Delegates from the dioceses of ten Episcopal Churches located in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas were led up the Cumberland Plateau in Sewanee, Tennessee on July 4th 1857 by Bishop Leonidas Polk. They were there to found a regional Episcopal College which would be free from Northern influence. Tennessee Bishop James Otey stated that the University would "materially aid the South to resist and repel a fanatical domination which seeks to rule over us." John Armfield whose business; Franklin and Armfield traded in slaves, bought the land on which the University would be built. He also made a promise to the school of a $25,000 annum.
The cornerstone of the University was laid on October 10th 1860. Bishop Polk led the consecration ceremony. In 1863 a Union regiment from Illinois blew up the marble cornerstone, many of the pieces were taken as souvenirs.
The building would be started over again in 1866 after the Civil War ended. It opened with its first students September 18th 1868. Confederate General Robert E Lee was offered the vice-chancellor’s post but declined it in favor of Washington College.