1860-1864: Zeta Psi in The Civil War

But those chapters were the last before the conflict brewing for nearly a century was finally unleashed. Lincoln was elected president of the United States in 1860, and South Carolina seceded from the Union, followed shortly thereafter by her fellow Southern states. Expansion of the fraternity nearly halted as campuses rallied for war and sent companies of their college men to battle. Zeta Psi too contributed her men, and many did not return. Still, a few chapters bloomed in the adversity of the war, though they certainly grew in meager soil with much of their universities serving on the battlefield. The first Gamma Chapter was founded in 1860 at the Georgia Military Institute, the first Eta Chapter was founded in 1861 at Pennsylvania College, and the first Omega Chapter was founded in 1864 at the University of Chicago.1 All would struggle during those war-torn years.

The Badge of Zeta Psi
by Br Francis Lawton
written 15 December 1891

Badge of Zeta Psi

You ask me why upon my breast
I wear, tho’ bent and grey,
These ancient characters of gold,
Gem’d with the diamond’s ray.

A band of students long ago,
When life’s bright morning shone,
Gave me this badge, the badge they wore,
To show their hearts were one.

And that is why upon my breast
I wear, as years go by,

These ancient characters of gold,
The Badge of Zeta Psi.

On Chattanooga’s bloody field
A pris’ner left to die,
I saw a chief in Southern grey,
Deck’d with this badge march by.

He nursed me, clothed me, set me free,
And when we said good-bye,
He, silent, pointed at the badge,
And spoke, “Tau Kappa Phi.”

At the outbreak of war, the Upsilon chapter at UNC—itself only chartered three years before—found itself one of only two chapters of Zeta Psi among all the Southern states, sundered from the North by the sudden lines of enmity (and the other at the Georgia Military Institute was but months old at the declaration of war). But even as they mustered for war and marched south, the Grand Chapter of Zeta Psi, specially assembled in early July 1862, adopted the resolution of Br William Cooke (Φ 1858) prescribing unity:

RESOLVED, That while we may differ in political sentiment with those of our Brothers who are courageously battling for principles which they deem right, no disaster shall separate them from the union of Tau Kappa Phi.

The Convention that year was to have been hosted by the Upsilon that year, to celebrate its recent chartering and the fulfillment of Br Dayton’s dream. Of course the outbreak of war had made that location untenable, thus necessitating the special assemblage of the Grand Chapter. Yet the brothers of Upsilon recognized the necessity and harbored no ill-will, writing to their northern brethren by letter in like fashion, in a letter from Lt Col Br C W Broadfoot (Υ 1862), who would shortly thereafter be mustered for the 70th North Carolina Reserves:2

WHEREAS, The present distracted state of our country renders it inexpedient to hold our convention in this State during this year;

RESOLVED, That the Sigma Alpha be instructed to write to all Chapters, assuring them that though our Federal Union has been dissolved, still the Circle of Zeta Psi Fraternity shall never be broken;

RESOLVED, That the bonds of Tau Kappa Phi which bind us to our Brothers in the North are as strong as they ever were.

Psi Epsilon chapter house at Dartmouth

Psi Epsilon chapter house at Dartmouth, which was briefly inactive consequent to the Civil War but ultimately retained its property

Nor was the brotherhood among Zetes limited to mere words. The moving tale of Capt Br Henry R Schwerin, 119th Regt NY Vol Inf (Θ 1863) illustrates the embodiment of love even in the most trying of circumstance.3 Br Schwerin lay gravely wounded after the bloody Battle of Chattanooga III;4 pinned on the breast of his Union uniform was the badge of Zeta Psi. A passing Confederate soldier, also a Zete, spied the badge and carried the invalid to medical care and safety, ignoring even the imperatives of war for the sake of his brother. The worthy badge later passed into the hands of his brother, Br Max R Schwerin (Θ 1870), who would ascend to Phi Alpha in 1883. After his death in 1889, it passed on to his sister, Helen R Schwerin. Asked for a picture of her younger brother for the fraternal archives, Miss Schwerin demonstrated her overweening munificence by donating the gem-studded brooch to the international fraternity; it remains among Zeta Psi’s treasures to this day, not for the gleam or worth of its bejeweled gold, but for the true brotherly love it symbolizes. Br John Day Smith (Ε 1872) witnessed the incident on the Chattanooga field, and later related it to Br Francis Lawton (Ε 1869) who too would serve as Phi Alpha in 1891, and would author the poem “The Badge of Zeta Psi,” later set to original music and preserved to this day.6 The reference to “Chattanooga’s bloody field” is not idle hyperbole, but the recollection of a rare triumph among such sorrows.

