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 [decorative delimiter] Class of 1821

Vol. I

(Born Md.)

Edward H. Courtenay

(Ap'd Md.)


Edward Henry Courtenay: Born Nov. 19, 1803, Baltimore, MD.

Military History. — Cadet at the Military Academy, Sep. 2, 1818, to July 1, 1821, when he was graduated and promoted in the Army to

Bvt. Second Lieut., Corps of Engineers, July 1, 1821.

Second Lieut., Corps of Engineers, July 1, 1821, to Feb. 16, 1829.

Served: at the Military Academy, 1821‑24, as Asst. Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy, July 23, 1821, to Sep. 1, 1822, — and Principal Asst. Professor of Engineering, Sep. 1, 1822, to Aug. 31, 1824; as Asst. Engineer in the construction of Ft. Adams, R. I., 1824‑26, — and Assistant to the Chief Engineer, at Washington, D. C., 1826‑28; and at the Military Academy, 1828‑34, as Acting Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy, Sep. 1, 1828, to Feb. 16, 1829, and as Professor,

(Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy, Military Academy, Feb. 16, 1829)

Feb. 16, 1829, to Dec. 31, 1834.

Resigned, Dec. 31, 1834.

Civil History. — Professor of Mathematics, University of Pennsylvania, 1834‑36. Division Engineer, New York and Erie Railroad, 1836‑37. Civil Engineer in the service of the United States, employed in the construction of Ft. Independence, Boston harbor, 1837‑41. Chief Engineer of Dry Dock, Brooklyn Navy Yard, N. Y., 1841‑42. Professor of Mathematics, University of Virginia, 1842‑53. Author of "Elementary Treatise on Mechanics, translated from the French of M. Boucharlat, with additions and emendations, designed to adapt it to the use of the Cadets of the U. S. Military Academy," 1833, — and of "Treatise on Differential and Integral Calculus, and the Calculus of Variations," published 1855, after his death. Degree of A. M., conferred by the University of Pennsylvania, 1834; and of LL. D., by Hampden Sidney College, Va., 1846.

Died, Dec. 21, 1853, at Charlottesville, Va.: Aged 50.

Buried, University of Virginia Cemetery, Charlottesville, VA.

Biographical Sketch.

Professor Edward H. Courtenay was born, Nov. 19, 1803, in the city of Baltimore, Md. His early education must have been excellent, for his initiatory examination at the Military Academy, which he entered Sep. 2, 1818, before he was fifteen years old, made so strong an impression upon the Academic Board that it was predicted he would take the first honor in his class. He fulfilled expectations in not only graduating at the head of his class in 1821, but mastered the whole course of studies in less than three years, the usual term being four.

He was promoted in the Army to be Bvt. Second Lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers, July 1, 1821; and, till Aug. 31, 1824, was on duty at the Military Academy in the Department of Natural and Experimental Philosophy, of which he subsequently became the distinguished head. From 1824 to 1826, he was an Assistant Engineer under Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Totten in the construction of Ft. Adams, Newport Harbor, R. I.; and from 1826 to 1828 was in the Engineer Bureau at Washington city, as Assistant to General Macomb, then Chief Engineer of the U. S. Army. He was detailed, Sep. 1, 1828, as Acting Professor, and Feb. 16, 1829, when he resigned his Second Lieutenancy of Engineers, became full Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy in the Military Academy, he then being only twenty-five years old.

p264 It was the writer's good fortune, in 1831‑2, to be daily under Professor Courtenay's admirable instruction, to profit by his great erudition in philosophy, to listen to his sweet voice making clear every abstruse point, to receive liberally of his hoarded stores of knowledge, and to share that tender consideration and fostering care which he bestowed on all his pupils. Francoeur, our text-book on Mechanics, was esteemed the most attractive of scientific volumes, doubtless quite as much because of enthusiasm for our teacher as for the great truths therein taught. The lower sections of the class studied "Boucharlat's Traité de Mécanique," which Courtenay, in 1833, translated into English, and made additions and emendations to adapt it to the use of the Cadets of the Military Academy.

