Neill A. Smith (1863) 24 December 1859 Letter

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From: DC0126s, Smith, Neill Alexander, 1837-1865 (1863) Letter, 1859 (View Finding Aid)


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Davidson College December 24th/59 [1]

Mollie [2],

I have almost forgotten when I have received your letter, not more than a week at any rate. It seems that you wrote about the time I did. And now I don’t feel in the humor to write for I have just taken a nap of sleep and I still feel drowsy, we have no exercises here anymore [3] and I can sleep as much as I please and ask no one any odds. It is rather a dull time and I have got the bleus sortter, and that makes it worse.

Vacation or no vacation [4] I have to stay here. I have not been any where since I came here and I am not any where when I am here, so you may just say I’m no where at all; if you don’t say so I will for this is no where at all.


However I believe I did take a short ride out in the country this morning with Mr. O. N. Brown [5] but it was very short and when I cam back there was a hole burnt in my floor, that was sort-ter bad won’t it? so I think I had better stay at home. The mail comes this evening [6] and I will tell you what news I gets if I get a letter which I am pretty sure I will but I don’t want to tell you such as you told me in your last about being expelled [7]. I was at the first of when I got your letter there never was such a thing thought of here before that I know of, Luther [8] said that he got a letter that had the same news, and it is a little strange that such news would get out down there without a reason, and I would like to know where it started, or who knows or how or when. I would like for you in your next letter to tell me how you heard it and who from


and trace it back as far as you can, in order that I may find out where it started . You might have been satisfied that it was not so when you heard it for when a student is expelled Dr. Lacy [9] writes immediately to his father and when I am expelled the first thing you look for is a letter from the faculty [10]. Well well that mail that was to have arroven have arriven I did not get a letter but I heard enough you never heard such news in your life as is coming from down there about this place ever letter that come is got something different and I cant picture there in my mind how such things get out, I heard this evening that I was expelled [11] for some cause, and I would like to know what that cause was. It is more than any one here knows, and I don’t know how the people down there hear so many things that are not so.


It is true that some of the students are leaving here but to come out in English there has not been but one expelled this year and I cant say he was, for he was only dismissed everyone that leaves college is not expelled. [12] You said you heard my offense was taking the clapper out of the bell [13], and I assure you that there was no such a thing as that done here, the bell was moved from its place one night but no person but those concerned knows who don’t it. I assure you I knew nothing of it until next morning, and the faculty sayed nothing at all about it, where there are so many concerned they never, trys to finde it out, for if they expel all those who are concerned in such things they knows they will break up the college and therefore I take it for granted. then they let such _____ unnoticed.


From what I can learn from those letters, those reports are growing worse down there every day, for everyone one that gets a letter has something new or something different from all the rest. I also heard this evening that one of the Buies [14] wrote home to his sister that I and Luther were sent off from College, and I am pretty confident that is not so. I don’t believe either one of them would do such a thing, and I can tell you if you ever heard such a thing you kned not believe it. If any person wrote home such a thing it was not the Buies it must have been some one that is an enemy to some of us. The Buies don’t like it at all that such a report is out about them.


If you never heard about them you must not say any thing about it. The reason that so many are leaving here is hard to tell all the reason they give me was that they were displeased with the place I believe there is some hard feelings between the Soph & junior classes [15] about that rake and that may be the cause of there leaving, but that is all settled now. You must try and find out how such a thing started but don’t make much fuss about it, Well I must stop writing, you must write immediately and tell me how you heard these things. I could write from now till night such as it is but I don’t think it will interest you, even if you can read it. Look over mistakes if you please, no more at present from your brother NA

Side: tell papa if he pleases to send me som money

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[1] Davidson College December 24th, 1859. Neil Alexander is writing home to his sister on Christmas Eve, 1859. He is from Robeson County, North Carolina. For the majority of the students at Davidson, it was too expensive to travel home for the holidays because of the short two-week recess. The school year ends July 14th, 1859. Dr. Lacey is the president of Davidson College from 1855-1861. In 1859-1860 E. F Rockwell taught Latin, C. P. Kingsbury taught math and civil engineering, and C. D. Fishburne taught Greek. There were 112 students enrolled at Davidson College at the time. Students had to uphold good moral character and freshmen had to take exams in Greek, Latin, and Mathematics (DCC 6-10).

Davidson College Campus late 19th century

Photo of Davidson College campus in late 1800s.

[2] Mollie Smith is Neil Alexander Smith’s younger sister.

[3] Exercises and classes would follow the following grading system and include the following subjects for respective grades. (Freshmen, Sophomore, Junior, Senior). Grading System – The following are quotes from Davidson’s College Catalog in the late 1800s: “A record shall be kept of all recitations, by a system of notation, such that 100 shall mark a perfect, and 0 an entirely deficient recitation.”

