 could be seen as the products of a rigid, classical curriculum and having been drawn from a limited geographical area and from a narrow spectrum of society.  What each of them did and what happened to each of them are a matter of record, but still strike a chord on a very human level for me. One hundred fifty years later, the Class of 2016—all 460 of them, representing diversity along any axis along which one might choose to measure it, and benefitting from an education that is both broad and deep—embraces the opportunities and faces the challenges that lie ahead. It will be a great source of inspiration and pride for the Bowdoin family to follow them on their journeys through life.

With best wishes,

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

Comments

  1. Barbara Kaster says:

    As always, fascinating story! Thank you!

  2. Ken Carpenter'58 says:

    Fascinating! Thanks for this. Ken

  3. Another masterpiece, John. As a member of the class of 1966, I feel a kinship to those who preceded me by 100 years. Thank you.

  4. Stu Work, '73 says:

    Another wonderful column, John. I always look forward to your exploration of the College’s past.

    Can you tell me anything more about the member of Class of 1866 from California? It seems like quite a hike to attend college. I traveled from California to Brunswick myself in the fall of 1969, (much more quickly) so I’m interested to hear more about my predecessor.

  5. Beautifully written John.

    Best, Steve

  6. Bob Armstrong says:

    Great retrospective on the Class of 1866! I enjoyed it tremendously.

    Bob

  7. Michael Tardiff says:

    John, I look forward to each Whispering Pines and read each one eagerly and repeatedly. You are a treasure and a gift, to the College and to each of us who’ve spent time under the Pines. Thank you.

    + Michael Tardiff

  8. Leslie Brancart says:

    I was pleased to see all the appreciative comments preceding mine. Although I don’t read “Whispering Pines” very often, John, I always have an enjoyable, interesting time when I do. Congratulations on yet another outstanding article.

    Leslie Randolph-Brancart (Morgan Moore’s East coast “grandmother”)

  9. Stephen W. Rule says:

    As always, John’s Whispering Pines pieces are not only fascinating, but amazing in their historical detail.

    Stephen W. Rule ’58

  10. Paul Dennett, '75 says:

    John, you are a treasure trove of fascinating Bowdoin lore. Thanks for another great column!

  11. Al DeMoya '72 says:

    John, no story of yours I read in Whispering Pines ever fails to be informative but at the same time never dry or merely factual. The richness of detail you include makes your stories a joy to read.

  12. Conrad Spens '77 says:

    Thanks, John- as expected another engaging piece, one that leaves me feeling more connected to something greater than myself and leaves me with an appreciation for the power and continuity of our little school in Maine.

  13. Kurt Ollmann '77 says:

    Thanks, John. Another fascinating story

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