The Kappa Sigma saga, part one: Genesis and the early Days

Mitch Shakespeare
Opinions editor

The legend of Kappa Sigma is something that has fascinated countless generations of Sewanee students across the years, yet few actually know the full story of this rowdy group of fraternity men. 

From military convoys, secret tunnels, and pledges hoisted up on crosses,  these stories have taken on near mythical status. The fact is, for every pound of Sewanee legend comes with it an ounce of truth. In this two-part series, I will examine the birth and early history of Kappa Sig here at Sewanee, as well as their transition into the twentieth century and, of course, their mysterious demise and the many stories surrounding it. 

The existence of Kappa Sigma on the Mountain first began in March of 1882. Two Kappa Sigs, Arthur W. Chichester of Virginia, a recent initiate of Zeta Chapter (University of Virginia), and S. A. Jackson, also a Virginian, came to Sewanee with the hope of starting a chapter here. Arriving at Sewanee, they found a willing candidate to help them by the name of William H. Inglesby, a South Carolinian, whom they initiated before setting out to gain recognition from the University. This, however, would be a much harder task than any of these men anticipated. 

The trio first appealed to the Board of Trustees in order to gain recognition and begin operations. On July 31, 1882, they would receive a reply from the Trustees that probably felt like a punch to the gut. “Resolved that it is the sense of this commision that not more than two (the present number) ATO and SAE secret fraternities be allowed to exist in this university (University of the South Archives, KS Vertical Files).” Yes, the Kappa Sigs had been turned away because the University felt that two fraternities were enough on campus. Was this the only reason their recognition had been denied, however? 

The most likely answer is no. The University had always looked upon fraternities suspiciously, and it had been difficult enough for Alpha Tau Omega to cement itself as the first fraternity on campus in 1877, and similarly with Sigma Alpha Epsilon in 1881. In the case of Kappa Sigma, however, suspicion was not the only thing holding the Trustees back from granting them recognition. At this point in time, in 1882, both ATO and SAE had become increasingly powerful within University politics. Why? Well, it comes down to the fact that several members of the faculty had been initiated into these organizations. Two examples of this are Charles Todd Quintard, the first Vice-Chancellor of the University, and Edmund Kirby-Smith, the Confederate General who later became a math professor at Sewanee, the first being initiated into ATO and the latter being initiated into SAE. 

It should be no surprise, then, that this influence carried over into the decision to not recognize Kappa Sigma. The real decision would really be split three ways. The ATOs would end up protesting the recognition of Kappa Sig, the SAEs wanted to grant them recognition, and the majority of faculty ended up feeling indifferently. One way or another, ATO got their wish and the Kappa Sigs were turned away. 

Chichester, Jackson, and Inglesby, unperturbed by the decision of the Board, began actively recruiting new members and calling in favors. One man who responded to Chichester’s calls for assistance was none other than Jefferson Davis, the ex-President of the Confederate States of America and the first and only honorary member of Kappa Sigma. While the dream of the Confederacy had been dead for just under twenty years, Davis still had some influence on the Mountain, as many of the faculty, including Quintard and Kirby-Smith, had fought under its banner. Davis wrote Kirby-Smith a letter in which he politely requested that the Kappa Sigs be granted recognition from the University. The answer from the University, however, would still be no. 

It would take no more than a brazen act of educational disobedience to finally sway the University in favor of the Kappa Sigs. Fed up with the University and their unwillingness to negotiate, the group would take matters into their own hands. Chichester would tell the story of their act of defiance in a 1906 letter to the editor of the Caduceus. He wrote, “We decided that we would announce ourselves to the faculty, being twenty-one strong, and decided to take expulsion if they insisted; but we had no fear, because in those days Sewanee was truly on the bum and could not afford to do without a penny of the money the parents of each student paid. So we made bold and walked out with badges on. Many things were hinted at but nothing done (University of the South Archives, KS Vertical Files).” The University finally relented, either out of sheer annoyance of this group’s audacity or, as Chichester suggests, because they couldn’t really afford to have twenty one of their students be expelled or leave.
In November of 1882, the University would officially recognize Kappa Sigma as the third fraternity on campus. 

The recognition of Kappa Sigma eventually paved the way for more fraternities to begin establishing themselves on campus. In 1883, Phi Delta Theta (now Phi Society of 1883) and Delta Tau Delta would make their way onto campus, increasing the number of fraternities to five. The Phi Delts and the Kappa Sigs had an interesting love-hate relationship during this time. For starters, the same month the Kappa Sigs had been granted recognition by the University, the Phi Delts were in their own process of approval. John H. P. Hodgeson, one of the original founders of Phi Delt, recalled an event that unfolded in November 1882. “Kappa Sigma held its first meeting across the hall, in Polk Hall afterwards called Palmetto Hll, in the rear room across from where the Phis held their first initiation. We Phis proposed that the Kappa Sigs join us, and they might have considered doing so but for a man named Inglesby, who had been a Kappa Sig for some time (University of the South Archives, KS Vertical Files).” Perhaps there’s a little exaggeration here as to the Kappa Sigs willingness to join the Phis, but regardless the Kappa Sigs held their own and continued onwards. 

This failed merger attempt probably made relations between the two fledgling fraternities quite competitive, yet at the same time cooperative and even friendly at times. Hodgeson described this relationship in 1882, “About this time something occurred that made life very exciting for the Kappa Sigs and the Phis. A deadly feud existed and both chapters went heavily armed and in squads, and often were in danger of collision. This did not last long and at the end of the term we were all good friends again, so much so that the Kappa Sigs moved their house in the rear part of the Phi yard, paying half the ground rent (University of the South Archives, KS Vertical Files).” 

For the next few years, the Kappa Sigs enjoyed a period of relative peace. This peace, however, was short lived. At some point between 1888 and 1889, a group of students broke into the Kappa Sigma house and stole paperwork that included their initiation ritual along with other secrets. These students would then use these secrets to create their own fraternity, Tau Delta Sigma, granting themselves the Alpha chapter designation and gaining recognition from the University. Other fraternities, including Kappa Sig, were not happy. 

The Delts at Sewanee would comment on the situation in their fraternity newsletter, “The Rainbow,” in December of 1888. “Tau Delta Sigma made her debut, and although frowned at considerably, seems determined to enter that hopeless race which is already being narrowed down to ‘the survival of the fittest.’ It is in disfavor just now, on account of the seeming partiality of the faculty for it.” The next year, the ATOs on campus would comment in their own newsletter, “The chapter of a would-be fraternity, Tau Delta Sigma, has been formed at the University of the South, and is said to have established several chapters.” Indeed, the Tau Delts had established several other chapters across Tennessee and Texas during this time, but their organization eventually fell apart and disappeared altogether almost as quickly as they had appeared. The last mention of their existence appeared in the 1890 Phi Delta Theta Scroll newsletter, with the Sewanee Phi Delts commenting, “Last term a pseudo fraternity which had its origin here, the Tau Delta Sigma, died out.” 

The last bit of 19th-century drama for the Kappa Sigma occurred in 1899, with the Kappa Sigs nearly dissolving entirely. Otis Johnson, one of the Kappa Sigs at the time, described the story in a 1960s letter to his nephew. “Omega [chapter] almost lost its charter at the beginning of the term after I arrived there, as only three old members showed up, and four were required as a minimum. I was one of the three, and when the other two wanted to give up the charter I persuaded them to wait and see what happened  in the way of new members. Then an assistant professor showed up, who was already a Kappa Sig, and saved the day (University of the South Archives, KS Vertical Files).”

And with this last story, the Kappa Sigs moved into the twentieth century, having survived numerous issues within their short time here at Sewanee. As we will see in the next part, a lot of these issues would come to repeat themselves, and perhaps were responsible for their early end in the 70’s.

3 comments

  1. Very interesting, Mitch! I gather that the Board of Trustees and/or the faculty had the right to approve or deny a fraternity’s charter in those days? That has not been the case in the time I’ve been here.

  2. Prof. Michael,

    Yes, it seems that was the case back in the late 19th century. I don’t know exactly when or how that changed, but it’s something I’m interested to look into in the future. Thank you for the comment!

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