University of Virginia During the Civil War, The


The University of Virginia, near Charlottesville, remained open during the American Civil War (1861–1865), graduating few students and struggling to maintain its facilities. At the start of the war, its students strongly supported secession, and more than 500 of the school’s 600 enrollees in 1861 eventually served in the Confederate military. More than 2,000 alumni joined them, and by 1865, 500 men associated with the university had died in the conflict. A few graduates fought for the Union, including Bernard Gaines Farrar Jr., who became a general of U.S. volunteers. Only a few dozen students attended the university in any given year during the war, and the university was unsuccessful in preventing some of those from being drafted into Confederate service in 1863. The university’s facilities, meanwhile, suffered from lack of use and upkeep. The Rotunda building briefly held patients of the Charlottesville General Hospital, a military medical center whose superintendent, J. L. Cabell, was a faculty member. In March 1865, Union cavalrymen under George A. Custer briefly occupied the university, but damage proved minimal. After the war, enrollment levels took decades to recover, while the university did much to honor those students who had fought and died for the Confederacy. By contrast, Unionists were largely ignored.

Student Participation

Founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson, the University of Virginia was located a mile west of Charlottesville. Its nearly 400 acres consisted of what Jefferson called the “Academical Village“—a spacious, U-shaped lawn headed by the Rotunda and flanked by faculty and student housing, classrooms, and dining halls. In 1861 the university had thirteen faculty members and an annual enrollment of about 600 students. In the spring of 1861, the great majority of those students favored secession.

On March 16, Socrates Maupin, the faculty chair and a professor of chemistry, noted in his journal: “The Rotunda was broken into last night and the Confederate flag erected on the dome by persons unknown.” In a memoir published in 1910, Randolph H. McKim, of Baltimore, Maryland, admitted to being one of those unknown persons. He and six other students “bought the bunting and had the flag made, seven stars and three bars, by some young lady friends who were bound to secrecy,” he wrote. On the night in question, the students “sawed their way through five doors to gain access to the roof of the rotunda, where, in their stocking feet, they at length succeeded, not without risk of a fatal fall, in giving the ‘Stars and Bars’ to the breeze, just as the first faint streaks of dawn appeared on the eastern hills.” Albert Taylor Bledsoe, a professor of mathematics and himself a secessionist, convinced the students to remove the flag until such time as Virginia had officially left the Union.

Once that happened, on April 17, and the war had begun in earnest, many students joined volunteer companies organized at the university. The Sons of Liberty was one such group, formed in 1860 with seventy-four men and William Barksdale as its captain. Robert E. Lee Jr. signed up, prompting his father to write his mother on April 30, 1861, “that I could not consent to take boys from their school & young men from their colleges & put them in the ranks at the beginning of a war when they are not wanted & when there were men enough for the purpose.” The Sons of Liberty disbanded on May 8 so its men could enlist in the Confederate army. In 1862, the younger Lee joined the Rockbridge Artillery and fought later that year at Second Manassas and Antietam.

Another company, the Southern Guard, formed in January 1861, with 100 men and Edward S. Hutter Jr. as captain; it also disbanded on May 8. The Jefferson Davis Corps had organized by April 19, the same day the Confederate flag—by order of the faculty this time—was raised over the Rotunda. A fourth company, the University Volunteers, was organized in April or May, with sixty-five men and James Parran Crane as captain. On August 13, the University Volunteers became Company G of the 59th Virginia Infantry Regiment, disbanding on December 7 so that its members, who included students from outside Virginia, could join units from their home states.

Maximilian Schele De Vere

The university also briefly revived the University Military School. Founded in 1827, the school was shut down following an 1836 student riot precipitated by the faculty’s attempt to control the cadets’ weapons. (The University Volunteers originally had been organized in 1831 and then disbanded with the school.) In May 1861 the university admitted 125 new cadets and among the faculty lecturers was Maximilian Schele De Vere, a professor of modern languages who had seen military service in Prussia and possibly in Algiers. By September, however, the school was defunct.

Alumni and Faculty Participation

The Burial of Latané

All told, 515 of the university’s students enrolled in 1861 served in the Confederate military. Of the school’s approximately 8,000 alumni on the eve of the war, 2,481 (31 percent) served the Confederacy; of those, 1,480 (60 percent) became officers. They included John Bankhead Magruder, Philip St. George Cocke, John Singleton Mosby (expelled in 1853), William Ransom Johnson Pegram, Carnot Posey, and William Latané, who later became the subject of a famous painting. Other alumni served the Confederacy in nonmilitary capacities: R. M. T. Hunter as secretary of state, George Wythe Randolph as secretary of war, and James Mason as a commissioner to Europe. A number of alumni also sat in the Confederate Congress.

