Civil War Amherst Walking Tour
The Civil War Amherst Walking Tour highlights several sites in the town that reveal what daily life was like in Amherst during the Civil War. The map on the homepage provides an overview of the route and a portal to access the content associated with each individual site. Seven sites make up the tour: the old Amherst Academy, the First Baptist Church, Amherst College, the Emily Dickinson House, West Cemetery, the old Bee Hive Tenement House, and the Town Hall.
Both a desktop and a mobile version of the site are available. The desktop version of this website contains additional contextual information about each site as well as audio content (in MP3 format) and the accompanying script. While out walking the tour, we recommend utilizing the mobile version. This will allow you to access the map, text, and audio while out walking the tour in Amherst. In both versions, the text complements the audio by providing even more information about the specific sites.
As you explore the Civil War history of Amherst, take notice of the rich primary source materials that informed the tour. The Jones Library, across the street from the old Amherst Academy (Stop 1), contains a wealth of information about the town of Amherst throughout its history with many valuable sources about the Civil War era, including letters, diaries, newspapers, maps, and images among other resources. Like the rest of the nation, Amherst responded to the Civil War by sending men to fight in several regiments, including the 54th Regiment which was one of the first black regiments. Many citizens cared deeply about the war, and some who tried to avoid dealing with the conflict were unable to do so. However, as the tour highlights, life in the small town continued despite the raging conflict. Citizens of Amherst grieved as a community at wartime losses, but also maintained regular habits and social relationships. We hope that you enjoy learning about life in Amherst during the Civil War.
The Civil War Amherst Walking Tour is a collaboration between the Special Collections staff at the Jones Library and the Public History program at the University of Massachusetts, particularly Jon Olsen's graduate course on Digital History. Contributors to this project were Tevis Kimball, Kate Boyle, Jon Olsen, Jaimie Kicklighter, Patrick Condon, Janiece Blckmon, and Tom Hohenstein.
The corner of Amity Street and North Pleasant Street, where the Bank of America stands today, was once the location of the Amherst House hotel. This prominent downtown landmark not only housed guests visiting Amherst, but also served as a focal point for civic life. Public meetings of all kinds took place there, including those of a political nature. Next to the Amherst House, where today there is a municipal parking lot for visitors to downtown Amherst, stood Amherst Academy, a secondary school which later grew into Amherst College, and which educated many local young men. These two buildings and the surrounding businesses constituted the heart of civic life in Amherst.
As election day approached in 1860 residents of Amherst understood that a great deal would hinge upon the outcome of the contest. As the Hampshire Franklin Express, the town's weekly newspaper put it, "a spirit of anxiety as to the result began to manifest itself among our usually staid and sober people." The divisive and thorny issue of slavery had shouldered almost all others in national politics to the side. In Amherst, as was the case throughout the North, support for the abolition of slavery was a minority position. But the people did strongly support the Free Soil position taken by Lincoln and the Republican party, which vigorously opposed the spread of slavery outside the South, especially into the new states that would be formed from the Western territories. Lincoln was especially popular in Western Massachusetts, and that Tuesday 79% of Amherst voters cast their ballots for the Republican candidate.
In 1860 the telegraph was a new and uncommon technology, and no national news services existed to spread news of the outcome of the election. So anticipated were the results by some Amherst citizens that the day after the election a party of young men rode to the nearest telegraph station, across the Connecticut River in Northampton, to await word. It arrived at 1 AM: Lincoln had won, and would become the President of the United States. The news galloped back to Amherst in the dead of the night, and soon the town was awakened in celebration. The newspaper reported about that night "the bells of both church and chapel, soon united their voices with the living throng, and awoke the echoes of the silent hills. Soon the big gun was brought forth, and boomed out its satisfaction, at the triumph of right over wrong - justice over oppression - truth over error."
The jubilation felt in Amherst was not universal. The election of Abraham Lincoln prompted a series of events that led to the bloodiest war in US history. Southern states, fearing that slavery would not be allowed to spread into the vast American west, and mistrusting Lincoln's assurances that he would take no action against slavery where it already existed, began, one-by-one, to secede from the Union. By the time Lincoln took office on March 4th, 1861 seven states had broken away. Little more than a month after that, on April 12th, the Civil War would begin with the shelling of Fort Sumter, in Charlestown, South Carolina. With conflict now inevitable four more slave states joined the new Confederate States of America, and President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to help suppress the rebellion. The Civil War would eventually claim approximately 750,000 lives and devastate uncounted farms and cities.
