“If the past is not to bind us, where can duty lie?” – George Eliot, 1860
When war broke out in the spring of 1861, Uriah Parmelee was a sophomore at Yale. Having grown up on a farm near Guilford, Connecticut, he became an abolitionist in his youth.
Without a second thought, Parmelee dropped out of Yale to join the 6th New York Cavalry. Proclaiming that he was “more of an abolitionist than ever—right up to the handle,” Parmelee fought with bravery and purpose in many of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles. At Chancellorsville he was promoted to the 1st Connecticut Cavalry, and for his actions at the battle of Ashland he gained the rank of captain.
In the sort of tragic irony that colored so much of the nineteenth century, Parmelee was killed eight days before the end of the war. On April 2, 1865 he died at the Battle of Five Forks outside of Petersburg, Virginia. It was the last major battle of the war; eight days later, Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse. To the bitter end, Parmelee had fought for both liberty and the Union.
What lessons can we learn from men like Parmelee who, as the cenotaph on Beinecke Plaza reads, “gave their lives that freedom might not perish from the earth”? What can Parmelee’s departure from Yale and premature death teach us, students lucky enough to have made it to graduation? At the very least, Parmelee’s legacy should remind us that there is more to a meaningful life than what is found in books and classrooms.
Parmelee wrote many letters to his family from the front, and the story those letters tell should be a familiar one to Yalies, even in 2018. His is a tale of bright-eyed idealism in a world of hatred and bloodshed, of disillusionment with the government’s motives, and of a young Yale student struggling to live by his principles.
Through Parmelee, we can chart the progress of abolitionism in a young mind. At the outset, he believed the Civil War was caused by slavery and would bring about slavery’s destruction. But in 1861, President Lincoln wanted a war of limited aims, and Parmelee grew frustrated at the Union’s reluctance to make eliminating slavery an explicit goal. “I thought that the progress of events must surely bring about universal Emancipation,” he wrote to his mother. He believed that if the army’s principles didn’t change, his conscience would require him to summon “the moral courage to desert it.”
History offers no easy idols, however, and Parmelee is no exception. As he wrote: “Things appear mixed in this world, and motives and actions are not as clearly defined as we might wish them.” Despite his staunch abolitionism, Parmelee had an African-American servant during the war, and seems to have felt no sense of contradiction in this. “I have a little n••••r to wait on me,” he wrote. “How much easier it is to have a little n•g to take your extra steps for you than it is to do all yourself.”
By the summer of 1863, Parmelee’s spirits had been rejuvenated by the Emancipation Proclamation. “I do not intend to shirk now that there is really something to fight for — I mean Freedom,” he wrote. “So then I am willing to remain and endure whatever may fall to my share.”
There is a deep pathos to Parmelee’s story, an impression from reading him that he understood the sacrifice he was making, that he knew the arc of history would bend toward justice only if he placed himself — along with thousands of young men like him — before its altar.
Students like Parmelee are not so very different from those today; while not all Yalies have been given the chance to enlist in the Union army, when a moment of great national significance passes before us, it is our duty to take part, to endure whatever may fall to our share.
In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who, two decades later, reflected on the generation of young college students whose lives were caught up in the Civil War, “in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing.” Let us hope that we may someday learn the same, if we haven’t already.
In our youth, then, we must take up the call of public service and self-sacrifice, taking our places, contradictions and all, in the register of the past. Stop, before you leave campus, in the rotunda of Woolsey Hall. Look at the names, then give Uriah Parmelee’s a rub for good measure.
Finnegan Schick is a former university editor for the News.