Neither Northern nor Southern

Centre College During the
Antebellum Era and the Civil War

By Laura Garrett

Panel 1
Panel 1 | Panel 2 | Panel 3 | Panel 4 | Sources

This display examines life at Centre before and during Lincoln's presidency, especially in relation to the big issues with which Lincoln dealt - slavery and the Civil War. These issues were also near to the hearts of the people who worked and lived on our campus. Their experiences and perspectives reflect the neither-Northern-nor-Southern position of Boyle County during the antebellum era and the Civil War. Here there were both Union and Confederate soldier, both slave owner and emancipationist (often embodied in the same person), both enslaved and free.

As in much of the Deep South, Boyle County's economy was primarily agricultural, and it had a significant slave population - over one-third of the county's inhabitants, and nearly nine-tenths of African American inhabitants - were enslaved. Yet, Boyle had a cosmopolitan atmosphere, with six private institutions educating students from 23 states, Mexico, and Europe. In elections, voters went for moderate candidates. In the 1860 election, when Lincoln became president, 64% of the county's 1,083 votes went to John Bell, a slave owner who opposed Southern secession. Only three people voted for Lincoln.

Centre and Abraham Lincoln

As a young man, Abraham Lincoln had almost no formal education, and would likely have become a blacksmith if it were not for the intervention of John Todd Stuart, Centre class of 1826. It was Stuart - cousin of Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd - who gave Lincoln his first set of law books and encouraged him to study law. When Lincoln became a lawyer in 1837, he and Stuart became partners together in Springfield, Illinois.

The two had become friends in 1832 when they served together in the Black Hawk War, and continued their friendship when they both served on the Illinois General Assembly. Although they often disagreed politically, they remained close friends until Lincoln's death. Stuart himself died in 1885.

Centre Campus
with Old Centre in the background
date of photo unknown

Hillcrest House was built in 1825 to board students and was turned into the President's home in 1831. During the civil War era, Centre's campus was comprised of Old Centre, Hillcrest House, Sayre Library, and four acres of wooded fields. Fences kept cattle from grazing too close to the buildings.
photo taken in 1879
Sayre Library was built in 1862, close to where the Grace Doherty Library is currently. When Danville was threatened by John Hunt Morgan's Confederate troops in 1862, the faculty decided that if the college's building had to be used as hospitals, then classes would be held in the library.
Centre Faculty
date of portrait unknown
John C. Young served Centre as president from 1830 to 1857, in addition to serving as Moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly and pastor of The Presbyterian Church in Danville. Young was a gradual emancipationist and a proponent of American colonization in Liberia. Young owned several slaves, at least two of whom he sent to Liberia and one who worked as a janitor at Centre.
date of portrait unknown
R.J. Breckinridge was the brother of a Centre president and a Centre alum, and was a professor at the Danville Theological Seminary; Breckinridge Hall is named for him. Breckinridge was a gradual emancipationist, believing that part of his job as a slave owner (he owned more than twenty slaves) was to be a benevolent patron to his slaves until they were prepared to live on their own in freedom. Breckinridge was also a vocal supporter of the Union during the Civil War, and stood with the Northern side when the Presbyterian Church split in 1861 over slavery and the Civil War. The Civil War tore apart Breckinridge's family, as one of his sons joined the Union Army and the other enlisted in the Cinfederacy.
Centre Students