Did you ever quench your thirst at the large, four-columned, stone drinking fountain near the Rochester Police Department? Maybe you thought it was a pretty fountain or wondered why such a simple device had a monument built around it. This structure is called the Harris Fountain and it was built in 1917 at the request of Samuel Harris, a Civil War lieutenant and prisoner of war who narrowly escaped execution at the hands of the Confederate Army in 1864.
Life in Rochester
Harris was a year old when he traveled with his family from Vermont to Michigan in 1837. Weak and frequently ill as a child, Harris didn’t regularly attend school. Instead he enjoyed building machines and working with tools. At 16, he convinced his father to let him return to Vermont and work for a locomotive manufacturer. Later, Harris came back to Rochester to start a small foundry and machine shop. He worked there until August 1862, when he enlisted in the Union Army at the age of 26.
“[Captain] Gray came to my shop and wanted me to go with him to raise a company in the Fifth Michigan Cavalry,” Harris wrote in Personal Reminiscences of Samuel Harris, published in 1897. “[He] promised me the position of First Lieutenant in his company.”
Harris accepted the commission, recruiting 117 men at a county fair in Pontiac the next day. His regiment, Company A of the Fifth Michigan Cavalry, soon became part of the famous Michigan Cavalry Brigade led by General George A. Custer. The brigade fought valiantly with distinction at several major battlefields, including Gettysburg and Appomattox.
One Good Deed Deserves Another
In January 1864, Harris had a serendipitous encounter that would change his life forever. During patrol duty in Virginia, he found Maria Brooke and her five children in their home, all of whom were suffering from hunger and near starvation. Immediately, he gathered rations for the family.
“I ordered some other men standing near by [sic] to dump three oat sacks . . . and to fill one to the brim with hardtack; another to be filled with soft bread,” wrote Harris. Beef rations were put in the third sack. The family thanked him for his kindness and invited him back for visits over the next couple of days.
The Southern-born Maria told Harris she had attended school in Philadelphia years before with Varina Howell, now the wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. She also explained to Harris that her husband, a Confederate Army captain, was taken prisoner by the Union Army. Upon leaving to return to his regiment, Harris told her he would try and get her husband paroled. However, he never saw or spoke to the Brooke family again.
In March 1864, Harris took part in a raid led by Colonel Ulric Dahlgren. The purpose of the raid was to release Union POWs held in Virginia and to encourage Confederate forces to surrender with news of President Lincoln’s Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction.
During the raid, Harris and his men came upon the house of James Seddon, the Confederacy’s Secretary of War. Harris’s company was stationed directly opposite the house and “not more than a hundred feet from the front porch,” when he heard glass break and a woman scream. Quickly checking to make sure all his men were in rank, Harris jumped from his horse and ran to the house.
“As I stood looking in the door, Mrs. Seddon came and said to me ‘Your men are pillaging my house and breaking my furniture. Won’t you stop it?’” Harris wrote. “I said to her ‘Madam, they are not my men. If they were, they would come out of there or I would shoot them.’”
Harris thought nothing more of the incident and continued with his men on the charge to Richmond. A few days later, on March 2, 1864, the Fifth Cavalry came under enemy fire. Harris was badly wounded with a broken collar bone and a shotgun blast to his shoulder. He and his company kept on with the charge for several miles until they were fired on again and forced to surrender. Harris was among those captured by the Rebel Army.
Now a POW, Harris was placed in a hay wagon, with his hands and feet bound, headed for Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. Upon his arrival in Richmond, he learned a much more terrible fate awaited him. By order of a Drumhead court martial (a court martial held in the field), the Confederacy sentenced Harris to hang for ordering the sacking and burning of the Seddon house. The charges were false, but Harris was powerless to stop the Confederacy from carrying out his execution.
Within several minutes of his arrival, however, a young Confederate captain ran up to Harris telling him he wasn’t going to hang after all. Instead, he would continue on to Libby Prison.
Remembering his relief over the stay of his execution, Harris wrote, “Libby Prison, with all its horrors, was better than being hung.”
“Why I Was Not Hung”
As a POW, Harris suffered from malnutrition and repeated illness due to contaminated drinking water. He and the other prisoners were forced to sleep on hard surfaces, couldn’t shave or bathe and spent their days undertaking hard labor in ragged clothing and bare feet.
After surviving battle, grave wounds and nearly a year in Libby Prison, Harris was freed and discharged from the army in late 1864. He went on to become a successful businessman, manufacturing steam engines and boilers in Washington D.C. and Chicago. In 1870, during a return trip to Rochester, Harris visited with a man from his old company who informed him of the reason he hadn’t been executed. Maria Brooke had written a letter to, Varina Davis, her old friend and wife of Jefferson Davis, telling her about Harris and his kindness during her time of need. She urged Davis “if Lieut. Samuel Harris should ever fall in your hands, do what you can for him, for my sake.”
Harris’ kind act saved his life. Once sickly and weak, he grew up to endure some of the most frightening and difficult conflicts a soldier can face. Surviving combat and terrible conditions as a POW, as well as many personal hardships – the deaths of a wife and child – Harris lived to age 84. He presented the fountain that now sits near the Rochester Municipal Park to the people of Rochester three years before his death in 1920.
In his published memoir, Harris wrote of a chance conversation he had in the winter of 1897 with Colonel Armond Hawkins, the Provost Marshal of Richmond, who had ordered his execution.
“[Hawkins] said that, ‘just as I was fixing to hang you, I received an order from President Davis not to execute you,’” wrote Harris. “I then told him why Mr. Davis sent the order. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘if that is the case, I am glad I did not hang you.’”