“We Are All In Great Distress”: William & Mary Leading up to the Civil War Exhibit

“We Are All In Great Distress”: William & Mary Leading up to the Civil War Exhibit
Virginia Union University
Image by Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library
Shown here is an image from the exhibit "We Are All In Great Distress": William & Mary Leading up to the Civil War, on display in the Marshall Gallery located on the first floor of Swem Library from October 19, 2011 through April 9, 2012. This exhibit is part of "From Fights to Rights: The Long Road to a More Perfect Union," Swem Library’s project to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement.

The following is a transcription of the label text presented in this case:

We Are All in Great Distress:
The College of William & Mary Leading up to the Civil War

The years before the Civil War were not always stable ones for William & Mary. The authors of The College of William & Mary: A History (1993) named their chapter on this time period “From Fiasco to Recovery to Disaster” and referred to the 1850s as a time of “familiar vicissitudes.” The
university contended with changes in presidents, resignations and deaths of professors, an end to the chair of law, and the continuing needs for repairs to buildings and fundraising. During this period of changing circumstances, students still found time for extracurricular activities: the Phoenix, Philomathean, and Licivyronian literary societies; resurrecting a Phi Beta Kappa chapter; and publishing the first William & Mary student newspaper, The Owl (1854). Life in Williamsburg continued much as it had for decades.

The 1858-1859 session opened with 47 students. The campus buildings had been extensively repaired at a cost of ,500 and despite a decline of enrollment, the future seemed as secure as it ever had for William & Mary. Then, in the early hours of February 8, 1859, the Wren Building went up in flames after a fire began in the north wing and within four hours the building was gutted. President
Benjamin S. Ewell was credited as being one of the first on the scene, rushing up to the second floor to wake several students who were living there.

U.S. President John Tyler was educated at the College of William & Mary and served as chancellor from 1859 until his death in 1862. Circular letters, such as this example directed to Brown University, were sent to colleges and universities across the country in the wake of the 1859 destruction of the Wren Building,
including its library of 8,000 volumes, some of which dated from the post-American Revolution gift of the King of France, Louis XVI.

Tyler Family Papers, Mss. 65 T97 Group H
Board of Visitors Records, UA 1

On April 17, 1861, the Virginia convention, called to act for the state during the secession crisis in February, voted to secede. At a faculty meeting called on May 10, the faculty resolved that with war imminent, most of the students already gone from the College and the rest preparing to follow, “the exercises of the College be that day suspended.” A circular announcing to the public that the College would reopen in October “if the state of the country shall permit” was printed and distributed.
Afterward, Confederate military authorities took possession of the campus for use as a barracks and hospital. The faculty held further meetings in 1861, but hopes to reopen early the next year were dashed. In February 1862, the bursar was directed to turn over all bonds and other papers of value to Hugh Grigsby for safekeeping at his home in Charlotte County.

To read more from the faculty meeting minutes, see digitalarchive.wm.edu/handle/10288/13457

Benjamin S. Ewell was first appointed a major in the Virginia Volunteers in May 1861 and then promoted to colonel in June of the same year.

Head-Quarters of the Virginia Forces
Richmond Va 28 June 1861
Col. B.S. Ewell
32nd Reg. Va Vols

I have the honor to inform you that you have been promoted to be Colonel of Vols. Enclosed you will find your commission. Lieut Col M.B. Cary & Major I. M. Gaggin have been assigned to your regiment, which shall be designated as the 32d Regt. Va. Vols. You will please make a report to these Headquarters of the number of companies composing your command together with their names and captains.
Respectfully Your obb. Servant
Geo Deds

Benjamin Stoddert Ewell Papers, Mss. 39.1 Ew3

Ewell Letter Transcription:

Va. Military Institute
June 30, 1859
My dear Ewell

I received in due time your letter accompanied with a catalogue of
Professors & Students of Wm & Mary College and asking me, in
consideration of the connection with the old college, almost from its foundation, of my family name as well as that of my wife; that I should come to the aid of the college, in this her time of need, since the loss of the old building by fire.

You know that I have for some time been earnestly trying to do
something to supply in part what I conceive to be the greatest
educational want of our state, by providing the means of establishing a school of Agriculture in or near our State University or elsewhere and now since my arrival here as a member of the Board of Visitors of this school I find some certain & satisfactory mode of realizing this purpose.

And perhaps this is as much as I care to attempt to do for the cause of education in view of what is just to my numerous and growing family.

Nevertheless, under all the circumstances, I cannot refuse you my old comrade or the old college, and my children I trust will be generous enough to sanction the act I therefore authorize you to pledge me for one thousand dollars in aid of your college, to be paid before the end of this year. With my best wishes for the continued prosperity and usefulness of the college […]
Most truly yours
Phillip St. Go Cocke

Office of the President, Benjamin S. Ewell, UA 2.06

Portrait of College of William & Mary President Benjamin S. Ewell (1854-1888).
University Archives Photograph Collection, UA 8

Faculty of the College of William & Mary at the statue of Lord Botetourt in front of the Wren Building, circa 1873. Left to Right: Lyman Brown Wharton, Benjamin S. Ewell, Thomas Snead, George Wilmer, Richard A. Wise, and Charles S. Dod.

University Archives Photograph Collection, UA 8


While much was lost – the library, scientific equipment, the original copy of the Transfer of William & Mary to its president and faculty, George Washington’s letter accepting the chancellorship – there was no loss of life and the contents of the Blue Room including the College seal, portraits, and some of the university’s records, were saved. William & Mary’s faculty, students, Visitors, townspeople, and supporters would rally to support and rebuild with their own resources and seeking assistance from others.

