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  • Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War by Michael David Cohen
  • Jennifer Oast (bio)
Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War. By Michael David Cohen. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012. Pp. 288 Cloth, $45.00.)

In Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War, Michael David Cohen argues that higher education in the United States was permanently altered by the Civil War. Because of the war, Cohen asserts, many colleges adopted more professional and practical curricula, such as schools of engineering. Another consequence of the war was that student bodies became more diverse as less wealthy Americans, women, and African Americans enrolled in college in greater numbers. Cohen also traces the growing role of the federal government in both public and private institutions through legislation like the Morrill Land-Grant College Act of 1862. Finally, Cohen examines the efforts of southern colleges to recover from the damage suffered during the war.

This cogently argued book challenges the tendency to dismiss or ignore the effects of the war on American colleges that likely results from the reluctance of historians of education to situate their own research within the vast historiography on the Civil War and Reconstruction. Cohen’s book is an important addition to the history of American higher education and has much to interest historians of the Reconstruction era. However, Reconstructing the Campus also includes a rich discussion of the wartime experiences of college students, and there is much to interest scholars of nineteenth-century African American and women’s history as well.

Cohen grounds this book in case studies of seven geographically representative colleges: Harvard University and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the North; South Carolina College and Wesleyan Female College in the South; Cornell College and the University of Missouri in the Midwest; and the College of California in the West. The colleges in his [End Page 607] sample include men’s and women’s schools, both public and private. Cohen also includes evidence from many other colleges not among his case studies, such as Oberlin and the University of Virginia.

Cohen begins by examining how college students and faculty members were affected by the coming of the Civil War. Student and faculty enlistments drained colleges of their students, in some cases completely, as was briefly the case at South Carolina College. Other schools, like Harvard, lost a sizable minority of its students, and those who remained formed the College Drill Club so that they “could get a taste of war without actually leaving” (31). At women’s colleges, enrollment also dropped as women left to serve as nurses at the front or returned home to help on the farm when brothers left for war. Women who remained were involved in such work as raising money for new hospitals or knitting and sewing items for the soldiers. At Wesleyan Female College, women practiced military drills bearing imitation guns. As the war continued, many colleges found their college buildings co-opted for wartime uses. South Carolina College became a hospital in 1862, for example, while the University of Missouri became a Union military camp.

Cohen argues convincingly that colleges changed their curriculum in response to the Civil War. Not surprisingly, military curricula proliferated during and after the war. The Morrill Land-Grant College Act of 1862 was an important impetus for these changes, providing each state with funds for colleges that would train students in agricultural studies, engineering, and military tactics. After the war, the federal government also paid the salaries of military professors at colleges and provided equipment for military studies. These additions to the curriculum, Cohen asserts, created some of the first comprehensive universities in the United States.

Admissions practices also changed after the Civil War, as a more diverse group of students came to American colleges during Reconstruction, especially in the South. While some midwestern colleges like Cornell College were already coeducational and economically diverse before the war, college attendance in the South was mostly limited to elite white young men. But with the southern economy permanently altered after the war, southern colleges had to diversify their student bodies in order to remain viable. Reconstruction...


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pp. 607-609
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