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 [decorative delimiter] Class of 1829

Vol. I

(Born Ky.)

O. McKnight Mitchel​a

(Ap'd Ky.)


Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel: Born July 20, 1809, near Morganfield, KY.​b1

Military History. — Cadet at the Military Academy, July 1, 1825, to July 1, 1829, when he was graduated and promoted in the Army to

Bvt. Second Lieut., 2d Artillery, July 1, 1829.

Second Lieut., 2d Artillery, July 1, 1829.

Served: at the Military Academy, as Asst. Professor of Mathematics, Aug. 30, 1829, to Aug. 28, 1831; and in garrison at Ft. Marion, Fla., 1832.

Resigned, Sep. 30, 1832.

Civil History. — Counselor at Law, Cincinnati, O., 1832‑34. Chief Engineer of Little Miami Railroad, 1836‑37. Professor of Mathematics, Philosophy, and Astronomy, Cincinnati College, O., 1834‑44. Member of the Board of Visitors to the Military Academy, 1841. Lecturer on Astronomy, throughout the principal cities of the United States, 1842‑48. Founder and Director of the Mitchel Observatory at Cincinnati, O., 1845‑59. Editor and Publisher of the "Sidereal Messenger," an Astronomical Journal, 1846‑48. Adjutant-General of the State of Ohio, 1847‑48. Chief Engineer, Ohio and Mississippi Railroad, 1848‑49, and 1852‑53. Director of the Dudley Observatory, Albany, N. Y., 1859‑61. Author of "Popular Astronomy," 1860, — of "Planetary and Stellar Worlds," 1860, — and of "Astronomy of the Bible," published 1863, after his death. Degree of A. M., conferred by Harvard University, Mas., 1848, — of F. R. A. S., by Royal Astronomical Society of London, Eng., — and of LL. D., by Washington College, Pa. Member of various scientific associations, 1834‑61. Inventor of Declinometer, and other ingenious astronomical apparatus.

Military History. — Served during the Rebellion of the Seceding

(Brig.‑General, U. S. Volunteers, Aug. 9, 1861)

 p430  States, 1861‑62: in command of the Department of the Ohio, Sep. 19 to Nov. 15, 1861; in the Tennessee and North Alabama Campaign (Army of the Ohio), Nov., 1861-July, 1862, being engaged in organizing volunteers at Louisville, Ky., Nov.‑Dec., 1861, — Occupation of Bowling Green, Ky. (abandoned by the Rebels), Feb. 9, 1862, and Nashville, Ten., Feb. 23, 1862, — March to Huntsville, Ala., Feb.‑Apr., 1862, — Action near Bridgeport, Ala., Apr. 30, 1862, — and taking possession of the railroad from Decatur to Stevenson, by which the control of Northern

(Major-General, U. S. Volunteers, Apr. 11, 1862)

Alabama was secured; and in command of the Department of the South, and 10th Army Corps, Sep. 17 to Oct. 30, 1862.

Died, Oct. 30, 1862, at Beaufort, S. C.: Aged 52.

Buried, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY.

Biographical Sketch.

Professor Mitchel was born, Aug. 28, 1810, in Union County,​b2 Kentucky. Immediately after the death of his father his family removed to Ohio, where he acquired the elements of a classical and mathematical education; at the age of twelve became a clerk in a store in the town of Miami; and three years later entered the Military Academy, from which he was graduated, in 1829, fifteenth in a very notable class. Promoted to the Artillery, after his graduation leave of absence, he was detailed as an Asst. Professor of Mathematics in the Military Academy, remaining there two years, when he joined his company at Fort Marion, Fla. He resigned from the Army, Sep. 30, 1832, well knowing there was no prospect of achieving usefulness or fame except through persevering labor and an ardent ambition for distinction.

Immediately after his resignation he opened an office as Counselor at Law in Cincinnati, in which position he continued until the establishment of the Cincinnati College, in 1834, of which he was elected the Professor of Mathematics, Philosophy, and Astronomy, holding this position till 1844, when the college buildings were destroyed by fire. During his professor­ship, to add to his means, he became, in 1836‑37, the Chief Engineer of the Little Miami Railway.

Mitchel, in 1842, to ascertain whether any interest could be excited in the public mind in favor of astronomy, delivered a course of lectures upon the subject in Cincinnati College. Encouraged by their success, he matured a plan for the building of an observatory, but found that besides money there were required a good model for the structure, a practical knowledge of astronomy, and suitable instruments for observations. These were not to be obtained in this new country; therefore he resolved to go at once to Europe, for which he embarked, June 16, 1842, in a sailing vessel, not having money enough to go in a steamer. Failing to find what he wanted in England or France, he proceeded to Fraunhofer's famous optical institute in Munich, where he procured a twelve-inch object-glass for his equatorial telescope. Returning to England he entered the Greenwich Observatory as a student, and after a few months of diligent practice came back to America.

