The Civil War: A college divided

This article is part two in the five-part War at Brown series.

After Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861, President Lincoln called for volunteers to wage a mere three-month defense. The Civil War that evolved from the skirmish resulted in the bloodiest conflict ever fought on American soil.

Despite College Hill’s distance from most of the fighting, the campus was drawn into the national debate over competing theories of government and ideologies about slavery central to the conflict.

“Though Rhode Island might not be invaded, the students (who supported the Union) felt the idea of America was under attack, and they wanted to defend it,” said Ted Widmer, President Christina Paxson’s assistant for special projects, who is completing a book about the University’s history.

‘An attack on … or by the United States?’

The Battle of Fort Sumter forced the University to decide immediately where its loyalties would lie. Founded as a Baptist college, the University traditionally drew many Southern students. Between 1844 and 1853, about 14 students per year hailed from the South, and for five consecutive years within that period, at least 10 percent of the student population called the South home.

Of the 227 undergraduates enrolled in the University in 1860, the majority hailed from Rhode Island and Massachusetts.  Only six were from states about to join the Confederacy, three of whom left Brown when the war began, according to historian Robert George’s book “Brown University on the Eve of the Civil War.” Bolstered by an ardently pro-Union faculty, the University quickly demonstrated its support for the North.

A tide of Union patriotism flooded the campus, culminating in an official demonstration of support for the cause five days after the first shots at Fort Sumter.

“Wed. April 17. A day long to be remembered in college!” wrote Henry Burrage, class of 1861, in his journal. “The stars and stripes were raised over University Hall this afternoon in the presence of the faculty and undergraduates of the college.”

Despite the institution’s support for Lincoln and the Union government, some on campus still believed in the Confederate cause.

“I have to imagine that the support on the Brown campus for the Union was almost 95 percent of the students and faculty,” Widmer said. “Importantly, though, it’s not 100 percent.”

During the war, the University used commencement as a forum to reaffirm its fervent support for the Union war effort.

“The safety of the country demands a prompt and vigorous support of the administration,” George Curtis, writer and orator, told graduating seniors at Commencement in September 1863, the Providence Journal reported at the time. He said their support was needed most for the nation’s “emancipation policy, which alone would prevent the rebels from retiring from the unequal contest only to resume it when their strength was renewed.”


Ties not broken

The University continues to struggle to come to terms with its founders’ ties to the slave trade to this day. But when the war broke out, slavery had long been outlawed in Rhode Island, and the Brown family had been divested from the trade for more than a half century.

The lack of direct engagement with slavery did not mean those associated with the University held a uniform stance on ending it, Widmer said. Many alums and donors were connected to prominent slaveholding families in South Carolina, and the textile manufacturers at the heart of Rhode Island’s economy relied heavily on trade with Southern plantations.

“A number of Rhode Island textiles received cotton from the South and even sold low-quality clothing back to the plantation owners to clothe their slaves,” Widmer said. “Many of these textile firms were owned by Brown alumni.”

Because of these ties, abolitionism was not a given on campus. President Francis Wayland, a Baptist minister,  vehemently opposed slavery but concurrently criticized the actions of the abolitionists. This attitude was common among Rhode Islanders and Brown students alike.

“By the 1850s, many Brown students were opposed to the institution of slavery,” said Jane Lancaster PhD’98, University historian. “A majority of people said they didn’t believe in the institution but didn’t agree with the practices of the abolitionists.”

But the University began to develop a position on the issue when it conferred an honorary degree to Thomas Ewings Jr., a main architect of Kansas’ ratification as a free state, who described himself as “intensely anti-slavery,” George wrote.

For many of the students and the University, the abolition of slavery was not at the forefront of the cause, but it was widely welcomed in its wake.

Students as soldiers

Though the fighting remained far from Providence, the effects of the war were felt on campus — enrollment declined between 1861 and 1865 as students joined the ranks of both armies.

