Days Gone By - stories from the past

University of Alabama was burned a week before the end of the the War Between the States – [see story and pics]

Southern Cadets in Action

(This letter has been transcribed from The Century 1890 – Volume 39 – Harvard College Magazine Monthly)


In his sketch of” The West Point of the Confederacy,” published in The Century Magazine for January, 1889, Mr. John S. Wise says: “At a later period of the war it [the Virginia Military Institute] had, I believe, the exceptional honor of having sent its corps of cadets, as a body, into battle.” The cadets of the University of Alabama share with the Virginia Military Institute corps the honor of having received “a baptism of fire” in the closing days of the war. In fact, from the thoroughness of its military organization and equipment, and from the number and quality of the officers it furnished the Southern army, the University of Alabama may fairly contest with the Virginia Institute the honor of having been the “West Point of the Confederacy.”

University of Alabama before it burned (apps.lib.ua.edu.)

University of Alabama before it burned ca. 1839 – On the left is Franklin Hall, with Madison Hall on the right. In the center is the rotunda, which housed the school’s library, with the Lyceum in the background. (apps.lib.ua.edu.)

 

University of Alabama ruins ca. 1874
University of Alabama in ruins 1874 (Alabama Department of Archives and History)

Unlike the Virginia Military Institute, the University of Alabama was not founded as a military school; but the legislature of the State, at its session of 1859-60, probably in anticipation of the ” irrepressible conflict” between the sections, took steps towards grafting a military department on the classical and scientific courses of the institution, and in September, 1860, its students for the first time went into camp on the college grounds as a military body under the name of the Alabama Corps of Cadets.

Jefferson Elisha Bozeman was one of the cadets at the University of Alabama who met Gen. Croxton's forces
Jefferson Elisha Bozeman was one of the cadets at the University of Alabama who met Gen. Croxton’s forces

Colonel Caleb Huse, now in charge of a training school for West Point at Highland Falls, N. Y., who was then a young army officer, was detailed as commandant of cadets, and under his direction the corps soon reached a high degree of excellence in drill and discipline. At the outbreak of the war Colonel Huse resigned his commission in the army and accepted an important post under the Confederate Government. Colonel J. T. Murfee, an accomplished officer and a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, succeeded Colonel Huse as commandant, and he was aided in perfecting the organization of the military department of the institution by a complement of young officers known as “State Captains,” most of whom were also Virginia Military Institute graduates.

University of Alabama 1861 (apps.lib.ua.edu.)

University of Alabama 1861 (apps.lib.ua.edu.)

As the war became more and more an earnest reality the University of Alabama assumed more and more the aspects of a second West Point. The president, Dr. L. C. Garland, now the venerable chancellor of the Vanderbilt University, donned the regulation gray of a Confederate colonel, and held reviews, inspections, etc., with the soldierly precision of a West Point superintendent. From time to time the young men whom the University had trained to the profession of arms were commissioned as officers in the Southern army, and of these quite a number rose rapidly in rank; on of them, the lamented General John C. Saunders, having won the stars of a brigadier before he had reached his majority.

The university, being located at Tnscaloosa, in the interior of the State, was for a long time exempt from danger from the raiders who ravaged the northern borders of Alabama; but as the crisis drew on in the spring of 1865 the Federal troops came nearer and nearer. On the 3Oth of March, General E. M. McCook, then at Elyton (at present a suburb of the new city of Birmingham), fifty miles northeast of Tuscaloosa, acting under orders from General J. H. Wilson, detached Brigadier-General John T. Croxton and his brigade of fifteen hundred veteran cavalry with orders ” to proceed rapidly by the most direct route to Tuscaloosa, to destroy the bridge, factories, mills, university (military school), and whatever else might be of benefit to the rebel cause.”

Cadet corps fought bravely

The opportunity was now at hand for the cadet corps to taste the realities of war that it had so often mimicked in the marching and countermarching of the battalion maneuvers. The corps was about three hundred strong and was in fine trim. On the night of the 3rd of April ” taps ” was sounded as usual. The cadets went to bed with little thought that within three miles, just across the Black Warrior River, lay Croxton’s raiders, ready to make a dash across the bridge into Tuscaloosa. The Federal general, by his capture of scouts and citizens, had prevented knowledge of his approach. The surprise was complete. For the sake of form, a few of the “home guard”—old men and boys—had been kept at the bridge that night; but no one had an idea that the Federals were near. When their approach was discovered, a courier was at once dispatched to the university. The long roll was sounded, and in a few moments the cadet battalion was formed and hurried away in the darkness to the brow of the hill overlooking the bridge. There a line of battle was formed.

Marker of civil war burning

It was too late. Croxton’s men had already crossed the bridge and were formed on the river bank. The cadets, however, were eager for the fray, and the two or three volleys that they poured down the hill for a while disconcerted the Federals and checked their advance. There was rapid firing for a short time on both sides; but, owing probably to the darkness of the night, the casualties were few. The officer in charge of the cadets, seeing the hopelessness of an attempt to dislodge a force so superior in numbers, drew off his command, having sustained a loss of only three or four wounded.

