The Last Ninety Days of the War in North Carolina
by Cornelia Phillips Spencer
New York: Watchman Publishing Company; W. H. Chase, publishing agent; 1866
THE UNIVERSITY AT CHAPEL HILL — ITS EARLY HISTORY — ITS CONTINUED GROWTH—THE ARDOR OF THE YOUNG MEN—APPLICATION FOR RELIEF FROM CONSCRIPTION — GOVERNOR SWAIN TO PRESIDENT DAVIS — ANOTHER DRAFT ON THE BOYS — A DOZEN BOYS IN COLLEGE WHEN SHERMAN COMES; AND THE BELLS RING ON—”COMMENCEMENT” IN 1865—ONE GRADUATE—HE PRONOUNCES THE VALEDICTORY—CONCLUSION CHAPTER XVIII.
As to the State University, perhaps more than a mere reference to its condition at the close of the war may not unjustly form part of a contribution to our State history, since its influence and reputation have been second to those of no similar institution in the country, and its benefits have been widely diffused through every State of the Confederacy. Its Revolutionary history is not uninteresting in this connection. At the very time when all our State interests lay prostrate and exhausted from the Revolutionary struggle, the very time when a superficial observer would have thought it enough for the people to get bread to eat and clothes to wear, our far-seeing patriots, who knew well that without education no state can become great, and that the weaker we were physically the more need there was for intellectual force and power to enable us to maintain our stand among the nations — these wise men projected and laid the foundations of a State literary institution, which, uncontrolled and uncontaminated by party politics or religious bigotries, should be an honor and a benefit to the commonwealth through all future generations. General Davie may be said to have been the father of the University, though every man of distinction in the State at that time manifested a deep and cordial interest in its establishment.
Most of my readers are sufficiently familiar with the history of the State to be aware that, before the Revolution, the mother country would permit no college or university or school to be established but upon certain conditions utterly repugnant to principles of civil and religious liberty. The charter of Queen’s College, at Charlotte, Mecklenburg county, (the college, town, and county, all three being named in loyal compliment to his queen,) was disallowed by George III., because other than members of the Established Church of England were appointed among the trustees. This act of tyranny did more to arouse the revolutionary spirit than the Stamp Act and all other causes combined. The money that belonged to the common-school fund was squandered by the mother country in the erection of a palace for the royal governor—the most splendid edifice of the time on the continent. And at the close of the war for independence, so impoverished was the country that the General Assembly could contribute nothing toward the establishment of the University, beyond endowing it with doubtful debts, escheats, and derelict property. So that if aid had not been given from private sources, it would never have struggled into existence. At the first meeting of the trustees, Colonel Benjamin Smith, the aid-de-camp of General Washington and subsequent Governor of the State, made a donation of twenty thousand acres of Chickasaw lands. Major Charles Girard, who had served throughout the perils of the war, childless in the providence of God, adopted the newly-born University, and bestowed on it property supposed to be equal in value to forty thousand dollars. General Thomas Person, the old chief of the Regulators, gave in cash ten hundred and twenty-five dollars* to the completion of one of the buildings; and Girard Hall, Person Hall, and Smith Hall, preserve in their names the grateful remembrance of the earliest and most munificent patrons of the institution. It is a striking evidence of the poverty of the times that the ladies of the chief city of North-Carolina were able to present only a quadrant in token of their interest in the new undertaking, and the ladies of Raleigh a small pair of globes.
In 1795, the first student arrived, and from that day to this the whole course of the University has been one of great and steadily increasing reputation and usefulness. Dr. Joseph Caldwell was president from 1796 to 1835, (with the exception of four years, when Rev. Dr. Chapman presided,) when the Hon. David L. Swain was appointed his successor, and he still remains at the head, the oldest college president in the
* There was then, as now, no money in the country, and this was the largest cash donation ever received by the University.
