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Peter Augustus Porter.

Colonel 129th New York Vols. (afterwards 8th New York heavy artillery), August 17, 1862; killed at cold Harbor, Va., June 3, 1864.

in how many of the students of Harvard does every favoring element seem to have combined—culture, purity, self-reliance, and courage—to give promise of high and noble achievement. One only boon of Fortune they lacked,— her last and most reluctant gift,— opportunity. At length that opportunity came: it was their death. A good Providence granted them to die, and in their death accorded them the achievement of every possibility life could have bestowed. Of such was Peter Augustus Porter, a graduate of Harvard of the Class of 1845. He died in the service of his country on the 3d of June, 1864, at the battle of Cold Harbor.

There was something impressive and noble in the circumstances of his death. . Young, gifted, happily married, and with children growing up about him, using all his powers and opportunities with a high and noble aim, Colonel Porter had endeared himself to a large circle of friends by ties of more than ordinary strength and permanence. Favored in birth, and early master of his own career, he resolved that no external advantage of position should help him to any station he had not first merited by his own labor. We all know the results he achieved; but few have followed and appreciated the conscientious labor and study, the severely simple and unostentatious life, which preceded them. His more distinguished merit, however, and higher grace consisted in his benevolence and kindness of heart, in his large and constant, though secret charities, and in his consideration and tenderness towards the poor, the suffering, and the bereaved. However attractive he may have appeared in social life, and however valued for his eminent powers, his best intellectual gifts were ever reserved [88] for the quiet hours spent with those whose relations with him were purely personal and domestic.

My first acquaintance with Colonel Porter was at the University of Heidelberg, where he appeared in my room,—a fair-haired, sunshiny youth, shadowed only by the loss of his aged and beloved father. An orphan, on the threshold of life, his career at Cambridge just terminated, with all that fortune could add to the most noble and generous natural endowments, he had left all behind him to enter on the labors of a student; and at an age when most men deem their culture achieved, he earnestly and humbly commenced anew the great task of self-education. ‘I want culture,’ he would say; ‘I want the equal development of all my faculties, the realization of the true, the good, and the beautiful; and for this I am willing to give my whole life if necessary, but I desire no results which are not based on solid and real knowledge.’ At a much later period, when time had chastened and tempered his qualities, he was still faithful to this ideal. When urged to choose a career among the many opportunities which presented themselves, he said: ‘My call has not come: I must bide my time; I can wait, but I cannot give myself, for the sake of occupation or success, to that which my heart does not tell me I am fitted for. I am conscious of the possession of all my faculties in their prime. Whatever I could have been I still could be; but I cannot choose, I must be chosen.’ The last time I saw him,— it was in command of his regiment at Fort McHenry, —I reminded him of this conversation. He smiled sweetly but sadly as he said: ‘I have done my duty as I have known it. For the two years I have been in command of my regiment, I have hardly been away from it a single day. We are thoroughly drilled for artillery and for infantry service. We are ready for duty: we are waiting for our turn.’

His mind seemed singularly old-fashioned, and even in his early youth he had all the graces and courtesies of age. ‘I am a generation before you all,’ he would say: ‘I am the son of an old man. I reach back to the war of 1812. I was born almost in the wilderness. My father rode on horseback through [89] the length of Ohio, to visit my mother in Kentucky, before his marriage. There was nothing but a bridle-path then.’

To this adherence to the elder tradition we may trace the source of those hospitalities, generous yet unostentatious, which characterized his home; and his home for all humane purposes was wherever he himself was. Rich and poor were ever received by him with equal kindness, for his nature was alike Christian and kingly. We saw in him the scion of a stately old oak, grafted on a new and vigorous stock; a gentleman of the old school gracefully adapting himself to the duties of republican life. In accordance with this element of his character was his position, partly inherited and partly adopted, on the great question of human liberty, to which he bore his testimony in humane and generous actions, down to the last great sacrifice, when he gave to it his life.

His reading was thorough and solid, and confined to the best books. He was particularly drawn to the older English classics, whose stately and sober style found a response in his own character. His studies had always a direct reference to a future American literature; and I used to cherish the idea that he was destined to take a high rank among its pioneers. He had carefully and patiently examined, with this view, all the elements of our poetry from its commencement, and, with a correctness of taste which amounted almost to an instinct, had stored his memory with its most striking passages. His own verses were carefully written, and elevated in their thought and diction; but he was coy of expression, and has left but few poems. It was in conversation, perhaps, that his rare combination of native and acquired powers showed to the greatest advantage. Gentle and wise, with a beautiful fulness of expression and illustration, and a wit that was at once considerate and unrestrained, no one was more valued and cherished than he, wherever the best elements of culture were appreciated.

