Amherst College panel discusses how Civil War affected town

By Chris Shores

When Union and Confederate soldiers fought on American soil 150 years ago, Massachusetts escaped having a front row seat of the Civil War.

Tyll and Katy Van Geel examine the "Frazar is Killed" exhibit, on display now in Amherst College's Robert Frost library. (Chris Shores/Collegian)

But even in Amherst – 400 miles northeast of Gettysburg, Pa. – the community felt the effects of war, said Martha Ackmann, author and Mount Holyoke College senior lecturer at a “How the Civil War Came to Amherst” panel yesterday.

Ackmann began the panel discussion – held at Amherst College’s Robert Frost Library – by telling the story of Frazar Stearns, a 21-year-old Amherst College student who was shot and killed by a Minié ball in New Bern, N.C., on March 14, 1862.

News of Stearns’ death quickly spread to both the town and Amherst College, stunning the community, Ackmann said.

“It was although Amherst itself had been cut down,” she said.

Among those affected by Stearns’ death was poet Emily Dickinson, who wrote in a letter to Springfield Republican editor Samuel Bowles that her brother Austin “Is chilled – by Frazer’s murder – He says – his Brain keeps saying over ‘Frazer is killed’ – ‘Frazer is killed,’ just as Father told it – to Him.”

Critics have hesitated to classify the legendary Amherst resident as a Civil War poet. But biographer Polly Longsworth argued that Dickinson – who wrote 989 of her nearly 1,800 poems between 1861 and 1865 – would “not have been a great poet except for the war.”

“Without the Civil War she was, and would have remained, a woman of brilliant intellect with an undeveloped emotional capacity who wrote poetry,” she said. “But once the war came she began to work in new dimensions on all her natural themes – love, nature, death, immortality.”

Robert Romer, professor emeritus at Amherst College, discussed the involvement of Amherst residents – both black soldiers and white officers – in black regiments like the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Romer led a local effort last year that culminated in the memorializing of black soldiers’ graves at Amherst’s West Cemetery.

One resident of interest to Romer was Christopher Pennell, an Amherst College student who died in the war.

“The last letter he ever wrote [was] the night before the horrible Battle of the Crater, where he was instantly killed,” Romer said, stopping at times to fight tears. Pennell’s remains were not found, but a note was retrieved which, in the case of the man’s death, asked officers to alert the soldier’s family and Amherst College physics professor.

Also in attendance at the panel was Michael Kelly, head of archives and special collections at Amherst College, who discussed the climate of the college at the time of the Civil War.

And Marianne Curling, consultant to the Amherst Historical Society, told attendees about a new “adopt-a-solider” program that is being formed. For $100, the historical society will retrieve from National Archives pension records of an Amherst solider. The researcher that adopts a soldier will then be charged with discovering their history and making possible contact with descendants.

“The way Frazar has been memorialized, the rest of the soldiers can be,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to be involved in Amherst history in a significant way … becoming a part of [learning how] the Civil War came to Amherst.”

The panel – sponsored and organized by the Emily Dickinson Museum – coincides with a “Frazar is Killed” exhibit, currently on display in the Robert Frost library.

Organized by Amherst College’s Archives and Special Collections, the exhibit showcases documents, photographs and other artifacts from the school’s Civil War era.

“There’s this real tradition for support for military,” said Kelly. “I have been thinking about how we could turn this into something bigger about Amherst [College] veterans.”

The exhibit will be on display through the end of the school year and possibly longer, Kelly said.

Chris Shores can be reached at [email protected]