Union Occupation of the University of Virginia; an excerpt from History of the University of Virginia, 1819–1919 by Philip Alexander Bruce (1920–1922)

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In this excerpt from the History of the University of Virginia, a five-volumn work published from 1920 until 1922, Philip Alexander Bruce describes the Union occupation of the university and nearby Charlottesville near the end of the American Civil War (1861–1865).


XII. The Federal Army Arrives

History of the University of Virginia

While hostilities were going on, the University had, on several occasions, been threatened with incursions of the enemy. The Faculty on July, 1864, went so far as to ask the Board of Visitors to authorize them to remove the institution to a place of greater security whenever this should be made necessary by the approach of Federal raiders. At one time, there was reason to think that an attack would be launched from the East, and all the professors who were not either superannuated, or already engaged in fighting at the front, took part with the homeguard of boys and elderly men, with a space and shovel, in throwing up breastworks, beyond the Rivanna, at a spot which the foe would have to pass. This mixed contingent remained in the field during three days and nights, but returned without having seen the faces of the expected invaders.

In March, 1865, the enemy, who had so often been expected to come, actually arrived in the shadow of the Rotunda. There were numerous persons, who, remembering the burning of the barracks of the Virginia Military Institute by General [David] Hunter, were apprehensive lest the pavilions, dormitories, and lecture-halls of the University should be given over to the torch, applied either deliberately by a military squad, or furtively by the hands of camp-followers seeking plunder. The Faculty decided that it would be wisest to appoint a committee, who should, in person, solicit of the Federal commander a promise to protect the buildings from his troops, if necessary, as well as from irresponsible marauders, who were the ones to be most feared. By March 1, it was known, through Confederate scouts, that [Union general Philip H.] Sheridan was rapidly marching eastward, after dispersing [Confederate general Jubal A.] Early's disorganized

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History of the University of Virginia

forces in the [Shenandoah] Valley. It was thought that he would reach Charlottesville certainly by the morning of the 3rd; perhaps by the evening of the 2nd. Professors [Socrates] Maupin and [John B.] Minor, and Colonel [Thomas L.] Preston, the rector, were authorized to meet him on the confines of the grounds.

The morning of the 3rd dawned; the day drew on to ten o'clock; and yet the enemy had not been seen. In reality, the roads had been made so heavy by rain and the rivers had so overflowed their banks, that the progress of the Federal troops had been delayed. Two Confederate scouts rode by who said that they were going as close to the enemy as the positions still held by the Confederate pickets would allow. "I enjoined them," records Professor Minor in his diary, "to come by on their return and let me hear definitely what was the situation. I can only await the result with a trust in the Divine Providence that has hitherto preserved me and mine. I betook myself to the boys' room to hear their lessons." One of the scouts entered the house, after a short interval of absence, and informed him that the vanguard of the Federal army would arrive within an hour at the furthest. By this time, a committee of the municipality of Charlottesville had hastened to the University, and were ready to join with the Faculty's committee in asking protection of the Federal commander from the depredations of stragglers and camp-followers. The two committees, grouped together near the site of the present Gothic chapel, quietly awaited his arrival. A flag of truce was held in hand by one of the party, to be waived so soon as it was likely to become visible to the enemy.

The first of the Federal troops to be observed were scouts, who were seen making their way forward with extraordinary caution. They had then reached the spot

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History of the University of Virginia

where the toll-gate formerly stood. Videttes were soon descried creeping up to every high position in the vicinity of the highway. When the Federal advance guard caught sight of the flag of truce, which was now held up to view, they cast off their distrustfulness of movement, and in a band of fifteen or more, put spurs to their horses, and with cocked pistols presented, galloped down into the little valley of the ice pond, and thence up the hill to where the members of the two committees were standing. Here they abruptly halted; and when they were asked to detail some of their number to protect the University buildings, they answered that General [George Armstrong] Custer would soon pass; and that he would, no doubt, set the solicited guard. Having been told that the town had been evacuated by the Confederate forces, they started off again at a gallop in that direction, and all further parley with them came to an end.

