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By Stuart W. Sanders, Centre '95


When the Civil War raged throughout the United States, the Centre College campus mostly was insulated from the conflict. During the early years of the war, the fighting seemed far from Kentucky, and faculty and students believed themselves to be safe in their idyllic surroundings. In 1862, however, the war was literally dropped upon the school's stately doorstep. The institution found itself flung headlong into the darkest chapter of its history.

That October, more than 40,000 Union and Confederate soldiers clashed at Perryville, a small, riverside village some 12 miles from campus. More than 7,500 men were killed and wounded, and all nearby communities, including Danville, became filled with injured soldiers. Immediately after the battle, local churches, homes, and institutional structures were occupied as hospitals.

In the building now known as Old Centre, the rooms were crammed with sick and wounded Union soldiers, their lives ebbing away from typhoid, dysentery, and pneumonia. Most students had vacated campus, and the grinding of the surgeon's bone-saw and the groans of the wounded had replaced professors' lectures. College property was damaged, and the institution suffered severe economic setbacks from which it took decades to recover.



A warning of the chaos that would descend upon Danville sounded as early as Sept. 27, when Confederate troops commandeered several campus buildings. Many had fallen ill during the autumn campaign, and Old Centre was put to use when the rebels reached Danville.

Elizabeth Patterson, the wife of a Centre mathematics professor, remembered the Southern presence. "At night," she noted, "the college campus would be lighted up by cheerful campfires around which the soldiers at the hospital would gather, sitting upon logs of firewood and singing rebellious songs, such as 'Dixie' . . ."
Five days after the battle, Union troops evicted these Confederates and sent them to the Baptist Church. The campus was again filled with the wounded and sick, but this time with Northern patients.

By the end of October, nearly 3,500 Union soldiers convalesced in Danville. As the town had approximately 3,000 residents, these troops more than doubled the population, straining its resources. The campus was no exception, and more than 40 years later Centre was still seeking damages from the Federal government.



Union authorities estimated that Old Centre could hold 150 patients, and the Greek Revival building was well-suited for this purpose. Constructed to provide classroom and dormitory space, the roomy interior provided excellent hospital quarters. The downstairs included a large center hall, the college chapel, and Professor Ormond Beatty's chemistry laboratory. The upstairs space contained four classrooms, with rooms in the wings for two of the school's literary societies, the Deinologian Society and the Chamberlain Literary and Philosophical Society.

"I saw the poor, sickly wounded soldiers all over the building," former student E.W.C. Humphrey commented, "and the use which they made of the building was about as severe as it could have been." Professor Beatty's chemistry lab became an operating room. A.B. Nelson, who eventually became a Centre professor, recalled that "in order to enter Prof. Beatty's room, we had to pass through a room occupied by one of the Federal surgeons-or several of them, as a dead-house or post mortem room . . . I have seen more than one post mortem examination held in this room while I was passing through."

Many patients died. Nelson testified, "I have seen soldiers-the bodies of soldiers taken out of there in the hearse for burial; I would see them every day or two." Another former student remarked that Old Centre was full of "some very sick soldiers; plenty of them that died." Burials were so frequent that troops remained on campus for the sole purpose of interring the dead.

While scores of soldiers died, caregivers also succumbed to disease. Union soldier Charles W. Orcutt worked as a nurse on campus. Sadly, Orcutt died of "neuralgia of the heart" and was buried in Danville's Bellevue Cemetery. Centre officials also suffered. Lewis Warner Green, the College president and Centre's first graduate, died in May 1863 from an illness he contracted while helping sick troops.

Although the classrooms were occupied and many students were absent, classes continued at other locations. Greek lectures were held in the president's house, while Latin and chapel services took place, as A.B. Nelson testified in 1907, "in an alcove of the old octagonal library building [the Sayre Library], now torn down, and Mathematics in an upper room of the same building . . ."



