Miles Rock Gif

Photographs, letters, a Civil War uniform and diaries were among the items gifted to Lehigh Libraries Special Collections. They belonged to Mile's Rock, one of Lehigh's first graduates.

Rediscovering Miles Rock

A gift to Lehigh Libraries Special Collections creates a snapshot of one of Lehigh’s first graduates—a naturalist, civil engineer and astronomer—and offers new research opportunities.

Story by

Christina Tatu

Photography by

Christa Neu

Videography by

Stephanie Veto

Miles Rock’s consequential life is meticulously cataloged in dozens of well-kept journals that still contain the plant clippings he pressed between pages filled with his neat, cursive handwriting. His Civil War uniform, its brass buttons embossed with eagles, is worn, though intact. The letters he wrote from the battlefields to friends and family offer moral advice and observations about 19th-century American life. His finely detailed surveys and maps of Mexico border territory and Guatemala that helped determine the disputed boundary between the countries are folded in a leather-bound book that bears his name and the year 1895.

Miles Rock—an intrepid naturalist, civil engineer, astronomer and Civil War soldier—was one of five men who composed Lehigh’s first graduating class, the Class of 1869. Born in Pennsylvania, his life journey began in the farmlands of Lancaster County, continued through the Civil War, included time in the 1st Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps and U.S. Signal Corps, and led to a distinguished career that took him throughout the Americas to the West Indies, Guatemala and elsewhere.

The insights the collection will provide into the life of one of the first self-made Lehigh graduates, and the first Lehigh Alumni Association president, are truly priceless.

Boaz Nadav Manes, Lehigh University librarian.

More than 120 years after his death, Rock’s relics and records have now made their way to Lehigh, where they will be preserved and made available for research. His great-great-grandsons, brothers David Grace and Chris Grace, recently donated enough material to fill a large cargo van—five steamer trunks packed by Rock’s son following his death, along with six bankers boxes, a suitcase, two garment boxes and several rolled wall maps—to the Lehigh University Libraries Special Collections.

“These are materials that tell a full story ... This is just an amazing collection with so much research potential,” said Lois Black, the curator for Lehigh’s Special Collections.

Rock is the only alum to have served in the Civil War, and it is the first time the university had received a Civil War uniform, she said.

“The insights the collection will provide into the life of one of the first self-made Lehigh graduates, and the first Lehigh Alumni Association president, are truly priceless,” said Boaz Nadav Manes, Lehigh University librarian. “We feel extremely fortunate to receive such an intimate gift from his descendants.”

A gift to Lehigh Libraries Special Collections from Miles Rock's descendants provides new research opportunities.

Some of the trunks hadn’t been touched since Rock’s death in 1901. One of them, bearing his initials, also includes a tattered sticker for the Hotel Grunewald in New Orleans—now The Roosevelt New Orleans. The slots inside are filled with newspapers from Rock’s lifetime.

There are also mementos from his time at Lehigh, including an “autograph book” signed by friends like Henry Sturgis Drinker, a mechanical engineer, lawyer and author who went on to become Lehigh’s fifth president.

A Special Connection to Lehigh

Rock was devoted to Lehigh, even naming his son Alfred Mayer after his favorite professor Alfred Marshall Mayer, who was in charge of what was then the Department of Astronomy, David said.

“We were really hopeful we would find a place where it wouldn’t get lost in a larger collection or some remote collection where no one knew about it,” Chris said. “Lehigh was a natural first choice.”

Lehigh also made Rock’s impressive career possible, David added.

“It’s where he was introduced to science, astronomy and surveying,” he said.

Rock was the eighth of 10 children. The majority of men during his time were farmers who never left the county they were born in, according to the blog Roots and Wings Research by Kristin Wenger, a Lititz-based professional genealogist and educator, who is a descendant of Rock’s sister, Caroline. Rock’s achievements were even more remarkable considering his father, Peter, died when Rock was just 5 years old.

There was someone there with a little library cart you might put a tea set on. David and I looked at each other and just kind of smiled. It was like that scene in ‘Jaws’: You’re gonna need a bigger boat.

Chris Grace, great-great-grandson of Miles Rock

Because of this, the children were “farmed out” as apprentices or farm laborers to live with other families, Wenger says in her blog. While education beyond the eighth grade was extremely rare in 1850s Lancaster County, she writes, Rock somehow managed to attend college and launch his remarkable career. When Rock died in Guatemala following a bout of severe food poisoning, his son Alfred retrieved the items from Rock’s home in the Central American country and brought them back to the family home in Washington, D.C. Alfred died three years later in a mining accident in Mexico, and his sister Amy Cordoba (Rock) Ransome assumed possession of the items until her death in 1942.