Twenty-one students and graduates enlisted in the Union army in the first year of the war. Fifteen undergraduates later joined the ranks of the 1st Rhode Island, while two others were found on the rolls of its Light Battery Division. The total number of Brown students and alums who served in the war was a statistic up for debate in the years after the war. George, in a 1962 edition of the Brown Alumni Monthly, referred to the total number as 294, but this did not include many of the Confederate soldiers, sailors and Brown students who had not completed their degrees. Considering these forgotten categories, Brown students and alumni soldier enrollees numbered 417, as compiled in a list by Bertram Smith, class of 1910, and referenced by Burrage.

Not all members of the Brown community were pro-Union — by July 1861, 19 Brunonians had enlisted in the Confederate Army, joined by 24 more by the war’s end.

“Every man appears to realize that we are engaged in a sacred, just war of self defense,” wrote Confederate soldier Henry Hart in a letter to his family. Hart, who did not graduate from Brown, would have finished his degree in 1852 had he stayed for four consecutive years.

As it became clear the conflict would last much longer than originally anticipated, students grew less eager to enlist. By the summer of 1861, Union support had coalesced into the formation of a University militia group, eventually named the University Cadets.

The war effort swept the campus and defined it for much of the rest of the war. “The well-known cry of ‘fall in, men’ when, three time a week, at the merry call of the drum, the (University Cadets) could be seen assembling at the hour appoint for drill,” wrote Robert George, then a professor of history, in a 1962 issue of the Brown Alumni Monthly.

Because the cadets spent their time “trench digging, surf bathing and rambles in the field” while in the employ of Rhode Island Militia, they missed their finals, returning to campus later that summer, George wrote.

The motivations of some of these students may have been somewhat less patriotic —  letters from Emery Huntington Porter, class of 1866, reveal a desire to skirt exams.

Those who joined the University Cadets but remained on campus did not face the harsh realities of battle during their relatively short enlistments. Their experiences differed markedly from those Brown students and alumni who participated in active duty and partook in the bloody battles of the Civil War, including the Battles of Bull Run, Antietam, Murfreesboro, Port Hudson, Atlanta and St. Petersburg.

“Many, leaving these classic shades for a while, have gone forth to encounter the stern realities of war,” the Journal reported at the time.

Educating citizens as soldiers

Brown, like other institutions of higher education across the United States, was at a crossroads in determining its mission at the time of the Civil War. The University’s educational program, imbued with institutions of classical learning, emphasized Greek and Roman philosophy and history created a connection with the belief in “citizen-soldiers” and a defense of the Republic at all costs.

“This is an age … which summons men of science and of letters from their experiments and their books … and bids them gird on the sword and hasten to the defense of the best the freest the happiest country on which the sun ever shone,” Burrage wrote, quoting Joshua Addeman, class of 1862.

In a rejection of the professionally-tracked tenets of the new education system proposed by Wayland, students were educated to become contributing citizens of American society determined to defend it. The 1864 centennial celebration served as a testament to Brown’s adherence to a traditional educational system as well as the students’ contributions to the war effort.

As relatively wealthy white males, viewing the war in terms of duty and patriotism, the students held a unique perspective not shared by most of the country. Most of the lives lost in America’s bloodiest war were not those of Brown students and their peers but soldiers forced to fight by class-based conscription practices, creating what was labeled a “poor man’s war.”

Remembering Brown’s fallen

But status did not ubiquitously protect the Brown community from the consequences of war — 10 percent of enlisted Brown students and alums died in the war.

Trumpeting the cause of the Union, the champions of the Stars and Stripes and those who died for it were honored and enshrined by the University in a tablet — paid for by Nicholas Brown — that still hangs in Manning Hall. The names of all Confederate soldiers were intentionally excluded from the list of names.

Albert Campbell, class of 1847 and a Confederate major, wrote in a letter that he returned home after signing the Oath of Allegiance an “exhausted, covered with dust and fast asleep on his horse … downcast and practically destitute” man.

Brown students and alums who joined the Confederacy were at first considered “disloyal sons,” but the University gradually moved toward reconciliation in the decades following the war. When, after World War I, Soldiers Arch was installed as a memorial to all of Brown students who had served as soldiers, those who fought for the Confederacy received their first recognition from the University.

The next story in the War at Brown series examines the mobilization of campus during the first and second world wars.

War at Brown