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St. John's College traces its origins to King William's School, the Maryland colony's "free" school founded in 1696. The term free referred to the school's purpose: to make students free through liberal education, an aim that still holds today (the college motto is "Facio liberos ex liberis libris libraque", "I make free adults out of children by means of books and a balance."). Like schools in the other colonies, King William's School was what we would call a grammar or prep school--it gave its young charges a solid foundation in learning which would serve them well as citizens of the colony. A few students continued on to divinity school at William and Mary in Virginia, which was established to serve both the Maryland and Virginia colonies. The King William's School building, a brick structure that also hosted the upper house of the Maryland Assembly, Annapolis social clubs, and the colony's free library, was located near the State House.
The Early Years, 1784-1805
In 1784 the state of Maryland finally (after seven failed attempts) chartered a college, which was named St. John's, probably in honor of St. John the Evangelist, a favorite of the Masons and of George Washington--both influential forces in the budding nation. The first act of the St. John's College Board was to consolidate with King William's School by merging the governing board, assets, and student body of the preparatory school with those of the new college. The guiding lights of King William's School had long planned to expand the school into a college. The state gave the college the unfinished governor's mansion known as Bladen's Folly, along with four acres in Annapolis. This grand building was finished by 1789. It housed the classrooms, living quarters for students and their masters, and the library of St. John's. Known today as McDowell Hall, it is the third oldest academic building in continuous use in the country.
The ups and downs of St. John's fortunes began in 1805 when the Maryland legislature withdrew the state financial support promised at the school's founding. Not until the appointment of Hector Humphreys as president in 1831 did the college begin to recover. Humphreys, a dynamo of educational ideas, revamped the curriculum and added modern science to the traditional teaching of classics, mathematics, and moral philosophy. He built Humphreys Hall, Pinkney Hall, and two houses for faculty, Chase-Stone and Paca-Carroll. Enrollment grew to over 100 students, and the library increased to more than 4000 volumes.
College Green marks the front campus. The Green is an open space between main college row and residential district of town. The Front Campus was used during the Civil War as an area for temporary barracks for Northern troops and as a hospital and parole camp -- "The College Geen Barracks."
From Mayland Historical Trust MD Inventory of Historic Properties:
"By June 1861, Union Troops, under the command of General Benjamin Butler, had occupied Annapolis. The majority of the students had left the college, either having joined the war effort, or having been taken out of town by frightened parents. With the exit of the students, Principal Cleland K. Nelson found himself unable to finance operation of the campus. In the beginning of the 1861 school year, the preparatory school enrolled 26 scholarship students, whose tuition was paid in part by the General Assembly. Thus, the board felt that if the school closed completely and sent the students home, the General Assembly would take this as a violation of the charter, and St. John's would never again get any money. The faculty at this time, however, consisted of just Professor William Thompson, an 1838 graduate of St. John's College.
"Throughout the Civil War, General Butler succeeded in taking over open lots in and around Annapolis, in addition to turning the Naval Academy grounds into a military hospital. Yet Butler did not touch St. John's campus. His successor, however, did not have the same respect for the halls of learning. In October 1861, the Union Army took over the grounds of the college and most of the buildings. Professor Thompson and his young charges were left with only McDowell Hall, which once again became the sole college building. Renamed the College Green Barracks, the campus grounds were used at first as a parole camp, a place where exchanged Union prisoners were brought to get medical attention, fresh clothing, food, and the combat pay due to them. On the back of the campus, closer to College Creek, there were eight wooden barracks holding 150 men each, cookhouses, bathhouses, and warehouses for quartermaster's supplies. The need for a chapel prompted the construction of a one-story wood frame building between McDowell Hall and Humphreys Hall.
"By May 1863, the number of soldiers moving through College Green Barracks was too great, as Annapolis became the most important depot for paroled prisoners on the East Coast. Consequently, a larger parole camp was erected outside Annapolis in an area still known as Camp Parole. The army retained use of the campus despite the removal of the parole camp. After months of debate over the future use of the property, the college was turned over to the Medical Corps, and the campus became St. John's College Hospital, Division Number 2 of the U.S. General Hospital at Annapolis. At this time, Professor Thompson continued to teach his classes, with an enrollment of forty-one students attending classes and residing in McDowell Hall.
"In October 1863, the board lost control of the campus. The surgeon in charge of the hospital, who had decided that it was vital that he have the entire campus, received permission to commandeer McDowell Hall. The Union army vacated St. John's in October 1865."
Tilghman, Tench Francis. Early History of St. John's College. Annapolis, MD: St. John's College Press, 1984.
Turner, Paul Venable. Campus: An American Planning Tradition. New York: Architectural History Foundation; Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984.