- Yea, Alabama!: A Peek into the Past of One of the Most Storied Universities in the Nation, the University of Alabama Volume 1: 1819 through 1871 by David M. Battles
Historians of the antebellum era and of education in particular will appreciate David M. Battles's attempt to chronicle the rise of Alabama's first institution of higher education. It is a story worth undertaking, one wherein schools born in the expansion-minded, populist age were victims of remorseless political slander and incessant religious zealotry. Southern universities often got the worst of both, and schools that were not undone by partisan squabbling were almost always finished off by Union troops. The fact that the University of Alabama (UA) survived all of this, including an actual siege of the campus, is enough to warrant a read.
Battles presents this first volume of a projected multivolume history of the university in seven chronologically arranged parts, closing with an overview of southern slavery. The work is intricately researched and well referenced, with over fifty pages of color illustrations, photographs, and scans of primary sources. UA's history is told through a succession of university presidents from Alva Woods, the New England transplant who designed UA's initial approach to curriculum and student discipline, through the short tenure of William Russell Smith, who struggled to maintain the viability of a diminished postwar southern university.
But this is more than just a story of survival, and UA stands out from other state institutions in several important ways. At a time when most states were curtailing commitments to higher education, the Alabama state legislature was amenable to support, allotting money from land endowments to build the campus and maintaining an active interest in the school's long-term fiscal [End Page 190] health. The board of trustees' scheme to auction land for the university's benefit was not remarkable, but it is surprising that the plan worked. Other states pinned their hopes on land sales but sometimes came up short. Kentucky, for example, struggled for decades to fund education with land.
Student life constitutes one of the major themes of the book. Battles presents a never-ending parade of student code violations, including periodic dustups between students and professors, occasional brawls between students and townspeople, and all too frequent student duels. UA students showed incredible inventiveness in their pranks, firing guns from dormitory windows and decorating the campus church with liquor bottles. On at least one occasion, students hoisted a bull yearling to the roof of a campus building and tied it to a lightning rod. Battles describes the militarization of the campus—the introduction of military discipline, drills, and uniforms—as a partial response to student rowdiness, though others, Battles admits, may have seen things in a different light. In the years preceding Alabama's voteto secede, legislators came to appreciate the need for military training on campus.
Battles is careful to stay well within the boundaries of available source evidence, but the result is something that resembles a chronicle. Bland enrollment statistics, lists of faculty hires, and abstruse budgetary figures may be uninteresting to the uninitiated and of little value to scholars. And, like a chronicle from the ancient world, information is presented without context and with little reference to what comes immediately before or after. For example, a series of two-page chapters, like "Roads Leading to Tuscaloosa," are awkward interludes that appear suddenly and without warning.
In the strictest sense, this is an institutional history with little reference to larger developments in the state and almost nothing to inform the reader of wider developments in higher education. Yet there is value in the information Battles presents. Institutions like the University of Alabama survived because they were able to adapt to their circumstances, to their students' needs, and to the public's expectations.