Our Own Little War

By Marella A. Gayla and Leah S. Yared, Crimson Staff Writers
By Amy Y. Li

Raymond C. Traietti knows every inch of Memorial Hall. He can name most of the subjects pictured in stained glass and knows which types of wood make up each part of the building. (The benches in Sanders Theater are made of walnut, the stairs in the transept are mahogany, and the paneling in Annenberg Hall is American chestnut—a wood that’s now pretty much extinct.)

Traietti weaves through the building easily, unlocking back doors with a jingling set of keys. Every few minutes, he stops, marvels at the towering ceilings, and says, “Isn’t it magnificent?” He pauses in the transept, the marble-floored area between Sanders and Annenberg.

Amid black walnut paneling, 28 white marble tablets line the transept walls, bearing the names of 136 Harvard men who died fighting for the Union in the Civil War. Each entry lists a class year, a name, a date of death, and a location, if the soldier died in battle. Absent from the memorial, however, are the names of the 64 Harvard students who died fighting for the Confederacy.

Almost immediately after the end of the Civil War, a committee of 50 Harvard graduates began collecting funds for a grand monument to their peers who died in blue uniforms. A few years and more than $370,000 later, the cornerstone of Memorial Hall was lain.

“I think it’s trying to inculcate some set of values—the Union, sacrifice for your country, or just sacrifice for ideas—and I think those values are good,” Traietti says of the building where he has worked since 1996. He shrugs. “But I’m just a building manager.”

The University has honored its Union dead in stone and glass for more than a century. With a preeminent Civil War historian at its helm, Harvard has plunged into an effort to commemorate slaves who labored in homes on campus or in service of the University’s early benefactors.

But the stories of Harvard students who fought for the South remain largely unacknowledged: students who hailed from slaveholding families, students who wore uniforms for the causes of secession and slavery, students who once listened to the same lectures and lived in the same dorms as the people they would go on to fight in the Civil War.

For decades, Civil War monuments have been objects of controversy on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. But the national discourse on remembrance has exploded in the last three years. In June 2015, Dylann Roof massacred nine people at a black congregation in Charleston with hopes of inciting a race war. Among other things, this led to the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol. In February 2017, Yale University stripped John C. Calhoun’s name from one of its residential colleges and renamed it in honor of computer scientist Grace Hopper. In August, hundreds of torch-wielding white supremacists swarmed the grounds of the University of Virginia to protest the removal of a monument to Robert E. Lee.

The center plaque of Memorial Hall
The center plaque of Memorial Hall By Ellis J. Yeo

Harvard doesn’t have a Robert E. Lee, or a John C. Calhoun. Even so, questions of Civil War remembrance and Southern heritage crop up in Cambridge every so often. Harvard has seen monument proposals for Confederates and plaque proposals for slaves—Confederate flags in windows, and protests against those flags. In confronting its entanglements with slavery and the Civil War, Harvard walks the line between recording history and valorizing it.


More than 300 Harvard men went to war for the Confederate cause. Their names are not engraved on any campus buildings: Any record of Confederate soldiers from Harvard is, so far, the work of curious individuals rather than the larger University.

In 1911, the Harvard Graduates’ Magazine published an index of “sons of Harvard” who were “faithful unto death” to the Confederacy. Perhaps the most extensive and recently-updated list is Crimson Confederates, authored by Helen P. Trimpi in 2010. There is one copy of the volume in Widener Library, deep in the first-floor stacks. It cannot leave the library.

But in the decades after the war, the divides that it had created survived and expressed themselves in new ways. When Harvard found itself entrenched in a conflict about racial segregation in freshman dormitories, the Civil War had been over for 58 years. Still, the heated controversy was framed along a divide between the North and South.

Roscoe Conkling Bruce, class of 1902—the son of a senator and former slave—wrote to President Abbott Lawrence Lowell in 1923 to reserve a spot in the new freshman dormitories for his son, Roscoe Jr., an African-American graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy. Lowell’s answer was a resounding no.

