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Signature of James L. Dusenbery and several photographs artistically combined.

Dusenbery's Journal as a Record of His Life as a Student

Erika Lindemann

1. University Life

James Dusenbery characterized his journal as "a weekly record of all the leading events of my life during our Senior year in College, together with our thoughts & reflections at the time" (journal introduction). Though he admitted that the journal sometimes fell short on "thoughts & reflections," his record of academic life at the University is largely consistent with other published sources.
Polarimeter, ca.
                            1824. Purchased by UNC President Joseph Caldwell on his trip to Europe;
                            made by Pixii.Polarimeter, ca. 1824. Purchased by UNC President Joseph Caldwell on his trip to Europe; made by Pixii.

North Carolina Collection Gallery, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

In 1841 the University employed seven faculty members. Two tutors, recent University graduates, were responsible for teaching introductory mathematics and classical languages. One hundred and sixty-nine students were enrolled at the beginning of the year: 44 first-year students, 48 sophomores, 34 juniors, 30 seniors, and 11 "irregulars" (students who were taking courses but not planning to earn a degree). Students' annual expenses ranged from $161 to $195, depending on where they took their room and board:
Tuition $ 50
Room (at College) 2
Servant hire 5
Deposit (for damages) 4
Board for 40 weeks, at $8 to $11 per month 74 to 102
Bed and Washing 16 to 22
Wood 5
Candles 5
Total from 161 to 195 [1]
During the antebellum period, the academic year was divided into two "sessions" of 19 and 21 weeks, the first beginning in mid-July and ending in late November, and the second session resuming in January and ending with a week of Commencement exercises in early June. According to the University catalogue, the course of study for seniors in the first session of 1841 included the sciences, Greek and Latin, mental and moral philosophy, and French. In the second session, seniors continued studying Greek, Latin, and French but also engaged such subjects as law, political science, and chemistry and geology.
A map of Chapel Hill drawn by professor Elisha Mitchell in 1836. The map includes Betsy Nunn's boarding house, where
                            Dusenbery boarded during his senior year of college (August 22, 1841).A map of Chapel Hill drawn by professor Elisha Mitchell in 1836. The map includes Betsy Nunn's boarding house, where Dusenbery boarded during his senior year of college (August 22, 1841).

"The First Century of the First State University", Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

In an entry dated July 24, 1841, James listed the courses that he was taking during the first semester of his senior year:
On Monday the 18nth ult. [2] the regular exercises of College commenced. The senior class recited for its first lessons to Gov. Swain, —The bill of rights of the freemen of NCarolina & the constitution of the U.States We also beg[an] this week, the study of Chemistry, including Botany, Zoology, & Mineralogy, under Prof. Mitchell. The class recites once a week to Philips on Astronomy & twice a week to Fetter on the Medea of Euripides. Monsieur Robards, the Prof. of French, has not yet returned from the enjoyment of his vacation. [3]
In addition, James began the study of Abercrombie's Mental Philosophy in mid-October (October 17, 1841). Compared to the University catalogue, James's list of subjects omitted "Exercises in Latin Construction." He also never mentioned studying Cicero in the second session, nor did he name anywhere in his journal Professor of Latin John De Berniere Hooper. This evidence, together with the omission of a final grade for work in Latin during the first session (October 3, 1841), indicates that, despite the requirements listed in the University catalogue, James appears not to have studied Latin during his senior year.
List of senior
                                classes from the 1841 catalog.List of senior classes from the 1841 catalog.

