At the outset of the Civil War the student body organized a company with the President, Dr. J.M.P. Atkinson (for whom Atkinson Avenue is named), as captain. These men, officially named the "Hampden-Sydney Boys," saw action in the disaster of Rich Mountain (July 9-11, 1861), were captured, and were paroled by General George B. McClellan on the condition that they return to their studies. The group was Company G of the 20th Virginia Regiment.
The story is told that Dr. Atkinson, a minister, actually knew very little about military maneuvers. While instructing his boys on marching, he once directed, "Raise the right leg until the thigh is perpendicular with the body. Then raise the left leg alongside it." It is also told that once after initiating a march, he could not remember the command to turn his troop. They all then marched into a fence.