Harvard-Military History Series

by Samuel C. Mahaney (NSF ’08), HVAO Historian


Why do we study science and math? We do so to gain understanding and then apply that understanding to engineering and technology! By doing so, we improve the world. So, why not study history in the same way?
We should study history to understand how our current circumstances came to be, then use our understanding to shape the world we want. In the case of the HVAO, we should study the history of Harvard and the military, two of our nation’s oldest institutions, then shape the relationship to best serve the nation and the world now and in the future. 
Ask people who have dabbled in the subject and they will tell you the relationship between Harvard and the U.S. military has primarily been positive and integrated. “The proof’s in the pudding,” they might say as they provide examples like the establishment of ROTC in 1916 and the building of monuments such as Memorial Hall, honoring the Harvard fallen of the Civil War who fought to maintain the Union.


Harvard ROTC in 1917. Harvard and the U.S. Military have a long, interconnected history. HUPSF R.O.T.C (PA 1), olvwork614474. Harvard University Archives.

Within months of being installed as Harvard President, Drew Gilpin Faust commented on the long relationship between Harvard and the military at an ROTC graduation in 2008. She gave an example from the American Civil War. “The 20th Massachusetts Regiment was known as the ‘Harvard Regiment,’ because so many of its officers were from this University.” [1] She also provided the example of Memorial Church and “the hundreds who died in World War I, including three Radcliffe women.” She added, “…we have since added memorials to those who sacrificed their lives in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.” In addition to Faust’s examples, the courage of 18 Medal of Honor (MOH) recipients provides testament to the willingness of Harvard alumni to serve and sacrifice. No other institution of higher learning (aside from West Point and Annapolis) has as many MOH recipients.[2]
The relationship between Harvard and the military hasn’t been completely harmonious, however. A strained relationship has existed at times. Most people can point to the broken relationship during and after the Vietnam War, but a strained relationship has existed during other periods of history as well. For example, almost no one cites the neutrality of Harvard toward military service during the mid-seventeenth century when the college prohibited service by its students in the militia and the Massachusetts Bay Colony granted an exemption from militia service to students and most alumni.
Another example occurred during World War I. When war broke out in Europe in 1914, many Harvard students took an anti-war position. In 1915, Harvard College students sent a letter to President Wilson supporting his isolationist stand.[3] They were not alone. Harvard Divinity School students petitioned Congress to oppose “any form of conscription.”[4] As the war in Europe continued and it became certain that the U.S. would enter, most of the student body, led by the Harvard Crimson and the Student Council, abandoned their isolationist position to support increased preparedness, conscription, and voluntary military training for all students.[5] With this support, Captain Constant Cordier and the Harvard Regiment organized to train 1,200 student members in 1916. It was during that same year that ROTC began at Harvard.[6]
As another example, the lead-up to World War II brought more protests as a vocal group of Harvard students tried to keep the United States out of the war. In May 1940, over 300 Harvard students petitioned President Franklin D. Roosevelt, imploring him to seek peace, not war.[7] In December 1940, 400 students, teachers, and workers marched on Harvard Yard shouting, “1941 shall not be 1917.”[8] When the United States went to war because of the attack on Pearl Harbor, discord faded. Harvard students and faculty got behind the war effort and the young men and women in harm’s way (including many from Harvard).
Harvard’s Vietnam War protests didn’t dissolve when the first Americans came under fire. Instead, the movement gained steam, leading to escalating protests and the expulsion of ROTC programs. Photo Credit: David Hunsberger, courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Harvard Radcliffe Institute.
Harvard’s Vietnam War protests, however, were different. Discord didn’t dissolve when the first Americans came under fire. Instead, the movement gained steam, leading to escalating protests and the expulsion of ROTC programs. Formal barriers to integration then remained for over forty years until Army ROTC returned to campus in 2011.
In February 2017, as Drew Gilpin Faust’s tenure as Harvard President approached its end, she pointed the way for both institutions to “set a path for the future,” where Harvard commits itself to “understand what we owe to the larger world of our nation and our society.” She made these remarks while dedicating an exhibit at the Pusey Library entitled, To Serve Better Thy Country: Four Centuries of Harvard and the Military. The exhibit highlighted the interwoven history of Harvard and the Military.[9] Since then, trends are positive. In 2019, Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow told ROTC graduates he hoped to strengthen the University’s acknowledgement of Harvard students and alumni who choose military service and to increase the number of students being commissioned in coming years.[10]
Thanks to the efforts of the HVAO, other veterans’ organizations, the Department of Defense, and Harvard leadership, things appear to be moving in the right direction. We, however, cannot take positive trends for granted. Only those acting proactively in the present make history! In the future, without studied proactivity, we could see a trend or reversion to the type of decayed relationship experienced during the Vietnam and post-Vietnam eras.
To best accomplish our goals, HVAO will act proactively. In addition to laser focus on our goals, our approach will include a focus on the history of Harvard and the military, identifying patterns and trends, successes and failures, and building the understanding needed to create the relationship we want for the institutions. In this way, we will optimally integrate our goals into both institution’s vision for today and the future.
This section of the monthly newsletter will focus on the lessons of history by digging into historical content to enable HVAO understanding and progress. Next up, an institutional relationship analysis from Harvard’s founding (1636) to King Philip’s War (1675-1678).

