By Colton Williams, C’21 Research Assistant for the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, Summer 2019
In Woodville, Wilkinson County, Mississippi, fourteen years before the state seceded from the Union, the planter and slaveholder Daniel Prosser and his wife Sarah welcomed their son into the world. Ralph Hylton Prosser’s birth in 1847 may seem unfortunate in terms of historical timing, but by the time he came of age Prosser saw it as an opportunity. Prosser was sixteen years old and enrolled at the Virginia Military Institute when the Civil War erupted. With his father’s permission, he left VMI and enlisted in the Confederate Army as a private. He served in Company F of the 43rd Virginia Cavalry, better known as Mosby’s Rangers.[i] On October 8, 1864 — Prosser’s seventeenth birthday — he was captured by Union forces and held at the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C., and later in Boston Harbor, where he remained until war’s end in June 1865. By this time, Prosser was still a young man, four months shy of both his eighteenth birthday and the anniversary of his capture. But he was not a young man destined to return home according to the now-familiar trope of the destitute and threadbare Confederate, vowing as Scarlett O’Hara did to “never be hungry again.”[ii] That was not in Prosser’s future. Prosser already had the prestige of serving with the Gray Ghost himself, the mythologized John Mosby, and had studied at VMI, a premier military institution for Southern boys of high social standing. With that record, and a changing world before him, Ralph Hylton Prosser’s next step was to prepare for the Episcopal priesthood. In order to do so, in 1869 he became the thirty-sixth student to matriculate at the new University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.[iii]
Prosser’s story, though unique, was not unusual. He came to Sewanee for a reason. Like most students in those early years, he ended up leaving before earning a degree. Still, his story sheds light on what the university was in 1869, when it was but an idea being put to the test. For a university steeped so deeply in the histories it tells about itself, there has been a notable absence of study of the very people who were essential in making the university a university: the students. As one myself, I have always felt — in fact, know — that the way students see the university and the culture of Sewanee is often quite different from the official view.
This summer, as I worked as a research assistant for the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, I focused on capturing the profiles of the university’s first generation of students. One question that spurred me forward was what did Sewanee’s first students think about the university’s identity? Claims are often made about what Sewanee was at its ‘refounding’ in 1868, as opposed to the original founding of the university in 1858, the year of its charter. How did the students make and reflect the culture of Sewanee after the ‘refounding’? This question is a slippery one. Over the years those who have studied and written about Sewanee have given greater emphasis to the later, as opposed to the earlier, founding, and sought to explain what that post-war and post-emancipation history has meant to the university’s identity. In celebration of the university’s sesquicentennial moments, books have been published about the ‘refounding,’ the general history of the university, the history of the liberal arts at Sewanee, Reconstruction at Sewanee, and ‘Sewanee places.’ Today, students touch the fabled cornerstone from 1860 before signing the honor code and symbolically enrolling in the university, making a connection to the earliest days of the university when its founders imagined that the “South” the university would encompass — “the land of the sun and the slave,” they proclaimed it — would last forever.[iv] Students like Ralph Hylton Prosser are a crucial link in the history of Sewanee, and yet they often are left out.
Stories of students are usually ancillary to some other point, whether it is about the founders, the curriculum, sports, or the mystique of Sewanee itself. But if we are to understand both the most basic and the most complex questions about this place — for instance, what did people in 1868 think were the ideas that defined the university? — it is imperative to study the students who entered the university in its early years for their own sake and for what they can suggest about the formation of the institution in its post-Civil War years.
The effect of this historical oversight is highlighted by Sewanee Perspectives, the 2008 volume of essays on the university’s history, which is dedicated to “the nine students who matriculated on September 18, 1868 in the Junior Department of the University of the South.”[v] To my surprise I discovered that nowhere in the volume are the histories of those nine students examined. They are important, of course, but the symbolic weight they carry has been assigned to them without studying them in any thorough manner.
Between 1868-1870, 226 students enrolled in the university. Almost none of them graduated with a degree; many left after a single term or year. By studying the early students of Sewanee, we can learn more about what the students who enrolled thought and expected about their education and how they may have shaped the university when it began operations in 1868. Did it still conform to the visions of the founders to create a “body of scholars of whom no country need be ashamed”?[vi] Or did it represent a new enterprise?
