Part II: Theaters of War
W&M’s students, faculty and alumni played pivotal roles for both the Confederacy and the Union in the American Civil War.
On April 9, 1865, Lt. Thomas "Tommy" H. Mercer 1863, Pvt. Robert Armistead 1862 and Pvt. John G. Williams 1861 laid down their arms at Appomattox Court House. As they stood with the other remnants of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, little distinguished these three young men from the rest of their comrades. They were all tired, hungry and dirty after weeks of constant retreat from advancing Union armies. On this day of surrender, they were also probably amazed to have survived years of ferocious fighting. One undetectable factor, however, made this trio unique.
Just four years earlier, Mercer, Armistead and Williams were zealous William and Mary students who left their studies and their campus to go to war. They were joined by scores of other William and Mary students, faculty and alumni who each left a noteworthy imprint on the war's military, diplomatic and political realms.
The story of the William and Mary community's role in the Civil War is a complex one. Some individuals blended anonymously into the massive military ranks, while others single-handedly shaped the course of the war. Collectively, their service is a fascinating yet little-known chapter in William and Mary's history that deserves greater recognition.
Taking Up Arms
"The day you left I dressed and moved my chair out into the porch where I enjoyed the fresh air for several hours. I can dress myself and get into and out of the chair without any assistance. I sat up yesterday for more than five hours--three longer than I have ever sat up before. I attempted to stand up with crutches but as soon as Mother let go of my arm I fell back into the chair: I expect to leave for Lynchburg in about a week."
Student Thomas S. Beverly Tucker 1862, a second lieutenant in the Confederate Army, describing to his sister in an April 16, 1863 leter his recovery process from a combat injury sustained during the Battle of Fredricksburg.
Painting of Gen. Robert E. Lee at the battle of Fredricksburg.
Since the majority of the College's students and alumni hailed from Virginia, most of the William and Mary community supported the Confederacy. In fact, the College's wartime students were part of a broader generational trend that saw many young Virginians flock to the Confederate cause, often showing greater devotion than many of their elders. According to historian Peter Carmichael, Virginia students believed that by aligning with the secessionist movement, they could help propel the commonwealth to the forefront of a new Confederate nation. As such, 35 William and Mary students eagerly created a College militia company in January 1861 to advance that cause. President Benjamin Ewell's opposition to the unit, however, combined with student preferences to eventually enlist in military units in their home regions, prevented the company from evolving beyond its first meeting.
Ultimately, 61 out of the College's 63 enrolled students left the campus to join the Confederate Army in spring 1861. Only one student, Baltimore native William Reynolds 1864, joined the Union Army, while Virginian Thomas Bowden 1862 sat out the war altogether. Bowden was the son of Unionist Lemuel Bowden, who briefly served as mayor of Federally occupied Williamsburg.
Most students who joined the Confederate Army saw a wide range of military experiences throughout the conflict. Serving largely in the war's Eastern Theater, William and Mary students fought in many famous battles, including Antietam, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. Since most students hailed from Virginia, the majority joined infantry, artillery and cavalry regiments aligned with their native state. However, a small contingent of five out-of-state students went on to join military units raised in North Carolina, Maryland and Mississippi. Although most students served in the enlisted ranks, at least 18 went on to become junior officers and one (Peyton N. Page of Gloucester County, Va.) even achieved the rank of major.
One noteworthy student was Lt. Thomas S. Beverley "Tom" Tucker 1862 of Williamsburg, who was a member of one of the town's most illustrious families. His grandfather, St. George Tucker, studied law under George Wythe, served as a militia officer during the American Revolution, and later taught at William and Mary before becoming a prominent judge.
As a William and Mary student, Tom Tucker had played an instrumental role in creating the College's militia company. Following the outbreak of war, he served on the staff of Maj. Gen. Lafayette McClaws before being seriously wounded during the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg. Over the next several months, Tucker endured a slow and difficult recovery, despite regular assistance from family members. He eventually retired to the invalid corps on July 2, 1864, working in the Conscript Bureau for the remainder of the war.
Although Tucker was one of the only students to return to William and Mary in the postwar era to complete his education, his battle wounds continued to plague him. Upon his death in 1872 at age 31, his sister, Cynthia Beverley Tucker Coleman, asserted that he was "as effectively killed by the ball on the battlefield of Fredericksburg as if he had fallen on the spot."
The President Goes To War
"General Hood it was supposed had more dash and would force a battle at all hazards. He attempted it ,Aei lost a fifth of his army in making the attempt ,Aei gained no advantage, and has since quietly subsided in the course pursued by General Johnston. Had he persisted, doubtless ere this his army would have been destroyed. A more triumphal vindication of General Johnston's policy could not be offered."
William and Mary President Benjamin Ewell, a Confederate Army colonel and chief-of-staff to Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, writing about the failure of Johnston's successor (Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood) in the Atlanta Campaign to hold that city for the Confederacy.
William & Mary President Benjamin Ewell
William and Mary's entire faculty supported the Confederate cause. Professors Thomas P. McCandlish, Charles Morris, Robert J. Morrison, Thomas T.L. Snead and Edwin Taliaferro all served as officers in the Confederate Army, mostly in administrative capacities. For instance, Snead served as a captain in the Confederate engineering corps, where he worked as a land surveyor for Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. Meanwhile, Professor Edward S. Joynes functioned as chief clerk for the Confederate Bureau of War, an influential post that allowed him to develop a warm friendship with Gen. Robert E. Lee.