[1] Drew Gilpin Faust, Remarks at the Harvard ROTC Commissioning Ceremony (4 June 2008) transcript available at http://archive.boston.com/news/education/higher/articles/2008/06/05/drew_fausts_remarks_at_the_harvard_rotc_commissioning_ceremony/.
[2] Paul E. Mawn, “Medal of Honor Recipients from Harvard University,” https://www.advocatesforrotc.org/harvard/HarvardMOHrecipients.pdf.
[3] Gerald M. Rosberg, “War Protest at Harvard is Not New; Pacifists Got Support in '16 and '41,” The Harvard Crimson, June 16, 1966, https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1966/6/16/war-protest-at-harvard-is-not/.
[4] Rosberg.
[5] Rosberg.
[6] Rosberg.
[7] Rosberg.
[8] Rosberg.
[9] Colleen Walsh, “Honoring the Crimson Line,” The Harvard Gazette, 3 Feb 2017. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/02/honoring-the-crimson-line/.
[10] Colleen Walsh, “ROTC Students Receive their Commissions,” The Harvard Gazette, May 29, 2019, https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/05/harvards-rotc-students-receive-their-commissions/.


King Philip’s War remains the highest loss of life per capita of any war in colonial or U.S. history. Philip’s warriors killed at least 5% of the colonists and burned around 1,200 homes. His forces attacked over half of southern New England’s 90 settlements, destroying 12 of them. Historians estimate the loss to the Native American population at over 5,000 with at least 1,000 being sold into slavery. Engraving from Daniel Strock, Jr, Pictorial History of King Philip’s War, 1853 (Public Domain).
King Philip’s War raged in southern New England from 1675 to 1676, and spread as far north as Maine before ending there in 1678. On one side were English colonists and their Native American allies (the Mohegans and Mohawks). On the other side was Wampanoag leader, Metacom (known as King Philip by the English), and an alliance of Native American people infuriated with the growing colonial population and encroachment onto their traditional lands. The aim of both sides of this civil war was to eliminate the other. 
To find the cause of King Philip’s War, we go back to the powerful epidemic of 1616-19. Because of population loss among fighting-age members of the Wampanoag people, they were vulnerable to attack from their traditional enemies, the neighboring Narragansett Nation, who had suffered far less during the epidemic.
When the Plymouth colonists arrived from England in 1620, the leader of the Wampanoag Confederation, Massasoit Ousamequin, had a critical choice to make. Some of the lessor chiefs among the Wampanoag tribal groups called for Massasoit to overpower and annihilate the Pilgrims with warriors. Because of decades of exposure to European explorers, the chiefs believed nothing but death, destruction, and enslavement would result from allowing the colonists to live among them. As chief of the Wampanoag people, Massasoit faced a more pressing problem – the threat of attack and subjugation by Narragansetts. Instead of acquiescing to the dissenting Wampanoag chiefs, he built a strategic alliance with the Pilgrims to counter the Narragansett threat.
Fast forward four decades to when Philip became leader of the Wampanoag Confederation. The colonists, by the 1670s, had intermingled with Philip’s people, taking more and more land since first beginning their alliance with the Wampanoag decades before. A frustrated Philip weighed the pros and cons of continuing the alliance. He decided the colonists’ hunger for Wampanoag land would never abate, which would lead his people to “landlessness, servitude, and subjection.”[1] He thus abandoned the alliance with the English, replacing it with “an anticolonial military alliance between the Wampanoag, the Nipmuck, Pocumtuck peoples, and his traditional enemies, the Narragansett.”[2]
The new alliance had one purpose – to annihilate all colonial settlements. In the words of one historian, fulfillment of Philip’s plan would mean “the utter extinction of English civilization in New England, including the feeble lamp of learning [Harvard] on the Charles.”[3]
Philip abandoned the Wampanoag alliance with the colonists created by his father, Massasoit. He replaced it with a military alliance of Native Americans bent on annihilating all colonial settlements. Fulfillment of Philip’s plan would have led to extinction of English civilization in New England, including the young Harvard University. Painting:  Pictorial History of King Philip’s War (Public Domain).
In the 1670s, the New England colonies required “every able-bodied man between the ages of sixteen and sixty”[4] to maintain a weapon and ammunition and enroll in the militia. The General Court of Massachusetts, however, exempted Harvard presidents, fellows, students, and officers from militia service. The General Court also exempted four professions: ministers, teachers, doctors, and public servants (magistrates and officers of the court) from militia service.[5] Most Harvard graduates became ministers, and those who did not typically entered one of the other three exempted professions. As a result, attending or graduating from Harvard usually resulted in an exemption from militia duty.
Historian Samuel Eliot Morison explained the Harvard militia exemptions as a “desire to encourage and perpetuate an educated class.” He remarked that “pioneer conditions stimulate neither the importation nor the development [of an educated class].” Since the colony was to be ruled “through the clergy and magistracy,” the preservation of this educated class was “a prime necessity for the colony.”[6]
As tensions with the Wampanoag Confederation increased in the early 1670s, Harvard’s relationship with the militia changed. Graduates began influencing colonial defense and security policy. For example, in 1674, Harvard graduate Rev. Joshua Moody (College 1653) delivered a sermon to militiamen in Boston, addressing the concept of preparedness. He opined that five decades of prosperity and peace had dulled the militia. Moody also warned that without preparation, colonial militiamen would likely “do little toward beating the Enemy [if conflict broke out with Wampanoag].”[7] The Rev. Samuel Nowell (College 1653) also sermonized about preparedness. He argued that Abraham of the Old Testament was always prepared for hostilities and advised the militia to prepare for battle as the great patriarch had done.[8] Nowell later served on the Massachusetts Regimental Staff as chaplain and fought at the Great Swamp Fight in December 1675 (discussed later).
The bravery and sacrifice of a single Harvard man could not prevent the war from coming. Wassausmon, a Massachusetts Native American who was (known as John Sassamon by the English), was the first Native American to study at Harvard. As with many Native Americans who attended the Harvard Indian School, Sassamon did not graduate. He did, however, put the skills he learned at Harvard to good use. He scribed and interpreted for Philip. In 1675, upon learning of Philip’s plan to destroy the colonial settlements, he warned colonial officials. Before they could investigate, however, Sassamon drowned. Three of Philip’s men allegedly killed him. A colonial court convicted them and sentenced them to death by hanging. An infuriated Philip activated his new alliance and declared war on the colonial settlements of southern New England.
Plymouth Governor Josiah Winslow did not immediately heed John Sassamon’s warning that Philip planned to attack colonial settlements. Philip’s men allegedly took revenge and murdered Sassamon on his way home from delivering the intelligence. Engraving: Pictorial History of King Philip’s War (Public Domain).
Philip’s war plan proved effective. The colonists lost many settlements and came to understand their very survival was on the line. They must turn the tide or lose the remaining settlements. In the late fall of 1675, the Colonists developed a plan of their own. First, the colonies merged their efforts by strengthening the military portion of a confederation of colonies including Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Plymouth (with Rhode Island as an informal member). Second, they centralized command and control by placing the Governor of Plymouth Colony, Josiah Winslow (who attended Harvard for three-years in the late 1640s)[9] in command of the army, making Winslow the first American-born general in the colonies. Third, they recalled veteran militiamen and equipped about 1,100 men for a winter campaign. Finally, they adjusted their tactics, adapted their technology, and took the offensive to the Wampanoag and the Narragansets.[10]
Winslow selected Harvard graduates to form most of his three-person general staff.[11] Joseph Dudley (1665), the army’s chaplain, was a member of the Massachusetts General Court. Daniel Weld (1661) was the army’s Chirurgeon General (surgeon general).[12] He was renowned as one of “the most prominent and skillful surgeons the country afforded.”[13] Benjamin Church, an expert woodland and swamp fighter, was the only non-Harvard graduate on the staff.[14]
In December 1675, Winslow’s army marched in frigid weather through snowdrifts and frozen swamps toward the Narragansett people’s winter fort in what is now western Rhode Island. On December 19, the colonial army engaged in and won a decisive battle (the first meaningful victory for the colonists) called the Great Swamp Fight. As night fell on the battlefield and the army cared for the wounded, Captain Church advised General Winslow to keep the army at the fort overnight. Weld objected, saying the snow and frigid temperatures would “kill more men than the enemy had killed.”[15] Dudley agreed with Weld.[16] Winslow took the Harvard men’s advice, giving the order to burn the wigwams and march over ten miles (18 miles, according to some sources) to the shelter and warmth of a settlement.
The death of King Philip brought an end to the war. His warriors had destroyed 12 towns and burned 1,200 dwellings. The war ruined the colony’s economy, leaving widows and maimed veterans everywhere. A larger, indeterminate number of the native population also died in the war. Engraving: Pictorial History of King Philip’s War (Public Domain).
Aside from Winslow, Weld, and Dudley, many other Harvard students and graduates were soldiers of King Philip’s War. The Rev. Nicholas Noyes (Harvard, 1667) was at the Great Swamp Battle. (and later he was Chaplain at the Salem Witch Trials and presided over the hangings of the convicted). Gershom Buckley, (Harvard, 1655) was wounded at Wachusett Mountain as command surgeon of the Connecticut Colony. Rev. Israel Chauncy (Harvard, 1661) was also present at Wachusett Mountain as chaplain of the Connecticut militia. The Rev. James Noyes (Harvard, 1659) was chaplain of a company that captured Canonchet, chief sachem of the Narragansetts, described as “an enemy more dreaded than Philip himself.”[17] It is said that Noyes called for and assisted in the execution of the captured chief on the spot. There were other Harvard veterans as well. The war reduced the size of the classes to only seven graduates in 1675 and three in 1676.


After many battles and the adaptation of irregular warfare in the forests and swamps, the colonials (under the leadership of Benjamin Church) caught up to Philip, killing him on 12 August 1676. The war in southern New England ended soon after.
Most historians agree King Philip’s War resulted in the highest loss of life per capita of any war in colonial or U.S. history. Philip's forces attacked at least 52 of 90 colonial settlements, destroyed a dozen, and burned over 1,200 homes. The price number of lives lost is hard to pinpoint. Some historians claim the death toll was "perhaps 30% of the English population of New England---[and] estimate that the combined effects of war, disease, and starvatioin killed half the Native population of the region."[18] Most historians, however, place the death toll at about 5% of New England’s white settler population (including 10% of fighting age men), compared to 2.5% of the population in America’s Civil War.[19] Either way, the war ruined the colony’s economy for years to come, leaving widows and maimed veterans to carry on.
While the cost of war was horrific for the colonial population, it was catastrophic for the native population. Colonial soldiers killed around 2,000 Native Americans, while another 3,000 died because of sickness and starvation. Colonial leaders sold at least 1,000 as slaves, with thousands more fleeing to join Native American people to the north and west.[20] The English colonists had overwhelmed the Wampanoag people, just as some the lessor Wampanoag chiefs had originally predicted to Massasoit. In 1970, nearly 300 years after the King Philip’s War, Wampanoag Leader Frank James summed up the Wampanoags experience. “We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people.”[21]


