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.

A Human Medium

By Amanda Pollock ‘18

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka interns working on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.

Civil War Parks serve a dual purpose: to educate visitors about the events that took place on their hallowed grounds, and to commemorate these events. Interpretative elements, such as informational signs and monuments, successfully memorialize and pay respect to the soldiers who risked their lives. Interpreters of the parks function as a ‘human medium’ to educate the public, and are given the unique responsibility to contextualize controversies that still exist today and explain just why these men were fighting in the first place.

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park has always placed a great deal of emphasis on the battle itself, for the sole reason that most people do not even know that two battles were fought at Appomattox. The park has made it its mission “to commemorate the surrender of General Robert E. Lee to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant…brought about by the Appomattox Campaign from March 29-April 12, 1865, and to honor those engaged in this great conflict.” The employees at this park have the duty to explain to the public the important military events that occurred on park property, as the battles were a crucial part of both the history of the village and the nation. To fail to mention the actions of the men who fought and died there would indeed be undercutting their service. Continue reading “A Human Medium”

Pohanka Reflection: Matt LaRoche on Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

By Matthew LaRoche ‘17

This post is part of a series on the experiences of our Pohanka Interns at various historic sites working on the front lines of history as interpreters and curators. Dr. Jill Titus explains the questions our students are engaging with here. 

Visitors to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park try to see, feel, and understand the lost world of the past in a number of ways. I experience most of these interactions through our Congressional Youth Leadership Conference (CYLC) programs. These are courses designed to get fifth-graders from around the country to interact with the idea of leadership through the medium of Harpers Ferry’s history. But the emotional and intellectual connections highlighted in Rosenzweig and Thelen’s article are not made only by young visitors. All our visitors walk away having made some sort of connection between themselves and the previous generations whose lives gave rise to the current world – and themselves, of course.


Continue reading “Pohanka Reflection: Matt LaRoche on Harpers Ferry National Historical Park”

Pohanka Reflection: Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park

By Emma Murphy ‘15

This post is part of a series on the experiences of our Pohanka Interns at various historic sites working on the front lines of history as interpreters and curators. Dr. Jill Titus explains the questions our students are engaging with here. 

The beauty of working at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania is the opportunity it offers to engage visitors on four different historical fronts. 1862 demonstrates the slow shift to hard war as the battle of Fredericksburg provokes political change in the war with the Emancipation Proclamation and increased destruction of private property. Chancellorsville demonstrates changing mentality on part of the commanders, making 1863 the year of taking unprecedented risk. Throughout 1864, the war rages on with bloody carnage and stalemate at both the battle of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House as trench warfare foreshadows the grim future of combat. With this opportunity comes an interpretive challenge, both for me as the interpreter and for the visitors themselves. How can visitors relate or connect to the twenty-two hour blood bath at the Bloody Angle? Should we attempt to answer their questions of humanity while we tell stories of destruction?

Emma Murphy FRSP

Continue reading “Pohanka Reflection: Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park”

Junior Rangers to History Enthusiasts

By Emma Murphy ’15

With my internship at Richmond National Battlefield Park landing in the middle of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, I have been fortunate enough to experience the world of public history during a major anniversary. However, going to school at Gettysburg College during the same anniversary provides me the academic side of historical interpretation. There has been a great debate about the connection between these two worlds. Whether this connection exists or not has been the question of the summer for me, and while working with Richmond National Battlefield Park, I believe I have found my answer:


Emma at Tredegar Iron Works
Emma at Tredegar Iron Works, Richmond National Battlefield Park

Continue reading “Junior Rangers to History Enthusiasts”

Apprehension and Excitement: My Summer at Harpers Ferry

By Blair Mitchell ’16

Before the start of my internship at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, I only had vague ideas of what it was like to be a teacher. My thoughts were mostly along the lines of, “yeah, I could teach”. However, abstract thoughts rarely prepare you for the real thing. My vision of flawlessly teaching 30 middle-schoolers about history inevitably did not line up with reality, leaving room for doubt to creep in. At first it seemed daunting to be in charge of so many students and lead them through the history of Harpers Ferry. But as I observed and taught more I realized how much fun it was, in addition to being challenging.

Blair at HF
Blair at Harpers Ferry NHP

The best thing about my Mondays and Tuesdays working with middle school students from around the country is having the opportunity to teach them new things and possibly leave an everlasting mark on them. But this potential for success and failure is what made me so apprehensive about teaching in the first place.  For most of the children that I teach, this is the first time they have ever learned about John Brown, and this both excites and scares me. On one hand, it is exciting because I have the chance to inspire a child to become a historian, but on the other hand they could lose interest and label all history as “boring”. I have always been aware of the power teachers hold in regard to the interests and futures of their students, and this summer that responsibility has fallen to me. Even though I only have my students for a day, I still believe that just one day can make a huge impact. Continue reading “Apprehension and Excitement: My Summer at Harpers Ferry”