One of the most storied organizations to serve from Mississippi during the Civil War were the “University Greys,” Company A, 11th Mississippi Infantry. Made up primarily of students from the University of Mississippi, the company was made up of the cream of the Magnolia state’s society. Fighting in the Army of Northern Virginia, the University Greys distinguished themselves on dozens of battlefields, making a name for themselves by their fighting ability and their devotion to the cause of an independent South. It’s hard to imagine now, but when the war broke out, there was some opposition to sending Mississippi’s best and brightest off to fight. The following letters from the correspondence of Mississippi Governor John J. Pettus at the Mississippi Department of Archives & History, illustrate the public relations campaign that took place in 1861 to make sure that the University Greys were not left behind when it came time to march off to war.
The first letter was written by Calvin Breckinridge McCalebb, a member of the Class of 1861 at the University of Mississippi, and proud officer in the University Greys:
Univ. of Miss., Mar. 15th, 1861
Gov. J.J. Pettus
Though you may deem it presumptuous on my part to address you on the present question, yet my anxiety to know your opinion
and intentions, prompts me to address you a few lines as to the permanency of the “University Greys.” Many base and evil minded persons, as I understand tried to influence you to disband our company and deny us the privilege of battling beneath the flag of our southern country in defense of our institutions, and revolutionary heritage.
What are the arguments which they advance in support of their position? They simply contend that we are not the material to be shot down upon the field of battle, but are those who should fill the halls of state. The youth of the land should be looked to for the victory. When the aged shall fall beneath the circle of time who are to replace them? Tis the young men.
They further urge that it will break up the college. Futile indeed is this argument. Do They know that if war should come, that the students will leave? I actually do not know a student, who is willing to remain here after war has broken out. even those who refuse to join the company, assert, that they are going to leave, when ” red battle stomps his foot.”
There are many we are aware of who wish to rule us out, and are endeavoring in an insidious manner to crawl in themselves. Suspicion is fastened upon many, but I am not prepared to say as to whom I deem the guilty, but of one thing I am certain, that they are not actuated by pure motives, but only as blind ambition directs.
I would be very happy to hear your opinion of the matter. hoping that you will use your influence in our behalf,
I am truly yours ,
P.S. – I wish you would send my commission as 1st Lieutenant of the “Univ. Greys.”
In 1850, Calvin B. McCalebb was listed on the U.S. Census living with his widowed mother and four siblings in Kemper County, Mississippi. On the 186o Census, the family was still living in Kemper County, and only Calvin and a younger sister were still living at home with their mother, Mary. 19 year old Calvin listed his occupation as “student.”
Calvin B. McCalebb’s service with the University Greys turned out to be of very short duration. He was listed as being absent sick for several months in 1861, and he resigned his commission on December 9 of that year. After recovering his health he enlisted in the “Farmer Boys,” Company B, 35th Mississippi Infantry. He must have been a good soldier, as he worked his way up to 1st Sergeant in the company. In the winter of 1863 it was noted in his service record that Calvin was “transferred, promoted Inspector Department, Columbus, Miss., order [of] Gen. Johnson.” There was only one other piece of pertinent information in McCalebb’s record – one sentence that simply stated, “Died Feb. 22, 1864.” Nothing else, no place of death, no cause of death, just “died,” one more Mississippian who gave his life for his country.
McCalebb’s letter was just the first of several letters written to Governor Pettus about the University Greys:
Oxford, March 18, 1861
Gov. J.J. Pettus
I beg leave, to address you in behalf of the “University Greys” and to offer a few suggestions, which I trust, may not prove entirely unsatisfactory to you, why this company should be retained in the service of the state. I premise, that I have not the honor to be a member of the Company, and am therefore uninfluenced by personal considerations, and thus justified, to regard it simply as a matter affecting in a great degree the military service of the State, and the cause of the South.
It is needless to say that the Company is composed of intelligent and educated gentlemen, ready to give, understand and execute orders. They are Mississippians, and therefore brave and courageous.
Though enthusiastic and ardent, they have learned to submit to the rigorous regulations of the college, and will consequently easily adopt themselves to the discipline of the camp. And though eager to win laurels they will be too jealous of the reputation of the Greys to disobey any order through restraining their zeal and ardor.