For the first decades of its existence, Harvard had a detached relationship with the colonial militia because of a variety of exemptions from military service, but Harvard’s relationship with the military changed with the approach of King Philip’s War. First, graduates influenced colonial defense and security policy through sermons and speeches. Harvard men also held power in government and the military. Leaders such as Josiah Winslow helped create the colonial confederation and took charge of a 1,100-man army. He filled most of his command staff billets with Harvard graduates. This group, using the input of the era’s foremost tactician (Benjamin Church), took the lead in adjusting colonial tactics, adapting technology, and taking the offensive to the Wampanoag and the Narragansets.
There are no historical reports of Harvard protests or opposition during the war. There were, however, a good number of Harvard graduates who sat out of the war (primarily because of exemptions as clergy). Harvard’s support for the war was strong, with many Harvard students joining militia units. The bravery and sacrifice of John Sassamon – the first Native American to study at Harvard – exemplified a commitment to maintaining peaceful relations between the colonists and Native Americans. When hostilities began, the Great Swamp Fight experiences of Josiah Winslow, Joseph Dudley, and Daniel Weld exemplified the fighting spirit of Harvard; the wounding of Gershom Buckley (1655) at Wachusett Mountain and the resolve of Rev. James Noyes (Harvard, 1659) to capture Canonchet, chief sachem of the Narragansett’s showed Harvard’s commitment to end hostilities as quickly as possible through successful military action.
Author’s Notes:
- It is probable that John Sassamon was the first Harvard attendee to die in defense of the “nation” (of the colonies) and of his fellow human beings (trying to protect both sides from war). If so, we should honor him at the highest levels.
- All images are from, Daniel Strock, Jr, “Pictorial History of King Philip’s War” (Horace Wentworth: Boston), 1853. Under U.S. Copyright Law, the images are in the public domain due to copyright expiration.
[2] Silverman, “Sachem of the Wampanoag, Massasoit.”
[4] Robert A. Gross, The Minutemen and Their World (Hill & Wang: New York, 1976), 59.
[5] Records of the Governor and Company of Massachusetts Bay, II, 221, III, 196, XV 26-27, as cited in Morrison at page 556-57.
[7] Joshua Moodey, Souldiery [sic] Spiritualized, or the Christian Souldier [sic] Orderly, and Strenuously Engaged in the Spiritual Warre [sic], And so Fighting the good Fight (Boston, 1674), as cited in Morrison at page 558.
[8] Samuel Nowell, Abraham in Arms: or The first Religious General with his Army Engaging in a War for which he had wisely prepared…, as cited in Morrison at page 559.
[9] Winslow attended Harvard for three years, as was the requirement at the time, but did not take a degree. He is therefore not listed with any of the commencement classes. It is likely he attended in the mid to late 1640s. John L. Sibley, Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University, Vol. 1 (Cambridge: University Bookstore, 1873), 16.
[11] Ibid. George Madison Bodge, Soldiers in King Philip's war. Containing lists of the soldiers of Massachusetts Colony, who served in the Indian war of 1675-1677. With sketches…(Boston, 1891), 136. https://archive.org/details/soldiersinkingph00bodg/mode/2up?q=.
[12] Morison “Harvard in the Colonial Wars…,” 560.
[13] Bodge, Soldiers…(Boston, 1906), Chap. 13, part 4, http://www.usgennet.org/usa/topic/newengland/philip/11-20/ch13pt4.html, accessed 21 May 2021.
[15] Morison “Harvard in the Colonial Wars…,” 560.
[16] Letter of Joseph Dudley, 21 Dec 1675. http://bigelowsociety.com/rod/battles.htm, accessed 21 May 2021; Mr Smith's, 21, 10, 1675.
[18] Robert E. Cray Jr. "'Weltering in their own blood': puritan casualties in King Philip's War." Historical Journal of Massachusetts, vol. 37, no. 2, 2009, p. 106+. Gale Academic OneFile,… Accessed 27 May 2021.
[19] Jay Moor, King Philip's War: The History and Legacy of the 17th Century Conflict Between Puritan New England and the Native Americans (Charles River Editors,2016), 31.
[20] Rebecca Beatrice Brooks, “History of King Philip’s War,” History of Massachusetts Blog, 31 May 2017, https://historyofmassachusetts.org/what-was-king-philips-war/, accessed 21 May 2021.
[21] Mayflower 400, “Native America and the Mayflower: 400 years of Wampanoag history,” https://www.mayflower400uk.org/education/native-america-and-the-mayflower-400-years-of-wampanoag-history/, accessed 21 May 2021.


More About the Author

Major General (USAF, Retired) Samuel C. Mahaney finished his 36-year military career as Chief of Staff at Air Mobility Command, USAF, Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. He holds a JD from Saint Louis University, an MPA from Troy University, and a BA in history from Missouri University of Science and Technology. He attended Harvard University as National Security Fellow and spent four years on Capitol Hill as a Georgetown Legislative Fellow and a legislative liaison. He is a licensed attorney and former adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center.