Monday, October 22, 2012

Lt. Colonel John Fraser

The Men Who Fought: Lieutenant Colonel John Fraser

     In our seventh week, we'll get to know a lesser known individual that was forced into the lime light on July 2nd in the thickest of the fight. That individual is Lieutenant Colonel John Fraser.
     Fraser was born in Cromarty, Scotland and spent much of his young life along the inlets and coves of northern Scotland near Inverness. Fraser was no average young man though. By 1850 at the age of 23 he had graduated from the University of Aberdeen in Mathematics. His intelligence was far above the average and he was awarded for his wits with the coveted Huttonian Prize in Mathematics (awarded every 10 years).
Shortly after graduation he began his travels which led him to the West Indies where he started his career as a life long educator, teaching in the Bahamas. He then moved to New York City to take ownership of another difficult academic program before finally moving to McConnellsville, Pennsylvania where he was offered a professorship in Mathematics and Astronomy at Jefferson University in Canonsburg, PA. Professor Fraser excelled, nurturing "passion and reason in the sciences." He even tutored after class, not only in his subjects,but in history, law botany, philosophy and literature. "Oh, to give the young the eyes to see."
Absence of the southern students in 1861 reflected the national schism of civil war. Amid dissension and enlistments, Professor Fraser waited for a commission. One day in 1862, he locked up the observatory and announced to his class, "Gentlemen, what the stars are up to is now of no interest to us. We will leave Mars to his own business... and become sons of Mars with 'On to Richmond' as our cry. Permit me to introduce to you Captain John Fraser and to announce that the chair of mathematics in this college is now vacant."
Captain Fraser enlisted on August 12, 1862, at age 35, in command of Co. G, of the 140th Pennsylvania Volunteers. At Harrisburg, he was elected lieutenant colonel of the regiment. Sent to guard the Northern Central R.R. in MD, they were ordered in December to Falmouth, VA to join the Second Corps "on its way to earning its reputation as the shock troops...transporting the Pennsylvanians to the eternal fire and back." After winter camp at Falmouth, the regiment received their baptism of fire at Chancellorsville supporting a battery near the Chancellor house. Little did they know what awaited them just up the road at the sleepy Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.
     On July 2nd after General Sickles moved his line out to the Peach Orchard, the 2nd Corps was sent to support his collapsing line. Lt. Colonel Fraser and the 140th under the command of Colonel Richard P. Roberts were sent towards the crest of a place known locally as Stoney Hill. The fighting was fierce and very deadly. Within a short time the brigade commander was mortally wounded and the overall command kept passing down the line with each officer being shot down. After the Colonel of the 140th was shot down (Colonel Roberts), command of the entire brigade fell to John Fraser, although by this time in the fight shear chaos rained and the Confederate troops had his men almost entirely surrounded. By all accounts Colonel Fraser led the men off the field with the best that could be expected under the circumstances. The regiment suffered a fearful number of casualties, but somehow a small remnant of them, including Colonel Fraser, were able to escape.
The following is from Colonel Fraser's Official Report after the battle:
About 4p.m. the brigade was marched rapidly to the left, to assist the Third Corps, which was then sustaining a fierce attack. When it arrived nearly opposite the place assigned to it, the brigade was formed in line of battle, with the One hundred and fortieth Pennsylvania Volunteers on the extreme right, and was moved rapidly forward to engage the enemy. As the order was given, the regiment opened a brisk fire, which it kept up with great firmness and coolness, steadily driving the enemy before it until we reached the crest of a small hill. During the advance to this crest, the four left companies of this regiment, with the regiments to the left, gradually made a considerable wheel to the right. Shortly after reaching the crest, I observed a great many to the left of this brigade moving rapidly to the rear, and the rebels, apparently fresh troops, in large numbers and in good order marching to outflank us on the right. Anxious to know what orders General Zook had to give in the crisis, I sent twice to get instructions from him, but neither the general nor any of his staff could be found. I did not know at the time, nor until after the fight was over, that General Zook had been mortally wounded when leading the brigade into action. Inferring from the large numbers of men who to the left of my regiment were continuously rushing to the rear, that a large portion of our division was actually retreating, I judged it necessary for the safety of those who had wheeled considerably into the enemy's ground to maintain my position and keep the enemy at bay as long as possible. I therefore held my position until I considered it necessary to order my men to march in retreat, which they did at first in good order, the four right companies halting several times, and firing, to check the pursuit of the enemy...
Colonel Roberts was killed while bravely leading on his men at the commencement of the action on July 2nd.”
     Colonel Fraser would be the regiment's commander through many more battles until finally being captured at Spotsylvania after being wounded in 1864. He was released thanks to General Sherman's march through Georgia in December of 1864 and would survive the remaining months decorated as a war hero. He was later given a brevet promotion to Brigadier General for “honorable and faithful” services during the war.
The brave Colonel wasn't done yet though. After the war he continued his pioneering in education, becoming the chancellor of the University of Kansas as well as the president of what would become Pennsylvania State University. In 1877 he finally decided to give up on the politics of education and became a professor at Western University which became the University of Pittsburgh. Unfortunately he contracted smallpox only a year later and died on June 5, 1878.
     John Fraser is not only a hero because of his war service, which is impressive for man with no military background, but also for his efforts in the realm of education. When we walk the grounds of Gettysburg, or any other battlefield for that matter, we need to remember that each one of the people that were willing to sacrifice their lives here had a story. They were not the drones or columns of blue/gray robots we imagine being thrown into a caldron, they were living and breathing people with feelings, emotions and intellectual aspirations. Let us not forget the fruits of their labor.

Lt. Colonel John Fraser - 140th PA

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