“The sum of these marks, divided by the number of recitations in a term shall be the average standing of a student before examination, and this multiplied by 4 and added to the mark for examination, and divided by 5, shall determine the final standing of any student in a term of that department.”

The students at Davidson in the late-nineteenth century did not choose majors and had no electives. All students followed the same curriculum, which was strongly focused on Classics: the ancient languages, the plays of the Greeks, the Roman orators, and the history of both civilizations. Toward the end of their four years, students were introduced to the natural sciences and Literature, including Biblical scholarship. The curriculum for 1860-1890 was as follows:

Freshman Year – Latin, Greek, Mathematics

Sophomore Year – Latin, Greek, Mathematics (in more depth)

Junior Year – Latin, Greek, Mathematics, Mental Science (Philosophy)

Senior Year – Latin and Greek continues, Mental Science, Religion, Constitutional and International Law, Political Economy, Philosophy, Astronomy, Chemistry, Geology, Mineralogy (DCC 10-11).

[4] Neil Alexander is writing on Christmas Eve from school because it was too expensive for him to go home for the holidays. In the late 19th century, Davidson College academic school years, semesters, and vacations were quite different than they are today. The 1857 academic school year ended on July 16th. There were two sessions. There was a Christmas break of two weeks and each session ended with final exams. In 1858 the academic school year ended on July 15th. In 1859 the academic school year ended July 14th. In 1861 the academic school year ended on July 11th. There was a two week recess including Christmas and New Year. The Senior class exams were five weeks before commencement. The Davidson College Archives have no catalogs for the year 1860 as well as the years 1863-1865 (DCC 10-15).

[5] There are no specific records of a Mr. O. N. Brown (Blodgett).

[6] The mail service was pretty quick and cheap and it was easy to write letters. Davidson students used a separate post office because the Davidson post office was so unorganized and slow. Students would walk a mile and half down the road just to send out and retrieve their mail. Letters were the primary source of communication in the late 19th century (Blodgett).

Davidson Post Office

[7] Expulsion- The college went by a system of demerits. These could be given by faculty members for different offences, including profanity, fighting, tardiness, improper dress in Chapel, inattention to recitation and absence from any college exercise, for instance.

“These delinquencies, with the demerit attached, shall be recorded every week. At the end of the term, 100 deportment mark shall be given to those who have no demerit marks: and if any, they shall be subtracted from the 100 to determine the standing. And whenever a student shall receive demerit marks in a term exceeding 100, he shall forthwith be dismissed.”

Student could also be expelled for major offenses (DCC 16-19).

[8] This Luther is Luther McKinnon. A classmate and good friend of Neil Alexander. He does not end up getting expelled, and he was the first Davidson alumnus to become President of the college. He was also a member of the Philanthropic Society (Lingle 78).

[9] Dr. Lacy was the president of the college from 1855-1861 (Lingle 22).

Dr. Lacey, president of Davidson College 1855-1861

[10] The faculty upheld the stringent rules of the grading system as well as punishment systems (DCC 16-19)

[11] Neil Alexander Smith was not expelled.

[12] Instead of being expelled or asked to leave, people often just left school for family reasons, monetary reasons, etc. (DCC 16-19).

[13] The Davidson College bells have had an interesting history. Over the course of the 19th and 20th century, the bells have evolved with respect to the changing time periods. The bells called students to meals, chapel, pointed out significant times of the day, and signaled the end of classes. The bells were placed on top of chambers, so that they could be heard all over campus. The first large bell on top of chambers was installed in 1860. The students often misplaced the bells in order to irritate the faculty. In 1859, when Smith and his friends were accused of moving the bell as a prank, the Buie brothers, like Smith, wrote home assuring their family they were not involved. The pranksters rang the bell all night after its move in November 1859. The students threw rocks and clubs at the faculty when they tried to recover it. The pranksters actually said, “the faculty don’t act like gentlemen so why should I?” If caught, punishments for moving the bells were harsh and could even result in expulsion. The earliest Davidson college bell was recently found buried under a barn on a local Davidson property and returned to the school (Shaw’s “A History of Bells at Davidson College”).

Chambers Bell, more recent than those of the 19th century.
Chambers Bell, more recent than those of the 19th century.

[14] The Buies had several family members attend Davidson College. In Smith’s time, Duncan Alexander Buie and Daniel Calvin Buie, like Luther McKinnon, were his classmates and close friends. The brothers were from Phildelphius, NC and were also accused of taking part in the disappearance of the college bell (Lingle 80).

