James T. Murfee, Leader in a Time of War
One of the most intriguing residents in the history of 815 17th Avenue was James T. Murfee. Murfee married Laura Owen, the grand-daughter of the home’s builder, in 1861. They exchanged vows in the front parlor, which is now the west room of Apartment #1. The couple lived in the house during the turbulent years of the Civil War.
James T. Murfee was born in 1833 in Southampton County, Virginia. He attended the Virginia Military Institute and graduated in 1853 as the First Captain of the student body. He was valedictorian of his class and his record was unblemished. He graduated without a single demerit.
Entering the teaching profession, Murfee taught in Pennsylvania and Virginia before joining the faculty of the University of Alabama as a mathematics professor. He married the daughter of a local Tuscaloosa family, Laura Owen, and moved into her family plantation home. That home is now known as the Foster-Murfee-Caples House, located at 815 17th Avenue. With the outbreak of the Civil war in 1861, the University was militarized and the all-male student body became the Alabama Corps of Cadets. Murfee was originally second in command, but rose to become commandant of the student cadets when his predecessor joined the Confederate Army. Murfee himself rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the 41st Alabama Infantry.
As Commandant, Murfee commanded the Alabama Corps of Cadets when Croxton’s Raiders reached the University of Alabama on April 4, 1865. Alarmed that Union cavalry were in Tuscaloosa, Murfee rallied the cadets on the front lawn of his home (now 815 17th Avenue). They deployed to defend the bridge at River Hill over the Black Warrior River. In a brief encounter with Union skirmishers near the bridge, two cadets and a tactical officer were wounded. Learning that their cannon had already been captured and that the young cadets were outnumbered by a heavily armed opponent with artillery, the decision was made to retreat. Col Murfee felt that it would be a useless waste of life to attack with his poorly-armed, teenage force. While the enemy destroyed the University, the Alabama Corps of Cadets was led by Col. Murfee along the Huntsville Road to Hurricane Creek some eight-miles away from the University. There they barricaded the bridge and dug in along the opposite bank, prepared to make a stand should the Union Raiders follow them. The attack never came, Croxton instead exploded the University’s ammunition supplies and set the campus ablaze. After witnessing the destruction from afar, Col Murfee marched his cadets east, then south to Marion, Alabama, where they were disbanded with orders to re-form in one month’s time. The war ended in the interval.
After the war, James T. Murfee worked as an architect in Tuscaloosa and was hired to help rebuild the University of Alabama. The first major structure built after the war, Woods Hall, was designed by Murfee and patterned after the barracks of his alma mater, Virginia Military Institute. The Alabama Corps of Cadets as reformed and continued as a mainstay of the student body during the Reconstruction and beyond.
Reconstruction-era politics eventually made it impossible for Murfee to remain in Tuscaloosa. He moved his family to Marion, Alabama, and became President of Howard College in 1871. When Howard College was moved to Birmingham in 1887 to become Samford University, James T. Murfee was the only faculty member who declined to move. He remained in Marion, acquired the old Howard campus, and formed Marion Military Institute. In a letter written in August of 1887, Murfee promised to educate the young men who attended Marion Military Institute in the same way he trained his corps of cadets during the war. As he states, “I shall aim to train other young men as you were trained and to make them like you in character, popularity and usefulness. The memory of your good deeds shall be preserved, and your worthy example held up as models to your successors.”
James T. Murfee served his students well and became a beloved citizen of Marion. He passed away in 1912.