North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The method of instruction was primarily recitation, students answering the professor's questions, usually by reciting or quoting memorized portions of the textbook. Students rarely commented on their recitations, except to note when they were "taken up," or called on, and whether or not they came off well or poorly. Because students often recited in alphabetical order, they could predict when it would be necessary to prepare for class. Having been called on, a student could then skip studying for a few days, until the alphabetical rotation came his way again. In an entry dated August 14, 1841, James admits being unexpectedly "taken up" by the Professor of Greek Manuel Fetter:
On Thursday Fetter rushed me shamefully. I was not expecting to be taken up & had been talking & laughing nearly the whole hour. He called on me to recite purely for revenge & so unexpected was the summons, that I became confused & made a failure, although I had prepared the lesson with as much care as usual.
In addition to attending three recitations a day—at 7:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 4:00 p.m. [4]—students studied "the historical parts of the Old and New Testament" [5] on Sunday afternoon. These Sunday recitations were meant to be non-denominational, and as James informs us, faculty members who conducted these classes attempted to separate "the divine character" of the Bible from its style and historical information:
In the evening my class recited to the Gov. for a bible lesson, the first three chapters of Genesis. We found him well versed in scripture lore—indeed there are very few studies, into which he has not examined. A man of more extensive & varied acquirements than Gov. Swain, is seldom met with. He remarked, that even exclusive of its divine character, the bible is one of the most important books which we can study, both because it is the most perfect model of a pure, unadulterated style & for the reason that we derive from it all our knowledge of the early ages of the world. I read as far as the Psalms last session & intend finishing the old Testament, the present one. (August 7, 1841)
Though the University was a public institution, it was nevertheless permeated with religion. The day began and ended with prayers in the chapel; most faculty members were clergymen; and students were expected to attend Sunday services and the Sunday afternoon recitations unless University President David Swain excused them.
Leyden Jar, ca.
                            1824, purchased by Joseph Caldwell on his trip to Europe.Leyden Jar, ca. 1824, purchased by Joseph Caldwell on his trip to Europe.

North Carolina Collection Gallery, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The academic calendar also held field trips, demonstrations, and end-of-session examinations. In an entry dated September 5, 1841, James described a field trip led by Professor of Natural Philosophy Elisha Mitchell to Solomon Morgan's plantation for the purpose of examining mineral formations in the area. Students themselves did not engage in experiments or complete laboratory work, but Professor Mitchell performed a demonstration of "Galvanic & Electro-Magnetic instruments" in class in October 1841. Young women were present for this demonstration, including Mitchell's daughters. According to faculty minutes, examinations for the first session began on November 22, 1841, and ended on November 25, 1841. These examinations were not written tests but rather recitations conducted in the presence of two or three faculty members. In November 1841 the senior class was examined on Monday and Tuesday forenoon and afternoon on chemistry, natural history, technology, astronomy, the Medea in Greek, Voltaire's Histoire de Charles XII and Henríade (Minutes of the General Faculty 27–28).
Because James's social life eclipsed his academic studies in the spring semester, the journal offers virtually no information about his classes during the second session, except to record that examinations took place in late April in all subjects, except "Law." President Swain chose to examine seniors on the law publicly, with board of trustee members present, on the Tuesday of Commencement week (April 30, 1842).
In addition to their coursework, seniors were required to prepare two senior speeches during the year. [6] Honor graduates also participated in their own commencement ceremonies by delivering a commencement address. Because these performances were public, given before faculty members, students, townspeople, and family members, students often expressed anxiety about preparing these speeches. James was no exception. By early October seniors were excused from meetings of their debating societies in order to prepare the first senior speech for the fall semester. Even so, James worried that he was behind schedule: "I have not yet fixed upon a subject, but must do so forthwith as there only remains about 3 weeks in which to write my speech" (October 3, 1841). A week later he had a topic:
I have done nothing as yet towards writing a speech, but have chosen for my theme, the "Present condition of the practice of medicine in N Carolina." To write a speech for the first time & one too that is to be spoken before an intellectual & severely critical assembly, is, to me, a task of "fearful magnitude & startling responsibility." But if I would win, for myself, a sheepskin & the honourable title of "Bachelor of Arts" I must e'en brace myself to the task. (October 10, 1841)
By October 24, 1841, the speech still remained unfinished: "Procrastination, that bane of thousands has been whispering in my ear all the week that there is time enough yet to write my speech & so eagerly have I listened to her syren voice that, my oration is scarcely begun." Finally, he began serious work on it the week of October 31 and turned it in to Professor of Rhetoric William Mercer Green on November 13, 1841: "I handed my speech to Mr Green for correction, on Saturday morning (& received it from his hands this evening, with a few verbal corrections on the face of it" (November 15, 1841). By November 21, 1841, he had memorized most of the speech, and together with other members of the senior class, he delivered it on the afternoon of November 25, 1841. That evening the seniors celebrated with an oyster supper at "Miss Nancy's."
The process seemed considerably smoother, though no less daunting, the second time around. James's senior speech for the second session was begun on March 21, 1842, finished by March 30, 1842, returned to him with the approval of the professor of rhetoric on April 1, 1842, and delivered on April 14, 1842:
  • "On Monday, just one week ago [March 21, 1842], I commenced my Senior speech. The subject I have chosen is "The Charter Oak." [7] It will be finished in a day or two." (March 28, 1842)
  • "My speech was finished on Wednesday [March 30, 1842].—handed to Mr Green on Thursday & returned to me on the following day. Its length is only 3 pages, but short as it is, it cost me more labour than any other composition, I ever attempted." (April 3, 1842)
  • "On Thursday night [April 14, 1842], McBee Bell, Spaight, J. Campbell, Summerell, Green & myself were the speakers." (April 17, 1842)
Because James had already participated in "Senior Speaking" at the end of the first session, he evidently was not required to deliver his speech on the Charter Oak in public, only to write it. Even so, he agreed to serve as a substitute speaker for a classmate who, by lottery, had been chosen to round out the program of speeches for the second session (April 9, 1842).
Mortar &
                                Pestle, belonging to UNC Professor Elisha Mitchell
                            (1793–1857).Mortar & Pestle, belonging to UNC Professor Elisha Mitchell (1793–1857).

