Under the heading of "Yankee Moves South and Does Good Works," does the name John Bachman mean anything to anybody?
For most, probably not, even though he spent decades in Charleston during the 1800's and amassed an incredible record of personal achievements. For those who recognize the name, it's probably by virtue of his association with one J. J. Audubon - but there's so much more.
Here are a few details, as gleaned from a paper recently presented by my friend Larry Fritz to an organization in Spartanburg:
Bachman was born in the Hudson River Valley area of New York on Feb. 4, 1790, the son of a slaveholder (New York did not eliminate slavery until 1827). During his early childhood he developed an irrepressible desire to study plants, animals and other aspects of natural history.
Although the particulars of his formal education are vague, his professional leanings changed from law to the ministry, and by age 23 he was licensed to preach as a Lutheran minister while in Philadelphia. Always prone to respiratory problems, he had a near-fatal bout and his doctor suggested he seek a warmer climate. An inquiry led to his being accepted as rector of St. John's Lutheran Church in downtown Charleston, a position he would hold for the next 56 years.
Bachman's reputation as an expert naturalist on the side was well-established when he met John James Audubon for the first time in 1831 while the latter was passing through Charleston to sell subscriptions to his "Birds of America" series. They became fast friends and Audubon ended up staying at Bachman's Rutledge Avenue house where they developed a professional relationship that would last over two decades.
The bond between the two families was strengthened by 1839, by which time two Audubon daughters had married two Bachman sons. His academic reputation in the natural sciences continued to advance, and he'd eventually have many species of animals named after him, including Bachman's warbler, Bachman's sparrow, the black oystercatcher, the brush rabbit, the Eastern fox squirrel subspecies, and the American snout butterfly.
Bachman is undoubtedly best known for writing the text of "The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America." Remarkably, he insisted that the proceeds go entirely to the Audubon family. The publication was a huge success and sealed Bachman's reputation as an internationally prominent scientist.
Charleston education connection
But there is much more to consider. On the education front he served on the Charleston Board of Education as well as the Board of Visitors at West Point. For 14 years he was a trustee of the College of Charleston and later professor of natural history, an appointment he retained for the rest of his life. In 1831 he started the Lutheran Seminary in Columbia (still exists) and in 1856 founded Newberry College.
Although raised with the institution of slavery and a slave owner himself, African Americans held him in high regard for dispelling the myth of racial differentiation and setting up schools to educate their children. In 1816 - one year after arriving in Charleston - he received permission to have African Americans as members of his congregation. It is estimated they represented 40 percent of the membership over his 56-year term with some 2,000 baptisms. Several black church members became Lutheran ministers.
He was not a secessionist and prayed for peace. But in the event of armed conflict he also invoked providence to "spread thine arm of protection over those who are contended for their liberties, their institutions and their chartered rights on their own soil."
Trying to protect his work
When the war did come, he moved his scientific papers to Columbia, only to have them burned by Sherman's marauders. He took refuge at a friend's house near Cheraw. Upon arrival of Union soldiers, one officer assumed the 75-year-old Bachman was the owner and demanded to be led to the silver collection and other valuables. Bachman didn't comply, and the officer beat him savagely with the dull edge of his sword, permanently disfiguring his left arm and shoulder.
The officer was captured two weeks later. Bachman elected not to identify him, effectively sparing the officer's life.
Among his other religious accomplishments, Bachman founded the Lutheran Synod and served twice as president. He wrote a lengthy treatise titled "A Defense of Luther and the Reformation."
By the time of his death in 1874, he had left a mark significantly benefiting humanity in Charleston and other areas in addition to scientific communities around the world - a legacy far greater than his Audubon co-authorship.
He rests in front of the altar at his beloved St. John's.
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth
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