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Early Years at The University of North Carolina

1851-1852 and 1859-1862

By Towner Blackstock (Davidson 1994), Curator of Archives
August, 2005

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The University of North Carolina was chartered in 1789 and opened in 1795, and is thus celebrated as the oldest public university in the United States. (The University of Georgia was chartered in 1785, but did not open until 1801.) Fraternities found an early foot-hold; Phi Gamma Delta and Delta Kappa Epsilon both established chapters here in 1851.

The Grand Chapter at Jefferson College noted in its minutes of December 21, 1850 that "a letter from Nashville was read, giving us the hope of having a Chapter established at the University of North Carolina." The University of Nashville had closed in October. Brother Felix Grundy McGavock (Nashville 1850) prepared to transfer to Chapel Hill.

The Fraternity's Constitution stated that a brother "may in his own person apply for a charter, therewith furnishing a list of the names of those he proposes for membership . . . ." McGavock did just that; the Grand Chapter granted a charter on March 14, 1851.  By May 10 they heard back from McGavock that he had installed the chapter and now served as its president. The other charter members were Thomas B. Burton, Thomas H. Gilliam, William A. Moore, Leonidas F. Siler, Alexander R. Smith and Basil Manly Thompson.

Interestingly, Delta Kappa Epsilon claims to have established the first fraternity chapter at Chapel Hill. However, their charter was issued on April 5, 1851, the month after Phi Gamma Delta granted a charter.  Thus Phi Gamma Delta was the first fraternity at the University of North Carolina.

The chapter grew quickly to seventeen members by the end of the term, according to Fraternity catalogues. The following academic year the membership expanded to twenty-two undergraduates.

As was the case at our other early chapters, the brothers were of the highest standing in the University. Kemp P. Battle, later president of UNC, wrote, ". . . the Phi Gamma Deltas of my day: they were the best in the land." The valedictorians of 1851, 1852, and 1854 were Phi Gams, as was the salutorian in 1852. Many others achieved honor recognition and spoke at commencement. Of the six founding editors of the University Magazine, five were brothers. So were half of the next fourteen editors. Such foreshadowed their substantial achievements in later life.

Yet, the chapter itself lasted just over one year. In later May or early June, 1852, the Grand Chapter recorded that "A communication was received from Chapel Hill, stating that for various reasons they had concluded to disorganize their chapter and return their charter." [Entered in minutes of the Grand Chapter, with no date, but the entry immediately after May 14, 1852, and one before the June 14th meeting.]

The exact reason remains a mystery. "There are sad news, however, for our Order." wrote William McLaren (Jefferson 1851) to David Hall (Jefferson 1851). "The Chapel Hill Chapter have disbanded, and thrown up their charter. They gave some reasons - I know not - care not what - whatever they were, they were insufficient; and the course they have taken unjustifiable."

Phi Gamma Delta was left with only three operating chapters. The aftermath is another story; suffice to say that McLaren, Hall, and others took the impetus to make revisions to the constitution and otherwise improve on the Fraternity's operations.

Shortly after the Phi Gams shut down, another fraternity arose at UNC.  F.L. Stewart, a Beta Theta Pi at Jefferson College, wrote on June 3, 1852, "I have also the pleasure of informing you of the birth of a new chapter at the University of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill. It was founded by Wm. F. Green, one of our old members. . . . They number now but five, but expect to increase their list next season to twelve or fourteen."  Junius Irving Scales counted among the charter members of this Beta chapter.  (Interestingly, so was his first cousin Nathaniel Eldridge Scales.  Reference p. 340 of The Phi Gamma Delta magazine, Dec. 1926, Vol. 49, No 3.)  Junius Scales had previously been a member of Phi Gamma Delta at UNC, but for how long, and when precisely he withdrew, we have no record.

