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Merze Tate & The Civil War




30 Years Ago


About 30 years ago, I attended my husband’s class reunion in Plaquemine, Louisiana. He introduced Oscar Fields, one of his classmates who had been attending Howard University in Washington, DC at the time. When I told Oscar that my cousin Merze Tate was a professor of history at the University, he was in a state of awe. After that I could not stop him from rattling on about the good professor.

“There were long waiting lists of students trying to get into her classes,” he said.  He started telling me about the class in which he was enrolled just the past semester. “Her lectures were like reenactments.” “The whole class lived and breathed the air at Antietam in 1862 as if we were right there on the battlefield, he chattered.” “We were suspended in time as she spoke about one of the major battles of the Civil War.”


Carnage at Antietam, 1862


So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that Slavery is abolished.  I believe it will be greatly for the interest of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this that I would have cheerfully lost all that I have lost by the war, and have suffered all that I have suffered to have this object attained.


General Robert E. Lee, May 1, 1870


Dr. Tate…..The Confederates were driven far back on September 17, 1862.  It was a damp murky dawn when the battle started. Listen! Listen, over there to your right! You can hear the clatter of musketry sounding in the distance.


The college level 201 American History class had just started five minutes before. We were suspended in wonderment as our heads waggled right and then left as Dr. Tate spoke.


Dr. Tate……The rapid pouring of shots sounds like the muskets are hitting a tin pan. Listen! I bet it’s a single-shot, muzzle loader. Can you hear it?  The pauses are mixed together with single shots. It was Wednesday.  It was also the bloodiest day in American combat history with over 23,582 American deaths on both the Union and the Confederacy. As it turned out strategically, Antietam was a victory for the Union.


She continued…..More people were killed in that Civil War battle than the War of 1812, the Mexican, and the Spanish-American Wars combined. This battle was General Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North. Lee had taken a huge gamble in his quest for victory. The loss of human life at Antietam shocked both sides doing battle that day. With the Confederate troop’s backsides to the Potomac River, it nearly wiped out General Lee’s entire army.


The Union and Confederate Armies engaged in frontal attacks at each other, bayoneting the insurrectionists who resisted.  Blood turned the grass red. A bayonet was usually a 15-inch sword attached to a rifle.  When the developer of the musket found the shots could not damage an enemy at close proximity, the bayonet was utilized; one with an attached knife and the other a spear. Bayonets provided a useful addition to the weapons system. Musketmen could square properly to fend off cavalry attacks, when sword bayonets were fitted at the end of the rifles.


Finally, at a little past noon, two regiments charged across the bridge and drove its defenders away. The result was littering the fields with bodies of the dead and wunded.  The whole landscape once lined with greenery turned red.  The cornfield was so full of bodies that a man could have walked through it without stepping on the ground.  


Darkness ended the memorable struggle known as the Battle of Antietam. Of the brigades of Lawton and Hays, on the Confederate side, more than one-half were lost. On the morning of the 18th both parties seemed more willing to rest than to fight; and that night Lee and his army withdrew in the darkness, re-crossed the Potomac at Williamsport, and planted eight batteries on the high Virginia bank that menaced pursuers.


The fighting stopped out of shear exhaustion. Lee withdrew during the night of September 18, and re-crossed the Potomac.



Professor Tate's biography is included in numerous publications, including Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the United States, Who's Who Among American Women, Men and Women of Science, Who's Who in Southeastern United States, International Who's Who, British American Writers, Two Thousand Women of Achievement (London, 1972), Who's Who Among Colored Americans, and Who's Who Among in the Mid-West.

According to the Negro History Bulletin 1998, upon entering Oxford University in 1932, Merze Tate paused to ponder her future. Merze did it in a vein not unlike the British poet Milton expressed in one of his famous sonnets. Though considering "what before me lies," she also indicated an admirable sense of ethnic pride and a strong devotion. Tate was a distinguished scholar in European and diplomatic history and a role model struggling to prove the evilness of prejudice.

