November 3, 2011

Better Know an Officer: Lieut. William Wilberforce Nevin

Location: Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, PA 17603-2827, USA
Lt. W. Wilberforce Nevin (taken 7/14/1862)
Don Wisnoski Collection, USAMHI
Name: William Wilberforce Nevin, 1st Lieut., Company G
Born: March 1, 1836, Allegheny, PA
Education: Franklin and Marshall College: Valedictorian, Class of 1853
Occupation: Lawyer since 1859. Before that, teacher in Sewickley, PA. 
Political Beliefs: Republican
Term of Service: Enlisted September 23, 1861. Promoted to Captain, August 23, 1862. Assistant Adjutant General on May 26, 1863.
Post-war: Lawyer, newspaper editor, railroad man. 
Death: September 27, 1899.  Buried in Woodward Hill Cemetery. 

Continuing the trend of 79th Pennsylvania line officers having immediate family members at the forefront of education in Lancaster (i.e., McCaskey and Wickersham), this post introduces Lieut. William Wilberforce Nevin (bio) of Company G, 79th Pennsylvania, hailed as "a patriot, a scholar, a gentleman."  The son of a distinguished German Reformed theologian and future president of Franklin and Marshall College, Wilberforce Nevin graduated at the top of his class at F&M in 1853.  His occasional letters as an officer in the 79th Pennsylvania to the Daily Evening Express exhibit enviable eloquence and reflect a distinguished career that spanned education, law, newspapers, and railroads.

Service Card of W. W. Nevin, PA Card File
Nevin joined the 79th Pennsylvania in September 1861 as one of three lawyers who recruited and led what became Company G.  After the war, Nevin continued his work as a lawyer in Lancaster, and his name appears regularly between 1865 and 1867+ as an active participant in Republican politics and veterans organizations, as well as working pro bono as a lawyer for veterans.  He became a journalist for the Lancaster Daily Evening Express and later for the well-respected Philadelphia Press.  Nevin spent the years 1879 and 1880 traveling in Europe and published his travel memoirs, Vignettes of Travel.  You can view a particularly interesting chapter, Chapter 5 beginning on p. 36, comparing Lancaster, Pennsylvania, as he knew it with Lancashire, England.  Later, Nevin moved to New York to work on behalf of railroads until shortly before his death in 1899.

Although I don't know much about Nevin's religious beliefs, his father is very interesting for having played a central role in one of the major conflicts of religion in America: the mid-nineteenth century clash between confessionalists and pietists that would help determine the character of Protestant denominations.  Loosely speaking, confessionalists advocated a more conservative understanding of the key theological formulations of the Reformation, while pietists favored a more "American" approach that emphasized revivals, conversion stories, and modern ways of expressing faith typical of the Second Great Awakening.  While this may sound dull, it's actually a very fascinating topic to watch unfold, especially for anyone trying to understand Christianity in all of its forms today.  I'll have more about this debate--especially as it relates to addressing the issue of slavery--when the Lutherans' national body convenes in Lancaster in May 1862.

Dr. John Williamson Nevin
Father of W. W. Nevin
Anyway, Wilberforce's father, John Williamson Nevin, made a name for himself as a "High Church Calvinist" while a seminary professor in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania.  During the 1840s, Nevin and a colleague attracted attention as proponents of what became known as the "Mercersburg Theology."  A bitter adversary at this time was a man named John Winebrenner, who essentially seceded from the German Reformed Church to create the Church of God, a more evangelistic, Baptist-like organization.  Winebrenner operated mostly out of Harrisburg with many churches in Lancaster, as well as the Church Advocate newspaper.  Wrapping up this tangent, this is the newspaper to which many soldiers wrote, including F. J. Bender regularly and E. H. Witmer on two occasions.  So, when trying to understand the religious world in which Civil War soldiers lived, it's important to recognize them as the children of the generation that faced many high-level choices and conflicts about the direction of Christianity in America.  

Grave of W. W. Nevin
Woodward Hill Cemetery
Back to W. Wilberforce Nevin, I hope you enjoy reading his letters as the secondary correspondent (to E. H. Witmer) to the Daily Evening Express, and are impressed by the authority with which he yielded his pen.  It looks like there will be two more over the next two months.  Apparently, a collection of W. W. Nevin's private letters to family members are housed in the Library of Congress, but I have yet to view them despite a deep desire to do so.  By the way, you might also be familiar with the sculptures of Wilberforce's sister, Blanche, including the Reservoir Park lion in Lancaster and the horse drinking fountain at the corner of W. Orange and King Streets. 

Further Reading:


  1. Vince,

    We have at least one letter at Wheatland that mentions "Bob" Nevin's experiences in the war too. It sounds as if he was holding on to a fellow comrade at the shoulder when the man was shot to death. It moved him deeply, and this news was communicated not only to his family, but to Buchanan's household as well.

    -Jennie (Wheatland)

    1. Thank you for the comment, Jennie. I'm guessing Bob Nevin was Lieut. Robert J. Nevin (W. W. Nevin's brother) of Company C, 122nd Pennsylvania...was the letter written around the time of the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863?