After a few generations, they ended up in David and Chris’s childhood home in upstate New York. Every time a National Geographic Special came on television, their mother would remind the family that there was a scientist and adventurer in their past—Miles Rock.

Miles Rock chest

A chest bearing Miles Rock's initials.

“He was a central figure in our family’s stories and our grandparents’ house was filled with things associated with that side of the family,” David said.

When the brothers’ parents died and their house was sold, the collection was moved into storage in Boston, where Chris lives. In October 2021, he rented a cargo van, David drove from his home in Madison, Wisconsin, and the two transported the items to Linderman Library.

Lehigh staff directed them to a loading dock. “There was someone there with a little library cart you might put a tea set on,” Chris said. “David and I looked at each other and just kind of smiled. It was like that scene in ‘Jaws’: You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Library staff were eager to receive the delivery and meet the brothers in person after months of preparation and discussions. “We knew to expect several trunks of materials, but we didn’t realize how big they would be," said Nadav Manes. “We quickly adjusted our expectations.”

A Remarkable Life

Rock was born in 1840 in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, and eventually attended Franklin & Marshall College in nearby Lancaster, leaving in 1861 to serve the Union Army for three years during the Civil War, according to an obituary published in the June 21, 1901, edition of Science magazine. “... Love of country and the trend of public spirit at the time prompted him to join the Pennsylvania Volunteers and proceed to the seat of war,” the obituary said.

After the war, Rock decided to study civil engineering and enrolled in Lehigh as a sophomore in 1866. As noted in Rock’s journals, he and Drinker would walk every week from the Asa Packer Campus to the Friedensville Zinc Mine in Center Valley, Pennsylvania, near where the Penn State Lehigh Valley campus stands today. Rock spent his senior year at Lehigh surveying and creating extensive maps of the mines.

A year after graduating, in 1870, Rock married Susan Clarkson, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and accepted a position as an assistant to B.A. Gould, the United States' first Ph.D. in astronomy and director of the Argentine National Observatory in Cordoba. There Rock helped map out “the multitude of star observations in the southern hemisphere,” according to his obituary in Science.

Miles Rock photograph

A photograph of Miles Rock and his classmates who graduated in 1869. At the photo on the far right, Rock is pictured in the center.

Still true to his alma mater, he became the first president of the newly formed Lehigh Alumni Association that same year. A few years later, he was appointed an honorary alumni trustee.

In 1874, Rock worked with Commander F.M. Green of the U.S. Navy in determining latitudes and longitudes by means of submarine cables in the West Indies and Central America. He also served as a field astronomer in the U.S. geographical surveys west of the 100th meridian under Lt. George M. Wheeler of the U.S. Engineers and determined latitudes and longitudes in several western states and territories.

Rock also worked as an astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington D.C. In December 1882, he was detailed to aid Professor Lewis Boss in the observation of the transit of Venus in Chile. On the recommendation of the U.S. government, Rock was appointed astronomical engineer for Guatemala in 1883, and for 15 years he served as chief of the Guatemala Boundary Commission, charged with the duty of determining and locating the disputed frontier between Guatemala and Mexico, according to his obituary.

His work resulted in Guatemala retaining valuable land in the Petén region. Because of this, Rock was highly esteemed in Guatemala. Online maps still show a neighborhood in Guatemala City called “Colonia Miles Rock.”

Miles Rock Map

A map Miles Rock made of the Guatemala and Mexican frontier.

“To his technical knowledge, diplomatic skill, strong sense of justice and invincible courage, Guatemala unquestionably owes the retention of her rights in certain valuable lands in the district of Petén, which had been claimed by Mexico, even to the point of threatened hostilities,” says the obituary in Science.

After finishing his work for the Guatemalan Government in 1898, Rock continued to spend long stretches of time at property he owned in the country. He and Susan kept a permanent family home in Washington, D.C., where he was one of the founders of the Anthropological Society of Washington and of the Cosmos Club. He was also a member of the Washington Academy of Sciences and National Geographic Society.

After his death, in recognition of his service to Guatemala, he was buried in the cemetery of Guatemala City with public honors, according to his obituary. In their reports to the Department of State, “the representatives of this country in Guatemala showed that Mr. Rock was universally mourned and no such funeral honors had ever before been accorded to anyone but the highest officials of the country.”

A Snapshot of a Scientist

David believes the Civil War was pivotal to Rock because it exposed him to the greater world, adding that it was a miracle he survived the experience. Company B of the 1st Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps was present for a long list of battles, including many of the most gruesome of the war, such as Seven Days, Gettysburg and Antietam.

“During the Peninsula Campaign, Miles Rock seems to have realized that becoming a cannon fodder hero wasn't his personal goal,” David said. “He seems to have done a bit of soul searching and decided to focus his personal skills where they could do the most good, as a secretary to the company commander. This may have been influenced by sickness, battle experience, fear or any number of things.”