Few persons have ever achieved the high level of distinction like Merze Tate. She was the recipient of numerous awards, a few of which are listed as follows: National Urban League Achievement Award, 1948; Radcliffe College Alumnae Association Graduate Chapter Medal for Distinguished Professional Service, 1953; Louis Knott Koontz Memorial Award for the most deserving article published in the Pacific Historical Review, 1963; Michigan's Isabella County's Most Distinguished Citizen, 1969; Western Michigan University Distinguished Alumni Award, 1970; Award for Outstanding Work in the Field of Historical Research and Publication, Bridge-Builders, 1973; Graduate Student Council Award "for outstanding contribution to Howard University graduate education," 1975-1976; Spirit of Detroit Award, "for substantial efforts toward the betterment of Detroit as an attractive and refreshing community in which to work, live and play," 1978; the (Detroit) Mayor's Award of Merit, "on behalf of the citizens of Detroit, for significant and valued community activities and continued interest in improving the quality of life in Detroit," 1978; the American Black Artist's Pioneer Award, 1978: the Radcliffe College Alumnae Achievement Award, 1979; life membership (the only woman) in the Prometheans and the Promethean Plaque of Honor, for "outstanding and dedicated service in perpetuating the goals and ideals of the Prometheans, Inc.," 1980. 

Merze Tate was born on February 6, 1905, in the middle of a blizzard. The country doctor who lived in nearby Blanchard, MI could not drive his horse and sleigh through the 20 plus inches of snow.. Consequently, a German neighbor, Mrs. Vernie Fisch, officiated at the delivery, leaving the rest, including the medical examination and the preparation of a certificate of birth, for the physician who managed to get through the next day. Completing the birth certificate for the Isabella County files, the county clerk inadvertently recorded the new arrival as a "white female," thereby causing a minor complication some years later when Merze Tate applied for a passport to study in Geneva and to travel in western Europe.

By the time Merze was five years old, the log school buildings in the county had been replaced by frame, one-room structures, not painted red but a creamy white, with a belfry and spaced approximately four miles apart on surveyed dirt and gravel roads, which meant that no child generally had to walk further than two miles to school. Merze attended Rolland Township Elementary School Number Five, located on a one-acre corner of her parents' farm and less than one-quarter mile from her home.

The curriculum in Michigan's elementary schools was not limited to the three R's, but included geography, history, horticulture, orthography, and physiology. Dr. Tate recalls that her geography books were illustrated with fascinating pictures of the Acropolis, the Great Pyramids of Cheops and the Sphinx at Giza, the Cape of Good Hope, Victoria Fall of the Zambezi River, the temples of Siam and Cambodia, Mandalay, Singapore, Hang Kong, Zanzibar, Australia, New Zealand, the Fiji Islands, Niagra Falls, the Grand Canyon, the "Old Faithful" geyser in Yellowstone National Park, the huge redwood trees in California, and the Christ of the Andes, which prompted her to dream dreams of seeing those "far-away places with strange-sounding names."

Young Merze's visions of extensive travel were coupled with strong aspirations to emulate the didactical pursuits of her sister Thelma (ten years her senior), who had earned a diploma from Central Michigan Teachers College, had taught in two different elementary schools for a while, and later passed the Civil Service examination for a clerical position in the U.S. Post Office in Detroit.

Following the completion of her basic educational program, Merze, like all other elementary school graduates desiring to attend the high schools in Michigan, was required to pass a state examination. At age 13 she entered Blanchard High School to which she walked she walked over four miles each way, at times wading in snow up to her hips and water over her ankles. The long walks to and from Blanchard High were never dull or solitary. They were enlivened with observations of nature en route and the everchanging activities and colors of the seasons. Merze seemingly shortened the journey by reciting Thomas Gray's "An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard;" some of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales;" William Ernest Henley's "Invictus" and parts of his "England My England;" sections of the Declaration of Independence; and Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address."

In 1927, she graduated first in her class from Western Teachers College in Kalamazoo, where she became the first African-American to earn a B.A. Racial prejudice and Jim Crow practices kept Tate from finding a teaching position in Michigan.  However, in 1928 she was hired to teach history at Crispus Attucks High School, a newly opened facility for African American students in Indianapolis. Merze earned her Master's degree at Columbia University in 1930.  By 1932, she had entered Oxford University, where she earned the Litt.D. in 1935.  Her major field of study was international relations.

            Afterward Tate began an illustrious college teaching career that spanned more than forty years in historically Black institutions.  She began with the position of dean of women at Barber College in North Carolina.  From there she became the chair of social science at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina.  In 1941, Tate became the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in government and international relations from Harvard University, writing her dissertation on U.S. disarmament policies.  The following year she joined the faculty at Howard University, where she served for thirty-five years.

In her sophomore year, Blanchard High was destroyed by fire, and the classes were moved temporarily to the community churches. Since the makeshift school did not have laboratories for science, its students could not qualify for college entrance and were, therefore, graduated from the tenth grade. The youngest and only colored, Merze Tate, was named valedictorian.