His withdrawal seems to have happened before the Phi Gams disbanded.  Another founder of the UNC Beta chapter, K.M. Murchison, wrote on October 11, 1852, "The Phi Gamma Delta is the most respectable society in college, of course, ours excepted."  That the charter had been returned some months earlier suggests that the Phi Gams did not advertise their charter's release; nor did they forsake their memberships en masse.  And, if Scales had still been a member in 1852, why would he not have informed his new Beta brethren that the Phi Gam chapter was no more?

Phi Gamma Delta returned to Chapel Hill in November, 1859.  Luther Rice Bell (Virginia 1860) transferred to Chapel Hill and reestablished the chapter with John A. Cameron, James E. Moore, Thomas J. Hadley, and James A. Lucas. The men were again of high caliber; the valedictorian and salutorian of 1862 were brothers.

The chapter grew more slowly than before. There were more men at Carolina, 436 in 1859-1860, but also more competition: seventeen fraternities!  By March 1860 the chapter had seven members; a year later there were twelve.

However, the chapter did not survive.  By the end of 1862 almost every living student and alumnus of UNC had volunteered for Confederate military service.  The University continued to operate throughout the war, sustained by dwindling numbers of young men not old enough for service.  The constant turnover made it impractical for any fraternity chapter to survive.

Epsilon Chapter still had the phoenix in it.  The University closed during Reconstruction and then reopened with a ban on fraternities.  The ban lifted in 1885 and Epsilon rechartered on October 31, 1887, and was reinstalled November 23, 1887.  Charter members included Eugene M. Armfield, Robert L. Smith, Daniel J. Currie, Walter M. Hammond, William T. Whitsett, Paul Chatham and Harry J. Darnall.  James A. B. Scherer (Roanoke 1890) served as Legate, the installing officer. Scherer was a native of Salisbury, NC.

Twelve years later, the chapter closed.  Membership had dwindled in the face of faculty-imposed recruitment restrictions.  Interest in its revival continued for years until a novel method of rebirth was proposed: one of Phi Gamma Delta's first experiments with "colonization."

In 1926, the chapters in the section converged on campus to recruit new members.  Their efforts led to a new Epsilon Chapter that year.  The chapter has endured many subsequent years, honors, and tribulations and survives still on the Chapel Hill campus.


Sketches of Early Brothers at UNC

The following sketches come largely from the sources listed at the bottom, in addition to Fraternity catalogues.  1st honor, 2nd honor, etc. refers to scholastic honors conferred by the faculty.  For additional details about Civil War service, refer to our Confederate page.

According to a University web site, every student had to join one of the two literary societies.  "Students from the eastern portion of the state belonged to the Philanthropic Society and those from the western portion to the Dialectic Society. The societies provided literary and oratorical training, and exercised many of the functions of the present student government."


Carter, David Miller. From Hyde Co. Born January 12, 1830 in Fairfield, Hyde Co. to David Carter and Sallie Lindsay Spencer. Joined Philanthropic Society 1847. ". . . a man of genius and oratorical ability, very striking in looks, with large rosy face and flaming red hair, a leader in the Philanthropic Society . . . ." (Battle.) Initiated May 1851. A.B. 1851; 3rd honor; commencement orator. Lawyer. Captain Co. E. 4th NC Infantry as of May 1861, then Lt. Col. as of June 1862, until severely wounded in the arm at Seven Pines, May 31, 1862. Later colonel and military court judge for Jackson's and Hill's corps, until elected to State House of Commons for Beaufort County, 1864. Trustee UNC 1864-1868; executive committee board of trustees. President of board of directors of penitentiary Died Baltimore, MD January 7, 1879. Married twice. Biography, Ashe, Samuel A. Cyclopedia of Eminent and Representitive Men of the Carolinas of the Nineteenth Century, Vol. 2 (Madison WI: Brant & Fuller, 1892), pages 68-69.
McGavock, Felix Grundy. From Nashville, TN. Born 1832 in Nashville TN. Transferred from University of Nashville. Joined Philanthropic Society 1851. Chapter legate (installation officer); first chapter president. Student 1850-51. See biography.
Patton, James Alfred. From Asheville. Born December 10, 1830. Joined Dialectic Society 1848. Initiated March 1851. A.B. 1851; 1st honor; valedictorian. Lawyer. 3rd Lieutenant Co. E, 1st NC Infantry (6 months, 1861) from April until November 1861. Returned to manage family businesses. Served on Council of State for Governor Zeb Vance (UNC 1854); died March 3, 1864.


