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Civil War
Erika Lindemann

On the eve of the Civil War, the University of North Carolina was among the most flourishing institutions in the country. Only three American colleges boasted more students. Harvard had close to 900 students; the University of Virginia, nearly 650; Yale, approximately 500; the University of North Carolina, 456 students (Knight 3:425, 5:279). Between 1850 and 1860 enrollments had almost doubled, and the faculty had grown to nine professors and five tutors.1 The University had trained a significant number of lawyers, judges, and politicians who held office in state and national government. Clergymen, physicians, and teachers also had graduated from the school, as well as engineers, journalists, bankers, merchants, planters, and farmers.
Supporters of the University helped it survive the Civil War, taking pride in the fact that classes continued throughout the conflict. But the tremendous social and economic upheaval attending the war and the harsh realities of Reconstruction forced the institution to suspend classes in late Summer 1868. By the time classes resumed in March 1869 under a new, unpopular administration, the University had lost the financial backing of parents, the public support of many influential North Carolina citizens, and the leadership of an experienced faculty. It struggled for a few years, then closed for four years in February 1871. When it reopened on September 15, 1875, it was a significantly different institution, with a new faculty, a new curriculum, and a student body preparing for roles in a new post-war culture. What follows charts the beginning of the end for the antebellum University. It is the story of what happens to young men when war comes.
The 1860 census established the population of the United States at thirty-one million people, among them four million slaves. The population of North Carolina was slightly less than one million, including approximately 300,000 slaves and 30,000 free blacks. Fewer than thirty percent of North Carolinians owned slaves, who were concentrated primarily on large plantations in the eastern part of the state, where their labor supported the production of cotton, rice, tobacco, and lumber. Though Gov. John W. Ellis was able to report in 1860 that 900 men and 1,500 women in North Carolina were attending colleges in the state, "almost 70,000 whites over the age of twenty in a [white] population of nearly 630,000 still could not read and write" (Powell, North Carolina through Four Centuries 320, 317).
North Carolinians generally were aware of the serious national debate over states' rights and the extension of slavery, but they were fairly evenly divided on the question of secession. University faculty members were predominantly Whigs who supported the preservation of the Union, and when students wrote about these issues, they argued against secession. The east-west sectionalism that shaped political life in North Carolina framed discussions about slavery and secession as well. In 1860 the major controversy in the state was ad valorem taxation, which would have required the slave-owning plantation aristocracy to share a more equitable tax burden by paying taxes based on the value of their slaves. As things stood, slaves were taxed at only eighty cents each regardless of their value. Though they were worth more than the land they worked, they were taxed at a much lower rate. The Whig party supported ad valorem taxation of slaves; the Democrats opposed it. While North Carolinians were preoccupied with this internal controversy, the country was drawing closer to war.
Student life in 1860 remained much as it was in the 1850s. Young men attended their daily recitations and from time to time devised pranks to irritate the faculty. The commencement of 1860 saw over eighty students graduate and gave some indication that religious intolerance was softening. The senior class invited Roman Catholic Archbishop John Joseph Hughes to deliver the baccalaureate sermon.2 Sensitive to the largely Protestant audience he was addressing, the archbishop chose his words carefully and appeared to win the admiration of all but a few persistent critics. Morning and evening prayers during the week continued to be held in the chapel, and faculty members still heard recitations on the Bible every Sunday afternoon. In December 1860, however, students finally gained the right to attend the church of their choice on Sundays. Prodded by a resolution of the North Carolina Protestant Episcopal Church, meeting in convention, the trustees permitted students to worship in local churches on Sundays, or to gain an exemption altogether if the student or his parent or guardian sought a dispensation from Gov. Swain . This latter provision was intended to excuse Roman Catholic and Jewish students from being required to attend Protestant services.
The growing threat of war took its toll on University enrollments almost immediately. In Fall 1860 only 376 students enrolled, a decrease of 80 students from the preceding year. By the end of September 1861 only ninety-one students remained on campus, the rest having volunteered for the army. By the end of the war only a dozen students would be enrolled. Yet despite the declining enrollments, Gov. Swain was determined to keep the University open.