Yet on that fall night in 1860, when the town center rang with the sound of celebration, all of that lay in the future. The election itself seemed the culmination of a hard-won victory. In that air of exuberance it was possible for a local writer to declare that "we expect now to see peace and prosperity restored to a country which has for the last eight years been almost on the brink of Civil War." Sadly the optimism of the local people was to be disappointed by events; the nation, and Amherst, would not know peace again for years to come.
The building before you, now owned by Amherst College and converted for secular purposes, was the town's Baptist church at the time of the Civil War.
In the period leading up to the war Western Massachusetts was one of the most vibrantly Abolitionist regions in the country. While never a completely mainstream movement, many in Amherst were comfortable with the goal of ending slavery itself, rather than simply containing it. Nearby Amherst College was a training ground for many young Abolitionist activists, including Henry Ward Beecher and Robert Purvis. But the Abolition movement was not so much academic as it was religious.
Worship remained a central organizing force in social life in Amherst in the 1860s. The town's ministers were among its most prominent citizens, and they were deeply involved in the town's efforts to support the Union soldiers, calling for the contribution of blankets and other comforts to be sent to the front, and even, in one case, hosting a gathering at home that brought local women together for the purpose of knitting socks to be sent to the front. But, more dramatically, it was the ability of local clergy to influence public opinion from the pulpit that had important consequences during the Civil War period.
On September 26th, 1861 Reverend William Stearns, who was serving as the President of Amherst College, delivered a sermon at the nearby Village Church on what he called the "Necessities of the War." His audience contained the students and faculty of Amherst College, as well as the congregations of the various churches in town, who gathered together for the occasion. Hope for a swift victory and a restoration of order had been dashed two months previously, with the bloody defeat of Union forces at Bull Run, in the first major battle of the war. Reverend Stearns words were a call for perseverance in what he called a "lawful war," and he warned that Confederate victory "human slavery would be tolerated, extended, perpetuated, admired in the land."
Yet the moral crusade that Reverend Stearns described was not simply a mission to bring justice into the Southern states. He said also that the North had sinned, and that God had ordained that the North should atone for these sins in sacrifice and war. If slavery was the great injustice to be corrected, Stearns reminded his audience that the North had also profited from the institution. "We condemn southern manners and institutions," he said, but pointed out that "the black ships which have cleaved the main, freighted with groans, have been northern vessels, manned by northern seamen.. . For all these sins and many more, the judgements of heaven have come upon us, and let us confess it. We have deserved war, deserved to be involved in complications which made war a necessity. I know not that God could have been an impartial governor of the nations, and not sent this judgement upon us."
In the 1860s, much as today, life in Amherst was shaped by its institutions of higher education. The students and faculty of Amherst College were well known around the town, and played important roles in Amherst's involvement in the Civil War.
Early in the war, on April 21, 1861, Professor of Greek William Seymour Tyler preached a rousing sermon in the chapel of the college. One hundred students gave their names to enlist immediately afterwards, but all had to be refused because the governor could not give them the equipment they needed. Later in the year, men of Amherst and the surrounding area joined the 21st and 27th regiments of the Massachusetts Volunteers.
Among those students eager to join the growing Union army was the son of the College President, Frazar Stearns. Stearns, who was widely admired in Amherst and was a close friend of Emily Dickinson's brother Austin, joined the 21st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment as a 1st Lieutenant in August 1861. Much to the comfort of his father, Frazar was joined in this regiment by Amherst College Professor of Chemistry William Smith Clark. Doctor Clark, soon to be Major Clark, was an influential figure in Frazar's academic life; after studying under Clark, Frazar expressed a desire to become a chemist, contrary to his father's wishes that he enter the ministry. William Clark would also leave his mark on Amherst as a whole; after the war he served as President of Massachusetts Agricultural College. During his tenure the young institution hired its first faculty and enrolled its first students. Mass Aggie, as it was commonly known, was later expanded and renamed, and lives on today as the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
The 21st Massachusetts would join in the fighting at some of the most pivotal battles of the Civil War, including Antietam, Fredericksburg, and the Battle of the Wilderness. Over the course of the war the size of the regiment steadily declined from nearly 1000 men to around 200, due to illness, injuries, and deaths. In August of 1864 it was consolidated into the 36th Massachusetts Infantry. Sadly, Frazar Stearns was among the first men that the 21st lost. Lt. Stearns was killed on March 14th 1862 at Newbern, North Carolina while leading a charge against a battery of Confederate cannon. The 21st, now led by the recently promoted Lt. Colonel Clark, captured the guns despite heavy casualties. By order of General Ambrose Burnside, the commander of the division to which the 21st was attached, the first cannon taken was sent to Amherst College as a memorial to young Frazar Stearns.
