Today, March 4, 2011, marks the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States of America.
Not coincidentally, it also sets the stage for my book, Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory (The History Press, 2010), in which I use a letter written by student Orville T. Chamberlain, written on that very day. (You can learn more about Chamberlain in previous posts here and here).
The letter gives a wonderful picture of life on campus. It is part of a collection of more than eighty wartime letters that he wrote to home and friends, now held by the Indiana Historical Society, many of which are quoted in my book.
An excerpt from the Introduction to the book is below, followed by a transcript of that letter. Enjoy.
On March 4, 1861, nineteen-year-old college student Orville Chamberlain wrote a letter home with the opening line: “We are having ‘recreation’ here this afternoon in honor of ‘Old Abe’s’ inauguration.” Apart from mention of the nation’s new president, there was no other hint of campus talk regarding news or politics. Indeed, the balance of his letter related to the timeless concerns of any college student: learning to live on his own, his classmates, his studies, the quality and quantity of the food and—of course—his need for money. When Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter only weeks later, everything changed for Chamberlain and for his school, the University of Notre Dame.
In fact, few institutions of higher education can boast of the sacrifices made by the University of Notre Dame, which—like Orville Chamberlain—was only nineteen years old when the war began. Over the course of four years, Notre Dame gave freely of its faculty and students as soldiers, sent its Holy Cross priests to the camps and battlefields as chaplains and dispatched its sisters to the hospitals as nurses; some of the boys, men and women made the ultimate sacrifice and never returned. Though far from the battlefields itself, the war was still ever-present on campus, as Notre Dame witnessed fisticuffs among the student body, provided a home to the children of a famous general, responded to political harassment and tried to keep at least some of its community out of the fray. When the war was over, a proud Notre Dame welcomed back several bona fide war heroes—including Orville Chamberlain, who earned the Medal of Honor—and became home to a unique veteran’s organization.
The school’s participation in the Civil War established a tradition of “Fighting Irish” tenacity on the battlefield by its student-soldiers and spiritual strength imparted by its priests and sisters.
And now, the letter:
March 4, 1861
Dear Friends, We are having "recreation" here this afternoon in honor of "Old Abe's" inauguration and I thought perhaps you would ike to hear from me, so I take the present opportunity to write. I have almost no news to tell from the fact that nothing new happens here, and all the news we get from abroad come in the papers, at which you have a better chance than I do.
Mr. Schutt was down here a few days ago, but he stayed only a very few minutes. I did not see him to speak to him. Mr. Baldwin was here yesterday, it made the boys feel first-rate to see a familiar face.
I have got fairly domesticated here at last; it takes quite a considerable attention to "learn the ropes" here and even now I have to "do as the rest do" in a great many things. I am studying Algebra, Grammar, Geometry, and I have given up my Arithmetic and commenced German. I shall not study Latin at least for the present. I have fairly started and if my recitations come regularly I shall get along first rate. I occupy the desk next to Hardin and I find him to be a first rate seatmate.
Before I came away from home, Mr. Conn spoke about returning "Livingston's Africa." I expect it ought to be attended to. I expect all the Elkhart boys will go home about the last of March and I expect I will go with them, if I can. At that time there will be no school for about a week, and that will give me a chance to make quite a visit.
I like it pretty well here and would like to stay till I could write my name O.T.C., A.B., if I could. The boys large and small make a business of playing marbles, all their spare time, excepting the time they spend dancing.
Bro. Peter has cured his "rheumatiz" and is on hand again. Father Superior is gone to Chicago.
We have to attend church a great deal here; a week ago yesterday the remarks made suited me exactly.
I would like it Father, if you would send me a copy of "The Times," if convenient. I have plenty of time to read and but little reading matter.
Our diet here is not luxurious, unless you think "luxurious" to be derived from the Latin "lux" and make it partake of its original signification; still we are in no anger of starvation, and they get up pretty good dinners.
I don't use this paper because I like it but on account of the picture at the head of the letter, which is a pretty good picture of the place.
All the boys insist that (Elkhart boys I mean) the Exhibition on the eve of the 22d did not beat the Omega, very much, but for my part I liked it very well.
Father, you had better speak to Mr. Oakes (if you have not) about that public money, etc.
I have joined the Elocution class but have not declaimed yet.
You know the Dunkards make a great fuss over the ceremony of "feet washing" - well since writing the above they put benches in the playroom and we went in and went "through the mill." Each one had his pail of warm water and a towel.
There is an "office" in the college building where Books, Stationery, and Toilet articles are kept. A new consignment of goods came today.
Father Gillespie reads "notes" every Sabbath evening for lessons, duties, and conduct. My notes were Grammar and Algebra - 2.2.1. Conduct and Geometry -1, pretty good notes.
I got week before last's "Review" yesterday morning and thought it quite interesting. By the way, I suppose you continue to get it regularly, send Tully up after it if you do not.
My health is and has been first rate. Did you have good luck in finding Chord, and if you did not couldn't you write me instructions what to do and how to do it and let me attend to it some recreation day.
Please write and let me know how you are all getting along and tell me all the news - particularly the good news. Please present my compliments to all the friends - providing I have any - and don't forget to write.
P.S. - It is pretty good sleighing here this morning and the weather is cold enough to make a person feel quite uncomfortable. Every Sunday and every Wednesday we have to black our boots. It's a great disadvantage to have big feet, for just as I get one foot done we are called to take our places in the ranks. During recreation hours we cannot go into the Study room unless upon particular business and vice versa. I finished last night the first half of the first book of Geometry.
"Do nothing by halves," so I write this letter in thirds. I received your letter last evening and was very glad to get it. Father Dillon says he will take all Illinois money, but the 4 or 5 banks that are thrown out. I guess I can get along without the Drawers. But I must close or I shall not get my letter sent today. Father Dillon says he will send the note up to the Bank. Tell the children I would like to have them write me a letter.
Yours in a hurry.