Civil War Memorial Hidden in Plain Sight

The foyer of Morgan Hall, Amherst College

It had been about three years since I was last in Amherst. I realized that yesterday as my wife and I were walking around the campus of UMass. A while back, we used to try to get out that way at least once a year to visit the old alma mater and reminisce. In recent years, however, that annual ritual has been pushed aside by other priorities in our busy lives. As we walked the campus, it felt like I hadn’t been there in a long time.

I had no idea I wanted to be a historian before I went to college. Somewhere in the early part of my sophomore year, I was looking at a mural on the wall of the Campus Center…an enlargement of a c. 1905 panoramic photo of campus. And that was it. Hooked. UMass is now a modern campus with skyscrapers and cement brutalist buildings. To look at that photo and realize what it had been…an idyllic agricultural college…that just fascinated me. I would, from that point forward, be obsessed with history and the nature of how and why things change.

Researching campus history, the first figure that I studied in depth was William Smith Clark, essentially the founding father of UMass. He was bold, unafraid of the naysayers and politicians who tried to destroy the fledgling college. The fact that he was a colonel during the Civil War only enhances my interest in him.

The first spot that I wanted to revisit on this trip had to do with Col. Clark. It was not at UMass, but on the campus of Amherst College. Morgan Hall, built in 1853, was the library of Amherst College. It has long since been replaced and is now the home of a small planetarium and the American Studies Department.

In the foyer of this handsome Italianate building is a curving stairway. And tucked alongside the banister is…a cannon. A brass, six-pounder field piece with a lengthy inscription on it. Something like 17 years ago, before I had ever seen the thing, I learned the story of this cannon, about Col. Clark’s connection to it and the fact that it had been donated by the U.S. Army to Amherst College. After a lot of asking around, I finally discovered that the cannon was in Morgan Hall. The lobby was sort of in rough shape at the time and I think the cannon had been partially obscured by boxes and whatnot. Moving these things away and spotting the cannon, I felt like I had found the Ark of the Covenant.

Of course, thousands of people have looked at the cannon over the many years that it’s been there. It was a particularly well-known monument, I’m sure, when the building was the library. The memorial has been carefully maintained and even now I’m sure that plenty of American Studies students stop and read the inscription.

…Or do they? There’s something about that small, cloistered building and its quiet foyer that makes the spot feel hidden and secret. Might just be my imagination. I certainly wouldn’t advocate moving the memorial. But it does seem somewhat ignored to me.

Lt. Frazar Stearns from an 1862 memorial biography

Frazar A. Stearns was a 21 year-old student at Amherst College in 1861. His father, William Stearns, was the college president. Frazar struggled with poor health. He also struggled with regard to his calling in life. His father wanted him to be a minister. But Frazar wanted to be a scientist. More precisely, a chemist. “I love the science with no boyish enthusiasm,” Frazar wrote, “but for its own sake—for itself. Sometimes I almost feel as though I could pray God to let me become a chemist.”

William Smith Clark was a 35 year-old professor of chemistry at Amherst College in 1861. This was before the establishment of the Massachusetts Agricultural College (now UMass). Clark took Frazar under his wing and was, probably, much of the reason why the lad was so inspired by science. After the Civil War broke, Clark soon became an officer in the 21st Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and went off to Worcester to train with the regiment.

Watching his mentor enter the service, Frazar now had a new struggle to deal with. He asked his father if he could enlist. His father said no. Frazar waited a month longer, then wrote to his father, “The question is coming nearer and nearer to me—will you go and do your duty? …We must not disguise the fact from ourselves that this is to be a long war…As time rolls by and the war progresses…there will be a call for more men. If God tells me to go and fight, or even die, for my country, would you tell me not to go?”

President Stearns acquiesced and let his son enlist. The one condition: he would join the 21st Massachusetts and stay close to Professor (now Major) Clark. And he did just that. Before long, Lt. Col. Clark was in command of the regiment, and 1st Lt. Stearns was his adjutant (essentially the colonel’s administrative assistant).