United States, and one of the most successful. It is a remarkable fact, and one strongly illustrative of the conservative tone of our society, and of our North-Carolina people in general, that for the long period of seventy years there have been virtually but two presidents—that two of the senior professors have remained for forty years each, one of them occupying the same chair for that whole period. Another professor has held his chair for twenty-eight years, another for twenty-four, another for seventeen years. I doubt if any other college in the country can show a similar record. During the five years immediately preceding the war, the average number of students was about four hundred and twenty-five — a larger number than was registered at any similar institution in the Union except Yale. The average receipts for tuition exceeded twenty thousand dollars per annum; and it is another circumstance which probably has no parallel in American colleges, that with a meagre endowment, the munificent patronage of the public enabled the authorities of the institution to make permanent improvements in the edifices and grounds, and additions to the library and apparatus, amounting in value, as exhibited by the reports of the trustees, to the sum of more than a hundred thousand dollars! This was effected by skillful financiering, and by giving the faculty very moderate salaries, and is a striking illustration at least of North-Carolina thrift and careful management. Since 1837, moreover, the faculty have been authorized to receive without charge for tuition or room-rent, any native of the State possessed of the requisite endowments, natural and acquired, whose circumstances may make such assistance necessary. About ten young men annually have availed themselves of this privilege, and these have in numerous instances won the highest honors of the University, and attained like distinction in the various walks of life. Two remarkable cases of this character, presented during the discussion of the proposition to extend temporary relief to the University, in the last General Assembly, must be fresh in the remembrance of many of my readers. In addition to the beneficence of this general ordinance, the two Literary Societies of the institution have each annually defrayed the entire expenses of one or more beneficiaries, during the time referred to, and these recipients of their bounty have rendered service and occupy positions of eminence and usefulness which offer the highest encouragement to perseverance in such benefactions. An account current between the State and the University for the past quarter of a century, will show the amount of the tuition and room-rent of those young men, added to the benefactions of the Societies, is greatly in excess of all the direct contributions for its support derived from the public authorities. Nay, more, that these sums, added to the hundred thousand dollars resulting from the net earnings of the institution, were quite equal in amount to the entire endowment now annihilated by the repudiation of the war-debt, and the consequent insolvency of the Bank of North-Carolina, in the stock of which more than the entire endowment was invested.
Can any other College in the United States say as much?
At the opening of the war, the ardor with which the young men rushed into the military service may be inferred from the fact that of the eighty members of the Freshman class, but one remained to continue his education, and he was incapacitated by feeble health from joining his comrades in the field. Five members of the faculty volunteered for the war; and those who remained in their chairs, being incapacitated by age or by their sacred profession from serving their country otherwise than as teachers, resolved to keep the doors of the University open as long as a dozen boys could be found amid the din of arms who might be able to profit by it. When conscription was resorted to, to fill up the depleted armies of the South, the trustees resolved to appeal to President Davis in behalf of the University, lest it should be entirely broken up by too rigid an enforcement of the law. The results were an important part of our State history during the war, and embodied facts which had a significant influence at the close.
“Raleigh, October 8, 1863.
“At a meeting of the Board of Trustees of the University this day, present: His Excellency Governor Vance, President; W. A. Graham, Jonathan Worth, D. M. Barringer, P. H. Winston, Thomas Ruffin, J. H. Bryan, K. P. Battle, Charles Manly.
“Resolved, That the President of the University be authorized to correspond with the President of the Confederate States, asking a suspension of any order or regulation which may have been issued for the conscription of students of the University, until the end of the present session, and also with a view to a general examption of young men advanced in liberal studies, until they shall complete their college course.
“That the President of the University open correspondence with the heads of other literary institutions of the Confederacy, proposing the adoption of a general regulation, exempting for a limited time from military service the members of the two higher classes of our colleges, to enable them to attain the degree of Bachelor of Arts.
“Charles Manly, Secretary.”
In accordance with this resolution, Governor Swain addressed the following letter to President Davis, which will be read with interest, as presenting some very remarkable statements in regard to the University and the village of Chapel Hill:
“University of North-Carolina,
Chapel Hill, Oct. 15, 1863.
“To His Excellency, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States:
“Sir: The accompanying resolutions, adopted by the trustees of this institution at their meeting in Raleigh, on the eighth instant, make it my duty to open a correspondence with you on the subject to which they relate.
“A simple statement of the facts, which seem to me to be pertinent, without any attempt to illustrate and enforce them by argument, will, I suppose, sufficiently accomplish the purposes of the trustees.
“At the close of the collegiate year 1859-60, (June seventh, 1860,) the whole number of students on our catalogue was four hundred and thirty. Of these, two hundred and forty-five were from North-Carolina, twenty-nine from Tennessee, twenty-eight from Louisiana, twenty-eight from Mississippi, twenty-six from Alabama, twenty-four from South-Carolina, seventeen from Texas, fourteen from Georgia, five from Virginia, four from Florida, two from Arkansas, two from Kentucky, two from Missouri, two from California, one from Iowa, one from New-Mexico, one from Ohio. They were distributed in the four classes as follows: Seniors eighty-four, Juniors one hundred and two, Sophomores one hundred and twenty-five, Freshmen eighty.
“Of the eight young men who received the first distinction in the Senior class, four are in their graves, (soldiers’ graves,) and a fifth a wounded prisoner. More than a seventh of these graduates are known to have fallen in battle.
