MU and the "Tigers" Moniker

[Ed.: Bumped to the Front Page. MAJOR thanks to Keith for sharing.]

The University of Missouri’s explanation is concise:

"The nickname ‘Tigers’ given to Mizzou's athletic teams, traces its origin to the Civil War period. Small towns, defending themselves against attacks by plundering guerilla bands, formed ‘home guards’ to provide protection. Columbia's home guard was called ‘The Missouri Tigers.’  Soon after Missouri's first football team was organized in 1890, the athletic committee adopted the nickname "’Tiger’ in official recognition of those Civil War defenders."[i]

The story of the connection between MU and the Tigers moniker is richer that can be portrayed in any three-sentence summary, and deserves to be told and remembered.

[i] University of Missouri, History and Traditions.  Accessed January 30, 2010.

The MU Tigers story does indeed go back to the Civil War.  Missouri was a Border State with divided loyalties, and when warfare erupted after Fort Sumter, Missouri was quickly engulfed in armed conflict.   While Missouri was a slave state, Missourians had overwhelmingly rejected secession in a state convention called after Lincoln’s inauguration.  Following the installation of a Unionist state government in 1861 and the Confederate defeat at the battle of Pea Ridge in early 1862, Missouri had at least nominally been secured for the Union.    However, Union forces did not control the Missouri countryside, and were not able to defeat the pro-Confederate Missourians mounting a guerilla-style resistance.  The fighting in Missouri devolved into a vicious, no-holds-barred conflict in which the line between opposing military forces and the civilian population was all but erased.  The divided loyalties in the State (and the ultimate ascendancy of the Union cause in Missouri) is illustrated by the number of Missouri men that enlisted in the opposing armies over the course of the war:  30,000 with Confederate forces , 109,000 with the Union.[1]   By the end of the war, Missouri had experienced more battles within its borders than any other state, except Virginia and Tennessee.    

In the war’s fourth and final year, former Missouri governor and Confederate general Sterling Price led a 10,000 man army into Missouri in a last-ditch effort to bring the southern half of the state under Confederate control.[2]   As Price’s army approached the state capitol at Jefferson City In early October of 1864, Union forces posted throughout the region were called to its defense.   The Union command issued the following order to its forces in Columbia, home to the University of Missouri.  "The troops at Columbia must come to Jefferson City forthwith. The citizens must organize and defend their court house against guerrillas until the present emergency is over. Suspend all business and organize every man for service..." [3] A force of approximately 120 Columbia citizens was formed, and the militia company adopted the name of the Columbia Tigers.[4]  The company constructed a blockhouse in the intersection of Broadway and Eighth Street, excavated a moat around the court house, and posted a sentinel with a spy glass in the building’s cupola to watch for Confederate troop movements. 

The Columbia Tiger Company was formed and led by a Columbia resident, Major James Sidney Rollins.  Rollins’ title of Major was honorary, reflecting his service in the Black Hawk War in the early 1830’s.  His official position at the time was Missouri Congressman in the United States House of Representatives, where he was a strong supporter of the Union war effort.  Just a week before forming Columbia’s militia company, while travelling through Centralia (located approximately 25 miles from Columbia) , Rollins had narrowly averted capture and probable execution by a guerilla force under the command of "Bloody Bill" Anderson, who would have viewed Rollins a traitor and fair game for the summary justice he routinely dispensed. 

Anderson’s band was one of a number that were operating north of the Missouri River under orders from Confederate General  Price, who wanted the guerillas to draw Union forces away from his main body of troops.  Anderson’s guerillas (numbering about 80) rode into Centralia on the morning of September 27 and began robbing Union sympathizers.  Rollins was able to hide his true identity from the guerillas when they seized the stage Rollins was travelling in.  Later that morning, Anderson’s men captured a North Missouri Railroad train rolling into Centralia, ordered twenty three Union soldiers off the train, and executed them.[5]   Shortly after Anderson vacated Centralia, Union Major A.E.V Johnson arrived with three companies of soldiers, and decided to pursue the guerilla band.  What he found was a combined force of approximately 400, comprised of the guerilla bands of Anderson, George Todd, John Thrailkill, and others.[6]   After Johnson’s command of 147 dismounted to fight, the guerillas staged one of their famous horseback charges.  Out-manned and out-gunned, Johnson’s force was nearly obliterated.  All but 23 of Johnson’s command were killed.