“I am sorry to have to tell you that in the Freshman Halls, where residence is compulsory, we have felt from the beginning the necessity of not including colored men,” Lowell wrote in reply to Bruce. In a second letter, Lowell wrote, “We owe to the colored man the same opportunities for education that we do to the white man; but we do not owe to him to force him and the white into social relations that are not, or may not be, mutually congenial.”

The decision to exclude African-American students from the freshman dorms, some alumni at the time argued, was predicated on a desire to attract Southern students. One alumnus, Frank W. Hallowell, Class of 1893, wrote in the Alumni Bulletin that there were 67 Southern students enrolled at Harvard in a student body of nearly 4,000.

“To speak bluntly, this looks like a cringing attempt to draw more students from the South,” Hallowell wrote from Boston in 1923. “If Southern men cannot accommodate themselves to Harvard standards, let them stay away.”

A few Southern alumni had little appreciation for such an ultimatum.

“We in the South owe too much to Harvard—believe too deeply in her ideals—to withdraw before any such fictitious mandate,” William C. Coleman, Class of 1905, wrote from Baltimore. “It is the height of folly to attempt to revive the race question at Harvard. But if it is to be done, let no one forget that Harvard men in the South are going to have something to say about it.”

For months, alumni sounded off in the Bulletin, and feelings were not always neatly divided by the Mason-Dixon line. Some Northerners voiced support for Lowell’s stance, and some Southerners commiserated with the black students. “It is a fact that most white men, whether Southerners or Northerners, do not desire to enter into intimate social relations with negroes,” Tallmadge Conover, Class of 1920, wrote from Seattle.

One alumnus called the debacle a “resurrection of the ‘bloody shirt’ after fifty-eight years.” Another put it more bluntly, writing, “The Civil War is on again.”

On March 26, 1923, the Harvard Corporation—the University’s highest governing body— put ink to paper on a new, contradictory policy of race-based exclusion.“Men of white and colored races shall not be compelled to live and eat together,” the document read, “nor shall any man be excluded by reason of his color.”

Listed in the archives as an informal record to the decision, one document reads, “It is understood that arrangements shall be made to have any negroes who may be admitted to the Freshman Halls assigned to some one of the halls.” Many black students at Harvard were housed in Stoughton Hall, where the first African-American graduate of the College, Richard T. Greener, Class of 1870, lived.

It seemed to many administrators that the small handful of black students at Harvard—many of whom commuted to campus due to the high cost of rooms—were content in the decades after the decision. In 1939, only one black student was living in the freshman dorms. “I have heard no objections from anybody as to this arrangement,” then-Dean of the College A. Chester Hanford wrote.

The next dean of the college expressed the same sentiment. “Those we have appear to get on well at Harvard,” Dean of the College W. K. Bender wrote in 1951.

But little over a year later, two freshmen burned a cross in front of Stoughton Hall, where many of the eleven black members of the Class of 1955 were housed. The administration deemed the cross-burning a “prank” and gave the perpetrators the light punishment of probation. The Crimson chose to grant them anonymity.

Describing the incident in a letter to The Crimson, James Bows, Jr. ’55 and J. Max Bond, Jr. ’55—two black students—wrote, “Minutes later a Negro student passing thru the Yard was hailed with remarks such as might be expected in the Klan-dominated States of the South.”


When Jon P. Jiles ’92 was a sophomore, he hung a Confederate flag in the window of his bedroom in Leverett House. He was one of several Harvard undergraduates to do so in the early 1990s. The flags predictably inflamed racial tensions on campus, but those hanging them framed the narrative as one of “free speech” or “Southern pride.”

Confederate imagery persisted throughout the 20th century, and came to take on a new meaning with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. As one Crimson editorial writer put it in 1988, “Honoring the Confederacy would open up the wounds of the 1960’s, not the 1860’s.”

