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  • Jake Wynn

James A. Beaver - The Civil War namesake of Penn State's football stadium

As the warm glow of summer fades into the chill of autumn, the immense roar of more than 100,000 people can be heard emanating from Pennsylvania's Happy Valley. On select Saturday afternoons, State College becomes the Keystone State's third largest city as crowds of Penn State football fans pour into Beaver Stadium.

Known for its "White Outs" and its hostility toward whomever is playing the Nittany Lions, Beaver Stadium is Pennsylvania's largest sports venue, easily eclipsing all challengers. The current stadium has played host to Penn State games since September 1960, but the stadium can trace its roots back to "Beaver Field" that first hosted athletic events in the 1890s.

But where did the stadium get its name? Turns out, it comes from a heroic amputee and veteran of the American Civil War from Central Pennsylvania - James A. Beaver.

James A. Beaver was born in Millerstown in northern Perry County on October 21, 1837. He grew up in both Perry and Mifflin counties before heading off to Jefferson College in Canonsburg, where he graduated in 1856.

The young man then began a law career in Bellefonte and gained admission to the bar in January 1859. While in the Centre County seat, he also joined the town's militia unit - the Bellefonte Fencibles - under the command of Captain Andrew G. Curtin, the future war-time governor of Pennsylvania.

When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, the 23-year-old Beaver marched off to "see the elephant," gaining a commission as a first lieutenant in Company H, 2nd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment. He served with this unit until they were mustered out, and on July 22, 1861, he attained the position of lieutenant colonel in the newly formed 45th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.

Beaver served with the 45th Pennsylvania as they were on detail in the coastal fortifications of South Carolina before taking command of the newly minted 148th Pennsylvania in the summer of 1862. Colonel Beaver served the remainder of his Civil War career with this regiment.

The 148th Pennsylvania avoided service in both the Battle of Antietam and the Battle of Fredericksburg, but was thrown into the fray for the first time at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. As Colonel Beaver led the 148th Pennsylvania into combat with Confederate forces on May 3, a bullet tore into the young officer.

"I fell violently upon my face," wrote Beaver of the instant the Confederate bullet tore into his abdomen. "When I turned upon my back, [I] found a hole in my clothing just beneath the two rows of buttons. Without stopping to consider the matter, I inferred that a ball had entered there and that my military service was ended.

The Battle of Chancellorsville by Frederic Chapman - this scene shows the fighting on May 3, 1863.

He was incorrect in that initial assessment. Upon being evacuated from the field under heavy fire, a surgeon examined his wound in a field hospital. The doctor noted the bullet struck a pencil in the officer's pocket, spraying shards of the writing instrument into his abdomen, but deflecting the path of the projectile away from his organs and out through his back. The wound knocked Colonel Beaver out of the battle, but not out of the war.

Colonel Beaver was taken to his home in Mifflin County to recover from his wound, which had grown infected due to the bits of fabric uniform that had been dragged into his wound by the Confederate bullet.

Before the wound was fully healed, however, Confederate forces invaded Pennsylvania. In mid-June, as the threat from Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia became fully known, Colonel Beaver raced from his home to Harrisburg in order to volunteer in the defense of the state capital. He served with General Darius Couch in the Department of the Susquehanna until mid-July, when he sought a return to the 148th Pennsylvania.

Harrisburg in June 1863 (Harper's Weekly)

He returned to his regiment and spent the fall of 1863 campaigning in Virginia, but the unit did not see combat again until May 1864 at the Battle of the Wilderness and the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. At the Battle of Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864, Colonel Beaver was again wounded while leading men into combat. This time, a Confederate bullet slammed through another officer's arm and smashed into Colonel Beaver's hip. As Beaver was wearing a waterproof coat at the time, the spent bullet did not penetrate the skin, but left behind "an ugly bruise." The hobbled Beaver rose to command of his brigade that day after its original leader also fell wounded.

The newly minted brigade commander received yet another wound two weeks later during the fighting around Petersburg, Virginia. The 148th Pennsylvania were ordered to participate in a charge against Confederate earthworks and Colonel Beaver led that unit and several others in the assault.

In the regimental history for the unit, Colonel Beaver described how he was blown up at the very maw of the Confederate guns:

We came under the very shadow of the works... and just as I was about to give the command for a cheer and the double quick what I suppose was the last discharge from one of the pieces of artillery in one of the redoubts... buried a shell in the ground, which exploded and blew me into the air feet foremost... I was probably unconscious for a little, for I have no recollection of what immediately followed. When I recovered consciousness, my orderly, who carried the brigade flag, had the pole under my arms and was dragging me along the ground with some additional help... The wound which I received was in the left side and was a very painful one and the issue of it quite uncertain for a time.

After a month's recovery, Beaver again returned to the brigade while still on the mend from his wound at Petersburg.

The wound that ended his military career came during the Battle of Ream's Station on August 25, 1864. While serving as a brigade commander, Beaver was surveying the scene on the battlefield astride a horse borrowed from a fellow officer when a Confederate sharpshooter took aim and put a bullet through his right leg, shattering the bone and nearly throwing the colonel from his horse.

He was dragged from the battlefield to a makeshift field hospital, where his shattered right leg was amputated. From there, stretcher bearers conveyed him more than 11 miles to a larger field hospital where wounded soldiers began their convalescence. He remained in the field hospital until October 1, and then spent time in a series of general hospitals before returning home to Pennsylvania in December 1864, his military service at an end. He received a brevet rank of brigadier general.

In the 148th Pennsylvania's regimental history, Beaver concluded his narrative with these lines about his service in the Civil War:

"I desire only to say that, whilst as a Regiment and as individuals, none of us did more than our duty, it has always been a source of great gratification to me that officers and men alike in our Regiment, with fewer exceptions than would naturally be expected, in every time of danger, emergency, and trail, rose to the demands of the occasion and, so far as my personal knowledge and memory go, brought no discredit upon the unsullied record of the Regiment.

We had an esprit de corps that was unusual, a well defined ideal toward which we aimed and a devotion to duty which met all demands and surmounted all obstacles. The comradeship, born of the scenes and trials through which we passed as a Regiment, has continued to this day and has been, as it continues to be, one of the greatest pleasures and most constant sources of enjoyment of my life."

James A. Beaver's career as lawyer took off upon his return home to Central Pennsylvania, followed by his entrance into the realm of Republican politics. Beaver was elected Governor of Pennsylvania in November 1886, serving one four-year term as the Keystone State's chief executive.

His connections with Penn State began when he was elected to the school's Board of Trustees in 1873. He served two terms on that board - 1873 to 1882, and 1897 to 1914. He also served as Acting President of the university from 1906 to 1908.

The disabled Civil War veteran forever connected himself with Penn State football when he lobbied the state legislature in the 1890s for improvements to the school's athletic facilities. The field on which the school's sports teams played was named Beaver Field in his honor and the name has been attached to Penn State's football stadium ever since.

James A. Beaver passed away in Bellefonte on January 31, 1914, at the age of 76.

On your next visit to Beaver Stadium for a Penn State football game or as you watch at home on television, remember the tremendous service and sacrifice of the man whose name is immortalized on Pennsylvania's largest stadium.


1 comment

1 Comment

Samantha Dodge
Samantha Dodge
Aug 30, 2019

Just saw this and Love it. Would Like to Share with Family.

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