These incidents at Centralia illustrate the dangers that were posed by guerilla bands to communities such as Columbia, and the hazardous duty performed by Rollins and his militia.   A local history states the militia prevented bushwhacker raids into Columbia on three different occasions, and that "Great credit is due to the Columbia Tiger Company."[7]   However, Rollins’ command of the Columbia Tigers was by no means his only or most noteworthy accomplishment. 

Rollins started his career as a practicing attorney.  Twice he defied lynch mobs that targeted his black clients, cutting the noose from around their necks and securing their safety for subsequent trial.[8] 
Rollins was a prominent member of the Whig party in Missouri.  Although born into a slaveholding family and himself a slaveholder, Rollins opposed the expansion of slavery into the Kansas and Nebraska territories.[9]  Serving as the Whig’s candidate in the 1857 gubernatorial election, Rollins lost by a mere 334 votes.[10]

Rollins was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1860 and again in 1862.  Rollins was a "staunch Unionist" that "gave hearty and efficient support to every measure for the suppression of the rebellion".[11]  Under the provisions of legislation introduced to Congress by Rollins, the Union Pacific, Kansas Pacific, and Central Pacific railroads were eventually constructed.  Perhaps his most memorable Congressional contribution was in regards to the Thirteenth Amendment (abolition of slavery).  When the amendment bogged down in the House, President Lincoln personally sought out Rollins to change his vote and help secure passage of the amendment.   After Rollins delivered an eloquent speech to the House in favor of the amendment, it narrowly passed with the necessary two-thirds majority.[12]  

In a long and successful career as a public servant, Rollins played a prominent role in many of the most important issues of the era.  However, there is little doubt that Rollins’ biggest labors were in support of the University of Missouri.  His advocacy for the University began in 1839, when, as a young state legislator from Boone County, Rollins initiated efforts to make Columbia the University’s home.  Over the next 47 years, Rollins was either the author or principal advocate of every measure for the advancement and expansion of the University that was considered by the state legislature.[13]  He was a member of the University's Board of Curators for 18 years, and served as President of the Board for 16 of those years.  In 1872, MU’s Board of Curators unanimously adopted a resolution thanking Rollins for his "great efforts to promote the posterity, usefulness, and success" of the University, and bestowed upon Rollins the title of "Pater Universitatis Missouriensis."[14]

The University of Missouri played its first varsity football game only a few years after Rollins’ death in 1888.  When the University chose Tigers for the team nickname in 1890, they were not only recognizing the fighting spirit of the militia group that had protected Columbia during the Civil War, there is little doubt they were honoring in particular the leader of those original Tigers, James Sidney Rollins, "Father of the University of Missouri". 

And that, my fellow MU fans, "…is the rest of the story."  

Keith Piontek
February 2010

Author’s Note: Special thanks to Kirby Ross, the Civil War historian who first brought details linking the Tigers and Rollins to my attention.


[1] Missouri State Archives.  Soldiers' Records: Abstract of Wars & Military Engagements, War of 1812 through World War I.  Missouri Digital Heritage:

[2] Encyclopedia of the History of Missouri Vol. 2; by Conard, Howard L.  The Southern History Company; New York, Louisville, St. Louis; 1901.  Pages 84-86.

[3] Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 41, Part 3, p. 61. 

[4] Kirby Ross. Price's Raid, Columbia Tigers, and MU Mascot.  Missouri in the Civil War Message Board.  December 2, 2006

[5] Castel, Albert and Goodrich, Tom.  Bloody Bill Anderson, The Short, Savage Life of a Civil War Guerilla.  University Press of Kansas, 1998.  Pages 60-86.

[6] Monoghan, Jay.  Civil War on the Western Border, 1854-1865.  University of Nebraska Press, 1955.  Pages 316 – 319.

[7] Some Incidents of the Civil War in Columbia and Boone County by Judge North Todd Gentry--a typewritten manuscript for a lecture given to a women's group on Oct. 14, 1931.  Boone County Historical Society Civil War Collection.

[8] Archives of the University of Missouri.  Accessed on January 10, 2010.

[9] Smith, William Benjamin. James Sidney Rollins, Memoir. New York: De Vinne Press, 1891.  Page 26.

[10] Encyclopedia of the History of Missouri Vol. 2; by Conard, Howard L.  The Southern History Company; New York, Louisville, St. Louis; 1901.  Pages 84-86.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Mr. Lincoln’s White House, Passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.  Accessed January 21, 2010.

[13]Archives of the University of Missouri.  Accessed on January 10, 2010.

[14] Smith, William Benjamin. James Sidney Rollins, Memoir. New York: De Vinne Press, 1891.  Page 49.

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