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.’” [HFE, 3/21/1862] Stearns’s death left a profound impact on the community. Emily Dickinson, in particular, expressed her sadness at losing young Stearns.