A much smaller number of University of Virginia alumni fought for the Union. Some hailed from states that did not secede, such as Bernard Gaines Farrar Jr., a native of Saint Louis, Missouri, who rose to become a brevet brigadier general of U.S. volunteers. William Octavius Eversfield, a Maryland native, received his medical degree from the university in 1860 and went on to serve as an acting assistant surgeon in the Union army. Charles Philip Redmond, who attended the university in 1858, fought for a regiment from his native Iowa, and Charles Augustus Briggs, who attended from 1857 to 1859 and later became a prominent theologian, fought in the 7th New York Infantry Regiment. Not all were from the North, however. Charles H. McElroy, of Fincastle, became a major in the 96th Ohio Infantry Regiment. Stephen D. Kennedy, of Martinsburg, served as a surgeon in the U.S. Navy, as did John Thornley, of Caroline County.

Basil L. Gildersleeve

Although not as enthused about the war as some students, most faculty members supported the Confederacy. Too old for military duty, some professors nevertheless periodically met for public drills with—from the students’ perspective—comically outdated flintlock muskets. Other faculty members held public office: Bledsoe as assistant secretary of war; James P. Holcombe, a professor of law until 1861, as a congressman; Robert R. Prentis, a librarian and the university’s proctor until 1865, as Albemarle County tax collector; and Francis H. Smith, who taught mathematics, as commissioner of weights and measures. The medical professor J. L. Cabell was superintendent of Charlottesville General Hospital, a makeshift military medical center, while Basil L. Gildersleeve, a professor of Greek and Hebrew, served as a staff officer when classes were not in session and otherwise regularly penned newspaper editorials in support of the Confederacy.

In April 1863 the university granted Schele De Vere a leave of absence so that he could travel to Europe on a diplomatic mission. He apparently never left Virginia, however, possibly because another faculty member, George Frederick Holmes, a professor of history and general literature, wrote a letter to the secretary of state criticizing Schele De Vere.

Enrollment and Facilities

Enrollment declined steeply with the war, from 600 students in 1860–1861 to 66 in 1861–1862, 46 in 1862–1863 (of whom 8 graduated), 50 in 1863–1864, and 55 in 1864–1865. Despite such low numbers, the board of visitors, on July 4, 1863, deemed it “proper & expedient” to keep the school open. Still, even the board found it difficult to meet, managing a quorum only ten times in four years.

Harpers Ferry

The university struggled to keep the students it had. When several student companies were transported to Harpers Ferry in April 1861, Maupin successfully pleaded with Governor John Letcher for their immediate return. Early in 1863, when enrolling officers for the Seventh Congressional District were on their way to Albemarle County to conscript all able-bodied men between the ages of eighteen and forty, the faculty and board of visitors worried that the drafting of students would grievously jeopardize the school’s existence without tangibly adding to the Confederacy’s military strength. Maupin wrote to the secretary of war, James A. Seddon, to that effect on January 3 and received a short reply, dated January 8: “The students must be enrolled, if of conscript age, but may then be furloughed or detailed until the 4th of July, on condition that they then report themselves at once to the camp of instruction.”

The university’s facilities, meanwhile, deteriorated with lack of use and upkeep. A few buildings quartered wounded Confederate soldiers; otherwise, to more than one visitor the school looked as if it had closed. On July 25, 1862, the board of visitors demanded the removal of all soldier-patients from university property, financial reimbursement for property damage, which included bloodstains on the floor of the Rotunda, and “a proper rent for the use of the buildings.” A year later, however, conditions had not much improved. “The Dormitories are many of them left open, & in the precise condition in which they were left by the soldiers—loose straw on the floors makes them peculiarly liable to fire,” the board reported on July 2, 1863. “In some instances the windows have been entirely removed, & in many the glass destroyed. The enclosures are, we are informed, frequently destroyed, & cattle allowed to graze on the lawns.”


