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