Civil War Echoes: College Football

As another college football Saturday passes, I cannot help but be struck by the various Civil War connections that can be found on today’s gridiron.

Like any deep-rooted regional organization, colleges and universities are an expression of each state and reflect the values and heritage of their respective areas. In some states, rooting for the local university is also a way to show state pride (Missouri, Kentucky, Nebraska, and Oregon all are examples) or regional pride (Louisville, Cincinnati, Pitt, UCLA, Miami, and Auburn). Given this background, it is only natural that the Civil War would find a place in college football.

Of course, there are other colleges and universities that have Civil War ties that are not in their symbols, such as West Point, the Naval Academy, VMI, the Citadel, Harvard, Mississippi State, Dickinson College, Union College, William & Mary, Emory & Henry, and others. Nothing in this post should be interpreted as taking away from those legacies. But symbols are fundamental expressions of an organization’s identity; the strongest Civil War echoes are in those colleges and universities that draw some sort of enduring symbol from their Civil War legacy.

A partial list of colleges that draw their symbols in some way from the Civil War include:

Howard University. Named for its founder, Major General O.O. Howard, USA.

Indiana University. Mascot is the Hoosiers, sharing a nickname with Indiana troops in the Civil War.

The Louisiana State University. Mascot is the Tigers, in honor of the famed Louisiana Tigers of the Army of Northern Virginia.

The Ohio State University. Mascot is the Buckeyes, sharing a nickname with Ohio troops in the Civil War. 

State University of New York at Albany. The school’s alma mater song calls the area and state the “mother of armies.” As the New York State Normal School, contributed a company to the 44th New York Infantry, Army of the Potomac. The author’s graduate alma mater.

University of Kansas. Mascot is the Jayhawks, from the Jayhawker bands of free-staters that battled pro-slavery elements in the “Bleeding Kansas” period and through the Civil War.

University of Michigan. Mascot is the Wolverines, sharing a nickname with Michigan troops (notably George A. Custer’s cavalry) in the Civil War.

University of Mississippi (Ole Miss). Mascot is the Rebels, alluding to the state’s Confederate service. Also draws a connection to the University Grays of the 2d Mississippi Infantry, Army of Northern Virginia.

University of Wisconsin. Mascot is the Badgers, sharing a nickname with Wisconsin troops from the Civil War. Plays at Camp Randall Stadium, on the site of the state’s training and mustering ground. The fight song and chant of ON WISCONSIN comes from Lieutenant Arthur MacArthur’s cry at the Battle of Chattanooga in 1863.

Virginia Tech. Plays in Lane Stadium, named for Brigadier General James H. Lane, CSA, first Commandant of the Corps of Cadets at the school.

Washington & Lee University. Named for George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Mascot is the Generals.

Honorable mention also goes to the Blue-Gray Classic, a college all-star game played in Montgomery, Alabama, from 1939 to 2001 and one more time in 2003.


14 Responses to Civil War Echoes: College Football

  1. This is just a wonderful article! I often think of the Civil War & baseball, but rarely football–and the season is indeed upon us! one you did not mention is the famous (lol!) Civil War in Oregon. This refers to the rivalry between the Oregon State University Beavers and the Ducks from the University of Oregon. This “Civil War” started in 1894, and has continued ever since. I have no idea who I would cheer for, so Huzzah to all.

  2. Lane Hall at Tech is named for General Lane but the stadium is named for another man. General Lane, by the way, is buried in Auburn, Alabama, where he ended his teaching career.

  3. The Tar Heels were a Revolutionary War nickname. Did not know about Notre Dame, but just looked it up – pretty cool!

  4. Why do the Nittany Lions play in Beaver Stadium?

    Named for Colonel James Addams Beaver who lost a leg at Reams Station and later served as Pennsylvania governor.

  5. Also, Gettysburg College’s “Bullets” use (or once used) a minie ball as their logo.

    Joel Manuel
    Baton Rouge

  6. The UT school song “The Eyes of Texas” evolved from a postwar Robert E. Lee quote to the students at Washington & Lee University.

  7. Whenever University of Missouri and Kansas University play, it is referred to as “The Border War”

    1. That is also ironic considering Mizzou Tigers is from Union militia formed to protect Columbia and Jefferson City from guerrilla forces. The Tigers and Jayhawks would have been on the same side.

      However, Truman the Tiger is named after Harry S. Truman who was a white supremacist, southern sympathizer and felt Lee should have never surrendered.

  8. Re: Jayhawkers being bands of free stater elements battling Missouri pro-slavery elements during the Civil War. It is worth noting as far back as the 1850’s jayhawker bands were raiding Missouri villages, towns and family farms stealing, burning and killing. Lawrence, Ks. was known for regular sales of stolen items from Missouri homes. What changed once the war officially started in 1861 was Missouri was put under Marshall Law and and some Union soldiers participated with the Jayhawker’s while other Union soldiers offered the jayhawkers protection or turned their backs while the jayhawkers continued stealing, murdering and burning. The west side of Missouri is known as “The Burnt Chimney District” because that is all that was left on farmsteads and villages when the jayhawkers finished their heinous acts. The remaining chimneys were/are referred to as “Jennison’s tombstones” or “Jennison’s monuments” after one of the most bloodthirsty and noted jayhawker gang leaders; Doc Jennison. (One can look up the definition of the term jayhawker in the 1800’s and read it fits the characterization noted above.) In 1865 when the state of Kansas established a state university and were contemplating a name for a mascot; it is no coincidence they chose a name that had been inflicting depredations on the citizens of Missouri for over ten years. The Missouri-Kansas rivalry is the oldest west of the Mississippi River and the spirit of sports competition is deeply held to this day.

  9. Similar to the way in which Massachusetts Rules Base Ball evolved to become New York Rules Baseball, Football evolved from “mob football” …to Rugby (seen played by Captain George McClellan during his observation of the 1854/55 Crimean War) …to, something …best described as a combination of mob football and Rugby, played by soldiers during the Civil War [see ].
    What was recognized as “the first game of American football” was played between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869. But it more closely resembled the above Harper’s Weekly sketch than today’s padded, helmeted, four-down game.

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