Vassar College opened its doors in the fall of 1865, just five months after Robert E. Lee surrendered his troops at Appomattox Courthouse. As Vassar’s first students entered Main Gate, the country nursed its wounds and took the first steps toward national unity and the total emancipation of slaves. The Civil War and it repercussions surrounded and affected Vassar, directly and indirectly, during its’ formative years.
John Raymond: Electric Abolitionist
Before John H. Raymond became the second president of Vassar College, he worked to establish Rochester University where “antislavery was the burning question of the day.” Here, he befriended several leading abolitionists including Frederick Douglass, William Henry Channing, and future Vassar trustee, Henry Ward Beecher. Years later, in 1863, Beecher invited Raymond to tour Europe with him, having learned of a “prejudice” against the Union among the upper echelons of English society.
Raymond accepted, in hopes the trip might improve his fragile health. The two traveled extensively around Europe, as Beecher gave fervent speeches in Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, and London. Raymond generally served as Beecher’s travel companion but did deliver a speech of his own on one occasion. During a breakfast of Congregational clergymen in London, Beecher called upon Raymond to speak, expecting a “cool and conservative” report on the American abolitionist movement. Beecher’s surprise at his friend’s remarks is clear from the account he sent to Raymond’s eldest daughter, Harriet, who published it in her Life and Letters of John Howard Raymond (1881):
Our visit, you will recollect, was made in the summer of 1863, just before the capture of Vicksburg and the expulsion of Lee from Pennsylvania after the Battle of Gettysburg. The prejudice against the North, among all the upper classes in England, was undisguised. The “common people,” the laboring classes, were friendly. Your father and I were met on every side with abundant proffers of social kindness from men who openly avowed a wish–that the Union might be dissolved. A breakfast was given us in London by the Congregational clergymen and laymen of London and vicinity. More than 100 sat down at the tables. When it was my turn to speak, I laid the case of my country before the gentlemen with some plainness of speech and fervor of manner. Thinking that the effect might be better if my views were corroborated by a self-contained and scholarly man, not given to undo feeling and speech, I had Dr. Raymond called out. His first sentence was like an explosion, and his speech, a tremendous outburst of indignation at the lukewarmness of English friends and of fervent patriotism, such as I had never heard from him before. It electrified his audience and me too! I never set him up again to make a cool and conservative speech upon the war for the extinction of slavery and the preservation of the Union! If my speech had been fervid, his was red hot; if mine was a summer thunderstorm, his was a tropical tornado!
But he had a magnificent power of indignation! Gentle, genial, and little apt to be aroused by anger, yet when he did confront meanness and dishonorable conduct, he had a fury of wrath that consumed it to the uppermost.
Not only had Raymond recovered from his illness, he had been revitalized intellectually and socially, as well. He returned to the States in late 1863, prepared to assume the presidency of Vassar College the following April.
“Matthew Vassar” Emerges, Guns Blazing
The college’s founder, Matthew Vassar, shared his name not only with his nephew, Matthew Vassar, Jr., but also with a mortar-schooner used extensively in the Civil War. The boat, originally owned by Vassar Jr., had a varied history. Built in 1846 in a Nantucket whale-dock shipyard, the “Matthew Vassar” was based on the West Coast by 1850. It is recorded as docking, five years later, in San Francisco carrying an American tiger, which the National Circus purchased for 400 dollars.
By 1861, the schooner had returned to Vassar Jr., who donated it to the Union army for use in the Civil War. He recorded in his diary his willingness “to sacrifice vessel, [and] money-property” for his country’s “salvation.” As part of Farragut’s fleet, the “Matthew Vassar” fired upon Confederate forts at the mouth of the Mississippi River and later captured another ship, the “New Eagle,” in the Gulf of Mexico. At one point, President Lincoln made a surprise visit to the “Matthew Vassar,” and requested a demonstration of the “howitzer – a new fangled weapon of great vaunted prowess.”
Students: The Union Widow & the Hated North
Imagine yourself back at Vassar with some friends in somebody’s room on a spring evening…You have on a dressing-gown, or a cotton crepe kimono, or a flannel robe over your nightgown or cotton broadcloth pajamas. From the walls look down upon you pictures of your father in his Civil War uniform….Agnes Rogers, Vassar Women: An Informal Study
The Civil War had ended by the time Vassar opened, but the memories and lingering wounds still impacted the college’s earliest students. One young lady, the “very youthful widow of an Ohio colonel” killed in battle, became a member of Vassar’s first class in 1865. On campus, she served as a reminder of the painful effects of the war, in her “deep mourning” dress, “soft voice with a note of pathos,” and “kindly, cheerful and yet sad” disposition. As the former wife of a Union soldier, the young student also aroused the college community’s sense of patriotism.
To the surprise of many, six Southern girls also joined Vassar’s inaugural class. Attending college in New York just five months after the end of the Civil War, these six Southerners had to “brave local opinion” concerning “the hated North” in order to proceed with their education. While their decision surely angered many back home, it simply confused the majority of Vassar girls, to whom the Southerners were completely foreign. Their “universal use of powder,” for example, became a popular topic of conversation. The other girls considered the Southerners’ excessive make-up use “a habit necessary at home” but not in the Hudson Valley.
For the most part, however, the students learned from each other’s cultural differences. Young ladies would experiment with the Southern “floured” look or the Western-style “stenciled brows and eyelids,” if only “to see what it was like.” With each new acquaintance, points of view became less alien, and “contradiction and opposition” gave way to “equanimity”. Character traits rubbed off and extreme contrasts leveled out, creating an environment of acceptance rather than division.
Benson Lossing, History Engraved
A charter Vassar trustee]], Benson Lossing, became a renowned historian both for his written accounts and for his precise wood engravings, which he often used to illustrate his books. The first Vassar historian of sorts, Lossing wrote and illustrated Vassar College and its Founder in 1867, upon the request of Matthew Vassar. He completed the second volume of his Pictorial History of The Civil War one year later, after traveling several thousand miles to retrace the footsteps of “the great armies”. While exploring battlefields and interviewing prominent soldiers and leaders, Lossing also produced several sketches, which he later incorporated into the publication. His A History of the Civil War, in which photographs replaced Lossing’s original engravings, was published posthumously in 1895.
Milo P. Jewett Hits the Road
After former Vassar president Milo P. Jewett read the first volume of the Pictorial History of the Civil War in 1866, he wrote Benson Lossing to thank him for portraying “secession” as “the work of the leaders in the South… who secured the reluctant cooperation of the people only by an amount of lying, fraud, and violence.” Jewett in fact had a rather personal connection to the Civil War. After growing up and working as a professor in the North, Jewett became a Baptist and established the Alabama-based Judson Female Institute in 1838. Although the school flourished under his leadership, Jewett returned to the North in 1855 to escape the impending Civil War. He vocally opposed the “ambitious demagogues” who intended to wage war on the North, and refused to associate with them.
Smith Sheldon: Advocate
Smith Sheldon professed a deep-seated interest in the “education of the freedmen of the South”, to which he devoted much of his time during his final years. An accomplished publisher and personal friend of Matthew Vassar, Sheldon served as a charter trustee of Vassar College.
John Bolding: Escaped and Ransomed
“Considerable excitement few days past in arrest of fugitive slave in this village [who] was taken quietly off by U.S. Marshall since which attempts made to get his return by Writ of Habeas Corpuz[sic] –no go and lastly to buy his freedom by subscription, the which is now being collected price $2000—about 800 raised-doubtful of success.”Excerpt from the diary of Matthew Vassar, Jr. August 1851.
Note: Although Matthew Vassar Jr. [Vassar’s nephew] made the diary entry, it was Matthew Sr. who contributed to the fund-raising effort. James Storrow provided the historic record of the incident. EAD, 2005
President Henry Noble MacCracken, in his history of Dutchess County, Blithe Dutchess, refers to this incident as an “aftermath of the Dred Scott decision:”
There lived quietly in Poughkeepsie a negro tailor, skilled and respected in his craft. Mrs. Dickinson, from South Carolina, came to live in the town [Poughkeepsie]. One day she saw John Bolding, and recognized him as her former slave, a runaway. Without giving notice of her discovery, she sold her ‘Dred Scott’ interest in him to a fellow Carolinian, Barrett Anderson. A United States marshal from New York, armed with his warrant, stalked his prey until train-time. Seizing his unsuspecting victim, he hustled him into a waiting carriage, drove recklessly to the station, and rushed him aboard just before the whistle blew.
Someone had seen the kidnapping, and reported it to the town. An indignation meeting convened a committee, who sought from Anderson the price he would take for his rascality. Anderson, who had paid Mrs. Dickinson eight hundred dollars, now demanded fifteen hundred, plus two hundred for expenses. The Poughkeepsians’ roll of honor included Matthew Vassar, Liberty Hyde, Isaac Platt, E.B. Killey, A. Van Kleeck, William Livingston, Charles P. Luckey, Mr. Darrow, H.D. Myers, Homer Nelson, and one hundred and fifty-seven other angry men, who subscribed the sum in a few days, and brought John Bolding back to his goose and shears on Main Street.
The good tailor lived for twenty-five years more at 129 Pine Street, dying in the centennial year of 1876. He lies in our [Poughkeepsie] Rural Cemetery in a plot that he purchased.
Over a hundred and nineteen years later, a scholar of local history, James Storrow, connected a name in the cemetery records, with the unmarked plot of Bolding, and restitution was made. On May 16, 1998, the Black History Project Committee of the Dutchess County Historical Society presided over the dedication of a marker in a fitting ceremony.
Morgan L. Smith Down South
Although Colonel Morgan Smith, also a charter trustee, served the United States government for the majority of his life, acting at one time as the U.S. Consul to Texas, little is known about his involvement in the Civil War. By the time Fort Sumter had fallen in April 1861, Smith had already retired and, after a spiritual reawakening, devoted his life to Christianity. If his earlier feelings on abolition offer any insight, however, Smith probably saw the war less as an imperative than as a civic duty. When ordered to “restore peace” in the anti-slavery riot of 1834, he did so because of a belief “that every citizen was entitled to protection whatever his opinions might be” and despite his personal lack of sympathy for “the abolition movements” at the time. Later, as a plantation owner in Texas, Smith relied heavily on “negro labor,” but assured others that his relationship with his slaves “was shorn of many of its offensive features”. By 1860, Smith had become “one of the very rich men of the south”, but moved to the North five years later, after the Civil War depleted much of his fortune.
“Uncle John” Vassar: Preaching to the Battlefield
John Ellison Vassar, or simply “Uncle John” Vassar, was a renowned evangelical chaplain during the Civil War. While working at cousin Matthew Vassar’s brewery, Uncle John began attending Christian revival meetings at the local Baptist church. Then, having experienced a spiritual rebirth, in 1850 he quit the brewery and began selling Christian books, tracts and Scriptures for the American Tract Society. After the commencement of the Civil War, the Society commissioned Uncle John to join and spiritually assist the troops. He soon became famous on the battlefield for probing soldiers about their relationships with Christianity, and was known to pose the question “Do you love Jesus?” to anyone he encountered. After the war ended, he continued South to Virginia and North Carolina, where he mainly preached to African-American Baptists. He retired in 1865, however, and died three years later.
Vassar Bids Lincoln Farewell
In his diary, Matthew Vassar recorded General Lee’s surrender “at Burks-Station to Major Gen Sheridan” on April 7, 1865, rejoicing in “the Rebellion” being “substantially wipe[d] out.” Just eight days later, however, another entry announces “awful intelligence [sic]” concerning the assassinations of Lincoln and Seward. Vassar describes Poughkeepsie “draped in Mourning” with “but few persons…seen in the streets.” On April 24, the founder joined an “immense multitude” at the “R.R. Depo,” where he paid his respects to Lincoln and decorated the dead president’s coffin with freshly cut magnolias.
- John H. Raymond
- Matthew Vassar
- Original Board of Trustees
- Milo P. Jewett
- Top Hat Scandal
Vassar Special Collections, folder 2. Raymond Bio. p. 412.
Raymond, John. Life and Letters of John Howard Raymond. a400, 401.
Vassar College Special Collections “Matthew Vassar – Schooner” file. Letter to MacCracken from librarian.
“Continuation of Annals of San Francisco.” California Historical Society Quarterly. March 1937. Vol. 16. No.1. P.1, p. 60.
Vassar Special Collections. Matthew Vassar Jr.’s diary. April 20, 1861.
Platt, Edward. The Eagle’s History of Poughkeepsie. Poughkeepsie: Platt & Platt, 1905.
Vassar Special Collections. “Schooner Matthew Vassar Put Through Paces When Lincoln Came Aboard Her.” Feb. 10, 1931.
Rogers, Agnes. Vassar Women: An Informal Study. Poughkeepsie: Vassar College, 1940. 29, 87.
Norris, Mary Harriott. The Golden Age of Vassar. Poughkeepsie: Vassar College, 1915. 71, 102, 103.
Lossing, Benson. The Pictorial History of the Civil War. Hartford: T.Belknap, 1868. p. 3.
Vassar Special Collections. Letter from Jewett to Lossing, dated June 11, 1866.
Dictionary of American Biography. “Jewett, Milo Parker.” P. 69-79.
Harper’s Weekly. “Smith Sheldon.” September 13, 1884. p. 595.
Memorials of Morgan L. Smith. 13. 16..
Tarr, Leslie K. “John E. Vassar – Minister in Homespun.” Decision. August 1995. 11-13.
Vassar, Matthew. The Autobiography and Letters of Matthew Vassar. New York: Oxford University Press, 1916. p. 45-47.