Behind the Lines: Holy Cross and the Civil War

By Elizabeth Walker


"God grant that this unhappy war may soon terminate, but from present
indications it is only commencing."

            From the diary of Civil War chaplain Rev. Joseph O'Hagan, S.J., Feb. 19, 1863 (below)

Edward Scott '(18)47, Frank Armstrong '(18)47 and Rev. Joseph O'Hagan, S.J., are just a few of the names that connect Holy Cross to the Civil War. Scott  headed south years after leaving The Hill to join the Confederacy. Armstrong was the only high-ranking officer to serve on both sides during the Civil War. In 1861, he fought at Bull Run as a captain in the Union Army. He soon resigned his commission to become a Confederate brigadier general. Fr. O'Hagan served as a chaplain in the Union Army in 1863, a decade before he was named the eighth president of the College of the Holy Cross.

Even 1,000 miles and 150 years from the start of the Civil War at Fort Sumter, S.C., Holy Cross has had strong ties to the war. More than two dozen alumni, former students and Jesuits served in the Union and Confederate armies. Many of their compelling stories, personal effects and other Civil War-era artifacts are preserved on campus by Mark Savolis '77, head of archives and special collections, and his staff. When it comes to the Civil War, his professional and personal interests overlap. His first trip to the battlefields at Gettysburg nearly five decades ago spurred him to become the passionate, but discriminating, Civil War collector he is today.

"In August 1962, we took a typical family vacation to Pennsylvania to see the Liberty Bell, Amish Country and Gettysburg," Savolis says. "My dad was a coin and stamp collector, so he got me interested in collecting objects." Savolis started by collecting popular Civil War relics. His interest then moved toward Civil War photography and illustrations.

"My interest narrowed even further to Massachusetts in the Civil War," he says. "The Civil War is a very broad field for collectors. People collect buttons, currency, firearms and other items from that era. You can't have everything and you can't research everything. To have a collection of any depth you need to specialize in something."

Evidence of Savolis' specific interest is on all four walls of his office in the archives. The photographs, illustrations and maps offer different views of the battles and locations depicted.

"I do more than just try to acquire things," Savolis says. "The research behind each piece attracts me. In addition to the collectors' shows, I'm always up for lectures or exhibits about the Civil War.  I read extensively about it. I'm president of the Central Massachusetts Civil War Roundtable and belong to the Civil War Heritage Trust. Every year since the 1970s, I've gone with friends to the collectors' show at Gettysburg during the last week of June. I missed one year, 1979, to get married."

A history major at Holy Cross, Savolis thought that working in an archive would be a good fit for him. After graduation, he went to work in the manuscript department at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester. Two years later he moved across town to become head of the archives at the Worcester Historical Museum. During his decade at the museum he earned a master's degree in library science at the University of Rhode Island. In 1990, he returned to Holy Cross, eventually becoming the head of archives and, later on, special collections.

"We don't have an extensive collection of Civil War materials, but we have some very interesting pieces," Savolis notes. "In addition to Fr. O'Hagan's diary from 1863, we have original casts of Abraham Lincoln's hands by sculptor Leonard Volk. We also have a sword belt with a buckle and letters that belonged to Colonel Patrick Guiney of the 9th Massachusetts Regiment. Colonel Guiney attended Holy Cross for one year before the war. His daughter, the writer and essayist Louise Imogen Guiney, knew how much her father loved Holy Cross. She donated her father's items to the College before she died in 1920. She also gave us her papers."

The College's Civil War collection also includes brass buttons from officers' uniforms, cannon shot and a sliver of wood from a flagpole at Fort Fisher in N.C. Like the Civil War-era handmade blue box that was discovered in the archives after being out of sight for 60 years, every artifact holds a story for Savolis. 

"Among my favorite photos and illustrations in my own collection are three that show the 25th Massachusetts regiment camp in related views," he explains. "In the distance you can see a tree with a flag next to it that identifies the camp. In the illustration I acquired recently, you can see Capt. Cornelius G. Attwood inside a tent at that same camp talking with another officer. His dog, Felax, is asleep nearby. I also have a letter from the captain in which he describes Felax as a 'good rat catcher.' I like connecting things to find a story among the pieces."


More about the diary (above): In February 1863, Rev. Joseph B. O'Hagan, S.J., recorded his experiences as a Civil War chaplain in this worn, black leather diary. In his slanted script, now faded, he captured the "intense cold, knee-deep mud and suffering of the men." In 1873, Fr. O'Hagan was appointed the eighth president of the College of the Holy Cross.

Another Civil War-era item in Holy Cross' Archives is the Lincoln Hand (right). The cast of Abraham Lincoln's right hand was taken May 20, 1860, by sculptor Leonard Volk. The cast, along with one of the left hand, was given to the College by Worcester sculptor Andrew O'Connor in the late 1920s. The hand, which is holding a piece of a broom handle to steady it, appears slightly swollen, possibly from shaking hands the night before with well-wishers after Lincoln was named the presidential candidate at the Republican National Convention.

Elizabether Walker is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer and editor who specializes in higher education topics.


Click here to see pieces from Mark Savolis' personal Civil War collection.