|1850 to 1900|
Hanover College is a modest private school near Madison, Ind. From a quiet promentory the campus overlooks the Ohio River and beyond to Kentucky. Founded in 1853, Iota chapter existed sub rosa, like most fraternities at the time. Membership in Beta Theta Pi was cause for expulsion from college.
On June 12, 1856, John Hanna Gray, Hanover 1856, then a sophomore, died and was buried in the college campus cemetery. The Betas erected a marble monument at his grave. To the surprise of the college, the monument contained a facsimile of the chapter seal and a motto in Greek, which disclosed Beta’s existence at Hanover.
The action so angered some students that they attempted to desecrate the monument. The Betas formed teams and guarded the monument around the clock for an entire month. Three times the monument was knocked over; and three times, re-erected. Ultimately, the Beta tombstone was kept intact, and this man-size pylon still graces the Hanover cemetery today.
When Gray’s father, Daniel L. Gray, a Presbyterian clergyman, arrived from Mississippi, he was so touched by the Betas’ respect for his son that he, too, wished to belong to Beta Theta Pi. As a result, he was initiated by the Betas, number 21 on the Hanover roll, joining his son, John Hanna Gray, number 13.
Brother Against Brother
The Civil War caused the greatest crisis in the history of Beta Theta Pi. The war threatened the life of more than half of the 24 chapters in existence in 1860, with the functioning chapters being reduced by 1864 to those at Miami, Western Reserve, Jefferson, Washington, Indiana Asbury (DePauw), Ohio Wesleyan, Wabash, Hanover, Ohio, Knox and Indiana. The war threatened the fundamental principle of brotherhood.
Before the war ended, more than half of all men initiated into the Fraternity by 1861 were combatants — split almost equally between the Union and Confederate armies with more than 300 in each army. Further, Beta Theta Pi had more men in uniform in that war than any other fraternity!
Founder Ryan was a Union officer, while Founders Duncan and Gordon served the Confederacy. The Fraternity had a number of prominent officers in each army. Matthew S. Quay, Washington & Jefferson 1850, received the Medal of Honor for gallantry in action at the Battle of Fredericksburg, the first of six authenticated Beta recipients of that prestigious honor.
John Brown Gordon, Georgia 1854, for whom Fort Gordon, Ga., is named, became a lieutenant general in the army of Northern Virginia and is credited with personally saving Gen. Robert E. Lee’s life. He later served as governor of Georgia and a U.S. senator.
Despite the threat to brotherhood, fraternal ties were demonstrated by a letter received in Delaware, Ohio, (Union territory) by the Ohio Wesleyan chapter from Centre chapter, Danville, Ky., (Confederate territory), bearing the flag of the Confederacy but still recognizing Beta Theta Pi’s fraternal bonds.
The War spawned several stories which demonstrated the strength of Beta brotherhood and the character of its members.
Loyalty to the Extreme
Perhaps the most remarkable event involves Founder John Holt Duncan, the first president of Beta Theta Pi. After practicing law in his home state of Mississippi, he moved to Bexar County, Texas, and became a judge. When the war began, he was called to service in the Confederate Cavalry and fought in bitter campaigns in Missouri and Arkansas.
His regiment made a raid into the Union-held territory in southwestern Missouri, engaging Northern troops on Sept. 30, 1862, south of Joplin at Newtonia.
As his company fought furiously against Union forces of superior numbers, Duncan was wounded in the leg while “gallantly charging the enemy.” To save him, surgeons amputated his right leg; but they could not transport him when they retreated because of the close pursuit of Union forces, and he was left with a family at a nearby farmhouse.
The penalty for harboring Confederates was death. As fate would have it, the farmer, a Confederate soldier, came home on leave. Days later, Union cavalrymen found Duncan with the farmer and his family. The troops dragged Duncan and the farmer outside, stood them against the barn and shot the farmer in full view of his family. They would have killed Duncan, too, had the farmer’s weeping widow and children not pleaded for his life.
After the war, Duncan settled in Houston where he practiced law and was city attorney, county clerk and city recorder. Though he earned an adequate income, he lived frugally, almost as if he were destitute. Further, though deeply enamored of a lovely woman, he never married.
