Moffett & Morehead: A Civil War of Words

The peaceful landscape of Roanoke College would hardly seem the place for a pitched battle of national import over the meaning of the Civil War. Yet by 1911, nearly 50 years following that conflict, the debate was not yet settled as to the motivations and meaning of a war that pitted brother against brother. For a time, the Roanoke campus became a central focus of that national debate, with overtones of the essential value-and perils-of academic freedom that reverberate to this day.

One of the very few southern colleges to remain open throughout the war, Roanoke had a number of students and alumni who served the Confederacy. A reserve military company of students was formed, and the administration building briefly served as a hospital. The campus itself was overtaken and plundered by passing Confederate troops. Half a century later, the connection to the war was still strong, both on campus and in the community.

In 1910, Professor Herman Thorstenberg, encouraged by the College's commitment to open-minded study, taught a year-long course on American history from different critical viewpoints. He did not foresee the intense scrutiny his choice of a common textbook, "History of the United States" by Henry Elson, would soon receive from local Civil War veterans.

"This ... [was] a time of revival in Confederate sentiments because of the aging veterans and the idea of passing on their legacy," says Honors student Kathleen Ouyang '13, who is using letters, newspapers, and a recently acquired 40-year run of Confederate veteran magazines to research the subject with Dr. Mark Miller, history professor. "Confederate organizations took it upon themselves to monitor education in the South."

The Elson text soon came under the eye of one student's father, William Moffett, a respected judge and college trustee, who was looking for reading material during an illness. He began to boil when he read that the cause of the war was "slavery and slavery alone" (not state's rights); that veterans of Pickett's Charge (including Salem boys such as Henry Trout, future vice president of the college's Board of Trustees) had represented the hopes of a mere "slaveholder's rebellion;" that sexual abuse of slaves by masters was commonplace. He demanded that College President John Morehead ban the book and discipline the professor. Morehead backed the instructor, insisting he be given freedom to explore the war from multiple perspectives.

Moffett took his case to the local press and the story was soon national news-setting off what Dr. Miller today terms "perhaps the most incendiary of a whole host of showdowns, driven by resurgent southern nationalism and a ‘Lost Cause' mentality." Newspapers across the country took sides-with the New Orleans Picayune protesting that "Virginians will [not] pay... to have their sons ... daily see and hear their fathers... vilified... in textbooks and lectures," while the Philadelphia Public Ledger praised the College's "high courage and... correct appreciation of the meaning of academic freedom."

Meanwhile in town, the situation deteriorated and violence seemed possible. According to John Long '89, director of the Salem Museum, the local area had experienced some brutal race-related incidents in recent years. Thorstenberg and Morehead were indeed threatened with tar and feathers, and an anonymous committee of citizens vowed in a letter "we hope you will consider this notice sufficient and act accordingly as the sun must not set on you many more times in Salem. Depart at once in peace."

While expressing confidence in Thorstenberg, President Morehead and the board sought an accommodation with the Moffett/Trout faction, resolving "at [the professor's] suggestion, that the use of the text book be discontinued," as he found it a distraction from his plan for utilizing multiple resources to give a balanced understanding of the war.

Moffett would accept nothing less than repudiation of the text and professor, however, and he resigned from the board along with his supporters. (It is interesting to note that the author of the text and the professor could have been one and the same, as Morehead's first choice for the professorship of history was not Thorstenberg, but Henry Elson himself.)

With veterans groups at his side, Moffett waged his own war on the College for months to come. Colleges across the South came under fire for using similar texts and caved to pressure. However, under Morehead's leadership, Roanoke stood firm in support of the professor and the principle of academic freedom. Only with the publication of a rousing defense of academic freedom by Morehead did the controversy begin to subside.

In his statement, which was termed by The Atlanta Constitution as "A Virginia Declaration of Independence," Morehead reasoned, "Shall Southern institutions make an exception of American history in their application of the ... principles [of academic freedom] to the work of higher education? I believe such a position to be untenable. After all, is there any necessity for an intolerant attitude on the subject? ... The case of the South is not so weak that it needs to fear the full light of scientific investigation. Let the truth stand, as it must stand in the final verdict of history...."

The battle was over, but the consequences for the school only became apparent over time. Ironically, fallout from the controversy probably led to the preservation of the Administration Building, and Miller and Trout halls-all of which were slated for demolition according to 1909 plans. As sources for funding dried up, the major building campaign was shelved. According to Dr. Miller's "Dear Old Roanoke," a history of Roanoke College, Morehead's "ability to raise funds in southwestern Virginia was effectively at an end." Yet, at this cost, a noble tradition of scholarly independence had been established at the College, one that Miller's research suggests may have influenced the 1915 seminal report on academic freedom by the newly founded American Association of University Professors.

Today, the event continues to resonate as an example of Roanoke College at its best. Dr. Adrienne Bloss, associate dean for academic affairs and general education, recalls how she learned early in her tenure of this moment when "we did what was right at great peril." As a current fellow with the American Council on Education, Bloss has come to learn of the tremendous pressures on academic freedom that other institutions often face today. In light of this comparison, she has been gratified to discover that Roanoke does a "particularly good job" of fostering an environment of independent scholarship and courageous inquiry.

"It's a dangerous place to be-to think we have all the knowledge we need, that we know everything we need to know," Bloss says. "At Roanoke we believe in the right and freedom to ask questions and to take risks. It is fundamental." Encapsulated as a modern statement, "Freedom With Purpose," and enriched by the spirited tradition of faculty and presidents past, academic freedom continues to thrive at Roanoke College.

Says Dr. Bloss, "We live by this."


Released: July 8, 2011