Georgetown: Fighting for Survival
The Hilltop at War
| Courtesy Special Collections
BLUE & GRAY: Georgetown's involvement in the Civil War and every armed conflict since the American Revolution has been both parallel to and inextricably bound up with the growth of the nation.
In the years following the Civil War, Georgetown University adopted blue and gray as its official colors in tribute to the role the school and its sons played in that conflict.
The story can be repeated by practically anyone who has set foot on campus and taken the guided tour, but Georgetown's involvement in that war — and every armed conflict since the American Revolution — has been deeper than such widely repeated anecdote can convey. Created in the same year as the U.S. Constitution, Georgetown's development has been both parallel to and inextricably bound up with the growth of the nation. Situated in our nation's capital, Georgetown's history is in many ways America's history.
University founder John Carroll, as inscribed on his statue in Healy Circle, was more than a priest and a scholar; he was a patriot. In the last third of the 18th century, Carroll was involved in the foundation of a nation, not just a university. At the outbreak of the war, he, along with Benjamin Franklin and John Marshall, was sent as an emissary to Canada in an attempt to recruit those colonies to join in the revolution. Carroll was personally acquainted with George Washington, and his first cousin Charles Carroll of Maryland signed the Declaration of Independence.
In the college's early years some of the young nation's greatest celebrities and war heroes toured campus and were received by the scholars, including the Marquis de Lafayette and Washington, who's two young nephews were enrolled in the school. But, much like the condition of the city itself, in the early 1800s Georgetown's future was uncertain. Although it had recently been named the national capital, the District of Columbia was a sleepy backwater town — little more than a swamp with muddy roads and a serious mosquito problem. In these days when foreign embassies were nothing more than rooms rented at wayside inns, a proposal was made to move the entire college to New York, a far more cosmopolitan locale. The plan was rejected, however, leaving Georgetown and Washington to weather the turbulent times to come together.
In 1812 growing tensions and lingering troubles stemming from the revolution led to a second war with Great Britain and left Georgetown on the front lines of the conflict. As the war continued, growing concern regarding the college's security prompted university president Anthony Grassi, S.J., to place an advertisement in the National Intelligencer on Sept. 6, 1813, reassuring students and their families. Classes had started on time, he wrote, with “the existing state of affairs leaving no apprehension of any further disturbances.” For the time being, Grassi was correct, but the situation at the start of classes the following year would be significantly more worrisome.
On Aug. 24, 1814, the week before students were scheduled to return to campus, the British Army entered the city of Washington, captured the White House and other government buildings and set them to the torch. From the Hilltop Grassi and the other Jesuits watched the city burn. In his diary, Fr. John McElroy, S.J., recorded, in Latin, that the flames were so bright that once the sun went down it was still possible to read outside by their light.
The following day, while the citizens of Georgetown (at this time still a separate city and a part of Maryland) fled to the countryside, fearing an attack on their prosperous tobacco port, emissaries from the Jesuits went to parley with the British army. The priests were promised that so long as everyone stayed inside and remained quiet, both the school and the town would remain untouched. Despite such promises, the Jesuits saw that all the school's sacred vessels and “articles of plate” were secreted away, but the British were true to their word and on Sept. 1, 1814 classes started as scheduled, although it took some weeks before all of the expected scholars returned.
Throughout the 19th century Georgetown grew steadily, but it remained predominantly a southern school and as sectional tensions grew the campus became a hotbed of discontent. On Dec. 11, 1859, the Philodemic Society debated whether the southern states should secede from the Union. Arguments continued at several meetings over the course of the next two weeks and when the result was finally announced in the affirmative a violent brawl broke out, with the result that meetings were cancelled for the remainder of the year. In early 1861 a band of students burned newly elected president Abraham Lincoln in effigy.
Meanwhile, students left the university in droves: as many as 100 on a single day at the very beginning of April. On April 10, 1861, 10 of the 11 remaining members of the senior class presented a letter to University president John Early, S.J., declaring their intention to leave the school. “Our presence here any longer would be attended but with little good to us,” they wrote, “ … while all we hold most dear on earth, our Country [the South], our parents and our brethren call loudly upon our presence at our respective homes.”