North Carolina Collection Gallery, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Students during this period received two grades at the end of each term, one for scholarship and one for deportment. The grading scale for academic work included seven marks: very good, good, very respectable, respectable, tolerable, bad, and very bad. These grades did not appear on individual assignments but rather summed up a student's performance in each course. Though James obviously performed well enough to graduate, he was on the whole only a "respectable" scholar. In an entry dated October 3, 1841, he revealed his grades for the first session: "The reports were made out last Monday. Mine was tolerable on Astronomy, very respectable on Greek & respectable on French, Chemistry & Political Economy." Again, note the absence of any work in Latin. At the end of the spring semester, James earned only one grade, "respectable" in chemistry (Faculty Minutes 1:4, 60). Though six seniors, including James, were taking only the one course in chemistry during the spring semester, it is unclear why this group did not receive grades, as the rest of the senior class did, in French, Latin, and law.
James also scrupulously noted in his journal his attendance at morning and evening prayers, recitations, and Sunday church services. These notations were important to him because attendance figured significantly in reports of a student's deportment. Seniors were required to attend 14 recitations, 13 morning and evening prayer services, and one church service every week. The emphasis on attendance explains why many students who chose to be absent from one of these "duties" persuaded classmates to answer for them when the roll was called, a practice faculty members did not condone. It also explains why James frequently "retired from" Sunday services after his attendance had been recorded. Because reports of students' grades for deportment were sent to parents and guardians, not to students, James learned the faculty's assessment of his deportment from his sister Laura: "In my report that was sent home Laura informs me that I am marked as absent once from prayers, twice from church & not at all from recitation" (October 10, 1841). This news doubtless pleased James because it made his record look much better than it actually was. By the time James graduated, he had accumulated, over a period of three years, 48 absences from recitation, 44 absences from morning and evening prayers, and 12 absences from church (Faculty Minutes 1:4, 61). A copy of the sort of grade reports sent home during this period is available here.

2. Dusenbery's Professors

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Click here to see portraits of the professors that taught Dusenbery during his years at the University of North Carolina.

3. Social Life

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James comments extensively on his social pursuits. Mentioned in the journal are typical social activities for students of this period. In addition to the familiar weekly engagements of the debating society, James participated in dancing and singing schools (July 31, 1841), fishing (April 24, 1842), hunting 'possums (October 3, 1841), and visiting with friends, relatives, and celebrities, including a phrenologist named Woodward, whose report on James's character is included in the journal (October 17, 1841). James and his friends also attended a religious revival (August 22, 1841) and went to a circus performance in Hillsborough, NC (April 3, 1842). Early in the fall semester, a tradition known as the "Fresh Treat" took place, an annual watermelon feast paid for by the first-year students (August 7, 1841). Writing letters and reading were also significant pursuits for students, including James. Other students of the period comment on these activities as well. They had the approval of faculty members and offered students significant social outlets in a small village that held few cultural resources, constructive diversions, or opportunities to meet women.
                                commencement marshals of 1855: Chief Marshal James Bruce,
                            Assistant Marshals Henry R. Bryan, Wm. H. Burwell, Samuel P. Caldwell,
                            and Wm. G. Drake (Battle 1: 649).The commencement marshals of 1855: Chief Marshal James Bruce, Assistant Marshals Henry R. Bryan, Wm. H. Burwell, Samuel P. Caldwell, and Wm. G. Drake (Battle 1: 649).