The regiment’s second fight was the Battle of Newbern, North Carolina on March 14, 1862. The 21st Massachusetts was placed in a difficult spot during the fight, right in front of a brickyard that had been converted into a make-shift fort by the Confederates with several artillery pieces inside. Clark was ordered to take the position. The 21st managed to capture part of the brick yard and then got bogged down. The firing went on for hours. “Finding it impossible to remain there without being cut to pieces,” Clark wrote, “I was compelled either to charge…or to retreat without having accomplished anything to compensate for the terrible loss sustained in reaching this point.”

Clark shrewdly ordered his men to take aim at the horses and gunners of the nearest cannon. “Three men and two horses having fallen, and the other gunners showing signs of uneasiness, I gave the command ‘charge bayonets,’ and went into the first gun. Reaching it, I had the pleasure of mounting upon the first of the Newbern guns surrendered to the Yankees.”

It was a dashing charge, and for it, Clark earned a promotion to Colonel. But the 21st Massachusetts was soon forced out of the brickyard by a Confederate brigade. Back where they started, Clark heard the tragic news. Adjutant Stearns had been shot through the chest and was dead. Clark took the news hard. He had failed in his promise to watch over his protege. A friend of Frazar’s in the regiment later wrote home to his own family, “I am sorry to say that I have lost the best friend that I had in the army. I carried him off the battlefield. I tell you, that was a hard thing for me.”

The entire regiment mourned the loss of the young Adjutant. The commanding general of Union forces in North Carolina, Gen. Ambrose Burnside, ordered that the cannon the 21st Mass had captured be donated, according to the wishes of the regiment, to Amherst College in memory of Lt. Stearns. Eventually, the cannon that had been cast in Chicopee, Massachusetts, stolen from Ft. Macon, fired upon Union troops and the same that Clark leaped upon found its way to Morgan Hall.

I like to think that people still notice it there in that secluded space. I hope so.

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About Patrick Browne

I am the director of a museum, an author, Civil War reenactor, among other things. I specialize in early American History from colonization through the Civil War. View all posts by Patrick Browne

13 responses to “Civil War Memorial Hidden in Plain Sight

  • Ted Stables

    Thanks for the article, well done. I discovered the existance of this gun over 2 years ago while researching artillery at the Battle of New Bern. What facinating story!

  • Ted Stables

    Scroll down thru the web page link below and you’ll see a familiar site.

    http://www.charlotteartillery.org/guns-1861-1865.html

    • Historicist

      Fascinating! Thanks for this info. I never knew what artillery unit they were engaged with. How great that the battery’s guns have been tracked down!

      • Ted Stables

        The North Carolina Museum of History has made a request of Amherst College to get the gun on loan in anticipation of the 150th commemeration of the Battle of New Bern. I have been told the request has been granted pending my organization funding the transportation. I feel this will be a great opportunity to again honor the men of the 21st Mass and Company C, 10th NCST (Brem’s Battery). I’m sure this gun has grown tired of it’s sentry duty by the stairway in Morgan Hall and would welcome a short visit to NC.

      • Historicist

        This is great news. I am glad to hear that the monument will be included in this exhibit and that it has not, in fact, been forgotten. Bravo to you and the NCMH for organizing this. Please do post back with any updates.

  • Ted

    Thought I’d let you know that the gun has arrived at the NCMH in Raleigh and is being prepared for the exhibit. One thing we noticed on first observation is that the gun does, in fact, have many inscriptions, some of which were obscured by the mounting hardware. We will be transcribing all of them soon. I’ll keep you updated.

  • Steve Shaffer, Lt. Col., USAF (Ret)

    Ted Stables’ note re arrival of the cannon is welcomed. I look forward to reading the transcriptions of the inscriptions — particularly those hidden by the mounting hardware. I am researching the Battle of New Bern, and have transcribed several of Lt Col Clark’s letters — wonderful reads. Has anyone there transcribed ALL of his letters to family, friends and colleagues? I would be most interested to see those that I have missed.
    I am a guide at the New Bern Battlefield Park just 3.8 miles south of the city of New Bern. Also, I am a member of the Board of Directors of the New Bern Historical Society, the non-prof organization that owns approx 27 acres of the battlefield — the gap where the 21st Massachusetts and several other brilliantly led Union units punched through.

