When Faced With Death: University Students And Loss, 1861

At Indiana University, most students joined one of two literary societies active on campus in the antebellum era. Literary societies were a nationwide extracurricular activity among college students at that time and were a way for students to “practice” for their future careers by debating important issues, learning to run an organization, and writing and presenting speeches to an audience. These young men represented themselves and the universities in a variety of capacities, which had both positive and negative consequences at times.

During the American Civil War, students who remained on campus at Indiana University struggled to justify their decision not to enlist. The decision was often political or driven by family circumstances. The students who stayed behind, however, felt that the university and its literary societies maintained a significant place in the lives of those students who chose to go off to war. The soldiers from Indiana University were on loan, in a way, from their “true” calling as the nation’s next generation of educated men. Therefore, when a student-soldier died at the front, students who remained behind at Indiana University responded in a way that illustrated how they perceived their relationship with the deceased as unaltered by the decision to enlist. Additionally, students who stayed behind quickly realized that the war was more than a topic to be debated in a literary society hall.

Death found some of Indiana University’s student-soldiers within a few months of their departure for the front. On November 9, 1861, residents read the following headline and article in the Bloomington Republican: “Death of Volunteers – The telegraph this week brings us the painful intelligence of the death (by sickness) of three young men, of this place, who enlisted in different companies that went from here during the past season.” Samuel Wylie Dodds, class of 1861, enlisted in the 18th Indiana the summer following graduation. Later that fall, family members requested that the army allow Dodds to go take care of his relative, Professor Wylie’s son Richard, who was dying at an army hospital in St. Louis. The young Wylie passed away and Dodds contracted an illness while tending to him and died in November 1861. John C. Cox, a freshman at Indiana University from Paoli, Indiana, left school in 1861 and served in the 14th Indiana, a three-year unit containing one company organized in Bloomington. He died at the front in Virginia also in November 1861.[1]

In response to the initial news of the deaths of Cox and Wylie, Indiana University junior John Hood chaired a committee formed at a campus-wide meeting to salute their fallen friends. Five resolutions resulted from that gathering, and the students published them in the Bloomington Republican and the Paoli Eagle of Cox’s hometown as a “Tribute of Respect.” In their words, Cox was “a talented and industrious student; a noble and generous companion [who served] the Country [as] a ready and brave defender.” The students also extended their sympathy to their “beloved professor, [Theophilus] Wylie” on the death of his son. Subsequently, the Philomathean Literary Society held a meeting at which members passed and published similar resolutions regarding Cox’s death. Their admiration of his service to his country and its impact on their own lives back at the university was apparent. “Cox,” they wrote, “actuated by the highest motives of patriotism, forsook home, friends and [Philomatheans], and went forth to encounter the dangers and privations of the battlefield.” The students who remained and participated in their literary society as a part of their daily home front viewed Cox’s membership with the Philomathean Society as equal in significance to his relationships with family and friends. In their perception, his decision to leave for war endangered the hearts not only of his loved ones, but those in his literary society as well. He was to those who remained at Indiana University a student first. They continued to dwell on the sadness of his death at such an early age, submitting that Cox “has fallen in the noontide of his usefulness, while thus nobly battling for his country, liberty and humanity.”[2]

Upon receiving news of Samuel Dodds’ death a few days later, the Athenian Literary Society submitted five resolutions for publication in the town newspaper. The second was especially poignant:

Resolved, That the Athenian Society has lost one who, while with us, was ever true to her interests and an ornament to her cause, and whose noble qualities of mind and heart had endeared him to all her members; and also that this community has lost an honored and beloved citizen, and the country a brave and gallant defender.

In their eyes, Dodds represented not only his country and the Bloomington community but also his literary society at Indiana University. The Athenians adjourned for the evening after passing these resolutions and suspended that week’s planned debate session. It was remarkable how much responsibility these literary societies felt towards their fellow members, even the ones who had departed the campus for the army. When the Athenians learned of Dodds’ death, they decided that if the militia did not serve as the pallbearers at Dodd’s funeral, the literary society would choose from among its own members to perform that function. Indiana University students would yield their positions in Dodds’ life to the militia, but beyond that they deemed themselves most deserving to carry the young student-soldier to his final resting place.[3]

This kind of response epitomizes the reactions that college students had to early deaths caused by the war. As they sought to reconcile their presence at the university with the pressure to enlist that swirled around them, students tried to shore up their importance to society by standing by their fallen classmates in public. The literary societies had taught them to work together and, by linking that loyalty to their response to death, students continued to build upon those lessons despite the vast changes the war imposed on their lives.

The two images below are programs from the 1862 Spring Exhibition of each literary society at Indiana University. We do not have many of the actual speeches but the topics themselves reveal the types of themes students chose to write and speak about during the war. In the wake of the first year of the war, students embraced this ritual of their literary societies as a way to sort through the major issues of the era.

Athenian exhibition list 1862
Athenian Literary Society Spring Exhibition, March 1862
Philomathean list 1862
Philomathean Literary Society Spring Exhibition, March 1862

[1] Lawrie Meldrum, comp., Place of Recruitment of Indiana’s Civil War Regiments and Batteries, Arranged by Counties. Archives Division Commission on Public Records State of Indiana. Taken from the Indiana Bulletin of History of October 1961, V. 38, No. 10 p. 171-200 and December 1961, v. 38, no. 12, p. 215-243, Monroe County section. Bloomington Republican, November 9, 1861.

[2] Bloomington Republican, November 9, 1861.

[3] Bloomington Republican, November 9, 1861. November 8, 1861, Athenian minutes, Indiana University Archives.

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