Each year, the Princeton University Department of English awards the Class of 1859 prize, its highest honor, to a graduating senior. Until summer 2020, the official prize description read:
The Class of 1859 established the prize in 1869 on the occasion of their tenth reunion. Of the seventy-three members of the Class of ’59, thirty-five served in the Civil War after graduation. Fifteen fought for the Union, twenty for the Confederacy. The prize was meant to honor those who died in the war and restore the bonds of friendship that had been suspended by it.
Under a seemingly innocuous narrative of bipartisan friendship, the description memorialized the Confederacy by forging a simple equivalence between Confederate soldiers who fought to defend slavery and their Union opponents. Yet a recent investigation by University Archivist Daniel Linke revealed that the 1859 Class Fund, which finances the prize, never mentioned the Civil War in its original description, which only specified that “The Prize shall be publicly awarded to a member of the Senior Class who shall be adjudged to be worthy thereof, after an examination in English Literature and Essay Writing.”
The prize description had evolved over time, reflecting the historical and political concerns of the day. Language about war and “friendship” was added in the 1970s or later, lifted from an essay entitled “Patriotism and Friendship: the Princeton Men of 1859,” written by then-archivist Edith James Blendon. Following Linke’s archival discovery in summer 2020, the University amended the prize description. The prize’s history, however, raises questions about what is omitted in the rhetoric of bipartisan “friendship” that Princeton University has historically mobilized to paint over partisan divisions.
Northerners and Southerners from the class of 1859 playing cards and drinking port.
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"The Bonds of Class Friendship"
The word “confederacy” derives from the Latin con (with) and foedus (treaty). As an agreement formed between persons, polities, or nations, “confederacy” in its barest essence shares a meaning with “friendship,” which is itself an “accord, alliance, peace; a state of mutual trust and support between allied nations or peoples.” This semantic intersection between friendship and confederacy has had a longstanding currency in U.S. political thought: the Articles of Confederation, for instance, state that “the said states hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare.”
While we conventionally imagine friendship to be something interpersonal and emotional, friendship can also imply a political or military operation. Consider the word “conspiracy,” a synonym of both confederacy and friendship. Though shrouded in cultural associations with treachery and insurrection, the word’s Latin etymology simply means “breathing together” (con + spirare). In other words, the embodied intimacy essential to friendship also undergirds political alliance.
Edith James Blendon’s 1974 essay on the class of 1859—and its subsequent adoption by the Princeton University English Department—ensured that the story of Confederate-Union friendship would remain a part of University lore, belying the divisive realities of the “Southern Ivy.” Princeton was a university where students and faculty had clear Confederate sympathies: more than half of the alumni who fought in the Civil War fought for the South, and a large percentage of students hailed from southern slave-owning states. Yet Princeton was also home to northerners who clashed with pro-slavery classmates.
Despite the more complicated reality of student life at Princeton in the 19th century, members of the class of 1859 constructed a story of friendship to solidify class identity after graduation and solicit nostalgia for their lost college years. Drawing on the records of class secretaries Alfred H. Kellogg and George W. Ketcham, Blendon wrote that class members “desired reconciliation and longed to rejoin the bonds of class friendship.” At class reunions and in circulated secretarial digests—record books containing information about the whereabouts of class members, meeting notes, and college memories—classmates spoke and wrote of friendships tested by the war and restored through conscious displays of unity. These signs of unity included the Class of 1859 Prize itself.
Such sentimental ideas were specious, occluding real tensions that existed during their years at Princeton and after graduation. As Kellogg wrote in the Preface to the eleventh class digest, which commemorated the class’s decennial meeting, “The feeling of the compiler is shared by most if not all, that we are a Class Brotherhood — members as it were of a common family, sharers in each other’s joys and sorrows.”
The Class of 1859
Who, then, were the class members who did not share this feeling of cohesion and mutual empathy? While some members of the class of 1859 sought out friendships with classmates from other regions, many were not so quick to declare such allegiances.
In one antebellum “autograph book,” Alabaman John B. Mhoon, who later became a Confederate major, offered a warm invitation to John H. Rodney of Delaware: Alabama’s “green fields, and shady plains shall welcome you with the hand of friendship.” However, in another autograph book, E. Hudson Worrall, a student from Pennsylvania who went on to become a civil engineer for the United States Army after the war, noted to classmate Sylvester Woodbridge, who fought for the Union, that because of increasing “party strife,” there were “only two or three men in the whole [class]” that he could call “true friends.”Instead, he wrote, “my enemies in the class of ’59 are numerous.”