Jiles recently wrote in an e-mail to The Crimson that it acted as “a reminder of a familiar place” for a “small town kid in a new world,” more than a thousand miles from his home in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Several House residents—including a teammate on the Leverett intramural basketball team—told Jiles they found his Confederate flag hurtful and racist. He estimates that the flag stayed up for about 45 days before he removed it from public view. “I realized that my cause was neither heartfelt nor compelling compared to the greater damage the flag was causing,” Jiles wrote to The Crimson last week.

A year later, Brigid L. Thomas ’92—a transfer student from the University of Virginia and a proud Southerner—hung a Confederate flag in her Kirkland bedroom and roiled the campus in controversy for weeks. Thomas, once a vocal defender of her actions in the many Crimson articles that ran about her, declined to comment for this story.

“I wasn’t going to walk into the Kirkland quad and walk by the Confederate flag every day,” says Nigel W. Jones ’91, who lived in Kirkland House as an undergraduate. He was one of several black students who confronted Thomas about her window decoration. “I found it incredulous that anyone could make an argument with a straight face that the Confederacy wasn’t completely intertwined with and predicated upon slavery. How could I not be offended?”

At the time, Thomas, who is white, insisted that her window decoration “wasn’t an issue of racism,” but one of Southern pride and free speech. Amid fiery backlash to Thomas's display, other Confederate flags appeared—one in Quincy House, and one in Cabot. Dianne M. Reis ’93 says she hung hers in solidarity with Thomas. At the time, she saw it as an issue of free speech, but she says that she would not defend Thomas as strongly now.

“It’s hard for me to put my finger on it,” Reis, a self-described conservative, says. “And maybe it’s just that I’ve changed—I’ve changed my views on this. I no longer think that it really comes off as a free speech thing, it just comes off as a not-wanting-to-deal-with-the-racial-issues-of-the-current-time thing.”

In Cabot House, the offending flag appeared in the window of Timothy P. McCormack ’91-’92, who did not respond to requests for comment. In the years before House randomization, Cabot—like the other Quad Houses—was home to many students of color. Thomas, Reis, and McCormack’s actions stirred backlash, even from quieter students who had not been activists before.

Enter Jacinda T. Townsend ’92, a black Cabot resident from Kentucky. “I was just so not this firebrand person,” she recalls, laughing. “I was this kid in this Aerosmith t-shirt who never spoke in class and was just trying to skate by with a B+ average in Ec10.”

Townsend bought a bed sheet, spray-painted a swastika and the words “Racism, no” on it, and hung it in her window, hoping to illustrate the weakness of the “free speech” argument. “If that’s not racism, if that’s just ‘free speech,’” Townsend says of the Confederate flags in Cabot and Kirkland, “then I guess I can hang a swastika.”

Some supported Townsend’s actions, while other members of the community were outraged. A few individuals called the act anti-Semitic and insensitive to the Jewish community.

“For whatever reason people don’t understand what [the Confederate] flag means to me,” Townsend says. “Because in Kentucky, let me tell you what that means. That means lynching, and the Klan was coming, and bad things. So let me explain to you and lay it out—this is exactly the equivalent thing.”

When the police came to Townsend’s door asking that she remove the swastika, a group of black women came to her room in a show of solidarity. Townsend declined to take the sheet down. “I told them if they want me to take this down, they need to go visit these other two people first,” she recalls.

Nearly every day for more than a month, Thomas and Townsend’s names appeared on the front page of The Crimson. Impassioned op-eds flooded the editorial section, culminating in a full page emphatically titled, “No Más! Absolutely, Positively the Last Words on the Confederate Flags (We Hope).” Members of the Black Students Association, clad in black clothing, held an “eat-in” in Kirkland dining hall.

On March 9, 1991, 70 students marched in silence from Kirkland to Cabot to protest Thomas and McCormack’s displays of the Confederate flag. When the protesters reached the Quad, they sang, “We Shall Overcome,” a gospel song that became iconic during the Civil Rights Movement.

Although the flag debacle led to confrontations, eat-ins, marches, police intervention, and countless op-eds, Townsend remembers her undergraduate days as “less tense then than they are now, racially speaking.”

