This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.
With colleges deep into their semesters, we continue to hear of controversies regarding academic freedom, sometimes in the manner of faculty who express sympathy with those deemed to be enemies of the United States. In that light, we take a moment to ponder this case that Columbia University (then Columbia College) had to tackle:
By every account, Richard Sears McCulloh was an exacting professor of physics and mechanics at Columbia College in the 1850s and 1860s. “Severe” and “merciless” were adjectives used to describe him. McCulloh was a Marylander whose father, James William McCulloch (the son would drop the final “c” in the name), helped defend Baltimore in the War of 1812 and worked there at the Bank of the United States. In those days before specialization, the son could take on natural philosophy, mathematics, and chemistry all at once, and it led to a professorship at Princeton.
R.S. McCulloh was very much a compromise choice for the academic chair at Columbia in 1854. Feeling sore at the controversy that preceded it, trustee George Templeton Strong dismissed him in his diary as “a scientific Star of not more than the 4th magnitude.” Upon hearing him address a gathering at the chapel, Strong whined, McCulloh “is a feeble-looking, washed-out kind of man, but I did not think it possible he could deliver so deplorably commonplace, incoherently imbecile a piece of maundering as that which he bestowed on us.” Still, Strong, a New York lawyer who would become posthumously famous as a diarist, tried to be fair: he eventually allowed that the slightly eccentric McCulloh was probably a pretty good instructor, but given his “unsympathizing” approach, “don’t wonder the students hate him.”
Columbia eventually acceded to McCulloh’s demands by making him Professor of Physics, thus leaving chemistry, mineralogy, and geology to someone else. Things went on well enough until the president of the college received McCulloh’s abrupt resignation in the fall of 1863 as the Civil War raged. It was gracious enough, but with it came the shock Strong recorded with his cramped handwriting in his diary on October 11: “Prof. McCulloh of Col. Coll. has sent in his resignation, dated Richmond, Virginia!!! He ‘has gone over to the Dragons’ and we are well rid of him. He has probably been offered a high price to come south to take charge of some military laboratory.”
Still, Strong thought McCulloh was harmless, “cracked” even, one whose desertion was illogical and not supported by any strong ideological preference for slavery or the Rebellion; “He always seemed eccentric odd and queer.”
But how to accept this resignation? Within days the College’s governors were offering resolutions that McCulloh should instead be expelled. One trustee objected, calling this a “violent” reaction to an act of conscience, since McCulloh had explained in his letter that, being reared a southerner, he “prefers to cast his lot with that of the South.” George Templeton Strong, ever the Unionist, was pleasantly surprised with the final decision to expel, “I did not hope for anything so masculine.” And so, it was resolved that the Columbia course catalog would read accordingly:
As it turns out, Strong’s first offhand speculation about taking charge of a military lab seems to have been the correct one: McCulloh went south to put his chemistry to use on gunpowder and explosives, a talent he was directed to employ in secret missions of sabotage beyond even the battlefields. When the war ended and more was learned of McCulloh’s involvement in arson plots in the North, Strong wondered, as his colleagues had done, whether—just prior to his mysterious departure from the city— “this ill-visaged caitiff*” had something to do with instigating the Draft Riots of 1863 and had been all along “a secret agent of secession.”
More recent research has indeed placed McCulloh in an even more sinister role, showing him to have developed successful chemical weapons under the direct authority of the Confederate president and secretary of state in February 1865. He was quoted as suggesting such a weapon could be used against the Congress in Washington. Being so late in the war, Richmond fell before they could be employed.
The Columbia community no longer had to debate conscience or academic freedom, as in May 1865 Secretary of War Edwin Stanton issued an arrest warrant for McCulloh; he was captured in the southern reaches of Florida and imprisoned in Washington. That left Strong with another—perhaps tongue-in-cheek—dilemma: “If he is tried for arson, convicted and hanged, does etiquette require me as an acquaintance and a trustee of Col. Coll. to attend the execution?”
McCulloh served time, much of it in solitary confinement in Virginia, but his ties beyond Columbia helped him, and in 1866 he was released on parole, likely to live with his brother, John Sears McCulloh, a lawyer in Staten Island, whose son had remained a student at Columbia throughout his uncle’s crisis. Not long after that, Robert E. Lee, his wife’s cousin and now college president, called McCulloh to what is now Washington and Lee University. McCulloh’s life in academia continued—in the South, of course—but it was a bumpy one. He died in 1894.
R.S. McCulloh is largely forgotten, but the family name does live on in American history: His father, the Baltimore bank cashier, is the named appellant in the landmark 1819 case of Constitutional law, McCulloch v. Maryland, a decision that, ironically, limited significantly the “states’ rights,” so dear to the future Confederates.
*caitiff (kātʹif)- a mean, evil, or cowardly person [in case this is a new vocabulary word to anybody else]
This post is much indebted to the account by Milton Halsey Thomas, “Professor McCulloh of Princeton, Columbia, and Points South,” Princeton University Library Chronicle, volume 9, no. 1 (November 1947). Thomas, with Allan Nevins, was editor of the 1952 published version of the diary of George Templeton Strong. Milton Halsey Thomas, a librarian and archivist, was a dedicated diarist himself, and both his and Strong’s journals are housed at the New-York Historical Society. Taking the McCulloh story much further with the help of his descendants, is Jane Singer in The Confederate Dirty War: Arson, Bombings, Assassination and Plots for Chemical and Germ Attacks on the Union (2005).