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This lithographic print by Charles Magnus, which is part of the University Archives collection, depicts Columbian College and Carver Barracks on College Hill in Washington, 1864.

By G. David Anderson

The American Civil War split Columbian College as it did the nation. South of the Mason Dixon Line, Washington was considered a Southern city. When the conflict began, most students left their classrooms to join the Southern forces, while the faculty was split by opposing loyalties.

Because of its status as the nation’s capital and its geographic location, the district soon became the staging area for the Union. By order of newly elected President Lincoln, the district and the campus of Columbian College (original name of The George Washington University) was converted to barracks, accommodations for the sick, troop quarters, and hospitals.

(above) George W. Samson was president of Columbian College from 1859 to 1871. (below) This photo, from the Matthew Brady collection at the National Archives, shows the interior of Carver Hospital.

Chartered in 1821, Columbian College’s first location was known as “College Hill.” This 46.5-acre tract of land extended north of Boundary Street (now Florida Avenue) between 14th and 15th Streets. Purchased for $7,000, the land was owned by John Holmead, who resided at Meridian Hill. The campus was within walking distance of the Capitol. The College’s central building was a large structure for classes and boarding that accommodated 100 students. Three smaller buildings housed professors, the College president, and the College steward. Classes began in January 1822 with 30 students registered for the first term. In the years preceding the Civil War, approximately 300 students received their degrees from the College.

In the mid-1800s, the city was growing and changing. By 1853 Washington had installed gas lamps along major streets. Washington’s first water system was completed by 1859. By 1860 the population had grown to 75,080.

The fifth president of Columbian College, George Whitefield Samson, was elected in 1859. Samson was pastor of the E Street Baptist Church in Washington. He ended his tenure in 1871 as professor of moral and intellectual philosophy. He had the difficult duties of directing the College during the years leading to, during, and after the Civil War. With the aid of his colleagues he kept the College open and worked to reestablish the Law Department.

After the election of Abraham Lincoln, a known anti-slavery proponent, the South seceded. In January 1861 the South Carolina legislature called a state convention and voted to leave the Union. Virginia would secede in April of the same year and by July the First Battle of Bull Run would be fought just outside Washington. Samson reported to the Board of Trustees on April 24, 1861, that 20 students out of 155 had left the College “owning to the disturbed condition of the country.”

Curriculum at the College on the eve of the Civil War was composed of a classical course for the degree of Bachelor of Arts, a philosophical course for a Bachelor of Philosophy, a select course for master’s level study, a Medical Department and hospital, and a successful Preparatory School. The Preparatory School played a major role in the life of the College, as it was a popular place for students to prepare for admission to Columbian or other colleges.

Courses at the College included Greek, Latin, mathematics, modern languages, rhetoric, chemistry, physics, botany, logic, intellectual philosophy, astronomy, anatomy and physiology, ethical history, political philosophy, and English literature. Rhetorical exercises included compositions twice and declamations once a month. There were two literary societies. Both the Enosinian and the Philophrenian Societies were formed by students.

Columbian College General Hospital, with the main building of Columbian College in the background and Union troops encamped in the foreground. The original photo is part of the Ordway Collection at the Library of Congress.

Fees for students were $10 for admission, $55 for tuition, $20 for room rent with servant’s attendance (slaves were not permitted), $15 for fuel, $10 for use of furniture (if provided by the college); and $10 for washing at 50 cents per dozen. Of interest was the acceptance by the College, as the war began, of Virginia money for some payments.

The Preparatory Department had a principal and five assistant teachers. The Preparatory Department occupied a building on the College premises. The students were under the supervision of the faculty and subject to all regulations of the College in regard to discipline. In the 1860-61 academic year there were 69 students.

In 1860 Columbian College students helped in the construction of a gymnasium on College Hill.

By 1860 one fraternity, the Washington Rho chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, was active at Columbian College. SAE was founded in 1856 at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa by Noble Leslie DeVotie. His younger brother, Jewett DeVotie, organized the 10th chapter of SAE at Columbian College. Most “brothers” of SAE fought for the South. Only at Columbian College and Kentucky did SAE members fight for the Union. Washington Rho at Columbian College was the only chapter to survive the Civil War. Other chapters were re-established with the end of the war.

With the secession and the start of war the city was becoming an armed camp. One of the few public improvements was the installation of the equestrian statue of George Washington at Washington Circle (1860) in the area that would be the future home of The George Washington University.
The citizens of the district were split in their loyalty to North and South. The city, for the most part, was undefended and was certainly not prepared to house all the troops to come or respond to the multiple wounded. Because of its location, the district became the principle receiving point for wounded and sick and the gateway to invasion in the South.

(left) Columbian College professor Albert Freeman Africanus King was one of several physicians who tended to President Lincoln immediately after he was shot. (right) Robert King Stone was Lincoln’s personal physician.

The Union forces commandeered all churches, public buildings, large private homes, and academic institutions. In addition to barracks, and governmental and military operations, the district essentially became one large hospital.

The Army commandeered the College Hill campus and the hospital downtown. Despite reduced enrollment, professors continued to hold classes, often in their homes. From 1861 to 1865 the College had 194 registered students. The Preparatory School had 357 students. The medical graduates served
during the war—46 for the Union, 24 for the South. Many faculty members also served, including Dr. John G. F. Holston, professor of surgery, and Dr. Joseph H. Warren, professor of anatomy.