Barnes, William Dean. From Hertford County. Born August 27, 1830. Joined Philanthropic Society 1848. Initiated April 1851. Commencement orator 1850; founding editor of University Magazine, 1852. A.B. 1852. Relocated Jackson County FL. Lawyer. CSA lieutenant. Lieutenant governor of Florida. Presidential Elector 1856, State Solicitor General 1857-1861, Speaker State Senate 1879, State General Assembly, State Comptroller 1881-1885, Florida. Died November 11, 1896 in Marianna FL.
Burton, Thomas Burke. From Halifax Co. Born June 29, 1831.  Possibly son of NC governor Hutchins Gordon Burton (1774-1836). Joined Philanthropic Society 1848. Founding editor of University Magazine, 1852. A.B. 1852. CSA.
Gilliam, Thomas Howell. From Gatesville, Gates County. Joined Philanthropic Society 1848. Commencement orator 1850. First chapter secretary. Founding editor of University Magazine, 1852. A.B. 1852; 1st honor; salutorian. Farmer in Perquimans County before war. Lawyer. Lieutenant Co. I, 17th North Carolina 1861-1863. captured at Fort Bartow 1862. Lieutenant Co. L 1863-64, then Captain. County solicitor. 
Moore, William Armistead. From Edenton. Born July 20, 1831, son of Augustus Moore and Susan Jordan. Joined Philanthropic Society 1848. ". . . he made a fine record and was awarded the degree of Excellent?the second student since the foundation of the institution to attain that honor." (BF Pool, Literature in the Albemarle, p.314.) Student 1848-1851; did not graduate, withdrawing due to father's death. Subsequently a lawyer. Delegate, 1860 Democratic National Convention. Colonel, CSA. A.M. 1869. Gen Assembly 1868, 1870; speaker of the General Assembly 1869-1870, superior court judge 1871-1879. Died Dec 20, 1884 in Edenton. Buried St. Paul's Church. Biography: Pool, Bettie F. Literature in the Albemarle (Baltimore, MD: Baltimore City Printing & Binding, 1915), pages 314-316.
Siler, Leonidas Fidelio. From Macon County. Born April 3, 1830 in Franklin. Attended Emory and Henry College. Joined Dialectic Society 1848 and became its president in August, 1851. First chapter treasurer; second president. Founding editor of University Magazine, 1852. A.B. 1852; 1st honor; valedictorian. ". . . Had uncommon weight of character . . . ." (Battle.) Lawyer, journalist, teacher, and later a Methodist clergyman. UNC trustee 1862-68. Died September 2, 1870. Buried Franklin Methodist Church Cemetery, Franklin NC.
Smith, Alexander Robeson. Born 1828. From Cumberland County. Joined Dialectic Society 1849. Founding editor of University Magazine, 1852. A.B. 1852; 2nd honor. State General Assembly 1865-1866. Merchant and planter. Died 1872 in Cumberland Co.
Smith, James Campbell. From Cumberland County. Born 1830. Joined Dialectic Society 1849. Initiated April 1851. A.B. 1852. Died 1884 or 1889 at Washington, NC. Merchant.
Smith, William Henry. From Halifax County. Born October 23, 1830; son of William Ruffin Smith. Joined Philanthropic Society 1850. Initiated April 1851. A.B. 1852. Captain, mounted riflemen. Planter in Scotland Neck. Died November 13, 1895.
Thompson, Basil Manly. From Pittsboro. Born August 12, 1832. Joined Dialectic Society 1848. Commencement orator 1850. A.B. 1852. Died September 2, 1854. Teacher.
Wilson, James William. From Alamance County. Born 1832. Joined Dialectic Society 1850. Initiated August 1851. Chapter treasurer. A.B. 1852; 2d honor; commencement orator. Major, 6th North Carolina Infantry; captured and freed by a northern Phi Gam. Married Louisa Erwin. President, Western North Carolina railway; built the tunnels through the Blue Ridge barrier. Monument outside Old Fort, NC. Chairman, state railroad commission. UNC trustee 1891-99 and 1901-05. Died July 2, 1910 in Morganton, NC.


