Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve

Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve

1831 - 1924

(Note: This biography is taken from an article published in the Washington Times, May 2005, and written by Richard P. Cox)

Most Civil War readers are familiar with Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the learned professor who left the halls of academe to answer his country's call and became the hero of Little Round Top. Few, however, recall the name of Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, a Confederate scholar-soldier who was the South's Chamberlain.

Gildersleeve served honorably, if somewhat eccentrically, in the Army of Northern Virginia, and his wartime experiences left a permanent mark on his literary work. By any estimation, he was one of the greatest classical scholars the United States ever produced. He was born in Charleston, S.C., in 1831, the son of a Presbyterian minister who never held a pulpit but owned and edited religious newspapers. Showing an early talent for learning and languages, Gildersleeve wrote that he had read the Bible from cover to cover when he was 5 and before he was 13 had learned enough Latin to get through Caesar, Cicero, Virgil and Horace and enough Greek to "make out" the New Testament. He entered Princeton as a junior and graduated fourth in his class in 1849. He studied classical philology in Germany and earned a doctorate from the University of Gottingen in 1853. Just before his 25th birthday, he began a 20-year career as a professor at the University of Virginia, where he taught Greek and Latin. Considering himself " a Charlestonian first, Carolinian next, and then a Southerner," he left no doubt where his sympathies lay when hostilities broke out in 1861. He joined the Confederate army but, unlike Chamberlain, did not take a leave of absence from his teaching duties.

The University of Virginia, unlike most other Southern colleges, did not close its doors during the war and struggled on with a student body made up of the maimed, the wounded and boys too young for military service. Gildersleeve "soldiered" during summer vacations from the university. In successive summers, he served on the staff of the 21st Virginia Infantry and was a private in the 1st Virginia Cavalry. The summer of 1864 saw him on the staff of Gen. John B. Gordon. While carrying orders for Gordon, he was wounded when a bullet from a Spencer rifle broke his thighbone and his leg was nearly amputated. Of that experience Gildersleeve later wrote, "I lost my pocket Homer, I lost my pistol, I lost one of my horses, and finally I came very near to losing my life from a wound which kept me five months on my back." Gildersleeve convalesced at the home of Gen. Raleigh Colston, whose eldest daughter, Elizabeth, nursed him and married him two years later. His wound left him with a permanent limp, and on returning to full-time teaching, he became something of an institution at UVa., famous for his biting wit.

On one occasion, he was able to help a fellow prodigy. In 1868, a 16-year-old student petitioned to be awarded a bachelor's degree after only one year at the university. He said his family was too poor to continue supporting his studies. A panel appointed to review his petition was impressed with his brilliant record but refused him a degree. The student countered that if he couldn't receive the bachelor of arts degree, would the university award him a medical degree the next year if he could finish the medical course in that time? Gildersleeve was on the panel and urged his colleagues to give the boy a chance. The next year, Dr. Walter Reed received his medical degree.

Gildersleeve was one of the first professors appointed when the Johns Hopkins University opened its doors in 1876, and his remaining years were spent in Baltimore. He founded the American Journal of Philology in 1880 and edited it for 40 years.

In addition to his teaching and editorial duties, Gildersleeve produced several books of critical essays and scholarly studies as well as an influential study of the Greek poet Pindar, "Syntax of Classical Greek," and a Latin grammar that is still in print.

Gildersleeve's Civil War experiences had a marked influence on his life. Both of his Princeton roommates, who were Virginians, were killed at First Bull Run ( Manassas). He was reconciled with his alma mater, which supported the Union despite a large population of Southern students, only when it awarded him an honorary degree in 1899.

No doubt influenced by the example of his newspaper publisher father, Gildersleeve wrote a series of editorials for the Richmond Examiner in 1863-64. Although the editorials appeared after Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg, his journalism inveighed more against the "home front" than the military forces in the field. He criticized the selfishness of speculators, blockade runners and farmers for profiteering, hoarding and inflicting hardships on soldiers and civilians alike. He was especially harsh on the political leadership, stating that the main strength of the Confederacy was its people, while the main "awkwardness" was its government.

Gildersleeve's most impressive writing about the war came later in life. In 1892, he authored an article titled "The Creed of the Old South," which appeared in the Atlantic. Part personal memoir and smattered with mordant humor and classical references, the article is one of the principal summaries of what became known as the theory of the Lost Cause. Gone was the bitterness
of the war editorials. Instead, Gildersleeve presented the ideals that had impelled the Southern people to war: "There is such a thing as fighting for a principle, an idea," he wrote, "but principle and idea must be incarnate, and the principle of States' rights was incarnate in the historical life of the Southern people. Submission to any encroachment on the rights of a State means slavery. To us, submission meant slavery, as it did to Pericles and the Athenians." Gildersleeve did not skirt the issue of slavery. He wrote that "we were born to this social order, we had to do our duty in it according to our lights, and this duty was made infinitely more difficult by the interference of those who, as we thought, could not understand the conditions of the problem, and who did not have to bear the expense of the experiments they proposed." Fighting the war, and defending the war, was about honor, as the Greeks and Romans understood it. "That the cause we fought for and our brothers died for was the cause of civil liberty, and not the cause of human slavery, is a thesis which we feel ourselves bound to maintain whenever our motives are challenged or misunderstood, if only for our children's sake." The article was a major success and was reprinted later in book form. Its success inspired Gildersleeve to publish another article in the Atlantic in 1897, titled "A Southerner in the Peloponnesian War," in which he compared the Civil War to the ancient war between the Athenians and Spartans.

Gildersleeve died in 1924 and is buried in Charlottesville. His headstone contains a quotation in Greek from Aeschylus that is fitting for a scholar-soldier: "Life's bivouac is over." Readers interested in knowing more about the life and career of Gildersleeve should read "Soldier and Scholar: Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve and the Civil War" (1998), edited by Ward W. Briggs Jr., upon which this article is partly based.

(Richard P. Cox is a lawyer, free-lance writer and lover of the classics. He lives in Annapolis.)