The Wars

Civil War

The Civil War (1861-1865) was the culmination of over forty years of increasing sectional tensions between Northern and Southern states over the issues of African American slavery and states' rights. The 1850s saw violent confrontations between pro-slavery Southerners and abolitionist Northerners in Kansas Territory; John Brown's attempt to spark a slave insurrection at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859; and the rise of the Republican Party in the North, opposed to the expansion of slavery into any federal territory. The election of a Republican, Abraham Lincoln, as President of the United States in 1860 led to the secession of seven slaveholding states in the Deep South and the formation of the Confederate States of America. Four more slaveholding states in the Upper South seceded and joined the Confederacy after hostilities broke out at Fort Sumter in April 1861 and President Lincoln called for volunteers to subdue the states that had left the Union. The ensuing Civil War lasted four years, resulting in the victory of the Union over the Confederacy and the end of slavery in the United States. Over 600,000 soldiers North and South lost their lives in the war, but the United States survived as a nation.

In the town of Auburn, Alabama, the Civil War led to the temporary closure of a small institution of higher learning called the East Alabama Male College, Auburn University's earliest predecessor. Founded in 1856, the East Alabama Male College began classes in 1859 as a liberal arts college under the auspices of the Alabama Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The new college had an enrollment of over 100 students, but only graduated two classes with thirteen graduates before closing in 1861 when most of the students left to join the Confederate army. The college's Latin professor, former Congressman James Ferguson Dowdell, later to serve as college president after the war, raised the 37th Alabama infantry regiment and became its commander.


Minutes of the Alabama Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South, held in Tuskegee, Alabama, December 16, 1856, Methodist Archives Center, Huntingdon College Library, Montgomery, Alabama, 9, 21; Minutes of the Alabama Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, held in Eufaula, Alabama, Nov. 30th-Dec. 8th, 1859, Methodist Archives Center, Huntingdon College Library, Montgomery, Alabama, 37; Officers, Regulations, Statutes, &c., of East Alabama Male College, Auburn, Alabama, 1859, Archives and Special Collections, R. B. Draughon Library, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama, 7-10, 17; Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the East Alabama Male College, Auburn, Alabama, 1860-61, Archives and Special Collections, R. B. Draughon Library, Auburn, Alabama, 4; Catalogue of East Alabama College, Auburn, Alabama, 1869-70, [microfilm], Archives and Special Collections, R. B. Draughon Library, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama, 5-6; Family Memoirs, Frank L. Little Papers, Archives and Special Collections, R. B. Draughon Library, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama, 36, 81; Founders Day Speech, J. O. Ellisor, Jr., 18 May 1979, Founders Day Collection, Archives and Special Collections, R. B. Draughon Library, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama.

Spanish-American War

"The Latest Indications Seem to Point Strongly Toward War," proclaimed The Birmingham Age-Herald in March 1898. Indications proved true when only a month following this publication, the United States declared war on Spain on April 25. Tensions between the United States and Spain had been gradually increasing for months prior to the declaration. Since the 1860s, many Cubans had been fighting for independence from Spain's colonial rule. After founding the Cuban Revolutionary Party in the United States in 1892, Jose Marti led an unsuccessful revolt against Spain in 1895, and his death during the uprising served as a rallying cry for the Cuban revolutionaries against the Spanish government in subsequent years. During this period, the United States substantially increased its investments in the island nation, which came to be viewed by many investors as a source of cheap sugar.

Hoping to quell social unrest in the wake of Marti's death, the Spanish government instituted a policy of "reconcentration" that placed the entire island under martial law enforced by Spanish troops. Soon after the United States government declared that it might need to become directly involved in Cuba's affairs in order to protect American businesses on the island. Amid an atmosphere of spiraling tensions between the U.S. and Spain, on February 15, 1898, the U.S.S. Maine, docked in Havana Harbor, exploded. Almost instantly, speculation in the United States press fed an assumption that the Spanish had sunk the ship as an act of aggression against American encroachment. "Beyond Doubt Spanish Treachery," read one headline referring to the incident. Four days following President William McKinley's order to blockade Cuba on April 21, the United States declared war against Spain. 