The Stearns family received Frazar's last letter on the 18th of March. He sent it in the care of a wounded Private of his Regiment, whom he begged they would treat as if he were their own returning son. He explained that the Regiment was on the move, writing: "We are going to-morrow morning at daylight somewhere, -- where, exactly, I don't know. If Newbern, we shall probably meet with resistance [. . .] My health is very good, and I am taking care to keep it so. God only knows what a day may bring forth. He only can tell what may happen to me on the morrow; but remember that any hour or any moment may bring you news that I am killed or dangerously wounded. If either, then God's will be done; and I hope I may always be prepared for any issue."
Frazar Stearns' warning was soon borne out; news of his death reached Amherst only the next evening. George Tyler received word by telegram, and had the sad duty to inform Frazar's family. The local newspaper recorded that "Professor Tyler communicated the event to his bereaved parents, who at once had their fond hopes of his future honor and usefulness extinguished. Although coming with such suddenness they bore it with Christian resignation -- feeling that they had entrusted him in the hands of the almighty, 'who does all things well.'" Stearns's death left a profound impact on the community. Emily Dickinson, in particular, expressed her sadness at losing young Stearns.
Emily Dickinson, often known as the "Belle of Amherst" is famous as an important poet. She composed her many poems while living here, near the center of Amherst, and was especially productive during the years of the Civil War. Editors estimate that her famous poem "Because I could not stop for death" was written in the middle of the conflict, sometime in 1863. Several of her works were also published in the Springfield Republican at this time. She was greatly affected by news of the death of local soldiers, but also sent letters of sympathy on several occasions in response to local deaths that seem to have touched her just as deeply.
Dickinson tried to avoid any involvement in the war effort, refusing to participate in activities to benefit the troops or to show support for one side or the other. Despite her efforts to avoid the conflict, Dickinson's letters contain references to casualties, updates on Amherst men away at war, and mentions of visits between enlisted men and their families. The death of Frazar Stearns (son of Amherst College's President Stearns) affected her deeply. Stearns and Austin, Emily's brother, had been childhood friends. She reflected on "this young crusader- too brave that he could fear to die" in a letter written immediately after she learned of his death. Even years later, Stearns's death still affected her. She noted that church bells were dedicated to him in 1871 and still fondly remembered him in a letter at this time, six years after the war's end.
Dickinson's life in Amherst during the Civil War illustrates the tensions experienced by many families and communities throughout the war years. Like many other families, the Dickinsons had relatives fighting on both sides of the conflict. Most of the family lived in the north, but Emily had an uncle (her father's brother) who had settled in the south and fought for the Confederacy. Because the Dickinsons were a fairly wealthy family, Emily's brother Austin was able to pay a fee and hire a substitute to avoid fighting. The hiring of substitutes tended to further divide wealthy and poor groups and often led to tense relationships within communities. Situations such as these affected many towns and families during the Civil War, and were not absent from Amherst.
Although life went on for Emily and other Amherst residents, she mentions a "general feeling of sorrow" pervading the atmosphere, probably sometime in or around 1864. After the war the tone of her letters seems to lighten. The famous legend of Confederate President Jefferson Davis's supposed capture in women's clothing (disproven since the end of the Civil War) made its way to Amherst and received a mention in one of Dickinson's letters. Even as she worked on her poetry and lived her daily life, Dickinson was an integral part of the Amherst community. She stayed in contact with friends and family and wrote many poems, but also shared in Amherst's sorrow at losing community members in battle.