“It’s heartbreaking for me to realize this while speaking to you,” Townsend says. “I can’t imagine that happening now—I cannot even imagine the fallout that I’d get.”


Every so often, there is a “periodic upswelling” of the Confederate question, according to former Harvard Alumni Association president Robert N. Shapiro ’72. The perennial question? Whether or not fallen Harvard men who sat in class alongside their Union enemies and fought for the causes of slavery and the Confederacy during the Civil War should be commemorated.

Harvard faced a particularly contentious “upswelling” in the 1990s.

Amid talks of a planned renovation of Memorial Hall, a group of students and alumni began calling for a memorial to the 64 Harvard students who died on the side of the Confederacy. Because Memorial Hall was designated a tribute to the Union dead, alumni turned their eyes to Memorial Church.

Memorial Hall is lined with 28 marble tables.
Memorial Hall is lined with 28 marble tables. By Amy Y. Li

John P. "Jack" Reardon '60, who has worked at Harvard since 1965, had a front-row seat to the controversy as executive director of the Alumni Association. Shapiro chaired an HAA ad hoc committee designed to assess the plan.

One of the most outspoken proponents of the monument was the late Peter J. Gomes, then-Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Memorial Church Minister, who also served on the committee. Invoking Christian values and his status as a descendant of slaves, Gomes penned a Crimson editorial in 1996 in support of a Confederate memorial.

“A memorial is not merely an artifact of the past,” Gomes wrote. “By its very nature it is a key to the future, a means of moving on from beyond the shadows of the past.” Those shadows, in Gomes’s view, had shrouded Harvard for some time.

Gomes, the committee, and the HAA board of directors were in agreement: something had to be done to honor the Confederate dead. The directors submitted a proposal to create a monument within Memorial Church to the Board of Overseers—the University’s second-highest governing body—for approval.

Meanwhile, the committee solicited input from alumni in Harvard Magazine and ended up receiving over 90 letters, Shapiro says, mostly in favor of commemorating fallen Harvard graduates who donned gray uniforms as well as blue ones. “The impetus has been—should we forget? Should we obliterate?” Shapiro says. “People who were going to school together went off to fight against each other, trying to kill each other, and succeeding at killing each other. That’s probably something worth noting.”

The recommendation predictably led to backlash, particularly from black students, although it did not stoke a “hotbed of protest,” Patience R. Singleton says. At the time, she was president of the Harvard Black Law Students Association. “It was pretty much a protest on paper.”

Singleton, along with many others, penned editorials in The Crimson and wrote letters to the Alumni Association in outrage. “Why does the University persist in stating that reaction to the proposal was overwhelmingly favorable when a large association of Black alumni wrote to the HAA and the President of Harvard objecting to it?” Singleton asked in a 1995 Crimson editorial.

In a recent interview, Singleton expressed incredulity at the original proposal.“They were fighting for opposing reasons!” Singleton exclaims. “If I were a descendant of a Union [soldier], why would I want my ancestor’s name to fall alphabetically behind a Confederate person’s on the same wall?”

Reardon says input from the community led the HAA to drop the project. “I talked more deeply at this point, and to members of the black community that I knew well, and they were, I would say, unalterably opposed to the idea,” Reardon says. “And I kept talking, and I came to the conclusion that it had been, let’s say, 140 years and we had done nothing, and therefore did I want to start our own little war over this?”

“I went back to the governing boards and I said, ‘I think that this is something we ought not to do until such time that the community could come together on it,’” he adds. “I didn’t know when that was going to be, but I thought we ought to drop it. And we did.”

For the time being, the issue of attempting to redefine Harvard’s Civil War involvement was shelved.


The conversation about Confederate remembrance at Harvard didn’t end in 1996. A full decade later, the Office of the Arts commissioned “Deep Wounds,” an interactive video installation in the transept of Memorial Hall.

The installation illuminated the white marble tile on the floor of the transept and invited visitors to walk across it. Prompted by the viewer’s footsteps, the projection would open and close “wounds” on the ground, exposing and obscuring blurbs of blue text that mirrored the commemorations on the walls: a class year, a date, and a location of death. These entries, projected in light, documented the deaths of Harvard Confederates.

