What Actually Happened in Oxford the Evening Mississippi Seceded?


by Steve Vassallo

Oxford’s Civil War Historian Starke Miller has uncovered a story that very few have ever read until now. He has opened Pandora’s Box. The stories that follow will reopen an era of Oxford’s history no longer gone with the wind.

Starke, briefly describe the evening of January 9, 1861.

Starke Miller: A relatively cold and calm wintry night ended just the opposite as rain moved in accompanying an aura of excitement difficult to explain adequately.What prompted this extemporaneous celebration?

Starke Miller: Representatives from the state’s 60 counties ( that’s correct, only 60 in 1861 ) had been meeting in Jackson since early Monday (January 7) at the state’s Secession Convention. Lafayette County’s representative, L.Q..C. Lamar (Thomas D. Isom who is attributed with naming Oxford was the other), actually was called upon to draft the Secession Ordinance.

This is some pretty heavy activity…that being withdrawing from the protection and affiliation of the United States of America.

Starke Miller: Steve, that’s an understatement! The state had been anticipating secession for more than a decade. Lincoln’s election sealed the deal as Mississippi followed South Carolina (Alabama would leave the Union on Thursday, the day after ). As great as the euphoria was, there were also unsettling concerns and fears starting to register as well.

Did anyone on that evening anticipate a war of the magnitude that was about to be unleashed?

Starke Miller: It’s doubtful anyone could have conceived what was about to transpire on that eventful evening. The students at Ole Miss immediately headed to the Lamar faculty residence on campus upon hearing the news from Jackson. Upon arrival, they began serenading Mrs. Lamar, who had placed candles in every window symbolic of a holiday celebration.

What happened next?

Starke Miller: The students formed in columns, with the College band, and marched down University Ave. to the center of town where they called on two more residences (a UM Law Professor and a local politician) demanding speeches from them at  their respective homes. Oxford’s four churches (Episcopal; Methodist and two Presbyterian) all were ringing their bells in acknowledging their approval of Mississippi’s decision. Gunshots were going off nonstop as the town of some 2,000 became awake unlike anything they had ever seen previously in the 20 plus year history.

Was the town divided at all regarding this momentous decision?

Starke Miller: Absolutely it was. Both Lamar and Isom had been voted to represent the county, each representing opposite views. However, once Mississippi chose its fate (almost unanimously), Isom then withdrew his opposition.

What were the students carrying that fateful evening in addition to firearms?

Starke Miller: They had carved out letters into boxes on poles, with candles inside to illuminate the names of Lamar; Isom and Mississippi on three sides, and most others held torches.

What was life in Oxford like in that period?

Starke Miller: The university town showcased two newspapers…. the conservative “Mercury” and the liberal “Intelligencer.” There was a railroad depot; telegraph office; about 20 stores; two hotels; and some lavish homes, and of course the Court House. The rural, farming community was deeply Christian with the four churches, the Episcopal being the wealthiest and most prestigious although having only 23 members!

What was the Chancellor thinking while all of this hysteria was taking place?

Starke Miller: Chancellor Frederick Augustus Barnard was anything but pleased. The northerner from Massachusetts was opposed to secession and was fearful the institution that he had built up would be destroyed with the events ultimately leading to war.

The actions of January 9th almost proved him correct in this assessment.

Starke Miller: He would remain with the university for some months afterwards until exiting to Washington DC and then to New York as Chancellor of Columbia in 1864.

Were there any flags or banners on display during this historical evening?

Starke Miller: Two Bonnie Blue flags (prominent from the War with Mexico) were raised over the two of the dorms on campus. Upon returning to campus, the students were cheering like wild men, throwing lit papers and even lit clothes out of their dorm windows, and throwing  “fireballs” in the air over and over, made of rope soaked in turpentine, as the crowd cheered “we’re out of the United States.”

What about the university’s faculty?

Starke Miller: They were clearly divided upon geographical lines. The students strongly disliked one northern professor (Boynton) and would cheer three times for secession, followed by three groans in an attempt to mock Professor Boynton.

Apparently, the women of Oxford joined in the celebration of January 9th.

Starke Miller: Not to be outdone by their male counterparts, the ladies of Oxford illuminated the Square and surrounding streets with hundreds (if not thousands) of candles. (Candles were very expensive in 1861.) The wooden plank sidewalks were trampled with the residents singing “Hurrah for the Republic of Mississippi.” Far into the night, the tempest raged.

We almost failed to mention and acknowledge the student who accompanied the county’s two representatives to Jackson that week.

Starke Miller: Senior Frank Pope (Class of 1861) was invited because of his able recording skills serving as recording secretary for the convention who had a mastery of shorthand. (Pope would survive the war, after fighting with the University Greys, and return to Ole Miss four years following to deliver the most moving commencement address ever presented on the campus. He also returned for a Law degree in the UM Law Class of 1869)

Starke, next week, will explore in great detail, “The Dead House” as the university’s morgue brought a sadness to the campus unlike anything witnessed before or since. Also, Starke is currently organizing his next “Ole Miss at Shiloh Tour”(Saturday, September 23rd, the Ole Miss open football date).

For more details, email him at Coach1159@aol.com.

Steve VassalloSteve Vassallo writes on Ole Miss athletics, Oxford business, politics and other subjects. He is an Ole Miss grad and former radio announcer for the basketball team. Currently, Steve is a highly successful leader in the real estate business who lives in Oxford with his wife Rosie. You can contact Steve at sovassallo@gmail.com or call him at 985-852-7745.

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