They had vanished only a few minutes when the adjutant-general of General Custer rode up, and in reply to the same request, courteously promised that the required guard should be granted, and that private property would not be molested. Before this conversation had terminated, Custer himself arrived, his progress emblazoned with the display of three Confederate battle-flags, which had been captured from Early's scattered and disheartened army. Two members of his staff left the line of march to assure the University committee that no damage to the buildings would be tolerated; and that a squad would be assigned to furnish the amplest protection. Professors Minor and Maupin decided that it would be more prudent to accompany the town committee to Charlottesville in order to obtain this squad in person; but as they were about to leave on their mission, Minor observed a couple of soldiers desert the

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History of the University of Virginia

main road, and turn in towards the rear of his pavilion. He hastened towards his home, and as he entered the back-gate, was confronted by the two bluecoats, who had dismounted, and were talking with his wife, who had boldly stopped them. It seems that, when they first entered the lot, they had questioned the negro servants as to whether any silver plate was concealed on the premises, but they pretended to Mrs. Minor to be in search only of firearms. As soon as they were told that a guard was to be stationed on the grounds, the two men remounted their horses, and rode off.

XIII. The University Under Guard

When Maupin and Minor arrived at Charlottesville, they were informed that the main body of the Federal troops had continued their march to the Rivanna river for the purpose of setting the torch to the public bridge and the Woolen Mills, but that a guard had been dispatched to the University to assure the safety of the buildings and the professors' families. At first, this guard consisted of several men, but, by the afternoon, all, except one, had been ordered away. This man was posted at the arcade corner nearest to the Anatomical Hall. He proved to be both willing and useful. The Federal provost-marshal visited the grounds as evening approached, and thinking that further protection would not be needed, was about to withdraw the soldier, but at Professor Minor's earnest request, finally consented to allow him to remain during the night. A stable was opened for his horse, and shelter for himself was found in the parlor of one of the hotels which was now in the possession of a family of refugees. Several hours after darkness had come on, Professor Minor and this guardsman started out together to inspect the entire round

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History of the University of Virginia

of the University precincts. The need of this precaution had been just demonstrated by the experience of Colonel Preston, whose home was situated on the neighboring heights. His house had been robbed of many valuable articles, and his own person had been rifled of watch and purse. All his horses had been driven off, and some of his servants lured away. Professor Minor and the guard found that a profound quiet prevailed. On their return, the soldier withdrew to his sleeping quarters, but throughout the night, Minor remained awake and dressed in order that he might be able to detect any band of marauders, who might enter the grounds, before they should have time to rob or commit any other kind of depredation. Fortunately, a heavy rain fell up to an early hour, but the sun rose in a cloudless sky. About six o'clock, the guard mounted his horse and departed.

At nine, a long column of Federal soldiers were seen advancing along the Lynchburg Road. They had left Charlottesville for the purpose of tearing up the railway that ran southward. Minor and Maupin, apprehensive lest the unprotected state of the premises should tempt stragglers from this moving body to sneak in and frighten the resident families, went in haste to the headquarters of General Sheridan in town. There they were referred to General [Wesley] Merritt, who, at their request, ordered a squad of soldiers to be despatched to the University at once. Accompanied by the two professors, they arrived in the nick of time, for already the plunderers had not only entered the dispensary, but had also threatened several of the households in the pavilions. It was not until a company of twenty-five men had been placed on guard that the danger to the public buildings and private property was entirely removed. This company formed a part of a regiment of Michigan cavalry, and was under the com-

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History of the University of Virginia

mand of a captain from the same State, a plain and illiterate man, but courteous in his deportment and kindly disposed in spirit.

It seems that Professor Minor owned a female mule, somewhat aged, but still vigorous in limb and lung. Her keeper and companion, an old servant of the house, had, at the first alarm, solemnly led her off to the wooded fastnesses of Observatory Mountain; but her bray,—probably raised in protest at her being torn from her comfortable stable within the University grounds,—seems to have betrayed her, for her whereabouts, in spite of the screen of tangled bushes, became known, as the Federal officer advised that she should be brought back to her old place of shelter as the only way of keeping her out of the clutches of Federal stragglers. It was thought by Professor Minor that she would be safest in the cellar of his pavilion, and so here she was stalled as soon as darkness allowed her to be returned without being observed.