The election of Abraham Lincoln in late 1860 alarmed most southerners. Lincoln, the Republican lawyer from Illinois, won the office with only forty percent of the popular vote. He was not even on the ballot in ten southern states, including North Carolina. After South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860, most people thought that war was inevitable, but a majority of North Carolinians, including the ardent secessionist Democratic Gov. Ellis , maintained a wait-and-see attitude. As state after state withdrew from the Union, students returned home to join local militia. North Carolinians, however, resisted calling for a secession convention. North Carolina was not among the seven states forming the Confederate States of America on February 4, 1861, though representatives were sent both to Montgomery, AL, and to the Peace Conference in Washington, DC, to determine if differences between the North and South could be resolved.
What most North Carolinians seemed to be waiting for was a clearer indication of how President Lincoln intended to hold the Union together. That question was answered in April 1861, when he sent Federal troops to reinforce Fort Sumter in Charleston and called on the governors of the states still remaining in the Union to furnish 75,000 militiamen to help restore it. Gov. Ellis replied, "You can get no troops from North Carolina." The prospect of invasion by Federal forces shocked even the most ardent Unionists and threw the remaining southern states into the Confederacy. On May 20, 1861, North Carolina became one of the last states officially to secede from the Union.
By late April, students began leaving Chapel Hill at the rate of eight to ten a day to volunteer for the Confederate army. Many of those who remained borrowed muskets from villagers and began military drills as members of four student companies (Henderson 181). The students from Louisiana, which had seceded in January 1861, wrote to their governor volunteering to fight for their state if he should request their services. Representatives of the student body petitioned the board of trustees"to have the College duties suspended until next Session" because the excitement of impending war was distracting. The students believed that their time would be better spent getting into fighting shape. The petition, which the board rejected, indicates how eagerly students sought fame and adventure by going off to war. They responded with fervent patriotism to watching the community gather to raise a new Confederate flag and witnessing gallant young men take leave of their families and go off to fight, perhaps to die. Students whose families wanted them to remain in school pleaded to be allowed to enlist. Most students, like their parents, thought that the war would not last long. North Carolina's first troops were enlisted for only six months. "Recruiting officers predicted that they would be able to wipe up with a silk pocket handkerchief all the blood that would be shed" (Powell, North Carolina through Four Centuries 350).
Gov. Swain quickly reassured parents that classes at the University would remain in session. He issued circulars in May, July, and November 1861 asserting that the University intended to continue serving its students:
Whilst the Faculty of this Institution have no disposition to quench patriotic ardour, or to withhold from the public service, at the proper time, any one capable of performing the duties of a soldier, they beg leave to intimate to parents and guardians the propriety of restraining the anxiety so natural to the young and inexperienced to rush prematurely into military service. [. . .] The Faculty are at their posts, endeavoring to discharge their duty faithfully to the young men committed to their charge. There will be no suspension of duties, and no reasonable pains will be spared to render the approaching Commencement attractive. (May 1, 1861, circular, University Papers, UA)
Notwithstanding its billing as an "attractive" commencement, the graduation ceremonies in June 1861 were gloomy. Only thirty of eighty-seven seniors were present to receive their diplomas. The rest earned their degrees without taking their final examinations because they were in the army. The salutatorian Charles Stedman was with his regiment at Yorktown. Other students were preparing to follow him into war. The following fall the last of the five tutors would enlist in the Confederate army, and Professor William J. Martin , who had been the students' drill master, would apply for a leave of absence to join the army as well. Gov. Swain himself had volunteered for service but had been discharged on account of ill health. Remarkably, the students' commencement speeches did not allude to the conflict. Instead, they addressed such topics as "The Golden Mean," "Agriculture," "The Study of Man," and "The Study of Geology" (Battle 1:722).
Though most students entered the Confederate army, a few may have joined Federal regiments. Primary sources understandably do not name students who may have been traitorous Union sympathizers, and secondary accounts also show a bias favoring the Confederacy. Nevertheless, 8,000 North Carolinians became Union soldiers. Though many of them were blacks from the eastern part of the state, the odds are that some University students also fought for the Union.3 The mountains of western North Carolina became a refuge for men who hoped to evade military service for either side, for "outliers" as they were called. Some Quakers, for example, and other conscientious objectors escaped to the mountains,4 as did deserters and conscripts who refused to fight later in the war. At least one University student, a would-be Confederate lieutenant from Charleston, committed suicide by taking an overdose of laudanum rather than join his regiment (February 14, 1861, letter, John Wesley Halliburton Papers, SHC).