General Croxton, in his official report, makes no mention of the losses sustained by the Federals. He says: “They [the militia and cadets] made several unsuccessful attempts to dislodge us, but failed, and morning found us in peaceful possession of the premises, with sixty prisoners and three pieces of artillery.” The prisoners referred to were members of the “home guard,” and not cadets. The three pieces of artillery belonged to the cadet battery, but they had not been taken into the action. The Federals found them under a shed, where they had been stored for protection from the weather.

The sequel to this scrap of history is briefly told. The cadets retreated in the direction of Marion, some fifty miles distant, where a few days later they were disbanded. General Croxton carried out faithfully his orders to destroy the university. Its handsome buildings, its extensive libraries, and its valuable chemical and physical apparatus, representing in all nearly a half million dollars, went up in smoke. However, like the Virginia Military Institute, the University of Alabama has been rebuilt, and is growing will equal pace with the prosperous State of which it is the educational renter. It still retains the military feature as a means of discipline and physical culture among its students; but it is not probable that its cadet corps will ever again have the brush of real war that the boys of 1865 experienced on that memorable April night. (Written by Colonel and Professor Thomas Chalmers McCorvey in 1890 Noted Historian of Alabama and first head of the History Department of the University of Alabama)

The campus of the University of Alabama in 1859. View of the Quad, with the Rotunda at center and dormitories in the background. All of these buildings were destroyed by the Union army
The campus of the University of Alabama in 1859. View of the Quad, with the Rotunda at center and dormitories in the background. All of these buildings were destroyed by the Union army

Only one book was saved

In the center of the campus and immediately in front of the approaching Federals, about eighty-five yards away from the main road, stood the Rotunda, home of the University’s library and natural history collection. Standing in front of the Rotunda were several members of the faculty, including André Deloffre, University librarian and professor of French and Spanish, and Dr. William S. Wyman, professor of Latin and Greek. Colonel Johnston, mounted on a white horse (it was said he sat stiffly), approached the group and made his purpose known. The University was to be burned.

Rotunda ruins sketched in 1866 by Eugene Allen Smith, former cadet and instructor of tactics (from scvtuscaloosa.org)Rotunda ruins sketched in 1866 by Eugene Allen Smith, former cadet and instructor of tactics (from scvtuscaloosa.org)

Librarian Deloffre pleaded for the library. Surely this one building could be spared. Colonel Johnston agreed that it would be senseless destruction to burn one of the finest libraries in the South. Hurriedly he scrawled a message to General Croxton asking permission to spare the building, noting that it had no military value. No record exists of the conversation between Johnston and the professors as they waited for a reply, though Dr. Wyman later described Johnston as a “man of culture and literary taste.”

When at last the courier returned, the general’s answer was disheartening. “My orders leave me no discretion,” wrote Croxton. “My orders are to destroy all public buildings.”

What happened next has become a part of the University of Alabama’s mythic fabric. It is said that Colonel Johnston, lamenting the destruction of such a fine library, decided to salvage one volume as a memento. Perhaps he sent one of his aides, or perhaps he sent Librarian Deloffre, or perhaps he went himself, to take one book from the library. The book saved was an English translation of The Koran: Commonly Called The Alcoran Of Mohammed, published in Philadelphia in 1853.

This copy of the Quran was saved from the 1853 burning of the UA campus. The book is housed in the William S. Hoole Special Collections Library. - Tuscaloosa News
This copy of the Quran was saved from the 1853 burning of the UA campus. The book is housed in the William S. Hoole Special Collections Library. – Tuscaloosa News

Federal Troops threw flaming combustibles through the door of Rotunda

Federal troops then began throwing flaming combustibles through the open door of the Rotunda and onto the roof. In a matter of minutes, the building was engulfed in flames. The raiders then turned their attention to the other buildings, and soon almost the entire campus was ablaze. One witness recalled years later that “as I looked in astonishment, the flames from the tall buildings reached far above the tree tops.” The University cadets, from their position on Hurricane Creek, eight miles away, could see the billowing smoke.

Hurricane Creek (blackwarriorriver.org)Hurricane Creek (blackwarriorriver.org)

In addition to burning the University, Croxton’s men also burned properties in and near town, including the Confederate nitre works, the Leach & Avery foundry, a hat factory, a cotton mill, a tanyard, and two cotton warehouses.

Crossed the Black Warrior River

The next day, April 5, Croxton and his troops left town, crossing the Black Warrior River and burning the bridge behind them. They headed west on the Columbus Road. At Romulus, they encountered Confederate Brigadier General Wirt Adams, whose force drove the Federals back to Northport. Eventually, Croxton and his men made their way across the state to rejoin General Wilson in Georgia.

Black Warrior River (blackwarriorriver.org)Black Warrior River (blackwarriorriver.org)

Marched to Marion, Alabama

The Alabama Corps of Cadets stayed at Hurricane Creek a full day before marching sixty-seven miles to Marion, Alabama. There they learned of the fall of Selma, which had occurred on April 2. Because the town of Marion could not feed 300 boys indefinitely, the officers disbanded the Corps with the intention of assembling again in thirty days. The Alabama Corps of 1864-65, of course, never reassembled. On April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. The Civil War was over.

