The Flag of the Confederacy Flies Atop the Rotunda
    by Hahna Cho

On a bright and early March morning, the people of the University of Virginia awoke to the astonishing sight of the crimson secession flag billowing from the dome of the Rotunda. In his journal that day, March 16, 1861, Chairman Socrates Maupin inscribed: “The Rotunda was broken into last night and the Confederate Flag erected on the dome by persons unknown. It was taken down this morning by order of the Chairman.” As the legend goes, three groups of students- those who lived on Dawson’s Row, Carr’s Hill, and a private boarding house occupied by the Sons of Liberty and the Southern Guard- all competed to be the first to fly the monumental flag atop the Rotunda. Despite the lightheartedness of the friendly competition, the placement of the Confederate flag atop the Rotunda, the visual and educational centerpiece of the university, confirmed the significant support on Grounds for the Confederate government.

In his autobiography, former university student, Randolph H. McKim, described the ordeal from a first-hand perspective, simultaneously acknowledging the peculiarity of the event and the overall warm reception of the flag’s erection.

“… It is evident the foreign flag is a welcome intruder in the precincts of Jefferson’s University, for a great throng of students is presently assembled on the lawn in front of the lofty flight of steps leading up to the rotunda, and one after another of the leaders of the young men mounts the steps and harangues the crowd in favor of the Southern Confederacy and the Southern flag waving proudly up there…  So general was the sympathy with the Southern cause that not a voice was raised in condemnation of the rebellious and burglarious act of the students who must have been guilty of raising the Southern flag. Not so general was the approval of the professors; some of these were strong Union men, among them one who was deservedly revered by the whole student body, Prof. John B. Minor, the head of the Law Department. Walking up under the arcades to his lecture room, he was shocked at the sight that met his eyes, and (so a wag afterwards reported) broke forth into rhyme as follows:

"Flag of my country, can it be That that rages up there instead of thee!"

Meantime the excitement waxed greater and greater, so much so that the students forsook their lecture rooms to attend the mass-meeting on the lawn.”

            The account provided by McKim (who later confessed to being one of the seven students who organized the production and mounting of the flag) confirms that prior to Virginia’s official secession from the Union on April 17, 1861, both students and faculty at the University vehemently advocated for the state’s declaration of loyalty to the Confederacy.

In addition to displaying their enthusiasm for Confederate symbolism in rather rambunctious ways, students eagerly prepared for military service. At this point in the University’s history, the student body was comprised only of young men, implying military service as the most effective method to aid the Confederacy. On December 13, 1860, Chairman Maupin noted in his journal that “students residing on Carr’s Hill, asked for permission to form a second military company to be called the “Southern Guard,” subject to the control indirected in a late resolution of the Faculty authorizing the formation of the company calling themselves the “Sons of Liberty” – permission granted.” Amongst the young men who joined the ranks was Randolph H. McKim and Robert E. Lee Jr., the youngest son of the famous Confederate war general. Upon discovering this, General Lee wrote to his wife, objecting to his son’s decision to enlist in the army, pledging that he “could not consent to take boys from their school & young men from their colleges & put them in the ranks at the beginning of a war when they are not wanted & when there were men enough for the purpose.” Although General Lee objected to the eagerness of young male students to enlist in the Confederate army since it disrupted their educational pursuits, the official roll of the Sons of Liberty and Southern Guard as recorded in the Chairman’s Journal stood at significant numbers, 62 and 77 respectively.

In addition to the active student population, alumni of the University of Virginia also responded to the call to arms, 2,481 of the 8,000 existing alumni serving the Confederacy. While most of the professors at the university were too old for military duty, they still congregated to show their support, occasionally meeting to perform public drills with flintlock muskets. Members of the faculty also offered their intellectual expertise in service of the war by holding public office. Professor Albert Bledsoe acted as assistant secretary of war, Robert R. Prentis, university librarian and proctor, took on the role of Albemarle County tax collector, and Professor James P. Holcombe was asked to attend the Virginia Secession Convention, later becoming a representative to the Confederate Congress. Chairman Maupin noted several months before the convention on January 16, 1861, that “Professor Holcombe called upon the Chairman and stated that he had been informed that a movement was on foot for calling him out as a candidate for the Convention. He had not made up his mind that he would accept the call: but should he do so, he would simultaneously resign his position as one of the Professors of Law in the University…” Throughout the convention, Holcombe, as a proponent of slavery, advocated for Virginia’s secession from the Union. Upon the final vote in April, Holcombe, representing Albemarle County, became one of the 88 members of the convention to vote ‘yea’ in favor of secession.

Only days after the state of Virginia officially seceded from the Union, the Confederate flag was officially raised over the Rotunda, this time by order of the faculty but with the full, enthusiastic support of the entire university community. The presence of the flag at the university, both before and after Virginia’s secession, emphasized the school-wide, Confederate sympathizing sentiments. Most of all, it signaled a change in the course of the wind in the development of national history as well as the future for the University of Virginia.

  • Barringer, Paul B., James Mercer Garnett, and Rosewell Page. University of Virginia; its history, influence, equipment and characteristics, with biographical sketches and portraits of founders, benefactors, officers and alumni. New York: Lewis, 1904.
  • Chairman's Journal Session 37, 1860-61
  • Jordan, Ervin L., Jr. “The University of Virginia during the Civil War.” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 24 Mar. 2016. Web.

  • "Law Library Guides: Our History: Former Faculty: Holcombe, James P. (1852-1861)." Holcombe, James P. (1852-1861) - Our History: Former Faculty - Law Library Guides at University of Virginia Arthur J. Morris Law Library. December 7, 2016.; Jordan, Ervin L., Jr. “The University of Virginia during the Civil War.”
  • McKim, Randolph H. A Soldiers Recollections: Leaves from the Diary of a Young Confederate, with an Oration on the Motives and Aims of the Soldiers of the South. Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1996.
  • "Robert E. Lee to Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee ." Robert E. Lee to Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee. April 30, 1861. Richmond, VA.
  • "Virginia Secession Convention: Second Day of Secret Session, Wednesday, April 17, 1861." Virginia Convention of 1861 - Civil War Collections - University of Richmond.