In North Carolina the Civil War was over almost as soon as it began. By August 29, 1861, Fort Hatteras on the North Carolina coast had surrendered to Federal forces, and from this beachhead, Gen. Ambrose Burnside was able to establish a base of operations from which to control most of eastern North Carolina by late Spring 1862. Some towns changed hands several times, forcing many residents to flee inland to places such as Chapel Hill, Hillsborough, and Pittsboro to escape the fighting. North Carolina's soldiers, in the meantime, were seeing action primarily in Virginia. Many blamed the Confederate government for deploying North Carolina's troops to defend other states and for providing an inadequate force to drive Federal troops out of eastern North Carolina.
At Chapel Hill, classes continued, though they were smaller than before. The commencement of 1862 was held as usual, but there was no commencement ball. Few people attended, and only twenty-four students received diplomas. The following year, the Class of 1863 numbered only eight graduates, who had begun their studies four years earlier in the company of seventy-two classmates.
As the war dragged on, the blockade of southern ports cut off medical supplies and manufactured goods that had once been imported from the North and from Europe. Inflation began to drive the prices of many commodities beyond the reach of most people. The University began to feel the effects of the wartime economy approximately a year after the war began. Because too few students now came to Chapel Hill to make boarding houses profitable, they became increasingly expensive to operate. Only two or three boarding houses remained open. Student Henry Armand London , who kept a diary during this period, saw the price of his board jump from $25 to $200 per month between Fall 1862 and Fall 1864. A twenty-five-cent haircut in 1862 cost a dollar two years later. That London kept a diary at all is remarkable, considering that an ordinary lead pencil in 1864 cost two dollars! The evidence of London's diary is borne out by Battle , who maintains that a pound of bacon, coffee, and sugar in Fall 1862 cost thirty-three cents, $2.50, and seventy-five cents respectively; by 1864, the same groceries were priced at $5.50, $15.00, and $12.00 respectively (1:732). Tuition, which stood at $60 per year in 1859, rose to $100 in 1863 (Battle 1:732, 773). Families who might once have afforded a college education for their sons could not do so now. As the war progressed, their economic worries were exacerbated by the declining value of Confederate and North Carolina currency.
Faculty too felt the economic effects of depreciated currency. They took a voluntary cut in salaries in 1862 amounting to approximately $500 per faculty member. A bonus of $500 was voted each faculty member in 1863 and again in 1864, but by that time, such bonuses had little buying power. Because the monies were paid in Confederate currency, the real value of a $2,000 salary in 1863 was only $133, slightly more than it cost to buy one barrel of flour or four bushels of corn (Battle 1:732). To relieve the extreme poverty in which the war had cast them, faculty members received permission in 1864 to cut firewood from University lands. In December 1864 each faculty member received a $100 gold bond, payable two years after the war ended, delayed compensation that nevertheless was worth considerably more than paper currency. During most of the war, faculty members, like Chapel Hillians generally, resorted to the barter system to keep their households together.
If inflation kept many students from attending the University, the Confederate conscription laws of 1862 carried off those who somehow found the means to enroll. Early in the war, the Confederate army was made up of volunteers, but as the fighting grew more costly in human lives, the Confederate government resorted to drafting soldiers. Students over the age of eighteen could avoid military service if they were physically disabled or if they paid a substitute to fight in their place. Several students were known to have hired substitutes, but most people thought the practice unpatriotic and could not afford it in any event. In October 1863 Gov. Swain requested of Confederate President Jefferson Davis an exemption for students who were then eligible for conscription so that they could be allowed to finish their studies. Despite devastating losses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg during Summer 1863, President Davis granted the exemption. To secure the future of the Confederacy, he thought it best "not to grind up the seed corn." The following year, however, when Gov. Swain renewed the request, Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon denied it: "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 their country in the field" (Battle 1:734). Conscription agents enforced the law by coming to the University to take students off to Raleigh by force.
The commencement of 1864 reveals how much the University was decimated by the war. The Class of 1864 originally had numbered sixty-eight students. By the sophomore year, thirty-eight remained. Only nine of the thirty-eight completed the junior year, and two more died in Chapel Hill during the senior year. Seven students graduated in 1864. All seven were enlisted in the Confederate army, and two of them could not attend commencement because they were with their regiments in Georgia. The junior class in 1864 had originally numbered thirty students; twenty-four remained, but fifteen of them were eligible for conscription. Of the twenty-four members of the sophomore class, sixteen were liable to conscription. Only the first-year class, twenty-seven students, was largely unaffected by the war, at least for the time being, because twenty-four were under the age of eighteen.