The Union army occupied campus until late June 1863, more than eight months after the Battle of Perryville. They left Old Centre in shambles, and pockmarked columns now stood sentinel to the destruction inside. G.W. Welsh, a sophomore in 1862, recalled, "There was not much left except the walls. The desks and chairs were practically used up. Some of the class rooms that had heavy oak benches were simply defaced by names being cut on them. The large majority of the benches in the old chapel were useless, badly broken up." Smashed windows, broken plaster, and the destroyed chemistry lab brought ruin to the venerable building. While few classes were cancelled, recitations did not resume in Old Centre until September 1863, nearly one year after the battle.
The rooms of the Chamberlain Literary and Philosophical Society also saw damage. Their "library was in a very dismantled condition," A.B. Nelson testified. In addition to torn and lost books, the carpet, curtains, and chairs were destroyed.

G.W. Welsh estimated that at least half of the society's 2,100 books were gone. "Well, I remember one set of books particularly that was almost practically consumed," he noted, "and that was Harper's Magazine, that had been bound annually from the beginning of the publication." Welsh, who huffed that "we had no twenty-five cent novels in the library, we had nothing except good literature," added that sets of McCaulay, Dickens, and Bulwer were ruined.

The renovations, including repainting the interior, replacing windows and carpeting, and acquiring new desks and benches, took more than three months and several thousand dollars. Soldiers destroyed nearly all the 2,100 feet of locust plank fencing surrounding the campus. They chopped down apple trees and left the College lawn barren. One student colorfully remarked, "There wasn't grass enough left to keep a goose alive after [the soldiers] moved that camp" off the lawn.



After the Civil War, Centre sought restitution for damages. However, the Federal government would compensate only those who were loyal to the Union and would pay only for those damages caused by Northern soldiers. As it was difficult to prove that Federal troops alone caused damages, many similar claims went unpaid.
In 1906, the school sought an additional $5,000 for the occupation and damage to Old Centre. The Federal government, in fact, had already made one payment. In March 1864, Union paymasters had doled out $430 in rent for a period covering four months and nine days. College authorities argued that since Union troops used the buildings for at least three extra months, this payment did not cover the entire occupation. Three years later the case was still unresolved, and College lawyers continued to depose witnesses.

Centre never received further payment. While testimony showed that the school "did not render any aid or comfort to the Confederacy during the Civil War," the U.S. Court of Claims determined that (1) the $430 paid to the institution was appropriate to cover rental fees for the occupation; (2) the College never made claims for damages during the war or immediately after receiving the rental payment; and that (3) "The evidence does not establish to the satisfaction of the court that said Center [sic] College sustained any amount of damages not paid for and recovered by the payment on account of the use and occupation hereinbefore mentioned." When Centre's treasury agent accepted Federal dollars in 1864, he unwittingly doomed the school's chances of receiving more money in the decades following the Civil War.

The Chamberlain Literary Society filed a separate claim for $1,200 in damages but was not reimbursed. The society's hopes had been bolstered because the Deinologian Literary Society had received payment for damages shortly after the occupation. The Chamberlains were not so fortunate, however, for they were unable to prove that Federal troops alone caused all of the damages. In May 1864, Federal authorities had paid them $187.50 in rent. When they accepted this payment, they, like the College, lost any chance of future reimbursement.
Despite the damages and lost tuition dollars, Centre recovered from the aftermath of the Battle of Perryville. Although the occupation was a dark episode in the institution's history, Centre's refusal to close its doors illustrates the College's dedication to education that persists to this day. Presently, the only reminders of the occupation are the weather-beaten headstones in Bellevue Cemetery. These silent stones somberly reflect the sacrifices made by soldiers, civilians, and the College community when war reared its head near campus.

Stuart W. Sanders '95 is director of the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association, the nonprofit organization charged with preserving and interpreting Kentucky's largest Civil War battleground. Author of "Kentucky's Civil War Heritage Trail," a guide published by the Kentucky Department of Travel Development, he has written for Civil War Times Illustrated, America's Civil War, Washington Times, and other publications.

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