Being a valued member of the support staff certainly lowered the chance of being asked to head any bayonet charges, he said, but that doesn’t mean Rock would have been safely out of harm’s way. Rock’s brigade commander, General John F. Reynolds, died from wounds suffered at Gettysburg. David has a particular fondness for Rock’s Civil War letters, on which he wrote a thesis when he was an undergraduate at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. The thesis is available in Lehigh’s library.

Alex Japha, digital archivist with Lehigh’s Special Collections, reads an excerpt from Miles Rock’s journal detailing the day of Abraham Lincoln's assassination.

The letters and other items from the collection will provide many research opportunities for students and scholars alike, said Monica Najar, an associate professor of history at Lehigh.

“The Miles Rock collection is a fantastic opportunity for Lehigh students to get up close and personal with the Civil War,” she said. “Beyond seeing Rock's uniform, students and scholars will be able to read about his unique path to handling the traumas, but also the strange opportunities, in the war.”

For example, the war offered Rock the chance to clerk and eventually teach flag signaling, work that offered him some safety, Najar said. At the same time, Rock had experiences typical of other enlisted men, and his letters offer a vivid window into the hardships of war, such as missed rations and bitter weather. They also show the camaraderie of camp life.

“The experience of being so close to the documents and material culture of the war is both exciting and critical to our history classes,” Najar said. Having access to such materials is likely to leave a lasting impression on student researchers, Black added.

Miles Rock correspondence

A book in which Miles Rock kept track of the letters he sent and received.

“We primarily teach our students through storytelling now because it’s more likely to stick with them over time, and having this tangible aspect, this component to the story, will actually bring Miles Rock to life as part of Lehigh’s history as well as the nation’s history,” she said.

Rock reflected on 19th-century American life in his letters, often offering his siblings advice, moral support and opinions on family troubles. “Men are too prone to help the strong and befriend those who need no friends, while the helpless and friendless are cast out into the cold,” Rock wrote in one of the letters.

The Miles Rock collection is a fantastic opportunity for Lehigh students to get up close and personal with the Civil War.

Monica Najar, associate professor of history

During his time in the army, Rock developed a serial number system to catalog each letter he sent and received. Long after the war, descendants of the recipients sometimes returned the letters they had saved, David said.

Rock also used a letter copy book which was like an early version of the Xerox. The book consisted of tissue-thin pages that could be damped and pressed onto a letter to make a copy. Rock was also known to keep a copy of “Gray’s Manual of Botany” in his knapsack and meticulously recorded and pressed the plants he found during his leisure time at camp, according to his obituary.

“In his own writings, Miles Rock doesn't talk much about bullets, shells and bombs. He was more likely to talk about the varieties of wildflowers he found on the battlefields than any human carnage he witnessed there,” David said. “That said, surviving records prove that he faced enemy fire in direct action.”

A journal from Rock’s senior year at Lehigh describes his day-to-day life, much of which revolved around the Friedensville Zinc Mine. “At 3:30 the great boulder fell into the pit at the mines,” Rock wrote on Feb. 20, 1869. “I was surveying under the bank north of it to learn how near the mines were to it as a precaution, but it came sooner than expected.” In another entry from Dec. 25, 1869, Rock describes a grand Christmas dinner that included turkey, duck and oysters.

Lois Black, Lehigh University Special Collections curator, discusses Miles Rock’s Civil War uniform. Rock was one of Lehigh’s first graduates.

The library, in partnership with a project archivist, will spend six months to a year cataloging the materials, a process that includes examining Rock’s letters to determine the sender and when the letters were received, and reviewing each diary to determine when and where they were written and their context.

“This is a snapshot of a person involved in science. The completeness of that snapshot is something very few collections would allow people to see,” David said.

Brothers Sam Small and Wes Small of The Horse Soldier, a family-owned antique store in Gettysburg that specializes in military antiques, particularly those from the Civil War, were among the experts to examine the collection. Sam Small plans to review the Civil War letters.

“It will help figure out what he was doing during the war,” Small said. “Unfortunately, a lot of times, you never know what people did. I think the letters will tell us a great deal about that.”

Both Grace brothers have a special connection to history and education. Chris works in the art industry and designs displays for galleries and museums, while David is an independent scholar. In addition to the collection, the brothers provided generous support to help with digitizing, cataloging and archiving the collection.

Chris believes the collection will be of importance to those studying the history of Central and South America, colonialism, the history of science and the Civil War. He’s excited to see what transpires when more people have a chance to study the collection.

“It’s kind of the final family step in our responsibility to him,” Chris said.

Story by

Christina Tatu

Photography by

Christa Neu

Videography by

Stephanie Veto

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