12. Columbia and the Civil War

With the firing on Fort Sumter, Columbia as an institution, and nearly all Columbians rallied to the Union cause. President Charles King became one of the city’s most active prowar speakers. One of his sons would die in battle. In May 1861, a month after the surrender of Fort Sumter, Columbia held a flag-raising ceremony, with Major Robert Anderson, the federal commander at the fort, the main speaker. (Anderson was delayed in arriving and a student quipped that perhaps he was more adept at hauling down a flag than rasing it – for which King sternly rebuked him.) King and Fish also spoke at the ceremony. Then the entire throng of faculty, students, administrators, and guests (including “ladies… in great numbers”), sang the Star Spangled Banner. Fish helped to organize a giant patriotic rally in Union Square, out of which emerged the Union Defense Committee, which he chaired. Strong helped to sponsor a contingent of troops. In July, Columbia conferred an honorary degree on Abraham Lincoln.[i]

Columbia College at 49th Street and Madison Avenue
Columbia College at 49th Street and Madison Avenue

The speeches at Columbia’s flag-raising ceremony said nothing about slavery or emancipation. But before long, this would change. In March 1862, King took part in a large meeting at Cooper Union to pressure the Lincoln administration to support emancipation. That July, at another mass meeting, he called for the war to be conducted “in its fiercest form,” with “no talk of compromise or negotiation.” So closely associated with the war effort had Columbia become that the college became a target during the New York City draft riots of July 1863. After burning the Colored Orphan Asylum, located about ten blocks south of Columbia on Fifth Avenue, (the College had moved uptown in the late 1850s) the mob entered the college grounds. It was determined to burn King’s house “as he was rich, and a decided republican,” according to Dr. John Torrey, a Columbia trustee who witnessed these events. King and his family were out of town, spending the summer in Newport. (They had become immensely rich in 1859 upon the death of his wife’s father, the wealthy merchant Nicholas Low.) Someone hurriedly called for “one or two Catholic priests,” who persuaded the mob to disperse, telling them that King was kind to the local poor. Later that year the trustees awarded Dr. Torrey 75 dollars “for expenses incurred by him in protecting the College buildings in the riots.”[ii]

Less than a year later, in March 1864, King gave an impassioned speech at a ceremony marking the departure for the South of a black regiment raised in New York. Addressing the troops as “fellow-countrymen,” he proclaimed, “when you put on the uniform and swear allegiance to the standard of the Union, you stand emancipated, regenerated and disenthralled; the peer of the proudest soldier in the land.” In the presence of thousands of spectators, he presented the black soldiers with a regimental flag. This was among King’s final acts as Columbia president.[iii]

US Soldiers at Camp William Penn
Columbia President Charles King and the Union League Club of New York supported the formation of regiments composed of black soldiers.

The organization of black regiments had been funded by the Union League Club, founded in 1863 to unite the city’s pro-war business and professional elite in support of a vigorous prosecution of the war. Among its founders were prominent Columbians, including King, Fish, Fish’s nemesis Beekman, Strong, and Samuel B. Ruggles, Strong’s father-in-law, a major New York business leader, and a trustee of the college. Of the approximately 850 persons who joined the Union League by the end of the Civil War, approximately 50 had a direct connection to Columbia and P and S as officers, faculty, or graduates. George Templeton Strong also served as treasurer of the U. S. Sanitary Commission, which organized assistance to wounded soldiers. Strong and other members of New York’s elite saw these organizations as a way of creating a morally coherent postwar society, counteracting the disruptive tendencies of universal suffrage, and teaching younger members of the elite their social responsibilities. But the war also radicalized him with respect to slavery. Strong now declared that future generations would regard John Brown as “the hero or representative man of this struggle.” “The change of opinion on this slavery question since 1860,” he wrote in 1864, “is a great historical fact… God pardon our blindness of three years ago.”[iv]

Union League Club House, New York
Union League Club House, New York City

Closely connected with the Union League was the Loyal Publication Society, founded in February 1863 to counteract antiwar propaganda being circulated in the city. By the end of the war it had published 90 pamphlets devoted to bolstering Union morale, reelecting Lincoln, and defending emancipation. Charles King was the group’s first president, and a number of Columbians wrote for the Society. One was Professor of Greek and Latin Languages Henry Drisler, who published a lengthy pamphlet refuting Biblical defenses of slavery recently elaborated by Bishop John Henry Hopkins of Vermont.[v]