He being the third of his family, in direct descent, who had borne arms in the service of our country, each of the wars which tell its history had added to the lustre of his name. His [90] grandfather, Dr. Joshua Porter, a physician in Salisbury, Connecticut, and a graduate of Yale College, was colonel of a regiment in the Revolutionary war, and took part in the battle of Saratoga. His father, Major-General Peter B. Porter, also born in Connecticut, an officer of great distinction in the war of 1812, bore a most important part in the military events on the Northern frontier, and at the battles of Lundy's Lane and the sortie from Fort Erie gained a name for courage and conduct which the historian of that period called upon his son, while yet an infant, to emulate. Later in life General Porter occupied the office of Secretary of War under John Quincy Adams.

Colonel Porter was born at Black Rock, near Buffalo, New York, on July 14, 1827. His mother was Letitia Grayson, daughter of John Breckenridge, of Kentucky, Attorney-Genearl under Jefferson, and was widely known as a person of the highest principles and benevolence. He had the misfortune to lose her when he was only four years old, her place being thenceforth supplied by the tender affection of an only sister. At the age of seventeen he lost his father, and was thus early initiated into the responsibilities of life. He entered Harvard University, in the Sophomore class, in 1842, graduating in 1845. After this, he spent several years in Europe, as a student at the Universities of Heidelberg, Berlin, and Breslau. On his return, in 1852, he married (March 30th) his cousin, Miss Mary C. Breckenridge, a lady greatly respected and beloved by all who knew her, but who was taken from him by death in the short space of two years. In 1855 he returned to Europe, spending the winter at Ems and Paris. In 1859 he married Miss Josephine M. Morris of New York,— who as his widow survives him,— and had but just entered upon that happy home-life which it was his greatest pleasure to cultivate and embellish, when the call came which was to devote him to his country.1 [91]

In 1861 he was elected a member of the Assembly of the State of New York, where he performed his duties with faithfulness and assiduity. In 1862 he tendered his services to the government, applying for authority to recruit a company of volunteers for the war. On receiving the application, Governor Morgan at once offered him the command of a regiment, if he would undertake the recruiting of it in his own senatorial district. He began immediately, and raised a fine regiment of infantry, the One Hundred and Twenty-ninth New York Volunteers, in the unprecedentedly short time of about two weeks. It was originally one thousand strong, but was subsequently changed to the Eighth New York Heavy Artillery, and its numbers increased to more than two thousand. For nearly two years he was stationed in the defences of Baltimore, the latter part of the time in command of Fort McHenry.

In May, 1864, General Grant entered upon his great campaign in Virginia. Colonel Porter had been unceasing in his applications for active service, but now seemed destined to a new disappointment, as the army moved without him. It was only in consequence of the losses of men sustained in the battles of the Wilderness that his regiment was called into the field. He had said to his officers, during the long months of waiting: ‘Some of us will die in garrison, some on the march, and others on the field of battle; yet all alike will be remembered as having died in defence of our country.’ It was on a bright Saturday afternoon, after twenty months of garrison duty, that the confidential order reached him to proceed to the front. At nine o'clock on the following morning, Sunday, May 15th, they were en route for Washington, and on Monday evening arrived by boat at Belle Plain. On the march thence to Spottsylvania Court-House, Colonel Porter was temporarily in command of a brigade. His regiment was then brigaded under General R. O. Tyler, and he resumed his own command. Daylight on the morning of May 18th found them in line of battle near Spottsylvania Court-House, on an eminence overlooking the field where the fighting was going on. At eight o'clock they had changed their position so as to find themselves [92] within range of the enemy's guns,— this being for many of them their first experience under fire.

Upon the following day an attack was made by Early's corps upon their right and rear. The Eighth New York, with several other regiments, were immediately under orders, and moved at double-quick to repel the charge. After the whole force of the enemy had been pressed far back into the woods, Colonel Porter sought out his officers, anxiously inquiring if their men had behaved well; and on being assured that their conduct had been admirable, he exclaimed with satisfaction, ‘Now I know that the Eighth will stand fire, and will not disgrace itself on the battle-field.’ Every officer and private in the regiment knew that his dearest wish was that the regiment, to the drill and discipline of which he had given the best efforts of his mind, and which he had always esteemed it an honor to command, should acquit itself creditably in the first engagement with the enemy; and they had resolved he should not be disappointed. Their loss on that day was between thirty and forty. Colonel Porter escaped unhurt, though his life was repeatedly attempted by a sharpshooter in a neighboring tree, who, when wounded and captured, boasted of the fact, saying he had been his prisoner at Fort McHenry. With a look of pity Colonel Porter directed him to be taken to the rear and kindly cared for.