Looking at the 226 students from 1868-1870 is not an arbitrary time frame. They represent the first two years of the Rt. Rev. Charles Quintard’s Vice-Chancellorship and contain a large enough sample to make some provisional conclusions about the students during that time. Quintard, who was present at the original laying of the cornerstone, is considered a founder of the university, while his successor, Josiah Gorgas, is rarely, if ever, given that title.[vii] By looking at the students arriving during Quintard’s tenure, more can be learned about what the ‘second founding’ meant in actuality, particularly for the students who came here. Was Sewanee to be a new, modern university for a new south, or did it cater specially to former Confederates, slaveholders, and their progeny? Did the establishment (or re-establishment) of the university in 1868 represent a break with the pre-war political and social order or serve to revive and maintain that order under new circumstances, in the vein of ‘Redeemers’ intent on “dismantling the Reconstruction state”?[viii] Quintard, quoted in the Charleston Evening Record in 1873, explained, “There is something worse than war — something worse than pestilence and famine — something worse than death. It is worse to see a people of high culture, of noble lineage, bow down their backs and become hewers of wood and drawers of water, and in the depths of an overwhelming despair descend from the high position they have occupied and adorned… We need and society needs an educated class.”[ix] In Quintard’s view, it seems, Sewanee was a university with a particular and conservative charge. My research shows that few who went to Sewanee in 1868 were hewing wood and drawing water. They were the sons of the wealthy, the connected, the aristocratic. The sons of Confederates, they were sometimes, like Prosser, Confederates themselves. If Quintard imagined a university that would pick up the charge of a conquered elite and save them from embarrassment and subjugation, did that way of thinking transmit to the first students who obtained their education at Sewanee? Were they, too, afraid of becoming “hewers of wood,” and did they see education — and an education at the University of the South in particular — as the way to reclaim their pre-war position and that of their families?
Most of the students would have fit within this vision of a reborn southern elite. The first students to enter the university came from a fairly representative geographical cross-section of the former Confederacy. Of the 226 students to matriculate from 1868-1870, only 4 were from outside the region.[x] (The trend continued; only 12 of the first 726 students from 1868-1878 were non-southerners):
|Students’ Home States, |
|Number of Students, |
While it may seem obvious why almost all students were white ‘southerners,’ the fact that such young men went to Sewanee was not predetermined. There was a reason. Geographic proximity certainly played a part, but many wealthy southern boys already were going to colleges far away from home, if they were going at all. At VMI, Prosser was a long way from Woodville, Mississippi. While the location of the University of the South was chosen in part because of its centrality to the southern dioceses of the Episcopal Church, it still required effort and money to get to Sewanee. Eight students from 1868-1870 hailed from Galveston, Texas, quite a world away from the top of the Cumberland Plateau. Southern it was, but close it was not. Many of the early students were, of course, Episcopalians, and it seems likely that many came specifically for the church affiliation. But designating their religious affiliation alone as their reason for coming to Sewanee obscures the larger context within which the Episcopal Church operated in the southern region. The Protestant Episcopal Church of the Confederate States of America was the official, sanctioned church of the seceded states during the Civil War. Its first and only Presiding Bishop was Stephen Elliott of Georgia, an instrumental original founder of Sewanee. To be an Episcopalian in the South, even after the Confederate Church no longer existed, was not solely a religious affiliation. It was a hallmark of patrician Southern identity, which had always been tied fundamentally to slavery. Stephen Elliott made this link explicit, saying that what was at stake during the war was “the whole framework of our social life.”[xi]
Higher education at Sewanee in 1868-70 only vaguely resembled the university of today. Students were organized into groups of Gownsmen (18 years of age or older) and Juniors (younger students). In addition to a college, the university consisted of a grammar, or preparatory, school and a theological department for training priests. Most who entered the university were between the ages of 14 and 18.[xii] For this article, I excluded only the grammar school students from my review; I relied on the 1870-1871 Arts and Sciences Catalog for basic information on the first generation of matriculants.[xiii]
Sixty-one of the 185 students were matched with their parents through a combination of census records, gravesite data, and information pulled from the students’ biographical files. Of these, 35 fathers were confirmed as slaveholders in the 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedule. These 35 were the fathers of 45 students, due to siblings matriculating at the same time. This small sample size allows for preliminary conclusions only, although I expect that as I continue my research and match additional students with their parents, the results will show similar patterns. It is unlikely that the 61 students I was able to identify would be disproportionately the offspring of slaveholding parents.
