Sincerely Yours – Letters from the Archives: A Captain in the Union Army, John D. Alexander

Born on February 6, 1839 in Bloomington, Indiana, John D. Alexander graduated from Indiana University with A. B. and A.M. degrees in 1861.  In 1860, while Alexander anticipated his graduation, Southern tensions reached their peak. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union following the election of Abraham Lincoln.  In his “Recollections of Indiana University, 1856-1861” Alexander notes the intense atmosphere in Bloomington following South Carolina’s secession.  He recalls,

One fine morning a Red flag with One White Star was flying from the highest point of the University Building.  The whole town was thrown into a frenzy of excitement.  Students and people of the town soon filled the Campus – the flag was torn down and dragged through the street to Doctor Nutt’s residence – then to the Court House Square where speeches were made denouncing the ones who put the flag there and particularly South Carolina and the flag was burned.

Alexander taught school for a year and then enlisted as a private in Company E, 97th Regiment of Indiana Volunteers in August 1862.  On June 27, 1864, Alexander was wounded in his right hip at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia.  He quickly recovered, however, and returned to his company in October 1864.  Alexander and the rest of the 97th Regiment marched in Sherman’s army from Atlanta to Savannah, from November 15 until December 21, 1864.  The following letter is written by Alexander to his parents.  He describes his experience in the Battle of Grindswoldville in Georgia, the first battle of Sherman’s March to the Sea, as well as movements of the regiment and news of his promotion to Captain of Company D.  Just a note that within the letter, Alexander invokes some language of the time that would be offensive if employed today. See full transcription below the images.

C623_2005 C623_2004

Camp Anderson, Geo. 9 miles South West of Savannah

December 18, 1864

My Dear Parents,

I am still alive for which I thank the Good Lord. We left Atlanta, Geo. the 15th of November.  The 15th Army Corps take the extreme Right of the Army. The 17th Corps the Right Center, the 20th Corps the Left Center and the 14th Corps the extreme Left. We were all to move on roads as nearly parallel as possible. Nothing of interest occurred until we struck the Macon and Savannah Railroad where we all stayed and encamped at night. The next morning – Nov 22nd our brigade 2nd under Gen Walcott was ordered to make a reconnaissance. Once in the direction of Macon we started and got within 2 miles of the Macon and Montgomery R.R. when the Rebels Cavalry under Wheeler attacked our Cavalry and whipped them badly. Our brigade threw out Skirmishes and we drove them back to Grindswold a small Station on the Railroad and finally beyond there. Our brigade then retired to a small elevation of ground overlooking an open field where we stopped to get our drummers. We were sitting round not expecting any danger when the Georgia Militia attacked our pickets and they commenced coming in and we went to making breastworks out of rails, bags, chunks, whatever we could get together. Before we had them done however, they came upon us in three lines of battle.  They came with a vengeance and some were killed within 50 yds of our works.  The fight raged with fury for three hours and when it ceased Such a sight! The Rebels literally lay in piles, 10 men in a place all killed together. Their loss was estimated at 2,000 killed and wounded. Ours only… [section of letter missing] The Brigade Genl Walcott was wounded early on…[section of letter missing] with a piece… [section of letter missing] Shall look… [section of letter missing] Command of the Brigade and behaved with much gallantry. He still commands the Brig. Capt. Elliott of Co “H” commands the Regt. After we left there we had our ups and downs. Dec. 10Crossed Ogeechee River on the 11th we were wakened by the Reb Battery and our Shelling. On the 13 of this month Fort McAllister at the mouth of the Ogeechee River was taken by the 2nd Div of our Corps. They captured between 2 and 300 prisoners, 17 guns, 200 artillery Horses, $2,000 worth of wines and cigars. That Opens our Communication we got mail night before last and I got your letters up to Nov 30″/64. Some from Bettie also and Sam Kate and Will married Hannah. I was glad to hear you got home safely from Sister Sophia’s. Did you get my photographs I sent home? I got my Commission to Captain night before last. Will be mustered today. I will be assigned to command Co “D” for a while. Then if Captain Oliphant resigns I will be transferred to Co “E” if possible. We only have to go on the front lines every 3 or 4 days. Tell Captain O – I will write to him this evening and more if I can. Give my love to All. I am in perfect health am as fat as a pig. Have had a pack mule to carry my Blankets and Grub and a darky to lead him and cook. I have 3 blankets Always sleep comfortable. The boys have been down to where the water comes up to get oysters and can hear distinctly the roaring of old Ocean. The country here is level and swampy. Give my love to Boone, Mary, Bettie, Felix, Mat, Lee, Sam, Sallie, and families and believe me you.