Autograph book entry by James R. Yerger (class of 1859) to Winfield S. Purviance ('1861).
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As Blendon noted in her essay, James Cleveland, a southerner and Confederate, wrote to Alfred Kellogg in 1866 that he “could feel no inclination or desire to revive old acquaintances or friendships” following the “privations” he “suffered” during the Civil War years. Blendon also cited an 1868 letter to Kellogg from Ira Clark, a Confederate soldier, who remarked that he had “written to but two friends since the war and received so cold and ungracious answers that I became discouraged . . .”
While friendships did form between the two factions, amity among the class of 1859 was never a given, before or after the war.
Given the composition of the class of 1859, political tensions among its members were inevitable. Though only 44% of the class of 1859 hailed from the South, of the class alumni who served in the war, more fought for the Confederacy than for the Union. The numbers in the prize citation, adopted directly from Blendon’s essay, state that 15 members of the class of 1859 fought for the Union and 20 for the Confederacy. Recent research, however, reveals that these numbers were actually higher on both counts: 17 fought for the Union and 25 for the Confederacy. Even before the war, in their graduation year of 1859, southern students marched on Nassau Hall to protest the abolitionist John Brown, whom they described as a “horse thief, murderer, and martyr,” and other anti-slavery northern politicians.
Though Princeton was long seen as an ideal school for southerners, populated by the sons of the planter elite, some northern students like E. Hudson Worrall were critical of their reactionary southern classmates; southern students felt similarly toward their northern and Republican-sympathizing counterparts. Tensions would come to a head in 1861, when roughly 25% of the student body—the majority of them southerners, many of whom went on to fight for the Confederacy—withdrew from Princeton, leaving behind a smaller group of students whose divided loyalties proved contentious.
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A list of southern students excused from school due to the outbreak of the Civil War.
Yet class of 1859 records show that, after graduation, alumni used the language of friendship to conjure up visions of a once-united class—one whose bonds of solidarity the war had severed, though not irreparably. At the class’s triennial meeting in 1862, Pennsylvanian William Lloyd Potts asked alumni to think of absent classmates “not as soldiers in any army, but as class-mates and as friends,” imploring the class of 1859 to “let friendship have her own” over “patriotism.”
At a decennial meeting in 1869, where alumni gathered to mourn those classmates who had died in the war, Confederate T. J. McKaig delivered an oration addressed to his fellow “brother members of the Class of ’59,” declaring the class’s intention “to meet in social reunion and with hearts warm and true as ten years ago, regathering the scattered links of broken friendship.” McKaig acknowledged the strain of the war—“the interval of time which has elapsed since we resided within these walls has been fraught with such events as have no parallel in the history of our country, and few indeed in the annals of the world”—but suggested that, by reconvening, the friendships forged with “hearts warm and true” during their university years had been rekindled.
Theodoric Cecil Lyon, who fought for the Confederacy despite having given several public arguments against secession, agreed with this sentiment in a letter he wrote to his classmates in honor of the decennial:
Tell them that from far off Mississippi we would assure them that nothing has come between them (any of them) and us . . . that we are true in our remembrance to them whom, as time rolls by, we are more than ever pleased to call ‘friends and classmates’ - true in our first allegiance to old Princeton, our grand Alma Mater.
This narrative of “broken friendship” restored was pervasive enough to convince even some students who had previously abjured ties with their classmates. In lieu of attending the decennial meeting, E. Hudson Worrall, who never graduated from Princeton, submitted a poem extolling friendship—a far cry from the animosity he had expressed during his years at the University:
Though few are left we can still pledge fast friendship o’er wine,
And cheer old Princeton’s ‘Nassau Hall’ and the ‘Class of ’59.’
The Class of 1859 Prize, established at the decennial, was designed to demonstrate the unity and institutional loyalty of the “Men of 1859.” It was based upon an endowment of $2,000 (approximately $30,000 in present-day currency, adjusted for inflation).#ref- Despite calls for a return to unity, raising these considerable funds proved divisive. George Cossit, writing on behalf of his brother, Charles Edwin Cossitt ('1859), who died fighting for the Confederacy, apologized:
Knowing that [if] my brother were alive he would more than willingly assist in the class prize . . . . I would have attended to this matter long before this — but the ruinous long hand of war fell far more heavily on portions of our country than a stranger can imagine and consequently many of us became deeply embarrassed in a financial respect.
No wonder, then, that of the listed contributors to the prize, thirty-one were from northern states and just six from southern states.
