You are hereBenjamin Piatt Runkle

Benjamin Piatt Runkle


September 3, 1836 to June 28, 1916

written by Frank Crozier, Chi 1892, Theta Theta 1894
The Sigma Chi Quarterly Vol. XV, November, 1895, No. 1, pp. 3-7
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Benjamin Piatt Runkle
Painted from Life by
Frank A. Werner, Alpha Theta 1899

After four decades of prosperous existence, and upon the threshold of the fifth, Sigma Chi turned toward the Golden Gate and asked for the presence of Benj. Piatt Runkle at the twenty-second Grand Chapter, as a befitting commemoration of the closing scene of her second score of years. Her request was favored, and she in return joyously bestowed her highest honor upon the man to whom she owes so much. The selection of Gen. Runkle as Grand Consul stands as a token to the world of our appreciation of the man and his work; it is significant of our esteem and love for him; and it speaks eloquently of our faith, respect and entire confidence in him. As he went forth from the convention hall, the newly-elected Grand Consul met the warm congratulations of many an old army friend; while members of other fraternities grasped him by the hand, telling him that the position was more sought for than he was aware.

Gen. Runkle is a man of striking personality and sterling character. He comes from an illustrious family, the history of which is a story of devotion to country and to cause. His grandfather, Col. Jacob Piatt, was a colonel of the New Jersey line, Continental army, and was a member of the staff of Gen. Washington, being present at the celebrated controversy between Washington and Lee at Monmouth. A great-uncle, Col. John H. Piatt, was commissary for the army of the West during the war of 1812, and furnished from his private resources necessary funds and provisions; another relative, William Piatt, was on the staff of Gen. Jackson at New Orleans; a fourth laid down his life at the defeat of St. Clair; and in the late war nine members of the family fought for the preservation of the Union, while an equal number espoused the cause of secession. And the stock has lost none of its wonted bravery nor any of its lustre in the gallant Ben. The first sound to arms in ‘61 found him ready to do and to die for the stars and stripes.

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During the exciting contest in 1860 for the presidency, which from the beginning lay apparently between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas (Breckenridge and Bell never being seriously in the race), Mr. Douglas swung around the circle. He spoke at Urbana, Ohio, the home of Runkle, an enthusiastic democrat and captain of the Douglas guards. During the day, the stalwart captain led his company to the residence of his entertainer to pay their respects to the candidate. Mr. Douglas addressed them, and, among other things, gave utterance to the following prophetic vision, which we believe has never before been published. In substance he said: Gentlemen, we are now engaged in a great struggle. I am going to be defeated; Mr. Lincoln is going to be elected, and we are going to have a great war. You are a company of gallant men, you are well organized and make a striking appearance; you have there the most beautiful flag in the world; you are here now in your military dress, and I want you to hold up your right hands, and promise me, that when the inevitable combat comes, you will each of you support the constitution of the United States, and that you will not lay down your arms until you see the old flag wave over a united country in universal peace. The oath was taken, and when the prophesy of Stephen A. Douglas became a realized fact, that company made good their promise, and to a man volunteered their services; and Benjamin Piatt Runkle was at their head. He was commissioned captain, thirteenth Ohio infantry; later, in the same year, he was promoted major, immediately after the battle of Carnfex Ferry.

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Limited space will not permit of my telling of the many battles in which he took an active part, displaying the unfaltering and dashing courage of a lion; I cannot tell of that wound which caused him to be left for dead on the battlefield of Shiloh; I cannot enlarge on that devoted loyalty which caused the torn and still bleeding man to organize the forty-fifth Ohio infantry and lead it to the battle-scenes as soon as he could walk; I would like to speak of the Kentucky campaign under Generals Wright, Burnsides and Gilmore; of the battle of Somerset, where Runkle, at the head of his regiment, broke and rebroke the Confederate lines, receiving from commanding Gen. Gilmore an acknowledgment that to his charge was due the victory, of which Gen. Burnsides has said: It was not a great battle, but Col. Runkle displayed the qualities of a true soldier. I would fain relate how the breaking out of old wounds and the receiving of new forced the dauntless colonel to retire from active service; how, unconquered by his wounds, the valiant warrior returned to service at the end of one month’s respite; I would delight in telling of his being brevetted lieutenant-colonel and colonel in 1867 in recognition of bravery and valuable services; but suffice it to say, that December 15, 1870, being again seriously hampered by his wounds, Col. Runkle was permanently retired at the age of thirty years.

But back of and previous to this noble record of courageous and undying loyalty, there is other evidence of the stern devotion of this man to principle. In 1848, the Phi Delta Theta was founded at Miami University, previous to which time Alpha Delta Phi had founded a chapter in 1835, and Beta Theta Pi had been organized in 1839. The chapter of Phi Delta Theta seemed determined to enroll as its members the entire college attendance. As a natural consequence the house crumbled from its very unwieldliness; and the year 1852 saw Kappa chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon organized, as a protest against the spirit which aggrandized organization at the expense of the individual. Runkle IIJ1929840104But not yet was the key-note of true fraternity struck; the Kappa chapter was not so much based on fraternalism as on ambition; its aim was not so much to foster brotherly love as it was to place its members in positions of honor in college life. The history of the attempt of one-half of Kappa chapter to throttle the other half, and to force them, against their conviction, to vote for the fraternity’s candidate for a certain office, is too well known to Sigma Chis to require repetition here. It was a protest of rational, conscientious individualism against the unyielding demand of an organized caucus. We are not to be understood as characterizing Delta Kappa Epsilon—for her we have none but the most friendly sentiments, nor are we to be understood as criticising the permanent character of Kappa chapter, such was the temporary situation only. When Ben Runkle, with his five companions, renounced his allegiance to Delta Kappa Epsilon, he was influenced by well-defined motives; honest in his convictions he had the upright manliness to refuse the attempted dictation of others; governed by the kindest regards for his Delta Kappa Epsilon brothers, he had the courage to leave them when it was attempted to force him to occupy a position which he could not conscientiously assume.