But the mule, with the perversity of her species and her sex, objected to these Cimmerian quarters because she had never been accustomed to them, and soon showed a disposition to kick with great violence, and to make many strange and alarming noises at unexpected and ill-considered moments. The evening following her arrival, the Federal officer was taking supper with the Minor household. The atmosphere was one of peace and serenity, in spite of the depression of the times. The captain was gracious and conciliatory, and the professor courteous and agreeable. In the midst of their conversation, there came suddenly the sound of some extraordinary commotion that was happening beneath the floor of the dining-room. The uproar was so loud and so confused that it was impossible to distinguish its cause, and the Federal officer, disturbed and suspicious, rose from his seat. He

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History of the University of Virginia

seemed to be apprehensive of a personal attack from without; but before he could make his way to the door, Professor Minor was so far able to suppress his merriment as to tell him that the noise which had been heard was the sound of the mingled kicking and braying of the old mule, now determined to break out of the dark cellar, if the united efforts of hoof and voice could accomplish it. The meal was resumed by guest and host amid hearty laughter over the one humorous episode which lit up the dark clouds that enshrouded the hour.

A report reached the ears of Professor Minor that the University buildings were to be sacked that night (March 4). This was, no doubt, a groundless rumor, but it caused the Federal officer to increase the vigilance of his protection by posting sentinels at every point of entrance. Notwithstanding this fact, his host refused to go to bed when everyone else had retired, so sharp was his anxiety for the safety of the pavilions and dormitories, and for the security of their inhabitants. The ensuing day was Sunday, and the whole framework of the earth appeared to be flooded with sunshine, and filled with the soft influences of dawning spring. "But," commented Professor Minor in his diary at the time, "how futile is the flow of the sunshine to inspire our hearts with cheerfulness!" It was a deep sense of relief that he received the message from General Sheridan, who was still in Charlottesville, that he was determined that the University should be preserved from every kind of injury; and that he was ready to remove any cause for complaint which its authorities had to offer. During the afternoon of the same day, Colonel Sherman, the Inspector-General, visited the grounds, and made a thorough search for fire-arms, but the examination was conducted with perfect civility. No weapon was found besides an ancient mus-

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History of the University of Virginia

ket, the presence of which Professor Minor himself reported.

Monday, the 6th, was a day of renewed anxiety, as the Federal army was expected to resume its advance, which would require the withdrawal of the existing guard from the University, and the consequent abandonment of the premises to the plundering camp followers and stragglers who would remain behind. […] "Thus," remarked Professor Minor, in a memorandum made at the time, "we escaped the dangers which threatened us, and upon the whole, have lost very little." As the last Federal soldier was seen tramping along in the distance, several members of [Confederate] General [Thomas L.] Rosser's command, who had been hovering on the flanks of the enemy, appeared in sight and drew rein near the grounds.

The only student who remained at the University after the arrival of the Federal army, was W. C. Fowlkes, a member of the law class, who had lost a leg in the war, and who, in after-life, became a distinguished judge of the Supreme Court of Tennessee. A Federal sentinel was stationed at the top of the flights of steps that broke the level of the East Range walkway. Fowlkes in

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History of the University of Virginia

a spirit of mischief, determined that he would test the courage of this soldier. He always hobbled along with a large black cane. Furtively taking position out of sight, beneath one of the arches just above the flight where the sentinel stood, he suddenly poked the cane around the wall from his hiding-place directly at the head of the man, as if it was his intention to thrust a musket in his face and fire it. Supposing it to be a real gun, the sentinel tumbled down the flight of steps and nearly broke his neck. Before he could recover from the confusion of the fall, Fowlkes had escaped into one of the dormitories.

APA Citation:
Bruce, Philip. Union Occupation of the University of Virginia; an excerpt from History of the University of Virginia, 1819–1919 by Philip Alexander Bruce (1920–1922). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Bruce, Philip. "Union Occupation of the University of Virginia; an excerpt from History of the University of Virginia, 1819–1919 by Philip Alexander Bruce (1920–1922)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 12 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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