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The Case of the Gallant Professor

August 17, 1878


Knowing my interest in African American soldiers in the Civil War, a friend handed me a copy of a newspaper clipping from the Hampshire Gazette, dated 25 August 1863: “Belchertown — Prof. F. W. Bardwell, formerly of Antioch College, a native of Belchertown where he is well-known, has been commissioned as major of the 3rd U. S. colored regiment, raised in Philadelphia, and now on duty at Morris Island, near Charleston. He has before been in the service as second in command of an Ohio battery.” With this item began the investigation into the life and career of an interesting native son.

Frederick William Bardwell may have been “well-known” to Belchertown residents in 1863, but he is nearly non-existent in our archival memory today. The only items found in the extensive collection at the Stone House Museum were a small booklet entitled “An Essay on Methods of Arithmetical Instruction,” authored by Prof. Bardwell, and published in 1878, the year of his death, and this excerpt from the Belchertown Sentinel from 23 September 1927:

“Col. Frederick W. Bardwell was born in Belchertown, 1832 in the Bardwell Homestead at Bardwell Hollow and who was fitted for college under the instruction of the then well known sage and philosopher of Dark Corner, the late Ozias Norcross. He entered the junior class at Harvard University and was graduated in 1856. He was professor of mathematics at Antioch College, Ohio, until the breaking out of the Civil War. He enlisted in General Grant’s regiment, the 10th Ohio. He served through the war and was discharged with the rank of colonel.

He was connected with the government observatory at Washington, D.C. for a number of years prior to accepting the professorship of mathematics and astronomy at Kansas University, Lawrence, Kansas, where he died in 1878. He published a text book on arithmetic, a copy of which is in the Stone House library, and various papers and pamphlets mainly concerned with research in astronomy.”

That this short biography neglects to mention his service as a white officer of the “colored” troops is not surprising and it makes evident the collective amnesia the nation suffered about the service of its black soldiers, or anyone connected with them. Fortunately, with the advent of the information age, there is much more to be discovered about Prof. Bardwell and the 3rd United States Colored Infantry Regiment.

The 3rd U.S.C.T. was comprised mainly of Pennsylvanians and was organized in August of 1863 at Camp William Penn outside of Philadelphia, a new facility established to train the African American soldiers who were volunteering in great numbers across the north. The new camp enabled the Army to keep the black troops segregated from the others. After only a few weeks of training, the 3rd U.S.C.T. was the first regiment to “graduate” from Camp William Penn, but because of a mixed political sentiment regarding the recruitment of black troops, they were not afforded the honor of parading down Broad Street in Philadelphia as other units traditionally had done. The regiment was assigned to Morris Island near Charleston, South Carolina where their first engagement was at the siege at Battery Wagner, the action depicted in the movie “Glory” and which memorialized another black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts.

Later, near the end of the war, while stationed at Jacksonville, Florida, a company of thirty men, led by Sgt. Major Henry James and the soldiers of the 3rd U.S.C.T., conducted a daring raid 100 miles into enemy territory to destroy a distillery, burn a bridge, capture wagons and horses. In spite of encountering units of Confederate cavalry, they fought their way back to camp with their supplies, four prisoners, and 91 Negroes rescued from slavery. For this action, planned, executed, and led by African Americans, the men received a special commendation.

Sgt. Major James, a non-commissioned officer, was a black man, but typically the commissioned officers commanding the “colored” units were white men. The 3rd regiment was commanded by Colonel Benjamin Chew Tilghman, a native Philadelphian, who had been severely wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville, and who would finish the war as a Brigadier General. The college-educated Tilghman had studied law, but never practiced and, after the war, he invented the process of sandblasting and held several patents for his equipment designs.
The units’ second in command was Ulysses Freeman Doubleday from Auburn, New York. He was the younger brother of Abner Doubleday, who as captain at Fort Sumter, fired the first shots in defense of the Union and who achieved a greater, if more dubious, fame for his false claim to having invented baseball. Next in the chain of command was Major Frederick William Bardwell.