Such is the character of the man. He has the most intense love for his fellow men; he believes in giving to every individual his just dues, and of allowing the actions of each person to be governed by his own discretion. He allows to everybody the same liberty of opinion that he claims for himself. Being ruled in his sentiments, probably unconsciously, by such principles, Gen. Runkle early after the war had closed assumed a decided stand upon the question of the rights of the men who had attempted to secede. Impetuous in war, unrestrained by his wounds and his suffering, Gen. Runkle had done all that lay within his power to force the seceding men to return to their allegiance; but when the victory had been awarded, he believed that the battle lines should perish. As he says, it was a hard necessity which constrained the killing of so many; but when it was all over, he believed the act should be forgiven and forgotten; he was bitterly opposed to humiliating the conquered foe, and was ardently in favor of extending a magnanimous and gracious right-hand of fellowship and love. There were many others who entertained the same sentiments. To a large number of these persons it seemed that the administration of Gen. Grant was not calculated to obtain these ends. Runkle IIJ1929840136The outcome of this feeling was the formation of the Liberal Republican party, which met in Cincinnati in 1872, and nominated Horace Greeley for president. At that convention Gen. Runkle assumed a very decided attitude, and incurred the intense enmity of President Grant’s friends. Gen. Runkle had been assistant commissioner of Freedman’s affairs in Kentucky and his enemies sought, as revenge for his denunciation of Grant’s administration, his dismissal from the army.

From that time until May 27, 1887, a political controversy waged between Runkle and his opponents. Charges of mismanagement of the Freedman’s bureau were brought against him. Not being accorded his constitutionally guaranteed rights and immunities, Gen. Runkle carried this case to the Supreme Court of the United States, where the cause was reversed and remanded. In the meantime the situation had been voluntarily investigated by President Grant, who had never entertained any animosity toward Gen. Runkle and had never personally acted in the matter. The report of his Judge Advocate-General, which thoroughly exonerated Gen. Runkle, came too late for final official action by President Grant. The matter, however, was taken up as unfinished business by President Hayes, who personally examined the record in the case and endorsed thereon the following order: Whereupon, having caused the said record, together with said report, to be laid before me, and having carefully considered the same, I am of opinion that the said conviction is not sustained by the evidence in the case, and the same, together with the sentence of the court thereon, are hereby disapproved; and it is directed that said Order No. 7, so far as it relates to said Runkle, be revoked.

Subsequently Gen. Runkle applied, during the administration of President Arthur, for longevity pay, and the Secretary of the Treasury referred the legality of the order of President Hayes to the Court of Claims, which made an adverse decision. The matter was carried to the Supreme Court, where an opinion was handed down by Chief Justice Waite, with the unanimous concurrence of the Court, reversing the decision of the Court of Claims and sustaining the action of President Hayes; further ordering that Gen. Runkle be allowed his longevity pay. Immediately after this decision, which remanded the cause to the Court of Claims, President Cleveland issued a very unusual and remarkable order directing Gen. Runkle’s immediate restoration to the army. In the meantime the senate military committee, of which Gen. John A. Logan was chairman, reported a bill for the relief of Col. Runkle. This bill was passed and was unanimously favorably reported to the house by its military committee, but the report came too late for action.

And now the Sigma Chi fraternity takes great pleasure in adding her indorsement of Benjamin Piatt Runkle to that of Presidents Hayes and Cleveland. He is a grand man, a loyal friend, and a noble Sig. His devotion to the fraternity cannot be appreciated by those who do not know him intimately. He is taking active participation in its government, and has moved his home from Los Angeles to Chicago for the express purpose of being present at the Triumvirate meetings. He intends to devote a large part of his time to perfecting the organization which he helped to establish. Runkle IIJ1929840112He is a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, a Knight Templar, and a Scottish Rites Mason of the 32nd degree. But above all them is his loyalty to Sigma Chi, first in his heart and foremost in his love.

Gen. Runkle has been twice married. His first wife was Miss Verritia Reynolds, of Ohio, and to them was born one child, a daughter, who is at present studying music in Paris. In 1894 Gen. Runkle was married to Miss Lalla McMicken, of Cincinnati, a niece of Charles McMicken, who founded the University of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati School of Art and DeSign.

Such is the Grand Consul, and when his end has come we will all unite in the eulogy paid him in the New York Tribune by his erstwhile college friend and opponent, Whitelaw Reid, when he was supposed to be lying among the dead on the field of Shiloh, and say, He died a hero; green grow the grass on his honored grave.