Because the University of Alabama was destroyed so near the end of the war, one can easily imagine a scenario in which the University survived unscathed. Indeed, on the day following the burning, General Grant, several hundred miles away, told General Sherman, “Rebel armies are now the only strategic points to strike at.” But the University did not escape unscathed, and the events of April 3-4, 1865, set back the course of higher education in Alabama for decades. With no dormitories, classroom, or public buildings, little money, and no library, the University of Alabama started over.

Excerpt from issue 16 (Spring 1990) of Alabama Heritage, pp. 30-45. 

More about the burning of the University of Alabama can be found here.

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About Donna R Causey

Donna R. Causey, resident of Alabama, was a teacher in the public school system for twenty years. When she retired, Donna found time to focus on her lifetime passion for historical writing. She developed the websites www.alabamapioneers and www.daysgoneby.me
All her books can be purchased at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.
She has authored numerous genealogy books.
RIBBON OF LOVE: A Novel Of Colonial America (TAPESTRY OF LOVE)
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18 comments

  1. […] infirmary at the University of Alabama. It was one of only four buildings on campus to survive the burning of the college in the Civil War. In 1879 it was given to the school’s president, Josiah Gorgas, and his […]

  2. when I was at the Univ. of Ala.in 1959, I was in the building next to the library and it was raining and I was going to the library and someone showed me the hall that was underground and came out in the library on the right side of the building, amond some bookshelves., after climbing some steps from the hall. On the way I saw 2 confederate soldiers,and one asked me what happened to my dress[it was modern and short]. I didn’t answer…and realized later they were ghosts
    or the time had changed a few moments for the 2 soldiers.Perhaps later it let them know the place would be rebuilt someday, for at the time they were in, the place had not yet been burned.
    Also while there, the last ” panty raid” happened, and no one got into any of the dorms.We were told not to even look out the windows or if our photo was in a newspaper, we would be out of there.

  3. Roger Brothers

    This was not the first time the U of A corp of Cadets engaged in battle with the federals!

    In July of 1864 the corp was mustered to help repel Rousseau’s Raid in East Alabama. Only 54 cadets could be gathered in time (they were on summer break and were scattered all over the State. But those along with about 500 boys of Lockharts junior reserve (17 and younger as were the cadets) met 1500 veteran Yankee cavalry at a place called Chehaw station in Macon county. These boys succeeded in driving the Feds from the field that day. The fed commander wrote in his after action report that he had met a “superior force of 1500 infantry). Ironically the action of these boys may have saved what would become their future rival, Auburn U from suffering the same fate as the Tuscaloosa campus.

    BTW the fed gov years later in effect admitted their wrondoing in their arson of UA by giving 40,000 acres of federal land to the university as partial reparation

    1. Ken Berner

      Members of the Corps of Cadets were also involved in the defense of Mobile.

    2. Too bad Sherman and Grant didn’t get killed at Shiloh ….

  4. Dana Edwards Fennel Joe Hassell Karen Edwards

    1. Roger Brothers

      At least they didn’t poison any trees!!!

    2. Danny Farris

      Get some weeping willows

  5. Shane Higgins

    Good for General Croxton….

  6. Bruce Cole

    They didn’t do a good enough job! Jaaahaaaa…….just saying….

    1. James Storm

      You’re wrong for that.

  7. Emily Correll

    When I was a child and went to football games in Tuscaloosa, I was told that the president’s house was spared because the president’s wife begged for it. There is also another small building, like a turret, that supposedly wasn’t burned. I always wanted to go inside it because it reminded me of a fairy tale building. I think it may have been used as a clubhouse by some men’s group.

  8. Cary Atkinson

    This was part of “Croxton’s Raid” several furnaces were burned the same week. One of them that is still standing is tannehill…

  9. Croxton later march through my home town of Munford, AL where he encountered Hill’s Layouts. A small and fast skirmish ensued and there were 3 casualties. Two union soldiers were killed and taken back north for burial. This was on April 23rd which was 3 weeks after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. One confederate soldier was killed. His name was Andrew Jackson Buttram and he was from Douglasville, GA. He also was the great uncle of Pat Buttram of Green Acres and Gene Autry fame. This was the last battle of the war east of the Mississippi where casualties were recorded. AJ Buttram was 14 years old.

  10. Carroll White

    LaGrange Collage in northwest Alabama was burned. The West Point of the South.

  11. Regina Poole

    Emily Correll – behind the main library is the “old” campus. Woods Hall, and the other buildings there are all Civil War buildings. The President’s wife also held a gun in her hand when she confronted the union troops.

  12. […] resident editor; and the following 12 gentlemen a Board of Editors; Dr. L. C. Garland of the University of Ala.; Dr. H. F. Talbird, of Howard College; Prof. H. Tutwiler, of Greene Springs; A. Goddard, of Coosa; […]

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