True and Candid Compositions Site Launched

For immediate use Sept. 14, 2005
Photo: To download a photo, see end of story.
Library debuts Web site of history as written by Carolina students

UNC News Services

CHAPEL HILL — The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library has written a new chapter of history – digitally. “True and Candid Compositions: The Lives and Writings of Antebellum Students at the University of North Carolina” will go live on the Internet today (Sept. 14).
There are tales about student discipline, as in this 1810 letter from John Ramsey to the university trustees:
“The reason upon which was founded my suspension appeared to have been the act of firing one pistol and if it is any palliation of the crime, it did not take place within the hours prescribed by law for study, nor at night when the cracking of a pistol might have caused greater tumult.”
And there are these lines from student James B. Mitchell, who left UNC in 1859 to join the Confederate Army and returned to resume his studies in 1866:
“To day I know I am comfortably seated in a pleasant room before a cheerful fire, and outside all is cold & disagreeable the ground being covered with snow & sleet. I can remember the time when it was different, when I had nought but the ground for a bed and rocks for a pillow, and in this I percieve a blessing. But the blessing ends here and my limited vision is incompetent to pierce the thick darkness further. The future of the South is to me a mysterious horror and I decline to contemplate it.”
The collection, posted at, includes 121 letters, diaries and speeches written by UNC students from 1795, the first year that students enrolled, to 1869. Besides an annotated transcription of each document, the site also offers images of the handwritten pages.
“It’s a history of UNC, if you will, but through the eyes of the students,” said Natalia Smith, digitization librarian at Wilson Library.
Created with a $49,962 grant from the State Library of North Carolina, the collection is the eighth added to the UNC Library’s “Documenting the American South” Web site,, a digital library of historical documents from the region. Most are first-person accounts of history by those who lived it. . . .
Although digitization of “True and Candid Compositions” began last year, the project is older than that. Eighteen years ago, UNC English professor Dr. Erika Lindemann grew tired of hearing people say that students’ writing skills have declined in recent years. To combat these claims, she went straight to the source: diaries, letters and speeches written by students between 1795 and 1870.
Lindemann didn’t have to look far to find primary sources – the UNC library’s collection of early student writing includes around 1,800 documents. She determined that students today are as skilled – if not more so – in writing than students in previous generations.
Lindemann wrote 666 pages, transcribing and annotating a large section of the primary sources, but no one would publish it. Then last fall, the “Documenting the American South” site received the grant to put the materials online.
“And of course, that’s the only invitation I needed,” Lindemann said. “I now know why the gods didn’t let me publish it. The materials needed to live on the Web, where they will be available to a broad and diverse audience.”
The collection is broken up into six chapters, each of which deals with about a decade of student writing:
· Chapter 1: 1795-1819, “The Establishment of the University,” 12 letters, two compositions, two speeches and two other documents outline the early relationship between students and professors. By 1819, the campus had five buildings, five professors and a student body of more than 100.
· Chapter 2: 1820-1829, “The Purposes of a University Education,” 12 letters, two speeches, one composition and two other documents describe the belief that a university degree would provide students with mental discipline, build character and instill moral values.
· Chapter 3: 1830-1839, “The School Day and the School Year,” 16 letters, five debate speeches, two poems and two excerpts from faculty meetings give a glimpse of the daily lives of students. The college bell, which students later burned to signify their displeasure with it, signaled the start of morning prayers, recitations and meal times.
· Chapter 4: 1840-1849, “Writing in the Academy,” seven letters, five diary excerpts, five compositions, four speeches and two poems represent an extraordinary amount of student writing surviving from this time. First-year students did not write compositions, but sophomores and juniors wrote one every three weeks. Seniors delivered two senior speeches; to graduate with honors, a senior also had to prepare a commencement address.
· Chapter 5: 1850-1859, “The Debating Societies,” four letters, one diary excerpt, four compositions, six speeches, three debating society documents and one article on college slang provide insight into extracurricular activities. Every student was a member of one of the two debating groups: the Dialectic or Philanthropic societies. These societies served as an early form of student government and provided a social outlet for students.
· Chapter 6, 1860-1869, “The Civil War and Its Aftermath,” 10 letters, three diary excerpts, three speeches, a petition, a resolution and a creative work describe campus life during economic hardships caused by the war. In the years before the war, UNC had become the fourth largest university in the nation. More than 1,000 UNC alumni served in the Confederate army; 300 died. The school closed for a period during Reconstruction. . . .
Smith said that one of the benefits of the “Documenting the American South” Web site is that it allows people to interpret history for themselves using primary source material – without leaving their homes.
“We literally open virtual doors to our library,” Smith said.
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(Ochs is a senior journalism and mass communication major from Winston-Salem.)
Note: Lindemann can be reached at (919) 962-0771 or; Smith, at (919) 962-9590 or
Photo URL: To download a photo from the new Web site, of the marshals of UNC’s senior class in 1855, go to
News Services contact: L.J. Toler, (919) 962-8589