Tuesday, July 5, 2011

College Life in the 1860s - Part I

"Life started every morning at half past five during my four years [at Notre Dame], but since then I have forgotten all about the rising sun." - James McCormack, Notre Dame student, 1863-67

I recently had the pleasure of reading a terrific book - Halls of Honor: College Men in the Old South by Robert F. Pace (Louisiana State University Press, 2011 softcover reprint of the 2004 hardcover) - after receiving a review copy from the GREAT team at LSU Press.

I am going to post a review of the book here in the next day or so...in advance of that, though, I thought I'd post an excerpt from my book Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory (The History Press, 2010) that "dovetails" nicely with Dr. Pace's Halls of Honor, in that it describes college life at Notre Dame in the 1860s, away from the battlefields.

In fact, I have posted a few previous items about 1860s college life at Notre Dame, including:

Student Body at Notre Dame in the 1860s (here)
Wartime Fisticuffs on Campus at Notre Dame (here)
Early Military Training at Notre Dame (here)
School Year Holidays at Notre Dame in the 1860s (here)
Lincoln's Inauguration - A Letter from Notre Dame (here)
The reaction to the firing on Ft. Sumter (here and here)
1865 Commencement Excercises at Notre Dame (here)

Below is an excerpt from Notre Dame and the Civil War that includes some additional great first-person accounts of life as a student there in the 1860s. Enjoy!

Historians can thank James McCormack for leaving one of the best descriptions of student life at Notre Dame during the war years. “My first semester at Notre Dame all furnishings were very simple, really crude,” he recalled, adding that “the real improvements took place during the second semester. Steam heat superseded wood fires, as no coal was used in that section. All the rooms and halls had individual stoves and it took the time of one Brother to keep the fires alive.” (1)

Indeed, Father Sorin wrote that directly because of the war, “laborers became so scarce that it was hard to find men to cut fire wood” and that the school’s council found itself “face to face with the almost impossible task of obtaining the amount of wood necessary for the winter, which had already set in.” After the “most serious deliberation,” the council resolved to introduce steam heating (as had already been done at St. Mary’s). It was already November, and “there was not a day to spare,” Father Sorin continued, adding that “the work was urged forward with all possible haste, and by Christmas the college was heated satisfactorily and economically.” (2)

James McCormack also remembered improvements in the sleeping arrangements:

Cotton mattresses were introduced to take the place of ticking stuffed with straw or corn shucks. From then on the boys snored louder and longer. The students seemed happier, as they felt Notre Dame was considering their comfort as well as their education. Better living conditions brought about an increase of students each year during my time at Notre Dame so that beds had to be put in the galleries of Washington Hall to take care of the overflow. (3)

As a new soldier, Orville T. Chamberlain recalled the crowded conditions during his school days, writing in late August 1862 that his unit had “marched through [Louisville] to a house where we stayed overnight. A thousand men in one room is worse than the dormitories at Notre Dame.” (4)

Of a typical day as a student, McCormack recalled:

Wednesday was the recreation day instead of Saturday. Life started every morning at half past five during my four years, but since then I have forgotten all about the rising sun. We went to Mass on Wednesday mornings—that was the only required church attendance during the week. The real work of the day started with a study hour at six o’clock, breakfast at seven, dinner at twelve and supper at six p.m. We returned to the study hall at seven and at eight we retired after a very short day that began at five thirty a.m. So far as living was concerned, the boys never had reason to complain. The food was plain, but bountifully served. We had the usual supply of turkey and mincepie on holidays—in fact, I can still taste the delicious pies and breadmade by the good Sisters of the Holy Cross. (5)

Orville Chamberlain agreed with McCormack on the quality of the table fare, writing home before the war: “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 [“light”]; still we are in no danger of starvation, and they get up pretty good dinners.” Of church attendance, Orville grumbled that “[w]e have to attend…a great deal here” but admitted that the previous week’s sermon had “suited me exactly.” (6)

McCormack might be forgiven for his dubious recollection that “the boys never saw South Bend except on arriving and departing from Notre Dame.” To be sure, Father Sorin did everything possible to keep his students from town; if they had to go for a purchase or other business, they were required to be in the company of a prefect. Still, unauthorized forays did happen, especially to imbibe at South Bend taverns. One school history notes: “There is hardly a page of the disciplinary record on which it is not written…‘this student, arrested for intoxication and lodged in the South Bend jail, was sent home.’” Father Sorin placed notices in the local papers asking the citizens to report any serious misbehavior. (7)


(1) James M. McCormack, typewritten essay of Notre Dame life during the Civil War and after, 1863–67, Notre Dame Student Collection (CNDS), 7/15, Archives of the University of Notre Dame (UNDA).
(2) Edward Sorin, CSC, The Chronicles of Notre Dame du Lac, trans. William Toohey, ed. James T. Connelly (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 285–86.
(3) McCormack, typewritten essay
(4) Letter, Orville Chamberlain to Joseph Chamberlain, August 23,1862, Chamberlain Papers, Box 1, Folder 8, Indiana Historical Society (IHS)
(5) McCormack, typewritten essay.
(6) Letter, Orville Chamberlain to “Friends,” March 4, 1861,Chamberlain Papers, Box 1, Folder 8, IHS.
(7) McCormack, typewritten essay; Arthur J. Hope, Notre Dame: One Hundred Years (Notre Dame, IN:University Press, 1948), 103.

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