And amid these sorrows and heroisms, when so many brothers of Zeta Psi perished, so too were even whole chapters swallowed by the War. The Psi Epsilon at Dartmouth, Upsilon at UNC, Epsilon at Brown, and Theta at Union chapters had vanished by the end of battle, decimated by fallen brothers or disheartened campuses returning from the shadow of death. Though the others would ultimately reform and regain their previous strength, the first Theta Chapter at Union College would never recover, lapsing into permanent obsolescence by the early 1870s.7 The Psi Epsilon chapter suffered badly from the disruptions of war. Only ten years old, it lapsed in 1863, and its nominal return in 1871 saw a much-diminished brotherhood which would persist only fitfully for the next few decades.8

Nor did any of the chapters founded in those calamitous days prove to take firm root in the soil of their colleges. The first Pi chapter at Amherst, which technically received a charter in 1858, was never really established and never initiated a brother, and “died”—if such a term can apply to a chapter which never really lived—in 1860. The first Eta Chapter was devastated by losses to Pennsylvania College, located in Gettysburg and commandeered as a battleground, hospital, signal room and others during that bloody battle by both sides at various times.9 It would later change its name to Gettysburg College, but the lost men and morale spelled defeat for the local Zeta Psi chapter, which would expire in 1872. The first Omega Chapter at the first University of Chicago deceased with its patron university in 1888. And perhaps most tragic of all, the first Gamma chapter at the Georgia Military Institute vanished in the death and destruction of Sherman’s march through Georgia.10 So complete was its annihilation that no local record remained of its very existence, and only a notation in the annals of the Grand Chapter from 1860 recalls its chartering.

In tribute to these lost chapters, each of their letters would not be retired forever, but retained for gifting to a future worthy chapter.11 The Gamma in particular would see illustrious uses, being reserved for military academies until such practice had to be abandoned in the face of their resistance to fraternity colonization. But the drive to retain the memory of the chapters lost in the Civil War persisted. And in that spirit, out of the shadow of war came regrowth and a time for Zeta Psi to expand once more.

1 The University of Chicago mentioned here is not that presently extant, which was not founded until 1890 by John D Rockefeller. (A brief history of the university may be found on its website, which notes Rockefeller as quipping that U Chicago was “the best investment I ever made.”) The patron university of the first Omega Chapter was the original University of Chicago founded shortly after Northwestern, which persisted only until 1888, when the damage done by the the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 and the Haymaker Riot in 1886 closed its doors, along with those of the first Omega Chapter. The modern institution would open with its name only two years later, seeking continuity with history.

2 A mention of Br Broadfoot’s service at Butler’s Bridge in late 1864 may be found in the battle travelogue of Corp J W Evans of the 68th North Carolina, Company D.

3 Excellent records of the 119th regiment of the New York Volunteer Infantry are kept by one Russell Scott at his web presence. It has the catalogue index of Br Schwerin’s military photograph (RG526S-NYSAG.1846) at the US Army Military Institute, from whom it can be ordered for free, as well as several narratives of the battles in which Schwerin took part.

4 Cf. Wikipedia’s diagramatic outline of the Battle of Chattanooga III.

6 Br Lawton was not new to found tune smithing. Brown University’ Encylopaedia Brunoniana recalls that he created a marching ditty commemorating the bucket brigade to the Providence well when the Brown University waterhole was temporarily shut down, “The Water Procession.” A genealogical record of Long Island residents records his birthday as 27 June 1848, just over a year after Zeta Psi’s foundation.

7 Indeed, it was not only Greek life that fell into desuetude at Union after the Civil War. Nor was it largely the depredations of that war that wrought the damage, as many colleges had undergone the same tribulations and emerged vigorous. Rather, it was the increasingly inept hand of college president Eliphalet Nott, who had held the post since 1804 until his death in 1866. The first decades of his administration had produces luminaries in high posts at nearly every regional institution of academia, and secured for Union the title of foremost university in America. A contemporary historian, Dr Dixon Fox, wrote that “most of the time from 1825 to 1850 Union College was the largest in the United States. Several different years Yale got ahead of it, but Harvard and Princeton were behind and Columbia was much behind. . . This was not due so much to its location or its fine buildings as to its faculty and particularly its President.” But Nott’s latter years were characterized by rampant corruption and mismanagement that persisted far beyond his death. Union’s official history notes that “at its low point in 1888, Union had fewer students in all four classes than it had graduated as seniors a half century earlier.” But Zeta Psi had succumbed to the creeping doom long before that.

8 The damage done to the Psi Epsilon chapter is underscored by Dartmouth’s architectural archives, which refer to Zeta Psi as existing only for that first decade, until 1863. When it returned, it was not officially recognized on campus, and only its retention of its property allowed it to persevere through those lean years.

9 Wikipedia’s diagrammatic outline of the Battle of Gettysburg is illustrative of the college’s central location in the fighting, or at least its buildings’—since its student body had been recruited in near entirety.

10 The Georgia Military Institute had been founded in 1951, and comprehended from 150 to 200 cadets over the next fifteen years. With the advent of wat in 1861, they were commandeered to begin training conscripts, and in 1862, the Confederate government began direct conscription from their officers and cadets. In Spring 1864, all remaining cadets were formed into two battalions and assigned to the battlefront; when Sherman’s march reached Atlanta in November, it found GMI evacuated and deserted. He burned it to the ground. An online compendium offers an article on GMI’s fleeting existence.

11 The Zeta Psi fraternity distinguishes between three classes of chapters: active, inactive, and deceased. Active chapters are those with current undergraduate members in good standing with the international. Inactive chapters are chapters whose charter has fallen into abeyance because of dwindling undergraduate recruitment, or whose charter has been suspended by the international for improprieties. Deceased chapters are those whose charters have been permanently revoked because of grave turpitude, or whose patron university has expired. (Thankfully, this latter route to deceased status is far more common.) Inactive chapters are not susceptible or replacement or supervention, but await reactivation or possible decease should their inactivity persist so long as to make reactivation unfeasible. Deceased chapters are considered permanently defunct, and their unique name and letters may be granted to a wholly different school. Such “regranting” is often done, as with the Gamma particularly, to preserve the legacy of a chapter no longer revivable at their original school.