Earlier this year, the Special Collections Department received J. Stoddard Johnston’s 1853 Class Book from Yale College as a transfer from The Filson’s Library. The Class Book provides an interesting glimpse into Johnston’s life and surroundings at Yale. Colonel Josiah Stoddard Johnston (1833-1913) served as a staff officer in the Civil War, and was the editor of the Frankfort Kentucky Yeoman. He later became active in Kentucky politics as a member of the state Democratic Party, eventually becoming Kentucky’s Secretary of State. Johnston moved to Louisville in 1889, taking on roles such as associate editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, vice-president of the Filson Club, and author of several books, including The Memorial History of Louisville (1896) and The Confederate History of Kentucky (1898).
Lest the reader picture his or her high school yearbook when envisioning this historical item, a class book is typically a souvenir book of a graduating class, containing photographs, biographical and statistical information on members of the class. At Yale in the mid-nineteenth century, these books were also known as class albums or autograph albums.
The Yale Class Book for 1853 includes lithographic images of Yale’s campus buildings, faculty and administrators, and members (as well as non-graduates) of the class of 1853, along with selected members of the classes of 1852 and 1854. Some of the faculty and the majority of Johnston’s classmates left an autograph on the page bearing their image and a handwritten note on the adjacent page. The notes were often vague sentiments regarding college days or well-wishes for the future (although I didn't see “don’t ever change!!!”), but occasionally notes were personal messages from true friends.
Classmate Henry R. Bradley wrote: “Dear ‘Stodd,’ I hardly know how to write an autograph for you; for I cannot reconcile myself with the idea that we, who have roomed so near each other, and have been so intimate, ay, rather brotherly, are so soon to separate, never, perhaps to meet again.”
Another classmate, Randal Lee Gibson, began his autograph with a quote from the English poet and playwright James Thomson (which is better recognized from Washington Irving’s use of it in The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent).
“In the service of mankind to be a guardian God below; still to employ the mind’s brave ardor in heroic aims such as may lift us o’er the groveling herd and make us shine forever – that is life.”
Dear Stod, May the blessings of Heaven rest upon you and may you honorably fullful (sic) the chief end of man’s existence by leading to the altar in due time the fairest of Eve’s daughters. Hoping that we may meet often hereafter and that our friendship may exist always without a cloud. I beg to remain, Ever your sincere friend, Randal Lee Gibson, La.”
Johnston was a member of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, founded at Yale in 1844 as a “more fraternal” junior class society, whose members would combine “in equal proportions the gentleman, the scholar, and the jolly good fellow”. Many of his fellow DKE members wrote their enclosed notes to Johnston on DKE stationary. [Future DKEs included Theodore Roosevelt, Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush.]
Other members of Johnston’s class were pictured in their lithographs wearing pins signifying fraternal organizations or secret societies. Stodd’s cousin, William Preston Johnston, was pictured with his pin from the mystery-shrouded Skull and Bones Society.
Johnston penciled in biographical notes on the pages for some of his classmates, and several became fairly well-known – Randall Lee Gibson, quoted above, became a Brigadier General in the Confederate States Army, and a U.S. Senator and a member of the House of Representatives from Louisiana; George Shiras became a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States; George Washburn Smalley, a journalist, was a well-known war correspondent for the New York Tribune during Civil War and a foreign correspondent in later years for New York Tribune and New York Times; Andrew Dickson White became a professor at the University of Michigan, president of Cornell University, United States Minister to Germany and Russia, United States Ambassador to Germany and the president of the American Historical Association.
Johnston’s cousin, William Preston Johnston (actually a member of the Class of 1852), was Lieutenant Colonel of the First Kentucky Infantry and aide-de-camp to Confederate President Jefferson Davis; he became a professor of History and English Literature at Washington and Lee University and was eventually chosen as president of Louisiana State University and Tulane University. No offense to any of my former classmates, but to date I can’t rattle off a list quite this impressive.
You can learn more about the “Famous Class of 1853” (and compare it to your own class lists) by perusing a listing of Johnston’s classmates, attached here – and you can also learn more about Stodd’s time at Yale, including a description of his suspension and re-admittance, by visiting The Filson to inspect his college diaries, part of the J. Stoddard Johnston Papers.