Puzzled by his strange behavior, friends regarded him as an eccentric miser. He died in a Confederate old soldier’s home in Austin, Texas, virtually penniless because from the day the farmer was killed, he pledged, and kept his promise, to devote his life to support the widow and educate the children of the farmer who had died for him.
Brothers are Brothers for Life
The 95th name on the roll of Alpha chapter is Joel Allan Battle who came to Miami University from his home in Lavergne, Tenn. Young Battle soon befriended John Calvin Lewis whom he recruited into Beta Theta Pi. Together they would write a classic story about brotherhood.
Lewis remembered it this way: “Allan Battle was a man of mark in his years at Miami. Of good standing, but not first in class work, his great love for historical and political affairs gave him prominence, and his ever ready eloquence made him a leader in the hall of debate.
“About Dec. 1, 1860, shortly after Lincoln’s election to the presidency, I was at the rooms of Allan Battle and his wife in Cincinnati where he was studying law. Our conversation was almost entirely on the possibility of war. It naturally appeared that. . . all the slave-holding states would be in sympathy with the Southern side. Allan Battle apprehended that this sympathy would affect the action of Tennesse, and I well recall his bitter regret at the situation and what it meant for himself.
“If war broke out, (he said) he could not fight against the flag, nor against the people of his birthplace, and would probably go abroad in hopes that the struggle would be brief. Shortly after, I left for Illinois and never again saw Joel Allan Battle alive.”
Allan’s father, the colonel of the 20th Tennessee Regiment, asked his son to return to Tennessee and fight for the cause. Lewis was a captain in the 41st Illinois Regiment; two other Miami classmates, Ross and Chamberlain, joined the 31st Indiana. The 41st Illinois and the 31st Indiana were part of Grant’s Army which sought control of the Tennessee River.
In early April, the Army of Tennessee embarked north from Corinth to attack Grant’s for-ces at dawn near Shiloh Church, starting the first great bloody engagement of the war. The Southern advance initially routed the Union forces, which regrouped and met the Confederates near the Bloody Pond, an area of the heaviest fighting known as the “Hornet’s Nest.”
Ultimately, the Union troops were pushed back, almost into the Tennessee River near Grant’s headquarters. That night, Grant was reinforced and fueled a counterattack the next morning. The Southern troops were first pushed back but then counterattacked. Young Joel, his left arm in a sling from an earlier wound, fought until he was killed in this charge to retake the former position.
Lewis continued his story: “I became captain of a company in the 41st Illinois on April 5, 1862, the day before the Battle of Shiloh began. After the battle, we were in camp, the dreadful relics of the great battle were all about us for miles. On both sides there were some 9,000 dead to bury and 15,000 wounded to care for. Later that day, Ross called to me, asking that I come at once to his tent.
“In passing to his tent, I noticed on the grass a body wrapped in a Confederate blanket. When I asked Ross if it was anyone he knew, he replied that it was Allan Battle’s body. Unfolding the blanket, I recognized the face, thinner . . . and placid as if asleep. We found two ball marks in the right breast; apparently death had been merciful and instant.
“The burial of Allan Battle was near our camp and in the shade of an oak tree. In arranging his clothing, I bared the left shoulder and found a healing wound, and its condition would have excused a less determined man from the battle in which his life was lost. I believe no more brave and noble soul left his body on that bloody field.”
Lewis and his comrades smoothed the ground to conceal the grave and prevent it from being disturbed. Today, if you visit Shiloh, Tenn., the Union Cemetery is beside the Visitor Center. Union dead are buried in neat rows, names on white tombstones.
When you tour the battlefield, you will come upon several Confederate burial trenches containing the unidentified Southern dead in mass graves — except for one, young Joel Allan Battle, who lies in his own secret burial place on the field of bloody Shiloh, not far from the Bloody Pond, where he was laid to rest by his brothers — his Beta brothers in blue.
Saving Michigan Chapter
One of the most remarkable stories of Beta character and integrity involved the Michigan chapter where every member fit for service, 40 alumni and active members, left for the Union Army. First, they sought to preserve Lambda chapter by taking in new men, “fillers,” to keep the chapter alive until their return.
Late in the war, these fillers met with Psi Upsilon to talk about becoming a chapter of that fraternity. The leader of the Lambda fillers was James Root. To maintain secrecy, he had himself appointed Lambda chapter recorder, the officer responsible for communication with the other Beta chapters. Using that office, he criticized Theta chapter at Ohio Wesleyan, the presiding chapter; and at the 1864 Convention, he engineered the selection of Lambda as the new presiding chapter.
In fall 1864, Lambda chapter was composed of Root and 13 other fillers, as well as Edward C. Boudinot, initiated in 1861, who had just returned from two years in uniform. Immediately after the convention, Root visited the Psi Upsilon chapters in the East and obtained agreement to take in Michigan’s Lambda chapter.
Root and his cohorts urged Boudinot to join them, but he refused. He was faithful to his Beta badge; he had the courage, the character and the integrity to honor his pledge to Beta Theta Pi.
Betrayal of the Fillers
Instead, Boudinot wrote Lambda alumni, alerting them to Root’s plans. The alumni were furious at the news, but the 14 members of Lambda betrayed Beta Theta Pi and joined Psi Upsilon.
The loyal Lambda alumni asked the Miami chapter to assume the duties of the presiding chapter and to call an early convention to address the crisis. The convention delegates strongly commended the fidelity of Edward Boudinot, requesting him to maintain Lambda chapter, pledging hearty support and urging other Beta chapters to send some men to Michigan to assist Boudinot in keeping Lambda alive.
The next fall, four members of three other chapters — Hanover, Indiana and Miami — showed their Beta spirit by transferring to Michigan, joining William V. Richards, who had just returned from the war, to rebuild Lambda.
And so, Beta Theta Pi recorded one of the earliest of many episodes of the Beta Spirit in action — an ordeal in which the character, integrity and loyalty of one of its men would keep the fires of his chapter burning with “the help of his brothers dear” from other Beta chapters.
Most Chapters Endured
Remarkably, all but one of the chapters closed during the Civil War were quickly revived (Chi chapter at Oglethrope University,) and almost all exist today. The strength of Beta’s fraternal bonds did triumph over the animosity of the war. This triumph was celebrated in Beta song lyrics:
We are singing again in the dear old Hall
In the fall of 1865, Washington College chapter at Lexington, Va., was revived, soon followed by Virginia and Cumberland chapters. The survival of the brotherhood is described dramatically by comments of Betas who were engaged in that conflict.
Justice Lurton at Post-War Cumberland
Horace H. Lurton, Cumberland 1867, who was later to sit as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, described it this way:
“My membership was in Mu chapter, Cumberland University, Lebanon, Tenn. The war broke out, the college closed its doors and that suspended the activities of the chapter. In the fall of 1865, the college re-opened, and the chapter was reorganized. New men to the number of 12 or 14 were taken in. With one or two exceptions, they were youths just out of the Civil War.
“The spirit of Betaism knew no politics, was not even biased by the bloody and bitter struggle through which we had just passed. Two of the new men had worn the blue and the rest the grey. It is, I believe, the earliest instance of fraternal reunion . . . the qualifications for admission were about these: First, a man had to be a good fellow and a gentleman down to the ground; second, he had to be a good student and likely to win college honors. If we found that he was in possession of qualities like these, we did not ask what flag he had fought under.”
A Tattered Uniform and a Good Constitution
Echoing this view, John Sergeant Wise, Virginia 1867, remembered he had nothing left but his “tattered Confederate uniform and a good constitution.”
“October found me a student at the University of Virginia. The old place more resembled a camp than a college. Conversations and thoughts partook still of a decidedly military flavor.
“From Beta brothers came words of love and encouragement, filled with the wish that our chapter should be re-established, that the old fraternity and cordiality should be restored, without condition or reserve. We were made to realize that the bitterness of the conflict was over, that there were those in the land of our enemies who yearned to be once more our brethren and our friends.”
The 1872 Convention, held in still war-torn Richmond, Va., revealed a group of leaders determined to reconstruct the Fraternity, zealous to develop it into a truly great General Fraternity. Among the noteworthy actions of the convention was the election of the first general officers: a General Secretary, Charles Duy Walker, VMI 1869, a Confederate veteran of the Battle of New Market; and a General Treasurer, John I. Covington, Miami 1870. The powers of these officers were limited, but it was the first step toward an important change in the General Fraternity organization.
Walker was the First Beta Editor
Not long after his election, General Secretary Walker announced his intention of starting a fraternity periodical. First suggested at the Convention of 1842, and repeatedly postponed, the first issue of The Beta Theta Pi was published on Dec. 15, 1872, through Walker’s determination. He solicited enough material and subscriptions to launch the eight-page tabloid. It is the oldest continuously published publication of any fraternity or sorority in the Greek world.
Walker adopted a masthead which described its mission as Alere Flammam — to fan the flames of our fraternal fires.
The second step in the reorganization of the government of the Fraternity came at the 1873 Convention when the General Secretary recommended the division of the Fraternity into geographic districts for the convenience of administration, each division to be administered by an assistant general secretary. These men would also become known as district chiefs. This district plan proved so satisfactory that it has been adopted by nearly all fraternities.
The Constitution Becomes a Public Document
At the 1877 Convention, Wyllys C. Ransom, Michigan 1848, proposed a committee to “take into consideration the policy of entirely separating from the provisions of our Constitution everything in any way pertaining to the secret or internal work of the association, leaving that instrument purely an organic act, declaratory of the organization and purposes of the Beta Theta Pi Fraternity,” and to draft such a revision of the Constitution.
This resolution was adopted, and the convention appointed a committee composed of Ransom, Olin R. Brouse, Indiana Asbury 1866, and Amandus N. Grant, Indiana Asbury 1874.
The Fraternity had frequently suffered from the hostility of college authorities which caused chapters to exist sub rosa. Several chapters such as Denison experienced that situation. This hostility was perceived to be caused by the mistaken belief that college secret societies were formed for the purposes of regulating college politics or promoting interference with discipline and rules.
Facing up to Hostilities
The committee concluded that the proposed changes would be conducive “to the welfare and strength of the society, by inspiring increased confidence in its usefulness, by securing the withdrawal of the hostitility that has hitherto existed to it . . . by giving it an organic law fully up to its needs, commensurate with its fast increasing number of chapters and consequent increase of membership.”
The committee proposed a new “open” constitution which was to be published. The proposal, adopted by the 1878 Convention, ratified at the 1879 Convention, included several important aspects. It replaced the presiding chapter system with a Board of Directors and strengthened the authority of the General Secretary who, together with the Board, would manage and govern the Fraternity between conventions.
The 1847 General Convention had instituted the presiding chapter system under which one chapter would preside for one year and become the repository for Fraternity information and the clearing house for any problems which might arise. The plan called for the chapters to rotate in the order of founding.
This system of government by an ever-changing group of undergraduates proved inefficient; so the new proposal created a nine-man Board of Directors, each with three-year terms, and the terms of three expiring each year. Later, the Board was reduced to six members, then increased back to nine in 1998.
The First Public Mission Statement
Most importantly, it contained a statement of the Fraternity’s purposes or objects which have been found ever since in Article I, Section 2 of the Beta Constitution and which, except for adding a reference to Canada with the addition of the Canadian chapters, has remained the same. That section provides that Beta Theta Pi shall have for its Objects:
The promotion of the moral and social culture of its members, the establishment of confidence and friendly relations among the universities and colleges of the United States (“and Canada” was later added,) in securing unity of action and sympathy in matters of common interest among them, and the building up of a fraternity that recognizes mutual assistance in the honorable labors and aspirations of life, devotion to the cultivation of the intellect, unsullied friendship, and unfaltering fidelity, as objects worthy of the highest aim and purpose of associated effort.
The change to an open constitution was highly controversial and was the first by any fraternity. Many older members waited anxiously, expecting to see Beta Theta Pi fall apart. This did not happen, and Beta’s pioneer action was followed by the majority of her rivals.
Expansion to the East
One month after the 1879 Convention, the important union with Alpha Sigma Chi was consummated at Ithaca, N.Y. Through this union, Beta secured a much-desired eastern wing, which it had been unsuccessful in developing previously. Five new chapters were added to the rolls: Cornell, Maine, Rutgers, Cornell, Stevens and St. Lawrence.
The former secretary of Alpha Sigma Chi, William Raimond Baird, Stevens 1878 /Columbia 1882, a prominent architect of the merger, was appointed district chief of the new district, beginning many years of outstanding service to Beta Theta Pi.
