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Athens: 'the college that Lincoln saved'
Legends say connections
kept school untouched

By Holly Hollman
DAILY Staff Writer

hhollman@decaturdaily.com 340-2445

ATHENS — Legends as much as history linger in the hallways at Athens State University.

The foremost legend involves a female president saving the school from Yankees.

Athens was under Union occupation during most of the Civil War. Federal soldiers burned shops, stole and destroyed private property, accosted women and raped a slave girl.

The courthouse burned, but citizens never agreed on whether the fire was accidental or Union troops burned it.

Cumberland Presbyterian Church, built in 1852, sustained more than $5,000 in vandalism by troops.

It closed until 1895 when the congregation constructed the current building on the square.

Local historian Richard Martin said Federal troops made an ex-slave named Otho Fraser cook for them in the basement of the Methodist church.

Martin said Fraser hid food and slipped it to slaves and white citizens who had nothing to eat.

"When he died, the entire town went to his funeral because he had kept most of them alive," Martin said.

Life was not as grim at Athens Collegiate Institute, the female college that would become Athens State University. Although it was strategically located east of downtown and near the Tennessee and Alabama Central Railroad, Federal troops did not disturb the college, outbuildings or grounds, despite the only male on site being a black driver.

The students attended classes and had graduation ceremonies throughout the war. Citizens attended musical productions at the school.

During the court-martial trial of Union Col. Basil Turchin, who allowed his troops to plunder Athens, no one mentioned damage or assaults at the college.

Why?

According to Elva Bell McLin's book "ASC History 1821-1994," former primary student Allie Cook gave an explanation.

Cook, whose family moved to Illinois in 1865, wrote the Athens newspaper in 1919 that before leaving Athens, she heard a story about the school's president, Jane Hamilton Childs, known as Madame Childs.

Cook said Madame Childs wrote to President Lincoln, asking for protection, and Lincoln ordered Federal troops to protect the institute.

Editor Roy L. Smith dubbed the school "the college that Lincoln saved" in a story he wrote in 1941 for the Christian Advocate, a Methodist publication. The Methodist church had assumed sponsorship of the school in 1842.

'Vigorously denied'

McLin said two local historians "vigorously denied" the story, but the tale of Madame Childs confronting a Federal soldier and waving a letter from Lincoln enamored the media and public.

It is a story Athens State spokesman Rick Mould shares with visitors, though he has no documentation.

McLin said Madame Childs had valuable connections in Washington, D.C., who could have gotten her a letter. She made these connections when she attended private schools in Virginia, Baltimore and Philadelphia, and operated a school for girls in Georgetown, before moving to Alabama.

Athens State archivist Sara Love said Childs' best friend was married to U.S. Secretary of War Edward Stanton.

"It's more likely that if she had a letter, it was from him rather than Lincoln, I think," Love said. "But then again, Stanton could have gotten her one from Lincoln, I'm sure."

According to Mary Fielding, who kept a diary during the war, Madame Childs' sister arrived from Washington, D.C., the week Turchin marched into town. Whether her sister brought Madame Childs a letter is speculation.

Would Madame Childs' connections have been enough to garner a letter of protection from Stanton or Lincoln?

McLin said Madame Childs traveled through Union lines in 1864 to speak to Union officials in Nashville about saving the college.

Why should these officials care?

Retired Lt. Col. James Walker of Tanner, whose great-grandfather escaped slavery and fought for the Union, said some of his family thought at least one home in Athens was part of the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad was an abolitionist movement where people hid runaway slaves and helped them escape to the North.

Could the college also have been a stop on the Underground Railroad?

"Anything is possible," Walker said. "Why did it survive unmolested?"

Families in the North sent their daughters to the college, even during the war, and there were citizens in Athens who had pro-Union loyalties.

Mould said Founders Hall's cellar had room to hide someone.

Founders Hall was the school's main building during the war. No one has documentation for this theory, either.

For some reason, citizens felt safe at the college. Residents like Dr. T.S. Malone's family, left homeless by the occupying army, often sought refuge at the institute.

Confederate Maj. Andrew Less of Elkmont sent his best carriage team there to keep it from Yankee confiscation. The Rebels got the team instead, according to the late Bob Dunnavant Jr.'s book "Historic Limestone County, Alabama."

McLin, writing about Madame Childs and the legend in her history of the school, said, "She likely used more than one connection if the first lost its potency ... she had great courage. She also seems to have had great resilience and resources."

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