Affectionate Son,

John D.  Alexander Co “D”

In April 1865, Alexander was appointed Acting Assistant Inspector General of the Second Brigade by General John A. Logan in Goldsboro, North Carolina. He was mustered out of service on June 9, 1865 following the Grand Review of the Armies, a victory procession through Washington, D.C.  Following the Civil War, Alexander served as a lawyer in Bedford and Bloomfield.  He went on to hold several elected positions in state and county government. Alexander was also regular attendant to all national and state encampments of the G.A.R. His involvement in the G.A.R. led him to write a History of the Ninety-seventh Regiment of Indiana Volunteer Infantry in 1891.  In 1929, Alexander was the oldest living graduate of Indiana University. He died on February 27, 1931.

The above letter, along with 11 others, can be found in C23 John D. Alexander Family Papers. To learn more about Indiana University and the Civil War, contact the IU Archives.

1883 Fire!

Today is the anniversary of the most destructive and institution-altering fire in Indiana University’s history. Read below for details and for more info other Bloomington campus fires, see Ava’s post from June 22

July 12, 1883 = FIRE!
July 12, 1883 = FIRE!

On July 24th, 1883, the IU Board of Trustees met for the first time since the fiery destruction of their campus to discuss the future of the university. After reading a number of letters of sympathy from alumni and presidents of nearby colleges, the Board determined their immediate courses of action: clear the debris of the burned building, salvage any potential building or educational materials from the wreckage, begin planning construction for a new science building and library.

The IU faculty minutes from just after the incident capture the chaos of the fire, the cause of which was later found to be a lightning strike to the telephone wire that led to Theophilus Wylie’s room:

On the night of Thursday July 12th 1883 a little after 10 o’clock, the new college building was found to be on fire and the alarm was given. As the crowds gathered, the flames were seen bursting out from the second story, from the room used for storing apparatus and as a work room on the East side. The Fire Dept. of the town with its new steam fire engine, and its smaller engine, did its best to extinguish the flames. In this attempt it failed but succeeded by energetic work in saving the old building by keeping the roof and end adjacent to the burning structure soaked with water. Within two hours from the discovery of the fire, the entire roof had fallen in and only the walls with a few clinging timbers remained. The building thus destroyed was three stories in height and was built in 1873 at a cost of $33,000. It contained the Library of 14000 volumes the Museum in which was the Owen Cabinet of 85000 specimens carefully labeled and displayed in suitable cases. The Ward caste of Extinct Animals and many other valuable collections. In the third story was Prof. Jordan’s collection of fishes.

While not the only fire in IU history, as illustrated in part one of this post, the 1883 fire was by far the most significant, both financially and culturally. Though different sources list varying estimates of the fire’s damage, the Indiana Student of January 1885 states a total loss of $104,200. This number, of course, does not account for the irreplaceable artifacts and books lost, including a number of unique volumes and manuscripts related to Indiana history. The Board explored a number of tactics to raise the $77,000 that they determined was necessary to rebuild the campus and repopulate its laboratories and library. Proposals included doubling Monroe County citizens’ taxes for a year to soliciting donations from alumni. The first donation, a gift of $5 from Sarah Morrison, IU’s first female student and graduate of IU, was used to purchase a new minute book for the Board of Trustees’ meetings, as the previous book had been lost in the fire. Through this variety of means, the university obtained an astonishing $50,000 from the county’s citizens, illustrating Bloomington’s overwhelming support of the institution and allowing the university to boast that it had rebuilt without “taking a penny” from government funds. The insurance received after the disaster accounted for the remaining $77,000 and allowed IU to begin construction on its two initial buildings on the now relocated campus: Wylie Hall, devoted to chemistry and physics, and the smaller Owen Hall, dedicated to the natural sciences.

