Elliott: 'A shameful, disgraceful deed': The destruction of the Sewanee cornerstone

Fragments of the cornerstone of the University of the South, dedicated on Oct. 10, 1860, are sculpted into small Bibles. (Courtesy of University Archives and Special Collections: The University of the South)

The preliminary work to form the University of the South, begun on Lookout Mountain on July 4, 1857, by several Southern bishops of the Episcopal Church, was sufficiently advanced on Oct. 10, 1860, to lay a cornerstone for the anticipated main building at Sewanee of the new institution.

Dedicated with a grand procession and religious solemnity, the cornerstone, a large block of reddish brown variegated Tennessee marble, was placed within a wall of sandstone blocks laid at the southwest corner of the anticipated building.

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Deposited therein were a Bible, a Book of Common Prayer, the Constitution and Canons of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, the United States Constitution, papers relating to the new university, church publications, the church almanac for 1860, and some silver coins.

Closing the cornerstone was Leonidas Polk, Bishop of Louisiana, who intoned: "[t]his cornerstone symbolizes strength and stability, the union of the intellectual and spiritual natures of man, the sure and tried cornerstone, the Wisdom of God and the Power of God." Almost three years later, on July 3, 1863, Polk, still a bishop, but then also a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army, would once more be on the site, then known as University Place.

Now part of a wearisome retreat, Polk paused at a clearing that looked west out over the valley from which his troops were withdrawing. He and young Mercer Otey, the son of James Hervey Otey, the recently deceased Bishop of Tennessee, "together talked of the hopes and plans" Polk and the senior Otey entertained for the school. Polk would continue on his retreat, and never see the mountain again.

Close behind the retreating Confederates were the soldiers of the Federal Army of the Cumberland. On the morning of July 4, 1863, Rebel Texas cavalrymen had a short, but spirited engagement with Union Kentucky horsemen. The Confederates continued their withdrawal to the east bank of the Tennessee River, leaving the site of the nascent southern university to the Northern invaders.

In 1860, the site contained "a long range of one-story buildings connected together and having a broad piazza entirely around." There was '[an]other double building of hewn logs, containing an engineer's office and an executive committee room." On July 11, 1863, a correspondent of a Northern newspaper found a different scene. "We found several log cabins and two immense sheds The doors and the windows of this congeries of cabins were wide open; desolation reigned, and silence that might be felt, but not described."

The correspondent saw papers lying about that identified the area as the site of the "University of the South," and embarked on a search for the cornerstone of the university. At a sign marked "College Site," they "could not discover the cornerstone." By the time of the correspondent's visit on July 11, 1863, it was most likely already gone.

Legendarily, the cornerstone was destroyed in spectacular fashion. In a 1902 account, a Union veteran related that he and his regiment were encamped at University Place the night of July 3, 1863, and one of the men, for fun, "got all the powder he could borrow, and blew up the cornerstone." His regiment's colonel, himself an Episcopalian, was not amused, and remarked that "we were not fighting colleges and schools, but armies." As University Place was still in Confederate hands on July 3, 1863, and more contemporary evidence exists, this account is almost certainly fictitious.

On July 9, the Illinois brigade of Col. Luther P. Bradley, part of Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan's division, encamped at University Place for a stay of more than two weeks.

According to contemporary letters, a few nights before July 16, members of the brigade, "clandestinely moved [the cornerstone] from its foundation at night," breaking it open to look for money. The documents inside fell "into unknown hands." The cornerstone was broken up "for trinkets," and "distributed throughout the upper country" by Bradley's men.

At least one member of the brigade deemed the vandalism a "shameful, disgraceful deed" and related that Col. Bradley was seeking the perpetrators. Indeed, even the hard-charging Sheridan, a bitter enemy of the Confederacy, offered a reward for the identity of the "unmitigated raskel" who was responsible, but the culpable parties were never discovered.

Local attorney and historian Sam D. Elliott is a member and former chairman of the Tennessee Historical Commission and a 1978 graduate of the University of the South. For more visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.