The Calm Before the Storm: Pennsylvania College in the Antebellum Period

By Meg Sutter ’16

This post is part of a three-part series on student life at Pennsylvania College immediately before, during, and after the Civil War, exploring how the war impacted life on campus.

Before the War

When the Civil War made its presence known on campus, Pennsylvania College was merely a small Lutheran college, the oldest of its kind in the United States. Thirty-one years had passed since the institution’s founding by Samuel Simon Schmucker in 1832. Dr. Schmucker had advocated for a Classical School, the Gettysburg Academy, which eventually became the Gettysburg Gymnasium after the Gettysburg Theological Seminary was opened in 1826. The Academy/Gymnasium gave preliminary training in classical studies to young men before they advanced their studies in theology. The school prospered so much that Dr. Schmucker sought a charter, which established Pennsylvania College officially in 1832.

Pennsylvania Hall c. 1860s. Special Collections, Musselman Library, Gettysburg College.
Pennsylvania College c. 1860s.
Special Collections, Musselman Library, Gettysburg College.

In 1837 the college relocated from its building at High Street and South Washington—still in existence today—to the college edifice, built in 1837 and now known as Pennsylvania Hall. The edifice sat on six acres and one perch of land and made up the entire college campus until an additional three lots were bought from Thaddeus Stevens in 1849. The school was officially moved from the Gettysburg Academy building to Pennsylvania Hall in October of 1837, followed by the preparatory department for preparing young men for entrance into a college or theological school in 1848. President Krauth also moved and resided with the students in the college edifice until 1850. The building had a dining room, kitchen, study hall, libraries, chapel, society halls including Phrenakosmian and Philomathaean, and of course dormitories, about fifty, for the students. Fireplaces and wood stoves were used to heat all the rooms in the building. Thankfully the building never burned down, and coal stoves would replace these beginning around 1860.

Today students may think one building as an entire college seems a little cramped, but the average enrollment between 1837 and 1856 was 159 students, 86 of whom were students in the preparatory department. Behind the college edifice, which may be alarming to some students today, were a collection of privies, but also many outbuildings like a washhouse, smokehouse, oven, and stable. In 1844 an additional building was devised to house the newly formed Linnaean Association, as the association wanted a building to house their scientific collections. Linnaean Hall was finished in the fall of 1847 and stood where the stone sculpture Sentinel stands today, next to Penn Hall. The Linnaean Association was also responsible for beautifying the college campus by building fences, planting about two hundred trees, adding flower beds, and laying down walkways. Before the war broke out, one more building was built as a residence for President Baugher. It was completed in 1860 and is currently known as the Norris-Wachop Alumni House. The college campus therefore consisted of approximately 12 acres with three major buildings before the war. (A common misconception among students today is that Stevens Hall, because it is white, was built before the war. The structure was actually built in 1868 to house the Preparatory Department students.)

While Schmucker did not want Pennsylvania College to be entirely secular, it was still affiliated with the Lutheran church and many students were of German background from mid-Pennsylvania. During the 1855-1856 school year, there were 22 Seniors, 19 Juniors, 12 Sophomores, and 17 Freshmen, a dramatic departure from our modern average of 650 students per class year. there were 71 seniors, juniors, sophomores, and freshmen. The majority of the students were from Pennsylvania, including Gettysburg, Chambersburg, Hanover, Lancaster, Lebanon, York, Allentown, and Philadelphia. In addition to Pennsylvanians, in each class there were about two students from northern Virginia and three from Maryland, with a few outliers from New York, Georgia, and even a junior from Germany!

The terms of admission differed greatly from those today. Prospective students had to take a proficiency exam on Caesar, Virgil, the Greek Reader, Adam’s Latin Grammar, Sophocles’s Greek Grammar, English Grammar, Ancient and Modern Geography, Arithmetic, and Loomis’s Elementary Algebra. They also were required to present a “satisfactory testimonial of good moral character.” The school calendar was similar to our current one in that there were two 15-week terms a year, with each term separated by a six-week vacation. This did not change until 1861 when the school year was re-divided into three thirteen-week terms with four week vacations in between. Before 1861 there was a summer session that began in the last week of May and ended on the second week of September. After fall vacation, the winter session started during the last week of October and continued until the second week of April. This was followed by a spring vacation of six weeks instead of our normal summer break of three months. Students will be vexed to know that the contemporary tuition of each school year before 1861 was approximately $134, give or take. This included board, tuition, room rent, “attention to room,” and washing. With modern inflation taken into account, that $134 is worth approximately $3,800 today. Seems nice compared to our $59,000…

Not only were the expenses different, but the historical curriculum may seem foreign to many today. In the mid-nineteenth century, classical studies were still a major component of higher education. The students had to attend three recitations or lectures a day, except on Wednesdays and Saturdays when they normally only had two. On Sundays they were required to attend Sabbath unless they had a written request by a parent or guardian specifying another congregation they wished to worship with. On Sunday afternoons they were also required to attend a biblical recitation. Students could choose a focus, similar to our major today, from Reading, Writing, Orthography, English Grammar, Arithmetic, Book-keeping, Modern Geography, Ancient Geography, History of U.S. and Great Britain, Algebra, Latin and Greek Grammar, Caesar, Nepos, Virgil, and Sallust. They still had a set “liberal arts” curriculum, though already planned according to what year and semester the student was in. Every year students took Latin, German, and Greek Grammar, and Prose and Composition. They always took a math like Algebra, Calculus, Trigonometry, and Geometry. Many junior year students took sciences including Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Meteorology. Philosophy, Logic, and Rhetoric were other major classes taken through the students’ four years. What made Pennsylvania College different from many colleges of its time was its requirement of history and German courses. A professorship for German was elected; this professor would also teach history.

Pennsylvania College had a solid groundwork thanks to its founders including Samuel Simon Schmucker, Thaddeus Stevens, Michael Jacobs, Charles Krauth, and Henry Baugher, who would become president in 1860 before the war scarred the campus these men had worked so hard to build and beautify. After 1861, dramatic changes would affect this twenty-nine-year-old college.


Birkner, Michael J. Gettysburg College. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2006.

Catalogue of the Officers, Alumni and Students of Pennsylvania College, Gettysburg, PA. Gettysburg College Special Collections.

Glatfelter, Charles H. A Salutary Influence: Gettysburg College, 1832-1985. Mechanicsburg, PA: W&M Printing, 1987.

Hefelbower, Samuel Gring. The History of Gettysburg College, 1832-1932. York, PA: The Maple Press Company, 1932.


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