Owen & Wylie Halls, circa 1885
Owen & Wylie Halls, circa 1885

Though many irreplaceable specimens and volumes were lost to the flames, the incident provided the university with an opportunity to expand and develop its campus and to re-evaluate its role in Indiana’s higher education. Established as the Indiana Seminary by an act of legislation in 1820, the institution that opened its doors in 1825 became Indiana College in 1828 and Indiana University in 1838. As the student population and their interest in the sciences grew, IU began to want for more classroom and laboratory space as well as housing for their increasing library collections. The 1883 fire provided the opportunity to move the campus away from the noisy rail-way bordering the west side of the Seminary Square campus and into the scenic and spacious Dunn’s Woods, where the university had purchased a 20-acre plot for $300 per acre. The destruction of the campus prompted a minor (and unsuccessful!) movement to consolidate IU, the State Normal School and Purdue University. Luckily, the resulting outcry, which argued that IU needed to remain a “strictly literary institution” to complement the focus on “agricultural and mechanical industries” of Purdue and on teacher training at the Normal School, convinced community and Board members alike to continue to support Indiana University as an independent institution.

A history of IU fires

Leading up to the anniversary of the disastrous 1883 fire that changed Indiana University Bloomington’s future, intern Ava D. provides a short history of some of the most significant fires IU has faced in its nearly 200 years. Stay tuned for the story of the 1883 disaster! 


The rebuilt New College Building at Seminary Square. Note the fire escape in case of repeat disaster.
The rebuilt New College Building at Seminary Square. Note the fire escape in case of repeat disaster.

Eighteen years after its creation, the New College Building at IU’s original Seminary Square campus was consumed in fire from a still-unknown source, along with its valuable contents. According to Theophilus Wylie, who would later blame himself for IU’s second major fire in 1883, the April 1854 fire resulted in the total destruction of “its small, though valuable, library, its chapel, recitation rooms, the neatly fitted up Philomathean and Athenian Society halls, with their library and furniture.” While the incident resulted in an estimated loss of $15,000 worth of property, including the 1,200-volume library collection, it also spurred the creation of the IU Alumni Association to help support and rebuild the school; the IUAA continues as an important member of the IU family.


The only known photograph of the fire.
The only known photograph of the fire.

The third major fire in IU history, the February 7th fire of 1900, damaged a portion of Wylie Hall, one of two original buildings on the Dunn Woods campus, IU’s home to this day. Wylie housed classrooms and workspace for students of chemistry, mathematics, and law; the fire, though not confirmed, is thought to have originated in the chemistry department from a chemical fire. Most of the “valuable apparatus and chemicals” were saved, according to IU’s student paper The Student, (now IDS) but the fire still cost the university $20,489 in structural damage and an estimated $6,000 in books and apparatus. In order to reach the only phone on campus located at Maxwell Hall, then-Professor William Lowe Bryan (IU President, 1902-1937) hoisted Professor Morton on his shoulders and helped him through the transom, a comical image later featured in a cartoon in the 1900 Arbutus.


Third IU power plant from 1901-1929.
Third IU power plant from 1901-1929.

On September 22, 1929, a short-circuited generator inside IU’s third power plant caused a fire that resulted in over $100,000 in damage to the roof and equipment at IU’s power plant. Members of IU’s ROTC chapter controlled the crowd of students as the fire department fought the flames. Once again, the city of Bloomington provided for IU in the wake of a fiery disaster and temporarily provided lighting services for the campus. The Indiana Daily Student, whose headquarters were located in the old power plant next door and whose electricity was subsequently lost in the blaze, was displaced and moved to share space with the Bloomington Evening World in order to report the news in a timely fashion.


Construction on East Hall in 1948.
Construction on East Hall in 1948.

From modest beginnings as a repurposed WWII airport hangar, the now-razed East Hall provided significant and important performance and practice space for IU’s School of Music.  The “temporary” building served as headquarters for operatic performances until 1968, when defective wiring in the stage area led to a fire bringing $445,246 in structural and property damage. Up in flames went many historically and culturally important operatic materials, from costumes for upcoming shows to musical scores and props from past performances to a several-thousand-dollar Steinway piano.


