William Princeton Willey, Dickinson College Class of 1862, was determined to graduate even though all odds seemed to be against him. As a junior in college, Willey’s world erupted as his country went to war with itself after the battle of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Ten days later Willey wrote his father, the future West Virginia senator Waitman T. Willey, of the precarious situation he was in as a Southern student in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. William sent two letters to his father within a one week period: one on April 22 and the second on April 29. Within this week William perceived that the situation in Carlisle had changed dramatically. In his first letter, William described the excited mobs of townspeople at the train station: “women bidding adieu to their husbands and sons.” Though a committee from the town approached the college’s president, Dr. Herman Merills Johnson, informing him that Southern students must either leave or take an oath of allegiance, William told his father that he would try to stay as long as he could: “I fear nothing yet. The only ones that are in danger are the students from S.C.” One week later, William and his friend McCants were the only Southern students left. Now however, Carlisle residents complimented William on his dedication for remaining at school. More often, William wrote, he and McCants were approached for their opinion as Southerners because “in Carlisle the prominent desire seems to be that of getting a hold on Jeff Davis.” William’s two letters document the remarkable shift in emotions of Carlisle residents after the immediate shock of Fort Sumter wore off—by April 29th it appeared that the women of Carlisle no longer felt it necessary to arm themselves with broomsticks against a possible Southern attack. After graduating, William P. Willey went on to earn his law degree and became a law professor at West Virginia University, where he founded the West Virginia Law Review in 1894.
William P. Willey's April 1861 letters
Posted in Civil War (1861-1865)