Extract from the Boston Daily Advertiser: Memorial of Major Sidney Coolidge


The painful uncertainty of the earlier accounts from Chattanooga and from Richmond, relative to the fate of Major Coolidge of the 16th U. S. Infantry, reported as killed, then as a prisoner, and again, officially, as “missing in action” on the fatal field of Chickamauga, did not, at first, preclude the hope, perhaps only too readily welcomed by friendship and affection, that he might still be living, though wounded and in the enemy’s hands. But the scanty intelligence which has since been procured, though it has failed wholly to dispel the mystery, all tends to enforce the conviction that he fell, mortally wounded, in the terrible conflict of the 19th of September.

Major Sidney Coolidge was a native of Boston, the son of Joseph Coolidge, and, on his mother’s side, a descendant of Thomas Jefferson. Much of his boyhood and early youth was passed in Europe, where he enjoyed the highest educational advantages. For his first instructor, M. Sillig, of the celebrated school at Vevay, he ever retained the warmest attachment. Slight as this circumstance may appear, it certainly has its significance as the mark of a generous disposition, thus to accept in good part, the benefits of the severe discipline and wise counsel which his adventurous and high-spirited nature must often have brought into requisition.

Permission was obtained, not without difficulty, for his admission into the military school of Saxony, the Cadetenhaus at Dresden. It was here, in the popular commotions of 1848, that he first encountered the stirring scenes of actual warfare. They served only to kindle into enthusiasm his passion for the military profession, which, however, was destined to bear the test of long delay and repeated disappointments. The efforts made to procure a suitable position in our own army having failed, he applied in turn to enter the service of France, of England, and of Sardinia. Fortunately, the impediments in the way of carrying out these intentions proved insurmountable.

But though obliged, for a time, to relinquish his cherished hopes, it was impossible entirely to suppress a passion, strong as the insticts of nature. The best qualities of the soldier were still the leading traits of his character, and the occasion only was wanting to bring them into full activity.

On his return to America, he was engaged under his valued friend, Capt. Talcott, as an engineer in the survey of the Danville Railroad, in Virginia, and upon the Government survey of the boundary of Minnesota.

In 1853, he joined, as astronomer, the U. S. Expedition for the survey of the North Pacific Ocean and China sea. Subsequently, in the united capacities of astronomer and engineer, he engaged in expeditions for extensive surveys in Mexico and Arizona.

In 1855, while attached to the Observatory of Harvard College, he was charged with the execution of the chronometric Expedition of the U. S. Coast Survey, between Cambridge and Liverpool, having for its object to ascertain the relation of the European and American systems of longitude. In this important undertaking, about fifty chronometers were transported six times across the Atlantic, a strict surveillance being maintained over every circumstance which could affect their performance through an entire year. It was a work demanding constant care, and a great amount of labor and skill in the conduct of the astronomical observations, and in the treatment of the valuable collection of instruments employed. To his fidelity and scrupulous care in the discharge of this responsible service, must be, in a great measure, attributed the complete success of the enterprise. The results form the most important contribution which has yet been made to the determination of the zero of longitudes for the Westerncontinent.

But there was something more than earnestness and conscientiousness in the discharge of duty, which appeared throughout his long connection with the Observatory, a connection, which extended, with occasional interruptions, over an interval of more than seven years; a generous enthusiasm, a warm and almost personal affection for its interests, led him to consecrate, with perfect disinterestedness, the best hours of his life to its service.

And yet, such was the strong relief of other traits in his character, that few, excepting among his more intimate friends, would, perhaps, have suspected the disposition to engage seriously in scientific pursuits. The restless spirit of adventure which at times broke in upon their quiet routine, and gave to many passages of his life the air of a wild romance, was nowhere more forcibly illustrated than during his expedition to Mexico in 1858, originally undertaken on a peaceful mission for the exploration of a railroad route from Vera Cruz to the interior. The design was frustrated by a revolutionary outbreak.

