The Civil War produced devastation across the South, and as Davidson College was an all-male institution, it suffered greatly during the war. According to Cornelia Shaw, 1039 young men from the classes of 1840 to 1869 fought in the war. In the years 1862 and 1863, there were no graduating seniors, and in 1864 James Henry Douglas of Blackstock, South Carolina, received the only degree.
College was still in session in early 1865, but according to records of the faculty written in July of that year, “The excited condition of the country since college re-opened in January, caused first by the invasion of the State by Sherman, and afterwards by Stoneman’s raid, has seriously interrupted the exercises of this session. During a portion of the time Professors Mclver and Blake were absent on military duty, and the students from different parts of the country, sympathizing with suffering friends, were naturally impatient to get home. By April 19, all those in the college department were gone. On the next day the intelligence of the surrender of the Confederate Army and the critical condition of the Army in this State renewed and increased the alarm. The result was that the students except two or three left us.” The college closed the next day. The report went on to say that in May, “a detachment of United States troops, sent for the purpose of moving some government supplies, visited Davidson. They broke open the doors and windows of the recitation rooms and chapel and did damage to apparatus and buildings amounting to eight hundred dollars.”
By August 1865, however, the Board of Trustees began to rally. According to the August 1 edition of Charlotte’s Western Democrat, the trustees had met, and “The great question of the day was, whether the finances of the college would justify the trustees in throwing it open to students next session.” Estimates were that $100,000 had been lost, which was crippling. What remained, however, were assets that had been safely invested, although these might not be readily available. The board decided that these assets were enough to pay the president and the professors, and the opening of college was set for September 28. “In order to do this, it was found necessary to suspend for the ensuing year at least, the operation of all beneficiary scholarships, and to fix the price of tuition at twenty dollars per session of five months…the full course of studies will be taught as heretofore.” There would still be a preparatory academy, in charge of the faculty. Campus buildings were to be repaired, and the library was soon to receive a valuable gift of 1100 books from alumnus John S. Harris. “Thus it will be seen that the way is open for securing a thorough education, at an institution of high grade, in our midst; and we hope that students will soon flock thither and crowd its spacious halls as in former years. The scarcity of money in these trying times need not hinder any one from sending his sons or his wards to College, who has provisions to give in the place of money, since a good market will be afforded at that place, and I have no doubt that the Bursar and the boarding houses will receive produce, at fair prices, for tuition and board.”
Accordingly, an advertisement was sent to area newspapers, including Columbia, S.C.’s Daily Phoenix. The following ad appeared on August 28: “The exercises of the College, and of the Preparatory Department connected with it, will be resumed on the 28th of SEPTEMBER …Tuition $20 for the session of five months, and Board $10 per month—payable in advance, in specie, or its equivalent in currency or provisions. It is desirable that Students should bring with them such books as they may require; also such articles of furniture for their rooms as they may be able to transport.”
There were no graduates in 1866, but in 1867 John Lawrence Caldwell, whom Shaw described as “a crippled veteran of the Confederacy,” graduated. The featured speaker at commencement was North Carolina governor Zebulon B. Vance, and approximately 2000 people attended his speech.
By February 1868, the college was on a more solid footing. According to the Western Democrat, “there are now fifty students on the ground, and the number is daily increasing. The present Freshman class is probably larger than any previous one even in the palmy days before the war. It consists already of twenty-seven members, and several others are expected to arrive soon.” Progress continued the following year. A July 8, 1869 article on the college’s commencement in the Yorkville Enquirer declared: “Although the college shared, to some extent, in the pecuniary losses consequent upon the war…its splendid endowment…was so far secured, as that it still possesses means sufficient to place its continuance and perpetuity beyond the range of reasonable apprehension. The exercises of the College, which had been suspended during the war were resumed under auspices which could hardly be considered very promising; the number of students being very small, and the funds of the College unavailable to its support. But under the wise management of the Board of Trustees and the efficient control of an able Faculty…..Davidson has not only maintained its ground, but has steadily advanced in prosperity…In 1866-1867, there were in the different classes 26 students – in 1867-8, the number was 53, and in 1868-69, there were 121. And now that all, or nearly all, [of] the State Universities of our southern land have become, and are becoming radicalized, and Davidson having proved itself worthy of the confidence and patronage of all who desire a sound and thorough education for their sons, there is good reason to hope that the number of students will again be doubled the coming term.”
Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989. After a career as an archives and special collections librarian, she retired to Davidson in 2015. She has published a number of books and articles on local history, and has just completed a history of the Ada Jenkins Center.