The University of Virginia during the Civil War
The University of Virginia remained open throughout the course of the Civil War. Before the war, it was the third-largest school in the country. Only the Virginia Military Institute contributed more soldiers to the Confederate effort. Within six months of secession, 515 of the University’s 604 students that enrolled in 1860 had enlisted. Over 3000 alumni (fifty-one percent of all living alumni in 1861) fought in the Civil War, and around 500 were killed.
The University’s faculty and students came from a range of geographic backgrounds, but its students were overwhelmingly descendants of the southern gentry, with family histories often traced back to the pre-Revolutionary era. Many of these families enslaved people. All students and professors were white men who could afford to attend college. The University was, generally speaking, both young and conservative, with an average age of just over forty. Law Professor John Barbee Minor openly remained loyal to the Union and opposed secession. Four other professors served with the Union during the war. The rest supported seceding from the United States to protect the institution of slavery, or otherwise did not show their continues allegiance to the United States.
In the 1850s, the University of Virginia had over 600 students, making it the third-largest university in the country. Sectionalism pushed more Southern students to attend college in the South, elevating enrollment. In October 1860, only seven of the University’s 604 students came from “free” states.
- 1860-61: 604 students, 7 from “free” states.
- 1861-62: 66 students. Professor Smith predicted only 30 would enroll after only eleven had arrived by October.
- 1862-63: 46 students. Only eight eventually graduate.
- 1863-64: 50 students. A survey conducted in January 1864 revealed that 13 were under eighteen, 5 were wounded veterans, six had been deemed disabled, nine “had provided substitutes” (forcing others to fight in their place), four students were from Union-held Maryland, and one was from Canada.
- 1864-65: 55 students. Five graduate in July.
Student Life and Involvement
The Washington and Jefferson Debating Societies each held debates over seceding in the event of Lincoln’s election. The Washington Society voted that Virginia should secede, 33-6. The Jefferson Society concurred.
In December 1860, the faculty lifted a ban on student military organizations. Within days, the Sons of Liberty and the Southern Guard were established. A faculty company was also established. It was perhaps best known for drilling indoors to avoid student ridicule. All groups were on the side of the Confederacy.
The University Volunteers from the University of Virginia became Company G of the 59th Virginia Infantry Regiment in August 1861. Company G disbanded in December so that its members could join units from their home states.
On March 15, 1861, seven students raised a Confederate battle flag on the dome of the Rotunda, signaling support for the pro-slavery effort from within the University. In a letter to the editors of the Baltimore Exchange, students said that "the spirit of Secession is rampant here." This was unofficially endorsed by most members of the faculty, Professor Minor excepted. Professor Albert Bledsoe ordered the group of students, who were never officially named but referred to as “the Carr’s Hill boys,” to take the flag down, as it was illegal to fly it over state property. The faculty made it clear there would be no disciplinary action if the flag was removed swiftly. The flag was removed from the Rotunda, but the following Monday there was a grand flag raising at one of the nearby boarding houses, complete with a little girl dressed as the Goddess of Liberty and a salute of seven rounds by the Southern Guard and the playing of "Dixie."
On April 17, 1861, the Sons of Liberty and the Southern Guard (about 140 students), joined Charlottesville’s two military volunteer companies, the Albemarle Rifles and the Monticello Guard, to march to Harper’s Ferry, without “rations, blankets, overcoats, haversacks, canteens, or cartridges… but full of unquenchable enthusiasm,” as described by a witness.
In May of 1861, the faculty committee requested that professors not report delinquent students due to the “extraordinary political excitement during the last month.” This “excitement” was causing students to perform worse academically and increasing the amount of verbal and physical outbursts.
By the start of 1862, students were no longer exempt from military service. Robert E. Lee Jr., a student at the time, left to enlist in order to avoid conscription. His father, the Confederate general, disapproved of his son’s military aspirations. Several other students left to work as nurses for the Delevan Hospital, the most active part of the Charlottesville General Hospital.
On May 10, 1863, Confederate Lieutenant Everett W. Early, a disabled officer who had been attending University lectures, left with seven students and without permission to fight in a battle in Spotsylvania. All eight truants returned exactly a week later on May 17.
In May of 1861, the Board of Visitor requested permission to organize a school of “military science.” The same month, the Board of Visitors offered “the whole means and materials of Chemical preparations at the University” to the state.
Charlottesville General Hospital
In July 1861, the Charlottesville General Hospital was created after casualties from the Battle of Manassas arrived in Charlottesville. The city’s proximity to two separate rail lines and its available medical personnel from the University made it a highly useful location. In addition to Confederate soldiers, prisoners of war were treated at the hospital and quartered on the Ranges.
On June 9, 1862, over three hundred wounded Confederates were brought from the Port Republic battlefield. They were housed in the chapel, public hall, and other University buildings. Faculty protested that the continued use and abuse of the University facilities as a hospital would “seriously jeopardize the interests of this Institution.” By the 24, over 1300 casualties were being cared for at the University. The wounded were being housed and treated beyond the buildings designated as the hospital and into Dawson’s Row, the Ranges, and tents set up on the Lawn and around the campus. Patients were buried in what would become the Confederate Cemetery adjacent to the University Cemetery.
In 1864, waves of refugees arrived from other parts of Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia. The Rotunda was used as a “retreat” for refugee women.
Liberation of Charlottesville
Union troops approached Charlottesville in early 1865, arriving on the morning of March 3. Propaganda and fearmongering convinced many white Charlottesvillians that the troops would burn the University of Virginia, which was treating Confederate soldiers in their hospital for battlefield wounds and illnesses.