When hopes for a southern victory vanished by late 1864, Chapel Hillians confronted the grave problem of how to protect their property, including the University. Gen. William T. Sherman had reached Savannah by Christmas 1864 and was expected to head north, driving retreating Confederate troops ahead of him, to assist Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Richmond. In addition to worrying about the safety of relatives fighting or living in the path of Sherman's army, local citizens had to determine how to secure their valuables from both Confederate and Union soldiers, especially the "bummers" who followed Sherman's army but were not under his command. Silver, watches, and important papers were stashed in wells or hidden in walls and under floorboards. A bank cashier concealed $20,000 in one of the stone walls surrounding the campus. Professor James Phillips put his watches in Joseph Caldwell's old telescope. Charles P. Mallett removed the hams from his smokehouse, buried them in a field, and plowed the surface for planting to disguise their location. Judge William Battle buried his valuables in the woods (and later forgot where he had put them). The University's library was removed from Smith Hall to Old East for safekeeping, and many important papers were taken to Gov. Swain's home.
By March 8, 1865, Gen. Judson Kilpatrick's Federal cavalry had crossed the Lumber River into North Carolina and was moving fast toward Fayetteville in pursuit of Gen. Wade Hampton's Confederate troops. Meanwhile, Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston gathered the remainder of his army near the small town of Bentonville, NC, to wait for Sherman. The Battle of Bentonville, fought on March 19th and 20th, was the last major fighting of the Civil War and the bloodiest battle ever fought on North Carolina soil. Between 85,000 and 90,000 troops were involved, and over 4,000 troops were killed, wounded, or missing (Powell, North Carolina through Four Centuries 375). On the third day of the battle, the Confederate troops withdrew toward Raleigh.
Though Sherman had hoped to join Grant in Virginia to finish off Gen. Robert E. Lee, Grant ordered him to proceed to Raleigh. In anticipation of Sherman's arrival and aware that the city could not be defended, Gov. Zebulon B. Vance had the state records put on a train to Greensboro and was preparing to meet Confederate President Davis there. To save Raleigh and the University from the fate that had befallen Atlanta, Columbia, and other cities in Sherman's path, ex-Gov. William A. Graham and Gov. Swain requested Vance 's approval to act as peace commissioners and to meet with Sherman. Though Vance was at first unenthusiastic about the idea, he gave his permission on April 9th. On the same day, Lee surrendered his troops at Appomattox, news that reached Sherman on April 11th. By April 13th, Swain and Graham had met with Sherman, delivered the keys of the Capitol to him, and received his assurances that the destruction of property would cease as soon as peace terms were signed.
Gov. Swain hurried back to Chapel Hill, arriving on April 15th. While he had been in Raleigh, a portion of the retreating Confederate cavalry under the command of Gen. Joe Wheeler had entered the village. According to Cornelia Phillips Spencer, daughter of Professor James Phillips and an eyewitness to the event, "Our whole town turned out to feed them. The streets were lined with girls, offering smiles, food, and flowers. It gives me a cheering sensation to see so many gallant fellows—eager to fight and hopeful" (Old Days 84). One of the "gallant fellows" happened to be James Park Coffin ,5 a University graduate of the Class of 1859. Coffin received permission to post a guard to protect the campus from the notorious "bummers" following Wheeler's forces and from Wheeler's own "loosely disciplined men" (Vickers 71). According to bookstore owner Charles Mallett , Wheeler was looking for routes to link up with Lee's army in Virginia, not certain that Lee had surrendered. Evidently Wheeler contemplated making a stand near Chapel Hill but thought better of it and withdrew his troops two days later, on Easter Sunday, April 16th [see this primary document].
That afternoon a Union cavalry unit under the command of Gen. Smith Dykins Atkins entered Chapel Hill with approximately 450 soldiers. Assuring Gov. Swain and others that citizens would be treated with courtesy, Atkins posted guards from the Ninth Michigan Regiment at all houses requesting such protection. Union Gen. Francis Blair , also a University alumnus, set the Federal guard over the University (Vickers 71). Some of the officers were quartered in University dormitories, and cavalry horses were stabled in University buildings and grazed under the oaks on campus. According to Spencer , Sherman commended his officer's mounts for being among the best educated horses in the Union army because they spent so much time in the University's library (Henderson 184). Sherman also presented a horse to Gov. Swain , a gift that earned him local resentment because people assumed that it had been stolen from some southern family on Sherman's route to North Carolina.
