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This webpage reproduces an article in
Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society
Vol. 64 (Oct. 1930-Jun. 1932), pp516‑521

The text is in the public domain.

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 p516  Morris Schaff • A Memoir

by Bliss Perry

Morris Schaff's first book, published when he was sixty-five, bore the odd title Etna and Kirkersville. This delightful little volume, never known to many readers and now out of print, pictured founders of the township of Etna, Licking County, Ohio, situated on the once famous National Road, seventeen miles east of Columbus. Kirkersville was the adjoining town, a few miles east of Etna, and also on the National Road. It was on a farm in Etna that Morris Schaff was born, December 28, 1840. His father, "Squire" John Schaff, had taken part in the organization of Etna township in 1833, and served for twenty-one years as justice of the peace. He had emigrated to Ohio from western Pennsylvania. His wife, Charlotte Hartzell, was born in Virginia. The Schaffs were of German stock, originally from Schaffhausen on the upper Rhine. With other Protestant refugees from the Palatinate, they were brought to London by Queen Anne and assigned lands in the Mohawk valley. Quarrels with the Dutch settlers resulted, and John Schaff, the first of that name in America, was sent back to London to lodge complaints. Returning after two years, he learned that his family had moved to Maryland, and for three generations the Schaffs lived a hazardous existence on the frontiers of Maryland and Pennsylvania. Yet they treasured their old German prayer books, and Squire John Schaff, as his son records, could speak German, like many of the first settlers of both Etna and Kirkersville.

Morris Schaff — certainly one of the sweetest-natured men of his generation, and gifted with a fund of sentiment which in his later books he found difficult to restrain within conventional bounds — never wrote more happily than in the book describing his Ohio boyhood. It has the freshness of the early world: a passion for the fields and woods not yet wholly  p517 conquered by the plough and axe, and haunted by wild pigeons and wild turkeys; a keen eye for the humors of frontier life; a romantic, patriotic thrill in witnessing the stream of westward migration along the National Road. It is a simple-hearted idealization of a farm boy's life and of the work and play of a primitive community. Nothing could be in sharper contrast with the strain and bitterness and disillusion which was soon to characterize the pictures of small western towns drawn by American novelists.

John Schaff was a pillar of the United Brethren church and a staunch Democrat. In 1849, he bought a new farm a couple of miles nearer Kirkersville, and it was from Kirkersville that his son Morris received, in 1858, from Samuel S. Cox, congressman of the district, an appointment as cadet at West Point. It was in the days before competitive examinations. The boy's schooling had been limited, but he had had nearly a year at Otterbein College. His journey to West Point and his experiences there through four of the most stirring years of the Academy's history, are described in the best known of his books, The Spirit of Old West Point. The blue-eyed, light-haired little fellow made an excellent cadet. Although he seems not to have been an earnest mathematician, he ranked ninth in his class. He sat a horse well, was the champion broadswordsman, sang in the choir and acquired a lifelong preference for the Episcopal service, swapped endless stories with his southern roommate, with Custer and the other joyous spirits of "D" Company, and in short, like his favorite Dick Steele at Oxford, won "the love of the whole society."

The news of the firing on Fort Sumter brought sobering changes into the daily life of the cadets. The class of 1862 were at first directed to prepare for immediate graduation, but this order was revoked, and it was not until June, 1862, that they fell in for the last parade and were ordered to report in Washington for active duty. Schaff's commission as Second Lieutenant of Ordnance was dated June 17, and he was assigned to the arsenal at Fort Monroe. He became a First Lieutenant in March, 1863, and served in the Rappahannock campaign, April to June, as Assistant Chief of Ordnance of the Army of the Potomac; then, June to August, in the Pennsylvania campaign, having the duty of remaining at Gettysburg  p518 after the battle, to collect the arms abandoned by Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Lee's army; then, from August to November, in the Rapidan campaign, and in November with the Horse Artillery in the Mine Run operations. When the Richmond campaign opened in May, 1864, Lieutenant Schaff served as acting Aide-de‑Camp to Major General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Warren, and was brevetted Captain, May 6, 1864, "for Gallant and Meritorious service at the Battle of the Wilderness." A week later, Captain Schaff fought at Spottsylvania, and was then placed in charge of the Ordnance Depot for supplying the armies before Richmond. He had already been brought into close association with Generals Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hooker, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Meade, and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant. His headquarters were at City Point. He supplied the explosives for the mine at Petersburg, and was present at the battle of the Crater, although not engaged.

A tragic accident put an end to Captain Schaff's responsibility for the Ordnance Depot. An infernal machine, planted by the enemy, destroyed the Depot, with heavy loss of life. A court of enquiry exonerated Schaff, but he was transferred to other Ordnance duty: first at Reading, Pennsylvania, then at Watertown Arsenal (January 3, 1865 to September 1, 1866), where he was stationed when his comrades of the Army of the Potomac received Lee's surrender. Captain Schaff remained in the U. S. Army until his resignation on December 31, 1871, serving at Mt. Vernon Arsenal, Alabama, at Watertown Arsenal again, and finally at Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois.

