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Corvallis veterans were heroes of two different Civil Wars

The farmer was a former Union general; the pastor, an ex-Rebel soldier who once faced his forces on a battlefield. But in Corvallis, they traded enmity for friendship, and blue-vs.-gray for Beavers-vs.-Ducks.

The very elderly Dr. J.R.N. Bell at the hat-tossing ceremony by the Marys River in Corvallis in 1925, three years before his death. (Image: OSU Archives)

On July 28, 1915, one of the heroes of the American Civil War was laid to rest in a grave in Crystal Lake Cemetery in Corvallis.

The life story of U.S. Army General Thomas Thorp had been a remarkable one. But nothing it contained was too much more remarkable than the story of that funeral service. Presiding over it was one of Thorp’s best friends, a Methodist minister and fellow Civil War veteran named John Richard Newton Bell — J.R.N., as he was called by his friends (which is to say, by pretty much everyone).

Bell was a Confederate veteran — a Virginian by birth. When Thorp had arrived in Corvallis 15 years before, he and Bell had quickly found each other — the Civil War veterans of both sides formed a sort of informal brotherhood in every community at that time. So, of course, Thorp and Bell started reminiscing about battles they’d been involved in, cross-referencing their memories to see if they might have been in the same fights.

They quickly realized that, in fact, they had. In a pitched battle late in the war, the regiment Thorp commanded — the 1st New York Dragoons — had actually captured Bell and hauled him off to a prisoner-of-war camp.

Thomas and Mandala Thorp as they appeared in a portrait made shortly after the Civil War. (Image: Allegany County Historical Society)

The two of them had never actually met in person on the battlefield — it would have been a bit odd for that to have happened, given that Bell was a private soldier and Thorp was a full-bird colonel in charge of the regiment that had captured him. But both men considered it a marvelous coincidence, and it became the basis for a great friendship.

The Civil War hero: Blue vs. Gray

The first half of Thomas Thorp’s life was utterly dominated by the U.S. Army. But, although both his grandfathers had fought in the Revolutionary War, he clearly wasn’t envisioning a military career for himself until the rebellion broke out.

When it did, he was close to graduation from Union College in Schenectady. Leaving his classes behind, he raced to join the Army. He was appointed a captain in a regiment of volunteer infantry, and finished up his college work in the field; his degree was conferred on him while he was with his regiment.

He also was married before his regiment; in 1862, while recovering from a battle wound, he met Mandana Major, the daughter of another officer. Both of them were part of a group of recruiters barnstorming New York trying to enlist volunteers for the war. When Thomas and Mandana were married, it was before the full regiment, and they exited the ceremony beneath an arch of crossed sabers.

The two of them then plunged into action — he fighting with his regiment, and she helping in an auxiliary role; she insisted on accompanying him in the field. Thorp was captured in the battle of Trevelyan Station, but in the POW camp he made such fiery patriotic speeches that the rebels decided he was a security threat, and transferred him to a POW camp in Charleston; while en route, his guards fell asleep, so he leaped off the speeding train into the blackness without. Landing by sheer good fortune without being injured or killed, he then traveled back through hundreds of miles of enemy territory to rejoin his regiment.

At the end of the war, Thorp was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General by brevet (which means, essentially, that his title got a promotion but his paycheck did not; he remained a colonel in all but name).

After the war, the Thorps headed west. They farmed and ranched in Michigan and Arizona before coming to Newberg in the early 1890s when their two children enrolled in Pacific College (not to be confused with Pacific University in Forest Grove, which was then called Tualitin Academy; Pacific College was the Quaker college, which is now called George Fox University). By the turn of the century, they’d settled in Corvallis, where Thorp met the former enemy who was to become his great friend: The Reverend Dr. J.R.N. Bell.

The Civil War hero: Beavers vs. Ducks

The Reverend Dr. John Richard Newton Bell as he appeared in 1910. (Image: OSU Archives)

J.R.N. Bell was just 16 when the Civil War broke out, but he was already a college student — studying theology at Wytheville College in Virginia. When the shooting started, he, like Thorp, rallied to his local flag; but unlike Thorp, he entered the service as a plain Confederate private.

Bell saw plenty of action; he took a bayonet through the shoulder in a Union charge at Cold Harbor, and fought in 32 battles. By the time he was captured by Thorp’s regiment, he was a seasoned veteran. Even so, Thorp may have saved his life on that battlefield: of the original 86 members of his company, only himself and three other men survived the war alive and physically intact.

After the war, Bell took a job teaching school to raise tuition money to finish his degree; while there, he met and married his wife, fellow teacher Margaret Kirk. Once he’d graduated, he was ordained a Methodist minister and, after a brief assignment in Arkansas, found himself embarking on what would be a 50-year career in Oregon — starting with the Southern Methodist Church in Ashland.

Bell finally settled in Corvallis in 1907, but he was no stranger to the town. He was, by then, the most well-known pastor of any denomination in Oregon. He’d led Methodist and Presbyterian congregations in Baker City, Independence and Roseburg, as well as at least one previous stint in Corvallis. He’d delivered guest sermons at hundreds of churches of various denominations. He’d also earned the informal title of “the marrying parson” — he’d presided over more than 1,000 marriages and had become a family tradition for many families; the sons and daughters of couples he’d married would seek him out when it was time for them to get married in turn. He also had held the office of Grand Chaplain of the Masons for longer than anyone else in history.

And he’d made a name for himself in a new kind of Civil War: the one between the rival football teams of Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University) and the University of Oregon. Bell joined the board of trustees of OAC in 1874 — six years after the college was founded, and the same year the rival U. of O. was established. He became one of the founders of the athletic program at OAC, and was an enthusiastic spectator at the very first Civil War football game in 1894 — a game from which would spring the oldest college football rivalry on the West Coast. Following the 16-0 victory for OAC, Bell got a little carried away; he rushed down the hill to the bank of the Marys River and threw his top hat into the drink.

After that, every year the Beavers beat the Ducks, Bell would re-enact this historic hat-dunking. This became one of Corvallis’ biggest social events; thousands of fellow Beavers fans would make the journey with him to the water’s edge and cheer the hat on its slow, watery way toward the Willamette. Fortunately for Bell’s finances, the Beavers didn’t win very often at first; after that first year, they won just four games in the following 30 years (although they tied eight).

In 1921, the college named its football stadium after Bell, and from then until 1953, the Beavers played in Bell Field.

J.R.N. Bell died in 1928, right at the end of the Beavers’ first streak of back-to-back Civil War wins (1925-1927). He was buried in Crystal Lake Cemetery, near his old friend and former wartime enemy Thorp, and almost within a hat’s toss of the Marys River.

(Sources: Fletcher, Randol B. Hidden History of Civil War Oregon. Charleston: History Press, 2011; Corvallis Gazette-Times, 27 July 1915)