The Spanish American War came to Alabama with a fury, at least rhetorically. Articles posted throughout state encouraged citizens to enlist and played up the sinking of the Maine, which allegedly claimed the lives of "Four Alabamians On Board." Roughly 4,000 troops from Alabama enlisted almost overnight including the Alabama 3rd Volunteer Infantry composed of nearly 1,200 African Americans.

The war also engulfed the Philippines in the Pacific. The islands had been part of the Spanish Empire for centuries, and fighting began in the region on May 1, 1898. The American fleet, commanded by George Dewey, met little resistance and completely destroyed the Spanish garrison in the region, leading to the end of hostilities there on August 12.

The fighting in Cuba lasted a little longer and began in early June when U.S. Marines landed on the island and captured Guantanamo Bay and Daiquiri, before moving quickly to San Juan Heights, which they attacked on July 1. American troops charged Kettle Hill, led by the Rough Riders under Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, and by the predominately African-American 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments. The successful assaults, accompanied by relatively minimal U.S. casualties, forced the surrender of Spanish forces on July 16. The war officially ended on December 10, 1898, after U.S. forces captured Puerto Rico. In all, the United States lost 3,000 troops in the conflict, 90% of whom died from infectious diseases rather than combat, and despite all of the troops from Alabama who volunteered, only soldier from an Alabama regiment died during the war. In addition, the war elevated Theodore Roosevelt to the status of a national hero.

Mexican-Border Period

In 1910 political events in Mexico increasingly garnered the attention of the United States. Military intervention led to political power struggles and leadership changes in Mexico from 1910 to 1916. President Woodrow Wilson’s administration backed various leaders as the U.S. sought a stable ally. Rising tensions in Mexico along with U.S. government waffling led to attacks on Americans in Mexico and eventually onto American soil, culminating in a January 1916 raid led by the Mexican rebel Francisco "Pancho" Villa that left seventeen Americans dead in Columbus, New Mexico. In response, President Woodrow Wilson sent General John J. Pershing and 15,000 U.S. troops on a "punitive expedition" into Mexican territory. In April 1916 at Parral in north central Mexico, two Americans and forty Mexicans died, and Wilson then called 150,000 National Guardsmen from around the country to active duty for what the government termed the Mexican Border Service, designed to prevent further incursions by Villa and his men.

As part of this federal call to service, Alabama's Guardsmen traveled to various stations around the southwestern U.S., primarily in San Antonio, Texas, and in Douglas and Nogales, Arizona. From June 1916 to early 1917 Alabama Guardsmen performed this service, consisting mostly of routine patrols and training exercises. Casualties among Alabamians resulted not from contact with Mexican rebels but rather from disease and accident. The primary benefit of the Mexican Border Service was the training and discipline received from the months spent on active duty. Just as the troops returned to Alabama in late winter and early spring 1917, the international situation prompted the president to cancel demobilization orders and to assign the troops to guard duty around the state, primarily securing lines of transportation and communication, as the nation prepared for entry into World War I in April 1917.

World War 1

The First World War erupted across Europe in the summer of 1914, following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Due to a complex system of alliances, by the end of the year most of the major powers in Europe and the surrounding regions entered the conflict, which was known as the Great War or simply the World War to many contemporaries. The United States initially declared its neutrality in the conflict, but heavily favored the Entente Powers, which included its traditional allies Britain and France. Worsening relations with the Central Powers, particularly as a result of Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare, eventually led the United States to enter the war on the side of the Entente in April 1917. Trench warfare and newly developed weapons prolonged the conflict, but the Central Powers eventually sued for peace after being pushed back to their borders. Following the armistice of November 1918, the Paris Peace Conference of early 1919 set the terms of the peace.

