When the University Cadets Went to War
From the Archives

March 27th, 2024
A drawing from 1864 of troops lined up in formation by John Tetlow.
A drawing that originally appeared in the Brown Alumni Monthly, March 1962, vol. 62 no. 6ILLUSTRATION: JOHN TETLOW c. 1864

The year was 1863, and the month was June. The minds of Brown undergraduates were filled with such varied matters as Class Day, the inevitable examinations, the northward movement of the Army of Northern Virginia that was to culminate at Gettysburg, and the usual spring thoughts of youth.

If they read their Providence Journal, they could not fail to have noted the name of the “Tacony”—usually styled “The Confederate Pirate” in the news columns. This little brig was, in a way, the offspring of the Confederate steam corvette “Florida” which had begun her commerce-destroying career in January of 1863. On May 6th she had captured the brig “Clarence” off the coast of Brazil and, instead of burning her, made the prize her deputy, putting a prize crew aboard and re-christening her the “Florida No. 2.”

On June 12th the “Clarence” captured her sixth prize, the brig “Tacony,” and, rating her as a superior vessel, burned “Clarence” after trans-shipping crew and armament to the new Confederate cruiser. The commander of the “Clarence,” and now of the “Tacony,” was the brilliant Lt. Charles N. Read, C.S.N. , Annapolis graduate of 1861 who had thrown in his lot with the Confederacy. Her crew totalled 19 men, and her effective armament, aside from small arms, was a sixpounder boat howitzer, supplemented by Quaker guns which the Rebels manufactured from spars. Read’s mission was to continue his cruise northward, destroying all possible Federal craft.

The Raider Roused the North

The “Tacony’s” voyage was remarkably successful. A goodly number of ships bound South with coal or commissary supplies were taken and burned, the captive crews being placed in a cartel whose captain was forced to sign a bond. This stipulated that, 30 days from the signing of peace between the Confederate States and the United States of America, the owners would pay a handsome sum into the Confederate treasury.

The brig ranged north to Hatteras, beyond to the Delaware Capes, and found more happy hunting grounds off the Nantucket shoals. Schooners were conspicuous among her prey, but there was the ship “Isaac Webb” with 750 passengers aboard, mostly “wild Irishmen” many of whom Read must have known were destined to swell the ranks of the Union Armies. She was regretfully bonded, as was the “Shatemuc,” a packet ship from Liverpool, bound for Boston with 350 passengers and a cargo of iron plates. Off the Grand Banks the little brig took and burned fishing schooners, and then made for Portland, Maine, where ships were building for the Federal Navy. These Read hoped to destroy. There, being both adventurous and optimistic, he planned to seize a steamer, the better to carry out his commerce-destroying mission.

However, Read was aware that news of his widespread depredations had reached the shores of Yankeedom, and that a whole host of ships were in search of him, armed with a full description of the “Tacony.” Accordingly, after taking the schooner “Archer,” he transferred crew and howitzer to her, burned the “Tacony,” and stood for Portland Harbor on his great adventure. There he daringly cut out the United States revenue cutter “Caleb Cushing,” but was caught with his prize and the “Archer” as he tried to make his way to the open sea on June 27, 1863. The event naturally wrote “finis” to Read’s career as a commerce-destroyer.

All of these actions took place a long way from the groves of Academe on College Hill, but Minerva and Neptune were soon to be brought together. Beginning on June 15th when one of his cartels, the “Kate Stewart” reached Philadelphia, the press of the Atlantic seaboard blazoned the news of Read’s exploits. Infuriated shipowners appealed to the Secretaries of the Treasury and of the Navy for protection and revenge. In response, ships, steam and sail alike, regular Navy and chartered, set out from Newport News, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston to comb the seas for the elusive brig. As more and more news of “Tacony’s” depredations came in, the newspapers gave equal headlines to tales of “The Pirates” and the story of Lee's march towards Harrisburg.

Guardians of the Rhode Island Shore

Local authorities on the seaboard were full of alarms. Mayor William Henry Cranston, Brown 1842, Mayor of Newport, and James Y. Smith, Governor of Rhode Island, agreed that "there is nothing to prevent a rebel incursion through the “West Passage, exposing to destruction this city, Fall River, and other towns on the Bay.” Cranston sent local militia men to the threatened east shore and bought solid shot for their cannon. On the very day that Read fell captive to his enemies in Portland harbor. Governor Smith sought and gained Washington's permission to construct, arm, and man suitable earthworks to guard against the “Tacony.” The danger had actually passed, but the early alarms had been so intense that defense against Confederate marauders still seemed requisite.