Hall, David Clark. From Warren County. Joined Philanthropic Society 1850. Initiated January, probably 1852. A.B. 1853. House of Commons 1855 or 1858. County solicitor, Warren Co. Captain CSA. State Superintendent of Public Instruction 1870-1874. Farmer in Bertie County. Died 1886 at Raleigh, NC, or 1891 depending on source.
McIver, Alexander. From Moore County. Born February 7, 1822 in Moore Co. to Daniel McIver and Margaret McLeoud. Joined Dialectic Society 1850. Initiated December, probably 1851. A.B. 1853; 1st honor; valedictorian. "...tutor in mathematics in the university, 185-53; principal of Anson institute, Wadesboro, 1853; law student with Judges Battle, Pearson and Phillips, 1854-55; lawyer at Carthage, N.C.. 1855-59; professor in Davidson college, 1859-69; professor of mathematics at the University of North Carolina, 1869-71; state superintendent of public instruction, 1871-75; principal of the Greensboro graded schools, 1875-80, and in 1880 engaged in farming at Oaks, N.C. He was chairman of the Mecklenburg county board of magistrates and delegate to the state constitutional convention of 1865." Died August 20, 1902. Biography: Johnson, Rossiter (ed.), The Twentieth Century Biography of Notable Americans.
Merritt, Alfred Gowan. From Nashville, TN. Dialectic 1850. Initiated May 1851. A.B. 1853; 1st honor. Studied law at Cumberland University, Lebanon, Tennessee, and practiced as an attorney in Nashville. Captain, 1st Tennessee (Field's Regiment) and 27th Tennessee. Married Caroline Donelson. State senator 1871-1872. Chancellor (judge) of Chancery Court 1878-1886. State representative 1887-____.
Spencer, James Munroe. Pictured left. From Clinton, AL. Born 1827 in Green Co., AL. Joined Dialectic 1849. Initiated April 1851. Nicknamed "Mangus" and "Longus" for his height. Editor of University Magazine, 1852-53. A.B. 1853; 1st honor. Lawyer. Married Cornelia Ann Phillips June 20, 1855. Practiced law in Clinton, Alabama. Died of a wasting disease June 24, 1861. Buried in Pleasant Hill Cemetery, Clinton. His wife Cornelia Phillips Spencer was a friend of many Fijis, and was instrumental in UNC's reopening after the Civil War; she was the first woman to receive a honorary degree from UNC. Picture from Chamberlain, Hope Summerell. Old Days in Chapel Hill: Being the Life and Letters of Cornelia Phillips Spencer (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1926), page 60.

White, George Montgomery.
 From Bladen County. Joined Philanthropic Society 1849. Initiated April 1851. Editor of University Magazine, 1852-53. A.B. 1853; 1st honor. Lawyer. Died June 27, 1860.

Woods, James. From Nashville, TN. Born October 6, 1832. Joined Philanthropic Society 1850. Initiated April 1851. Editor of University Magazine, 1852-53. A.B. 1853; second honor. Died June 27, 1859 in Nashville.


