As we celebrate the origins of our alma mater, we must not think that the College of William and Mary was always destined to continue through the centuries as an exemplar of American higher education. On the contrary, at times the College experienced dire circumstances and may well have passed out of history. The College’s Sir Christopher Wren building burned down three times and had its educational function interrupted by wars. In its darkest hour, one man, all but unaided, revived the failing institution. The College we know today owes its existence just as much to Benjamin Stoddert Ewell as it does to the dual monarchs.
Ewell, born in the Georgetown area of Washington D.C. and a graduate of West Point, became a professor of mathematics and the acting president of the College in 1848. Four years later, he became the permanent president. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, although he had opposed secession, he sided with the Confederacy and fought as a Colonel in the army — his younger brother was the more famous Ewell in the war serving as a senior general.
During the Civil War, the College suspended operation as students took up arms for the Confederacy. The buildings were not long deserted as Williamsburg, due to its strategic location, became an important military outpost for both sides, and the College’s buildings were used as barracks and hospitals. In 1862, Confederate forces overcame the Union garrison at Williamsburg but soon withdrew from the town. Remnants of the defeated 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry reoccupied Williamsburg and, driven by vengeance and drink, set fire to the main buildings of the College.
After the South’s defeat, Ewell returned to a college in ruins, within a state that could offer little support. Ewell lobbied Congress to pay reparations for the damage, but to no immediate avail. Instead, he eventually petitioned private citizens to contribute to the reconstruction of the College. Through the charity of individuals from the North, South and even England, as well as substantial contributions by Ewell himself, the College opened its doors once again in 1869. This renaissance was short lived, however, since the income of the College could not cover its expenses, and Ewell was often forced to personally pay operating costs. In 1881, the financial burden became too much, and Ewell was forced to disband the faculty and close the doors of an institution which, in times of peace, had remained open for two hundred years.
In his seventies, Ewell may easily have retired. Instead, he continued to lobby for the reopening of the College and stayed on as president without faculty or pupils. For seven years, he rang the college bell to remind the nation that the College, though dormant, was still alive. Many doubted if the College would survive without relocation to Richmond or Alexandria, but the College reopened its doors in 1888. The state of Virginia granted the College $10,000 dollars a year to educate teachers for the commonwealth, effectively transforming the College from a private to a public institution.
Reassured of the continuance of the College, Ewell immediately handed it over to Lyon Tyler, the son of John Tyler. He remained in Williamsburg as president emeritus and died in 1894. His body lies in the College Cemetery and is memorialized by the building that bears his name.
While Charter Day celebrates the College’s birth, we should remember that Benjamin Ewell is responsible for its rebirth. The experiences of the college in the decades following the Civil War are essential to understanding it today. They explain why we are a public institution and one of the reasons why our prestige no longer equals that of our old counterpart in the north. Perhaps the argument can be made that hardship strengthens institutions as well as humans. The College has once again taken its place as one of the most esteemed universities in America — a feat which, like few other events, can be attributed almost entirely to the work of one tenacious warrior-scholar.