In 1864, King was succeeded as head of the Loyal Publication Society by Francis Lieber, one of Columbia’s most distinguished professors. A Prussian who fled to avoid political persecution and arrived in the United States in 1827, Lieber was a bundle of contradictions. Privately, he despised slavery – it was “abominable in every respect,” he wrote in his diary in 1836. But as a professor at the University of South Carolina from 1835 until 1857, when he became Professor of History and Political Science at Columbia, he not only remained silent about the institution, but bought and sold household slaves. In his diary, he felt compelled to explain “the reasons why we bought them,” including that slaves were treated better by their owners than by those who hired them, and “we believe it will be cheaper for us.” In an article published in a Boston newspaper in 1851, however, Lieber ridiculed the idea of innate white superiority. “Superiority of the white race! Since when?… What was he doing when civilization had made great progress in India, in literature, architecture and the useful arts?’[vi]

Francis Lieber
Francis Lieber

Once he arrived at Columbia, Lieber became a public critic of slavery (although his history course on the eve of the conflict seems to have made no mention of the institution). Lieber had sons fighting on both sides in the Civil War. An extreme nationalist, his wartime writings pilloried the South and defended every action of the federal government. It was Lieber who traveled to Washington in 1861 to deliver Lincoln’s honorary degree. He quickly became a legal adviser to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Attorney General Edward Bates. Before the end of 1861 he was insisting that “all negroes coming into our [army] lines are free.” The following year he urged the arming of black troops and informed Bates that the Supreme Court had been mistaken in Dred Scott and free blacks must be considered citizens of the United States. He wrote a new military code, issued in 1863, that became the foundation of the later Geneva conventions. It established humane standards for the treatment of civilians and prisoners of war, prohibited torture, and defended emancipation as a legitimate war measure, but also insisted that the survival of the nation was the paramount value and all other rules must be subordinate to it.[vii]

Along with King, Lieber was the most outspoken prowar Columbian. He exulted over the presentation of colors to the black troops in 1864. “There were drawn up in line over a thousand armed negroes,” he wrote to his long-time acquaintance Charles Sumner, “where but yesterday they were literally hunted down like rats. It was one of the greatest days of our history.” By 1865, in a Loyal Publication Society pamphlet, Lieber proposed a series of constitutional amendments to make irrevocable the end of slavery, the supremacy of the nation over the states, and the punishment of treason.[viii]

Not all Columbians were pro-Union. Writing from England, former newspaper editor John L. O’Sullivan condemned the war effort, insisting that southerners had as much right to choose a new form of government as the authors of the Declaration of Independence. (Lieber responded with a Loyal Publication Society pamphlet denouncing the comparison of Confederates with the patriots of 1776.) John Slidell, Class of 1810, became a leading Louisiana secessionist and Confederate commissioner to France. Richard Sears McCulloh, Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy, who had been born in Baltimore and studied at Princeton, resigned in 1863 and departed for Richmond, where he experimented with chemical weapons for the Confederate war effort. “I shall ever cherish the kindest remembrances of the trustees, faculty and students of Columbia College,” he wrote in his letter of resignation. The feeling was not mutual. The trustees not only expelled McCulloh for having “allied himself to those now in rebellion,” but ordered that his name “be stricken from the list of Professors of this College.” One trustee, William Betts, opposed the resolution, “true to his rebel sympathies” according to Strong.[ix]

Since Columbia essentially had no southern undergraduates it did not supply many soldiers to the southern army, unlike, for example, Princeton, where dozens of students resigned in 1861 to fight for the Confederacy. But despite President King’s strong prowar position, the College did not encourage Columbia undergraduates to join the Union army, and resisted calls from students to provide military training and to allow them to suspend their studies to fights. A few students did leave for the army. One, John Hone, who defied an order by President King not to leave, never completed his degree; in 1894, the College awarded it to him (although he failed to turn up at Commencement). Overall, few Columbia students or graduates decided to enlist. The classes of 1861 through 1864 graduated 167 young men; of these 16 served in the war. The number was unusually small compared with other northern colleges. Fewer than a dozen alumni were killed in the war. This is probably why, unlike Harvard and other peer institutions, Columbia has no memorial to its Civil War soldiers. One trustee enlisted in the army – John Jacob Astor, Jr.[x]

