Learning Institutions Grow Out of Struggle

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an occasional series on the Civil War sesquicentennial provided by members of the Wheeling Civil War 150 Committee.

As West Virginia historians seek to commemorate events surrounding the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, it seems fitting to cite the role played in the Northern Panhandle by the forerunners of two institutions of higher learning that continue to thrive.

During October of 1862, while the faculty of South Carolina College in Columbia was meeting to acknowledge that their institution had to be closed because of the Civil War, joining several other vacated colleges in the south, to the north both the West Liberty Academy and Bethany College, though pummeled by the war, remained open.

In an article written by Michael David Cohen in The New York Times earlier this month, the plight of those Southern colleges was detailed. History professor Cohen pointed out the South Carolina faculty members recorded in their minutes of that Oct. 6 meeting that “‘the Confederacy had converted the school into a military hospital.’ The students were all gone and no classes would meet again for several years.”

Cohen said colleges were commandeered for use as hospitals or barracks by both the Confederate and Union armies as more and more young men left them to become soldiers. The experience for West Liberty Academy, now West Liberty University, and Bethany College was far different. West Liberty Academy was opened in 1837 and WLU is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. Bethany College opened three years later, in 1840, and is the oldest private college in the state.

In his book “West Liberty State College, The First 125 Years,” author Frank T. Reuter explained, “Chartered by the Legislature of Virginia on March 30, 1837, the academy came about primarily through the efforts of the Rev. Nathan Shotwell,” a Presbyterian preacher-educator. “West Liberty Academy was opened in 1838 with the Rev. Mr. Shotwell as principal. He and his wife were the only faculty members. Until a suitable school building could be built, the Shotwells began teaching in the main room of their home.”

That first enrollment numbered 65 students, but Reuter said he could find no record on class make-up. Boys and girls were admitted to the academy but were strictly segregated and “rigid regulations” prevented any meetings of the genders. These rules stayed in effect until 1904, he said. Immediately prior to the Civil War, Reuter said “students came to the academy from a much larger area and in larger numbers” than previously, with a few students traveling all the way from Mississippi and Louisiana.

“Enthusiasm for war was quite strong in West Liberty,” Reuter wrote. “Most of this enthusiasm was for the Union’s cause, although its neighbor further north, Bethany, was strongly influenced by pro-Southern sympathies. Several companies of volunteers from the West Liberty district, including many academy students, joined the Union Army.”

The academy’s principal, as of 1857, was Professor A.F. Ross. As students joined the Army, Reuter reported, Ross resigned in 1861 to devote himself to politics, trying to prevent Virginia from seceding from the Union. He became a prominent figure in the fight to form a new state and ultimately was elected to the Constitutional Convention and later to the first West Virginia Legislature.

In relating West Liberty’s service to the Union cause, Reuter’s book cited “one of its most prominent citizens, and probably the most famous, was William Baker Curtis, who recruited a home guard from the academy students when the war broke out. He drilled his company on the Bethany Pike and prepared them for any military eventuality.” Curtis was commissioned a captain of the volunteer company he raised and it ultimately was mustered into the Union Army as Company D, 12th West Virginia Volunteers.

“Curtis became a hero during the war and advanced rapidly in rank. Under his leadership, his brigade, after hard fighting, captured Fort Gregg at Petersburg in April 1865. He was rewarded with the rank of brigadier general.” Curtis’ son, J. Montgomery Curtis, 17, was commissioned a lieutenant in the Union Army and eventually was awarded a Medal of Honor for heroism.

“Education at West Liberty Academy continued despite the loss of principal, financial backers and a large part of the student body,” Reuter wrote. After the war, he said, “Mounting debt was destroying West Liberty Academy. The trustees decided the best solution was to attempt to sell the academy building to the newly formed state of West Virginia for incorporation into the new educational system.”

The purchase price was $6,000, and thus West Liberty Academy became “one of the first three institutions taken over by the new state. In the same month, February 1867, existing institutions at Morgantown and Huntington were purchased; these are now West Virginia University and Marshall University.”

The Civil War experience of West Liberty Academy’s neighbor, Bethany College, was related expertly by Dr. D. Duane Cummins, Bethany’s president from 1988-2002, who spoke at this year’s March 1 Founder’s Day Convocation. According to Bethany’s website reporting of the speech, “Cummins related his theme to the nation’s present acknowledgment of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the event’s relationship with the unique history and strong spirit of the college.”

Cummins pointed out a bit of tragic Civil War foreshadowing: “In the fall of 1842, a tall, lean figure strolled across the campus at Bethany College. His name was Jefferson Davis.” The speaker explained Davis had arrived at Bethany to enroll his nephew, 17-year-old William Stamps from Mississippi. During his stay, Davis resided in the guest wing of Bethany College founder Alexander Campbell’s home. “Six months later, Stamps ice skated on Buffalo Creek, where he fell and struck his head. That evening, suffering a seizure, he died.”

Discussing the state of Virginia’s vote on the issue of secession, Cummins said, “In all of Brooke County, only 109 votes supported secession. But 52 of those votes were in Bethany.” He said many of those voting for secession were among Alexander Campbell’s family, which also included directors of the Underground Railroad and a number of abolitionists.

“When the vote of Bethany residents was published in the Wellsburg paper, the little village of Bethany was labeled a ‘nest’ of secession,” Cummins noted. During 1861, Cummins continued, “students in large number began to leave Bethany. Some went home, while most enlisted in the Army. The student body was reduced to 38 and the faculty to two. Only five degrees were conferred in 1862, and enrollment soon fell again to 33.” Across Brooke County, Cummins said, hatred steepened.

“In 1863, on July 3, commencement was held for four graduates. Only 10 trustees had been able to make the trip. Common sense suggested they should simply close the doors of the college,” Cummins said. “But on that July third, the trustees, with no other asset than the ideal of Bethany College, made a fateful decision. And it is recorded in the minutes and the vote was unanimous that ‘The operation of the college will continue in all respects.'” Enrollment that fall jumped 40 percent.

Cummins concluded, “It is the force of the Bethany ideal that carried the college through the Civil War. And it was never expressed more eloquently than by a Bethany student who lived through the epic just described and who later wrote, ‘If my heart were opened, Bethany would be found written in its center.'”

Of interest also, concerning Bethany’s Underground Railroad connection, is this information related to historic Bethany College structures found on a website for independent colleges. “Pendleton Heights, built between Sept. 1, 1841 and June 20, 1842, was the home of William Kimbrough Pendleton. It is the oldest building on the Bethany College campus. During the Civil War, the Pendleton home was a station on the Underground Railway. Escaping slaves were hidden in the basement. Marcie Bright Banks of Pittsburgh recalls that her great-grandmother’s brother used to drive his hay wagon over to Bethany from Pennsylvania at night, hide the slaves under the hay, and then take them back to his home, where he hid them until it was safe to move them to West Middletown, Pa., where Alexander Campbell’s sister, Jane Campbell McKeever, and her husband, Matthew McKeever, conducted Pleasant Hill Seminary, a seminary for young girls. Matthew McKeever hid the slaves in a loft, keeping this a secret from his family.”