There is a legend in Tuscaloosa that says the only book saved from the University of Alabama library before it went up in flames in 1865 was a Muslim holy book.
That's the legend but first the back story.
The largest Federal cavalry force of the Civil War was sweeping south through Alabama from the Tennessee River burning and pillaging all things Confederate. Leading the force was Major General James H. Wilson. His mission: destroy the Confederate arsenal at Selma in central Alabama.
At Elyton, modern Birmingham, Wilson dispatched Brigadier General John T. Croxton to ride 50 miles west to Tuscaloosa and burn anything used for the Confederate cause. The order to burn included the University of Alabama, a military college at the time and home to the state's finest library.
Tuscaloosa had escaped the destruction wrecked on other Southern towns during the Civil War.
But in the early morning hours of April 4, 1865, just days before the Confederate surrender in Virginia, war came to Tuscaloosa with a vengeance.
One thousand five hundred battle-hardened Yankees crossed a bridge over the Black Warrior River at Tuscaloosa. The invaders were challenged by Confederate homeguards and UA cadets- old men and boys. A minor skirmish ensued and the outnumbered defenders made a hasty retreat.
After daylight the Yankees began torching factories and mills along the town's riverfront. Croxton dispatched Colonel Thomas M. Johnston of the 2nd Michigan Cavalry to the University of Alabama with orders to burn it to the ground.
As Johnston and his troops approached the Rotunda at the center of the campus they were met by a few UA faculty members including the French librarian Andre Deloffre. Deloffre asked that the Rotunda, which housed the university's library, be spared. It, after all, had no military value he said.
Johnston sent a message back to Croxton asking if the rotunda and the library could be spared. "My orders leave me no discretion," wrote Croxton in reply. "My orders are to destroy all public buildings."
What happened next has become legend in Tuscaloosa.
Before the building was put to flame either Deloffre or Johnston walked into the library and pulled one book from the shelves to keep as a souvenir. That book's title: The Koran: Commonly Called The Alcoran Of Mohammed. The book, published in Philadelphia in 1853, is an English translation of the Muslim holy book.
"The question is how accurate is that story," said Clark Center from his office in the University of Alabama's Hoole Library where the book is stored.
Center, who is the archivist and curator of Southern History and Life Collections at UA, has done significant research on the 1865 destruction of the university. His article The Burning of the University appeared in the spring 1990 issue carpet cleaning birmingham of Alabama Heritage Magazine.
Center thinks there is some credence to the story because of the stamps used in the pre-Civil War days to identify UA books.
"It hasan antebellum stamp in it. It's the only book to have been identified as one that was specifically removed from the library to save it from the fire," he said. "I suspect it was."
In his research, Center has come across many versions of different stories surrounding who exactly pulled the book during that fateful meetingat the Rotunda.
"There is no hard and fast story to cover it. We don't know if the officer went in and pulled a book or sent a soldier in to pull a book or if he asked Deloffre to pull a book. In the various versions I've seen no one is particularly clear on that. With the passage of time little details like that fall away. We just don't know."
Center does note one known detail that may point to who pulled the book from the shelf.
Center said that Dr. Wyman, a faculty member present in front of the Rotunda that day, later described Col. Johnston as a "man of culture and literary taste."
"So we've got a well-read colonel who may have walked in himself and picked it out," Center said.
To carpet cleaning birmingham understand why this particular book was chosen from the library that day, Center says we have to put ourselves in an 1865 frame of mind.
"Weather it's a soldier, weather it's a professor, you're going in and you're not spending a great deal of time looking around and you see a lot of very ordinary looking titles. Most of what you have been exposed to is a Baptist, a Presbyterian or a Methodist preacher; maybe a Catholic.
You've been exposed to American writings on ethics and moral philosophy. But (the Koran) is something that jumps out because it is something that you would not normally be exposed to.There were other books on ethics and morals and I suppose religion as well, but they were the American view. All I can think is that who ever picked it out was just taken with it because it was so different than everything else."
After the book was pulled the order to burn was given and the Rotunda and the library went up in flames. Other campus buildings including four dormitories were burned. Today the remnants of one of those dorms, Franklin Hall, now called The Mound, can still be seen on campus.
These days, when certain people want to burn holy books, it's comforting to think that in the midst of war a holy book was saved from the flames on an April day in 1865.
On that day it's not known if any of the men in front of the Rotunda opened the translation of the Koran to read it. But if they would have, they could have seen what is in store for those who wage war in the name of religion.
On page 48 of the translation, in the chapter known as Al-Imran, the Prophet Mohammed admonishes two once-warring Arab tribes. He reminds them of their fate if they abandon their peace: "And cleave all of you unto the covenant of God ... And be not as those who are divided, and disagree in matters of religion, after manifest proofs have been brought unto them: they shall suffer a great torment."
If you enjoyed this article please clicksubscribe above tobe notified when other Tuscaloosa History Examiner articles are published.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.