April is a beautiful and exciting time of year on most Virginia college campuses — the grass turns a lush green from the rays of the warm spring sun; the dogwoods bloom; and songbirds’ praise fills the air. There is much for the eye to behold. April of 1861 brought more than the usual beauty and excitement to the University of Virginia campus, though.
Nineteen-year-old Randolph McKim heard shouts and cheers echo across the lawn of Mr. Jefferson’s university and ran to see what all the excitement was about, though he was sure he already knew. There, in front of the Rotunda building, stood a rowdy mob of laughing, shouting young men all pointing and looking skyward toward the Rotunda’s pinnacle.
McKim could not avoid a knowing smile as he squinted in the bright morning sun. Perched atop the Rotunda, snapping smartly in the breeze, was the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy.
A daring stunt
The night before, McKim, along with six other university students, had purchased the hand-sewn banner from “some young lady friends who were bound to secrecy.” After midnight, the boys had sawed through five doors to make their way to the roof of the Rotunda.
From their lofty position, the young men had been able look out over the sleeping little town of Charlottesville as they completed their secret mission. The April moon had given off just enough light for the conspirators to see that one misstep would mean certain death.
The flag finally had been secured to the Rotunda’s lightning rod — a symbolically fitting support — and brought to life by the winds “just as the first faint streaks of dawn appeared on the eastern hills.” Whether the prank was prompted by a desire to impress the girls or from a sense of Southern patriotism, we do not know.
Diffusing the crowd
As the news spread through the halls of the university, law professor John B. Minor made known his disapproval as he walked to his lecture room by reciting an impromptu verse of rhyme: “Flag of my country, can it be; That rag’s up there instead of thee!”
As one student after another scaled the steps of the Rotunda to exhort the crowd for the Southern cause, the growing multitude became more and more boisterous. Then the stout form of mathematics professor Albert Taylor Bledsoe appeared. There was immediate silence.
Bledsoe climbed to the top of the Rotunda steps. While professor Minor was a staunch Unionist, Bledsoe had made his Southern sympathies well known, interspersing his calculus lectures with what McKim called “vigorous remarks in the doctrine of States’ rights.”
Looking out over the excited assembly, the wise Bledsoe sought to defuse the situation without dampening spirits with which he agreed in principle. He assured his listeners that he was confident that the boys who had placed the flag atop the Rotunda were “the very nicest fellows in the University.”
However, Bledsoe reasoned, because Virginia had not yet voted to secede, flying the “Secession flag” was not the proper thing to do at that time. He advised the young men to take down the flag but added in a sympathetic tone, “Young gentlemen, do it very tenderly.”
A university’s sacrifice
Within a few days of the incident, President Lincoln called upon Virginia to supply her quota to “put down the rebellion.” Virginia answered with a call for secession. The Old Dominion and cradle of liberty that had given birth to such men as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry would not stand for such heavy-handed oppression.
Figuratively speaking, and in the collective memory of Virginians, her soil was still moist with the blood of the British and, if necessary, in the words of Jefferson, the spilling of additional blood would be fitting: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
Much of the blood would come from the veins of University of Virginia alumni.
Anyone visiting the university today will notice two large bronze plaques on the wall near the doors on the Rotunda porch. Upon those tablets are the names of 503 men who died for what McKim would later call “the God-implanted instinct which impels a man to defend his own hearthstone.” By comparison, the much larger student body of Harvard would sacrifice 117 for the Union.
A painful argument
After Virginia’s secession, Randolph McKim left with one of the university’s voluntary military companies, the “Southern Guard,” for Harpers Ferry. A few weeks later, the university boys were “very properly ordered back to their studies.”
En route back to Charlottesville, McKim decided to visit his parents in Baltimore. Upon arriving, he was surprised to learn that his father disapproved of his Southern loyalty.
A heated discussion ensued, and when the elder McKim had made his condemnation clear, the young man turned, faced his father, and with a great deal of emotion said, “Well, father, I comfort myself with the promise, ‘When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up.’ ”
Thus, the two went their separate ways, never to see each other again. McKim later wrote that their “difference was, by reason of our great mutual attachment, very painful to us both.”
Though McKim would never again see his father, he wrote to his parents often during the war. One particularly poignant letter, written just before McKim was to be ordained into the ministry, included the following request: “My father, I ask to be remembered at the family altar, that God may prepare me for the responsible office which I am about tremblingly to undertake after seven months’ study.” One year later, McKim’s father would be dead.
A close call
McKim returned to the University of Virginia and completed his studies with five “diplomas” — mathematics, moral philosophy, French, Greek and Latin. McKim would then, like many Southern boys, serve four long years in America’s bloodiest conflict — first as a private, then as a staff officer and finally as a chaplain.
McKim saw a fair amount of action and was no stranger to close calls. He wrote of one such incident in “A Soldier’s Recollections: Leaves From the Diary of a Young Confederate,” published in 1910 and reprinted by Sprinkle Publications of Harrisonburg, Va.
“Later in the battle my beautiful black was shot under me. The ball went right through his head. I heard the ‘thud’ as it struck, and then the noble animal tumbled and fell … as he fell over on one side, I sprang off on the other.”
McKim later made the following entry in his diary about the incident:
“Last Sunday I had a horse shot under me, but my life has been graciously spared … in a perfect hail of shell, cannon-balls, and bullets, I was deeply impressed with my entire dependence on God’s care, and in gratitude for my preservation, I inwardly resolved to devote myself more perfectly to his service, and especially to urge my fellow men to repent and turn to God.”
An army chaplain
McKim’s resolve was unwavering. Having already decided at the age of 16 to enter the ministry, McKim submitted his resignation as first lieutenant aide-de-camp in the autumn of 1863. He was careful to note in his resignation that he intended to “re-enter the service in the capacity of chaplain.”
McKim was ordained an Episcopal priest and was licensed by Bishop John Johns “to perform the service … of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States” on Feb. 10, 1864, at Trinity Church in Staunton, Va.
During the war, Virginia Theological Seminary had moved from Union-occupied Alexandria to Trinity Church to hold classes. Trinity is the same church to which Patrick Henry and the Virginia Legislature had fled to avoid being captured by the British in June 1781.
McKim was delighted. “I was now happy in the belief that I had achieved my ambition — I was commissioned and equipped for my work as a minister of Jesus Christ in the army that I loved so well … and could now go forward and, by God’s blessing, preach and live the Gospel to good purpose.”
Lifetime of purpose
McKim’s “good purpose” was lifelong. After the war, he served a number of distinguished churches as rector: St. John’s in Portsmouth, Va. (1866-67); Christ Church in Alexandria (1867-75) — the same church that both Robert E. Lee and George Washington attended; Holy Trinity in New York City (1875-86); Trinity Church in New Orleans (1886-88); and Church of the Epiphany in Washington (1888-1920).
McKim was also a prolific writer and, in addition to his “Recollections” and numerous articles and pamphlets, he wrote a book concerning the spiritual side of Robert E. Lee titled “The Soul of Lee.”
McKim died while playing golf on July 15, 1920, at Bedford Springs, Pa. He was buried at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.
Richard G. (Rick) Williams Jr. is a businessman and writer living in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and a frequent contributor to this page. He is the author of “The Maxims of Robert E. Lee for Young Gentlemen” (Pelican 2005).