It had been raining for days, and with the bad weather came bad news. On the night of March 2, 1865, University of Virginia law professor John B. Minor noted in his diary the news that Confederate forces had been “totally routed” at Waynesboro. Nobody knew how quickly the enemy cavalrymen might travel, only that they seemed to be headed toward Charlottesville.

The summer before, Union forces had burned the barracks at Virginia Military Institute, and in retaliation Confederates had set fire to parts of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Would the Rotunda be next? Minor didn’t think so, but the fact that everyone else did made him anxious.

The faculty had met the day before, and although Minor was too sick to attend, the professors had placed him on a committee to ask Union troopers to spare the University.

Custer, top, and Sheridan, center, ordered Union troops not to destroy UVA after meeting with law professor John B. Minor, bottom, somewhere near the bottom of Carr’s Hill when they first rode into Charlottesville. They also posted guards on Grounds. What Minor said to convince them has been lost to history.

In the meantime, all they could do was wait. “Nothing intervenes now between us and the Yankees, but the mud,” Minor wrote.

Maj. Gen. George A. Custer’s Union cavalry arrived the next day. Minor and a group of University and Charlottesville officials met them holding a white flag of truce. While it’s not clear exactly what was said, the encounter appears to have spared the University of Virginia from destruction by Union soldiers. Not only did Custer and his superior, Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, order that the school not be burned, they posted guards to protect it.

This spring marks the 150th anniversary of that fateful moment in the University’s history. While even today many facts of Charlottesville’s three-day occupation remain elusive—historians don’t agree on where Minor met the troops, for example—the import is clear.

“The University was spared destruction,” says UVA’s history officer emeritus, Alexander G. “Sandy” Gilliam Jr. (Col ’55). UVA was a national treasure even by the 1860s, with one Union cavalryman bragging that he was sojourning in the “home of Jefferson.”

“And it maintained its position in the South for many years after the war,” Gilliam says, providing an important foundation on which Virginia and the South could rebuild.

Even so, for University officials and town residents the presence of Union troops was “traumatizing,” according to Ervin L. Jordan Jr., an associate professor and research archivist at UVA’s Special Collections Library who is the author of several books about the African-American experience during the Civil War. The occupation, he says, “seems to have fatally weakened if not destroyed slavery in the area” by allowing slaves the opportunity to escape to freedom.

R.T.W. Duke Jr., later the Albemarle County commonwealth’s attorney, was 11 at the time. On the morning of March 3, he was playing with his slave Caesar and recalled: “A long blue line of horsemen filled [the road] as far as we could see & the band which was playing loudly was just about at the foot of Carr’s Hill. I shall never forget the horror & rage and indignation with which I looked upon these dreadful invaders.”

“They came shouting & galloping through town, waving their banners aloft,” Sarah Strickler, a 19-year-old student at the Albemarle Female Institute in Charlottesville, wrote in her diary.

Minor, chemistry professor Socrates Maupin, Rector Thomas L. Preston, Mayor Christopher L. Fowler and a few others, stationed themselves at or near the foot of Carr’s Hill. Their goal was simple: to talk Union troops out of burning the University and town. The violence in Chambersburg and at VMI lent their concerns urgency. And in just four weeks, Union troops would burn the University of Alabama, a campus modeled after Jefferson’s design of UVA.

Virginia Military Institute’s Barracks, after Union forces burned it in 1864. Courtesy of Virginia Military Institute Archives

Why should UVA expect anything different? Minor didn’t say, but he likely understood that, unlike at Alabama, officials at UVA had gone to great lengths to steer the University clear of the war. “They did not want anything going on at the University that could be construed as military,” Gilliam says, “because there were too many instances of schools being burned.” Except in emergencies, the military hospital had stayed off Grounds and administrators exempted their students from the fighting. And contrary to modern-day rumors, gunpowder was never stored in the Rotunda.

The meeting among University faculty, Charlottesville officials and Custer’s men—including someone Minor described as “a dirty-looking lieutenant”—occurred between one and two o’clock in the afternoon. No one recorded exactly what was said, but Custer’s staff assured the Virginians that the University would be protected.

According to Minor, immediately after the deal had been struck, “Gen Custer passed in triumph, with 3 of our battle flags displayed.”

The earliest known photograph of the Rotunda, from 1868, three years after Union troops passed through Charlottesville. Courtesy of UVA Special Collections Library

But Union troops didn’t spare every part of town. Charlottesville Manufacturing Co., which produced Confederate uniforms, was burned on Sheridan’s orders. According to Sarah Strickler, “The conflagration was magnificent, sublime, it illuminated the whole canopy of heaven, with a lurid glare.”

Most Union soldiers camped around Carr’s Hill and nearer to town. Out of rations, they swept across the countryside in search of food and drink. According to Duke, a group of foragers broke into his family’s estate, Sunnyside, which is now the site of the University’s law and business schools.

Rector Preston’s home was also sacked. (The house, Wyndhurst, is believed to be the one that still stands behind the Preston Court Apartments, on Preston Place.) On the morning of March 4, a young girl, presumably a slave, sent Minor a note to that effect, which mentioned that “several of [Preston’s] servant boys have gone off and betrayed all his horses to the enemy.”

“Poor misguided creatures!” Minor wrote in his diary of enslaved African Americans using the Union occupation to make their escape. “Amongst them my boy Henry, hired in Staunton. I lament it more on his account than my own.”

In various memoirs and regimental histories, Union soldiers later recalled the area’s African Americans flocking to their camps, singing their praises and even offering fresh-cooked biscuits. A New Yorker wrote that his men shared some of their foraged food with “a large body of colored people who were following the column.” They expressed “surprise and gratification,” he wrote, telling the soldiers “they hadn’t had such a feast in ‘yeahs.’”

Sheridan’s men left town on the morning of March 6. The University had lost a six-pound cannon, destroyed on Observatory Hill; two horses and all their food; and one slave who worked at UVA. “Thus we escape the dangers which threatened, and upon the whole have lost very little,” Minor recalled.

In fact, one might be tempted to see the Union occupation as something of a nonevent. It was what didn’t happen that makes it so important 150 years later. That is the view of Gary Gallagher, the John L. Nau III Professor in History of the American Civil War at UVA. “Had Federals burned much or all of the University, it would have been rebuilt, as was the University of Alabama,” Gallagher says, “and the institution would have played essentially the same role going forward. The greatest outcome was the survival of an architecturally notable campus.”

Jordan offers a different take. “After all,” he says, “the occupation occurred a month before the surrender of [Robert E.] Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. And the increasing occupation of Confederate towns, cities and counties demoralized Southern civilians no matter how brief or long the occupation. This embarrassed the Confederates, reminding them of their tenuous grip on Richmond and the Confederate cause.”

Not to mention their tenuous grip on the institution of slavery. Wherever Union troops went, large numbers of African Americans escaped to freedom. Scholars have called this phenomenon “self-emancipation,” while Gallagher, for one, has emphasized the importance of the Union army in making such escapes even possible.

Still, the UVA faculty minutes dated March 6—the day Sheridan left town—read like a huge sigh of relief: “In general the Faculty and others connected with the University have reason to congratulate themselves that the institution and its inmates fared better than could have been anticipated during the presence of the enemy in our midst.”