Frederick A.P. Barnard
Frederick A.P. Barnard

In March 1864, Charles King resigned as Columbia’s president. Strong, who had struggled without success to get the trustees to modernize the curriculum, did not think much of King’s tenure. “The College has been debilitated for nearly forty years, perhaps longer” he mused, “from the fact that its presidents have not been chosen for fitness or from interest in the cause of education… but because they were excellent persons in want of a situation.” King’s successor was Frederick A. P. Barnard. Like Francis Lieber, Barnard, a native of Massachusetts, had long taught in the South; indeed his most recent academic post had been chancellor of the University of Mississippi. There, while an outspoken Unionist, he had proclaimed himself a “Southron” and purchased slaves. Barnard became embroiled in controversy in 1859 when, over the objections of faculty members, he expelled a student who had raped one of the female slaves who worked in Barnard’s home. Since evidence for the assault came from the account of a male slave, Barnard was accused of convicting a student on slave testimony and said to be “unsound on the slavery question” (which he vehemently denied). He received support from Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson, a university trustee. “No man strikes my negro that I do not hear his story,” Thompson wrote to Barnard. “No man has a right to touch him or her without my consent.” After an investigation, the trustees gave Barnard a vote of confidence.[xi]

When the war broke out, nearly all the students at Ole Miss enlisted in the Confederate army. Barnard resigned and, declining an offer from Jefferson Davis of a position in the Confederate government, eventually made his way to the North. In January 1863, he published in the New York Tribune a “Letter to the President of the United States, by a Refugee,” in which he denounced slavery as a “relic of primitive barbarism,” but spent most of his space warning of a fifth column in the North-traitors who posed the real danger to the war effort.[xii]

Barnard did not share King’s strong hatred of slavery, nor the commitment he had developed during the war to improving the condition of blacks. He would later attempt, unsuccessfully, to persuade the faculty to admit women to Columbia College, but showed no interest in enrolling blacks. John W. Burgess, the dominant voice on the faculty (and later an architect, along with Professor of History William A. Dunning, of a strongly racist account of the Reconstruction era) steadfastly opposed admitting black students. Thus, Columbia lagged behind its peers. Yale awarded its first degree to a black student in 1857. Several black students attended Harvard in the 1860s; the first to receive a B. A. there was Richard T. Greener, in 1870. Columbia’s first black undergraduate was James Priest, a native not of the United States but of Liberia, who graduated from the recently-established School of Mines in 1877. In that year, the faculty of P and S., now Columbia’s medical school, reaffirmed the prewar policy of not admitting black students. “This does not speak well for the democratic principles of the professors,” commented the College publication Cap and Gown. In 1896 a black student, James Dickson Carr, received a law degree. Not until 1906 did the first black student earn a B. A. from Columbia College. This was Pixley ka Ikasa Seme, of South Africa. He later studied law at Oxford, returned to South Africa, and became a founder of the African National Congress.[xiii]

In the first half of the twentieth century, Columbia’s professional and graduate schools would train numerous black lawyers, scientists, and educators. A survey of “Negro leaders” in the professions published in 1935 found that Columbia ranked second to the University of Chicago as the place where they received degrees. But in 1939 there was only one black student at P and S. And the number of black undergraduates remained tiny. As late as 1963, the graduating class of over 600 young men (of which Eric Foner was one) included only three black Americans and one South African. Not until 1966 did Columbia College have more than twenty black students enrolled at one time, and in that year the number of black faculty members on the Morningside campus could be counted on one hand.[xiv]

Columbia 1968
Faculty speak to student protesters occupying Low Library in April 1968.

It would take a social revolution in the country and an unprecedented crisis on the campus itself for Columbia finally to move beyond the long history of involvement with slavery and racism, and toward becoming the more diverse, more inclusive institution it is today. 

[i]. Charles King, “Columbia at the Outbreak of the Civil War,” Columbia University Quarterly, 10 (March 1908), 155-57; McCaughey, Stand, Columbia, 94; Nevins, Fish, 1: 81; New York Herald, April 24, 1861; Liberator, July 26, 1861; Nevins and Thomas, Strong Diary, 3: 129-34.

