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South Dakota's Civil War Veterans - General William H.H. Beadle: Rider for the Underground Railroad

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W.H.H. Beadle
William Henry Harrison Beadle
Courtesy: Dakota State University
Dr. Justin Blessinger, Professor of English, Dakota State University

General William H.H. Beadle is widely known for his contributions in several states to constitutional provisions for the use of public lands to fund and support education. He is especially celebrated in South Dakota, where he was surveyor general, superintendent of public instruction, and president of the first teachers’ college in the territory. His statue stands as South Dakota’s selection for the National Statuary Hall, with copies in the state capitol in Pierre and on the campus of Dakota State University in Madison.

But we know relatively little about Beadle prior to his arrival in Dakota Territory after the Civil War. Whatever reason he had to begin his autobiography with his April 1869 arrival in Yankton, the territorial capital of the territory, the decision left his past more obscure than it should be. From other biographers’ notes, we have basic facts about Beadle’s birth in Indiana, a few details of his early education in a rural schoolhouse, his departure from home to attend the University of Michigan, and the essentials of his military service. 

Meanwhile, in his autobiography, Beadle proves painfully laconic and short on anecdotes. His military training, in this regard, seems to collide with his training as a historian: his accounts read like a morning debriefing, more a cataloguing of events than a curator’s tour. One wonders, in reading Beadle, if he is modest to a fault. He tells us what happened, but little about what he thought about it, what other options he entertained, or whether there were repercussions beyond the immediate event.

It was a surprise, then, to have come across a short article written by General Beadle for an alumni publication of the University of Michigan (The Michigan Alumnus, Vol. 9.), which possesses an altogether different voice—much more that of a storyteller. 

Beadle identifies himself as much more radical in his anti-slavery beliefs than many of his fellow students, who were typically opposed to the expansion of slavery into the western territories while not holding to full-blown abolitionism. He recalls only one student whose opinion differed sharply enough that he left to join the Confederacy when war broke out. The student body “differed,” he admitted, “somewhat in politics and holding at first all shades of opinion, from conservative to radical [abolitionist].” But “its members” mostly “shared the general trend of opinion in their sections” of the country. Only “a few, like the writer, though coming from below the 40th parallel, sprang from southern ultra anti-slavery ancestry.”

By this, Beadle means his own ancestry, of course, and his family home along the Wabash River in Indiana. The few existing biographies of Beadle make little mention of the religious or political habits of his family, although Beadle’s primary biographer, O.W. Coursey, notes that Beadle’s father, James Ward Beadle, was born in Kentucky “of ancestry that had landed very early at Salem” (20), and that young William had walked “two or three miles to a half-Quaker Sunday School.” The Quakers were well known as abolitionists and supporters of the Underground Railroad. 

A few paragraphs later in his alumni piece, Beadle displays a telling familiarity with the habits of the Michigan abolitionists, their meeting places, and speakers they invited (despite the secrecy surrounding these matters).

Masking himself in a third-person description as “a young speaker” clearly his own age at the Alpha Nu literary society (perhaps because he is describing what technically was a crime forty years before), Beadle tells of serving as a messenger delivering letters for the Underground Railroad:

“There was a group of abolitionists in Ann Arbor and vicinity that would harbor every fugitive slave that came that way. It was a fraternity; its doors were sealed with secrecy. The law and its agents were against it, backed by an almost brutal conservatism whose method sometimes was the mob. It happened that a member of the Alpha Nu literary society in the early autumn of ’58 denounced the Mexican war as begun and waged for the extension of slavery, which he severely attacked. The quality of that speech was quickly known by these abolitionists, and one of them casually asked this young speaker if he would not enjoy a long ride upon a good horse. He was a true horseman, and was happy in the opportunity. He received President Tappan's permission to be out of town, and started Friday afternoon to carry a sealed message southward. On and on he rode into the lonely autumn night, down by the rural home of a leading and eccentric abolitionist, past Saline, across Lodi plains and into the forest-bordered roads beyond. Halting in the woods awhile to rest and moving forward at daylight, at breakfast time he delivered his message to a sturdy farmer among the Quakers of Lenawee County. Before noon on Monday a fugitive slave in that house was transferred to Canada at a point below Port Huron. The warning that led to this had come from the deputy United States marshal who held the warrant. That young man had half unconsciously taken his novitiate in abolitionism. Others did likewise. Individual opinion was forming. Such things were not then news items in the papers.”

