Jason Lantzer’s new book explores Butler’s role in the Civil War.
We may think we live in partisan times, but America in 2018 is peaches and cream compared to the state of the country when Butler University was founded.
That’s one conclusion readers might draw from Rebel Bulldog: The Story of One Family, Two States, and the Civil War, the new book by Jason Lantzer, Assistant Director of the University Honors Program. Rebel Bulldog tells the story of two of Butler’s earliest students, brothers Preston and Dorman Davidson, who fought on opposite sides in the Civil War despite both being brought up in Indianapolis.
“As bad as it can seem day to day today, when you look to the lead-up to the Civil War, it puts things in perspective,” Lantzer said. “Maybe things aren’t quite as bad now as we think they are.”
The Davidsons were a prominent Indianapolis family—Alexander’s wife, Catherine, was the daughter of Indiana Gov. Noah Noble, the Davidsons were among the founders of the Second Presbyterian Church, and they were married by noted abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Lantzer writes that in 1856, Alexander Davidson enrolled his sons Preston and Dorman in Ovid Butler’s North Western Christian University, which was about two miles from their home in Indianapolis. But he also wanted the young men to spend time in southern schools. Alexander was a graduate of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia, and he came to believe that his generation had missed the chance to keep the country together.
“It was going to have to be his kids to do it,” Lantzer said. “He felt that they needed to understand both halves of the country.”
Dorman went south first, to Virginia Military Institute. He was there during John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry—an armed slave revolt—and realized that he was very much a northerner. He decided to come home after a semester, and he re-enrolled at North Western Christian University.
Preston was a little younger. He enjoyed college life in Indianapolis—he was in a fraternity and was a member of the Literary Society—and in Virginia, at Washington College, Lantzer said. He was there when Abraham Lincoln was elected President and when Virginia and South Carolina seceded from the Union. Preston completely embraced southern life and ended up enlisting in the Rebel army with one of his cousins.
The brothers did not end up fighting each other. Preston was wounded severely in the First Battle of Bull Run and was knocked out of the war for over a year. He re-enlisted in 1863. Dorman wanted to enlist when the war broke out, but his father wouldn’t let him. After his father died in 1863, Dorman helped repel Morgan’s Raid on Indiana, one of the few Civil War battles fought in the north.
When the war ended, Preston moved back to Indianapolis and remained an unrepentant rebel. He died in a Kentucky confederate veterans’ home. Dornan worked as a farmer, insurance agent, newspaper salesman, and stock trader.
Lantzer said Rebel Bulldog started as research for an Honors seminar he wanted to teach on Butler and the Civil War. He thought the final project would be current students looking at their historic peers.
In spring 2012, the first time he taught the class, he decided to model for students what they needed to do to research their topic. By the end of the semester, he had over 100 pages of notes on the Davidsons and the effect of the war on Ovid Butler’s university.
Lantzer said the Civil War “almost broke the University. Ovid Butler kept the University open, but to see wave after wave of your graduates or your students marching off to war—and what happens after the war—puts a lot of things that students are thinking about today into very real perspective.”
“I found it rewarding to dig into the University’s history and have students do the same thing,” said Lantzer, who plans to teach the course again during the 2018–2019 academic year. “My hope was that they would understand the kind of legacy the University has. For students, it’s good for them to understand that the University has a past—and sometimes we do pretty big things.”