BY QUINN DANIELL
Auburn University was chartered by the Alabama Legislature as the East Alabama Male College on February 7, 1856, coming under the guidance of the Methodist Church in 1859. The first president of the institution was Reverend William J. Sasnett, and the school opened its doors in 1859 to a student body of eighty and a faculty of ten. The early history of Auburn is inextricably linked with the Civil War and the Reconstruction-era South. Classes were held in "Old Main" until the college was closed due to the Civil War, when most of the students and faculty left to enlist. The campus was used as a training ground for the Confederate Army, and "Old Main" served as a hospital for Confederate wounded.
To commemorate Auburn's contribution to the Civil War, a cannon lathe used for the manufacture of cannons for the Confederate Army and recovered from Selma, Alabama, was presented to Auburn in 1952 by brothers of Delta Chapter of the Alpha Phi Omega fraternity. It sits today on the lawn next to Samford Hall.
Post Civil War
The school was reopened in 1866 following the end of the Civil War and has been open ever since. In 1872, control of the institution was transferred from the Methodist Church to the State of Alabama for financial reasons. Alabama placed the school under the provisions of the Morrill Act as a land-grant institution, the first in the South to be established separate from the state university. This act provided for 240,000 acres (971 km²) of Federal land to be sold in order to provide funds for an agricultural and mechanical school. As a result, in 1872 the school was renamed the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama.
Under the provisions of this act, land-grant institutions were also supposed to teach military tactics and train officers for the United States military. In the late 19th century, most students at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama were enrolled in the cadet program, learning military tactics and training to become future officers. Each county in the state was allowed to nominate two cadets to attend the college free of charge.
Samford Hall in the 1890s
In 1892, two historic events occurred: women were first admitted to the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama, and football was first played as a school sport. Eventually, football replaced polo as the main sport on campus. In 1899, the school name was again changed, this time to Alabama Polytechnic Institute.
API Cadets drill on Ross Square in 1918.
On October 1, 1918, nearly all of Alabama Polytechnic Institute's able-bodied male students 18 or older voluntarily joined the United States Army for short-lived military careers on campus. The student-soldiers numbered 878, according to API President Charles Thach, and formed the academic section of the Student Army Training Corps. The vocational section was composed of enlisted men sent to Auburn for training in radio and mechanics. The students received honorable discharges two months later following the Armistice that ended World War I. API struggled through the Great Depression, having scrapped an extensive expansion program by then-President Bradford Knapp. Faculty salaries were cut drastically, and enrollment decreased along with State appropriations to the college. By the end of the 1930s, Auburn had essentially recovered, but then faced new conditions caused by World War II.
As war approached in 1940, there was a great shortage of engineers and scientists needed for the defense industries. The U.S. Office of Education asked all American engineering schools to join in a "crash" program to produce what was often called "instant engineers." API became an early participant in an activity that eventually became Engineering, Science, and Management War Training (ESMWT). Fully funded by the government and coordinated by Auburn’s Dean of Engineering, college-level courses were given in concentrated, mainly evening classes at sites across Alabama. Taken by thousands of adults – including many women – these courses were highly beneficial in filling the wartime ranks of civilian engineers, chemists, and other technical professionals. The ESMWT also benefited API by providing employment for faculty members when the student body was significantly diminished by the draft and patriotic volunteers.
During the war, API also trained U.S. military personnel on campus; between 1941 and 1945, Auburn produced over 32,000 troops for the war effort. Following the end of World War II, API, like many colleges around the country, experienced a period of massive growth caused by returning military personnel taking advantage of their GI Bill offer of free education. In the five-year period following the end of the war, enrollment at API more than doubled.