On May 4, 1861, Martial Law was declared on campus as Maguire Hall and the students' refectory became home to the 1,300 members of the 69th Regiment of the New York National Guard — more men than had ever before been housed on campus. The unit's Colonel took up residence in the Jesuit recreation room, while students and Jesuits alike needed passwords to move about the campus. In June the 69th New York was replaced by the 79th New York, keeping the university occupied by the military until July.
From the heights on which Georgetown is set, the Jesuits were able to hear cannon fire from the war's first major battle at Manassas, Va., on the banks of Bull Run Creek on July 21, 1861. In the day's action, future alumnus Charles R. Rand (M 1873) performed actions that would later earn him the Congressional Medal of Honor. Watching the Union retreat, President Early remarked that if the troops came near campus “every bed in the college shall be turned over to the wounded.”
The armies stayed clear of the Hilltop for the time being, but Early's words proved to be prophetic. In August of 1862 a portion of the campus, as well as nearby Trinity Church, was converted into a military hospital holding up to 500 patients following the battles of Second Manassas and Antietam.
Bernard Maguire, S.J., the postwar president of Georgetown said the Civil War “nearly ruined” the college. Enrollment slumped dramatically, falling as low as 17 in the fall of 1861, before rising to a wartime average of 75. All told, 1,141 sons of Georgetown fought in the Civil War — 216 for the Union and 925 for the Confederacy — with 117 dying in battle or from disease. The classes of 1861-65 sent 358 of their number into the fray.
The war irrevocably changed the very make up of the university. No longer was the school predominantly southern, but instead there were an increased number of students from the region who did not board on campus. The students themselves were different too, Maguire noticed. They were older and many had served in the military, giving them a greater proclivity for hard work and discipline. When military companies were reorganized on campus, they had a glut of real, trained officers to lead them in drill.
The period following the Civil War was one of great growth for Georgetown. The 15-year-old medical school continued to grow both in size and importance, helped along by the enormous demand the war created for doctors and surgeons and the fact that it was the only such institution in the Washington area to remain open throughout the conflict. In 1870, the first students enrolled in the law school, while the 1870s and 1880s saw the construction of Healy Hall at the front of campus. At the turn of the century, Georgetown turned its attention to the health field with the founding of the hospital in 1898, the dental school in 1901 and the nursing school in 1903.
Situated in the nation's capital, Georgetown felt echoes of the coming of World War I before the United States officially entered into the conflict, with some of her sons traveling to Europe in order to enlist. When America finally declared war on Germany in 1917, Georgetown responded quickly, forming its own segment of the Reserve Officer's Training Corps far in advance of the national mobilization of colleges. In 1918 the government enacted a program called the Student's Army Training Corps, in which every student on campus were mustered into service as privates and enrolled in a combined military and academic program administered by the army and navy. All students under age 18 were assigned to a special civilian unit, but received much the same education. The commissioning of students meant that during the war Georgetown was typically home to over 800 army and navy personnel, officers and student candidates. After a three-month training regimen, successful candidates were transferred to a regular army encampment for final, and more traditional, officer training.
More than 2,000 Georgetown students and alumni served in the armed forces during the Great War. Fifty-four did not survive the conflict. On June 16, 1919, following the Baccalaureate Mass a special service was held to honor the Georgetown men who had given their lives. The university planted a grove of 54 Lombardy poplars, each one bearing a plaque with the name of one of the casualties. It was thought tragic when, several weeks later, one of the trees withered and died although the others remained healthy, but then college dean and future university president Coleman Nevils, S.J., recorded a surprising event that turned the occasion into one of celebration. “But lo and behold,” he wrote, “word came from overseas that one of the Georgetown men who had been reported killed in action, was alive — only 53 trees were needed. The tree had died instead!”
