Lawrence University was approaching the end of its 12th year of instruction when the Civil War (1861-1865) broke out on April 12, 1861. Hundreds of male Lawrence students went off to fight on the war’s front. Some of them safely returned to campus and obtained their degrees, while others died in battle. Student life at Lawrence drastically changed with the war.
Lawrence students who enrolled in the army during the Civil War formed part of the 81,000 men who fought for the Union representing the state of Wisconsin. Official records were found in the book titled “The History of Lawrence University 1845-1925,” written by Professor of European history David G. Ormsby and William Francis Raney between 1955 and 1962.
According to Raney, there were at least two units that contained Lawrence men in the war: Company E of the Sixth Wisconsin volunteer infantry regiment and Company E of the 40th Wisconsin volunteer infantry regiment. The Sixth Wisconsin contained more people from Appleton, but there were some Lawrence students as well.
Raney explains that:
“Of the twenty-nine from Appleton, seven had been enrolled at Lawrence, most of them in the preparatory department. Among the seven was Jerome A. Watrous, who in 1864 was promoted Adjutant to the Sixth […] At Lawrence’s semi-centennial, in 1897 he reviewed Lawrence’s part during the Civil War.”
Raney’s records indicate Lawrence suffered a decline in male enrollment from 1861 to 1865. Every class from 1858 to 1870 contributed to the army. The class of 1870 had 78 males and 29 of them (37 percent) had a war record. A student from that class wrote:
“Many a Saturday night when the week’s work was done, a group of choice spirits would gather in one or another of the dormitory rooms [in Main Hall], exchange army experiences, and sing the war songs of that period till the walls of the old building trembled. Not many of these remained to graduate[…] and after a year or two of study and preparation they went out from the college”
Associate Professor of History and Robert S. French Professor of American Studies Jerald Podair explains:
“The Civil War is […] the most defining American event. The reason for that is that the basic American vows and […] values [were addressed by the Union, which] are freedom, equality, and democracy. It took the Civil War to really redefine them and to tell us what they meant […] the idea that all men are created equal […] The Civil War established the idea that one person should not own another person.”
Podair explained that in 1860, close to half of the population would say that the idea of freedom included the right to own other human beings. “That may be a strange definition of freedom to our ears, but at least to southerners and some northerners that was very logical. The idea of equality that did not necessarily include African Americans,” Podair said.
More primary evidence illustrating Lawrence’s student involvement, achievements and academic life came from the “Lawrence College Alumni Record 1857-1915.” Lawrence alumnus J.S. Anderson, class of 1870, wrote an entire section about his memoirs at Lawrence. He described that Lawrence students and faculty strongly sympathized with the anti-slavery ideals proposed by the Union.
Between 1860 and 1870, there was an attempt to install hot air heating systems on campus which resulted in failure. This forced Lawrentians to use box stoves for heat in each room.
“The students, or many of them, sawed and split their own wood which was carried up the two or three flights of stairs and stowed under the bed or piled along the partitioned wall of the fenced-off bed room. Preparation of the firewood for the ensuing week constituted our half holiday on Saturday afternoon,” wrote Anderson.
Some professors, at least “Professors Pletschke, Pomeroy, Fallows, and Davies,” according to Anderson went off to war and a good amount of students went with them, a fact that put Lawrence’s very existence in danger. As a result, classes were broken up, and class cohesion and solidarity among students was destroyed. Almost everyone in school had someone close who was in the war, which created a stressful emotional environment.
“The one overwhelming thought of the war and its attendant evils, reaching nearly every family and individual in the nation, made mental concentration on things which seemed light and trivial by comparison, an impossibility,” wrote Anderson.
As many men went off to the front, women stepped up in the family business or running their households. “In the south… what it meant was that the plantation wife would…take over and run the plantation,” said Podair.
There was not a draft in the north until 1863, but before that, Lawrence was affected in that there was a large amount of social pressure for young men of military age to join up the army. Podair explains that:
“Lincoln puts out a call for volunteers, 75,000 volunteers in the wake of the attack of Fort Sumter, which begins the Civil War… He puts out that call for volunteers: he’s looking for young men in colleges like Lawrence, where in a sense, they are almost under social pressure to hear that call and come to the aid of the country.”
History books indicate that around 620,000 soldiers (two percent of the American population back then) from both the Union and Confederacy died during the conflict, a figure that accounted for roughly as many American deaths as all American casualties in other national wars combined.