Beadle himself notes that abolitionists were often on the receiving end of mob justice, which makes it telling that Beadle knows so much about where these abolitionist meetings were, who spoke at them, and on what topics. Author James Tobin remarks that “A small, secret circle of Ann Arborites were helping fugitive slaves get to Canada. But many U-M students saw abolitionists as dangerous radicals — ‘roving, crazy fanatics,’ as the Argus (Ann Arbor's daily newspaper)put it. When the abolitionists Josephine Griffing and Parker Pillsbury came to town on their circuit of the western states, a mob stormed the church where they were speaking and chased them out.”

Equally telling is that Quakers, whose co-religionists Beadle had worshipped with in his youth, were active members of the Underground Railroad in Lenawee County, Michigan.

Finally, the Alpha Nu literary society to which Beadle’s unnamed third-person identity belonged was a significant part of Beadle’s experience at the University of Michigan. Coursey quotes from a history of the class of 1861 written by Beadle’s classmates H.M. Utley and Gen. B.M. Cutcheon that “‘Beadle was an active member of the Alpha Nu (Literary Society), and during his senior year was its president.’”

So why the secrecy about the incident, four decades later? Why does Beadle feel the compulsion to adopt this convention of Victorian modesty, telling a story clearly about himself yet in the anonymous third person? Is he still evasive, given his participation would have been illegal at the time? Is he aware of the growing hostility to Republicans and allies to black Americans in places like his childhood home in Indiana? By the mid 1920s, according to scholar Leonard J. Moore, some communities in Indiana saw fully one third of white men enrolled as members of the KKK. Terre Haute, a mere 25 miles south of Beadle’s childhood home, was a hotbed of Klan activity (Moore). It’s likely Beadle would have been aware of emerging hatred of that sort. Beadle would also have known that white supporters of black rights and black Republican candidates had been targeted in the decades prior to Beadle’s article by such organizations as the White League and the Red Shirts.

Ultimately, it seems unlikely that a veteran of battles such as Spotsylvania and the siege of Carthage would feel compelled to silence by an emerging anti-black fraternity. Likely the best explanation is the most direct. He wished not to seem prideful, and his method of telling the story retains the anonymity of all the specific people involved: recruiters, conductors, freed slaves, and marshals. Clearly, he wished his audience to understand he had been the rider.

William Henry Harrison Beadle, 1838-1915
  • WHH Beadle 1857
  • WHH Beadle 1860
  • whh Beadle - 1864
  • Beadle posing for statue

"In The Moment"

Interview with Justin Blessinger, DSU


Interview Transcript

Lori Walsh:  General William Henry Harrison Beadle in 1869 was appointed surveyor general of Dakota Territory by president Ulysses S. Grant. His journeys through the territory and his previous frontier experience convinced him that school lands were a trust for future generations and should be sold at their appraised value. This effort dominated his life. Well, in 1879, he became superintendent of public instruction. Beadle drafted the school lands provision at the South Dakota Constitutional Convention of 1885. But a little known fact about Beadle is his likely involvement in the Underground Railroad. For today's "Images of the Past," we are doing a series on Civil War soldiers who came to Dakota territory and redefined this region and the legacy they left behind. So today, we welcome Dr. Justin Blessinger. He is professor of English at Dakota State University, and he's currently writing a book on Beadle. Dr. Blessinger, thanks for being here today.

Justin Blessinger :  My pleasure. Thanks for inviting me today.

Lori Walsh:  This is a fascinating story, and we seem to know a lot about General Beadle's education efforts in Dakota territory. Not so much about some of his efforts during the Civil War, including his involvement in the Underground Railroad. Tell us a little bit about your research, uncovering his own words because he's a pretty quiet and humble man.

Justin Blessinger :  He's a quiet man.