The Government troops were marching upon Orizaba, where Major Coolidge was then residing, and he was offered an opportunity, as aide-de-camp to General La Llave, to witness the battle then imminent. The approach of the hostile armies, and the excitement of preparation supplied every possible circumstance of temptation to one of his ardent temperament and strong military proclivities. He accepted the proposal, and, as was natural, was at once irrevocably committed to the contest.

He took a prominent part in the battles of Cruz Blanca and of Orizaba. The fortifications of the latter place and of the pass of Chiquihuite were laid out under his direction, as military engineer of the forces of La Llave the offer of a major’s commission and of the command of a battery of artillery, shows the favorable impression which his abilities and activity had made in his new career.

The campaign proved disastrous to the Liberals. Orizaba was taken by a largely superior force of the Government party, and Major Coolidge was among the prisoners. The official report of the capture of the city states, that “the fortifications were well made, their construction being directed by an American engineer who had fallen a prisoner into our hands;” General Echeagaray, the commander of the Government forces, gave the strongest possible testimony to the importance of his services to the Liberal party, by immediately sentencing him to death. Through the representations of foreign residents, and especially of the English consul, who interested himself warmly in his behalf, the sentence was commuted, and after some months of confinement in a wretched dungeon and among the lowest criminals, he was transferred to the city of Mexico and finally obtained permission to leave the country.

The incidents of his Mexican campaign, despite its unfavorable issue, and its attendant perils and sufferings, served only to confirm his early preference for the profession of arms. The expeditions undertaken by him among the desolate solitudes of the territory of Hudson’s Bay, and in the far West, extending almost to the shores of the Pacific, afford instances no less striking of his passion for wild and daring adventures. In these almost desperate enterprises, where the prospect of difficulties and even a certain hazard of life seemed to constitute the chief attraction, there was, doubtless, a discipline for some of the higher virtues of the soldier. They tested to the utmost the power of endurance, the self-reliance and constancy under privation, and the energy and fearlessness of character, which, in his physical, and still more, in his mental constitution, he possessed in a remarkable degree.

In these aspirations of an impetuous and ardent nature, for the achievement of exploits fraught with difficulty and danger, in the generous disposition and manly qualities which every aspect of his character exhibited, but, chiefly, in their association with a true refinement and singular purity of thought and expression which imparted to them their highest charm, there is something which recalls the spirit of the days of chivalry, a spirit perfectly in harmony with that devoted affection for his mother and loving deference to her counsels, which was ever the controlling influence of his life.

But the time was not far distant when his energies were to find their true field of development. At the opening of the war, he obtained a commission in the regular army, but having been appointed from civil life, he did not at once enter upon active service in the field. He was finally attached to the Army of the Cumberland, under General Rosecrans, and in the important movement upon Tullahoma, which recovered Middle Tennessee, and conducted shortly to the occupation of Chattanooga, he led the advance, in command of the brigade of regulars, acquitting himself with the highest honor.

A short, but brilliant career, in which his high soldierly qualities gained him distinction among his fellow officers and the respect and confidence of his superiors, was brought to its early close in the great battle among the mountains of Tennessee, which so nearly proved an irretrievable disaster to the entire army.

On the morning of the 19th of September, he was stationed, in command of the 16th regular infantry, on the left of Gen. Baird’s division, of Thomas’s corps, and in front of the battery of the 5th artillery, the point where the tide of the enemy’s success was ultimately stayed by that heroic resistance, which alone saved the army from destruction. His position shortly became one of extreme peril. An officer, despatched with orders to retire, found it impossible to reach him. The line on the right having been forced back, the enemy advanced in front and flank for the possession of the battery, which was taken, and the remains of the three regiments in support were swept away. Of the 16th, but twenty-three men and five officers left the field. Its gallant commander, at the moment of imminent danger, pressed forward into the thickest of the fight, and fell, as he would have chosen, at the post of danger and of duty, among the brave men, whom he had himself trained for the conflict.

G. P. B.
Published in the Boston Daily Advertiser, 2 Jan. 1864.
Date Range
January 2, 1864
Boston Daily Advertiser