Harding, John. From Nashville, TN. Born January 5, 1831 to General William G. Harding and Selene McNairy. (Incidentally, W.G. Harding's second wife Elizabeth I. McGavock was a cousin of Felix Grundy McGavock.) Joined Philanthropic Society 1850. Initiated March 1851. Student 1850-1852; did not graduate. However, a biography says he attended Harvard University as a junior 1850 to March 1851 when "ill health obliged him to leave" in favor of Chapel Hill. Married Sophia W. Merritt, 1853, and after her death, Margaret Murphy, 1856. Planter and horse breeder; owner of Bellevue farm and mansion. Died March 16, 1914 at Nashville. Biography: Edes, Grace Williamson. Annals of the Harvard Class of 1852 (Cambridge: The University Press, 1922), pages 237-238.
Jackson, Samuel Spencer, Jr. From Pittsboro. Born September 6, 1832. Joined Dialectic Society 1850. Initiated December 1851. A.B. 1854; first honor. State Constitutional Committee, 1868. Greek Tutor at UNC 1856-1860 (Battle indicates he resigned in 1861); tutor 1867-69 (UNC Alumni catalogue). Lawyer. Died March 5, 1875 at Asheboro.
Scott, William Lafayette. From Guilford County. Born October 9, 1828 at Godsey's Springs. Joined Dialectic Society 1850. Initiated December, probably 1851. President of Dialectic c. 1853. Editor of University Magazine, 1853-54. A.B. 1854; valedictorian; first honor. Taught at Edgefield Female Seminary, Greensboro, NC. Lieutenant Colonel, 21st North Carolina Infantry. Brigadier General, NC National Guard. Mayor, Greensboro, NC, c. 1865. Repbulican candidate for Congress, 1870. Died September 1, 1872 at Greensboro, NC.
Spencer, William Henry. From Hyde County. Born 1831. Joined Philanthropic Society 1850. Initiated April, probably 1851. Editor of University Magazine, 1853-54. A.B. 1854; law graduate; third honor. Captain, Spencer's Rangers Independent Cavalry and possibly Co. I, 66th North Carolina Infantry. Captured February 20, 1864 and imprisoned at Point Lookout, MD. Lawyer. After the war, moved to Indiana. Rail commissioner for Alabama.
Mickle, John Martin From Haynesville, AL. Born September 7, 1830. Joined Philanthropic Society 1851. Initiated December 1851. Student 1851-52; did not graduate. Farmer in Shelby Co., Alabama. Married Martha Stone. Lieutenant, then Captain, Co. I, 18th Alabama Infantry. Mortally wounded at Chickamauga September 19, 1863; "lingered in great pain for eight months and ten days without a murmor or complaint; died at Montgomery at his father-in-law's house." (North Carolina University Magazine, Vol. 21/8, No. 5, 1889, p. 231.)
Vance, Zebulon Baird. From Buncombe County. Born May 13, 1830. Joined Dialectic Society 1851. Initiated January 1852. Student 1851-1852. Editor of University Magazine for a few months in 1852. See US Congressional biography. State House of Commons 1854-1855; US Representative 1858-1861. Colonel, 26th North Carolina Infantry. Governor 1862-1865 and 1876-1878, US Senator 1879-1894. UNC awarded honorary degree of LL.D. in 1890. UNC trustee 1874-1894; president board of trustees 1877-79. Statues found in the U.S. Capitol and the NC State Capitol grounds. His grave and a monument are in Asheville, and his birthplace nearby is a state historic site.

Bell, Luther Rice. Pictured to the left. From Oxford, NC. Born February 3, 1842. Transferred from the University of Virginia, where he was initiated in 1858. Chapter president. Joined the Philanthropic Society in 1859. Vice President c. 1860, Young Men's Christian Association. A.B. 1861. Private, 12th North Carolina Infantry; killed at Malvern Hill, July 1, 1862. See
UVA history.

Cameron, John Atkins. From Harnett County. Born December 5, 1840. Joined Philanthropic Society 1859. Initiated November 1859. Chapter treasurer. A.B. 1862; 2nd honor; salutatorian. Sergeant CSA. A.M. 1866. Principal of Cumberland Academy 1867-1887; Clerk of Supreme Court in Harnett Co. 1887-1891. Died March 1891, Somerville NC.

