The Use of the Riot Act (1836)
    by Connor Andrews, Undergraduate Research Assistant (History, 3rd year)

In 1836, the Drilling Company, a program comparable to a student militia, ran into a series of disagreements with the Faculty over their right to drill on the Lawn and possess firearms. Around 9pm on November 10th, the Chairman and the Faculty were beginning to meet with a select group of students from the Drilling Company about these issues and had previously banned them from drilling on the Lawn. At this time, the students brought forth resolutions that they had adopted saying that they were, in fact, not disbanded as the Faculty had insisted and that they could drill regardless of what the Faculty said.

Around this time, they heard a ruckus coming from the Lawn with students shouting and firing off muskets. The students were warned that they did not have any right to keep muskets on the precinct and that they must remove them and disperse immediately, but the riot continued to ensue until a heavy rain came, causing them to leave.

The next day, members of the riot were called before the Proctor, starting with the officers, to see whether they had indeed removed their muskets and firearms from Grounds as the Faculty had ordered prior to and during the riot. However, the students held firm and told the members of the Faculty that they had not removed their firearms and that they intended to reconvene the next day to resume their drilling.

The students met at night to adopt resolutions and to discuss the pledge that the Faculty wanted the students to take in regard to moving their muskets off Grounds, and the more moderate and temperate views were “hissed down.” Several students then came to the Chairman in tears not wishing to incriminate themselves and to alert them that they would try to get another meeting of these students that day to rescind the military corps’ resolution and to follow the Faculty’s rules “but they could not succeed-the majority being led and controlled by a few desperate students who are ambitious of the honor of heading a rebellion.” The notion of Southern honor being tied to a rebellion against a faculty and school the students viewed as oppressive and intrusive due to restrictions on what the students viewed as their right to possess muskets and drill on Grounds is particularly interesting, especially with regards to seeing how the students took up the Confederate Flag a couple of decades later with similar conceptions of "honor". 

The Chairman hoped that the conflict would not persist and that the students would retire and accept the Faculty’s resolution, but the Chairman was forced to begin dismissing students and issuing sentences. These actions by the Chairman predictably served to agitate the students further and “a scene of great disorder commenced” where a riot erupted on Grounds. Students went around to the Pavilions and other University buildings in order to incite violence and physical destruction by firing muskets through windows in order to smash them. The University rested during the day, but the rioting was once again rekindled as the Chairman was disturbed by stones thrown against his home and muskets fired “before the door." The riot began to increasingly grow as the students went on a destructive rampage by breaking windows and doors, presumably at Hotels and Pavilions, and then proceeded to set a bonfire on the Lawn.

On November 14th, students warned the Chairman that if he did not rescind the resolutions and dismissals, then the dismissed students would go even further in their violence and disruption. Upon hearing this threat, the Chairman wrote:

As consequences much to be deprecated would probably ensue from any attempt at personal violence, or even from a renewal of the outrages already committed (several of the Professors are now arming themselves for the defense of themselves & their families;) and public property is also in considerable danger; I think it best, and indeed my duty to call in the civil authority. I therefore, late this evening, wrote to two justices of the peace & the deputy sheriff, requesting them to attend at the University tomorrow at 9 o'clock to enquire as to the breach of peace & riot which have occurred here. I propose proceeding under the Riot Act.

With the presence of this “jury” and officials, many students fled or hid, especially after it was determined that the violence incited by the students was meditated.

In the midst of this episode, the students held a general meeting and “unanimously adopted [a resolution] containing a pledge that the muskets should not be again introduced." This resolution was presented to the Faculty and was pleasing to them, and in light of this agreement, the Faculty allowed for the dismissed students to be able to reapply for admission because the Chairman noticed that there were a good number of good students and “gentlemen” amongst those dismissed.

University of Virginia. Journal of the Chairman of the Faculty, 1836.

Cite This Entry
Andrews, Connor. "The Use of the Riot Act (1836)." JUEL, June 18, 2015.

First published: June 18, 2015 | Last modified: July 1, 2018