So what?, might be the response. After all, this was the University of the South, so we would expect the people who attended in 1868, 1869, and 1870 to have been the sons of former slaveholders. While this argument does get one point right — that the region had been a slave society, built on “wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces”[xiv] — that observation misses the larger point. According to the 1860 U.S. Census, roughly 25% of households in the South owned slaves.[xv] This is a marked contrast to the 74% of Sewanee students from the confirmed data set who came from slaveholding households. For instance, Sewanee student Burton Bellamy (M’69)[xvi] from Monticello, Florida, was born into a slaveholding family. He lived as a young master until his early teenage years, as his family enslaved 97 persons, from a one-year-old girl to a 55-year-old woman. The family of Thomas Barnett (M’69), from Montgomery, Alabama, enslaved people, too, and so did that of Philip Marbury (M’68) from McMinnville, Tennessee. The list goes on. These students, the scions of the master class and race, were the students the founders originally had in mind. The former “masters” in Sewanee weren’t just the faculty and residents, but the students themselves.
How did the experiences and backgrounds of these students affect the character of Sewanee after the ‘refounding’? Did their pasts as slaveholders leave a mark on the atmosphere of the university? John Bradford, one of the few students to matriculate from outside of the South, remembers the complicated environment at Sewanee in 1869. Bradford came to Sewanee from Springfield, Illinois, persuaded to enter the college by an Episcopal priest in his hometown. In 1937 Bradford recalled that Sewanee boys were of “gentle birth and breeding,” yet he still remembered being “taunted with having come from the home of Abraham Lincoln and being too friendly with the negro servants.” He remembered that he “loafed in the kitchen and made myself solid with Old Isaac the cook and got an extra piece of pie and some cold biscuit.” Bradford’s story suggests he was the only one doing this. He had no problem with befriending ‘Old Isaac,’ a step none of the other students deigned to take. Bradford also had no problem with befriending the boys who likely had enslaved many persons like ‘Old Isaac’ only a few years before.[xvii]
Slavery was not in the distant past for these students. It was not in the periphery of their lives. It was foundational to the fact that they were even at a university, especially one called the University of the South. How would a university founded to prove “that a slaveholding people” could be of “high moral and intellectual culture,” as Bishops Polk and Elliott wrote in an 1859 fundraising pamphlet, adapt to a world without slavery? To what degree would a university founded to assert slaveholders’ “rightful place among the learned of the earth” position itself in relation to the political, economic, and moral order of its slaveholding past?[xviii] Without their slaves, where did these original, foundational principles and the social order they underwrote go when the university opened its doors in 1868? The change necessitated a different goal. It was no longer Elliott’s vision, but Quintard’s. Sewanee was not to prove slaveholders’ “high intellectual and moral culture,” but to save the Southern elite from “something worse than death,” to save them from “the depths of an overwhelming despair” by losing their social position. The University of the South was the way to do that.
Higher education was, for these students and their families, a way of maintaining or recovering their standing. While slaveholding families experienced unprecedented wealth losses in the decade after the Civil War, these economic setbacks were not transmitted to their sons’ generation. Instead, a group of scholars recently argued, “sons that grew up in slaveholding households quickly surpassed the economic status of sons of comparable households.” By 1880, the sons of slaveholders had accumulated wealth on par with the sons of similarly wealthy non-slaveholding households. But by 1900, the sons of slaveholders had surpassed all of their counterparts in terms of occupation-based wealth and earnings.[xix]
This increase in wealth is likely not attributable to superior industriousness, entrepreneurial zeal, or intelligence on the part of the sons of slaveholders. Nor would we expect the sons of slaveholders to have been endowed with more business acumen and ability than their similarly wealthy non-slaveholding counterparts. Instead, sons of slaveholders were able to increase their wealth through social capital, access to credit, and family connections. University represented an opportunity to strengthen existing social networks and create new ones.
