Founded in 1819 by, the University of Virginia was located a mile west of Charlottesville. Its nearly 400 acres consisted of what Jefferson called the “ “—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,, 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 to write 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 and fought later that year at and .
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.
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, 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
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,, (expelled in 1853), William Ransom Johnson Pegram, Carnot Posey, and William Latané, who later became the subject of a . Other alumni served the Confederacy in nonmilitary capacities: R. M. T. Hunter as secretary of state, 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.
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 regularlynewspaper 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.
The university struggled to keep the students it had. When several student companies were transported toin April 1861, Maupin successfully pleaded with Governor 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.”
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 substantialon . 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 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 ofescaped to freedom. On March 6, the day the occupiers left, the to inventory the damage. In addition to a cannon destroyed on Observatory Hill, the school had lost two horses, all their feed, and 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
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, in , 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; Hugh Davis and R. Davis Farish, nephews of ; 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.
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 theview of the war. For instance, in describing the execution of , 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.