    Thank you for facilitating the return of the cannon. Also, thank you for this marvelous blog that stimulates our interest and buttresses our dedication to the continuing research and commemmoration to those men of both sides who made the ultimate sacrifice on these acres of pine woods and swamp.

    • Patrick Browne

      Mr. Shaffer,
      Thanks very much for your kind message. Fascinating that you are a guide at New Bern. I would love to see it some time. Years ago I made a trek to North Carolina with the intent of retracing Col. Clark’s steps. I only made it as far south as Roanoke Island, though, and had to abandon plans to go to New Bern due to time constraints. I would very much like to see it someday. I am very glad to hear that that portion of the battlefield is preserved. I had assumed it would be built over.
      I don’t think all of Col. Clark’s letters are transcribed. They are in the Special Collections at the UMass Library. I read them long ago, but do not know if they’ve been digitized in any way.
      As for the return of the cannon, I really had nothing to do with that. The North Carolina Museum of History apparently had been aiming to exhibit it for some time, as Mr. Stables informed me. It is an interesting coincidence that I wrote this blog entry at the same time as plans were underway to move it.
      Best,
      Patrick

  • Ted

    Inscriptions on gun

    o Order of Gen. Burnside: Headquarters’ of North Carolina, Newbern, March 16, 1862. Special order No. 52.

    o The Commanding General directs that the six-pounder brass gun taken in the battery, where Adjutant Stearns of the 21st Mass. Volunteers met his death while gallantly fighting at the Battle of Newbern, shall be presented to his regiment as a monument to and memorial of a brave man.

    o By command of Brigadier General Burnside, Lewis Richmond Assistant Adjutant General, Lieutenant Colonel Clark commanding.

    Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

    This gun belonged to a battery of flying artillery which was silenced by a bayonet charge of the 21st Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, under Lieutenant-Colonel W. S. Clark, at the battle of Newbern, North Carolina, March 14, 1862. It is the piece first surrendered on that day, and was presented to the regiment by Major-General A. E. Burnside, who so successfully directed the attack on this stronghold of the rebels. The officers of the 21st, with the approval of their gallant brigadier-general, J. L. Reno, have unanimously resolved to place it in the keeping of the Trustees of Amherst College, many of whose members were on the bloody field, as an enduring monument to the memory of their lamented brothers, who fell while bravely fighting for liberty and union.

    NAMES OF THE SLAIN.
    First Lieutenant Frazar A. Stearns, Acting-Adjutant. He was an honest man, a true Christian, and a model soldier, — faithful, active, intelligent, and brave among the bravest. His comrades in arms will never forget his many virtues nor cease to mourn his loss.

    Color Corporal George E. Sayles, Corporal Charles L. Woodworth, Corporal Mitchell W. Paul.

    Privates Austin Barton, Patrick Cushing, James A. Fessenden, Thomas Hurst, Edward Lacore, James C. Parker, William H. Williston, Timothy Collins, Louis Dana, William Flint, William H. Johnson, Patrick Martin, Charles H. Sinclair, Joseph E. Stone, James H. Sullivan, Henry Shepard, John N. Smith, Lucius C. Hale.

  • Patrick Browne

    Ted, thanks so much for posting the full inscription. Interesting. Col. Clark used the saying, “It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country,” in a number of his letters. I wonder if he had anything to do with putting it on the cannon.

    • Anonymous

      It is quite possible, particularly if Col Clark has recorded use of the phrase before the gun engraving.

      General George Patton thought it better that the other guy die for “his” country.

  • Ted Stables

    Patrick,
    The exhibit at the North Carilina Museum of History is now open I’ll try to get you a cople photos.

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