General George A. Custer

On February 29, 1864, Union general George A. Custer led an assault in the area of Charlottesville meant to serve as a diversion from the more substantial Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid on Richmond. It resulted in the skirmish at Rio Hill but was no threat to the university. A year later, though, Custer returned. Cavalry under his and his superior Philip Henry Sheridan‘s command arrived on March 3 and was met by three representatives from the university: Maupin, the law professor John B. Minor, and Rector Thomas L. Preston. The group met with passing members of Custer’s staff. “We announced to these men, who were accompanied by a dirty-looking lieutenant, that no defense of Charlottesville was contemplated,” Minor wrote in his diary that night, “that the town was evacuated, and that we requested protection for the University, and for the town.” Protection was granted and later confirmed by Sheridan.

Union cavalrymen looted a number of houses and created conditions under which a number of enslaved African Americans escaped to freedom. On March 6, the day the occupiers left, the university faculty met to inventory the damage. In addition to a cannon destroyed on Observatory Hill, the school had lost two horses, all their feed, and one slave in the service of, but likely not owned by, the institution. By and large, however, “the Faculty and others connected with the University have reason to congratulate themselves that the institution and its inmates fared better than could have been anticipated during the presence of the enemy in our midst.”

After the War

Virginia Military Institute After Hunter's Raid

The university’s survival, at least in a physical sense, had not been a given. In June 1864, men under the command of Union general David Hunter burned parts of the Virginia Military Institute, in Lexington, and on April 4, 1865, Union troops set fire to the University of Alabama, the architectural design of which was modeled after Jefferson’s Academical Village. While the University of Virginia escaped that fate, it still graduated only five men in July 1865.

To encourage interest among prospective students, the university took out advertisements in more than 100 newspapers across the nation in 1865 and 1866. A notice in the Nashville Union and American, for instance, appeared on December 14, 1865, and reminded readers that “There are at the present time two hundred and thirty students in the University of Virginia, a great majority of whom were in the army during the war.” An ad in the Galveston Daily News, on May 3, 1866, noted that “Among the students at the University of Virginia, at Charlottesville, are the following: Benjamin Wood, jr., son of Mr. Wood, of the New York Daily News; A. W. Pope, nephew of the Federal General Pope; Hugh Davis and R. Davis Farish, nephews of Jeff. Davis; W. W. Foote, son of ex-rebel Congressman Foote, of Tennessee; J. W. Wilmer, son of Bishop Wilmer, of Alabama; and Charles E. Rives, son of the Hon. Alexander Rives, of Charlottesville, Va.” Even with such advertisements, it took until 1904 for enrollment to surpass antebellum levels.

The Fallen

In the years that followed the Civil War, the University of Virginia and its students and alumni did much to commemorate their own roles in the war. In 1871, John Lipscomb Johnson authored The University Memorial: Biographical Sketches of Alumni of the University of Virginia Who Fell in the Confederate War. A Spotsylvania County native and 1860 graduate of the university, Johnson had served in the war as chaplain to the 17th Virginia Infantry Regiment. In the book he acknowledged most of the 500 University of Virginia students and alumni who died in the war, often describing them in romantic, sometimes heroic terms that adhered to what came to be known as the Lost Cause view of the war. For instance, in describing the execution of John Y. Beall, an accused Confederate spy who studied at the university from 1852 to 1855, Johnson writes: “As the martyr sets his face towards Jerusalem, so this hero, dying for the faith of his fathers, turns his face upon the South.”

A Confederate cemetery was established at the university in 1893, and bronze tablets bearing the names of students and alumni killed during the war were placed at the Rotunda in 1906. In 1912, the university issued “Gift of Alma Mater to Her Son” medals to those alumni who had served. The university has largely avoided any formal mention of those students and alumni who served the Union during the war.

