When Rutgers graduate George McNeel gave his commencement address to his fellow members of the Class of 1860, the native Texan broke out dancing the “Lonestar two-step” to entertain the crowd.
In 1860, all 28 members of the graduating class were required to give commencement addresses. McNeel’s classmate Josiah Brown, a local graduate from Newark, stuck with a more traditional speech and wrote in his friend’s yearbook – wishing McNeel safe travels home after their years of fun at “Old Rutgers.”
Four years later, Brown was in a Confederate prison camp and McNeel was dead.
Brown and McNeel, who fought on opposite sides of the Civil War, are among thousands of Rutgers graduates who have served – and sometimes died – in American military conflicts throughout the university’s nearly 250-year history. Civil War soldiers often found themselves fighting against friends, family members and even fellow alumni.
“Union and Confederate troops would exchange food and smokes and news, sometimes even play a baseball game, then go back to killing one another,” said Louis Masur, a professor of American studies and history in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, who has written extensively about the Civil War. “It truly was a fratricidal war in which literal brothers went to battle against one another, and yet except for being on opposite sides, retained affection.”
The war did not officially begin until months after the Class of 1860 graduated, but there were already many references to the divisions building in the country in McNeel’s yearbook, which wasacquired by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. In 2010, Smithsonian in Your Classroom devoted an issue to the Class or 1860, which included inscriptions from McNeel's yearbook and parts of a memoir written by Brown many years after the war. The yearbook and the memoir provide a vivid picture of the complex issues that separated the nation.
Rutgers classmate David Williamson – who later fought for the North and died of wounds sustained at Antietam – wrote to McNeel: “That you may live to see all abolitionists turned to dust and the ‘Union’ saved.”
Added fellow Rutgers classmate William B. Voorhees from Hunterdon County: “Tell your friends and neighbors that from your certain knowledge there is a great, conservative, Union-loving people at the North, that they look upon our country as one country, and never will consent to its dissolution.”After graduation, McNeel married a northerner from Brooklyn in 1861, but he and his wife soon returned to his native Texas, home of the sprawling sugar and cotton plantation south of Houston where he had grown up and where his family owned 176 slaves.
He joined the Confederate 8th Texas Calvary and rose to the rank of major. After surviving the Battle of Shiloh and many other fights, McNeel was shot dead near Alexandria, Louisiana, in May of 1864 at the age of 26. His death was one of an estimated 620,000 military fatalities from the war.
“It was a circumstance which I noticed frequently during the war that we were brought so suddenly into an engagement that very little time was allowed for reflection,” Brown later wrote in his memoir. “Perhaps there was something providential in this considering the natural shrinking even the bravest must feel in the presence of danger and death.”
Brown watched his cousin fatally shot in the head. Later, assigned to take up a sentinel’s post between the lines, he accidentally touched a “clammy hand that protruded from the grave of some friend or foe.” But he also saw the fighting come to a halt for an hour-long truce.
“Officers and men from the two sides mingled freely and conversed together,” he wrote. “Newspapers were exchanged. It seemed strange enough. At the expiration of the hour, men fell back into their positions again and the brief season of calm was succeeded by the sights and sounds of war.”
During their time at Rutgers, the two young men could have had no idea what the coming years would hold for them or the nation.
“May you as you return to your southern home ‘live in hearts that you leave behind,’” Brown wrote to McNeel. “And may I hope that in the secret alcoves of your memory’s studio one name may find a cherished place, that of your sincere friend and classmate Josiah Brown.”