Exhibit - Civil War Sesquicentennial
The first few shots fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 would forever change the course of American history. An intense civil war broke out between the northern United States and the southern Confederate States of America. This blood-shedding battle would be fought for nearly five years and would affect millions of people. The Civil War influenced Michigan Agricultural College as well as many other schools at this time. The years between 1861 and 1865 proved to be some of the hardest for the college. Enrollment rates dropped because of the war, financial problems were arising, and MAC was fighting to retain the Morrill Land Grant that ensured the permanence of the college. Despite these hardships, MAC was still able to remain stable.
As soon as the “Stars and Bars” had been raised above Fort Sumter in April of 1861, President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to repossess the places that were seized from the Union. MAC students heard of this news in their first classes and by the end of that week, junior Samuel Alexander, was honorably dismissed from the University to enter the Union Army. It is said that through three years of the war he carried one of his textbooks with him studying botany whenever he got a chance. Other students were debating on whether or not to enlist right away or wait until the end of the semester. Michigan was one of the firmest anti-slavery states, so the impulse to enlist was very strong.
The fall of Fort Sumter prompted the University to begin organizing a war effort at MAC. Professor Thurber organized the “Plow-Boy Guards”. These individuals were drilled by Professor Thurber twice a week. In the summer of 1861, the Plow-Boy Guards marched in Lansing’s Fourth of July parade wearing uniforms of black trousers, purplish-gray military shirts, and black oil-cloth caps.
A few students enlisted during the summer of 1861, but a mass exodus didn’t threaten the university enrollment until September of 1861 when an officer appeared seeking surveyors for Captain E.P. Howland’s company of topographical engineers to serve under General Fremont in Missouri. The Reorganization Act of 1861 allowed for seven seniors to be excused early as well as two underclassmen. The following men who enlisted, seniors, Henry D. Benham, Larned Vernal Beebe, Albert Nelson Prentiss, Gilbert A. Dickey, Albert Fuller Allen, Adams Bayley, Charles Edward Hollister, and underclassmen Oscar Clute and Thomas Haigh, possessed a knowledge of science and engineering that was urgently needed by the Federal army. At the time they enlisted, these men were eligible for graduation; however there was no time for a ceremony for they had to leave as soon as possible. The students left in September of 1861 and seven Bachelor of Science degrees were awarded in November 1861 even though none of the recipients were present. These men also made up the first official graduating class of MAC.
While in Missouri, the men practiced “wig-wag flag telegraphy and worked with new charcoal-point electrical signals”. Haigh later recalled that their duties were fun and they had a happy outing with light responsibilities and good horses to ride over the beautiful rolling prairies. The company was eventually mustered out and while some of the men returned home to farming, business, and college teaching, two men re-enlisted, Dickey and Benham. 2nd Lieutenant Gilbert Dickey was shot at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on July 1, 1863 and 1st Lieutenant Henry Benham died in Beaufort, South Carolina on July 3, 1864.
During the war, in 1862, then English Literature professor, Theophilus C. Abbot was appointed president of MAC by the newly created State Board of Agriculture. Despite the war and its effects on the nation, Abbot was able to stabilize the college. The number of students enlisting in the army was rising however enrollment at the college, despite its low numbers, was steady. The numbers of students enrolled during the years of the war were sixty five – 1861, seventy four – 1862, sixty – 1863, sixty two – 1864, and eighty eight – 1865. While Abbot was unable to increase the enrollment numbers he strove to increase the quality of education. For the students who remained at MAC, the College introduced formal military training because, instructor Oscar Clute wrote, “In these times of war with traitors at home and threatening of war with their sympathizers abroad, it behooves us to prepare to step at any moment into the arms of the armies of the Republic.” Faculty then introduced lectures and drills. Dr. Kedzie, lectured on military hygiene, Clute lectured on field fortifications, and A.N. Prentiss drilled the students twice a week. The state loaned sixty muskets for use by the students in these drills.
Over 100 faculty and students of MAC contributed to the war efforts.
Exhibit created by Eve Avdoulos, April 2011Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections