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Overview: 1850-59
Erika Lindemann

The 1850s were prosperous times for the antebellum University. Enrollments continued to rise throughout the decade, from 230 students in 1850 to 456 in 1858. From 1850 to 1860, 3,480 students matriculated, and 571 graduated.1 The commencement of 1858 saw ninety-six students receive diplomas. For an institution receiving no state funding but dependent instead on tuition receipts and profits from the sale of escheated property, these healthy enrollments supported the hiring of additional faculty and the construction of new buildings. They also signified that, in the years just prior to the Civil War, public confidence in the University had grown. By the end of the decade over one-third of the student body came from states other than North Carolina. Tennessee furnished the largest number of out-of-state students, then Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Texas, and Georgia. This increase in the number of out-of-state students can be attributed in part to growing suspicion of northern institutions, but it also reflects the trust of parents who had emigrated to the Gulf Coast states but who nevertheless wanted their sons to finish their educations in North Carolina.
Larger enrollments also stemmed from the increased prosperity of the cotton-growing states, which gave parents the resources to send their sons to college. The economic health of the times was signaled by Chapel Hill's receiving its town charter on January 29, 1851. By December 1854, when the population of Chapel Hill numbered approximately 730 people (Vickers 44), the North Carolina Railroad finished a line to Durham's Station, twelve miles north of campus, where a depot had been established in 1850 on four acres of land donated by physician Bartlett Snipes Durham (1822-58). Train travel to and from other parts of the state had become easier, thanks to a decade of legislative support for internal improvements, and the new railroad offered students a convenient means of getting to Chapel Hill.
Students attending the University in the 1850s were better equipped than students in previous decades to undertake college work because preparatory education in North Carolina had improved. This progress can be attributed primarily to the work of Calvin H. Wiley . Appointed in January 1853 as the state's first superintendent of public instruction, Wiley was a politician of extraordinary energy and commitment to public education. He codified the educational laws of the state, tracked the ways in which common schools were funded, collected information concerning the condition and operation of schools in each county, consulted with teachers and school boards, and annually reported to the governor on the progress of the public school system. He traveled the state extensively, promoting the cause of public education, and wrote many pamphlets and books, including The North-Carolina Reader (1851), an anthology of material about the state for use in teaching reading. Though the school "year" lasted only about four months until after the Civil War, under Wiley's administration the number of schools in the state increased from 2,500 to 3,082; the number of pupils rose from 95,000 to 118,852; and the number of licensed teachers grew from 800 to 2,752 (Powell, North Carolina through Four Centuries 307).
When graduates of some of these schools arrived in Chapel Hill, they encountered a curriculum that had changed little since the 1840s. Admission requirements still emphasized heavily a knowledge of Latin and Greek.2 Students still studied a set curriculum dominated by Latin, Greek, and mathematics for the first two years and oriented toward the sciences in the junior and senior years. Sophomores were still required to write compositions every three weeks. Juniors had three recitations a week in logic during the fall term and three in rhetoric during the spring. Seniors studied Whately's logic and rhetoric twice a week. Religion continued to be an important part of college life, students attending morning and evening prayers during the week and, on Sundays, church services and an afternoon recitation on the Bible.
Some changes in the curriculum were taking place however. In 1845 the University had established a department of law. Conducted by Judge William H. Battle and Samuel F. Phillips , neither of whom received a salary from the University, the law department charged independent students, who had no other connection to the University, a total of $150 and University students $100. Students successfully completing the two-year course earned a Bachelor of Laws degree.
In 1852 the board of trustees authorized a School for the Application of Science to the Arts, intended to train engineers, artisans, chemists, farmers, and miners. The School was divided into two departments and offered courses in civil engineering and agricultural chemistry. Independent students could complete the course of study in two and a half years and receive the Bachelor of Science degree. Seniors enrolled in the University could substitute civil engineering or agricultural chemistry for law or ancient and modern languages and still receive the BA degree.
By the end of the decade students also had opportunities to study German, Spanish, and Italian, languages that had not been part of the regular curriculum in previous years. Though the curriculum for most students remained unchanged, the faculty seemed to recognize that students would not all become clergymen, lawyers, and teachers. Increasingly, optional courses and what we now call pre-professional training were seen as appropriate offerings for the state's university. These elective courses eventually would grow into the system of departments characterizing university education after the Civil War.
Increased enrollments also justified a larger faculty, and the number of professors in the 1850s grew from six to ten. Latin professor John De Berniere Hooper had resigned in 1848 and was replaced by Fordyce M. Hubbard . Hubbard declined to add to his duties the teaching of French, so in 1854 Henry Herrisse was appointed as instructor of French. In 1849 William Mercer Green was replaced by John Thomas Wheat as professor of rhetoric and logic. That same year Albert Micajah Shipp joined the faculty as professor of history and English literature. He taught "English literature" only until 1851, when students were required to replace the course with French. But Shipp continued to teach ancient and modern history until his resignation in 1859. In 1854, when the University launched its School for the Application of Science to the Arts, Charles Phillips , who had served as a tutor of mathematics since 1844, became professor of civil engineering, and Benjamin Sherwood Hedrick was hired to teach agricultural chemistry.