It might be said that their officers are young, but that has long since ceased to be a reproach. And the young men will cheerfully obey superiors, chosen by themselves, and of their own class. The interests of the University will be promoted, by permitting the students to march in a body; as otherwise they would abandon the college at once to join other military companies.
This company is drilling daily; and is fast acquiring that skill and training which _____ victory. I trust then that they will be permitted carry out their patriotic and laudable desires, to convince your Excellency on the tented field that they deserve to be a part of the Miss. Army And in expressing this wish, I but present the universal sentiment of the community, and especially of its military organizations.
I approve, from a personal knowledge of the facts stated the sentiments espoused above.
The “L. Houseman” that wrote this appeal on behalf of the University Greys was Leopold Houseman, a 26 year old lawyer living in Oxford on the 1860 U.S. Census. A native of Bavaria, Houseman immigrated to the United States in 1852, and settled in Oxford. In 1855 he became a naturalized United States Citizen. When the war broke out, he sided with his adopted state and joined the “Lamar Rifles,” Company G, 11th Mississippi Infantry. Sadly, Houseman’s war was also a short one. A sergeant in the Lamar Rifles, it was noted in his service record that he “Died of Typhoid, Camp Fisher Va.,” on September 3, 1861. Houseman left behind no wife or children, only a brother, who filed for the back pay that Leopold had never received during his short time in the Confederate army.
The testimonials of support continued to come in – here is the third such letter to be put on Governor Pettus’ desk:
Oxford, Miss., March 19, 1861
Gov. J.J. Pettus
Sir: I have learned that an attempt has been made rule out this regiment, Capt. Lowry’s Company, here at the University after they have been regularly mustered into service and received their arms. I think it would be a great injustice to do so. They are all young men it is true, but many of them are of legal age all of them eligible for military service, and they are exceedingly anxious to enter the service. As a company they are really better skilled in military tactics than any company I know of . Many of them have been educated at military schools. I hope therefore they will not be ruled out.
With highest respect I have the honor to be your
Wm. Delay, Capt., Comdg. Lafayette Guards
P.S. This Company has also been at considerable expense in procuring uniforms &c.
Of all the letters that Governor Pettus received on behalf of the University Greys, the one written by William Delay probably carried
the most weight. A newspaper editor and postmaster in Oxford, Delay was also a close personal friend of Jefferson Davis. In addition, Delay had extensive military experience. He served in the Blackhawk Indian War in 1832-1833, and as Captain of the “Lafayette Volunteers,” Company F, 1st Mississippi Regiment during the Mexican War. During the Civil War Delay joined up to fight in his third conflict, serving as Captain of the “Lafayette Guards,” Company H, 9th Mississippi Infantry. He survived the war, dying on September 15, 1871.
As if these testimonials were not enough, a fourth letter in favor of the Greys was received by Governor Pettus:
Oxford, 20 March 1861
The company of volunteers mustered into service here by Gen. Griffith, known as the “University Greys” are anxious to be retained & and not thrown out because they are university students. it is a delicate question to decide by the military board, and its delicacy is not diminished, when trustees of the University are called on to express an opinion.
The young men have appealed to me to interpose in their behalf, I write therefore to express my opinion as to the effect, on the college, their reception or rejection would have. I would regret to see the college broken up, but I believe their rejection at this stage of the proceedings would do it more harm than their acceptance. They say they will go home & and join other companies if they are excluded now, & that they must be allowed to do some fighting.
I am of the opinion that the matter has gone too far to be checked, with _____ to the college. The board are men of judgment & I expect will view the matter properly.
Very respectfully your friend,
The final letter sent to Governor Pettus was written by James M. Howry, a wealthy planter and judge who lived in Oxford. He was also one of the original trustees of the University of Mississippi, so his letter of support probably carried considerable weight with Governor Pettus.
Needless to say, the University Greys did remain in service, and served their state and country well on many a bloody battlefield. Today there are a number of memorials dedicated to the University Greys, but my personal favorite is the Memorial window to the unit in Ventress Hall at the University of Mississippi: