War on the Potomac
The University During the Civil War
Published: Thursday, November 15, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 23:11
"For Georgetown itself, the war had proven to be the most serious threat to its survival as an institution.” So wrote history professor emeritus Fr. R. Emmett Curran, S.J., of the American Civil War in his book, A History of Georgetown.
As soon as the fall of Fort Sumter heralded the start of the war, students from the North and the South disappeared from classrooms and residence halls to join the fight. But even before that point, the campus was caught up in the same tensions that had swept the nation.
In some respects, Georgetown’s Civil War story is a microcosm of the nation’s: The fight caused tremendous disruption to the normal rhythm of life on campus, divided the college community and entirely altered the face of Georgetown as an institution.
At the time of the war’s outbreak, Georgetown College was a small, all-male institution composed of not only a postsecondary liberal arts college but also a comprehensive preparatory school. Little separated the students of the two establishments, meaning that in 1860 one could bump into a student who was anywhere between 12 and 21 years old.
It was among the older, postsecondary students that the war caused the greatest divide. Many came from the South, some from slave-owning families. According to Curran’s book, some of these students even kept a personal slave with them on campus. Thomas J. Caulfield, a music professor and organist at the school, wrote “Grand Secession March” which became a rallying song for the South Carolinians ,while many of the Jesuits at the college had been writing letters and articles against slavery in the years leading up to the war.
The strains were evident at campus events. On Dec. 18, 1859, the Philodemic Society debated the topic of whether the South should secede. J. Fairfax McLaughlin, a student from New York who studied at Georgetown between 1851 and 1862, wrote about the commotion the debate caused.
“It was getting on war time and everyone was in a belligerent mood. Our debate that night was particularly stormy,” McLaughlin recorded in his book, College Days at Georgetown and Other Papers. “The climax was finally reached, and a scene followed not unlike some of those then frequently occurring in Congress — free fight. Bill Hodges, of Mississippi, who sat next to me, sprang at the vice-president of the Society, James Owen Martin of Louisiana, Jack Gardiner of Maryland rushed at me … and many other Philodemics were mixed up in the melee in extricable confusion.”
The fight didn’t end Fr. John Early, S.J., then president of the university, turned out the lights in the Philodemic room. He forbade the society from meeting for the remainder of the academic year.
When Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, the mood on campus became decidedly tenser. Fr. John Gilmary Shea, S.J., a Jesuit historian who witnessed the war first hand, wrote in his 1891 book, Memorial of the First Centenary of Georgetown College, that the initial secession of seven southern states following Lincoln’s election appeared to put the future of the school in jeopardy.
“When the Southern states resolved to secede, and the border states showed a determination to join them, the dangerous condition of the whole country sensibly affected Georgetown College,” he wrote. “It had always received many pupils from the Southern states, and if the border states cast their fortunes with the South, its position would be one of probable danger.”
Once the war got underway, Georgetown found itself at the center of the conflict. The District remained the Union capital and the seat of extensive military strategizing and national policymaking during wartime, and although the city was never threatened by a battle, residents of the city maintained near-constant vigilance. With much of the fighting concentrated in the mid-Atlantic region and the northern states of the Confederacy, Georgetown was not far from the battlefields — and Virginia, home to the capital of the Confederacy, was just across the river.
In his book, McLaughlin recalls listening to the tumult at Battle of Bull Run early in the war. He stood with Early on the back porch of the “Old Building,” now known as Old North.
“At short intervals we heard the ominous roar of distant cannon, which perceptibly grew more distinct as the afternoon advanced, presaging the defeat of General [Irvin] McDowell,” he wrote of the Union commander who led the forces to defeat at the first Battle of Bull Run. “We saw the horsemen over near Arlington galloping like mad towards Washington, and constantly increasing in numbers, and heard guns as the afternoon waned thundering louder than ever.”
At that point, McLaughlin said that Early turned to him and said, “The tide of battle tends this way. The Union forces evidently have met with a serious reverse. They may be in here before night. God help the poor sufferers, both Northern and Southern. If they come, every bed in the College shall be turned over to the wounded.”
Washington was noticeably militarized during the war, as the Union army placed a priority on defending the capital. Army units from throughout the North streamed into the region to ensure that the city was adequately defended.
But the robustness of such military activity put many Georgetown students in a somewhat awkward position — especially after a Union regiment was stationed at the campus in May 1861. According to then-faculty member Fr. Martin Whelan, S.J., the regiment’s arrival was punishment for an incident that happened a few weeks before.
“One afternoon, after class, about five o’clock, Fr. James Clark, S.J., first prefect of the senior students, learned that the students intended to express their dislike of the war proceedings against the South, and they burned Mr. Lincoln, the President, in effigy. … [Clark] started to tear down the sheet on which a coarse caricature of Abraham Lincoln had been drawn; but it was too late: It was already burning and in a few minutes, it was consumed,” Whelan wrote in his diary. “It created quite a stir among the government officials who loudly condemned such a proceeding. … Very soon after, the New York regiment was quartered at the College.”