After our class had passed from under Courtenay's instruction, such was our reverence and affection for this gentle son of science, this skilled educator, this learned philosopher, and this Christian gentleman, that we asked him to sit for his portrait and accept it as a token of our respect and gratitude. His chaste, considerate, and thoughtful reply, declining the offer, can never be forgotten. In phraseology full of delicacy, nice appreciation of our motives, and evincing warm attachment for us all, he told us of the false position in which it would place him among his colleagues, as deserving as himself, and further that it was a breach of discipline for soldiers to reward superiors, for that would imply an equal right to censure them.

With a compensation having an inverse ratio to his talents and acquirements, Courtenay felt constrained, in order to provide for the wants of his increasing family,a to tender, Dec. 31, 1834, the resignation of a professorship which he had held for over six years, with such credit to himself, such profit to his pupils, such strength to the Academic Board, and such honor to his Alma Mater. After leaving West Point he became Professor of Mathematics in the University of Pennsylvania for two years, when he was tempted to accept the lucrative position of Division Engineer on the New York and Erie Railroad. He continued in the profession of Civil Engineer for six years, being employed in the Service of the United States, 1837‑41, on the construction of Ft. Independence, Boston Harbor, Mas., and, 1841‑42, as the Chief Engineer of the Navy Yard Dry Dock, at Brooklyn, N. Y.

Courtenay, in 1842, was unexpectedly called to the Chair of Mathematics in the institution founded and cradled by the illustrious Jefferson, who, when he drew up the epitaph to be inscribed upon his tomb, added to the words "Author of the Declaration of Independence" those others, "Father of the University of Virginia." Here, at Charlottesville, following his congenial pursuits of study and imparting knowledge, and associated with ripe scholars and sympathizing friends, Courtenay passed the remainder of his days, alas, too brief! he having terminated his career of true excellence and varied usefulness, Dec. 21, 1853, at the early age of fifty years. The Faculty of the University met the next day to pass appropriate resolutions expressive of their great loss. From the minutes we make the following extracts:—

"Prof. Edward H Courtenay, having been cut down in the prime of life by sudden and severe disease, the members of the Faculty, while humbly submitting to the decree of an all-wise and merciful Providence, think it due to their deceased colleague and to themselves to testify their respect for his memory, and to give expression to their grief on account of the calamity which has befallen them, as his neighbors and friends, and as members of the institution of which he was a distinguished ornament.

"The constant witnesses of the fidelity with which he discharged the duties of his official station, and knowing him long and intimately in the p265relations of private life, they are enabled to testify with emphasis to his merits as an earnest and successful teacher, a courteous and amiable gentleman, and a truly good man.

"His high reputation, acquired during a service of several years as one of the Professors in the National Military Academy at West Point, induced the visitors of the University to offer him, eleven years ago, an unsolicited appointment to the Chair of Mathematics in this institution. It would be superfluous now to say that the manner in which he has discharged the responsible duties of that position has abundantly fulfilled the high expectations founded on his extensive reputation. One circumstance connected with his official relations with the University deserves to be specially noticed as characteristic of the man, and as serving to explain the fact that one so eminent for his talents and scientific attainments contributed so little, by the published result of his labors, to the progress of the Mathematical and Physical Sciences. Conceiving it to be his first duty to give thorough instruction to the youth confided to his care, and finding that the whole burden of instructing all the mathematical classes was to be borne by himself without, until recently, any assistance, he made it a point of conscience to devote all his time and energies to the laborious task. An overruling sense of duty thus constrained him to forego the more pleasant employment of aiding to extend the boundaries of human knowledge in his department of science, a work for which he was admirably fitted both by natural endowments and by long and assiduous culture.

"In the relations of private life, he was a pattern of all the manly virtues, a devoted husband and father, a warm friend, a kind neighbor, and a courteous gentleman, whose gentle and winning manners reflected the unaffected impulses of an amiable heart. But while these milder qualities of the heart gave a singular charm to his life, both public and private, the sterner virtues, equally marked, were joined with them in admirable harmony of proportion to form a character as remarkable for its strength as for its loveliness. His purposes being formed with deliberation were adhered to with a firmness that resisted the strongest temptations arising from the kindly impulse of his nature. To him, indeed, might well be applied the line of the ancient poet, —

" 'Justum et tenacem propositi virum.'b

"And he was yet more than all this: he was a sincere and unobtrusive Christian, resting his hopes for eternity not on his own virtues, but on the merits of a Divine Redeemer."

In addition to these evidences of touching sorrow, the Faculty has caused a monument to be erected over Courtenay's grave, and a portrait of the great professor, executed by John B. Martin, to be hung in the library of the University of Virginia.