Covington, James Madison. From Rockingham. Born October 26, 1840. Joined Dialectic Society 1860. Initiated February 1860. Chapter president. Student 1858-1861; did not graduate. Retroactively awarded A.B. in 1911 as of 1862. Ordnance Sergeant, 23rd North Carolina and 4th North Carolina Cavalry. Physician in Rockingham. Died November 6, 1917 at Wadesboro, NC.
Hadley, Thomas Jefferson. From Wilson. Born Wayne Co., July 9, 1838. Joined Philanthropic Society 1858. Initiated November 1859. Chapter secretary. A.B. 1862; commencement orator. Captain, Co. A, 55th North Carolina Infantry; wounded Falling Waters, Maryland, 1863 and The Wilderness, 1864. Captured at Globe Tavern 1864 and imprisoned at Fort Delaware. A.M. 1866. Married Sarah Sanders, August 29, 1867. Teacher/principal 1867-68; cotton/tobacco merchant 1869-1886. Died August 3, 1917 at Wilson, NC. In 1872, Hadley was a founder of the bank that became BB&T.
Moore, James Edwin (or Edwards). From Martin County. Born January 30, 1841. Joined Philanthropic Society 1858. Initiated November 1859. A.B. 1862; 2nd honor; valedictorian. Lieutenant and provost marshal, 3rd North Carolina Infantry 1862-1865. State Representative 1865-1866, State Senator 1866-1867, North Carolina; Commissioner and Mayor, Williamstown North Carolina. UNC trustee 1883-91. Died June 17, 1898 at Williamstown.

Joyner, Robert W. From Pitt County. Joined Philanthropic Society 1859. Initiated November 1860. Chapter secretary. Student 1859-62; A.B. 1911 as of 1863. Captain, Co. E., 27th North Carolina Infantry. Physician and lawyer in Farmville, NC.

Lucas, James A. (or S.). From Washington, NC. Joined Philanthropic Society 1859. Initiated November 1859. Student 1859-62; A.B. 1911 as of 1863. CSA. Lawyer (Unfinished catalogue); teacher in Mississippi (UNC catalogue).
Shaw, Angus. From Richmond County. Joined Dialectic Society 1859. Initiated March 1860. Student 1859-61; Sergeant, 1st Battalion NC Heavy Artillery. A.B. 1911 as of 1863. M.D. and Presbyterian minister, Maxton NC.
Young, Augustus Perry. From Louisburg. Born November 26, 1840 in Franklin County. Joined Philanthropic Society 1860. Initiated February 1860. Student 1859-61; A.B. 1911 as of 1863. Private, 24th North Carolina. Superintendent of education for Dallas Co. AL 1866-68. Lawyer. Died March 3, 1900 at Selma, AL.

Clifton, Berry Pippen. From Franklin County. Born September 4, 1841. Joined Philanthropic Society 1860. Initiated July 1861. Student 1860-1861; did not graduate. Treasurer of Franklin Co., 1870-78. Died May 2, 1888 at Louisburg, NC. Buried Oakwood Cemetery, Franklin Co.

Johnson, John Monroe. From Richmond County. Born August 9, 1840 to John Johnson and Euphemia White. Joined Philanthropic Society 1860. Initiated July 1861. Student 1860-1862; did not graduate. A.B. granted 1911 as of 1864. CSA: engineering officer and Major on General Stackhouse's staff. Civil engineer 1863-64; teacher at Pine Grove Academy, Marlboro Co. SC, 1865-66; lawyer 1866 to death. Married Emma Crider Richardson. Chair of county commissioners in Marion, SC. SC general assembly 1880-82. Solicitor 4th SC circuit 1888-1906. Died December 15, 1906 at Marion, SC.
Russell, Robert Gilliam. From Bahama. Born Granville, Co. August 24, 1842. Joined Dialectic Society 1860. Initiated October 1860 or 1861. Student 1860-61; A.B. 1911 as of 1864. CSA. Married Rebecca Lipscomb October 16, 1866. Merchant and Planter. Died June 14, 1921. Buried in family cemetery, Orange Co.