Imagine the University of Alabama campus in antebellum days—before the quad was teeming with students on cell phones. Imagine campus before Bryant-Denny Stadium was ever built and filled to capacity with cheering fans, and before students were ticketed for parking in the wrong zones. Pre-Civil War University of Alabama was home to multitudes of unruly boys, many just around the age of 16, who were raised among horses and Indians in a small frontier town. It is relatively easy to envision the stern faces of the schoolteachers from the Northeast who left institutions such as Harvard and Yale to find their new pupils to be mischievous schoolboys who would much rather play pranks than study Latin.
Ian Crawford, a UA graduate and current master’s student in Preservation Studies at Tulane University, recounts a story as seen in the Alabama Review Quarterly Magazine: “One year, the circus came to town in Tuscaloosa, which was the state capital at the time. The first UA president, Alva Woods, forbade the students from attending, so they stayed in and became intoxicated instead. The boys wanted to see what effect alcohol would have on a badger, so they snuck off to the circus. By 4:30 a.m., the badger was disoriented and lions, tigers and bears (oh my!) were running through the capital city after the boys had released them from their cages.”
Crawford spent his four years at the University as a member of the Tuscaloosa Preservation Society, where he learned a great deal about the history of campus and the transformation it underwent during and after the Civil War. He first became interested in the history of Antebellum Tuscaloosa during a ghost tour hosted in a joint effort by the Preservation Society and SGA
“It might sound silly, but the ghost tour let you talk to people and read letters about that time period instead of just seeing court documents and campus maps,” Crawford explains. “Preservation is not about restoring one old building. It is about community and recognizing how we all developed and evolved around it.”
Camille Elebash, a lifelong Tuscaloosa resident and former journalism and advertising teacher at the University reiterates Crawford’s accounts of the pranks and unruliness that were rampant on campus during the pre-Civil War period.
“I am certainly not a historian, but I do know that the reason the University became a military school in 1860 was not in anticipation of war. It was an attempt to correct behavior among the students,” Elebash said. “Many professors were against the institution becoming a military school at first, but the establishment of stricter rules, such as a curfew, worked.”
Elebash’s family is deeply rooted in the University of Alabama. Her grandchildren are currently 6th generation students here, and the old observatory was renamed Maxwell Hall in honor of her father. Elebash attributes much of her interest in learning about the history of the campus to strong family ties.
The Civil War came to the University of Alabama in April of 1865 when John Thomas Croxton’s raiders thundered in on horseback to destroy the military university upon orders from General E.M. McCook. Flames leapt across campus, leaving a trail of devastation and destruction in their wake. Only four buildings remained standing: the Little Round House, the Gorgas House, the President’s Mansion and a looted Observatory.
“The biggest challenges that the University faced after the War were a ruined campus, devastated economy and lack of money,” Dr. Robert Mellown, associate professor of art history, said. “One way the University faced these challenges was to reuse as much material from the old burned buildings as possible.”
Mellown has been involved with historic preservation on campus for years and has done extensive research on each of these four buildings, in addition to providing architectural research for Suzanne Wolfe’s 1982 Pictorial History of the University of Alabama. He also authored an architectural guide to the campus in 1988 that he is currently updating for the UA Press. He explained that many of the bricks on the east wing of Woods Hall (1867-8) were actually salvaged from the antebellum campus burned during the Federal raid. Both Mellown and Elebash agree that the Woods Quad is their favorite place on campus to reflect upon history.
“It [Woods Quad] was the post- civil war campus,” Elebash said. “I have spent a lot of time over there, and the area contains so much historical significance- kind of like a Phoenix rising from the ashes after the Civil War.”
Little reminders of the fountain of knowledge and learning that sprang up in the University’s early days can still be seen in the brick cisterns and gushing Marr’s Spring located down a little gravel path behind B.B. Comer. Many people do not realize that the university itself was built on Marr’s Field, hence the name of the street, Marr’s Spring Road, and the campus literary journal, Marr’s Field Journal. History can also be discovered in the little flagstone pieces at the base of the steps of Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library.
“This round landing is not just a sidewalk, but a symbol of the foundations of early learning at the University before the original library was burned during the Civil War.” Crawford said. “The flagstones gathered from the old structure are situated right next to our beautiful new library to show where old meets new.”