Even for those who were able and willing to contribute to the prize, the friendship they promoted was exclusive: for white men only. In his decennial address, T. J. McKaig proclaimed:
[W]e are to-day in the several attitudes assumed by the Class of ’59, but accurate representatives of American manhood. This morning generously furnishing funds towards the establishment of a College Prize, whereby greater incentive may be given to scholastic ambition and greater perfection in intellectual pursuits attained. At this hour paying a just tribute to that chivalric spirit and indomitable will which have ever been characteristic of the anglo-saxon race.
Despite asymmetric financial support for the prize, McKaig supposed that the values of “American manhood” and the “Anglo-Saxon” race, both synonymous with intellectual excellence in his ideological framework, had drawn the class back together. Though it's true that the prize citation was never explicitly meant to commemorate the Civil War, McKaig’s speech reveals that the prize was intended as a show of unity among Confederate and Union classmates, and was based on racist assumptions and exclusionary ideals.
Beyond the prize, new University-wide traditions sought to unify divided students by mobilizing an allegiance to school and “class,” in all senses of the word. The year 1859 was a flashpoint in the development of Princeton “patriotism” and the consolidation of a Princeton “identity.” The lyrics of the alma mater, Old Nassau, bidding “all with one accord rejoice,” were first published in the Nassau Literary Magazine in 1859. Later that same year, the first class-specific reunion event was held. The origins of some of the University’s most cherished traditions coincide with an effort to consolidate a sense of institutional loyalty in order to smooth over tensions on the brink of the Civil War’s outbreak.
Members of the class of 1859, such as T. J. McKaig, saw these Princeton-specific institutional traditions as a fitting place for the nation to begin the “great work of the hour”: reconciling the South and the North. “This college, more than any other in the whole country, was in former years free from all sectional or political bias,” he declared — though Princeton’s bias toward the South had been evident for generations of students. They hoped that a reunified Princeton would be a model for national reconciliation.
Sheet music for "Old Nassau," published in the 1869 edition of Carmina Princetonia.
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The Politics of Memorialization
The strategic fiction of cross-factional friendship and esteem only strengthened over the years. Early Civil War memorials at peer institutions, such as Brown and Harvard, excluded students who fought for the rebel cause. Yale included Confederate soldiers, but separated them from Union veterans. On Princeton’s Civil War Memorial in Nassau Hall, however, The names of seventy war dead are commingled on the memorial, without attributing any of them to either the Union or the Confederacy. Of the members of the class of 1859 whose names are inscribed on the monument, six fought for the Confederacy, and two for the Union.
Created in the 1920s, the memorial reflected a new politics of commemoration that arose in the early 20th century, following the successful spread of a revisionist “Lost Cause” narrative that linked the Confederacy to a noble fight for self-determination, rather than a morally corrupt desire to uphold a racist system of chattel slavery. Blendon’s essay exemplifies how this politics of commemoration continued at Princeton into the 1970s and beyond.
The long-unquestioned adoption of Blendon’s narrative by the English Department reveals how an exclusionary and insidious ideology of “friendship” can remain hidden in plain sight for more than a century. The creation of the Class of 1859 Prize in 1869 reflects one turn in the revisionist commemorative practices of the Reconstruction era; Blendon’s essay represents another.
In the third decade of the 21st century, Princeton students and community members, led by Black student activists, are re-examining the University’s commemorative practices. As Confederate statues come down across the country, and Woodrow Wilson’s name is removed from the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton and nation are together confronting the consequences of unexamined memorials.
This article was written at a time when Princeton University special collections were unavailable due to COVID-19 restrictions and renovations. The class of 1859 records and the autograph book collection in the University archives in Mudd Manuscript Library offer a promising repository for future studies of this topic.
The Decennial Report, or, Digest No. 11 of the Class of 1859, of the College of New Jersey, from 1859-1869 (New York: Trow & Smith Book Manufacturing Co., 1869), 21-22, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.hn4vs2&view=1up&seq=7.
The prize dates to October 1869, when the Nassau Lit reported: "The class of 1859 raised at their decennial meeting $2,000, the interest of which each year is to be a prize for excellence in English Literature. It is to be awarded this year to the gentleman of the class of '70, who shall write the best essay on the Genius of Shakespeare, and stand the best examination on the Poetry of the Elizabethan Age." See Nassau Literary Magazine Vol. 26, No. 2 (1 October 1869), 130, https://theprince.princeton.edu/princetonperiodicals/?a=d&d=NassauLit18691001-01.2.12&srpos=1&e=-------en-20--1-byDA-txt-txIN-%22Class+of+1859+Prize%22------ .