These events prompted the historian of another fraternity many years later to write: “Beta Theta Pi is one of the authentic leaders of the Greek world. It and one other share the distinction of having made the largest and most valuable contributions of new and useful ideas to the Greek world. Beta Theta Pi’s history is the story of a magnificient movement which, originating in the West, invaded the South, captured the East and, in 1879, grasped undisputed leadership of the Greek fraternities.”
The rapid expansion of the Fraternity continued and, by 1888-89, correspondence concerning union had sprung up between interested Betas and the three surviving chapters of the Mystic Seven Society. For years, this Society had enjoyed a splendid reputation but recently had suffered reverses due, in part, to the Civil War, leaving but three active chapters — Davidson, North Carolina and Virginia.
On its way to the 1883 Convention at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., at the urging of Charles J. Seaman, Denison 1871, a party of delegates met at Chautauqua Lake in western New York and formulated a plan for an alumni club house and summer resort, which developed into the creation of “Wooglin-on-Chautauqua.” This was a private enterprise promoted by members of Beta Theta Pi, never an official project of the Fraternity.
For years, Betas and their families used the club house as a vacation lodge. The 1884 Convention and those of 1887-93 were held there. Financial difficulties associated with the 1893 depression caused abandonment of the project and, in 1901, the lodge was struck by lightening and destroyed by fire.
The 1892 Convention created the short-lived Executive Committee, composed of the General Secretary, Alumni Secretary and the General Treasurer, charged with the executive administration of the affairs of the Fraternity. The Executive Committee was in addition to the Board of Directors, which had been created in 1879, and the functions formerly performed by the Board were divided and given to the Executive Committee. The result was the creation of conflicts between two groups seeking to take the Fraternity in different directions.
These problems lasted until the 1897 Convention revised the Constitution to create the plan of government the Fraternity has today. That Convention adopted a revision of the Constitution prepared by a committee composed of William A. Hamilton, Northwestern 1879; Wyllys C. Ransom, Michigan 1848 — then the most influential leader of the Fraternity and the most important Beta of the 19th century outside of the Founders — and General Secretary J. Calvin Hanna, Wooster 1881.
Board of Trustees Established
This revision abolished the Executive Committee and renamed the Board of Directors as the Board of Trustees, reducing its number from nine to six, which included three general officers: the President, General Secretary and General Treasurer. The plan specified that one general officer and one additional Trustee would be elected for a term of three years.
In 1924, the Trustees who were not general officers were designated as vice presidents. This plan was followed until 1998 when the Board of Trustees was expanded by the addition of three more vice presidents so that now two vice presidents and a general officer are elected every year.
Perhaps the most outstanding development in the second half of the 19th century was the change in chapter life, occasioned by the gradual appearance of the chapter house. The Miami chapter had not begun as a residential group occupying a “chapter house.” As has been recorded, Beta Theta Pi was born in an upper room of the “Old Main” building in a “hall” used by the Union Literary Society.
During the early years, some chapters were sub rosa and held their meetings either in out of the way places or campus buildings after closing hours. As the Fraternity gained official recognition on campuses, chapters secured their own meeting rooms and headquarters by renting “halls” downtown, often located over local business establishments.
Toward the end of the 19th century, the idea of a chapter house was conceived and spread rapidly. The first Beta chapter house — in fact, what may have been the first “house” of any fraternity — was a section of one of the college buildings at Hampden-Sydney College. This area was occupied by the Zeta chapter at the time of its founding in 1850.
In 1885, Amherst built the first house to be owned in Beta Theta Pi. By 1908, the purchase of houses at Vanderbilt and Wittenberg brought the total number owned by chapters to 29.
Ownership the Growing Trend
Currently, more than 60% of Beta’s chapters have houses owned by the chapters themselves or by alumni corporations, while others rent or reside in properties owned by the college or university. Chapters without houses generally use university facilities for meetings. Kenyon has its “Temple-in-the-Woods,” and St. Lawrence has the Abbott-Young Memorial Temple in addition to its chapter house.
The development of houses was due partially to an inability of some host institutions to provide sufficient housing for their student bodies. The house gives a certain solidarity to chapter life as living together brings members into close contact with each other, creating greater opportunity for group dynamics.