Of the 185 students with biographical files, I was able to confirm the careers or subsequent occupations of 67 of them. They are broken down in the chart below:
|Occupation||# of Students Engaged in Work|
|Salt Mining (Proprietor)||1|
Again, these conclusions must be preliminary due to the incompleteness of my research thus far. However, there does seem to have been a trend. With the exception perhaps of the lone dairyman in New Orleans, all of these students pursued white collar work after their time at Sewanee. Careers variously listed as “cotton broker,” “cotton business,” “cotton,” “planter,” and “farmer” were all put into one category for the assumptions one must make if a college-educated male in 1870 was going into farming. He was likely not himself the one behind the plow. This data conflicts with the myth of a devastated and reconstructed South post-war. The sons of slaveholders remade their wealth in new ways. Whether they were keeping the status quo by engaging in the ‘cotton business’ or entering into law, real estate, the clergy, or medicine, these Sewanee students seem to have maintained or reconstituted their position and wealth in the post-war world.
One might reasonably make the argument that anyone going to college at the time would subsequently be engaged in white collar work. This may be true, but that fact in and of itself gives way to a larger truth about early Sewanee: the creation of the university in a slaveholding society allowed for wealthy sons of slaveholders to be educated at Sewanee and maintain their wealth and status. It meant something for former slaveholders to send their sons to Sewanee, and those sons turned around with their Sewanee education and entered society with a status not much changed from their fathers’. They were clergymen with prestigious positions like Charles McIlvaine Gray (M’69). They were members of the Alabama Constitutional Convention of 1901 like Cecil Browne (M’70). They were physicians in Mexico like Cornelius Gregg (M’70). They ran mining companies, lumber companies, worked in real estate acquisition, were financiers, and entered politics. They were able to do all of this, undoubtedly, because they had a leg up. They emerged from a society based on the institution of slavery, and they were the generational inheritors of wealth, power, and prestige built on slavery. It was no meritocracy.
The students understood Sewanee as an institution of the South, too. They considered Sewanee a continuation of the old order, not a break from it. John Sharp Williams (M’70), who went on to become a U.S. Senator from Mississippi, observed as much in 1919: “Nor must we forget that the very name ‘University of the South’ suggests the idea that ‘the South’ faces a new era and has an important part to play in the work of social reorganization. I, for one, have never known any ‘New South!’ I know only the same Old South, and I want its leaders to be like the traditional leaders of the South always have been — men of high ideals, honest purpose, of noble instincts, of gentlemanly conduct, even though they were not always men of clear insight into the future of the world. An alumnus of the University of the South myself, although I spent a very short time there, I earnestly bespeak for her, for her work and for her mission your full consideration and your help.”[xx]
Written in a fundraising letter in 1919, Williams’s words were influenced by his own time. Nearly 50 years after Williams matriculated, the Lost Cause mythology had taken root and gained general acceptance among white Americans across the United States. But for these early students, their own words are often what has to be relied on. It struck Williams as a key selling point that Sewanee was an institution of the “same Old South,” and he knew it would appeal to the readers of the letter if he wrote about never knowing any “New South!” and that Sewanee has an important role to play in “social reorganization.” To whatever degree his thinking was molded by the South of 1919, he saw Sewanee in the same light: Sewanee was still as it was in 1870, that is, a place that more than anywhere else resembled 1850.
Williams’s remarks underscore the need to study Sewanee’s post-Civil War history as just as fraught and complex as any pre-war history. There is a lot to be uncovered and examined in a Sewanee history that incorporates the people who attended the university — and without which the university would not have existed — along with the usual emphasis on the lives of Vice-Chancellors and founders and benefactors. Knowing who comprised the student body and who those people really were is integral to understanding the history of the university as a whole. This work isn’t final or definitive, though it does attempt to put some evidence to the story. More study ought to be done and will be done on the early students of Sewanee, how they shaped the university, and how the university shaped them. Instead of conjecture and assumption about what the early students believed and what they did, instead of using the students to further one idea of the university’s past or another, their histories can actually be discovered. In my estimation, the more we learn about the students, the more we will learn about the university. Some students can provide small windows into the university’s past, others larger entryways. Sometimes, the stories speak for themselves.
