Centrepiece Online | Summer 2012
Ormond Beatty 1813-1890Centre’s 19th-Century Guiding Hand
by Stuart W. Sanders ’95
Centre College graduate Ormond Beatty served his school for more than five decades as a professor, secretary of the board of trustees, vice president, and president. A dedicated administrator and teacher, his work and influence drove Centre’s success during much of the 19th century. Beatty’s lifelong affiliation with the institution, however, was marked with tragedy. During the Civil War, he endured the aftermath of the Battle of Perryville. In its wake he lost an important colleague, Centre president Lewis Warner Green.
Beatty was born on Aug. 13, 1813, in Washington, Ky., near Maysville. His father was a noted judge and friend of Henry Clay. In 1832, after attending local schools, Beatty entered Centre College, beginning an unmatched 58-year dedication to the school.
Centre’s faculty recognized young Beatty’s intellect and ability. President John C. Young, relatively new to the College, offered Beatty a teaching position before Beatty had even graduated (which he did in three years). Beatty, however, asked to study at Yale for a year before accepting the position. The administration agreed, and, by 1836, he was teaching chemistry and natural philosophy (physics) at Centre. During his many years at the College he also taught mathematics, metaphysics, and political science.
Beatty supported women’s education. In 1854, he was a founder and board member of the Henderson Female Institute, a local women’s college. Later, when he was Centre’s president, the College graduated its first female students. He was an elder in the Presbyterian Church, was active in the church’s General Assembly, served as president of Centre’s alumni association, and gained a reputation as a speaker and effective debater. Beatty’s brother-in-law, noted Kentucky politician Joshua Fry Bell, said that he “had heard speeches from Dr. Beatty, any one of which, if made in the United States Senate, would have won a national reputation in a single week.” Beatty, however, preferred to teach.
Like most Kentuckians from this period, Beatty supported slavery. In 1860, he and his wife owned a 35-year-old female slave who was likely a domestic servant. During this time several of Centre’s faculty members were slave-owning emancipationists who supported colonizing newly freed slaves to Liberia. John C. Young and several trustees were active in colonization societies, and Beatty may have shared a similar view.
When the Civil War erupted, the conflict quickly reached campus. In October 1861, shortly after Confederate troops pressed into Kentucky and the state ended its short-lived neutrality, 30 students asked permission to form an infantry company with Beatty as their captain. Believing they would soon have to “defend the homes of our childhood from the ruthless attack of an invading foe,” they sought permission to leave the school and join the Union army. Beatty, they believed, would “make a Christian, patriotic and competent leader, who can do very much towards shielding us from the demoralizing influence of our war and camp life.” The student request, however, was denied, and Beatty remained on campus as a professor.
In September 1862, after Confed-erate armies again invaded Kentucky, Southern soldiers occupied campus. A few weeks later, on Oct. 8, the state’s largest battle was fought at Perryville, a mere 10 miles from campus. More than 7,500 men were killed and wounded in the fight. Surrounding communities, including Danville, became full of wounded and sick soldiers. With spacious buildings on campus, Centre College was soon occupied.
Old Centre, the main College building, became a major hospital crammed with ill Union soldiers. Postwar testimony relates that more than 150 troops were placed in the building. Beatty’s chemistry laboratory, located in the downstairs south wing of Old Centre, was the only room not occupied. As Centre graduate G.W. Welsh recalled, it “was the only room in the college building not occupied for hospital purposes.” Therefore, Beatty’s chemistry apparatus was moved to one side so that students could fit in to hear lectures.
The lab saw other, more tragic, uses. Student J.M. Wallace recalled, “the surgeons would use that room often for an operation of some kind, or for the purpose of amputating a limb.”
A.B. Nelson, who attended Centre immediately after the battle, noted that when classes were held there, “In order to enter Prof. Beatty’s room, we had to pass through a room occupied by one of the Federal surgeons—or several of them, as a dead-house or post mortem room.” He added, “I have seen more than one post mortem examination held in this room while I was passing through.”
