Three different times during the Civil War the University of Mississippi campus buildings were used as a hospital for sick and injured soldiers. The first time was by Confederate soldiers after the Battle of Shiloh, then by General Grant’s Federal troops during his occupation of Oxford, and lastly by General Forrest’s troops when Federal troops retreated to Memphis after Van Dorn’s raid on Holly Springs.
At the beginning of the Civil War eighty percent of the University students joined various Confederate units to fight in the war. The Governor of Mississippi, John J. Pettus, and the Board of Trustees appointed two professors, Dr. Eugene W. Hilgard and Dr. A. J. Quinche, along with Burton Harrison, a student, to care for the University buildings while the campus was closed. They set up a residence, with their families, in the building now known as the Barnard Observatory.
Dr. Eugene W. Hilgard was the also the geologist of the State of Mississippi from 1857 to 1873. He had been hired as a professor at the University after graduation from Heidelberg University in Germany at age twenty where had earned a summa cum laude Ph.D. Dr. A. J. Quinche was a professor of Latin and Romance languages and a native on Minnesota. He had come to the University from Illinois when he had been a friend of General Grant’s family. Mr. Burton Harrison was from Aberdeen and he had promised his mother that he would not join the other students in service to the South until after the winter. He would later become the personal secretary to President Jefferson Davis with the assistance of L. Q. C. Lamar.
The use of the University of Mississippi campus buildings as a Confederate hospital was first purposed by T. W. Caskey, a Presbyterian minister. He had been appointed by Governor Pettus to find a suitable place for a hospital after the fall of Fort Donelson in February of 1862. Since another battle was emanate with Federal troops advancing on Mississippi a place in northern Mississippi was needed.
Immediately after the battle of Shiloh, on April 6 and 7 of 1862, word was brought to Oxford and the University that there would be sent by railroad a great number of sick and wounded soldiers. When this news reached Oxford excitement ran high in the town. The people of Oxford gathered mattresses, beds, cots, bedding, and everything that could be spared to comfort the soldiers. On the campus the several buildings were prepared for the wounded and sick. The chapel, Lyceum, three dormitories, and other residence buildings formally used by professors were readied for use. The building known as the magnetic observatory was to later be used as the morgue. This building would later be called the “Dead House”.
During this time the post surgeon was Dr. T. D. Isom of Oxford. Dr. Gillespie of Grenada and other doctors from Oxford assisted him. For nurses they depended on the ladies of Oxford. One convalescent soldier and a slave for each nurse assisted the ladies. Many convalescent soldiers were taken to homes of Oxford residents. They were assigned by twos to families wishing to take them in. Mrs. M. C. Neilson had the only sewing machine in Oxford and it was used from dawn to dusk making garments for the soldiers. Even the young girls and little children were allowed to help in making bandages and scraping lint to be used in the dressing of wounds.
In early December, 1862, General Grant made his entrance into Oxford. The wounded soldiers were moved to the south to Grenada and other field hospitals that had been established. Due to Dr. Quinche’s friendship with the Grant family and Dr. Hilgard’s suggestion to General A. J. Smith that the University could be used for the same purpose that the Confederates had used the University buildings, the buildings were spared to torch because they had been used for “war purposes”.
Grant’s army remained in Oxford for three weeks and left the town and University on Christmas Day, 1862. Grant had learned how to supply his troops from the land around him. When they left Oxford the weather was intensely cold, mud, sleet and rain everywhere, and the country literally devastated for ten miles in all directions of Oxford. General Van Dorn had raided Holly Springs and General Forrest had cut off Grant’s line of communication from Memphis.
After the Federal retreat from Oxford, General Forrest would use the buildings on campus from time to time for his soldiers. This would be to use of the University buildings until the burning of Oxford in August, 1864. After that time the buildings were no longer needed. The battles were going on elsewhere and the University of Mississippi had served its “war purpose” for both the North and the South.