LaGrange College, Alabama's First Chartered College, "The West Point of the South" in Leighton, AL

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Av and I visited the site of LaGrange College this weekend. The town of LaGrange AL, on a 'spur' of the Cumberland Mountain, was founded around 1822, and at one time more than 400 people lived there, mostly as a summer resort which they referred to as "Rocky Hill". Previously Chickasaw land, it was considered holy to the Indians who had lived there, and they vowed when they were forced out that the land would be cursed because it had been taken from them.

Today the town is sometimes called the 'vanished village'.

LaGrange college was founded in 1830, and the University of North Alabama, in Florence, considers LaGrange as its predecessor - so this year, UNA is celebrating its 175th year.

Monument at LaGrange College Site, Leighton AL
The monument reads:

This is the Site of
LaGrange College
Chartered in 1830 by Act of
the Legislature of Alabama
An Insitution of High Order for Men
Attended Chiefly by Students
From the Southern States

The College was Burned April 28, 1863
By Federal Cavalry Commanded by
Colonel Florence M. Cornyn
Under General Granville Dodge

Bishop Robert Paine 1830-1846
Dr. Edward Wadsworth 1846-1852
James W. Hardy 1852-1853
Rev. Smith Moore 3 months 1853
Dr. R. H. Rivers 1854-1855
Rev. Felix Johnson 1855-1858
Col. J.W. Robertson 1858-1862

The college was originally opened by the Methodist Church, but there was some turmoil over the school's future due to money issues - in 1855, the school was moved for a short while to Florence even (now UNA) - but the State took it back over in 1857 and renamed it 'LaGrange College and Military Academy' in LaGrange. It was at this point that it was considered 'The West Point of the South'.

When the war started, most of the teachers and students had enrolled in the CSA army. In fact, the college had closed its doors in 1862 due to this fact.

In "With Sabre and Scalpel, The Autobiography of a Soldier and Surgeon" by John A. Wyeth, he writes this about the cadets at LaGrange:

Of the one hundred and seventy-nine cadets, with the exception of three lads who to the end of the war were still too young to enter the service, all became soldiers of the Confederacy. Of this number twenty-three were killed in battle, and twenty-six died in the service from wounds or diseases incident to exposure, a total death-rate in the war of nearly twenty-eight per cent. Of those who survived many suffered from wounds or acquired diseases which carried them, soon after the close of hostilities, to untimely graves, while some who still live are suffering from those injuries which have handicapped them in their struggle for the support of themselves and families. True to their convictions of duty, they were worthy sons of the land they loved. The story of their war experiences would fill a volume of thrilling narrative, and were it possible I would honor these pages with the roster of their names and the record of their heroism. There were four, however, to whom I am closely bound by the ties of an affectionate friendship, which, commencing in youth, ripened with the years of maturity and crystallized with age. They were of the flower of our country, typical of the spirit of the South.

There weren't many inhabitants of LaGrange when Union Colonel Florence M. Cornyn and his "Destroying Angels" of the 10th Missouri cavalry burned and destroyed the college on April 18, 1863 (here is an eyewitness account). They also destroyed the Lafayette Female Academy, which was established by the Baptist Church in 1825.

Wyeth also writes:

A bill was introduced in Congress in 1904 by Hon. William Richardson to reimburse the trustees of La Grange Military Academy for the loss sustained by the destruction of this property during the Civil War. To replace at this period the library of four thousand volumes belonging to the institution, together with the chemical and physical apparatus, furniture, buildings, etc., would require at the lowest estimate one hundred thousand dollars. Upon the introduction of this bill the matter was referred to the Court of Claims. Over the door of that court might well be written the quotation from Dante, "Who enters here leaves Hope behind."

LaGrange was never rebuilt. In 1904, a reunion was held and a church was the only building left standing.

Cornyn later went on to burn Florence, including the Globe Cotton Mills. Curiously, he was killed by his own second-in-command, Lt. Col. William D. Bowen on Aug. 10, 1863. I haven't found if that was accidental or what...

A picture of what LaGrange College used to look like can be found here.

Today, it's (sadly) really just a site of where the college stood, with buildings brought in to make it more of an attraction.

There is a is a dog-trot log house which was built in 1908 and moved to the site in 1995 to become the welcome center.

This is a pic of the "LaGrange Bed & Breakfast", which was built in 1880 in Tuscaloosa county and moved twice, and donated to the site in 1998 to be used as a B&B:

B&B at LaGrange College, Leighton AL

A wedding chapel is also on the site. It started out as a one-room log house in Flatwoods, but weddings are performed there now. It's really pretty:
Wedding Chapel at LaGrange College Site, Leighton AL
Across the street from the college site is a country store that stocks things like bonnets and aprons, but it's only open by appointment or during school field trips, according to the LaGrange brochure.

Down the road from the college site is the old LaGrange cemetery:
Old Sign at Cemetery, LaGrange College, Leighton AL

Cemetery at LaGrange College, Leighton AL

The cemetery is listed on the Alabama Historical Register of Landmarks.

There are two main stories told about the cemetery, one is (a creepy one) about the 'petrified lady' - that story can be found here. Another is about the Abraham Ricks monument, which supposedly cost $5000 back in 1852 - a (partial) pic of it can be found here. More pics of the cemetery can be found here at the AlGenWeb LaGrange site.

Several events are held throughout the year at the college site. Pics from previous events can be found here.

At the University of North Alabama, one of their dorm buildings is named after LaGrange; a history of the UNA campus in Florence can be found here.

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