During the war, Fr. Edmund A. Walsh, S.J., then a dean of the College, was also appointed to military service by the War Department. Walsh's experiences as Assistant Educational Director of the SATC program demonstrated to him that the American educational system lacked sufficient means to train young men in the means necessary to conduct successful foreign affairs careers. Under Walsh's direction, the School of Foreign Service was founded in 1919 with 62 students. Within 5 years, the number had grown to over 500.
The Second World War only continued the pattern of using colleges as training institutions for future army officers as well as feeders to boost the ranks of American military forces. Fighting cut Georgetown's academic population in half by March of 1943: over 600 young men who otherwise would have been studying on the Hilltop were instead seeing action in Europe or the Pacific.
Beyond its manpower contributions, the university itself became an official U.S. Military Reservation. A large sign at Healy gates proclaimed the school's new official designation, while armed sentries patrolled the campus. Georgetown had become a center for the Specialized Training and Reassignment program and was used as a site to test college-aged potential officers. Of the 4,682 soldiers who had such tests administered by the Georgetown faculty, 3,928 were accepted into the Army Specialized Training Program, the next generation of the joint military/academic program in place on campus during World War I. Although not all of those accepted would complete their training at Georgetown, the campus's population throughout the war was double what it had been at any previous time.
Since then, Georgetown has continued its involvement in the wars and other events that have shaped the evolving identity of the United States. From the civil disobedience and protest movements of the Vietnam era to the tragic events of Sept. 11, Georgetown has continued its participation in the military struggles that have arisen. Beginning when the United States was nothing more than a patriot's dream, Georgetown, her sons and, more recently, daughters, have been an eyewitness to the most defining moments of our national experience.
When British troops invaded Washington during the War of 1812, among the many government buildings put to the torch were both houses of Congress. In possession of large lecture halls that could fit all of the senators and representatives, the Georgetown Jesuits feared that the legislature would request the use of campus — a request the college could hardly refuse, although it would mean ceding the property and potentially closing the school. But before a final plan could be formulated, the city of Georgetown formally offered the property to the government, which, thankfully, declined.
Shortly after its 1898 founding, Georgetown University Hospital received a baptism by fire, serving as a major treatment center for wounded troops sent back stateside during the Spanish-American War.
Maryland native James Ryder Randall (C 1859) was teaching in Louisiana in April 1861 when word reached the deep South of the riots in Baltimore as newly mustered Union troops marched to Washington. Initial reports listed his former roommate as one of the dead, prompting Randall to pen “Maryland, My Maryland,” a Confederate anthem and now the state song of Maryland.
In 1862, when Georgetown was partially transformed into a military hospital, only the southern buildings on campus were used for that purpose. The northern buildings were also slated for use, but a timely intercession saved the school from having to discontinue all classes. Maj. Gen. Amiel Weeks Whipple, who was killed six months later at the battle of Chancellorsville, vehemently insisted that the northern buildings should be spared. His two young sons were among the 30 students left in class.
Georgetown's 1863 commencement took place on Wednesday, July 2. The scheduled speaker for the ceremony was Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, but the heavy fighting at Gettysburg, Penn. occupied all of his attention and he was forced to cancel the engagement at the last minute.
Among the notable Georgetown alumni in the Civil War were Brig. Gen. John C. McFerran (C 1838), the Chief Quartermaster of the Department of New Mexico and later Washington, D.C., and Samuel Jacobs Radcliff, the Medical Director of the Union Army's XXIII Corps.
Nearly three years before the United States entered World War I, Georgetown alumnus Dennis P. Dowd (C 1908) became the first American to enlist in a combat unit. Dowd arrived in France and immediately enlisted in the Foreign Legion on Aug. 26, 1914. The following year he was transferred to the 170th Infantry in the French Army and was wounded in the Champagne Offensive that autumn. After recovering, Dowd volunteered to serve in the fledgling French Air Force. He died on Aug. 11, 1916 when his plane malfunctioned during a high altitude training fight.
With World War II draining away at the young, male population of America, the Graduate school first accepted women in the fall of 1944, in an effort to boost sorely lagging enrollment figures. The other elements of the university followed suit gradually over the next 25 years.
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