LOVEJOY — For a group of college age men stationed with the Confederate Army in Lovejoy in September 1864, the fraternity they joined before the war was not just a place to drink alcohol and haze members.
That fraternity, known as Sigma Chi, was about brotherhood and it was for that reason that they sneaked out of their camp to form an unofficial chapter of the fraternity in a barn in southern Clayton County. They named their wartime chapter the “Constantine Chapter” in honor of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who was a source of inspiration for the fraternity.
In the process, they put themselves in danger because they were precariously close to enemy lines and Union troops could have caught them at any time, according to fraternity officials.
Sigma Chi Grand Consul Mike Greenberg said that courage and commitment to the fraternity, however, is what has made those young soldiers into role models for the young men who followed in their footsteps over the next 150 years.
“They did this to share their love of this fraternity,” said Greenberg. “This wasn’t about getting drunk and hazing people. This was all about brotherhood and unity.”
More than 100 Sigma Chi actives and alumni gathered at the Constantine Chapter Memorial in Lovejoy last weekend to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the chapter’s founding. In the process of honoring the short-lived branch, they went ahead and finally made it an official chapter by unveiling the charter that was recently approved by the organization’s international leaders.
For attendees, it was fitting that the charter be presented in the approximate location of where the chapter was formed.
“There’s a lot of history here — a lot of Sigma Chi history here,” said Constantine Chapter Memorial Warden Rob Petry.
The Constantine Chapter holds a special place in Sigma Chi history. Led by Harry St. John Dixon, a member of the fraternity’s chapter at the University of Virginia, the men in the chapter came from colleges whose enrollments had been decimated by the outbreak of the Civil War, said Greenberg.
During the ceremony held at the memorial Saturday, former Grand Historian Eric Hansen portrayed Dixon in a recounting of the establishment of the chapter.
“[Sigma Chi’s] strength is its union and purpose,” said Hansen in character as Dixon.
As Hansen portrayed Dixon in a Confederate uniform, a Confederate flag came untethered from the Constantine’s cross that is used as the fraternity’s symbol and began flapping in the breeze.
The U.S. flag that was also tethered to the cross did not come loose, however.
When the war broke out, Sigma Chi was about 6 years old and about half of its approximately seven chapters were located in Confederate states. When the war began, enrollments at many of those colleges virtually ceased to exist as male students left their studies to join the Confederate Army, said Greenberg and Leon McElveen, a Sigma Chi from Smyrna.
With that in mind, Dixon began keeping track of fraternity brothers he met in the Army and eventually got them together. The goal, according to his diaries and fraternity lore, was to preserve the ties between Sigma Chis in the south and their northern brothers.
“If you think about it, these chapters in the south pretty much ceased to exist when the war broke out,” said Greenberg. “If these men hadn’t gotten together to preserve the fraternity in the Confederate states, we would have lost a significant amount of our history.”
The chapter continued to meet whenever it could while the Confederate Army moved west. Its final meeting was in early 1865 in Alabama.
Even though 150 years have passed since the chapter existed, it continues to be an inspiration for Sigma Chis who are left in awe by its dedication to the fraternity.
“It’s just incredible that they were able to get together and not only form this chapter but keep it going in the middle of a war,” said Danny Tressler, president of Sigma Chi’s Lambda Phi chapter at the University of West Georgia. “It’s hard enough to be in a fraternity in the college setting, so it must have been really difficult when you consider that they had to fight a war at the same time.”