Hedrick lost his teaching position in October 1856 after telling a group of students that he supported John Fremont and the New Republican party, which opposed the extension of slavery. Hedrick's political views came to the attention of William Woods Holden , editor of the North Carolina Standard , a major Democratic newspaper, which branded Hedrick a "Black Republican" and pressed for his dismissal from the University. When Hedrick refused to resign, the executive committee of the board of trustees simply declared his chair vacant. By January 1857 the board had offered the professorship to John Kimberly , who headed one of the first agricultural chemistry programs to give students practical laboratory instruction. Herrisse left a few months after Hedrick , ostensibly over two relatively minor disagreements with Gov. Swain but perhaps because he also had sided with Hedrick . In January 1857 the board of trustees broadened the responsibilities of Herrisse's professorship to include teaching modern languages in addition to French and elected Hildreth H. Smith to fill it.
The sudden death of Elisha Mitchell , age sixty-four, in 1857 deprived the University of one of its most respected faculty members. Accustomed to spending part of the summers on geological field trips, Mitchell had traveled to Black Mountain in eastern North Carolina in June 1857 to verify his claim that it was the tallest peak east of the Rocky Mountains. On June 27, 1857, he fell down a forty-foot precipice and drowned in the pool below. His body was recovered on July 8th. First buried in Asheville, Mitchell was reinterred on June 16, 1858, on top of Black Mountain, named Mount Mitchell in his honor in 1881. The University purchased Mitchell's library3 of almost 1,900 books for $3,500 and named William James Martin to the professorship of chemistry.
The number of tutors doubled during the 1850s, from two to four. Selected from the ranks of recent honor graduates and paid $700 to $800 a year,4 they were assigned to teach mathematics and ancient languages to first- and second-year students. In 1858 Solomon Pool , the tutor with the greatest seniority, complained to the board of trustees that tutors' low salaries offered no inducement to remain long in the service of the University. Instead of being promoted to professorships, tutors usually saw those appointments going to faculty members from other states. Speaking for all four tutors who signed the letter, Pool proposed that salaries begin at $700 per year, with an increase of $100 per year for each subsequent year of service, and that qualified tutors be promoted to faculty positions when they became available. Though there is no evidence that the board acted favorably on Pool's proposals, Pool himself eventually received a promotion to adjunct professor of mathematics in 1861, and after the Civil War became president of the University during Reconstruction.
Students of the 1850s were no less averse than students in previous decades to harassing the faculty and destroying University property from time to time. In August 1850 several intoxicated students attempted to stone two professors. In 1851 students painted embarrassing caricatures of the faculty on the sides of the belfry and on recitation room doors. That year gunpowder also was exploded at the door of the laboratory, and a noisy party of students blowing horns, ringing bells, and singing created a late-night uproar. In 1856 the belfry caught fire "during a sport of throwing fireballs, that is balls of strips of cloth, tightly wrapped and saturated with alcohol or kerosene" (Battle 1:653). In 1858 a group of students formed the Lawless Club, which, like the Ugly Club and Boring Club of the 1840s, involved its members in heavy drinking and noisy sprees through campus late at night. Students stole benches and blackboards from the recitation rooms and piled them up for a huge bonfire. The faculty, now more proficient at quashing such rebellions, expelled the leaders and successfully sued them in superior court for damage to University property. Gov. Swain , sensitive to the adverse public opinion caused by the disturbances, issued a circular to mitigate "exaggerated accounts of occurrences" that had found their way into the newspapers. Improved public relations and civil prosecution of students who violated the law significantly reduced the amount of disruption students and faculty experienced by the end of the decade.
The commencement of 1859 was especially significant because it was attended by President James Buchanan, a Democrat popular with North Carolinians. He arrived in Chapel Hill on Wednesday, June 1, accompanied by Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson , a graduate in 1831, and stayed with Gov. Swain . After welcoming remarks, the faculty, graduating seniors, and prominent guests enjoyed a midday dinner under the large oaks in Swain's front yard. Buchanan attended the commencement ceremonies on Thursday, meeting large numbers of people at an informal reception between the morning and afternoon exercises. He was warmly received by some 2,500 visitors.5
Gov. Swain understood completely the significance of President Buchanan's visit. An old-line Whig in politics and a confirmed Unionist, Swain doubtless extended the invitation because he wanted to focus national attention on the University. Under his leadership it had become one of the largest educational institutions in the country. What better way to highlight the beauty of its campus and the accomplishments of its graduates than to present them during commencement? The 1859 Commencement also drew many of the state's political leaders to Chapel Hill, including four ex-governors and incumbent governor John W. Ellis , an ardent states'-rights man. Swain must have hoped that the President's influence on Ellis might help him resist the political and economic pressures that were threatening to pull North Carolina out of the Union. Perhaps most important, Gov. Swain shared with Buchanan a feeling of dread over the awesome consequences of war. A man of good will, Swain doubtless hoped that the happy commencement scene of June 1859 could be repeated for years to come, that the sections of the country could be reconciled. Surely he must have nodded his agreement with the sentiments expressed as President Buchanan concluded his remarks:
I would advise these young men to devote themselves to the preservation of the principles of the Constitution, for without these blessings our liberties are gone. Let this Constitution be torn to atoms; let the members of this Union separate; let thirty Republics rise up against each other, and it would be the most fatal day for the liberties of the human race that ever dawned upon any land. Let this experiment fail, and every friend of liberty will deplore the sad event. I belong to a generation now passing rapidly away. My lamp of life cannot continue to burn much longer. I hope I may survive to the end of my Presidential term. But so emphatically do I believe that mankind, as well as the people of the United States, are interested in the preservation of this Union, that I hope I may be gathered to my fathers before I witness its dissolution. [ The North Carolina University Magazine 9 (September 1859): 108, NCC]