He was now thirty-one. He had made one of the happiest of marriages, on August 8, 1868, to Alice Page, of Watertown, daughter of a prosperous importer and manufacturer of glass. Mr. Page's offices were in Boston, but much of his finest glass was made at Berkshire — a village a few miles north of Pittsfield — where there was a bed of exceptionally choice sand. In these Berkshire Glass Works of Page and Harding, Captain Schaff became Superintendent in 1872. He made his home in Pittsfield, and for some years all went well. The Captain had learned French thoroughly at West Point, and now found it useful in dealing with his Belgian glass-blowers. But the firm met with various difficulties and retired from business in 1894. Schaff had resigned a year earlier.

 p519  He was known as General Schaff by this time, having been appointed Brigadier General (Inspector-General) of the Massachusetts Militia in 1880, and serving three years. In 1882, he had served on the Board of Visitors to West Point. Now, in 1893, came in important change in his career. Few Governors of Massachusetts have made a more timely or a better appointment than Governor Russell, when he made General Schaff a member of the State Gas and Electric Light Commission. He was reappointed at three-year intervals by Governor after Governor, irrespective of politics, and served on the Commission twenty-six years — in fact until the Board was abolished in 1919, when its duties were assumed by the newly organized Department of Public Utilities. General Schaff was then in his seventy-ninth year.

Of the value of this service to the public there was never any question. General Schaff was known to be fearless, fair-minded, and incorruptibly honest. Judge Alonzo R. Weed, for many years one of his associates on the Board, kindly writes me:

Electric companies were in their infancy when the General became a member of the Board, and the art of generating and distributing electricity for light and power was not above the primary class grade. He grew up (or old) with that marvelous development, and I think kept himself well abreast of its progress. Gas production and distribution were far better developed and standardized at that time. General Schaff read the technical journals persistently, and was well informed on such questions. He passed through practically all phases of the twenty-year Boston gas war — not very sanguinary to be sure, but bitter just the same — and as you know, the General was not by nature a pacifist.

It was during General Schaff's term of office that the "Massachusetts Policy," applicable to public service corporations in rate-fixing cases, came into being. This highly important policy, designed to protect the interests of the consumer, was largely based upon proposals made by him, and its adoption was due in no small measure to his determined and persistent advocacy.

General Schaff kept his residence in Pittsfield for some years, usually spending his Sundays there. On week-day  p520 evenings he frequented the old University Club on Beacon Street, where his companionable qualities made him a favorite. In 1902, he removed to Jamaica Plain, and after 1911 he resided in Cambridge, although he often spent the summers on his farm in Southboro, near his children.

He was known to be an omnivorous reader, especially in the fields of history and biography, and an eloquent commemorative speaker, but it was not until 1905 that Etna and Kirkersville revealed his ability as a writer. Then he was invited by the Atlantic Monthly to prepare a series of articles on his experiences at the U. S. Military Academy. They appeared in 1907 under the title The Spirit of Old West Point, attracted wide attention, and were published in the autumn as a book. It was then more than forty years after the close of the Civil War, but much of the old bitterness still lingered. Yet no reader, Southerner or Northerner, could resist the sunny impartiality and affection with which General Schaff described his old comrades, whether from 1861 to 1865 they had served their State or their Nation. He painted both "the real West Point, and that over-arching spiritual West Point, in whose sky float all of her ideals." A dispassionate critic might possibly complain that the General was at times overemotional and mystical, and that, like Thackeray, he kept interrupting his story to sentimentalize and moralize. But no dispassionate critic could have written the book; and here, if ever, the style was the man.

General Schaff published three other volumes dealing with the Civil War. The Battle of the Wilderness, issued in 1910 after serial publication in the Atlantic, was at once a record of his own experience in the fighting, a picture of the officers and men in both armies, and a summary of the strategy and tactics of the campaign. The author revisited Virginia in order to refresh his extraordinary memory of the terrain. His story, though vivid in its details, is perhaps too crowded for the clearest perspective. He had a more simple task in his Sunset of the Confederacy (1912), which was limited to the week preceding Appomattox and is a moving and admirable narrative. Jefferson Davis: His Life and Personality (1922) was his last book, published when he was eighty-two. It was a chivalrous effort to picture the President of the Confederacy,  p521 to whom gross injustice had long been done; but the aged author was now incapable of making an influential contribution to history.

General Schaff received many honors: the presidency of the Alumni Association of West Point in 1912; the degree of LL. D. from Williams College in 1913, and of Litt. D. from Otterbein University in 1914. He was elected a Resident Member of this Society on February 9, 1922, and three of his papers appear in the Proceedings. His advanced age prevented his frequent attendance at our meetings.

He died at his home in Southboro, October 19, 1929. His wife survived him until January 24, 1931. They left three living children: Harrison H. Schaff, of Boston and Southboro, Mrs. Philip G. Carleton, of Cambridge, and Rodman Schaff, of Fitzwilliam, N. H. This brief record of General Schaff's life may fitly close with a sentence from the presentation address when he received his honorary degree from Williams College: "In war a warrior, in peace a peace-maker, General Schaff has with chivalrous generosity helped to heal the wounds which he had helped in the discharge of his duty to inflict — in his delicate ministry to injured souls a spiritual Knight of the Red Cross."

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