Thomas Jefferson founds the University of Virginia about a mile west of Charlottesville.
The University Military School at the University of Virginia is founded.
The University Volunteers, a company of cadets, is organized as part of the University Military School at the University of Virginia.
After a student riot precipitated by the faculty's attempt to control the cadets' weapons, the University Military School at the University of Virginia is closed.
The Sons of Liberty, a company of seventy-four University of Virginia volunteer soldiers, forms.
Autumn 1860—Spring 1861
The University of Virginia enrolls 600 students.
January 1861
The Southern Guard, a company of 100 volunteer soldiers from the University of Virginia, forms.
March 16, 1861
Socrates Maupin notes in his diary that, on the previous night, students at the University of Virginia broke into the Rotunda and raised the Confederate flag.
April or May 1861
The University Volunteers, a company of sixty-five soldiers from the University of Virginia, forms.
April 17, 1861
Delegates at the Virginia Convention in Richmond pass an Ordinance of Secession by a vote of 88 to 55. Thirty-two of the "no" votes come from trans-Allegheny delegates, who are more firmly Unionist than representatives from other parts of the state.
April 19, 1861
By this date, the Jefferson Davis Corps, a company of volunteer soldiers from the University of Virginia, has formed.
April 30, 1861
In a letter to his wife, Robert E. Lee objects to the decision by Robert E. Lee Jr., a student at the University of Virginia, to join the Confederate army.
May 1861
The University of Virginia reestablishes the University Military School, with 125 cadets.
May 8, 1861
The Sons of Liberty and the Southern Guard, two companies of volunteer soldiers from the University of Virginia, disband.
July 1861
Charlottesville General Hospital, a sprawling Confederate military medical facility, opens in Charlottesville and takes over various public and private buildings throughout the town, including hotels, churches, and facilities belonging to the University of Virginia. Its first patients are Confederate soldiers wounded at Manassas.
August 13, 1861
The University Volunteers from the University of Virginia become Company G of the 59th Virginia Infantry Regiment.
Autumn 1861—Spring 1862
The University of Virginia enrolls sixty-six students.
September 1861
By this date the University Military School at the University of Virginia, reestablished in May, is defunct.
December 7, 1861
Company G of the 59th Virginia Infantry Regiment disbands so that its members, originally students at the University of Virginia, can join units from their home states.
July 25, 1862
The University of Virginia board of visitors demand the removal of all soldier-patients from university property, financial reimbursement for property damage, and rent for the use of the buildings.
Autumn 1862—Spring 1863
The University of Virginia enrolls forty-six students, of whom eight graduate.
January 3, 1863
Socrates Maupin, chairman of the University of Virginia faculty, requests that the secretary of war exempt students from conscription.
January 8, 1863
Confederate secretary of war James A. Seddon refuses a request by the University of Virginia to exempt students from conscription.
April 1863
Maximilian Schele De Vere takes a leave of absence from the University of Virginia to travel to Europe to assist the Confederacy.
July 2, 1863
The University of Virginia board of visitors reports on the deterioration of university facilities.
July 4, 1863
Despite low enrollment and revenue problems, the University of Virginia board of visitors deems it "proper & expedient" to keep the school open.
Autumn 1863—Spring 1864
The University of Virginia enrolls fifty students.
February 29, 1864
Union general George A. Custer menaces Charlottesville and Albemarle County as part of the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid on Richmond. He is repulsed by local militia in a short skirmish on Rio Hill.
June 11—14, 1864
Union general David Hunter's forces shell Lexington and burn the Virginia Military Institute before occupying the town for several days during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864.
Autumn 1864—Spring 1865
The University of Virginia enrolls fifty-five students.
March 3, 1865
Charlottesville and University of Virginia officials surrender the town to Union generals Philip H. Sheridan and George A. Custer. Union forces burn the Charlottesville Manufacturing Company.
March 6, 1865
The Union occupation of Charlottesville ends as Union cavalry ride south, in the direction of Scottsville.
March 6, 1865
Members of the University of Virginia faculty meet to report on the recent occupation of Charlottesville by Union forces.
April 4, 1865
Union troops set fire to the University of Alabama.
July 1865
The University of Virginia graduates five students.
The University Memorial: Biographical Sketches of Alumni of the University of Virginia Who Fell in the Confederate War by John Lipscomb Johnson is published.
A Confederate cemetery is established at the University of Virginia.
Bronze tablets bearing the names of University of Virginia students and alumni killed during the Civil War are placed at the Rotunda.
The University of Virginia issues "Gift of Alma Mater to Her Son" medal to those alumni who served during the Civil War.
  • Bruce, Philip Alexander. History of the University of Virginia, 1819–1919: The Lengthened Shadow of One Man.5 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1920–1922.
  • Johnson, John Lipscomb. The University Memorial: Biographical Sketches of Alumni of the University of Virginia Who Fell in the Confederate War. Baltimore, Maryland: Turnbull Bros., 1871.
  • Jordan, Ervin L., Jr. Charlottesville and the University of Virginia in the Civil War. Lynchburg, Virginia: H. E. Howard, Inc., 1988.
APA Citation:
Jordan, Ervin. University of Virginia During the Civil War, The. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/university-of-virginia-during-the-civil-war-the.
MLA Citation:
Jordan, Ervin. "University of Virginia During the Civil War, The" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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