Lori Walsh:  Yeah.

Justin Blessinger :  His autobiography even doesn't start until his arrival in Dakota territory after the war. He was famously tight-lipped about, I think in particular, his time in the war, as I think a previous guest of yours mentioned how so many of the veterans of the Civil War who came to South Dakota were equally laconic about their experience. I think there was only one autobiography from a Civil War veteran in South Dakota, including his Civil War experience. So Beadle just left that part out. And so I was trying to fill that in, in my own research and he was in the Civil War for the entire four years. He had to be urged by his professors to finish his degree. He was a month from graduating when Fort Sumpter fell. So he was eager to join, as were almost all of his classmates.

But what happened was that sometime in the very early 1900s, in 1902 I believe, University of Michigan invited him to share his memories with them in an alumni publication about what it was like being a student when the war broke out. And along the way, he shared a story that he attributes to just a student at University of Michigan, but his insider knowledge of all of the events is incredibly telling. He mentions that the Quakers and abolitionists in the area had recruited this student and he had attended a half Quaker church in his youth in Indiana. He mentions that the student was part of the Alpha New Literary Society. He was president of the Alpha New Literary Society. He mentions that the student was a freshmen in 1857, that's when he was a freshmen.

So I think this is his way of giving permission to brag about something that he's very proud of, but he also recognized that in fact, it was still dangerous to admit, especially down to the fine details. And by that, I mean a lot of people may not recall that helping slaves was illegal, helping slaves to escape in particular was illegal. And so the abolitionists were at great risk for their behavior. Some of them were attacked and punished by mobs. Some of them lost in civil courts. An ancestor of our state historian, Benjamin Jones, is documented having lost his property in Michigan in the same area, in fact, because he got caught helping the slave escape. And so, he lost the lawsuit that followed and ended up selling his entire property. So Beadle is exposing himself to that kind of a milieu. There's there's great danger to himself, but he describes taking a long ride on behalf of abolitionists who recruited him and delivering messages eventually up and down the Underground Railroad proximate to Michigan.

Lori Walsh:  Yeah. There is this whole hidden history. And I was interviewing Dr. Joshua Bennett, not too long ago, who is a poet. And he told me about a book by a Harvard University professor about educators during Jim Crow. And it's a new book about how black teachers hid the textbooks underneath the other textbooks so that they could... And nobody talked about it because the cost of being revealed was so extreme, lynching and death. And that leads to my question that I want to ask you about, how important is it to spend the time and scholarship to pull out some of these stories of this hidden history that people didn't tell so that we can more fully understand the kind of work and the risk people were taken by doing something that today seems well, why wouldn't you help the slaves escape? It's hard for us to put ourselves in those positions, but here we are seeing this person. Tell me just about the importance you think of paying attention to those texts and following where they lead.

Justin Blessinger :  Well, you've said it exactly right. If I poll my students and ask who would have braved lawsuits and jail time ... Everyone is convinced these days that we would have helped. And in fact, we know that the Republican party was formed to end slavery, but they were very split. Most of them in fact, wanted to quarantine it and starve it out and keep it confined to the South. But Beadle identifies himself as being born of ultra anti-slavery ancestors. So he definitely indicates that he was among the abolitionists themselves. So it's so gratifying to be able to start to read between these lines and see the contributions that someone so important to South Dakota history and to Dakota State University history. He's, of course, in the National Statuary Hall as South Dakota's representative to that historical moment as well.

So he's so important to South Dakota and to be able to recognize that, here's a person of such enormous moral character, that he would take this risk. And then for four years, subject himself to the risks inherent in being an officer in the Civil War and the mass amount of deaths that happened there. And then of course, his tremendous help in moving Dakota territory towards statehood.

Lori Walsh:  Yeah. This is such a fascinating series on Civil War soldiers who find their way to Dakota territory, what they have in common and how they have changed the character of this place and who some of these people are. So go online to, and you can find all those images of the past stories and photos and such. Dr. Justin Blessinger, I really look forward to this book that you're working on General Beadle and I appreciate your time today.

Justin Blessinger :  Thank you so much. A pleasure speaking with you.