At midnight on the 20th of May, the movement towards Richmond commenced; the brigade to which he belonged being attached, as heretofore, to Gibbon's division of Hancock's corps. The march was laborious, a part of each night being employed in intrenching. On the evening of May 23d they reached the North Anna, near Hanover Station, and on the next day crossed the stream under a sharp artillery fire. That night they lay upon their arms without shelter, exposed to a drenching rain; and during the long and dreary hours Colonel Porter beguiled the tedium of his officers by some of his most brilliant and humorous sallies. The following evening they recrossed the North Anna, and the whole night was spent in erecting more breastworks. The night was dark, and [93] the ground too broken to admit of moving about except on foot, and a long line of works must be erected before morning. The regiment was halted at the point where the works were to be made, when the whole line, men and officers, sank exhausted on the ground. Presently Colonel Porter came along in the dark, calling out to one of his officers, ‘I want you to take charge of this work, and it is to be completed before daylight.’ The officer, exhausted by the fatigue he had undergone, replied, ‘Colonel, I am sorry, but it is physically impossible for me to do it; I am utterly prostrated.’ His commander came close to him, saying, ‘I know you are; I wonder you have stood it so long. I am nearly exhausted myself; but remain where you are, get what rest you can, and I will see that the work is done.’ Daylight found it finished.

On the 2d of June they reached Cold Harbor, and soon after noon occupied the front line of works. Colonel Porter had such information as led him to believe that a charge would be ordered that afternoon upon the enemy's works, situated within one hundred rods of the front. He gave his officers full instructions how he wished the duty to be performed, passing frequently along the whole line, a prominent mark for the enemy's sharpshooters. At length night came on, and with it a heavy rain. Major Willett, the senior surviving officer of the regiment, writes:—

The Colonel was vigilant in guarding against surprise, and I do not think he slept at all that night. My position was on the extreme right of our line, at a large frame-and-brick house. Near by was a small evergreen, under which I took shelter from the rain. The Colonel was with me there about midnight, but soon returned to his own position near the centre of the line. He called upon me again before daylight; and we sat down on a log of wood to drink our coffee, and talk over the charge we expected to make at dawn. Suddenly the sharpshooters opposite, taking advantage of the first ray of light, opened fire upon us. With a smile, and in a cheerful tone, he spoke a few kind words, and was leaving me when he turned about, reached out his hand, and with a shade of anxiety and sorrow on his face, said, “Good by, Major!” and was gone.

In less than five minutes a staff officer came galloping up and [94] inquired for Colonel Porter. I directed him to the Colonel's quarters, and he rode on, saying we were to charge at a given signal,— the firing of a gun from a battery in our rear. The gun was fired before he had reached the Colonel. I ordered my battalion over the works, and we formed in line in front. Standing upon the parapet I looked anxiously to the left for about a minute, when I saw Colonel Porter suddenly appear upon the top of the breastwork, near the extreme left of the regiment, and immediately after the men climbing over the work. For an instant they halted and closed ranks; then as the Colonel, a few yards in advance, waved his sword, the whole line went forward at double-quick into that terrible fire, which cost the regiment, in killed and wounded, over six hundred men and twenty-three officers, including its noble and beloved commander.

Colonel Porter fell, at the head of his column, within a few rods of the enemy's rifle-pits. He was wounded in the neck. He rose once to his feet and again to his knees, rallying his men, till, pierced by six bullets, he sank to rise no more. The last words he uttered were, ‘Dress upon the colors!’ For several days he had had a strong presentiment of his approaching death. In a letter received by his family long after the battle, but written three days before, he had said, ‘I try to think and act and feel as if each day were to be my last, so as not to go unprepared to God. We must hope and pray and believe He will preserve us. But His will be done. It is selfish to wish to be saved at the expense of others.’

His body lay two days under the guns of the enemy, whose works, by one of the sad chances of civil war, were commanded by his own cousin, John C. Breckenridge, doubly related to him by blood and marriage. It was recovered on the night of the second day by the steadiness and good conduct of five men of his regiment,— Sergeant Le Roy Williams, Privates Galen S. Hicks, John Duff, Walter Harwood, and Samuel Travis. When Mr. Cozzens, in reading his memorial of Colonel Porter to the Century Club in New York City, narrated this fine act of affection,—how on a rainy night the men had crawled as near the enemy's works as they dared go together, then how one had dragged himself up to the body, [95] attached a rope to the sword-belt and drawn it out to where the survivors lay, and how they together had borne it, partly on their hands and knees, a distance of three miles to the hospital,— the Club caused medals to be struck in remembrance of the honorable deed. They are of gold, and bear this inscription, ‘A tribute from the Century for a rare act of heroic devotion in rescuing the body of Colonel Peter A. Porter from under the guns of the enemy.’ Two of them, by the chances of war, have yet to be found, to claim their memorial of gratitude. Perchance already with their beloved commander, they need no record to testify to their affection.