The aftermath of one of the arson attacks on the IU Graduate Library, 1969.
The aftermath of one of the arson attacks on the IU Graduate Library, 1969.

Before becoming the Student Services Building, the building later christened Franklin Hall once held the IU Undergraduate Library, with the Graduate Library spilling into the Student Building next door. In 1969, the library was the target of two arson attacks, first on February 17, then on May 1. Though not confirmed, the civil unrest on campus at the time, in part stemming from the Indiana governor’s demand to stymie tax dollars to increasingly growing university and library costs, may have been the impetus for the fires. The first fire caused $165,000 in property damage and $500,000 in collections, destroying 75,000 volumes and badly damaging 20,000 more. Though the second fire destroyed only 30,000 volumes in comparison, the collections replacement cost $600,000, while the property damage totaled up to $1 million.

A sampling of damaged books from the Feb. 20 fire.
A sampling of damaged books from the Feb. 20 fire.

An article in the April 1969 Indiana Daily Student muses on the identity of the culprit, offering insight into the cultural environment of the incidents: “Is there something sinister going on around the campus today? Are the dissidents indeed Communists? To this, I.U. President Sutton answers that Communists wouldn’t touch today’s handful of campus radicals with a 10-foot pole. Neither would the vast majority of students or faculty. If the radicals were to be characterized, most people think, it would be the anarchists on campus back in the ‘30’s.” On June 28, 1969, a library employee was arrested as the arsonist in question. Once again, though devastating, the fire proved to yield long-term benefits for the university as it solidified (and possibly accelerated) the creation and move to a new undergraduate library, the building now known as the Wells Library. After all, as librarian Cecil K. Byrd said, “can you imagine trying to run a university without a library?”


In the midst of the 1990 Little 500 celebration, a series of fires determined to be arson swept through the Bloomington campus. During the last two weeks of April, a series of escalating fire-related incidents were extinguished, beginning in the Business School with furniture doused in flammable liquid and set afire. While this incident was caught early enough to cause little damage, the arsonist’s next stop was the School of Music, where 10 pianos burned and created over $20,000 in damage. Fires in the reception area of the Law School and the stage of the Fine Arts Auditorium followed, luckily resulting in minimal damage due to the quick actions of bystanders. The Fine Arts building was targeted again the following weekend, this time beginning in a metal cabinet full of craft supplies on the fourth floor. A number of other incidents, from furniture set ablaze in Ballantine to a trash can fire at HPER, peppered the two-week period with thirteen mysterious incidents of arson. The culprit was never found, despite the implementation of a 24-hour patrol in all University buildings.


The Student Building's clock and bell tower ablaze on Dec. 17, 1990.
The Student Building’s clock and bell tower ablaze on Dec. 17, 1990.

A campus landmark that inspired Hoosier composer Hoagy Carmichael’s “Chimes of Indiana,” the IU Student Building was originally intended by President Joseph Swain’s wife Frances as a space for female students to congregate between and after classes. A letter from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. suggesting that they include a male wing to the building – as well as a hefty donation – led to a co-ed building with two gendered wings separated by a common space, built in 1905-1906.  Besides the trademark clock and bell tower, the building was also the one-time home to a gymnasium for women, a barber shop, a billiards room, and a cafeteria in the basement. On December 17, 1990, while the building was undergoing renovations, the building caught fire and a number of the custom-made bells from the Netherlands of the beloved clock tower were broken and, in some cases, melted. IU was awarded $1.9 million for the damages, which were caused by welders who did not properly extinguish the hot coals used in their work, sparking the late-night fire.

Stay tuned for the story of the fire that led to some major changes for IU Bloomington!

The Dagger: The 19th Century Version of Rate My Professor

The Dagger
The Dagger

Throughout history, college students have been prone to griping and airing their grievances with their school’s faculty and administration. Today these grievances are shared through Facebook statuses, Tweets, and ratings on Rate My Professor. However in 1875, the Indiana University students found another way to express their opinions: a little publication they ominously called The Dagger. The Dagger was started in 1875 by members of IU’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity and continued into 1880. Published at Commencement by the seniors of the fraternity, the timing allowed their fellow students, visitors, and the administrators know what problems existed within the walls of the University. The slogan of the annual publication was “Let Truth Shine!” and the seniors had no qualms with letting the motto ring true.

