Sunday, March 29, 2009

The West Point of the South

On January 19, 1830, the Alabama Legislature chartered a college in the small Colbert County community of LaGrange. Under the patronage of the Tennessee and Mississippi conferences of the Methodist Church, and with $10,000 subscribed by local citizens, LaGrange College became the first Alabama school to be designated as a college. Section 15 of the articles of incorporation prohibited the teaching of doctrine, limiting studies to the areas of science and literature. Therefore, the first faculty offered courses in mathematics, ancient and modern languages, and geology. By 1853-1854, LaGrange College had an enrollment of 230 students and an endowment of $50,000. Operations moved to Florence in 1855 and the college received a new charter as Florence Wesleyan University.

With the relocation of the faculty and many of the students, James W. Robertson established the LaGrange College and Military Academy in 1858 and became its first superintendent. The state of Alabama made provision for two young men from each county to be selected through a series of competitive examinations to be cadets. By 1861, 47 of 171 students were cadets, and the academy began to be referred to as "the West Point of the South," a title claimed by many such institutions throughout the southern states.

The outbreak of war in 1861 led many students to join the armies of the Confederacy. Organized in LaGrange, the 35th Alabama Infantry counted virtually all of the cadets among the 750 enlistees from Franklin, Lauderdale, Lawrence, Limestone, and Madison Counties. The regiment joined the brigade of General John C. Breckenridge in Corinth, Mississippi, with three members of the faculty serving as officers: Colonel J.W. Robertson, Colonel Edward Goodwin, and Major W.H. Hunt. The 35th Alabama saw action at Baton Rouge, Corinth, Port Hudson, and Baker's Creek. The regiment took part in the defense of north Georgia and Atlanta, suffered 35 casualties in General John Bell Hood's "slight demonstration" at Decatur, Alabama, and lost half its effective strength at Franklin. Following the Battle of Nashville, the remnants of the 35th Alabama fled east where they surrendered with the Army of Tennessee.

LaGrange was not spared the hardships of war. On April 28, 1863, the 10th Missouri Cavalry, USA, commanded by Colonel Florence N. Cornyn burned both the town and the academy. The 4,000 volume library and other buildings, along with chemical and physical apparatus were destroyed, with losses totaling $100,000. In 1904, Congress considered a bill to reimburse the trustees of LaGrange College and Military Academy for the loss of property during the war, but took no action.

Today, the memory of LaGrange College is kept alive by the LaGrange Living Historical Association. The site features buildings, a pioneer village, and an antebellum cemetery, as well as a small bed and breakfast.

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