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“The Present Unsettled State of Our Country”: Princeton and the Civil War

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the end of Civil War, a conflict that had implications for every facet of American life. The “unhappy condition of the country,” as the College of New Jersey (Princeton) President John Maclean described it in 1861, had a profound impact on the school. Here we highlight the mass exodus of southern students from Princeton, as well as some of the emotional toll the war took on alumni of the era.

Though located in Union territory, Princeton had the reputation of being the “most southern of all the northern colleges,” due to its significant number of wealthy southern students. Relationships across the Mason-Dixon were strong at Princeton. Edwin Mark Norris later wrote of this period, “When it became apparent that, faithful to their convictions, the students from opposing sections would soon be opposing each other in arms, rather than merely in argument, the friendships formed beneath the elms became even more closely cemented, and it was with genuine sadness that these intimate ties were severed” (The Story of Princeton, 186). This inscription on Bazil F. Gordon’s senior portrait sums it up: a student on the other side was “your true friend and enemy.”

Bazil Gordon, senior portrait, 1861. Gordon later served as a surgeon in the Confederate Army. Historical Photograph Collection, Student Photograph Albums Series (AC061), Box 27.

In April 1861, some northern students raised a Union flag over Nassau Hall in defiance of rules banning overt political displays on campus. Though faculty removed it, a local resident soon hoisted it again, and this time it remained there until the war’s end. With Princeton’s loyalties declared, southern students, always in the minority at Princeton, began leaving the school. Joseph L. Munn, Class of 1862, remembered the exodus this way: “The Class of 1862 lost something like two-fifths of its membership in a period of three weeks…” (“Old Nassau,” 29) The last handful of Southern students still at school then asked for one last opportunity to salute the flag before they left, with one playing the “Star Spangled Banner” on his violin. After this “farewell” to Princeton and perhaps to the United States, they marched off campus. The next day, hardly any Southern students could be found at Princeton. Most joined the Confederate Army when they returned to the South.

College president John Maclean reported on widespread student departures to the Board of Trustees the following June 25: “… with very few exceptions they left on account of the present condition of the country.” The faculty voted to allow their departure without academic penalty. Some of these students wrote letters to Maclean explaining their decision to withdraw from Princeton for a time.

Josias Hawkins letter 1 Josias Hawkins letter 2 Josias Hawkins letter 3

Josias Hawkins, letter to John Maclean, January 28, 1861, Office of the President Records (AC117), Box 17, Folder 5. Hawkins writes: “In the present unsettled state of our Country, I find it impossible to return to College at the beginning of next term,” noting that his county has a majority slave population and he is concerned about the safety of his mother and sister. In his postscript, Hawkins asks Maclean if it might be possible to complete his degree from home “considering the circumstances.” Hawkins was awarded his A.B. in June 1861.

When the academic year began again in the fall with nearly all of the students from Confederate states absent, the atmosphere became even more heavily pro-Union. Any student who spoke sympathetically of the South was in danger of retribution, as Francis DuBois, Jr., a student in the Class of 1863 who hailed from Brooklyn, New York, learned on September 12, 1861. Four other students dragged him out of bed to the water pump behind Nassau Hall and held him under the flow. Three students were dismissed for their involvement in this incident, but locals gave them a heroes’ send off at the train station. The father of one of the expelled students wrote to Maclean to protest that his ideal of having Northern and Southern students study together in harmony was unrealistic. Both at the College and in town, Princeton had sided overwhelmingly with the Union, though alumni remained divided.

Pencil drawing of the parade given to the three students dismissed in the “Pumping Incident,” September 1861. Pyne-Henry Collection (AC125), Box 1, Folder 18.

Remaining in Princeton was difficult no matter what one’s loyalties, however. The war was a serious distraction to everyone. A group of students from the Class of 1861 wrote of their experiences at the end of their senior year, “the excitement at present existing in the College, in relation to the state of the country, is so great that study is almost impossible … from a class of 88 members, only 45 remain to pass examinations.” (Office of the President Records (AC117), Box 17, Folder 5)

Princeton survived the war despite financial and emotional hardship, but rebuilding took time. Though Maclean’s insistence on avoiding overt patriotic displays on campus during the war ensured that some Confederate veterans remained faithful to Princeton, many other Southerners who had once considered the College of New Jersey a suitable place to send their sons now looked elsewhere. Hard feelings lingered. Until the twentieth century, Princeton drew its students overwhelmingly from northern states, mostly New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Enrollment chart
The data used to prepare this chart was drawn from the Catalogue of the College of New Jersey, 1856-1869. Click to enlarge.

Hundreds of Princetonians fought for both sides of the conflict. In Nassau Hall, a memorial to those alumni who died in the war, both Union and Confederate, is carved into the marble of Memorial Atrium. This intermingling was unprecedented; Harvard did not even include those who died in the Confederate Army in its Civil War Memorial. University President John Grier Hibben, Class of 1882, wanted it that way: “No, the names shall be placed alphabetically, and no one shall know on which side these young men fought.”

Civil War Memorial Atrium
Civil War stone in Nassau Hall Memorial Atrium. Photo by Denise Applewhite.


Board of Trustees Records (AC120).

Catalogue of the College of New Jersey, 1856-1869.

Historical Photograph Collection, Alumni Photographs Series (AC059).

Langlotz, Karl A. et al. “Old Nassau.” New York: Wilford Seymour Conrow, 1905.

Norris, Edwin Mark. The Story of Princeton. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1917.

Office of the Dean of the Faculty Records (AC118).

Office of the President Records (AC117).

Pyne-Henry Collection (AC125).

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