Hillsdale's "Last Full Measure of Devotion"

    Historians have largely ignored the role of private northern colleges in the Civil War. An Albion College historian concludes that students did very little as soldiers. Olivet College students drilled three times weekly. Hope Academy provided nine known soldiers. Only a handful of Adrian College students enlisted. Historians of other northern private colleges, such as Yale and Harvard, provided comparable lackluster interest. 

    Hillsdale College, founded at Spring Arbor in 1844 before being reopened at Hillsdale in the 1850's, provides a stark contrast with her Civil War ardor. The percentage of male students who enlisted was higher than that of any other private college in the North. Over 300 Hillsdale graduates and youth volunteered, and at least half became officers. Many served as regimental or company commanders, with the rank of colonel, major, or captain. Volunteering became infectious, and no Hillsdale students were drafted during the war. Four were awarded the Medal of Honor, and three became generals. Two remained in the regular army to become generals after the war. Approximately 60 died from wounds or disease.  I am unable to be precise, because many more of our students returned to their home states of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota to enlist. 

    On 14 June 1864 the Detroit Advertiser and Tribune announced that “probably no college in the country is better represented in the Union Army than [Hillsdale]. It has sent its young men to the war by the hundreds. They have watered with their blood every battlefield of the Republic....” The college newspaper in 1885 claimed (probably an exaggeration) that two hundred “noble sons” had died for the country they loved so well. And Albert Castel, esteemed military historian, writes today that “there were few places in the North, and certainly no campus, where the fire of the Civil War burned more brightly than at Hillsdale College.”

    What explanations for this extraordinary sacrifice? The college founders, who had migrated from New England, were abolitionists. Their 1850 charter from the Michigan legislature was the first in our nation to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or creed. Hillsdale College leaders also played an active role in organizing the Republican party in Jackson. And the college attracted impressive orators including Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Wade, Edward Everett, and William Lloyd Garrison. Because of this commitment to principle, Hillsdale remained the largest private college in Michigan for most of the nineteenth century.  

    When the guns started firing in 1861, most of our students were westerners manually working their way through college, and they were “poor in pocket, from ploughs and fields and humble homes.” They were inspired to enlist by college, church, and conscience. One of the most moving campus scenes early in the war was the return of students of the Fourth Michigan after basic training to their college for a chapel service in 1861.  For those about to die, this would be their last visit to the Hill. The college community, sensing the high drama, loudly applauded their recruits.

    Countless examples of our students’ valor dot numerous Civil War battlefields, which I have personally visited. I cite here only a few examples of their courage. At Malvern Hill near Richmond in 1862, the Fourth Michigan held the extreme left flank of the Union line. More than 1/4 of the regiment were killed or wounded. Sergeant Henry Magee described how his classmates held their ground, where every man to his right except one was shot: “Then no college boy flinched, and each held his place, full to the front, on that awful death line....”

    Hillsdale College volunteers in the Fourth Michigan made their biggest sacrifice on the second day at Gettysburg. Near Little Round Top, they moved into action in the Wheatfield, which probably has inspired as much awe as any landmark of the Civil War. For two and a half hours, the ground changed hands six times as Longstreet’s Corps tried to smash the Union left. The retreat of their brigade in the Union Fifth Corps left the Fourth Michigan Volunteers surrounded on three sides. This was what soldiers feared most – having their flanks and back exposed to enemy fire. The results were devastating – of almost 300 men from the Hillsdale regiment who had marched into battle at Gettysburg, 174 were killed, wounded, or captured. There was no harvest of wheat that summer in the Wheatfield – only a harvest of death.

    One of the finest hours of the war for Hillsdale College men came in the heroic attack on the crest of Missionary Ridge in late 1863. General Grant had not ordered a charge, but spontaneous action by field officers leading their men carried the ridge. At the front of this charge, one of the most spectacular of the war, were three regimental commanders from Hillsdale College. The victory broke General Braxton Bragg’s army and opened the opportunity for General Sherman’s long march to Atlanta and the sea.  

    Many Hillsdale students, who as farm boys handled horses, chose the cavalry. These recruits served under the direct command of such officers as Phil Sheridan and George Custer. In the Seventh Michigan Cavalry was former student Lieutenant Andrew Buck. At Gettysburg, the young officer was pinned down by his wounded horse. Nevertheless, Buck and his undermanned company took part in a successful charge against Jeb Stuart’s forces.  Starting with 30 men, Buck’s company was left with only 10 men after the fight.

    Some Hillsdale students had more than one family member serve in the Union forces. For example, Lieutenant Watson Seage, wounded at Gettysburg, served in Company E of the Fourth Michigan Infantry, as did his brother Henry. Their father, John, was chaplain of the same regiment. Another example of family sacrifice was the Turrell family, four of whom attended Hillsdale College. Three of the brothers – Alonzo, Horace, and Edgar – were buried unknown beneath a thin layer of southern soil. And strange as it may seem, there is evidence of some Hillsdale students from the same family enlisting in opposite sides – and ultimately fighting each other in combat.

    This article is but a brief introduction to Hillsdale honor during the epic conflict between brothers. An appropriate step toward closure was the first Decoration Day on 30 May 1868. On that day the college faculty and students began what became an annual procession to Oak Grove Cemetery, north of campus, to honor their Civil War dead.

Dr. Arlan K. Gilbert