The family and friends of Colonel Porter owed an equal debt of gratitude to the devoted and faithful services of his attached servant, John Huney, who had been taken many years before as a child into his family, and had followed him with romantic affection into the field. It was owing to his unremitting efforts that the privilege was accorded them of uniting his remains with those of his ancestors. ‘If he had been my brother,’ he said, ‘I would have buried him at White House; but I promised you to bring him back, if he were wounded or dead.’

The sentiment of personal attachment which these actions indicate was earnest and sincere in his regiment, and had grown out of the careful and just consideration he always showed his men, and from his observance of the golden rule, by which he consistently strove to direct his every action,— to do to others as he would, in like circumstances, have had them do to him. This was beautifully shown in his letter declining a nomination of Secretary of State for New York. ‘I left home,’ he wrote, ‘in command of a regiment composed mainly of the sons of friends and neighbors committed to my care. I can hardly ask for my discharge while theirs cannot be granted; and I have a strong desire, if alive, to carry back those whom the chances of time and war shall permit to be present, and to account in person for all.’

In his will he left the following record of his upright and modest adherence to duty: ‘I, Peter Augustus Porter, being [96] of sound mind, do declare this to be my last will and testament; feeling, to its full extent, the probability that I may not return from the path of duty on which I have entered. If it please God that it be so, I can say, with truth, that I have entered on the course of danger with no ambitious aspirations, nor with the idea that I am fitted, by nature or experience, to be of any important service to the government; but in obedience to the call of duty, demanding every citizen to contribute what he could, in means, labor, or life, to sustain the government of his country,— a sacrifice made the more willingly by me, when I consider how singularly benefited I have been by the institutions of the land, and that, up to this time, all the blessings of life have been showered upon me beyond what usually falls to the lot of man.’

His body, placed in a rude coffin and enveloped in his country's flag, was buried in Oakwood Cemetery at Niagara, near the Episcopal Church which his family had built, and where, by faith and choice, he had long and lovingly worshipped. The solemn dirge of the great cataract, so dear to him in life, sounds forever above his grave. And it seems to those who knew and loved him, that he wrote his own best elegy in the beautiful lines which he composed in Europe, long years before, on hearing of the death of his classmate and friend, George Emerson.

I met our friends upon a foreign shore,
     And asked of thee; they told me thou wert dead!
My lips repeat, “He is no more,— no more” ;
     'T was all I said.

Yet sank my spirit in me, and there went
     A strange confusion o'er my saddened brow,
I could not pierce God's infinite intent;
     I cannot now.

I only know that He who in thy birth
     Had shadowed forth Himself, though faint and dim,
Decreed how long thou shouldst remain on earth,
     How long with Him.

[97] And now there comes that phantom of the past,
     Rousing my soul with its elastic prime:
I see thee still as when I saw thee last,—--
     In that glad time,—

Radiant in beauty of the form and mind,
     And young renown of academic strife,
Joy lay around, a stainless life behind,
     Before thee, life;

A high-priest standing in the temple's space
     Ere yet the sacrificial rites begin,
A giant waiting for the glorious race
     He is to win.

We thought eternal tablets would record
     Thy name with theirs who, since the world began,
With an immortal strength, and toil and word,
     Have wrought for man.

We thought—alas! what thought we not of good,
     Of all that hope or promise e'er begat;
Of all save early doom—O friend! how could
     We think of that?

We could not see the shadows close thee round;
     We could not know prophetic cypress shed
Funereal perfume for the wreath that bound
     “So dear a head.”

We could not think the light that from afar
     We deemed prelusive of the coming sun
Was but the parting radiance of his car,
     When day is done.

But now I know too well a light's withdrawn
     That made this gloomy earth for me more fair;
A perfume's fled and gentle influence gone
     That soothed my care.

And yet not wholly gone: through life's sad vale
     Thy soul—now prompting to resemble thee,
And now in sad monition when I fail—
     Shall walk with me.

[98] With me? O yes! but not with me alone;
     For in the fair companionship of youth,
Others than I have fondly felt and known
     Thy love and truth;

Have drunk at learning's fount with thee, and seen
     How Doubt's dark depths and Thought's wild surge above
Thy mild-eyed faith, so pure and so serene,
     Soared like a dove.

Enough: what might have been is not; no more
     Shall I return thy grasp, and seek thy glance:
Perchance we meet on heaven's eternal shore;
     Alas! perchance!

1 Colonel Porter left three children; namely, Peter Augustus, born in September, 1855; Letitia Elizabeth, born February, 1861, died October, 1864; George Morris, born July, 1863.

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