From 1860 to 1861, students and faculty of Indiana University tried to maintain academic decorum amid the clamor caused by civil war. But national events overshadowed scholarly pursuits. The conflict engulfed both the quiet precincts of Seminary Square and the bucolic town of Bloomington, as the school’s students and the county’s citizenry fought among themselves over the issues of the war.
In the early 1920s, an IU alumnus described those days in a letter to a friend. South Carolina’s government had passed an ordinance of secession in December 1860, and John D. Alexander, class of 1861, recounted the moment when students discovered a secession flag “flying from the highest point on 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 [President] Doctor Nutt’s residence – then to the Court House Square where speeches were made denouncing the ones who placed the flag there and particularly South Carolina and the flag was burned.” 
The town of Bloomington again showed its outrage when, a few months later in April 1861, Confederate forces attacked the United States Army post, Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor. Monroe County residents, including some of the university’s students, rallied to the defense of the Union and joined the army to suppress foul rebellion. Some students and alumni from the South fought to defend slavery.
The flag incident of 1860 elicited sympathy with the secessionists among some students; similar expressions of sympathy with Confederates emerged in Bloomington and Monroe County during the war.
Much of the campus ferment over the Civil War was confined to debates held in the two literary societies that dominated campus life, the Athenian Society and Philomathean Society. The young men (as women had yet to enter the student body) who did not leave school to join the army debated the partisan and ideological issues that roiled the country: Was secession and slavery allowable under the Constitution? Was coercion of the rebel states back into the Union proper? Was President Lincoln a tyrant? Should African-American men be employed as soldiers? They emitted much hot air and jabbed their fingers into the air to make their rhetoric ring with effect.
While students dueled verbally, partisan conflicts in town and the surrounding county over the war produced numerous violent, criminal incidents, especially as the war dragged on with no end in sight, and the death toll mounted. Brawls over the war occurred frequently. Arsonists torched the house of a prominent pro-war jurist in 1862. Residents shielded army deserters from arrest, and authorities arrested men for speaking against the war effort.
In June 1863, amid a wave of organized and murderous draft enrollment resistance throughout Indiana and neighboring states, a large body of armed men accosted a draft enrollment officer in Indian Creek Township, in the southwest corner of Monroe County, and seized his enrollment lists. Military authorities sent a force of over one thousand troops—infantry, cavalry, and artillery—to Bloomington to arrest the perpetrators. The troops billeted in the town among welcoming pro-war Republicans (town Democrats, many of whom had soured on the war effort, later complained that the troops had been drunk and disorderly) for several days and arrested more than a dozen men for draft resistance before marching into Greene and Sullivan counties to enforce the draft law. The violence of the war reached into every Indiana community.
IU’s campus became even more roiled in 1863–1864 when a conflict between university administrators and students arose. Perhaps mimicking the suppression of the opposition newspaper press exhibited by President Lincoln during the war, university President Cyrus Nutt enforced an order regulating campus speech, insisting that topics of debate be approved in advance. Members of the literary societies raged in protest. The Board of Trustees suspended students until they submitted.
While some Indiana University students left school to enlist in the war effort and died in battle or from disease, others remained to debate the war’s causes and consequences. Some defended the Confederacy’s right of secession. Others argued that the federal government’s war effort to preserve the Union was just, and slavery was a sin to be stamped out. Their rhetoric was the dim echo of the larger and bloodier conflict that raged in Bloomington, Monroe County, Indiana, and the Old Northwest.
 John D. Alexander to Frank H. Lovell, box 1, John D. Alexander Papers, C623, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington, Indiana.
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of 200: The IU Bicentennial Magazine, a special six-issue magazine that highlights Bicentennial activities and shares untold stories from the dynamic history of Indiana University. Visit 200.iu.edu for more Bicentennial information.