As Commander-in-Chief of the Militia Governor Smith ordered out detachments of the Marine Artillery and summoned contingents from Wickford, Tower Hill, and Ashaway, to begin work on an eight-gun battery at The Bonnet, near South Ferry. On July 2, when the Providence Journal reported that Lee’s army was between Chambersburg and Gettysburg, and that the sound of gun-fire indicated a battle was being fought between his forces and those of Meade, it also carried the news that the Wickford and Tower Hill men were to be relieved by Co. I, First Regiment, Rhode Island Militia.

This was a brand new name for an organization whose home was on the Brown Campus. It had been born there two years before, on the outbreak of hostilities in April of 1861, when undergraduates obtained President Sears’ permission to form a military company. They styled it the “University Cadets.” In bad weather they drilled in the armory of the National Cadets, one of the chartered commands of the State, and used their muskets. But the College Green heard “the well known cry of ‘fall in, men’ when, three times a week, at the merry call of the drum, the U.C.s could be seen assembling at the hour appointed for drill.”

They made their first formal appearance on Class Day ’61, when they paraded through the city's streets to the music of "Gilmore's Cornet Band" and were reviewed by Col. Slocum of the Second Rhode Island Volunteers. Within a year they were again to parade, this time as part of the funeral procession of the same Colonel, of Major Sullivan Ballou ’52, and of Capt. Levi A. Tower ’57. All three had perished at Bull Run in ’61 ; their bodies had been brought home.

Among Other Things, They Missed Exams

Now, in June ’63, another year had passed, and the University Cadets were “off to war.” Captain John Tetlow ’64 was in command—a veteran thanks to his three months’ service as Corporal in the First Rhode Island in ’61. The Color Corporal was none other than John Howard Appleton ’64—the famous “Johnny Ap” who later taught chemistry at Brown for a full half century beginning with the year of his graduation. They and some 70 other undergraduates had exchanged their usual dark blue jackets, blue pantaloons, and scarlet caps for the drab uniforms furnished by the State. They cut a fine figure, nevertheless, as they embarked for active duty.

Remember that it was June—true spring in Rhode Island—and remember, too, that it was the month for final exams. Of course the Cadets were overjoyed to have their offer to serve accepted by the Governor. They were now to engage in more martial exercises than parades in which their companions were the Home Guard, units from the Militia, and the Providence Fire Department. They were “off to the front,” and they might miss—indeed, they would surely miss—those confounded finals.

For two whole weeks Co. I, First Rhode Island Militia remained at The Bonnet. Their hands were blistered with digging trenches, their faces were tanned by the sun, their stomachs were filled with poor Army-style rations supplemented by the good things which foraging parties collected from nearby farmers. They reported that the water which they drank had a pleasant flavor since it was brought into camp in old whiskey barrels. Later, as alumni, they would “smack their lips at the remembrance of that Fourth of July Clam bake.” In the present of ’63 the defenders of Narragansett Bay appealed in the columns of The Providence Journal for packages of goodies such as the citizens of the community were sending to the boys in Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Back Just in Time for Class Day

The collegians proved their erudition when, being informed by a farmer that they were in Wakefield, they asked to be directed “to the Vicar's house.” They even scrimmaged with the non-collegians who comprised other elements of the garrison of Camp Smith. Fourteen days they remained at South Ferry. But on July 13, 1863, they had to relinquish the joys of camp life—trench digging, “surf bathing and rambles in the field, romantic but for the lack of the most essential element of romance”—and return to the Campus.

As luck would have it, they were just in time for Class Day. To it and other Campus mores they must readjust themselves. In particular they must deal with the Faculty who, when the Cadets first planned to enter the State’s service, sought to dissuade them, and reminded them of the coming examinations. Now the returning soldiery “Resolved” that, in consideration of services rendered, they be excused from the finals which they had missed. But the Faculty, fully in command of the situation as Faculties had been since the Middle Ages, merely gave them the privilege of taking their exams at the beginning of the next term in September.

So ended a minor episode in the Civil War. But not quite that, for the State’s treasury eventually paid each man the sum of $5.63 for his military services, and thereby gave rise to a student song with the wearisome refrain

“We all went down to West Passage For five and sixty three.”

You can imagine the tune to which it was sung. And soon after the beginning of the September term cadet William Henry Williams ’65 wrote on the fly leaf of a handsome volume of Pope's Poetical Works “Purchased with money earned in the service of the state of R.I. July 1-13 1863 when the students of Brown University volunteered to guard the West Passage to Providence, and to fortify The Bonnet on Boss Neck. Brown University, Sept. 10, 1863.”—Robert H. George


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