William and Mary President Benjamin Ewell had the most extensive wartime service of the College's faculty members. A West Point graduate, Ewell had Unionist leanings and did not encourage his students' secessionist tendencies on the eve of war. Nevertheless, he committed to the Confederacy just as fellow West Point graduate Lee had done.
Ewell, the brother of Confederate Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell, commanded the 32nd Virginia Infantry regiment as a full colonel during the war's early stages. Ewell also directed the construction of fortifications across the Williamsburg area prior to the 1862 Peninsula Campaign and later served as chief-of-staff for his old friend, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. In that capacity, he faced the difficult task of arbitrating between Johnston and
Union forces burying their dead on the battlefield, in front of "Stonewall" Jackson's Batteries, at Fredericksburg, Va.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who bitterly despised one another.
Ewell's most strenuous wartime service was during the 1864 Atlanta Campaign, when he served as an emissary for Johnston (the Confederate commander in that sector) in Richmond, arguing for his boss's strategic plans to a reluctant Davis. The experience left Ewell physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted by the war's end.
Alumni On the National Stage
"Here one of the most terrific conflicts that can be conceived of occurred... there was no cover, and our men stood in the open field without shelter of any kind... [the enemy] withstood with great determination the terrible fire which our lines poured upon them... [despite] most deadly discharges of musketry, round shot, and shell, both lines stood unmoved, neither advancing and neither broken nor yielding ..."
Maj. Gen. William B. Taliaferro 1841, CSA recalling the Aug. 28, 1862 Battle of Groveton.
Maj. Gen. William B. Taliaferro 1841
William and Mary's alumni community had a wide range of experiences during the war, with graduates serving in a variety of roles ranging from common soldier to senior diplomat. Over 400 alumni served in the Confederate Army, while a handful donned uniforms of Union blue. Along with roughly 28 colonels, the College produced two Confederate generals, Brig. Gen. Edwin Gray Lee 1852 and Maj. Gen. William Booth Taliaferro 1841. Lee, a second cousin of Gen. Robert E. Lee, was a onetime commander of the Stonewall Brigade who directed espionage work for the Confederacy in Canada during the war's final stages. Taliaferro, a Mexican War veteran who hailed from Gloucester County, Va., served under both Gens. "Stonewall" Jackson and Pierre G.T. Beauregard throughout Virginia, Florida and the Carolinas.
William and Mary's most celebrated Union military commander was Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott 1806, who attended the College between 1804 and 1806 and was a veteran of both the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. Advanced age kept Scott from performing active field service during the Civil War. However, his "Anaconda Plan," which called for blockading Southern ports, played an instrumental role in securing the Union's eventual victory.
"Friend Robertson, go no further! It is best that we part here, before you compel me to resent a mortal insult! I have served my country, under the flag of the Union, for more than fifty years, and so long as God permits me to live, I will defend that flag with my sword, even if my own native state assails it!"
-LT. Gen. Winfoeld Scott 1806 declining an entreaty from an old College classmate, Judge John Robertson, to join the Confederate cause in 1861.
Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott 1806
William and Mary alumni performed their most important collective Civil War service within the diplomatic and political realms. The College produced at least 10 members of the Confederate Congress, including former U.S. President John Tyler 1806, L.L.D. 1854 and two members of the wartime U.S. Congress.
While many William and Mary graduates supported the Confederate cause, John J. Crittenden 1806 worked diligently to preserve the Union. Following his graduation from William and Mary, he went on to a distinguished career in politics, serving in both houses of the U.S. Congress, as governor of Kentucky and as U.S. attorney general. Sadly, the Civil War tore Crittenden's family apart. Two of his sons served as highranking Union Army officers while another served as a major general in the Confederate Army.
An avowed Unionist, Crittenden played a vital role during the war in keeping his native Kentucky from seceding, which factored heavily in the Confederacy's ultimate defeat. Without the dedicated service of William and Mary alumni like Crittenden, the war could have taken a vastly different course.
A Compelling Question
"I have joined, but do not intend to get a uniform, for if there is any fighting, I am going home and go along with you...
In a Jan. 9, 1861 letter to his father, Student Richard A. Wise discusses the creation of a College militia company.
Former Virginia Gov. Henry A. Wise, father of student Richard A. Wise
The Civil War service of William and Mary's students, faculty and alumni is integral to the larger story of the College's unique heritage of public service. Yet an interested observer would find only subtle references to this incredible story on the modern campus - such as the Civil War commemorative plaque in the Wren Building and the nearby College Cemetery, which houses the remains of Benjamin Ewell and other Civil War-era luminaries. The fact that this rich history has been largely obscured since the early 20th century begs the question: why is it not better remembered, especially considering the American public's fascination with the Civil War?
The College's strong identification with its colonial history, supported by the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg in the 1920s and '30s, is one possible answer. The natural human impulse to forget painful memories is another, considering that the Civil War
era was truly the darkest chapter of William and Mary's long history. As we observe the Civil War's sesquicentennial, the time has come to re-engage with the College's Civil War history and honor the William and Mary students, faculty and alumni who sacrificed so much for the Blue as well as the Gray.
Sean M. Heuvel '02, M.Ed. '05 is a faculty member at Christopher Newport University, where he teaches in the department of leadership and American studies, and is also a Ph.D. student at W&M's School of Education. He wrote his history master's thesis on William and Mary during the Civil War and is currently working on a book about the subject with co-author Lisa L. Heuvel '74, M.A. '05, Ed.D. '11.