1. "Matriculates and Graduates" 14. The figure of 3,480 matriculates should not be construed as meaning that 3,480 individual students attended the University during this period. An individual is counted as a matriculate for each year in which he was enrolled.

2. "Applicants for admission into the Freshman Class are required to sustain an approved examination on the Grammars of the English, Latin and Greek Languages, including Latin Prosody; Mair's Introduction, or Andrews' Exercises; Caesar's Commentaries, (five books); Ovid's Metamorphoses, (Gould's Edition—extracts from the six books); Virgil's Bucolics, and six books of the Aeneid; Sallust; Greek Testament, (St. John's Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles); Græca Minora, or Greek Reader; Arithmetic; Algebra, through equations of the first degree; Ancient and Modern Geography" (1854-55 Catalogue 23).

3. For a catalogue of the books in Elisha Mitchell's library at the time of his death, see two articles by Michael R. McVaugh, "Elisha Mitchell's Books and the University of North Carolina Library," The Bookmark 55 (1987): 27-54, and " Elisha Mitchell's Books and The University of North Carolina Library (Part 2)," The Bookmark 56 (1990): 31-70.

4. By comparison, in 1858 Gov. Swain earned $2,500 as president, and the average salary of a faculty member was $1,613, with a range of from $1,400 for the professor of modern languages to $1,800 for the professor of mathematics (Battle 1:654).

5. Accounts of President Buchanan's visit appeared in The Fayetteville Observer, June 6, 1859, pp. 2-3, and in the Raleigh Semi-Weekly Standard, June 8, 1859, pp. 2-3. The President's speeches were published in "Commencement Exercises," The North Carolina University Magazine 9 (September 1859): 105-20, NCC.