Nicholas Longworth having given four acres on a hilltop near Cincinnati for a site for the observatory, preparations were made to commence its erection. On Nov. 9, 1853, the corner-stone of the pier, upon which was to be placed the great Refracting Telescope, was laid with appropriate ceremonies, John Quincy Adams, "the old man eloquent," there making his last notable oration. In two years the observatory was completed; but Mitchel had consumed all of his private funds, and was now without income, his professor­ship having ended with the burning of the College. But what seemed his misfortune was a blessing in disguise,  p431 for, when once thrown upon his own creative energies, his "sleepless soul" knew no rest.

"My ordinary means of support," says he, "were thus destroyed at a single blow. I had engaged to conduct the Observatory without compensation from the society for ten years, in the hope that my college salary would be sufficient for my wants. It was impossible to abandon the Observatory. The College could not be rebuilt, at least for several years, and in this emergency I found it necessary to seek some means of support least inconsistent with my duties in the Observatory. My public lectures at home had been comparatively well received, and after much hesitation it was resolved to make an experiment elsewhere."

With his characteristic boldness, immense energy, and unbounded enthusiasm, he entered the field as a professional lecturer, in which he continued with brilliant success for fifteen years, making the tour of almost every city in the United States. In these lectures he never attempted to amuse his audience, but in flights of eloquence soared to the realms above and thither carried his entranced hearers. He never forgot the dignity and sublimity of his lofty theme, but by his earnestness and magnetism won the sympathy of his listeners, and held them captive to the end.

Besides lecturing, he became the editor of an astronomical journal, was the Adjutant-General of Ohio for a year, and became the Chief Engineer of the Ohio and Mississippi Railway for some years.

In the mean time Mitchel did not forget his obligations to the Observatory, from which he made many valuable discoveries in the stellar world, and greatly improved astronomical instruments and methods. His pioneer Mitchel Observatory was succeeded in 1859 by the Dudley Observatory, in Albany, he being its director. To Mitchel, more than to any other person, is due the great interest in our country in astronomical science, which has been since so greatly developed.

When the Rebellion began, he put away his telescopes and girded on his sword for the defense of that flag whose stars he reverenced as those he had continually watched in the highest heavens. He was at once made a Brigadier-General of Volunteers, and placed in command of the Department of the Ohio, with his headquarters at Cincinnati. While there he carefully surveyed the approaches to the city, built redoubts and projected intrenchments at the prominent points, which served a good purpose when Cincinnati was subsequently threatened by a large rebel force.

When the Departments of the Ohio and Cumberland were merged, Mitchel was engaged in organizing volunteers at Louisville, then occupied Bowling Green and Nashville, and in March, 1862, moved on Huntsville, Ala. Here, seizing the rolling stock of the Charleston Railroad, he took command of one expedition to Stevenson, and sent another to Decatur, thus securing one hundred and twenty miles of railway, and the possession of Northern Alabama. For these brilliant achievements he was promoted to be a Major-General of Volunteers, and Sep. 17, 1862, took command of the Tenth Army Corps and Department of the South. Here, in the midst of his usefulness and rapidly maturing plans for future successes, he was attacked by the yellow fever, and died at Beaufort, S. C., Oct. 30, 1862, at the early age of fifty-two.

Professor Mitchel was eminent as a man of science, ingenious as a mechanical inventor, brilliant as a lecturer, brave and energetic as a soldier, faithful and whole-hearted as a patriot, and most devout as a Christian. He filled creditably many spheres in civil and military life, was honored by several institutions of learning and died deeply lamented that his career of goodness and usefulness was so quickly ended.

Thayer's Notes:

a Father of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel, Class of 1865.

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b1 b2 Adopted here are MacKnight's name and birthdate as carved on his tombstone. His name is sometimes seen spelled McKnight, and the date of his birth is often given as August 28th, in varying years (among which 1805 seems to be due to a misreading of that tombstone). The place of his birth, which I give here from Phineas Camp Headley's Old Stars: the Life and Military Career of Major-General Ormsby M. Mitchel (1883), pp14‑15, is often, as in the above Register entry, stated to have been in Union County: although that's true now, the county was not formed until after he was born.

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Page updated: 4 Mar 13