After Sewanee, Ralph Prosser finished his education at Nashotah House, an Episcopal seminary in Wisconsin. But he returned South again, as he always had, and was ordained in his native Mississippi by a legendary Sewanee man, Bishop William Mercer Green. He spent the rest of his life as a priest in the Diocese of Louisiana, before succumbing to blood poisoning in 1923. “Ever a loyal confederate,” Prosser never let go of the Southern cause. He was chosen by fellow former Confederates as the Chaplain General of the Louisiana Division of Confederate Veterans, a position he proudly held until his death. It had been nearly 60 years since teenaged Prosser’s brief enlistment in the Confederate military, even longer since he was a young master of at least twenty enslaved persons, but as he was buried, his coffin was lowered into the grave draped in a Confederate battle flag. Prosser had no qualms about who he was or what it meant to have fought to preserve the right to enslave black people. A verse from 2 Timothy closed out his obituary: “I have fought a good fight, I have kept the faith.”[xxi]
Notes to the Text
Thank you to the University Archives and Special Collections at Sewanee for the images used in this story.
[i] Prosser’s father served in the Confederate military, too, and as early as 1850 he had signed his name to a letter in the Woodville Republican decrying the “struggle between Northern might and Southern right.” Letter, “To Hon. Jefferson Davis,” Woodville (Miss.) Republican, November 26, 1850, Newspapers.com, accessed October 21, 2019, https://www.newspapers.com/image/334868864/?terms=Prosser.
[ii] Gone With the Wind, directed by Victor Fleming (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc., 1939).
[iii] “A Loyal Soldier Goes to Receive his Award,” copy of article that appeared in Episcopal Church Paper, “The Diocese of Louisiana, Vol. 28, No. 3, published at New Orleans September 1923, which issue was dedicated to Sewanee”; R.H. Prosser biographical file, William R. Laurie University Archives and Special Collections, Sewanee, Tennessee, USA (hereafter cited as UA).
[iv] Address of the Board of Trustees of the University of the South, to the Southern Dioceses, in Reference to Its Choice of the Site for the University (Savannah: George H. Nichols, 1858), 104.
[v] Dedication, Sewanee Perspectives: On the History of the University of the South, ed. Gerald L. Smith and Samuel R. Williamson, Jr. (Sewanee: Sesquicentennial History Project, 2008).
[vi] “Address of the Commissioners for Raising the Endowment of the University of the South,” February 24, 1859, quoted in Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., “Aspirations, Success, and Civil War, 1832-1865” in Sewanee Sesquicentennial History: The Making of the University of the South (Sewanee: Sesquicentennial History Project, 2008), 8.
[vii] Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., “Quintard: The Third Founder and His Colleagues, 1865-1866,” in The ReFounding of Sewanee, eds. Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., Gerald L. Smith, and John M. McCardell, Jr. (Sewanee: Sesquicentennial History Project, 2018), 41.
[viii] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 588.
[ix] Williamson, Sewanee Sesquicentennial History, 36.
[x] University of the South Arts and Sciences Catalog, 1870-71, College of Arts and Sciences Catalog and Announcements, UA.
[xi] Eugene D. Genovese, A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998), 3.
[xii] Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., “Success, Frustration, and at Last a Glimpse of a University, 1869-1870,” in The ReFounding of Sewanee, 122.
[xiii] The catalog supplied basic information such as the students’ names, hometowns, and matriculation year. In addition, 185 of the 226 students had “biographical files” at the University Archives, which contained the students’ registration cards (names, matriculation years, hometowns, etc.) and some additional information if it was available, such as subsequent careers and death dates. Some files included correspondence with university officials, newspaper clippings, photographs, letters, and information filled out by relatives or descendants.
[xiv] Abraham Lincoln, “Second Inaugural Address,” The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, accessed July 11, 2019, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln2.asp.
[xv] Joseph P. Glatthaar, Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served Under Robert E. Lee (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 154.
[xvi] “M’” for ‘matriculated,’ as in “C’” for class graduation year.
[xvii] Letter, “A Backward View of Sewanee,” October 1, 1937, John S. Bradford biographical file, UA.
[xviii] Williamson, Sewanee Sesquicentennial History, 8.
[xix] Philipp Ager, Leah Platt Boustan, Katherine Eriksson, “The Intergenerational Effects of a Large Wealth Stock: White Southerners After the Civil War,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series, National Bureau of Economic Research, March 2019.
[xx] Letter to Rev. N. Logan, Pass Christian, Mississippi, October 18, 1919, John Sharp Williams biographical file, UA.
[xxi] “A Loyal Soldier Goes to Receive his Award”; Prosser biographical file.