Bart's Ice Cream's current location was, in 1860, the "Bee Hive" tenement house. Tenement housing is the 19th-century term for a dedicated rental property. Constructed from a wing of the defunct Mount Pleasant Classical Institute, the Bee Hive housed lower-income families and African Americans during the Civil War. In 1860 it was reported that "Messrs. Cook and Conkey" procured a "property known as the Bee Hive" with the "intention of making improvements - for which there is a large margin."
A number of small events concerning the Bee Hive were reported during the war years. In January of 1863 the "quiet of our village was disturbed" by a fire from "that elegant structure known as the Bee Hive." The fire was extinguished with the "vigorous application of water" and no loss of life or property was reported. However, the reports continuously sarcastic tone towards the Bee Hive, indicate that its presence was not all that welcome in town.
In 1864 a more serious event occurred at the Bee Hive as "one case of Small Pox made its appearance." The smallpox scare was curiously reported. A resident of the "Hive" was "in the camp at Readville for the past fortnight, arrived in town on Saturday eve, and on Sunday it was discovered that she was too ‘a victim.' She must have known that she had been exposed and never should have been allowed to return." "The Selectman have fitted up a barn, owned by A.P. Howe, between Amherst and Hadley as a Hospital, and on Sunday night the whole ‘swarm' was moved there. The ‘Hive is at present unoccupied, an occurrence unknown for many years." The reporters disdain for the Bee Hive, its residents, and the potential for smallpox to spread was shared enough in town that "an attempt was made to fire the ‘Bee Hive,'" however, the fire "was discovered in season, and extinguished."
As the denigrating tone taken towards the "Bee Hive" suggests, and the attempted arson perpetrated there confirms, black residents of Amherst were not seen as social equals by the local white populace at large. Whatever their feelings on slavery as an institution, it was rare for even northerners to think of blacks as equals. In education, for example, the black community did not enjoy the opportunities available to white residents. Only in May of 1864 did the Amherst Academy open its doors to black citizens seeking an education. Even still, black students were welcome only in special evening classes. School committees offered favorable evaluations of educational progress in Amherst and urged parents to support their children's education on several occasions during the war. Clearly, however, the bulk of their attention remained directed toward the white community while only half-heartedly addressing the needs of black citizens, as the Amherst Academy example demonstrates.
By 1865, on the same day it was reported that "foxes are killing poultry in Connecticut" and the Lincoln assassination conspirators were hanged in Washington D.C., Cook and Conkey sold the Bee Hive to Mr. Hitchcock. The contract stipulated that the Bee Hive was "to be demolished within two weeks." Within two weeks the "old ‘Bee Hive' yielded to pressure of circumstances" and "came down. Only a pile debris marks the spot where once it proudly reared its walls. The melodious sounds which oftimes filled the midnight air no longer hover over it and busy feet no longer tread the massy dancy through its spacious halls. All is peace and quietness."
The "Bee Hive's" place in Amherst during the Civil War appears contentious. Perhaps it was unacknowledged racial tensions against the Bee Hive's African-American tenants, or certain level of class snobbery against the "swarm" of lower income residents in town that made some residents uncomfortable with the tenement building. Whatever the underlying cause, a tenant's arrival with smallpox in 1864 made the Bee Hive's presence in Amherst untenable and resulted in its destruction.
Wealthier citizens of Amherst had the option to pay for a substitute to fight in their place. Without this possibility, the death list might have looked quite different. Following one of the wartime drafts, the Hampshire-Franklin Express reported "Horatio Joy, drafted from Amherst, presented himself a substitute, an unbleached contraband, from the Sunny South, who was speedily transformed into a United States soldier, and now wears a "suit of blue" and thinks himself "just as good as white folks."" Even Emily Dickinson's brother Austin furnished a substitute, and some speculate that his choice not to fight was one of the reasons why Frazar Stearns's death upset him so much. Paying to avoid military service became a big issue. Some citizens sought clarification for the rules: would one payment exempt a man from a particular draft or for all future drafts as well? This practice meant that ultimately more lower class men are among the buried dead.
The West Cemetery is the resting place of many Soldiers from Amherst that fought in the Civil War. Civil War veteran graves are marked with a U.S. flag with "G.A.R" star attached to it. According James A. Smith's compilation of graves in the West Cemetery, the following Civil War veterans are buried here:
- John W. Howland - 1st Mass Cav.
