“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.”
The arrival of the regiment was just the latest in a string of incidents that marked the campus’s conversion from a place of learning to something more resembling a military base.
Starting in the fall of 1861, enrollment dropped precipitously. Some students left to join the Union or Confederate armies, and on April 10, 1861, 10 of the 11 members of the class who were supposed to graduate that spring wrote a letter to Early to explain that they would be withdrawing from Georgetown in order to return home to the South.
“Our presence here any longer would be attended but with little good to us, for we are giving utterance to a plain and undisguised truth when we say that there is not one amongst us who is now able to devote that time, interest, energy and requisite spirit to the pursuits of the class while all we have most dear on earth, our country [the South], our parents and our brethren call loudly upon our presence at our respective homes,” they wrote.
Two days later, the attack on Fort Sumter prompted worried parents to pull their sons out of Georgetown in even greater numbers. Four of the 10 seniors from the graduating class of 1861 went on to enlist in the Confederate Army. Eleven members of the previous year’s graduating class enlisted, nine on the Confederate side, two for the Union. A total of 178 students dropped out, 71 of them to enlist.
The mass enlistment took its toll. A total of 106 students were killed in the fighting. One student who left campus but did not enlist, James Ryder Randall, a Louisiana native who strongly supported secession, wrote the following in part of a poem to one of his fallen classmates:
“When the Southern bullet sang the knell / Of the ravaging invader, / Then, then triumphantly he fell, / Our spotless young Crusader.”
According to statistics in Curran’s text, the college’s enrollment dropped to just 50 students by the fall of 1861; before the war, it had been around 300. This under-enrollment put financial strain on the college, which raised its annual tuition from $200 to $325 during the war period. Georgetown was less able to provide financial aid and was forced to take on debt. The school was on the brink of collapse.
Meanwhile, space in the college’s classroom buildings no longer filled by students was repurposed for military use. On top of the quartering of the 69th New York regiment, Early made space available for an on-campus military hospital and another at a Georgetown-owned villa in Tenleytown, on orders from the federal government.
Not all of these efforts were greeted with enthusiasm by faculty: Fr. Bernard E. McMahon, S.J., wrote a letter to his friend in Boston in 1861, denouncing the changes on campus.
“Even we at the college have turned soldiers, rise at the reveille [bugle call] and go to bed at the sound of the tattoo. The cause of this? Last Saturday at four o’clock, while engaged in class and elsewhere, we were informed that the college was to be occupied at seven [o’clock] by a portion of the N.Y. Volunteers, and that all we people who occupied the small boys’ side of the street would have to clear out bag and baggage to the opposite building [Old North],” he wrote. “Then you should have seen the tearing up of desks, the pulling out of beds, bed clothes, chairs, etc. In about two hours, the entire building was emptied of everything, a job which at another time would have consumed two or three days’ labor.”
The influx of soldiers to campus gave faculty a new purpose. Jesuits like Fr. Joseph O’Hagan, S.J., ministered to wounded soldiers while members of the school’s medical department responded to Lincoln’s call for surgeons to aid the wounded in hospitals and on the battlefield. The medical department was the only one at Georgetown whose enrollment actually rose during the course of the war.
Georgetown’s touch on the historical period extended beyond the war’s end. Three of the men indicted in the plot surrounding President Lincoln’s assassination — Samuel Mudd (C ’55) set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg as he escaped, David Herold, who was found hiding with Booth, and Samuel Arnold, another conspirator — had attended Georgetown College in their youth. All three were convicted, and Herold was hanged for his crime.
Georgetown had not suffered any physical damage by the war’s end, and unlike many peer institutions, the school was able to remain open throughout the conflict. Still, reconstituting the college community presented a formidable task. The administration had to bring students back to campus, heal wartime division and bitterness and determine the future course of the college as one of the region’s few surviving Jesuit schools.
It was after the war that the university designated blue and gray as its colors in a showing of unity between the Union and Confederacy. Later in his memoir, McLaughlin — the same student who stood with Fr. Early listening to the progress of the Battle of Bull Run four years earlier — reflected on the impact of what he called “the great upheaval.”
“Those same collegians sprang to arms in deadly war, some on the Northern side, more on the Southern side, the Blue and the Gray torn asunder only to blend again in fraternal union.”