Campus & Community

As the Civil War finally ends, a relieved, sad, graduation day

6 min read

The Commencement of 1865 and the day of commemoration that followed it hold a unique spot in Harvard history. Though some military actions were still taking place, the Civil War had essentially ended in April of that year. John Langdon Sibley, head librarian at Harvard, wrote in his diary that there had already been a “Reception for the returned soldiers from Cambridge. It was the greatest parade ever made in Cambridge.” Massachusetts regiments were returning every day. Massachusetts Gov. John Andrew had asked Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant if graduates of Harvard College who were still in the service could be allowed furloughs to attend the ceremonies. The sense of relief mixed with joy, sadness, and national mourning for the fallen Abraham Lincoln worked together to make this a resonant, profoundly serious celebration. Near the day of Commencement, the Boston Daily Advertiser wrote that the war was no longer casting a “shade” as it had for the last four years. The “sons of the college … were now able to sheath their swords in peace.”

On the morning of July 19, 1865, a procession of 77 seniors met in front of Holworthy Hall. Led by the Brigade Band, they processed to Gore Hall (where Widener Library now stands) and rendezvoused with Gov. Andrew and his staff. (This was the last year that officials of Massachusetts government held seats on the Harvard Board of Overseers.) Also joining the procession were Gen. George Meade, the Union commander at Gettysburg, and the Board of Overseers. The group moved on to the First Parish in Cambridge Church for the exercises, where Meade, who shared the platform with other military officers, received an honorary doctor of laws degree to resounding cheers. The Commencement dinner took place in Harvard Hall, and President Thomas Hill gave “the customary review of the year,” including various gifts and bequests. At the end of his remarks, according to Sibley, “three hearty cheers were given for General Meade.”

After the meal, the alumni held their annual meeting, which had a special goal this unique year — finding an appropriate way to commemorate Harvard’s fallen Union soldiers. Sibley wrote in his diary on July 19, “Pamphlets distributed for a Memorial Hall. The levee at the President’s in the evening was more simple than common, consisting of cake & coffee, etc. … The alumni held their meeting in Harvard Hall (upper story) immediately after the dinner, & the principal topic for discussion was the Memorial for the Harvardians who had been in the war.” Some wanted a traditional monument and others a large hall. A committee of 50 was appointed to determine the form of the memorial and raise the necessary funds. Rev. Edward E. Hale pointed out that all traces of the occupancy of the college grounds by the army of the American Revolution, including Gen. George Washington, had been effaced. “It seemed sad to think that the traces of the deeds of the present glorious era might fade out.” Memorial Hall resulted from these initial discussions.

The Commemoration Day programs took place a few days later, on July 21. Tied in with the Commencement week activities, Commemoration Day was a collegewide event. Bells in Cambridge pealed throughout the day. The festivities began with a breakfast at the Porcellian Club (Harvard’s most prestigious and most exclusive), where Col. Theodore Lyman, grand marshal of the club, introduced Gen. Meade, who had been made an honorary member. Lyman had served on Meade’s staff from September 1863 until April 1865 through some of the hottest action of the war.

A service at the First Parish Church followed. The Boston Morning Journal reported, “The galleries and every available place not reserved for procession were speedily filled. The procession reached the Church shortly after 11:00 A.M. and the remaining portion of the edifice was crowded almost to suffocation.” After the service, the churchgoers reassembled at Gore Hall at 2 p.m. to move in procession to the pavilion on the college grounds.

Harvard Yard was all decked out. The New York Times wrote, “A splendid pavilion of great size was built for the dinner, in the rear of Hollis Hall and decorated everywhere with gay tri-colored streamers. On Hollis Hall, forming one side of the pavilion, was a beautiful display of colors, and in their midst the admirably simple and expressive college arms — bar, three open Bibles, and the word Veritas. Under this were six tablets, with the ninety-six names of Harvard’s [Union] fallen sons, in the order of their classes.” (Tablets in Memorial Hall later included 136 names of Harvard Union soldiers who died in the war.) More than 1,300 people were present, and it took a long time for all to get under the big tent. Nothing daunted, the students sang songs and told jokes.

Sibley’s diary adds more detail: “The graduates who had been in the army had their tickets gratis, and two tickets were added for distribution to their friends. Two or three were all sent to the families of those who had died in the service of the country. Thus far five hundred and seventy eight [Union] Harvardians have been found to have been in the service and more than ninety have been killed or to have died in consequence of the service.” There were about 250 graduates dressed in their blue uniforms, many of them officers.

Among the impressive illuminati who spoke or read at the event were Ralph Waldo Emerson, the “Homer of Concord”; physician and man of letters Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.; poet James Russell Lowell; and activist/poet Julia Ward Howe, who had written the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Gov. Andrew was there, too. Known as the “war governor” for his enthusiastic support of the Union, Andrew was an early and strong supporter of the inclusion of African Americans in the armed forces.

The prayer read at the ceremony by the Rev. Phillips Brooks had, by all reports, a powerful impact on the audience. Many compared it with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address because of its effect with very simple words. The text was not recorded because, it is said, the preacher’s words held everybody rapt, including those assigned to transcribe them. Brooks did not save the text. Col. Henry Lee, the Chief Marshal for the commemoration celebration, would later say, “On that day words seemed powerless; they did not vent the overflowing of sympathy and gratitude all felt. But in the exercises came a prayer, a brief prayer of a few minutes, of one inspired to pour forth the thanksgivings of the assembled brethren. From that moment the name of that inspired young man, till then unknown, became a household word.”

Special thanks to Katy Bishop; Michael Chesson; archives of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts; staff at Harvard University Archives; Henry Lee; Warren Little; David Mittell; Carol Rabs, Patrick Schroeder; Lynn Smith; and Brian Sullivan.

Cited from Harvard University Archives; Class of 1865, HUC 6865; John Langdon Sibley, Diary, 1865, HUG 1791.72.10; Class Day pictures, HUC 6601.3PF