Tuesday, January 12, 2010

FISTICUFFS at Notre Dame (and St. Mary's!) During the Civil War

Anyone who think the connection between wars and campus unrest began with the Vietnam Era needs to read about the American Revolution!

Campus unrest of all types also occurred during the Civil War: opposition to conscription, prewar debates over slavery and secession, tussles between working-class "townies" and (presumably) elite "gownies," etc.

At Notre Dame, founder Fr. Sorin did his best to keep the peace, but as he wrote in 1864: “In times of war, and especially of national or civil war, all the passions of the poor human heart are to be dreaded.”

And with enrollment increasing each year, including an influx of Southern students, he recognized that “so much more serious did the danger” of those passions become. Indeed, Fr. Sorin admitted to his superiors that, among the student body, “there was far from anything like unity of views…in political matters: the two camps were, on the contrary, clearly divided.” He credited the school’s heavenly patron for the fact that the young men at Notre Dame “lived in harmony even whilst their fathers and brothers were slashing one another some hundreds of miles away.”

Despite Fr. Sorin’s representations of "harmony," however, there were in fact some unpleasant incidents as heated sectional arguments began in the classroom and on the playground and led to fisticuffs. Some examples:

  • In one instance, John B. Walker – “a stout, handsome youth, aggressive and foremost in expressing his loathing for Southerners” - had a bitter dispute with Billy Welsh, which Billy reciprocated with a kick to John’s head.
  • In another, the St. Joseph Valley Register reported
"An affray occurred between two students named Parker and Donovan…Donovan is from Vicksburg, Mississippi, and, like many other students at Notre Dame from the Rebel States, entertains and expresses views not in harmony with the Union sentiments at the North, or with those held by Parker, who resides in Lafayette [IN]. Out of this political difference, a previous quarrel had arisen between these two and very unfriendly feelings had continued to exist. [On]...a holiday for the students...Parker and Donovan simultaneously approached the swing, each in a bad humor, trying to take possession and neither willing to give up to the other. Finally, they were induced to yield the swing to a third party, and retired. Threats passed between them, and Donovan picked up a club and threw it at Parker, but not hitting him. Parker picked up the same club and struck Donovan with it twice, first on his shoulder, then on his head, fracturing his skull."
  • But my favorite:
Even the Sherman family couldn’t avoid fisticuffs, as shown in this episode of the general's daughter, Minnie, who was a student at St. Mary's Academy:

A celebration was planned for Washington’s Birthday in 1864, but the sisters had forbidden the wearing of any partisan colors. Minnie, however, had pinned a small flag to her dress and - so decorated - met a southern girl in the hall. The southerner snatched the flag from Minnie’s dress and stomped on it. Nothing happened for an hour, but then:

"A carriage drove up at furious speed. Hardly waiting for the horses to stop, Mrs. Sherman jumped out, rushed into the recreation room, pinned a fresh [flag] on Minnie, and wanted to know why her daughter could not wear the flag her father offered his life for."

The other northern girls; more brought out their own colors and small decorations...the southern girls took exception, and as one sister recalled:

“Words soon led to blows, and almost in an instant the whole school with few exceptions were engaged in a pitched battle.”

You can read all about these "passions of the poor human heart" in Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory (The History Press) later in 2010!

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