For nearly three years the United States remained neutral in the Great War, but it did not isolate itself from the events across the Atlantic. A number of the Entente Powers were the nation's largest trading partners, and the United States increased its imports to match the growing need for war-related goods abroad. Once the nation entered the war, production expanded to meet its own wartime needs. This led a large number of men and women to enter the industrial workforce, such as in Alabama's iron and steel mills. To run the home front in a progressive manner, the federal government created agencies to regulate how different sectors contributed to the war effort. In addition, President Woodrow Wilson instituted the first national draft in American history, which inducted 74,000 Alabamians into the military.

World War 2

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Korean Conflict

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Vietnam Era

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Persian Gulf War

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Operation Enduring Freedom

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States resulted in immediate military action. The United States government suspected Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein, to be hiding weapons of mass destruction and to be involved with known terrorist groups. War was imminent. But, before the US military could effectively wage an attack on Iraq, military operations in Afghanistan became of paramount importance. The Taliban in Afghanistan provided protection to al-Qaeda and needed to be dismantled. In late September 2001, a Central Intelligence Agency team partnered with anti-Taliban Afghani allies to begin devising an overthrow strategy. Collaborating with British Special forces and the United States Air Force, they began to conduct an air strike campaign against the Taliban on October 7, 2001. This military action was the start of Operation Enduring Freedom. In December, the Taliban strong hold city of Kandahar fell and the Taliban was defeated causing its leaders to retreat into more rural areas. In the years to come, Operation Enduring Freedom would evolve to encompass other areas such as the Horn of Africa and the Philippines.

Many Auburn men and women have joined the fight on terrorism. During the Operation Enduring Freedom period, the nation's first casualty was AU alumnus Mike Spann. Spann died while suppressing a prison rebellion in the Qala Jangi prison in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan. Auburn University's creed says it best, "I believe in my Country, because it is a land of freedom and because it is my own home, and that I can best serve that country by doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with my God". Mike Spann is a testimony to the American spirit that lives within the students, faculty, staff, and alumni of Auburn University.

Operation Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn

On September 11, 2001, terrorist associated with the Muslim extremist group Al Qaeda used hijacked airliners to attack the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. In the heated aftermath of these attacks, the U.S. began military operations against the shadowy terrorist organization. It first overthrew the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and then dispersed the large Al Qaeda network there. As combat operations lessened in Afghanistan, American planners turned their attention to Iraq. The combination of its aggressive dictator, its believed possession of weapons of mass destruction, and suspected links to terrorist organizations culminated in the political decision to invade Iraq in the spring of 2003.

Operation Iraqi Freedom started with the U.S. led invasion on March 20, 2003 and proceeded through four distinct phases before the withdrawal of U.S. forces in December 2011. The first phase consisted of a lightning ground and air effort designed to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein. This "Shock and Awe" campaign succeeded with Coalition forces occupying Baghdad by April 9, 2003. As the Coalition Provisional Authority attempted to rebuild the war-torn nation, a second phase started. A growing insurgency developed inside Iraq that eventually threatened both its internal stability and Coalition control. While the insurgency generally consisted of small actions, several large battles occurred in places like Fallujah and Tall Afar. By early 2007, the United States realized it needed a new strategy. In this third phase, General David Petraeus combined a troop surge with close cooperation with Iraqi militia units. While his plan did not end the insurgency, it lowered attacks to the point where America could hand over combat operations to the Iraqi military. This started the final phase called Operation New Dawn, where the United States turned over security responsibilities and began withdrawing its own troops. This final phase ended with the removal of the last U.S. soldiers in December 2011.

Auburn provided key leadership support to all phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Graduates of Auburn's Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force ROTC programs commanded ground units fighting the insurgents, captained naval detachments guarding the rivers, and patrolled the skies over Iraq. Their leadership and combat skills often meant the difference between life and death for the men and women under their command.