North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Then as now, students sometimes violated college rules, and the journal depicts several instances of student mischief. James introduces us to tutor William Hayes Owen, nicknamed "The Judge," who lived in the dormitory and whose responsibility it was to monitor students' behavior. Students made fun of him, especially his elevated diction, but generally obeyed him. Though faculty members persistently stressed the evils of drinking and playing cards, students just as stubbornly flouted the regulations and entertained themselves with "ardent spirits" (October 31, 1841) and games of whist or bluff (poker) (July 31, 1841; March 20, 1842). Other infractions included ringing the campus bell at night (October 31, 1841), placing dead hogs and other animals in the Chapel (October 17, 1841; January 30, 1842), and breaking the 8:00 p.m. curfew, a regulation James and his friends violated repeatedly. Much more serious is the September 5, 1841, account of a fight between two students that began with sticks and escalated into a student's discharging a pistol. Punishments for these offenses ranged from private admonishment before the faculty to public reprimands in front of the student body to suspension for up to six months to expulsion. [8] Expulsion, the severest penalty, often resulted in a student's impeachment in his debating society as well, and depending on the crime, the student might be turned over to civil authorities for prosecution in the courts. Suspended students were required to leave the campus, either to face disappointed parents at home or to rent rooms a few miles out of town for several weeks. Even though students were not supposed to have any dealings with suspended classmates, James and his friends nevertheless escorted to their temporary lodgings two young men who had been suspended and some weeks later visited them. Finding them not at home, their classmates trashed the place (March 20, 1842). James's journal gives the impression that, for some students, suspension offered a pleasant vacation from classes and allowed plenty of time for fishing, hunting, and socializing. Apart from the infractions of a few individuals, by the 1840s the significant student rebellions of earlier decades had subsided. Faculty members had become more confident in managing dissent and enlisted the cooperation of students, especially the leadership of the debating societies, to promote order.
"a pistol went off." Page 98 of the James
                            Lawrence Dusenbery Journal."a pistol went off." Page 98 of the James Lawrence Dusenbery Journal.

Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Contemporary readers will be struck by how often James and his friends enjoyed the company of local prostitutes. Prostitution was a crime, but even a small college town such as Chapel Hill had its share of brothels or "disorderly houses." [9] James's journal describes frequent visits to "the fishery," "the kingdom," and "the depot." These places are undocumented, and the women who lived there—Em, Miss Redness (whose given name seems to have been Mary), and the "Herring gals"—also remain unidentified. James did not make these trips by himself but usually was accompanied by other students. What is unusual, however, is that he wrote about these visits. James began his pleasurable forays early in his senior year, and they seemed to be familiar activities for him. He did not question his motives or raise doubts about his behavior, an indication that he simply was resuming visits that he had made the previous year. By the spring semester, excursions to the depot, the fishery, and the kingdom occurred several nights a week. Three entries early in the second session were removed from the journal, indicating perhaps that, on reflection, the "record of all the leading events of my life" may have embarrassed James (or a subsequent owner of the journal). For James, sex was not always the object of these outings, though it clearly became more important by the spring semester. Sometimes, "The object of the excursion was to have a real, downright bull-dance [10] with the Herring gals & as many others as we could get together at that place" (July 31, 1841). These visits also may have been as much about drinking and danger as about "fishing," as he put it. James took significant risks in breaking curfew so often, yet so far as we know, he was never caught. Courting danger may have been part of the game. Though we would very much like to know the location of these illicit places, as well as the circumstances of the women who worked there, both remain unknown.
Close-up of an invitation to the 1843 Commencement Ball.Close-up of an invitation to the 1843 Commencement Ball.