- John D. Thompson - 1st Mass Cav. Colored
- Unkown Soldiers - 5th Mass Cav. One is believed to be Jason Champlin - a substitute for Hiram Smith of Amherst. Killed in action on Feb. 20, 1864 at Olvstee Florida.
- Jarris Jackson - Bravo Company, 5th Mass Cav.
- Sanford Jackson - Alpha Company, 5th Mass Cav. - Died of wounds received at Fort Wagner, South Carolina
- Henry Thompson - 5th Mass Cav.
- Charles H. Thompson - Echo Company, 5th Mass Cav.
- Edward Stanley - Charlie Company, 10th Mass Vol. Inf. - died at Harrisons Landing
- "Eben" E.M. Johnson - Charlie Company, 10th Mass Vol. Inf. Lorenzo P. Draper - Charlie Company, 10th Mass Vol. Inf.
- George L. Train - Delta Company, 11 Mass Vol. Inf.
- George O. Fitch - Hotel Company -15th Mass Vol. Inf.- died from wounds received at the battle of White Oak Swamp on Oct. 7 1862.
- Edwin J. Fisk - Bravo Company - 16th Mass Vol. Inf.
- Lafayette C. Stebbins - Kilo Company - 26th Mass Vol. Inf.
- Lyman W. Skinner - 27th Mass Vol. Inf.
- Ezra Kelsey - 27th Mass Vol. Inf. - Died of ill-treatment while a prisoner at Andersonville, GA
- Marshall A. Cowles - 27th Mass Vol. Inf.
- Timothy W. Sloan - Delta Company, 27th Mass Vol. Inf.
- Ashley W. Barrows - Delta Company, 27th Mass Vol. Inf.
- Spencer Church Jr - Hotel Company, 32nd Mass Vol. Inf. Wounded in the battle of the Wilderness, returned, and died from disease contracted in the Army on Oct., 27, 1865. "His toils are past, his work is done, and he is fully blest, he sought his light, the victory won, and entered into rest."
- Willard S. Cook - Foxtrot Company, 37th Mass Vol. Inf.
- Benjamin R. Franklin - Foxtrot Company, 37th Mass Vol. Inf.
- Charles C. Smith - 52nd Mass Vol. Inf.
- Samuel H Crandell - Foxtrot Company, 52nd Mass Vol. Inf. "Sleep loved one, thy sufferings are o'er."
- Charles A. Finnemore - Charlie Company, 54th Mass Vol. Inf.
- Samuel White - 5th Wisc. Vols - Died at Fredericksburg, VA of wounds received in battle May 20, 1864
- Also resting here is William S. Clark
In 1893, the E.M. Stanton Post 147 of the Grand Army of the Republic donated six Civil War tablets to Amherst. These tablets commemorate the dead and list every person from the town of Amherst who served in the war for a total of over three hundred individuals. The tablets are symbolically important, but a list of names only tells part of the story of Amherst during the Civil War. Many men, including African-Americans who could only recently join regiments, fought in the war. All of these men left families behind. Some even halted their education at Amherst College to participate in the war effort. Unfortunately, many men like Frazar Stearns did not make it home to Amherst alive. The small, tight-knit town mourned these deaths together. Stearns's death, for example, affected prominent families in town like the Dickinsons as well as the center for education in the town, Amherst College. Certainly, Amherst suffered greatly as a result of the war.
In spite of the major impact of the war, life in Amherst continued. Students remained at Amherst College, committed to their education along with their newly required military drills. Emily Dickinson composed poetry prolifically during the war years and continued to correspond with family and friends. At the Bee Hive, black residents of Amherst continued to enjoy fewer privileges than their white neighbors. However, some black citizens contributed to the war (a few joined the prestigious 54th Regiment) and others took advantage of the (still limited) educational opportunity to study at Amherst Academy in the evenings. Life went on, but it changed as a result of the conflict and the loss of the Civil War dead buried in West Cemetery and commemorated on the tablets formerly housed here in the Town Hall.
Although these tablets were displayed in the Town Hall for many years, they were removed in 1997 and placed in storage. Some citizens wish that a suitable location could be found to keep these tablets on display, but unfortunately no such site has yet been identified. Even today, the legacy of the Civil War is still a large topic for the Town of Amherst.