Author: Brian Neumann

a graduate student in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia

University of Virginia Riot of 1836

The University of Virginia Riot of 1836 occurred on November 12–13 of that year when members of the student drilling company, the University Volunteers, commandeered the Rotunda and marched through the university’s grounds, destroying property. In some respects, the violence was the culmination of a decade of misbehavior among students who hailed from elite backgrounds, were bound by an honor culture, and were unchecked by a university founded on the belief that its charges could police themselves. The University Volunteers were allowed to drill with muskets only during specially sanctioned exercises, but in 1836 the company began ignoring the rules. When the faculty chairman, John A. G. Davis, threatened to disband the group, the Volunteers defied authority, each pledging an oath of solidarity to one another. That promise bound members of the group even when some wavered in the face of violence and expulsion. Students rioted for two nights, focusing much of their ire on Davis, who called in civilian law enforcement to restore order. After debating how to handle punishments, the faculty voted to allow members of the Volunteers to remain at the university if they made “proper atonement” for the participation in the riots. Riots continued to occur in subsequent years, and the anniversary of the 1836 disturbance was marked with mischief, revelry, and, in 1840, murder, when Davis was shot dead.


Gessner Harrison (1807–1862)

Gessner Harrison was a professor of ancient languages at the University of Virginia from 1828 to 1859, the first graduate of the university to join the faculty. Born in Harrisonburg, he hailed from a learned and political family, and, in 1825, became the fifth student to register at the new University of Virginia. Harrison’s sincerity and religious conviction appeared to have impressed Thomas Jefferson, with whom he was invited to dine, and he became a professor when he was just twenty-one years old. What impressed Jefferson, however, did not always impress his students who, early in Harrison’s career, attacked him on multiple occasions, once with a horsewhip. Harrison, who had earned a degree in medicine, eventually came to earn respect as a classics scholar, and he served as faculty chairman three times (1837–1839, 1840–1842, 1847–1854). In 1859, he resigned from the university to establish a school for boys. The beginning of the American Civil War (1861–1865) took most of his students away and the school closed when Harrison died in 1862.