North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

One of the striking contrasts in this journal, then, centers on James's attitudes towards women. The poetry he admired and copied into the early pages of the journal extol the virtues of the chivalrous gentleman, the hero who respects women and protects their honor. James extended this respect to his sisters, the women he met during his Christmas vacation, and his fiancée "Mary S."—all of whom shared his social class in antebellum society. The women who did not—women like the "Herring gals" or those in "the house of Edward"—were convenient sport.


^1. Catalogue of the trustees, faculty and students of the University of North Carolina, 1841 (Raleigh: Weston R. Gales, Office of the Raleigh Register, 1841), 17.

^2. Dusenbery is mistaken about the date; in July 1841, Monday was the 19th, not the 18th.

^3. Battle claims that "Rev. John James Roberts, a graduate of 1838, who had studied in France for two years, took charge as Professor [of French] in 1841" but resigned the next year. He became the principal of high schools for females in New York and Massachusetts (Battle 1:440, 474). Battle is mistaken about Roberts' middle name; it was Jones, not James.

^4. The school day was defined by the college bell, which hung in a wooden tower in the middle of the campus near the campus well. It kept students and faculty on schedule. The first bell rang at approximately 6:00 a.m. to wake the students, who had to be in Person Hall for prayers by 6:45 a.m. A faculty member called the roll, read a passage from the Bible, and led students in a prayer. Then, before breakfast, students adjourned to their first recitation. Each class of students—seniors, juniors, sophomores, and the "Fresh"—attended the same recitations with other members of the class. The 7:00 a.m. recitation was the one students resented most, and seniors earned the special privilege of omitting it from their schedules. A class schedule for 1838 reveals that the 7:00 class was not held on Monday mornings. At 8:00 a.m. students raced to Steward's Hall or back to their boarding houses for breakfast and a few hours of study until the second class period, which began at 11:00 a.m. Dinner, the largest meal of the day, was served at midday. Students then had several hours to prepare for their recitations at 4:00 p.m. The school day ended with prayers in Person Hall. After supper, usually a light meal, students were free to socialize or study. By 8:00 p.m. they had to be in their rooms, the tutors living in the college monitoring the halls or "passages" to insure that students kept curfew. Each of these events was signaled by the ringing of the college bell. It was such a significant part of daily life that students' favorite prank was to ring it at odd hours, then dash into one of the college buildings before being detected.

^5. Catalogue of the trustees, faculty and students of the University of North Carolina, 1841 (Raleigh: Weston R. Gales, Office of the Raleigh Register, 1841), 16.

^6. Dusenbery's senior speech for the fall semester survives. It is dated 18th Nov. 1841, includes the corrections Prof. Green made, and shows a title in pencil, "The State of Medical Science in N. C." The original document is owned by Col. William B. Hankins, Jr., a descendant of Dusenbery's sister, Cornelia Dusenbery Smith. A transcription is available on this site. Two additional essays, written while James was a junior, also survive. One is titled "Vacation" and is dated November 19, 1840. The other bears the date May 21, 1841, and the title "Can the highest order of poetic excellence be attained in this country?" Both essays were submitted to the faculty in fulfillment of what appears to have been a "junior writing requirement." The essays are housed among Senior and Junior Orations in the North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

^7. The Charter Oak, Connecticut's state tree, stood on the Wyllys estate in Hartford, CT, until 1856, when it was uprooted in a storm. Legend has it that, when Sir Edmund Andros, Governor-General of New England, demanded that the colonists surrender the royal charter in 1687, Captain Joseph Wadsworth hid the document in the tree.

^8. For a comprehensive list of ordinances governing student behavior during this period, see Acts of the General Assembly and Ordinances of the Trustees, for the Organization and Government of the University of North-Carolina (Raleigh: Raleigh Register, 1838) at

^9. Eager to protect the morals of young men, the University's board of trustees in March 1810 authorized the faculty to prohibit students from visiting any house in the village that might not be "proper or safe," including "disorderly houses" and houses that presented opportunities to drink "spirituous liquors." Any student seeking room and board in a private house in Chapel Hill had to have the approval of the University's president (

^10. "bull-dance": nautical slang for a dance with men.

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