The occupation of Chapel Hill by Union troops lasted for seventeen days, from April 17th until May 3rd. During that period the army and the town learned of Gen. Lee's surrender, President Lincoln's assassination, and Gen. Johnston's surrender to Sherman at the Bennett farmhouse a few miles northwest of Chapel Hill, near Durham's Station. Classes were discontinued because most students had left campus before the cavalry arrived. The Dialectic Society did not meet between April 9th and May 22nd; the Philanthropic Society, between April 8th and May 22nd. Weekly meetings of the faculty also appear to have been cancelled as there are no minutes from April 7 until April 28, when the faculty ordered recitations to resume. Once the soldiers and townspeople understood that the hostilities were over, they mingled freely, if somewhat uncomfortably, and became less anxious as time passed. Many blacks, now free, attached themselves to the Federal army or left town. Spencer , like most citizens, appreciated the role of the military in protecting life and property. They were "a decent set of men [. . .] who behaved with civility and propriety" (Ninety Days 172). Mallett also was grateful for the protection offered by his house guard, but he disapproved of the socializing that took place between the soldiers and the young ladies on the Hill. Doubtless he was shocked to learn that a courtship was developing between Gen. Atkins and Gov. Swain's daughter Eleanor, known as Ellie. Atkins was mustered out of the Union army on June 21st, and on August 23rd he married Ellie Swain in Chapel Hill. The wedding understandably caused a sensation. Many invited guests boycotted the festivities, and students tolled the college bell for three hours, then hung Gov. Swain and Gen. Atkins in effigy (Henderson 186).
When the Federal cavalry left Chapel Hill for Lexington, NC, on May 3, 1865, a guard of thirty-five soldiers from the Tenth Ohio Regiment stayed behind to protect University property. Some of the soldiers attended the commencement exercises, which saw only four students receive diplomas. The ceremonies were shortened to two days because so few students, perhaps only a dozen or so, were present. Gov. Swain himself was absent, having gone to Washington, DC, to advise President Andrew Johnson on his plans for Reconstruction.


1. In 1859 Albert M. Shipp and John T. Wheat resigned from the faculty, Shipp becoming president of Greensboro Female College and Wheat moving to Little Rock, AR, to become rector of Christ Church. Shipp was not replaced, perhaps because decreasing enrollments did not warrant additional faculty. Replacing Wheat as professor of metaphysics, logic, and rhetoric was Andrew D. Hepburn (1830-1921) , a thirty-year-old Pennsylvania Presbyterian who had been educated at Jefferson College, the University of Virginia, and Princeton Theological Seminary. Gov. Swain and Professors James Phillips , Charles Phillips , Hildreth H. Smith , Manuel Fetter , Fordyce M. Hubbard , William J. Martin , and Solomon Pool continued on the faculty. The first tutor of rhetoric and elocution Iowa Michigan Royster was appointed in 1860, the year he graduated with first honors. Four additional tutors taught Latin, Greek, and mathematics to first- and second-year students.

2. Hughes' sermon subsequently was published in the North Carolina University Magazine 9 (August 1860) : 35-45.

3. See Richard Nelson Current, Lincoln's Loyalists: Union Soldiers from the Confederacy (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992). Early in the war Unionists left North Carolina to join regiments in northern states. By 1863 the First North Carolina Union Volunteers numbered 534 men, the Second North Carolina Union Volunteers were being organized, and western North Carolinians were enlisting in the Second North Carolina Mounted Infantry (Current 67, 71).

4. See Edward Needles Wright, Conscientious Objectors in the Civil War (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1931).

5. James Park Coffin (1838-1930) from Knoxville, TN, entered the University in 1855, joined the Dialectic Society, and graduated in 1859. As a student he had boarded with William Barbee , then with Barbee 's daughter Margaret Hargrave. Four of his six roommates died during the war. At the end of the war, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston paid Coffin one Mexican silver dollar for his services, a coin that remains in the family (Vickers 71). Eventually Coffin moved to Batesville, AR, where he became a clerk of the circuit court and a banker.