“The Freshmen class of eighty members pressed into the service with such impetuosity that but a single individual remained to graduate at the last commencement; and he in the intervening time had entered the army, been discharged on account of impaired health, and was permitted by special favor to rejoin his class.
“The Faculty at that time was composed of fourteen members, no one of whom was liable to conscription.
Five of the fourteen were permitted by the trustees to volunteer. One of these has recently returned from long imprisonment in Ohio, with a ruined constitution. A second is a wounded prisoner, now at Baltimore. A third fell at Gettysburgh. The remaining two are in active field-service at present.
“The nine gentlemen who now constitute the corps of instructors are, with a single exception, clergymen, or laymen beyond the age of conscription. No one of them has a son of the requisite age who has not entered the service as a volunteer. Five of the eight sons of members of the faculty are now in active service; one fell mortally wounded at Gettysburgh, another at South-Mountain.
“The village of Chapel Hill owes its existence to the University, and is of course materially affected by the prosperity or decline of the institution. The young men of the village responded to the call of the country with the same alacrity which characterized the college classes; and fifteen of them—a larger proportion than is exhibited in any other town or village in the State—have already fallen in battle. The departed are more numerous than the survivors; and the melancholy fact is prominent with respect to both the village and the University, that the most promising young men have been the earliest victims.
“Without entering into further details, permit me to assure you, as the result of extensive and careful observation and inquiry, that I know of no similar institution or community in the Confederacy that has rendered greater services or endured greater losses
and privations than the University of North-Carolina, and the village of Chapel Hill.
“The number of students at present here is sixty-three; of whom fifty-five are from North-Carolina, four from Virginia, two from South-Carolina, and one from Alabama; nine Seniors, thirteen Juniors, fourteen Sophomores, and twenty-seven Freshmen.
“A rigid enforcement of the Conscription Act may take from us nine or ten young men with physical constitutions in general better suited to the quiet pursuits of literature and science than to military service. They can make no appreciable addition to the strength of the army; but their withdrawal may very seriously affect our organization, and in its ultimate effects compel us to close the doors of the oldest University at present accessible to the students of the Confederacy.
“It can scarcely be necessary to intimate that with a slender endowment and a diminution of more than twenty thousand dollars in the annual receipts for tuition, it is at present very difficult and may soon be impossible to sustain the institution. The exemption of professors from the operation of the Conscript Act is a sufficient indication that the annihilation of the best established colleges in the country was not the purpose of our Congress; and I can but hope with the eminent gentlemen who have made me their organ on this occasion, that it will never be permitted to produce effects which I am satisfied no one would more deeply deplore than yourself.
“I have the honor to be, with the highest consideration, your obedient servant, D. L. Swain.”
The result of this application was that orders were issued from the Conscript Office to grant the exemption requested. President Davis is reported to have said in the beginning of the war in reference to the drafting of college boys, that it should not be done; “that the seed-corn must not be ground up.”
But as the exigencies of the country became more and more pressing, the wisdom of this precept was lost sight of. In the spring of 1864, in reply to a second application in behalf of the two lower classes, Mr. Seddon returned the following opinion to the Conscript Bureau:
“I can not see in the grounds presented such peculiar or exceptional circumstances as will justify departure from the rules acted on in many similar instances. Youths under eighteen will be allowed to continue their studies. Those over, capable of military service, will best discharge their duty and find their highest training in defending the country in the field.
“March 10, 1864.”
In compliance with this opinion, the Conscript Act was finally enforced at the University; the classes were still further reduced by the withdrawal of such as came within the requirements of the act, or who were determined to share at all hazards the fate of their comrades in the army. The University, however, still struggled on; and when General Sherman’s forces entered the place, there were some ten or twelve boys still keeping up the name of a college. The bell was rung by one of the professors, and morning and evening prayers attended to during the stay of the United States forces. The students present, with two or three exceptions, were those whose homes were in the village. The two or three who were from a distance, left on the advent of the Federals, walking to their homes in neighboring counties, there being no other means of locomotion in those days. But one Senior, Mr. W. C. Prout, graduated at the ensuing commencement, having taken the whole course. There were three others who received diplomas at the same time. For the first time in thirty years, the President was absent from these exercises, having been summoned by President Johnson to Washington City, to confer with him and with other North-Carolina gentlemen on the condition of affairs in the State. Not a single visitor from abroad attended the commencement, with the exception of some thirty gentlemen dressed in blue, who had been delegated to remain here and keep order. The residents of the village were the only audience to hear the valedictory pronounced by the sole remaining representative of his class. Where were the hundreds who had thronged these halls four years before? Virginia, and Maryland, and Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, and Georgia were heaving with their graves! In every State that had felt the tread of armies, and wherever the rough edge of the battle had joined, there had been found the foster-children of North-Carolina’s University;*
* It is stated upon good authority, and is confidently believed, that there was not a single regiment in the entire Confederate service in which could not be found one or more old students of Chapel Hill.
and now, sitting discrowned and childless, she might well have taken up the old lamentations which come to us in these later days more and more audibly across the centuries, “Oh! that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!”