[ii]. Manuscript History of Columbia, Chapter 7, Box 31, Miner Papers; Liberator, March 14, 1862; New York Times, July 16, 1862; A. Hunter Dupree and Leslie H. Fishel, Jr., “An Eyewitness Account of the New York Draft Riots, July 1863,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review, (December 1960), 472-79; Extracts from Morgan Dix Diary, October 10, 1859, Item 195, Columbiana Manuscripts; Treasurer’s Cashbook, October 12, 1863, Box 10, Miner Papers.

[iii]. Liberator, March 18, 1864; Nevins and Thomas, Strong Diary, 3: 411.

[iv]. Daniel G. Thompson, Ruggles of New York: A Life of Samuel B. Ruggles (New York, 1946), 26-44, 101, 130-34; Whites, Beekmans, 624; “Union League Club” of New York. The Charter, By-Laws, and List of Members (New York, 1865), 21-29; Melinda Lawson, Patriot Fires: Forging a New American Nationalism in the Civil War North (Lawrence, 2002), 105-11; George Fredrickson, The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union (New York, 1965), 55-56, 101; Nevins and Thomas, Strong Diary, 3: 159, 205, 408.

[v]. Frank Friedel, “The Loyal Publication Society: A Pro-Union Propaganda Agency,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 26 (December 1939), 359-76; Nevins and Thomas, Strong Diary, 3: 297; Henry Drisler, Bible View of Slavery by John H. Hopkins ... Examined (New York, 1863); Samara Trilling, “A Tale of Two Columbias: Francis Lieber, Columbia University and Slavery,” Seminar Paper, Columbia and Slavery, Spring 2015, 30-32.

[vi]. Lawson, Patriot Fires, 115; Thomas S. Parry, ed., The Life and Letters of Francis Lieber (Boston, 1882), 109; Hartmut Keil, “Francis Lieber’s Attitudes on Race, Slavery, and Abolition,” Journal of American Ethnic History, 28 (Fall 2008), 13, 21-25; Trilling, “Tale of Two Columbias,” 1-14.

[vii]. Lieber’s Lecture for 1861, Robert B. Canfield Papers, Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Columbia University; Joseph Dorfman and Rexford G. Tugwell, “Francis Lieber: German Scholar in America,” Columbia University Quarterly, 30 (December 1938), 277-82; Parry, Lieber, 320, 332, 339-41; Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York, 2010), 235; John F. Witt, Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History (New York, 2012), 375-94.

[viii]. Parry, Lieber, 342; The Miscellaneous Writings of Francis Lieber (2 vols.: Philadelphia, 1881), 2: 177-79.

[ix]. Fredrickson, Inner Civil War, 132; Manuscript History of Columbia, Chapter 7, Box 31, Miner Papers; Trustees’ Minutes, October 15, 1863, University Archives, Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Columbia University; Milton H. Thomas, Columbia University Officers and Alumni 1754-1857 (New York, 1936), 28n.; Benjamin F. Shearer, Shearer, Home Front Heroes: A Biographical Directory of Americans During Wartime (3 vols: Westport, 2007), 2: 570-71; Nevins and Thomas, Strong Diary, 3: 364.

[x]. V. Lansing Collins, Princeton: Past and Present (Princeton, 1945), 160; McCaughey, Stand, Columbia, 141-42; Manuscript History of Columbia, Chapter 7, Box 31; Columbia and Various Wars, Memorandum, Box 10, Miner Papers; Officers and Graduates of Columbia College (New York, 1894), 123-30.

[xi]. Nevins and Thomas, Strong Diary, 3: 415; John Fulton, Memoirs of Frederick A. P. Barnard (New York, 1896), 246-59; Sabrina Singer, “Columbia’s Civil War Presidents: How Charles King and Frederick A. P. Barnard’s Views on Slavery Shaped Columbia,” Seminar Paper, Columbia and Slavery, Spring 2015, 5-12.

[xii]. Fulton, Barnard, 284-92; New York Tribune, January 21, 1863.

[xiii]. Key Events on Black Higher Education, www.jbhe.com/chronology; McCaughey, Stand, Columbia, 164; Christian Recorder, October 16, 1876, June 28, 1877; Columbia Daily Spectator, April 26, 1967; Alumni-Black, Folder, Box 7, Miner Papers.

[xiv]. Columbia Alumni News, 27 (October 1935), 34; John H. Johnson, “Columbia’s Colored Alumni Fill Posts of Importance,” Columbia Alumni News, 30 (May 12, 1939), 5, 10; The Columbian oif 1963 (New York, 1963); Columbia Daily Spectator, April 26, 1967.