Wallace added that there were “plenty of them that died” in Old Centre. After the occupation ended, the building was in shambles and Beatty’s laboratory equipment was severely damaged. Months passed before Old Centre could be used for classes, and the College suffered severe financial losses from damages and lost tuition dollars.
In addition to these hardships, the College lost its president, Lewis Warner Green. Centre’s first graduate, Green was a Presbyterian minister and one of Kentucky’s pre-eminent intellectuals. After the battle, he worked diligently to care for sick soldiers across campus. In May 1863, he succumbed to an illness—possibly typhoid—and died. His funeral in Danville’s Bellevue Cemetery was reputedly one of the largest in the town’s history.
After Green’s death, Beatty served as Centre’s acting president until the Reverend William L. Breckinridge took the helm. When Breckinridge resigned in October 1868, Beatty again took charge. He served as president pro tem for two years, and, in 1870, was named president. Still affected by the aftermath of the Civil War, the College’s enrollment was a mere 32 students.
The postwar years were difficult, but Beatty successfully guided the College. In addition to serving as president, Beatty taught metaphysics and political science and superintended the construction of Old Main, the large building that once stood on the site of the present-day library. With his avid interest in science, Beatty built a natural history museum, emphasized the school’s strong science program to potential students, and expanded the number of faculty. Fundraising was also a priority, especially after bonds owned by Centre—worth $60,000—were stolen from a Louisville bank in the early 1870s.
In the 1880s, Beatty’s former students donated money to create the Ormond Beatty Prize. One of the College’s highest honors, it was awarded to the senior with the “best record for scholarship, deportment, and punctuality.”
In September 1888, Beatty resigned as president because of ill health. He did, however, continue to teach at the College. From September 1886 to May 1890, he also taught church history and historical theology at the Danville Presbyterian Theolog-ical Seminary. Beatty never retired. Instead, he taught at Centre until his death on June 24, 1890. He was buried in Danville’s Bellevue Cemetery.
The Centre catalog of 1887-1888, published during the twilight of Beatty’s career, summarized the school’s attainments. Reflected in this success was Beatty’s constant guidance. The catalog noted, “Centre College has educated 17 College Presid- ents, 41 College Professors, 14 Representatives in Congress, 4 U.S. Senators, 5 Governors of States, 1 Vice President of the U.S., 1 Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, 24 Circuit Judges, State and National, and 37 editors. No institution in Kentucky sends out, year by year, a larger class of graduates.” With Beatty’s guiding hand, Centre survived the Civil War, the hardships of its aftermath, and ultimately found success.
With 7,500 casualties sustained in less than five hours, veterans remarked that Perryville was the most intense battle that they ever experienced. As nearly every barn, home, shed, stable, business, school, and church became makeshift field hospitals, the burden of caring for this massive number of casualties fell upon Perryville’s 300 inhabitants and the residents of other nearby communities. Union doctors were woefully unprepared for the large number of casualties. A drought and lack of anesthesia accentuated the suffering, and the delayed burials made the battlefield a horrific environment. As one soldier remarked, “The spectacle presented by the battlefield was enough to make angels weep.”ORMOND BEATTY TIMELINE
1835 Graduates from Centre College
1836-1847 Professor of Chemistry and Natural Philosophy
1847-1852 Professor of Mathematics
1852-1872 Professor of Physics and Chemistry
1872-1886 Professor of Metaphysics and Political Science
1886-1890 Professor of Metaphysics and Logic
1868-1870 President Pro Tem of Centre College
1870-1888 President of Centre College
Stuart W. Sanders ’95 is the author of Perryville Under Fire: The Aftermath of Kentucky’s Largest Civil War Battle (The History Press, 2012). Formerly executive director of the Perry-ville Battlefield Preservation Association, he is now with the Kentucky Historical Society.
Vol.53, No. 2
In this issue
- Faculty Conversations: Jane Wilson Joyce and Vince DiMartino
- Congratulations, Graduate. Now What?
- The Marrying Kind
- Endpiece: Everything I Need to Know about Poker I Learned at Centre