The Army moved onto the campus, often occupying areas without permission. The fence surrounding the campus was partially destroyed by solders of the Third Maine Regiment of Volunteers. The Army reimbursed the College for the damages. The government also agreed to rent the campus for $350 per month. This fee was later reduced to $250. In addition, by October 1862 the steward’s house was rented and 16 acres of the campus were occupied for barracks. The College’s association with the army was not a pleasant one. The College water pump was used by 3,000 men and damage to College facilities mounted as the war continued.

Within the campus the Columbian College and Carver general hospitals were established. Carver had 1,300 beds and Columbian College 844. During the war these hospitals were visited by President Lincoln. Walt Whitman also devoted time to the patients at Carver Hospital.

The Washington Infirmary at Judiciary Square was a teaching hospital, home to the Medical Department since the 1840s, and a meeting place for the Medical Society of the District of Columbia. The infirmary enjoyed several prosperous years, but with the beginning of the American Civil War, the school entered a difficult era. The infirmary was the only available hospital in the district. In April 1861 it was requisitioned for military use.

As the city was mostly undefended, the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment was ordered to move to Washington. While marching through Baltimore, the unit was attacked by hostile mobs of Southern loyalists. Many of the wounded were moved to the Washington Infirmary. After the First Battle at Bull Run the number of wounded increased.

The Southern threat to the city was very real. Enemy gun sites could be seen across the Potomac. It was essential that Washington be protected. As a result Arlington, Alexandria, and surrounding areas in Virginia were captured and occupied by Union forces. Afterwards a series of forts were established, surrounding the city.

The Washington Infirmary would survive the war for only six months. On Nov. 4, 1861, a fire completely destroyed the hospital and the offices of the medical school. The Washington Star reported in 1861 that more than 100 patients were removed from the building (one patient died). By the time the fire engines arrived the facility was destroyed. So ended GW’s first established teaching hospital.

Despite the chaos of the war, the medical college regrouped and in 1863 reopened in the Constitution Office on E Street between 12th and 13th Streets, N.W. Because of the depletion of students and faculty members, lectures at the medical school were suspended between 1863 and 1865.

This illustration from the Nov. 23, 1861, Harper’s Weekly shows the burning of the Washington Infirmary on Nov. 4, 1861. The infirmary was home of Columbian College’s clinical hospital and medical school. The fire completely destroyed the hospital and the medical school offices. Only one of 100 patients is reported to have died in the fire. The rest escaped or were rescued.

In the 1840s, the Department of Medicine had moved into the infirmary, which was formerly the old jail at Judiciary Square. It was then that it became known as the Washington Infirmary and the National Medical College, one of the nation’s first teaching hospitals.

Beginning a long tradition of GW service to presidents, medical faculty member Dr. A.Y.P. Garnett left Washington to become Jefferson Davis’ personal physician, while faculty member Dr. Robert King Stone remained to serve Abraham Lincoln. Garnett knew many Washington officials. In order to go to Virginia, Garnett had to ask permission and obtain a passport from the Secretary of War to travel to the South. He later became physician to the Lee family and Jefferson Davis. In charge of Richmond Hospitals, Garnett returned to his practice in Washington at the end of the war.

At approximately 10:15 p.m. on April 14, 1865, Lincoln was shot in the back of the head by John Wilkes Booth. After being taken from Ford’s Theater, Lincoln was attended by several physicians. Among them were Columbian College professors Dr. John F. May and Dr. A.F.A. King
At Lincoln’s bedside surgeons Joseph K. Barnes and Robert King Stone found the wound to be mortal.

At the end of the Civil War the army and other government authorities made slight repairs to the main College building, the Steward’s house, and the engine room, which heated both buildings. They declined to repair the boiler and fixtures or repair the pipes damaged by overuse and improper drainage. In 1868 President Samson requested the Board of Trustees allocate $2,500 for repairs to the Steward’s house, occupied by the principal of the Preparatory School, and the library, which was relocated to the upper room of the building formerly occupied by the Preparatory Department.

In 1865 the Law School was re-established. From 1865 to 1867 the medical school shared space in the Columbian College Law Building on 5th Street between D and E Streets, N.W. The Law building also served as a church on Sundays.

The hospital and medical school moved to 1335 H Street in 1868. The new building, which previously housed the Army Medical Museum’s specimens, was donated by W.W. Corcoran, philanthropist and president of the Board of Trustees from 1869 to 1888. Medical school and law school lectures were held in the late afternoon or evening to accommodate federal workers.

By 1870 Washington’s population reached 109,000. Washington was a growing community. By 1871 the president’s annual report listed a total of 376 students. After the war and in spite of the conflict that split the College and the nation, the College was recording an “unusually large number of applications, particularly from the Southern States.” Even with the neglected condition of its campus, Columbian College resumed its role as a key institution of higher learning in the District of Columbia.

G. David Anderson is the University Archivist and Historian. Information for the article came from a variety of sources, among them the books, records, and visual materials found in the University Archives. Additional sources include: the books and writings of Elmer Louis Kayser, the University’s first official historian; Capital Medicine: A Tradition of Excellence by Nancy B. Paull; City of Magnificent Intentions by Keith Melder; and Washington At Home, edited by Kathryn Schneider Smith. Also, information was pulled from the Ford’s Theater National Information Site.