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Post Revolution

From its inception, the University of North Carolina benefited from the generosity of private citizens and military figures. William R. Davie, a founding father of the country, was also a Revolutionary War hero who played a pivotal role in the university’s establishment and enrichment. Davie briefly joined a local patriot militia in 1777. He later commanded cavalry units that conducted raids on British forces in the Carolinas. In 1780, General Nathanael Greene appointed Davie commissary general, responsible for securing food and supplies for the American army in the region. His efforts were vital until Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown in October 1781.

After the war, Davie donated historical artifacts, natural history specimens, and texts from his personal collection. The university libraries still hold thirteen of his books, including Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1789). Brigadier General Thomas Person, an early supporter of the university, donated over one thousand silver dollars to complete the first college chapel, named in his honor. His contribution was crucial in the formative years, providing a space for gatherings and religious services.

The university’s financial stability in its early years was significantly bolstered by land grants. During the American Revolution, North Carolina awarded land in the unsettled western part of the state (later Tennessee) to soldiers in lieu of payment. Brigadier General Benjamin Smith donated his twenty thousand acres to UNC in 1789, marking the university’s first substantial gift. Charles Gerrard also bequeathed his western acreage to the university, providing further financial support. These lands were sold in the 1830s, and the proceeds funded the construction of new facilities, including a chapel and assembly hall named for Gerrard and a library building honoring Smith.

“Land Sales · Carolina’s Early Benefactors · Carolina Story: Virtual Museum of University History.” n.d.–1756-1826-.

“Davie in the American Revolution · Davie and the University’s Founding · Carolina Story: Virtual Museum of University History.” n.d.

The Civil War

When North Carolina seceded from the Union in 1861, university president David Lowry Swain kept the school open. Despite student petitions for closure, Swain and the board argued for protecting students from the war. Swain successfully lobbied for an exemption from the Confederate conscription order for younger students, maintaining that their absence would do little for the army but cause lasting harm to the institution. Carolina managed to remain open throughout the conflict, despite dwindling faculty and student numbers and political criticism.

In the spring of 1865, Chapel Hill witnessed Confederate forces flee through the town as General Sherman’s Union troops advanced. Swain was part of a team that negotiated the surrender and protection of Raleigh and the university – a move that spared both the capital and university buildings but earned him political enmity among southerners. 

Approximately 1,000 alumni and students fought in the Confederate forces, with 287 dead. Of the fourteen faculty members at UNC in 1861, six joined the war, three of whom died, as did four of the five university tutors. At least five alumni served the Union.

“Conscription · a Nursery of Patriotism: The University at War, 1861-1945 · UNC Libraries.” n.d.

World War I

Even before the U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, the university had begun preparing. A volunteer brigade of 400 students started drilling, and on January 11, 1917, President E. K. Graham requested the establishment of a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (R.O.T.C.) unit. The overwhelmed War Department denied the request, so Graham established a campus military training program, hiring Canadian army officer Captain James Stuart Allen to lead it.

During the fall 1917 and spring 1918 sessions, Captain Allen offered a comprehensive military course, covering bombing, bayonet fighting, musketry, signaling, military engineering, and trench warfare. In the fall of 1918, the university’s course was replaced by the government-run S.A.T.C., which was disbanded shortly after the Armistice on November 11, 1918.

During the war, 2,240 university alumni and students served in the military, including twenty-six faculty members. The war claimed the lives of fifteen men in action, eighteen from disease, and left twenty-one wounded. The university diligently tracked and encouraged its service members, with President Graham personally corresponding with many of them.

(CHAPEL HILL, NC) University President Edward Kidder Graham leads the 1917 Commencement procession through a student body of uniformed for World War I. (Photo from North Carolina Collection)

“World War I · a Nursery of Patriotism: The University at War, 1861-1945 · UNC Libraries.” 2024. 2024. 

Bwbieltz. 2020. “Ghosts of Commencements Past.” The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. May 7, 2020.

World War II

During World War II, more than 25,000 men and women received military training at the university. In addition to the Navy Pre-Flight School, the university hosted the Navy V-12 program, Naval ROTC, and various Army programs, including the Army Air Corps’ Pre-Meteorology program, the Medical Army Specialized Training Program, and the Foreign Area and Language Study program.

From the Civil War through World War II, the University of North Carolina faced many challenges due to war, but none transformed the campus as profoundly as World War II. In May 1940, university president Frank Porter Graham offered the university’s facilities to the U.S. government for national defense, a move supported by the board of trustees in August 1940. The Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, spurred students into action, leading to the formation of the Carolina Volunteer Training Corps, which organized 400 students into a battalion in January 1942. Recognizing the need for better training, the Navy selected the University of North Carolina as one of four Pre-Flight School locations in January 1942.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, students at the university convened a mass meeting to establish the Carolina Volunteer Training Corps (CVTC), a military unit for all male students. By early January 1942, 400 students formed a battalion of four companies and began drill instruction. Concurrently, military science classes, taught by Army Reserve Corps officers and experienced faculty, were added to the academic schedule. This was the first university-sponsored training unit of its kind in the U.S.

The CVTC was led by a headquarters staff including Lieutenant Colonel William A. Raborg (retired), Captain Henry R. Totten, Corydon P. Spruill, James B. Bullitt, Oliver K. Cornwell, Floyd T. Siewert, Roland B. Parker, Earl A. Slocum, and H. A. Kear. Cadet Battalion Commander Charles W. Jenkins and Cadet Adjutant Henry Wisebram, who was largely credited with establishing the CVTC, were also part of the leadership.

A CVTC band was formed with instruments provided by the university. The students adopted a uniform, issued regulations, and purchased wooden guns. The university supplied colors for the corps and provided office personnel and storage space for guns and supplies. By early 1943, the CVTC included a battalion headquarters, six basic companies, two advanced training companies, and a band. However, with the establishment of the Navy Pre-Flight School and additional military training programs at the university in 1942, interest in the CVTC waned. By fall 1943, it had dwindled to a few civilian students, leading to the program’s end.

Civilian student enrollment dropped between 1942 and 1945, but the total enrollment, including military students and Pre-Flight cadets, often exceeded four thousand. Female enrollment also reached record highs, with 900 out of 1,690 civilian students being women in 1944.

“World War II · a Nursery of Patriotism: The University at War, 1861-1945 · UNC Libraries.” n.d. Accessed July 1, 2024. 

“Navy Pre-flight School – UNC a to Z.” n.d.