Early on the morning of August 22, 1864 Union General Andrew Jackson Smith, also known as “Whiskey Smith” rode his army into the little town of Oxford, MS.
His anger at the southern people was boiling over and Oxford is where he was going to make them pay for their insolence. His troops started out the day by tearing up the rails and burning the railroad depot before they systematically started looting the whole town. Stores and homes were ransacked and any resistance was met with a bullet or fire and it wasn’t long until the General ordered the burning of the stately courthouse, and then the burning of every building on the town square.
Flames and fire lit the sky as the townspeople sadly gathered to watch the destruction from a safe distance a few blocks south of the inferno as the Yankees hauled everything of value away. Late in the day, the army prepared to leave and the soldiers turned their overloaded wagons down what is now University Avenue in the general direction of Pontotoc.
A crowd of older men stood on the porch of a small house on South Lamar and watched in silence until they heard running steps racing toward them and a young boy shouted up to them that the soldiers were going to burn the University before they left. The men spoke quietly to each in their pain. There was nothing they could do.
One of the older men listened for a minute and with grim determination in his eyes, turned and hurried the few blocks to his home, called for his horse to be saddled, changed clothes and briskly rode toward the University that was now serving as a hospital.
He had changed into his blue officer pants from his time in the United States Army and put on his prized red British officers coat that he had captured in the War of 1812 and soon was riding toward the University.
Colonel Jackson Augustus Steele was a dashing figure in his fine attire, string tie, and gray cavalry hat as he rode toward the bridge above Hilgard Cut at the entrance to the University. He was an imposing figure too as observers noted the many pistols draped around him and the long rifle he carried. The Colonel was retired and too old at the time to serve in the Army but was a renowned war hero that had served and fought with General Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, had served his country as an Indian fighter in the West, had stood with the Rebels in Texas against Santa Anna until he was wounded and missed the Battle of the Alamo in 1836 and had served as a Colonel in the War With Mexico in 1846. Now at the age of 65 he was still known as a dangerous man to be reckoned with.
A detachment of horse soldiers carrying torches soon appeared trotting their horses down the street toward the Lyceum and were surprised to see a lone horseman sitting tall and waiting quietly in the middle of the wooden bridge above the railroad cut.
The soldiers approaching took in his flinty blue eyes and relaxed commanding air as he calmly waited barring the bridge and they could also see the swelling mass of people starting to gather behind him. The townspeople of all ages had started to appear in the street leading to the Lyceum. Old, Young, Black, White, Women and Men quietly gathered carrying pitchforks, wooden staves, and bare fists in a last effort to defend the beloved buildings from being burned. The soldiers pulled up as the Lieutenant in charge rode up through the ranks of men to confront the old warrior.
No one knows exactly what was said as the two men quietly talked. Most people believe that he reminded the Lieutenant that the war was all but over and to burn a great University and hospital would be something that would haunt him the rest of his life, that he had led men in battle and sometimes to do the right thing you could not blindly follow orders and he most assuredly told the Lieutenant that he or his men would never cross the bridge alive if they continued with the insanity that they were contemplating.
Darkness was falling as the Lieutenant retired to talk with his men, but more and more of the Oxford people were moving into the street as word spread to hurry there to save the University. After a few minutes, the Lieutenant returned to face the Colonel, saluted, turned his men and they rode back the way they had come.
Years later, a drawing was made of him and attached to a football program to show the valor of the team. The tradition became part of our football history but the name of this hero was lost. He was simply known in Oxford as Colonel Jack.