Monday, November 2, 2009

Where Do "Fighting Irish" Come From?

In doing research for my forthcoming book, Notre Dame in the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory (The History Press, 2010), one of the questions I wanted to answer is where the school's wartime students came from.

Fortunately, the excellent archives at the University of Notre Dame has an online student index tool that covers the years 1849-1912!

The tool allows you to search by last name as well as other keywords. I used the index to mine all the student data by state and country for the academic years 1860-61 through 1865-66.

Typical entries look like this:

Those names - Robert A. Pinkerton and William Pinkerton - are interesting on several accounts. First, they are in the photo below (from Library of Congress), although it was taken a few years before they began their studies at Notre Dame. Second, they are the sons of famed detective and Union spy Allan Pinkerton!

Some summaries of the data are provided below. A full table, listing enrollments by state and year, will be in the book. Some interesting patterns do emerge, though. Consider the total enrollments by year:

1860-61 = 203
1861-62 = 220
1862-63 = 274
1863-64 = 405
1864-65 = 543
1865-66 = 659

Note that enrollment continued to increase during the Civil War years. This was no small accomplishment, as many colleges faced decreasing enrollments or had to close altogether.

Notice also the breakdown by region below. Not surprisingly, Indiana and Illinois account for about half the students; throw in Michigan and Ohio and you are up above 70%. Still, notice that the "Border" states and even Confederate states contributed a fair share of students!

Midwest/Plains = 79%
Far West = 1%
Northeast/New England = 7%
Border States = 7%
Confederate States = 6%

Foreign = <1%

Those sectional differences would lead to some wartime fisticuffs on campus, but that's a story for another day!

This wasn't a "scientific" survey by any means and I did have to make some compromises along the way. For example, the enrollment figures include those for the college proper, the minims in the grammar school, and the orphans and destitute in the trade school. Furthermore, I counted each student for each year they were enrolled. For some students this was single year (they counted once) and for others it could be as many as five terms (and they were counted five times).

The other interesting thing to contemplate are the individual stories: What of the single student from Virginia enrolled in 1860-61 but never to return again? What of the students who were there in 1861 but didn't return until later? Why was there such an increase of students from Tennessee late in the war?

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