“It just kept gnawing at me—that idea of unfinished healing,” says Brian Knep, the Boston-based media artist who created the piece.

But Knep purposefully left one piece of information out of the projected text: the names of the Confederate dead. “I want to tell you absolutely clearly the piece is not about commemorating the Southerners,” he says. Instead, Knep identified each of the fallen Confederates by his relationship to one of the Union soldiers honored on the wall: “classmate” or “friend” or “father,” for example.

“What do you do when someone who was your classmate or roommate is on the opposite side of history?” says Teil Silverstein, a public art consultant at the OFA who advised Knep’s project. “Reconciliation is not forgiveness or forgetting; it’s a reckoning of some kind.”

After its initial run in 2006, “Deep Wounds” returned to the transept in 2015, as part of the Harvard Civil War Project—a series of events hosted by several academic departments for the 150th anniversary of the war’s end. In its second iteration, though, the project drew stronger reactions.

“The political landscape had changed by then,” Knep recalls. “There was the Black Lives Matter movement, there was a lot more awareness of privilege and racial injustice, and the piece wasn’t quite addressing that and people wanted it to.”

Viewer reactions are documented in a comment book the OFA provided for visitors to share their responses. Many effusive visitors found the piece uplifting. But some thought its focus on “healing” obscured uglier truths about the Civil War.

Though Knep and Silverstein insist that “Deep Wounds” was not an effort to valorize the Confederate cause, some viewers saw it as such. “Absurd that people who fought to maintain slavery are being honored,” one visitor wrote. “Wildly offensive and insensitive.”

Caitlin G.D. Hopkins, a former lecturer in History and Literature, wrote in the comment book that Knep’s omission of Confederate names perpetuated the “reconciliationist narratives” spun in the late 19th century. Those narratives tend to sanitize the memory of the Civil War by emphasizing the bravery of those who fought while minimizing any mention of slavery.

“Naming [Harvard’s Confederate dead] would draw attention to Harvard’s institutional complicity in the institution of slavery,” Hopkins wrote in the comment book at the time. “With no names, the installation is more about a ‘universal human truth,’ not a historical event, but I don’t agree with the artist’s perspective on that ‘truth.’ I would like to see an installation that names names. No reconciliation without truth.”

In “Deep Wounds,” reconciliation is more important than ideology. But Harvard has attempted to reckon with its ties to slavery in other ways.

In the spring of 2016, University President Drew G. Faust assembled a faculty advisory committee—headed by History Professors Sven Beckert and Evelyn B. Higginbotham—to research Harvard’s ties to slavery. The administration also appointed Hopkins the Harvard and Slavery Research Fellow, meaning that she will spend a year researching the topic full-time. Hopkins declined to comment for this story.

Beckert has been at the forefront of slavery remembrance at Harvard for a decade. In 2007, he assembled a seminar for undergraduate researchers to uncover a hidden part of Harvard’s history: its connections to the slave trade. The group published the research in a booklet called titled “Harvard and Slavery: Forging a Forgotten History” and presented it to Faust in 2011.

And the research has led to tangible changes. The same month that she assembled the faculty committee, Faust unveiled a plaque commemorating four slaves—named Bilhah, Venus, Titus, and Juba—who were owned by past presidents of Harvard. A year later, the committee planned a “Universities and Slavery” conference at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, where Ta-Nehisi Coates and other guests advocated for reparations. In September 2017, Faust inaugurated a second monument to Harvard’s slaves—this time, to those who belonged to the Royalls, the prominent benefactors of Harvard Law School.

One short but crucial section of “Harvard and Slavery” focuses on social dynamics between Southern slaveholding students and their non-slaveholding peers, who melded into “one Harvard student body, voluntarily sharing meals and housing.” Some of these friendships might have been the doomed relationships emphasized in Knep’s “Deep Wounds.”

