War Meant Drills at Harvard

During the Civil War, Harvard College students’ curriculum included more than general education courses—the men engaged in military training to prepare them for combat.

Michael David Cohen, a history professor at University of Tennessee, Knoxville and the author of the recently published book "Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War," used Harvard as a case study to illustrate the Civil War’s indelible impact on higher education in a talk on Friday at the Harvard Book Store.

In response to student demand for military drills, "the faculty and the Harvard Corporation...obliged. They replaced gymnastic exercises with the Faculty College Drill Club," Cohen read from his book.


War fever spread quickly on college campuses, Cohen said. As an example of the way fierce loyalties appeared not only on the battlefields but in the Yard, he noted that the editor of Harvard Magazine once published the names of the six Harvard students who joined the Union army but left out 15 who had joined the Confederate forces at that point.

Cohen said that the long-term effect of the war on higher education was a dramatic change in the demographics of college students, with universities opening their gates to the middle class, women, and African-Americans. This shift was particularly noticeable in the South, where universities offered training in certain trades to encourage young men from the middle class to enroll, Cohen said.


"It was very hard [for Southern colleges] to attract students because there was a depression in the South," Cohen said. "Colleges wanted to show that attending was practical—that you could learn a trade like nursing or mining."

After the Civil War, Harvard graduated its first African-American student. Several state-funded universities in the South also briefly accepted African-American students during the Reconstruction era, when the liberal-minded Radical Republicans held power in the South.

Though brief, the period marked a drastic educational shift. “[Before the Civil War], it was forbidden in some states to teach a black person to read,” Cohen pointed out.

Cohen, who earned his Ph.D. at Harvard, said he has maintained a long-standing interest in education and history, and he hopes to research the education of Civil-War-era politicians next.

"When I was in middle school, I wanted to be a middle school history teacher; when I was in high school, I wanted to be a high school history teacher; when I was in college, I decided to be a college history professor," he said.


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