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.
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.