Courtenay, in the closing years of his life, created for himself a monument more durable than marble in his able "Treatise on the Differential and Integral Calculus, and the Calculus of Variations," which was published after his death; and he has left an indelible portrait in the hearts of all who knew this most faithful, gifted, and thorough instructor; this kindest, purest, and truest of friends; this most gentle, modest, and meritorious of men; and this highly accomplished scholar and erudite scientist, whom both the University of Pennsylvania and Hampden Sidney College delighted to honor with the degree of LL. D.

Sensibly aware of the difficulty of doing justice to our learned and loved professor, and to such a perfect model of men, we prefer to give the summary of Courtenay's character written in 1855 by the polished pen of one who knew him most intimately, — the late Professor Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Charles Davies, — who says:—

"The intellectual faculties of Professor Courtenay were blended in such p266just proportions that each seemed to aid and strengthen all the others. He examined the elements of knowledge with a microscopic power, and no distinction was so minute as to elude the vigilance of his search. He compared the elements of knowledge with a logic so scrutinizing that error found no place in his conclusions; and he possessed in an eminent degree that marked characteristic of a great mind, the power of a just and profound generalization.

"His mind was quick, clear, accurate, and discriminating in its apprehensions; rapid and certain in its reasoning processes, and far-reaching and profound in its general views. It was admirably adapted both to acquire and use knowledge. The intellectual faculties, however, are but the pedestal and shape of the column. The moral and social faculties are its entablature or crowning glory. It is these faculties which shed over the whole character a soft and attracting radiance, exhibiting in a favorable light the majesty of intellect and the divine attributes of truth, justice, and beneficence.

"It was the ardent desire and steady aim of Professor Courtenay, during his whole life, to be governed by these principles, and there are few cases in which the ideal and the actual have been brought more closely together. Modest and unassuming in his manner even to diffidence, he was bold, resolute, and firm and in asserting and maintaining the right. Liberal in his judgments of others, he was exacting in regard to himself. He could discriminate, reason, and decide quickly even when his own interests were involved in the issue. His love of truth and justice was stronger than his love of self or of friends.

"His intercourse with others was marked by the gentlest courtesies. He was an attentive and eloquent listener. Differences of opinion appeared to excite regret rather than provoke argument, and his habitual respect for the feelings, opinions, and wishes of others imparted an indescribable charm to his manners.

"As a Professor he was a model. He was clear, concise, and luminous in his style and methods. Laborious in the preparation of his lectures, even to the minutest facts, he was at all times prepared to impart information. His manner as a teacher was highly attractive. He never, by look, word, or emphasis disparaged the efforts or undervalued the acquirements of his pupils. His pleasant smile and kind voice when he must say, 'Is that answer perfectly correct?' gave hope to many minds struggling with the difficulties of science, and have left the impression of affectionate reconciliation in many hearts.

"At the Military academy, on the banks of the Hudson, where Mr. Courtenay was educated, and where he first labored to advance the interests of instruction and science, his name is recorded on the list of distinguished graduates, and honorably enrolled among the most eminent professors of that institution. There his labors and memory will live long together.

"At the University of Virginia he has left a name equally dear to that distinguished Faculty, of which he was an ornament, and to many pupils whom he there taught. When these, in later years, shall revisit their Alma Mater to revive early and cherished recollections, — to strengthen the bonds of early friendships and review their resolves to be good and great, — they will find that a wide space has been made vacant. They will realize in sorrow that a favorite professor has been transferred from the Halls of Instruction to the Grove of Pines which borders the town, and which contains the remains of the revered dead. Thither they will go in the twilight of the evening to visit the grave of the man of science, their able teacher and faithful friend. In reviewing his life and contemplating his character, they will exclaim:

" 'Mark the perfect man and behold the upright, for the end of that man is peace.' "

Thayer's Notes:

a For the sixteen known children of our philoprogenitive Prof. Courtenay, a number of whom sadly died young, see this genealogy page devoted to Hercules Courtenay, his grandfather. Among his daughters, two married West Pointers: Sarah became the wife of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Henry Brewerton, Mary Isabella of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Chauncey B. Reese.

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b "A man just and steadfast of purpose" — Horace, Odes, III.III.1.

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Page updated: 17 Feb 13