The Southerner’s Experience at Gettysburg College

By Abigail Major ’19

One of the aspects that I personally treasure about Gettysburg College is its history. I have often wondered how the college, founded in 1832 under the original name Pennsylvania College, operated during, and was affected by, the American Civil War—especially when considering the students who hailed from Confederate states. How did those students in particular act and react before, during and after the Civil War? How did they cope with the political implications of the war, and how did their fellow peers conduct themselves? Gaps in information, such as personal narratives of Southern Gettysburg College students, are major challenges in understanding what their experience was like. Looking at Princeton University, originally called the College of New Jersey, can provide us with an idea of what the Southern student’s experience at Gettysburg College may have been like during the war.

The Gettysburg College catalogs do offer a starting point and framework by providing bare statistics of the total enrollment of students, as well as the name, class year, and hometown of individuals. In 1842, the total student body consisted of 175 students, seven of whom claimed residency in Virginia. In 1850, six Southern students (all hailing from Virginia) attended the institution, which, at the time, had a total of 142 students. During the 1855-6 term, there were five Virginians and one Georgian out of 142 students. That the representation of Southern students was constant—that is to say, there were only about five to seven Southern students in the whole student body—should be noted.

Gettysburg College Catalogue. Photo credit:

Howevere, this small yet consistent representation of Southern students dwindled in the fall of 1860; of the total 151 young men who were enrolled, only three were from the South (one from North Carolina and two from Virginia). Charles Glatfelter, utilizing Robert Fortenbaugh’s chapter in Samuel Gring Hefelbower’s The History of Gettysburg College, 1832-1932, offers commentary in A Salutary Influence: “Some parents refused to allow their sons to come to Gettysburg because of its proximity to the Mason-Dixon Line.” While I am unable to pinpoint where and when these attitudes arose, the fact that the overall attendance—in addition to Southern representation—lessened may suggest that these attitudes were shared by both Northern and Southern parents. At Princeton, Southern students followed their homes states’ lead and withdrew from the college during the spring of 1861. One wonders if Southern Gettysburg College students also felt this sense of loyalty to their home states and withdrew from their academics. Perhaps the parents of these Southern men also encouraged them to leave the North. It is also possible that Southern students had the option to be excused from school during the outbreak of the Civil War. For example, Princeton University has a digitized version of an April 1861 list of student names who were “honorably dismissed.”

Another suggestion that has not yet been proposed of why Southern students withdrew may be the rising tension and potential conflict that could have occurred between divided students. In the case study of Princeton, a group of Northern students “climbed to the top of Nassau Hall, hung the national flag….shouting pro-Union speeches from the roof while firing Mexican-American War era muskets” on April 13, 1861. Southern students responded in turn by initiating a pro-Southern demonstration in front of Nassau Hall. Kimberly Klein writes that “throughout the rest of the day the two ‘enemy camps’ exchanged spirited words and continued their patriotic displays.” While the two groups eventually negotiated a peace treaty and celebrated, which may suggest that these demonstrations were conducted respectfully and with no ill will towards either group, it nevertheless hints at the strained tension and differences between Northern and Southern students.

In regards to where these Southern students may have gone during Civil War, it is important to keep in mind that Roanoke College, which was founded in 1842, was also a Lutheran college for young men. Located in Virginia, Roanoke College was one of the few colleges in the South that operated during the Civil War, and it may have been a competitive and attractive option for Southern students who would have attended Gettysburg in more favorable circumstances. This idea should be regarded with caution, however, as it can be argued that this is pure speculation.

But what does this tell us about education during the Civil War, and why should we remember the geographical distribution of students? To answer the first question, these findings demonstrate the attitudes of students, their parents, and their respective loyalties. Our findings and narratives illustrate the tension that was being created in academic communities as the Civil War commenced. What could have been considered a rather unified community of students was now being divided by students’ geographical distribution, upbringing, and culture. This leads us to answer the second question: understanding where these students originated, especially in regards to the South, allows us to study if there was a negative correlation between Southern student attendance and the Civil War at Gettysburg College. It also serves as reminder to the modern day reader to keep in mind those who may have felt like (and indeed been) minorities amidst a majority of Northern students. Understanding their experiences, or at least looking at Princeton University as a case study, presents us the opportunity to imagine what it may have been like for a Southern boy caught in the web of civil war.


Gettysburg College. 1899 Spectrum. Gettysburg, PA: Gettysburg College, 1899.

Gettysburg College. “Gettysburg College Catalog.” Accessed November 23, 2017.

Glatfelter, Charles. A Salutary Influence: Gettysburg College, 1832-1985. Gettysburg, PA: Gettysburg College, 1987.

Kimberly Klein. “The Civil War Comes to Princeton in 1861.” Princeton & Slavery Project. Accessed February 6, 2018.

Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. “Student Exodus of 1861.” Princeton & Slavery Project. Accessed February 6, 2018.

Michael Colver. “Reminiscences of the Battle of Gettysburg.” 1902 Spectrum. Gettysburg, PA: Gettysburg College, 1902.

Salem Museum. “Experience History: A Brief History of Salem, Virginia.” Accessed January 25, 2018.

One thought on “The Southerner’s Experience at Gettysburg College”

  1. Your study would be further enhanced by examining the experience of Mount Saint Mary’s College just south of the border. There, more than a few students, and professors, had southern sympathies, including James Norton, who would return to Gettysburg with Lee’s ANV and be wounded on his fellow student’s family’s Codori Farm. Norton would succumb to his wounds in York months later and be buried with his fellow student Jules Freret of the Louisiana Washington Artillery at the Mount’s Cemetery.

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