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Wabash men and Lincoln

So often the greatest stories come from alumni who contact me. This is a perfect example of such a contact and what a story! Alumnus Art Howe [W1982] sent this information in an email about the many close connections between Wabash men and Abraham Lincoln…

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Lincoln was close to two Wabash men — John Charles Black ’62 and William Perkins Black ’64 — who quit the College at the start of the war to join the army.  Lincoln was friends with their stepfather, Dr. William Fithian, whom Lincoln had represented in legal matters.  While riding the legal circuit, Lincoln often stayed at Dr. Fithian’s home in Danville, Illinois, about 40 miles west of Wabash College.

In December 1862, John and William were seriously wounded at the Battle of Pea Ridge in Arkansas.  In his Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, Ward Lamon wrote that: I shall never forget the scene, when I took to Mr. Lincoln a letter written by Dr. Fithian to me, describing the condition of the “Black boys,” and expressing his fears that they could not live. Mr. Lincoln read it, and broke into tears.  “Here, now,” he cried, “are these dear, brave boys killed in this cursed war!  My God, my God!  It is too bad!  They worked hard to earn money enough to educate themselves, and this is the end!  I loved them as if they were my own!”

Lincoln wrote Major-General Curtis in Saint Louis that: “If my friend Dr. William Fithian, of Danville, Ill., should call on you, please give him such facilities as you consistently can about recovering the remains of a step-son and matters connected therewith.”

Fortunately the brothers, cared for by their stepfather, survived their wounds.  John and William were each awarded the Medal of Honor, becoming the first of only five pairs of brothers in our nation’s history to have earned the honor.  After the war, John served as U.S. Attorney in Chicago, was elected to Congress and chaired the U.S. Civil Service Commission.  His brother William, who also became a lawyer, defended the Haymarket martyrs at their trial.  …………………………………………………………….

Isn’t that a great story? A little research here in the Archives shows that the Blacks were original members of the College Cadets. Like so many of their fellow students, on the day that Ft. Sumter was attacked, both brothers joined Lew Wallace’s company. The Blacks were 90 day men who served their terms then returned to Danville and recruited Company “K” of the 37th Illinois Infantry.  It was at the head of this Illinois company that the brothers were wounded.

John ended the war as a Brevet Brigadier General and lived a long and productive life. Both brothers maintained very close connections with Wabash throughout their lives. John’s grandson, John Black Vrooman, even attended Wabash, graduating in 1921.

While both men rose to great heights professionally, I still tend to think of them as one of the group of earnest young men pictured out in the Arboretum practicing their drill routines and perfecting their form, while all around them the war clouds are gathering.

Beth Swift

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When Marilyn Smith of Advancement read this posting, she sent along this additional information, “John Black Vrooman attended Commencement every year, arriving about five days early because he wanted to be the first to sign the alumni registration book.  He took the bus from St. Louis to get here, and sat around the campus every day enjoying the campus and people. During his visit, he took the “Lovelies of Possum Hall” (The Lovelies were Jo Davidson, Guyanna Spurway, Carolyn Harshbarger, Karen Handley, and other women who worked in  ‘Possum Hall’ — his name for Forrest Hall and Kane House). Visiting Wabash was the highlight of his year.”

The story continues with this quote from one of the “Lovelies” Guyanna Spurway, “We went to the Redwood for lunch and he paid every year.  He was so sweet and loved us making over him.”
Here is a photo of Vrooman and his lady friends…He wrote them often and signed his name as “Uncle John”.

In a December 1976 interview as Vrooman retired from his post as the longtime Editor of the magazine of the Philalethes Society, a publication for Freemasons, he said this of his returns to campus, “Every year starting with 1962 I have gone back to my college reunion in Crawfordsville and I’ve always been the first to sign the guest book.” His love for Old Wabash never wavered, “I find more relaxation at Wabash than anywhere else in the world, and when I come back, to get rid of the cobwebs and just rest in the peaceful atmosphere it is [a] real tonic.”

John Black Vrooman died in 1985, but his presence is still felt on campus as each year as Wabash awards a named endowed scholarship, The Black-Vrooman Scholarship, established in 1987 by Mrs. M. Lewis Marsh, Jr., in memory of her grandfather (John Charles Black, Class of 1862), her great uncle, (William Perkins Black, Class of 1864), and her cousin (John Black Vrooman, Class of 1921). </s