Charlottesville Mayor Christoper L. Fowler decided to surrender. The University of Virginia, represented by law professor John Barbee Minor, chairman of the faculty Socrates Maupin, and rector Thomas L. Preston, surrendered to the Union. They argued that the University had been founded by President Jefferson and would be a benefit to the entire nation, not just the Confederacy. Over half of Albemarle County was liberated from slavery that day as the Union line reached them, including the hundreds of people held in captivity by the university's professors, students, and the school itself.
In addition to students, some faculty left the University for the Confederate effort:
- Law Professor Thomas Holcome was elected to the Confederate Congress.
- Latin Professor Lewis Minor Coleman became a lieutenant colonel of artillery. He died of battle wounds in Fredericksburg.
- Mathematics Professor Albert Taylor Bledsoe became the assistant Confederate Secretary of War, then went to England to spread pro-slavery and pro-Confederate propaganda.
- Mathematics Professor Robert Massie, who succeeded Bledsoe at the University, died in action while serving as an engineer for the Confederacy.
Ten faculty who remained at the University were tasked with keeping it open the course of the war:
- Natural Sciences and Mathematics Professor Francis Smith, enslaver of future teacher Isabella Gibbons.
- Chemistry and Pharmacy Professor Socrates Maupin, who remained Chairman of the Faculty until 1868.
- Law Professor John Minor, who waved the white flag of surrender when Union troops advanced upon the University in March 1865. After the war Minor and Professor Socrates Maupin borrowed money on their personal credit to keep the University going.
- Medical Professor Dr. James Lawrence Cabell, director and chief surgeon of the Charlottesville General Hospital.
- Professor of Anatomy and Surgery Dr. Henry Howard, who worked in the hospital. He enslaved minister William Gibbons.
- Medical Professor Dr. John Staige Davis, who worked in the hospital.
- Moral Philosophy Professor Reverend William Holmes McGuffey, creator of the McGuffey reader, namesake of the present-day park and art center.
- Professor George Frederick Holmes, who taught at several Southern universities and was a prolific pro-slavery writer.
- Modern Languages Professor Maxmilliam Schele De Vere, who taught at the University for nearly 50 years. He was quietly Unionist before secession and captain of a “home guard” during the war.
- Classics Professor Basil Gildersleeve, who “summered” at the front. A part of Brown Residential College was named after him.
1827: The University Military School at the University of Virginia is founded.
1831: The University Volunteers, a company of cadets, is organized as part of the University Military School at the University of Virginia.
1836: 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.
1860: The Sons of Liberty, a company of seventy-four University of Virginia volunteer soldiers, forms.
Autumn 1860: 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, most famously the Rotunda. 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: 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 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: 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 Board of Visitors reports on the deterioration of university facilities.
July 4, 1863: Despite low enrollment and revenue problems, the Board of Visitors deems it "proper & expedient" to keep the school open.
Autumn 1863: 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, 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: 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. Today, this is celebrated locally as Liberation and Freedom Day.
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.
July 1865: The University of Virginia graduates five students.
1871: The University Memorial: Biographical Sketches of Alumni of the University of Virginia Who Fell in the Confederate War by John Lipscomb Johnson is published.
1888: Students choose orange and blue as the school colors, replacing silver gray and cardinal red that symbolized the Confederate uniform stained with blood.
1893: A Confederate cemetery is formally established at the University of Virginia.
1899: UVA enrolls 664 students, the highest amount since the 1850s peak.
1906: Bronze tablets bearing the names of University of Virginia students and alumni killed during the Civil War are placed at the Rotunda.
1912: The University of Virginia issues "Gift of Alma Mater to Her Son" medal to those alumni who served during the Civil War.
The effects of the Civil War on the University continued long after 1865, or even 1870 when Reconstruction formally ended in the state of Virginia. After the war, enrollment levels took decades to recover. The University did much to honor those students and faculty who had fought and died for the Confederacy, while largely ignoring supporters of the Union.
The University continues to acknowledge its history and the effects of slavery and white supremacy. The President's Commission on Slavery and the University was created by President Teresa Sullivan in 2013 to specifically explore the University's direct involvement in supporting those institutions. The Commission seeks to "explore and report on UVA’s historical relationship with slavery, highlighting opportunities for recognition and commemoration." They have, among other goals, worked with Monticello to explore Jefferson's specific relationship to slavery, investigated buildings and sites of historical significance, and designed and executed the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers on the University's Grounds.
John L. Nau III's family foundation has funded several opportunities for academic work surrounding the Civil War, many of which are through the University of Virginia's Nau Center for Civil War History. The Center has created several digital projects, including Black Virginians in Blue, focusing on Black Union soldiers from Albemarle County; UVA Unionists, which seeks to identify UVA students who fought for the Union during the war; and the upcoming Civil War Prisons, which will illustrate the experiences of prisoners of the Civil War. The former two projects were co-funded by the Jefferson Trust. In addition to long-term digital projects, the Center has an ongoing scholarly blog. The Nau Center sponsors educational programming about the Civil War, including panel events presented at prestigious festivals such as the Virginia Festival of the Book or aired on CSPAN.
The Nau family foundation has funded fellowships and professorships at the University, such as the John L Nau III Professor in History of American Civil War, and several internships through UVA's Institute for Public History, in order to help keep the study of Civil War history available to the public and financially feasible for students to study for a summer. In 2021, the Center financed seven internships, placing students at three national battlefield parks, two digital research centers, Charlottesville's Daughters of Zion Cemetery, and the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society.
- The President's Commission on Slavery and the University
- John L. Nau Center for Civil War History
- UVA Unionists
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