When the war erupted, Professor Bardwell had been teaching Mathematics, Astronomy, and Engineering at Antioch College in Ohio. While there, Bardwell came under the guidance of educator and abolitionist Horace Mann, who was the president of Antioch until his death in 1859. A “History of Greene County” relates that early in the college’s history several students from a local black family applied for admission to the college. The president of the trustees sent a letter to Mann forbidding him to enroll the students. “His answer was that he would never consent to being connected with an institution from which any person of requisite qualifications was excluded on grounds of color, sex, physical deformity, or anything for which such person was not morally responsible. In this he was sustained by his colleagues.” From that point on, Antioch, along with Oberlin College, was a pioneer in the higher education of African Americans.

Bardwell enlisted in the army on 17 April 1861, five days after the Civil War began. Twelve days later, he was mustered into Ohio’s 2nd infantry unit as a private. Seven months after that, he was recommended for, and was accepted for, a promotion to 2nd Lieutenant in the 10th Light Artillery Battery attached to the 74th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. (The earlier reference to General Grant’s unit, seems doubtful.) This unit saw action in the Battle of Corinth, Mississippi. After two years’ service, Bardwell re-enlisted, this time accepting a commission as a Major in the 3rd U.S.C.T. By the time he mustered out after the war’s end, he was a full Colonel and in command of the unit.

After the war, Bardwell became involved in the United States Naval Observatory. The Observatory was established in 1830 as the Depot of Charts and Instruments and was primarily charged with the care of the navy’s charts, chronometers, and other navigational equipment. In 1844, it was expanded and renamed the U.S. Naval Observatory and it took up residence in the Foggy Bottom section of Washington, D.C. The Observatory studied such phenomena as the speed of light, solar eclipses, and the transit of Venus. Bardwell worked on the Nautical Almanac, one of several almanac projects that had begun in 1855. Today, the U.S. Naval Observatory is most widely known as the home of the “atomic clock” that is the authority for time standards in the U.S.

In September 1869, Professor Bardwell joined the faculty of the University of Kansas, a young and growing institution located in the city of Lawrence. He was brought in to teach Mathematics and Astronomy, but within a few years was teaching Civil Engineering, as well. By joining the University of Kansas, he undoubtedly re-established contact with Dr. and Mrs. Charles Robinson, who he would have known as a young man in Belchertown. Dr. Robinson left Belchertown for the gold fields of California in 1849 and went on to help establish Kansas as a “free” state, ultimately becoming its last territorial governor and its first governor under statehood. Bardwell would have been about seventeen when Dr. Robinson left Belchertown. By the time Bardwell arrived in Lawrence, the former governor Robinson was a benefactor of the University and president of its Board of Regents. He and his wife, Sara T. D. Robinson, had both made real estate transactions that enhanced the University and allowed for the expansion of its campus.

Like his former commanding officer, Professor Bardwell exhibited an inventive quality, obtaining patents on several inventions; among them a ship’s propeller which he claimed would reduce the transatlantic crossing by two days. This invention was never perfected because of Bardwell’s untimely death.

In June of 1878, the Regents provided for a scientific expedition to Colorado to observe a total solar eclipse. Professor Bardwell was among the team assembled for this journey, even though he had been in poor health. During the trip, his illness worsened and he abandoned the endeavor, returning early to Kansas. He died shortly thereafter, on August 17, at age 46. He left a widow, Viola, and one daughter, Edith B.

His funeral was a large affair and his obituary in the Kansas Daily Tribune said this: “He was affable, courteous and in every way a thorough gentleman. Ever ready to assist those in trouble, he often did so at great inconvenience to himself. As a teacher he had no superiors. He was already attaining a high rank in his profession, having made several valuable scientific discoveries and having published an Arithmetic that has been endorsed by the leading educators in the country. That a man so talented should be cut down in the prime of life, when the world was just beginning to give him his due, is one of those mysteries that must forever remain unanswered…”

While Professor Bardwell’s accomplishments and ideals nearly slipped from our memory, they have been rejuvenated with the help of the staff of the Antioch College library and that small item from the Hampshire Gazette from 1863.

By Cliff McCarthy
Belchertown (Massachusetts) Historical Association

If you have a local history mystery, contact the Belchertown Historical Association at 413-323-6573. For a small donation, the Association will research your question.