The Wren Building, circa 1859, as depicted in an article about the College of William & Mary published in the November 1875 issue of Scribner’s Monthly. After the February 1859 fire most of the old walls had remained standing and with the support of many, the Grand Masonic Lodge of Virginia put the capstone in place on October 11, 1859. The new building was markedly different in appearance with two square Italianate towers flanking the front entrance.

University Archives Photograph Collection, UA 8

The “Millington Print” of the Brafferton, Wren Building, and President’s House, circa 1840-1850s. The various versions of the Millington print were based upon a wash drawing by Thomas Millington, artist son of
William & Mary professor John Millington.

University Archives Photograph Collection, UA 8

While William & Mary was able to rebuild and resume classes after the devastating 1859 fire, even more harrowing events were on the horizon. Five days after the 1859-1860 session opened, abolitionist John Brown launched his raid on Harpers Ferry. The election of Abraham Lincoln, the secession of South Carolina, and the failure of Congress to reach a compromise followed. Former U.S. President John Tyler’s Washington Peace Convention in February 1861 came too late to stop the move to war.

In January 1861, the students petitioned the faculty to organize a military company and President Ewell and the professors did not refuse.

To read more from the faculty meeting minutes, see digitalarchive.wm.edu/handle/10288/13457
Faculty Assembly Records, UA 133

Dr. Totten’s Report on the Burning of the College

Just hours after the Wren Building (or as it was known then, the Main Building or simply the College Building) had gone up in flames for the second time in its history, a faculty meeting was called. During this February 8, 1859 meeting, Professor Silas Totten was tasked to “draw up an account of the conflagration which consumed the College buildings to be spread upon the books of the Faculty.” The pages of those faculty minutes are shown here along with a transcription of Dr. Totten’s report. Silas Totten was professor of moral and intellectual philosophy at William & Mary from 1849-1859 and he went on to become president of the University of Iowa in 1859.

To read more from the faculty meeting minutes, see
Faculty Assembly Records, UA 133

Photograph of a wash drawing of the Wren Building after the fire of February 8, 1859.

Original in the George William Bagby Papers, Virginia Historical Society

Cynthia Beverley Tucker Washington to Lawrence Washington:

Williamsburg Feb. 9th 1859
Wednesday night
We are all in great distress about our old College. Late in the night of the 7th I directed the enclosed invitation to you, + before the morning light the College was in ashes. The fire broke out in the wing in which was both Laboratory and Library, when it was discovered both were in flames, + the students who had rooms above narrowly escaped with their lives, + several of them losing a great deal. Only a few book with in the Library were saved, that room could never be entered, In it were books of great value on account of their antiquity, a fine Classical and Theological collection all lost. Books presented by one of the Kings of France Louis the 16th I think. The chemical apparatus, everything in short, except the portraits the College records + Charter, which were fortunately in the Blue room. The Library of one of the Library society was also partly saved. The Chapel is a perfect wreck. There was little of value there that could be moved, but its walls were adorned with beautiful marble tablets in memory of the old worthies, all were broken + destroyed, except the handsomest of all to Sir John Randolph, which is partly standing + the Professors hope to be able to collect the fragments, + perhaps, be able to put, at least, this one together. It is not known how the fire originated but it is supposed to have begun either in the cellar of the Laboratory. The loss to Williamsburg is great, the citizens felt as if they had lost a dear friend, + it is a melancholy site to gaze upon the new blackened wall of our venerable Institution. Men + women have mingled their tears over her sad fate.

They and the faculty are united in their desire to rebuild immediately, + to-morrow they begin their preparations, tonight letters are to be
written to Architects. The citizens have already subscribed 00
together with the Faculty. The College is insured for 000, + it is thought with 000 they can put up a handsome building, one that will be an honor to the State, furnished with a useful Library, apparatus +c. Of course, they hope for aid, not only from the Alumni of the
College, but from all her friends. And now I am going to do what I have never done before. I am going to ask you if you have any money to spare to give old William and Mary a helping hand. I know you must feel interested in this venerable institution for her own sake, still more for the sake of one, who while a Lecturer in her Halls was her chief
ornament, + who tho taken from them is not forgotten by her Faculty. I must tell you that some of the books he gave to the College were among those saved. Lectures have not been suspended, but as
conducted in a building near by the ruin secured for the purpose.
Virginia cannot be willing to let William + Mary go down for ever. I know you are no beggar, but just say what you can in favour of the

[…] Your own daughter

I must tell you quite a remarkable thing. Today a book was drawn out from under the ruins perfectly entire, the moment it was exposed to the air it took fire, + could not be saved.

College Papers Collection, UA 14

Richard A. Wise attended the College of William & Mary for two years. He served in the Confederate States Army and graduated from the Medical College of Virginia. He was professor of chemistry at William and Mary (1869-1880), superintendent of the Eastern Lunatic Asylum (1882-1885), and also served in the Virginia House of Delegates, as circuit and county clerk in James City County, and in Congress (1898-1900).


Williamsburg Jan 9th 1861
Dear Papa,


The students here have organized a military company, and fatigues cap. 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. The company is to be armed with Bowie Knives and double barreled shot guns of rifles, if with shot guns they are to be loaded with buck shot in case of action. The object of the Co. is mainly to train the Students while here and not as a permanent organization.

Your afft. son +c
Richd. A Wise

University Archives Faculty-Alumni File Collection, UA 10

George D. Wise
Notes on Law Lectures given by Judge George P. Scarburgh, 1854.
University Archives Bound Volume Collection, UA 15

Daguerreotype of the east façade of the Wren Building, circa 1858. 4.5 in. x 6 in. within frame.

The view of the Wren Building and statue of Lord Botetourt are

University Archives Photograph Collection, UA 8

From the Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library at the College of William and Mary. See swem.wm.edu/scrc/ for further information and assistance.

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