When popular Amherst College student Frazar Stearns died shortly before noon on March 14, 1862, in the Battle of New Bern, North Carolina, another Amherst man lay dead nearby.
They probably did not know each other. Frazar was young and handsome and still in school (Class of 1863), while the other man had graduated with the Class of 1853 and was a teacher, a husband, and a father. He was also not the son of William Augustus Stearns, the sitting president of Amherst College. The college and town were overwhelmed by Frazar’s death, and those Amherst people who in 1862 still remembered the other student nine years after his graduation would not have felt his loss as they did Frazar’s. Much was written about Frazar Stearns at the time, and much has been written since—his death continues to resonate. A cannon and a poet’s verses testify to his loss. The other Amherst man’s service was noted and recorded in quieter ways, during his class reunion and in the biographical records of his class. His story is not as well known as Frazar’s, and yet they died within an hour of each other on the same day, in the same battle, and apparently in the effort to take the same small but critical part of the battlefield.
The other student’s name was Henry Reuben Pierce. And when he was at Amherst College, he too was young and handsome, with a promising future.
Pierce was a native of Coventry, Vermont, the son of Warren and Sally (McManus) Pierce. His biographical file in the Archives and Special Collections suggests a modest beginning, with a struggle toward an education made possible by determination and perseverance. He left home at 16, found work in Northampton and was able to enter Williston Seminary, from which he graduated in 1849. He then entered Amherst College, graduating at the age of 25 (older than today’s average graduate but about the same age as many of his classmates). After leaving Amherst, he had several teaching jobs and a brief stint studying law. The law was not for him, though, and he returned to teaching. His final position –the position he held when he joined the war – was as principal of the high school in Woonsocket, Rhode Island.
Pierce was the kind of man to put his principles into action. After the sobering Battle of Bull Run in July, 1861, when the Union realized that the war would not be an easy win, Pierce responded by traveling to Washington to care for the wounded of his town. He entered the army the following November. Pierce probably had little if any military training before enlisting, but he received the rank of lieutenant in the Fifth Rhode Island heavy artillery and trained for a few months, probably at the Dexter Training Ground in Providence, Rhode Island, before heading to war. A memoir called “A Country Boy’s First Three Months in the Army,” by a fellow member of the 5th Rhode Island, details what Pierce’s first few months in the military must have been like.
When Pierce enlisted and left his position at Woonsocket, his pupils presented him with sword. The inscription reads: “Nov. 1861. Lieut. H. R. Pierce. From his pupils of the Woonsocket High School. With love.” It’s the “with love” – set apart and a little bit aflutter — that gets me. It seems heartfelt, as if raw emotion “burst agonized and clear” through the solemnity of the occasion. I have to wonder if the words are necessary to or typical of such inscriptions; I choose to believe that they were added because Pierce was special to his students, that he cared for and inspired them. Coincidentally (for the purposes of this post), Pierce’s sword came up for auction last spring – in the year of the 150th anniversary of the battle (unfortunately, Amherst does not own it). One of the pictures at the auction site shows the inscription.
Surviving accounts say that before he left for war, Pierce camped out overnight in a cemetery and dug his own grave. Apparently, he made a little speech over it. I love this bit of gothic, but at the time it may have seemed to him like good sense and efficiency. One imagines he thought to save his wife the extra piece of anguish of having to choose a site in the event he didn’t return from war.
In early February there was a battle on Roanoke Island. Pierce’s 5th was in the area but not directly involved. From Roanoke Island, the men sailed up the Neuse River. And then there was New Bern.
There are many good accounts of the Battle of New Bern. My reading of several of them (listed below), with Henry Pierce and Frazar Stearns in mind, suggests that the two men were involved in the most important part of the battle, and that they fell within hours of each other, contesting for the same section of the battlefield. In this contest, the Union’s larger number of men ran up against a well-armed Confederate force that had been reinforcing the area for months. The layout of the battlefield limited Union tactics, but when the battle was underway it became apparent that the Confederates had left a gap – a hole in a wall– that led into a brickyard. This was their weak point. If the Union could pour in and take the gap, they could then drive back the enemy. It was a tricky strategy – bold and dangerous – and Lieutenant Colonel William S. Clark of the 21st Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (Class of 1848 and a chemistry professor at Amherst) took up the challenge.
Initially, the idea was that Clark would surge through the gap –with bayonets and unreliable rifled muskets (many had gotten wet in the previous night’s rain) charging into superior fire — whereupon he would be reinforced by General Reno’s other troops in the Second Brigade. Frazar Stearns was with Clark in the 21st, and it was in this first surge that Stearns fell, around 9:30 a.m., apparently just as the men began to head for the gap. One of his comrades is said to have stayed with him, while the rest of his regiment charged forward.
After a fierce fight, Clark took the brickyard, but he could not hold it. General Reno was too engaged elsewhere on the field to be able to reinforce him, and the fleeing Confederates looked back and realized it. They turned around and Clark was forced to retreat from the brickyard. Subsequently, around 11:00, Clark spoke with Colonel Rodman in General Parke’s Third Brigade, which included the regiments of the 4th and 5th Rhode Island Volunteers. Clark urged Colonel Rodman to take his regiments into the brickyard for a second try at it. It seems to have been at this time that Henry Pierce’s 5th Rhode Island moved in, following the 4th Rhode Island and another regiment from Connecticut. Like Frazar Stearns, Pierce too fell quickly, shot through the heart within three minutes* of coming under fire. Perhaps he and Stearns were in the front ranks and took that first, deadliest fire. They seem to have died within an hour of each other – Stearns just before noon, two and a half hours after being shot, and Pierce during the second run at the enemy, sometime around 11:00 a.m. Pierce is said to have died immediately.
Both men were part of the victory that day: the assault on the brickyard was successful, as was the larger battle. New Bern proved to be an important victory for the Union because of the large amount of arms and equipment captured, and because it compromised the enemy’s supply lines.
Pierce’s Company “D” bivouacked that night in a deserted Confederate camp they called “Camp Pierce” in his honor. He was the only officer of the 5th to die that day. His body was shipped back to Rhode Island, where he received a formal burial on April 29, 1862. The Providence Evening Press had a detailed account of the funeral, which was copied in newspapers elsewhere.
Pierce’s widow, Ann Frances (Tillinghast) Pierce, survived him to 1879. His son, Richard Henry Pierce (Yale 1882), was one of the first men to receive an electrical engineering degree. He went on to a distinguished, very modern-sounding career, including becoming the Chief Electrical Engineer at the World Columbian Exposition in 1893, and later formed the engineering firm of Pierce & Richardson.
In quiet Oak Hill Cemetery, where Henry Pierce had dug his own grave, his students paid him a final honor: they erected a tall monument, on one side of which they reaffirmed their attachment to him.
And so, if I may, here’s to Henry Reuben Pierce, member of the Class of 1853. From Amherst College. With love.
Websites related to the Battle of New Bern (1862):
* http://archive.org/details/historyoffifthre01unit (see esp pgs 38-46)http://archive.org/details/ambroseburnside00woodrich