The Day the Campus Burned

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Five days later, and it might not have happened at all.

Five days later, Robert E. Lee was surrendering at Appomattox Courthouse, and the Civil War was irreversibly moving toward its end. Five days later, Brigadier General John T. Croxton might’ve had less reason to cripple Tuscaloosa by destroying everything of value, including an academic institution turned makeshift military academy. Maybe, but probably not. Lee’s was not the only force in the CSA. Down in Montgomery, Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry units were biding their time, waiting to strike back after their defeat at Selma on April 2.

What did the “West Point of the Confederacy” look like back then? Here’s an illustration, from the campus’s first decade (1839):

UA campus 1839

On the left is Franklin Hall, with Madison Hall on the right. In the center is the rotunda, which housed the school’s library, with the Lyceum in the background.

Here’s a photo from 1861:

ua campus 1861

However idyllic these images look, all was not peaceful at the school, even before the war. The students were rowdy and disobedient, prompting President Garland to implement a system of military discipline in 1860. In some ways, this was lucky for the students — they and their compatriots around the state would need this training once the war came.


On April 3, 1865, Union troops met UA cadets at River Hill, at a bridge over the Black Warrior River. In a 1990 article on the subject (see References, below), Clark Center, former Curator of the W. S. Hoole Special Collections Library, recounted the decision facing the group:

As the Corps waited in position, President Garland held a conference with Commandant Murfee and Captain James S. Carpenter, a confederate officer. Carpenter informed Garland and Murfee of the overwhelming odds facing the small force of three hundred boys. Not only were the cadets outnumbered, but the Federal troops were armed with repeating rifles. And to rub salt into the wound, the Corps’ own field pieces, captured before they could be brought into play, were now trained on the bridge and its approaches from the Northport side.

Garland made his decision. Unwilling to commit the Corps to useless sacrifice, he marched the boys back to the campus. Once there, they quickly gathered their overcoats, blankets, and haversacks, which they filled with hard-tack from the commissary stores, and fell back into ranks.

By two o’clock in the morning the Corps and many of the faculty were marching east along the Huntsville Road, away from Tuscaloosa and the University.

Not all the faculty left, however. The next day, when Colonel Thomas M. Johnston and the Second Michigan Cavalry came onto the campus, they were met by Andre Deloffre, a Frenchman who taught French and Spanish…

Andrew De Loffre 1859

…and William Wyman (bottom), who taught Latin and Greek.

William Wyman

Deloffre, who served as the University librarian, was reportedly the one who begged Johnston not to destroy the rotunda, which housed some 7,000 volumes, in addition to the school’s natural history collection.

While Center’s piece provides a historical account of the events of April 9, 1865, another version of events, by early 20th century Tuscaloosa historian James A. Anderson, takes a more artistic approach. Here’s Anderson’s dramatization of that moment, from The Destruction of the University of Alabama Library: An Episode of the Civil War, written in the 1930s:


Facing a plea that might’ve been much like this once, Johnston relented, at least enough to send a messenger to Croxton, asking what he might do. But the reply wasn’t good. Croxton had no choice: all public buildings must be destroyed. And so they were.

Lyceum ruins drawing

(Drawing, ruins of the Lyceum)


What was the heart of campus then is still the heart of campus now. If you stand at the stone monument on the Quad, facing the steps of Gorgas Library…


…then you’re standing about where the rotunda used to be. If you were there amid the rubble in the late 1860s, looking across more rubble where the Lyceum once stood (round about Clark Hall), you’d have a view of the newly built Woods Hall:


You’d also be looking at bricks from the original campus structures, salvaged and incorporated into Woods and other subsequent buildings.

So, was anything left standing? Yes, and those four campus buildings are still here today:

  1. the guardhouse, now known as the Round House, which sits next to Gorgas Library
  2. Gorgas House, located next to Morgan Hall on the northwest corner of the Quad
  3. the President’s Mansion, across University Boulevard from Denny Chimes
  4. the old Observatory, now known as Maxwell Hall, across from Bruno Library on the west side of campus


Other traces of the old campus still remain. There on the shady side of the Quad where Franklin Hall used to be is The Mound, which has come to play its own important part in UA’s more recent past and present, serving as the location for “tappings” on Honors Day.

Franklin1 Franklin2

On the sunny side of the Quad, a brick plinth marks the spot where Madison Hall once stood.


Long after the original campus’s destruction, its architectural styles influenced the rebuilding and continuing growth of the campus, and inspired those who perhaps never even saw the buildings, like the amateur artist who made this drawing of the rotunda (side view) in the 1880s:


Five days before the first major surrender of the war, the campus of the University of Alabama was forever changed. In the decades after the war, the ersatz military training facility became a real military college. Eventually, though, it shed its martial past to become a co-ed institution of higher learning, with its own societal conflicts and, thankfully, more peaceful resolutions.



Center, Clark. “The Burning of the University of Alabama.” Alabama Heritage 16 (Spring 1990): 30-45.

This entry was posted in Civil War, Photographs, Southern History, UA History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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