Out of the Ashes

How an Irish Episcopal priest saved Norwich University

Out of the Ashes
Image: Norwich University 

The year 1866 was a pivotal one for Norwich. In March, a fire destroyed the school’s primary building—the Old South Barracks—and the University’s future lay in jeopardy. The disaster represented the biggest challenge to date in Reverend Edward Bourns’ tenure as president, a career that had shepherded the young school through fifteen years of adversity, including hostilities from the citizens of Norwich and Hanover, crippling debt, and four years of civil war. Yet, under the immensely popular Irishman’s steadfast guidance and vision, the University would not only survive, but thrive.

No ordinary man

Reverend Edward Bourns was well-equipped to run a college. A learned man, he not only held the office of president, but served on the faculty, teaching ancient languages and moral sciences. An ordained Episcopal priest, he held religious services on Sundays.

The reverend’s lack of military training in no way hindered his leadership abilities. Described by Adelbert Dewey as “a man of peace by profession, better versed in canon law than cannon balls,” he had nevertheless acquired “the swinging stride of the modern soldier.” An insatiable reader renowned for his “incisive and delicate wit,” it became a saying among the cadets “that no one could enter the doctor’s rooms on the briefest of errands and not depart wiser than he came.” An imposing presence at six foot two, Rev. Bourns was respected by all, and perfectly suited—both as a shrewd administrator and genial leader—to steer Norwich safely through perilous times.

Born October 29, 1801, in Dublin, Ireland, Bourns entered Trinity College in 1823, but put his education on hold to serve as a private tutor, completing his degree a decade later. Ellis’ History of Norwich University describes him as “a man of learning and acumen,” and at Dublin he won numerous book prizes for scholastic achievement.

From Dublin he moved to London, where he engaged his skills as a writer and reviewer, working alternately in the publishing industry and as a teacher. In 1837, he journeyed across the Atlantic to the United States, where he became acquainted with a fellow Irishman, the Reverend William DeLaney, Provost of Pennsylvania University. Shortly after, Bourns followed Reverend DeLaney (now the Bishop of Western New York) to Geneva, where he enrolled at Hobart College, earning his MA and becoming an adjunct classics professor. By 1841, having received his LLD from Hobart, he was ordained Deacon of Geneva’s Trinity College. Four years later, after a short stint as a fully ordained priest, Dr. Bourns resigned his professorship at Hobart and left for Brooklyn, N.Y., where he taught ancient languages for five years.

A new chapter begins

In 1850, following the resignation of General Henry S. Wheaton, Reverend Edward Bourns became the fifth president of Norwich University, then located in Norwich, Vt., on the banks of the Connecticut River. He arrived at a critical juncture in the college’s young life, as declining enrollment and mounting debts threatened the school’s very existence. In addition, strained relations between the school and the town’s residents were coming to a head, relations which were further damaged by malicious pranks being committed by rival college students on both sides of the river.

The astute and affable Bourns took swift and decisive action, and by late 1853 many of the “town and gown” issues had been settled, and monetary support from both the town and the state kept the school up and running. According to an article in The Reveille (precursor to The Record), Bourns not only increased enrollment, but helped to “steer the school’s academics into new territory.” Under Bourns’ care, “[Norwich’s] standard was fully up to that of other American colleges. Especially has this been the case in the scientific department, as is proved by the large number of its graduates engaged in scientific pursuits in all parts of the country.”

When Johnny comes marching home

The outbreak of civil war brought about a new set of challenges for Rev. Bourns. The call to serve severely impacted the school’s enrollment, so much so that, in 1861, Norwich was unable to hold commencement. According to Ellis, “the excitement [over war] knew no bounds at the University.” The cadets left in large numbers for the front, while others were appointed drill masters for volunteer soldiers throughout the New England states.

Just as its own students were leaving in droves to serve the Union, equal numbers of volunteers were arriving on campus for drill and instruction led by Brigadier General Alonzo Jackman. It was during this time that Alden Partridge’s belief in the value of citizen soldierly was reinforced, as best described by Ellis in the reactions of the Dartmouth College students: “The Dartmouth students across the Connecticut began to realize that the military institutions in Norwich stood for more than a show of brass buttons, and that the time might not be distant when they would be glad to serve under a Norwich Man.”

Fire and relocation

The war ended in 1865, but less than a year later fate dealt the school yet another cruel blow. On March 14, 1866, flames escaped from a fourth-floor chimney in the South Barracks, spreading quickly throughout the structure. Despite valiant efforts by a student bucket brigade, the building soon became engulfed. Following the loss of their main facility, and, with a generous offer of land in Northfield, Bourns and his small band of students journeyed 50 miles north to start over.

According to Ellis, the move made perfect sense on a number of levels. “The people of [the town of] Norwich were indifferent and in many cases hostile to the University, and if it had not been for the enterprise of the people of Northfield, the University, with her honorable record of many years, would have ceased to exist.”

Indeed, if Bourns was a good match for Norwich, he was an equally good match for the town of Northfield—his talents, wisdom, and benevolence being appreciated far beyond the confines of the Hill. In addition to being the driving force behind the establishment of the Northfield Savings Bank, he remained closely tied to the Episcopal Church. A history of Saint Mary’s published in 1884 noted that “the University’s relocation to Northfield helped to strengthen the parish, bringing with it Professor Bourns, who became the minister.” The church also singled out the school in their annual report as an institution that “met with the Church’s educational goals and community.”

The twilight years

Despite having stepped down as the University’s president in 1866, Professor Bourns was once again appointed acting president of Norwich in 1868 following the resignation of his successor, Thomas W. Walker. This time, Bourns held the office until the fall of 1869, when fellow Episcopal clergyman, the Reverend Roger Strong Howard, was approved by the Trustees.

Dedicated to the end, the beloved professor’s final days are poignantly recorded by Ellis.

“He climbed the hill to the University for the last time in the winter, 1870–71. Grown feeble on account of lifelong asthma, much earlier than his stalwart physique had promised, he was obliged to pause frequently in his ascents before reaching the crest. When at last, he reluctantly acknowledged that he could no longer make the climb to his classes, they were sent to his place of residence. Captain Charles Curtis [then Commandant of Cadets] once proposed to relieve him of them, but he replied, ‘If you take my classes from me, I shall die.’ And so the cadets continued to fill the doctor’s sitting room and recite to him, as he lay upon a couch and drilled them with all the exactness and critical refinement that had distinguished him through healthier days. When the last recitation was held and dismissed he rapidly declined, and after midnight of Commencement Day, July 14, 1871, he died.”

Bourns’ final resting place can be found in the northeast corner of the Elmwood Cemetery in Northfield, where his stately headstone reaches toward heaven. One of the largest memorials in the cemetery, the monument befits a man of his stature, one who was, in many ways, larger than life.

Originally published in the Norwich Record in March 2012.