The prize's subject criteria changed over time, so that by 1956, the Daily Princetonian reported: "The Class of 1859 Prize offers the interest on $2,000 to the Senior who submits the best senior essay to the English Department and excels in the senior comprehensive examination in English literature." See: "English Department Offers Prizes to Undergraduates," Daily Princetonian Vol. 73, No. 83 (9 May 1950), https://theprince.princeton.edu/princetonperiodicals/?a=d&d=Princetonian19500509-01.2.9&srpos=91&dliv=none&e=-------en-20--81-byDA-txt-txIN-%22Class+of+1859+Prize%22------.
Edith James Blendon, “Patriotism and Friendship: The Princeton Men of 1859,” The Princeton University Library Chronicle 35, no. 3 (1974), see 310.
Blendon, “Patriotism and Friendship,” 312.
The Decennial Report, n.p. Emphasis added.
See also Thomas J. Balcerski, “‘Under These Shades Together’: Intimate Male Friendships at the Antebellum College of New Jersey,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 80, no. 2 (2013), 169-203.
John B. Mhoon to John H. Rodney, 1859, Box 16, Autograph Book Collection (A040), Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, Princeton NJ, cited in W. Barksdale Maynard, “Princeton and the Confederacy,” The Princeton and Slavery Project, accessed 31 December 2020, https://slavery.princeton.edu/stories/princeton-and-the-confederacy. For more information on the autograph book tradition, see Alexander P. Clark, “‘Princeton Memories with a Golden Sheen’: Student Autograph Albums of the Nineteenth Century,” Princeton University Library Chronicle 47, no. 3 (1986), 301-316.
E. Hudson Worrall to Sylvester Woodbridge III, 1859, Box 17, Autograph Book Collection (A040), Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, Princeton NJ, cited in Bryan LaPointe, “Princeton and Secession,” The Princeton and Slavery Project, accessed 31 December 2020, https://slavery.princeton.edu/stories/princeton-and-secession; U.S. Army, Report of the Chief Engineers (Washington: G.P.O., 1871), 284.
James Cleveland to Alfred Kellogg, August 4, 1866, Box 4, Class of 1859 Class Records, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, Princeton NJ, cited in Blendon, “Patriotism and Friendship,” 311.
Ira Percy Clark to Kellogg, October 13, 1868, Box 4, Class of 1859 Class Records, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, Princeton NJ, cited in Blendon, “Patriotism and Friendship,” 311.
Digest No. 1 of the Class of 1859, of the College of New Jersey, from 1859 to 1864 (Philadelphia: King & Baird, Printers, 1864), 40-41, cited in Blendon, “Patriotism and Friendship,” 309.
The Decennial Report, 32.
The modern departmental structure of the University did not exist when the prize was established. Rather, small classes of students undertook the same core curriculum in classics, mathematics, religion, and literature. Thus the prize was intended as a University-wide award, and would not become an English departmental award until later. See the description of the curricular development in the class history section of The Decennial Report, 9-15.
The Decennial Report, 9-15.
George A. Cossit to Alfred H. Kellogg, March 29, 1869, Box 4, Class of 1859 Class Records, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, Princeton NJ, cited in Blendon, “Patriotism and Friendship,” 312.
This figure was obtained by comparing the list of contributors to the prize in The Decennial Report (p. 117) against the “Database of Princeton Student Origins,” Princeton and Slavery Project, accessed 31 December 2020, https://slavery.princeton.edu/sources/database-of-princeton-student-origins. Several of the listed contributors cannot be attributed to either side because they use pseudonyms.
The Decennial Report, 32.
The Decennial Report, 35.
The list of names on the memorial is erroneous. Thomas Goldthwaite, who originated in Alabama and fought for the Confederacy, appears on the wall, but the class records show that he lived long enough to contribute to the prize before dying of an illness in 1869. See The Decennial Record, 59-61, 130 and the “Princeton Civil War Veteran Database,” Princeton and Slavery Project, accessed 31 December 2020, https://slavery.princeton.edu/sources/princeton-civil-war-veteran-database. At least two names of class members seem to be missing from the wall. The “Princeton Civil War Veteran Database” suggests that Franklin Anderson, a Confederate surgeon, died of yellow fever while in service in 1864. In addition, The Decennial Record, 57-59 describes John Frierson, who fought with the Louisiana Regiment, as having been “mortally wounded” at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863.
David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).