[15] Enmity Between Classes – Hostility between classes was personified in the Freshmen and Juniors’ Mirror, a detailed ridicule of the two classes published by the Sophomore class on July 13, 1859. The document condescends and slights individual members of the freshman and junior classes, and also expresses disdain for teachers and particular subjects. One section reads:

It shall be the duty of Professors generally, and of the professor of Chemistry in particular, to attend prayers twice during each year—at the February examinations and at Commencement, and also to attend at other times when any of the Trustees are about the College (Sophomore Class 18).

The publication almost led to a riot and the trustees met in extraordinary session—instigated by President Lacy—in order to obtain apologies from the Sophomores.

Looking through it, the fonts and structure were obviously intended to resemble the College Catalogue.

[16] Philanthropic and Eumenean Societies – Created in 1837 these literary societies were the first student organizations on campus. The Eumenean Society’s motto is “Pulchrum est colere mentem,” or “The cultivation of intellect is beautiful.” The Philanthropic Society had similar goals, it’s motto being “Verite sans peur,” or “Truth without fear.” Both Societies valued literary discussion, debate of controversial and/or contemporary topics, and the cultivation of knowledge outside the classroom. They had bi-weekly meetings to share compositions and to debate. W.A. Smith talks about the debate, composition, and declamation that he participated in as a member of Phi. Both groups were the center of social life at the time. They provided the camaraderie of the fraternity, the structure of student government, and an extra layer of education outside the set curriculum. In the 1840s buildings were constructed to house the societies’ meetings and books. The libraries of the two societies were once larger than those of the College itself (Sanchez). For more detailed information on the literary societies:

Philanthropic Hall. 9-3348
Philanthropic Hall. 9-3348
Eumenean Hall. Courtesy of Melinda Stuart
Eumenean Hall. Courtesy of Melinda Stuart

Historical context:

The War Between the States and its Effects on Davidson – From the Philanthropic Society minutes in 1860: “Has a state a right to secede from the Union under any circumstances that may exist in the present government?” The members answered, No. In 1861 they decided North Carolina should not secede, arguing there was not sufficient duress to justify the expense and tragedy of war. Many, absorbed in schoolwork, were simply apathetic. Eighty-seven students were enrolled in 1861’s first semester but only eleven remained in the spring of that year once NC had officially seceded from the Union. Many faculty, staff, and most all of the students left for war. Only one student graduated Davidson during the Civil War. In 1862 the C.S.A. passed legislation, including a Conscription Bill, requiring 18-35 year-old males to join the army. Most of the students still at Davidson left for the war at this point.

For more information on the Civil War’s Effects on Davidson:

Short biography of Neil Alexander Smith:

Smith, Neil Alexander, 1837-1864. Graduates from Davidson College in 1863. Neil Alexander Smith—1837-1864—Phi C.S.A. Color bearer (flag holder), 24th NC Regt. Mortally wounded at Petersberg, Gilopolis, NC. Neil Alexander Smith died fighting for the South in the Civil War one year after he graduated from Davidson College. He is from Robeson County, NC and he writes this letter on Christmas Eve of his freshmen year. For Neil, the break was too short and the trip too expensive to go home for the holidays. He was a part of the Philanthropic Society [16] in his time at Davidson and formed relationships with several close friends.

Works cited
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Beaty, Mary. A History of Davidson College. Briarpatch Press: Box 148 Davidson, North Carolina 1988. Print.

Blodgett, Jan. Personal Interview. May 6th, 2014.

Davidson College Catalogue: 1859. Fayetteville: Presbyterian Job-Office, 1859: 6-11. Print.

Davidson College Catalogue: 1859. Fayetteville: Presbyterian Job-Office, 1859: 16-19. Print.

Davidson College Catalogue: 1861. Fayetteville: Presbyterian Job-Office, 1861: 10-15. Print.

Lingle, Thomas Wilson. Alumni Catalogue of Davidson College: 1837-1924. Charlotte: Presbyterian Standard Publishing Company, 1924. Print.

Photograph of Davidson College Campus in the late 19th century. 9-1248.

Photograph of Davidson College Chambers Bell.

Photograph of Davidson College Post Office.

Photograph of Dr. Lacy, the president of Davidson College form 1855-1861.

Photograph of Phi Hall. 9-3348.

Sanchez, James. “Eumenean and Philanthropic Literary Societies.” Davidson Encyclopedia. December 2003. Web. 30 April 2014.

Sophomore Class. Freshmen & Juniors’ Mirror. 13 July 1859: 18. Print.

Stuart, Melinda. Eumenean Hall. 2011. Davidson College, NC. Panoramio. Web. 6 May 2014.

Transcription and annotation authors: Annie Brockett, Jonathan Ferguson, Max Pragnell.
Date: May 2014.
Cite as: Brockett, Annie, Jonathan Ferguson, Max Pragnell, annotators. 24 December 1859 Neill A. Smith letter to Mollie. DC0126s.

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