Centre College During the
Antebellum Era and the Civil War
By Laura Garrett
"Utter madness, raving insanity, has ruled the hour, and men born to be brothers have fallen to cutting each other's throats ..." So said Robert J. Breckinridge, politician and brother to Centre's sixth president, about the Civil War. The Civil War's impact on Centre was to create truly utter madness: in the 1861-62 school year, the year the war began, there was a dramatic increase in the number of students expelled for fighting with knives and pistols. Classmate fought against classmate as students chose either the Confederate or the Union side; many students left Centre soon after the War began to join the military or to be with their families.3 Breckinridge was correct in stating that brothers were fighting each other: all thirteen members of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity left school to enlist, some with the Union army and some with the Confederacy.
Not all students were engaging in physical fights, however: since the mid-1850s, the school's literary societies had been debating such topics as "Has the state a right to secede from the Union?" Students were split on the resolutions of these debates.
While Centre students were divided along Union and Confederate lines, the faculty was resoundingly Union. One Confederate chaplain wrote that it would be impossible to rally Danville to join the Confederacy, for Danville "contains the worst community in the State. The faculty of Centre College ... are a nest of unclean birds, all of the [Robert J.] Breckinridge plume and bill." Math professor Robert Patterson left the school in 1862, fearing that he would be forced into joining the Confederate army. He had been arrested and released by the Confederacy once before. Professors James Matthews and Jacob Cooper both left in 1862 to join the Union army, Cooper as a chaplain.4
3 "Minutes of the Faculty of The Centre College of Kentucky," 1863-1876, 18-22, 53-60.
4 "Minutes of the Faculty" 40-41.
|From the title page of "Hoots from the Pine Woods Owls"|
Hoots from the Pine Woods Owls: Devoted to Gayeties, Gravities, the diffusion of useful knowledge.
Hoots from the Pine Woods Owls parodied children's poems from an 1864 book called Mother Goose from Germany; above is the poem "Yankee Rabbits" from "Hoots" next to the original poem from Mother Goose. The poem "Yankee Rabbits" reads:
Upon the lines of the South, outh, outh
And when they had talked enough, nough, nough
The reb rose up and took aim, aim, aim,
|"Our artist has furnished us with the following life like sketch of [Union General William Tecumseh] Sherman's late defeat in Georgia. We know it will please all good Southerners, [sic] to see how total his annihilation must have been. He was completely cut to pieces, so says our latest dispatcher."|
|"Sad and startling effects of the present scarcity of horses among the cavalry. Mules discovered to be not exactly the thing in a retreat."|
|Irving Chapin Bartlett was in the Centre Class of 1862, and his correspondence with his family provides details into the lives of students during the early years of the Civil War. Bartlett was a member of the Chamberlain Literary Society and the Alpha Kappa Phi fraternity. Upon graduation he enlisted in the Confederate Army. In this letter to his father from February 24, 1861, Bartlett describes how pro-Confederate Centre students attending Danville's annual Washington Birthday celebration raised two "Palmetto flags" (the state flag of South Carolina - because South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union, its state flag was a symbol for the Confederacy).|
"I received your letter on the evening of the 22nd and found three dollars enclosed. I have not however had any very extensive need of money; will pay my wash bill in the morning. Well, Washington's birthday[an annual celebration in Danville] passed off very pleasantly indeed, and as the speakers at Dr. Greens [Centre president] suggestion uttered nothing which was displeasing to the community the [apprehended] disturbance did not occur. Chenaults subject, 'The preservation of its honor - a nation safeguard' would seem to apply to the South and whilst equal rights or Secession was his real sentiments, he covered it so artfully that no one could feel [authorized] in taking offence. At the conclusion of his speech, two Palmetto flags were sent up to him bearing the inscription 'Equal Rights' some six or seven voices hollered take it out and several hisses were heard, but the body of the students who went armed, threw up their hats, cheered and indicated very plainly their sentiments. No violence was offered. Most of the speeches were intensely union.
"At the supper table on the evening of the 22nd, Mrs. Green was expressing her hopes that the band would play the "Star Spangled Banner" whilst the congregation joined in singing it. I happened to be sitting next to her, when she turned to me and asked me if I didn't think it would be beautiful and if they would all enjoy it. I told her I thought it beautiful. 'But wouldn't you all enjoy it' she said. I then remarked that I had no doubt but that some of the audience would enjoy it hugely. She looked greatly surprised - and the Dr who sat immediately opposite wanted to know what I said - I repeated it. My look plainly indicating my meaning. The old folks are just beginning to discover that they are nurturing instead of a band of patriots, union loving men, a hot bed of secessionist and advocates of a southern confederacy."