In the Chapel of the Angels, the Edward McClure Peters, junior memorial calls to mind both the promise of a baby’s Christmas birth and the grief of a wartime death. It also evokes the end of an era at St. Michael’s Church.
Edward McClure Peters, jr was the nephew of John Punnett Peters, St. Michael’s sixth rector; he was the only child of Edward McClure Peters, one of John Punnett Peters’ eleven siblings, a younger brother, born in 1860.
Unlike his older brothers John (St. Michael’s rector) and William (vestry warden and treasurer for almost fifty years), Edward McClure Peters made decisions about his personal and professional life that took him away from the patterns of most of the men in the Peters family: for instance, unlike his Peters great-grandfather, grandfather, father, brothers (and then many nephews, great-nephews and, ultimately, great-nieces) who all attended Yale University, Edward McClure Peters attended Norwich University in Vermont and graduated in 1880. Even after pursuing some graduate work in chemistry at Columbia University, Peters remained loyal to Norwich and served the University for many years as a member of the Board of Trustees.
Peters would ultimately prove to be a shrewd businessman, developing tidy profits from the non-baking uses of cream of tartar (tartaric acid) as a fixative agent in gold and silver plating, metal polishing and leather tanning: he spent most of his professional life at the Tartar Chemical Company in New Jersey and was its Vice President when he died. But his most abiding passion was for the sea. As a young man, he was a master in the United States Merchant Marines, sailing throughout the Caribbean and on the Atlantic Coast of South America. From 1896-1898, he served as a navigation and ordnance officer in the Naval Reserve and then on the U. S. S. Portsmouth; he was one of the first officers ordered into the Spanish-American War by then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt. As Navigator on the U. S. S. Badger in the North Atlantic Patrol, Peters organized blockades of both Havana and Nuevitas, Cuba.
Throughout his life, Peters retained the rank of commander in the Naval Reserves of New Jersey. In 1892, Edward Peters married Eleanor Bradley, an extensively published genealogist and early suffragette; they lived in Brooklyn, and their one child, Edward McClure Peters, jr., was born on Christmas Day, 1894.
In their educational choices for their son, Edward and Eleanor Peters were interested in experiments. Beginning in the fall of 1907, after primary school education in the local public school, young Edward was in the first class of the innovative new Berkshire School in Sheffield, Massachusetts. “Pete” – as he was known when he was a boy – was described by the faculty as “a fair scholar,” who was best known for the breadth and energy of his interests outside the classroom: he was a prominent member of the Dramatic Club, a stalwart participant in all club sports and editor-in-chief of the school’s first student publication, The Dome. He was most remembered, especially after his death, for “his eager interest in life.”
“Pete” attended Harvard. He studied naval and military history; as soon as he could, he joined the National Guard. Classmates were impressed by his love of vigorous, long walks, and by his invitations to friends, both old and new, to accompany him. “Particularly fond of nature and adventure, he never missed an opportunity for a long walking trip in the back country or a cruise on the Maine coast.”
In November after his Harvard graduation in 1916, Peters received his commission as second lieutenant (Infantry) in the United States Army. After continued training at Fort Meyer, Fort Leavenworth and Eagle Pass, he was attached to the Sixteenth Infantry, Company D, a machine gun company. As soon as the United States entered the war, Peters sailed to France: his company was part of the very first of the American Expeditionary Forces under General Pershing. He served as the intelligence officer of his Brigade and was known as its Captain even before he was officially awarded that title.
The Harvard University “Memoirs of the Harvard Dead in the War Against Germany,” (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, MCMXXI), includes an extensive eye-witness account of Peters’ death in March, 1918 at Seicheprey in Lorraine.
It was shortly after midnight when Captain Peters … came into the dugout …The Captain talked quite freely to us during the ensuing hour or more of different things. It was a custom he had, and probably accounts for much of the support he always received from his men…. At nearly four o’clock (in the morning), a most violent shelling of our position took place … From within the dugout it was hard to discern whether the bombardment was from the Germans or whether our own batteries were opening up … The Captain and I went to the dugout entrance to ascertain what was going on and … a six inch high shell struck within six or eight feet of us.
A portion of the shell struck the Captain, and he was killed instantly. He never knew what struck him … He was killed doing his duty for our country and looking to the welfare of his men. No man could do more. A machine gun officer’s duty is little understood by civilians. It is not like artillery or infantry, but a duty peculiarly its own and calls for daring, resourcefulness, ingenuity, and quick perception. Captain Peters died doing his duty.
Within the large extended Peters family, though many of Edward Peters’ cousins served in the war, he was the only one killed in action. Obituaries in the Berkshire School and Harvard University Bulletins were full and detailed; even Norwich University, where his father was trustee, reported on his death.
Edward’s parents were devastated, unhinged. They separated almost immediately. His father’s interests in hobbies and clubs – even his beloved National Geographic Society, Navy Leagues of the U. S., and Companions of the Naval and Military Order of the Spanish-American War – waned. He died just six years later, in 1924.
As soon after the Armistice as she could, Edward’s mother, Eleanor Bradley Peters, moved to France, to a town called Thiaucourt, to be near the grave of her son. Mrs. Peters was angered by the neglect of American cemetery of some 4,200 graves of Army soldiers, including her own son’s. Her outraged letter to the New York Tribune in October, 1919 reached the attention of both General Pershing and Mr. Hugh Wallace, the American ambassador to France; her recommendations served as guidelines for subsequent memorial maintenance.
Mrs. Peters continued her watch over the St. Mihiel American Cemetery for the rest of her life. She died in Thiaucourt in 1941 when she was eighty-six; World War II was well under way, and the town was occupied by the Germans. Eleanor Bradley Peters was buried in the Thiaucourt town cemetery, not far from the American military cemetery, with a cross of her own design, almost exactly identical to her son’s.
In 2017, a century after World War I, this Edward McClure Peters, junior memorial plaque in the Chapel of the Angels marks more than one brave young man’s war-time death. It evokes the imminent fracturing of the Peters world.
For almost a century, the rectorship of St. Michael’s Church had been in the powerful care of the men of one family: William Richmond, James Cook Richmond, Thomas McClure Peters and John Punnett Peters. Though the large Richmond and Peters families, connected by Thomas McClure Peters’ 1847 marriage to William Richmond’s daughter, were prominent in fields as various as law, finance and government throughout major cities of the Northeast, St. Michael’s Church was perceived by many – both within the families and beyond them – as their crowning achievement.
But by the outbreak of the Great War, John Punnett Peters was tired; confident that his assistant rector, Thomas McCandless, would be able to take over leadership of St. Michael’s, he began planning his retirement. By the early 1920s, St. Michael’s Church was no longer the center of the John Punnett Peters family’s lives.
World War I changed every aspect of the world in which John Punnett Peters and his family experienced moral, political and social authority. The combat death of John Punnett Peters’ Brooklyn nephew must have felt, to the aging rector, like the violation of a whole world as well as an awful family loss.
December 26, 2017