“We might expect the presence of students from slaveholding families to have caused a stir at the college, but if anything, the opposite was true,” Beckert and co-author Katherine Stevens wrote in their booklet. “More often than not Harvard’s leadership and student body either accepted slaveholding or at least did not publicly oppose it.”

And those who did oppose it might now find that struggle erased. Megan Kate Nelson ’94, a Civil War historian, said commemorations of the war often omit any mention of emancipation, even in “hotbeds of abolitionism” like Massachusetts. More than a decade after she graduated, Nelson’s research brought her back to Harvard. She pored over papers belonging to several of the men commemorated on the walls of Memorial Hall. Many of them were “really overt about their abolitionist beliefs,” Nelson said, even though the antislavery cause goes unmentioned in the engravings.

Harvard has mounted plaques, assembled committees, and appointed researchers. But slavery remains largely absent from its visible Civil War remembrance.

“I think by the late 19th century—so 20, 30 years after the Civil War—there was an effort to almost erase from the public memory of what this war was really about in the interest of kind of reunifying the nation,” says Beckert. “The issue of slavery, and thus the issue of emancipation, was often repressed.”


A week after the violent clashes in Charlottesville, a right-wing “free speech” rally was slated to take place in Boston Common. The rally, which drew just a handful of attendees, was dwarfed by a counter-protest of at least 30,000 people.

After the events this summer in Charlottesville, Harvard and other universities quickly mobilized to condemn the violence and to address their own Confederate ties. Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana framed his “welcome back” email around the events, the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College—Harvard’s oldest existing black student organization—held a discussion on black activism, and the third-annual Quad Solidarity Barbecue, organized by race relations and BGLTQ tutors, focused on coming together.

Faust says Charlottesville “certainly sparked a lot of conversations,” and that “the level of hatred and vitriol was just so distressing and kind of unnerving and destabilizing for us all.”

The vitriol in Charlottesville might seem like it could never spring up in Harvard Yard, where there are no statues of Confederate generals to tear down. Diondra D. Peck ’17 grew up in New Orleans, and her family—as far back as she knows—is from Louisiana. She notes that there is plenty of racism in the North, but says, “I’m not going to walk around and see a lot of blatant municipal or state-sanctioned monuments to Confederate people or to slaveholders.”

The prevailing notion is that what happened in Charlottesville can’t happen in Cambridge. But visible, active white supremacy has not always been so alien here.

The KKK’s presence was noticeable in Boston in the early 20th century, and Klansmen were even rumored to be operating underground at Harvard. Though students were not walking about wearing white hoods, and tiki torches did not line the Yard, on October 22, 1923, The Crimson published an ominous article about the Harvard branch of the Ku Klux Klan. The white supremacy group had begun organizing in Cambridge in 1921 and was waiting for its “moment to strike.” It alluded to cross-burnings in Boston and a planned drive to boost membership.

“The Harvard Klan is inactive. But it is very far from being disorganized, nor can I say that even now its influence is unfelt,” one anonymous told The Crimson in 1923.

The two Klan organizers cited in the story were granted anonymity. “Following its traditional policy,” the article notes, “the Crimson refrains from publishing the names of known members of the Harvard branch of the Klan. They will, however, if necessary, be given to authorized persons.”

Nearly 100 years have passed since then, but the legacy of the Klan, like the legacies of the Confederacy and slavery, is far from resolved. Professor Cornel West says Harvard has grappled with these and other evils throughout its history.

“Harvard, like any other institution—it’s been shot through with these,” West says. “And so the question is can we be truthful about it. The worst thing we can have is a fear of the truth.”

West was in Charlottesville on August 12. He spent two and a half days in the usually quiet college town: Friday night, in the church surrounded by Nazis and white supremacists, and sunrise speaking at a service at the First Baptist Church—a historically black congregation. At 6 o’clock that morning, he marched in a throng of counter-protestors to the epicenter of the action: a statue of Robert E. Lee.

“I had never seen that kind of raw hatred expressed so close to my face,” West says. “And I’m 64 years old.”

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