EDUCATOR TURNED SOLDIER SAVED VIRGINIA'S OLDEST COLLEGE FROM WARTIME RUIN[Taken from a special memorial delivered July 12, 2001, at the 47th Annual Children of the Confederacy General Convention Memorial Service by Miss Katie Fraser, President of Virginia Division CofC]
At the end of Duke of Gloucester Street, which runs through the heart of the restored area of Williamsburg, Virginia, stands the campus of the College of William and Mary. A nationally recognized institution of higher learning founded in 1693, William and Mary is known as the alma mater of Thomas Jefferson and the home of Phi Beta Kappa and the collegiate honor code. What most people do not know is that there would be no William and Mary today without the determination and dedication of one Confederate soldier.
Benjamin Stoddert Ewell was born on June 10, 1810, in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., the son of Dr. Thomas Ewell and his wife Elizabeth and the grandson of Benjamin Stoddert, the first Secretary of the American Navy. An 1832 graduate of the United States Military Academy with a brevet as a second lieutenant of artillery, Ewell stayed on at his alma mater as a professor of mathematics. After 16 years of teaching at West Point, Hampden-Sydney College, and Washington College (now Washington and Lee University), he accepted a position as professor of mathematics and acting president of the College of William and Mary. In 1854 he became the College's permanent president.
Seven years later, in January of 1861 as war fever swept over the campus, Ewell found himself taking on yet another new role: captain of the college militia. Enlistments in the Confederate army soon depleted the student ranks, however, and on May 10, 1861, the faculty voted to close the College for the duration of the conflict. Ewell was apppointed colonel of the 32nd Virginia and went on to serve as a staff officer for General Joseph E. Johnston. If his wartime record is not as well known as that of his younger brother, General Richard Stoddert Ewell, it is perhaps because fate had an even greater task in store for him at War's end.
On September 9, 1862, the College's main structure -- the famous Sir Christopher Wren Building -- was burned almost to the ground by members of the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiment. Other buildings and enclosures belonging to the College were also destroyed by the Union Army, which occupied Williamsburg from May of 1862 until September 1865. When Ewell hung up his sword and returned to Williamsburg at War's end, he was faced with rebuilding an institution that lay in ruins.
The Sir Christopher Wren Building
Undaunted by the grim prospect, Ewell immediately set to work lobbying the Congress of the newly united country to compensate the College for "the destruction of its buildings and other property without authority by soldiers of the United States during the late war." Although official restitution would not come until 1893 -- almost 30 years later -- Ewell nevertheless reopened the College in 1869, often taking the money for operating expenses out of his own pocket. Finally, in 1881, when the dark days of Reconstruction proved to be too much even for Ewell, the College once again closed its doors and did not reopen until 1888. And yet for every single morning of that long seven-year period, Benjamin Stoddert Ewell would arise and ring the bell calling students to class, so it could never be said that William and Mary had abandoned its mission to educate the young men of Virginia.
Once he had ensured that the College he had cherished and protected would survive, the 71-year-old Ewell relinquished the presidency and went into retirement. He remained in Williamsburg as President Emeritus until his death on June 19, 1894. He was buried on the campus. Today his name graces one of the College's main administration buildings, and, in 1987 the Student Association established an award in his honor that recognizes both graduate and undergraduate students who have exemplified the true meaning of a liberal arts education through their activities and studies.
Benjamin Stoddert Ewell ~
16th President of the College of William and Mary
As Ewell himself said in his address to the U.S. Congress, "No institution of learning in the South lost so much by the civil war, by actual destruction of property, and by consequent inability to resume its exercises as soon as peace was declared, save two, perhaps. Indeed, so far as I am informed, the losses of William and Mary exceeded those of all other Southern colleges combined, with the exception of the two just mentioned....The College, if this prayer be granted, will rise with renewed vigor, with improved faculties to repay any benificence which Congress may bestow, by giving again back to the Union what money can not buy, another host of mighty men to guard constitutions and laws, and to love the nation as devotedly as even its liberties."
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