The newsletter was split into the following sections: Salutatory, the State of the University, the Faculty Reviewed, and Miscellany. The Salutatory allowed for formal introduction of the contents and mission of the newsletter. The State of the University laid out the important opinions and particulars about the administration of the University and how they were ruining or improving the university.

Notable in the publications and valuable to researchers today is the Faculty Review, which includes Indiana University names of distinction such as Daniel Kirkwood, Theophilus A. Wylie, and Elisha Ballantine; all of whom received glowing reviews from the Dagger’s staff members. The students note the good and bad in each instructor and save some cutting remarks for IU’s first female student turned instructor, Sarah Parke Morrison, by declaring: “If she had any reputation we ask in the name of God, upon what is it based, if accompanied by any reliable recommendation, in the name of heaven how was it obtained?” Even the librarian is not sacred to the writers. In the June 1880 issue they depict the book buying trips of librarian William Spangler as a great blight on the expenses of the students’ tuitions. The writers proclaim: “It’s high-handed robbery from the students to pay this ornery faculty pimp’s way through college and to Europe and back.”

Sarah Parke Morrison was none too popular with IU students.
Sarah Parke Morrison was none too popular with IU students.

The Miscellany section of the newsletter is a hot bed of jeers, insights, and amusing limericks. This section was produced by the alumnae and looked to allow for some social reporting aside from the grievances of the university. Many times individuals were mentioned by name but some references were anonymous. A perfect example of this lies in this musing from the June 1875 edition: “One of the senior girls has a better mustache over her eyes than any one of the boys has under his nose.” This section was a perfect outlet for social reporting and anonymous name calling that denoted the reputation of the newsletter. It also allowed for the fraternity to establish a pecking order of rivals.

If you would like to get a glimpse in real life of the scandalous newsletters, the three issues in our collection have been fully digitized and are available via the finding aid at!

Theophilus A. Wylie: Renaissance Man

t.aTheophilus A. Wylie is a prominent and fascinating character in the early history of Indiana University. Theophilus was the cousin of Andrew Wylie, the first president IU, and he first came to Indiana in 1836 as a professor. Over his many years here, Theophilus served the University in a great many capacities including professor, librarian, superintendent of buildings and grounds, interim president (twice), and finally, professor emeritus. He was a teacher, an orator, a pastor, a chemist, a physicist, a Greek scholar, a photographer, a tinkerer and inventor, an astronomer, an artist, and in many ways, a Renaissance man.

His many activities are recorded by his prolific note-keeping. The Theophilus A. Wylie papers in the Archives holds 18 of his diaries, 11 research notebooks, correspondence spanning 1830-1895, and several other writings and drawings. The collection is chock full of all kinds of information and his style of writing makes it all the more interesting! The margins of his notebooks are filled with doodles, phrases in Latin or Greek, scientific sketches, and complex equations. Sometimes these were simply quotations in their original language but other times, he used the languages to encode more private parts of his writing (often, his opinions of others).

Excerpt from T.A. Wylie’s diary with a portion written in Greek.

He often annotated his writings and drawings in later years, penciling in notes about his memories of the writing, when it took place, what had followed, etc. Here he notes that the stain on a diary is the result of an “ink upset Monday August 14, ’85.” Near the center of the page, he added legs to an inkblot that resembled a body.

t.a. ink

Like many in the Wylie family, Theophilus not only doodled in margins but also enjoyed sketching in his free moments:

Front Yard001

Scene in the front yard of the Wylie home, which is now Indiana University’s Wylie House Museum

t.a. courthouse

TAW sketch of the Monroe County Courthouse

There is SO MUCH to discover in the Theophilus A. Wylie papers! For more information about the man himself, the online finding aid has a wonderful biography. For more direct experience with his papers, contact the Archives! Or, at the time of this writing, the collection is being digitized in its entirety and some may already be accessed via the finding aid!