Cornell's Civil War era

By Charles Milhauser

This year marks the sesquicentennial of South Carolina's secession and the start of the Civil War, a war that would see hundreds of men and boys from Mount Vernon—some of them Cornellians—enlist, and change the face of the college.

The only Civil War general born in Iowa, Lawrence Sullivan Ross, fought for the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, spent more time in Iowa than Abraham Lincoln. Union General William Belknap practiced law in Keokuk, served in the Iowa legislature, and as secretary of war under Grant, helped establish compulsory military training at Cornell.

On April 15, 1861, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers for 90-day service. Two days later, Iowa's Governor Kirkwood requisitioned a full company of 78 men from Linn County. Forty men and boys from Mount Vernon immediately enlisted. In subsequent companies raised from Linn County, Cornellians comprised a quarter to a third. The Adelphian Literary Society became defunct after all its members, about 30, went off to war. Sixty-two members of the Amphictyon Society left school to volunteer. Mount Vernon, with a population of 760 in 1860, sent 265 men to fight for the Union: 67 of these (25 percent) died either of wounds received in battle or from illness.

Only one Cornellian is known to have served in the Confederate Army. John Alexander Bonaparte Putnam (also known as Putman), Class of 1859, held the rank of lieutenant in the 23rd Texas Cavalry. Recognizing a Cornell classmate among his prisoners, Putnam surreptitiously supplied him with a horse and an escape route back to Union lines.

What motivated so many Cornellians to volunteer? Was it preservation of the Union, abhorrence of slavery, adventure, peer pressure? To judge from the titles of topics debated by the students in the 1850s (states' rights, secession), they were certainly aware of the issues. In 1858, Cornell enrolled its first black student, but in July 1859 the Board of Trustees denied him permission to re-enroll on the ground that the admission of black students would "be detrimental to the reputation of the College." No evidence suggests that the student body protested the board's decision. Ironically, months after this exclusion, Frederick Douglass came to speak in Mount Vernon and was hosted at dinner along with President Fellows by the only black family in town. In 1870 the board overturned its earlier decision.

Cornell survived the depletion in the ranks of its male collegians because of its female students. Even in pre-war times women accounted for at least 40 percent of total college enrollment, and in 1860 girls made up 73 percent of Cornell's coed high school.

Commencement 1863 drew lots of people of different political views to town, resulting in numerous minor skirmishes and the tearing down of an American flag hung across Main Street. On June 25, some soldiers compelled a southern sympathizer to take off his copperhead pin and "hurrah for the Union." This led to a fight. Later that day, a soldier rebuked a woman for flaunting a copperhead pin. She dared him to remove it from her bodice. He and his friends would not assault a female's person, so they solicited a woman to do the deed. In the ensuing melee, clothes were torn and hats ruined. The Union men chipped in to buy the two women new hats.