There is not a prettier village in the South than that which lies around the University, and has grown up with it and has been sustained and elevated by it. And not a village in the South gave more freely of its best blood in the war, not one suffered more severely in proportion to its population. Thirty-five of our young men died in the service. Some of them left wives and little ones; some were the only support and blessing of aged parents; all were, with very few exceptions, the very flower of our families, and were representatives of every walk and condition of life. The first company that left the place in May, 1861, commanded by Captain R. J. Ashe, was attached to the famous First North-Carolina regiment, which so distinguished itself at the memorable battle of Bethel, June tenth of that year. Upon the disbanding of this regiment, the members of the Orange Light Infantry attached themselves to other companies—for no fewer than four were raised here and in the vicinity—and many of them were among those who dragged themselves home on foot from Lee’s last field.
The decline of the University threw many of our citizens out of employment, and the privations endured here tell as sad a story as can be met with anywhere. There was some alleviation of the general distress for those who had houses or furniture to rent; for every vacant room was crowded at one time by refugee families from the eastern part of the State, from Norfolk, and latterly from Petersburg. And this was the case with every town in the interior of the State. Some of these settled here permanently during the war, attracted by the beauty and secluded quiet of the place, and by the libraries—best society of all! Some of them merely alighted here in the first hurry of their flight, and afterward sought other homes, as birds flit uneasily from bough to bough when driven from their nests. These families were generally representatives of the best and most highly cultivated of our Southern aristocracy. They fled hither stripped of all their earthly possessions, except a few of their negroes. Many came not only having left their beautiful homes in the hands of invaders, but with heads bowed down with mourning for gallant sons who had fallen in vain defense of those homes. Some of them, the elders among them, closed their wearied eyes here, and were laid to rest among strangers, glad to die and exchange their uncertain citizenship in a torn and distracted country for that city which hath foundations.
The benefits of the war in our State should not be overlooked in summing up even a slight record concerning it. It brought all classes nearer to each other. The rich and the poor met together. A common cause became a common bond of sympathy and kind feeling. Charity was more freely dispensed, pride of station was forgotten. The Supreme Court judges and the ex-governors, whose sons had marched away in the ranks side by side with those of the day-laborer, felt a closer tie henceforth to their neighbor. When a whole village poured in and around one church building to hear the ministers of every denomination pray the parting prayers and invoke the farewell blessings in unison on the village boys, there was little room for sectarian feeling. Christians of every name drew nearer to each other. People who wept, and prayed, and rejoiced together as we did for four years, learned to love each other more. The higher and nobler and more generous impulses of our nature were brought constantly into action, stimulated by the heroic endurance and splendid gallantry of our soldiers, and the general enthusiasm which prevailed among us. Heaven forbid we should forget the good which the war brought us, amid such incalculable evils; and Heaven forbid we should ever forget its lessons—industry, economy, ingenuity, patience, faith, charity, and above all, and finally, humility, and a firm resolve henceforth to let well alone.
That North-Carolina has within herself all the elements of a larger life and hope, and a more diffused prosperity than she has ever known, is not to be doubted by those who are acquainted with the wealth of her internal resources and the consummate honesty, industry, and resolution of her people. Time will heal these wounds yet raw and bleeding; the tide of a new and nobler life will yet fill her veins and throb in all her pulses; and taught in the school of adversity the noblest of all lessons, our people will rise from their present dejection when their civil rights have been restored them, and with renewed hope in God will go on to do their whole duty as heretofore. Silently they will help to clear the wreck and right the ship; silently they will do their duty to the dead and to the living, and to those who shall come after them; silently and with the modesty of all true heroism they will do great things, and leave it to others to publish them. Remarkable as North-Carolinians have ever been for reticence and sobriety of speech and action, it is reserved for such epochs as those of May twentieth, 1776, and May twentieth, 1861, and for such great conflicts as succeeded them, to show what a fire can leap forth from this grave, impassive people—what a flame is kindled in generous sympathy, what ardor burns in defense of right and liberty. They are now to show the world what true and ennobling dignity may accompany defeat, surrender, and submission.