Virginia Military Institute—Building and Rebuilding/1

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CHAPTER I. — 1834-39


HISTORIC SKETCH OF THE ESTABLISHMENT AND ORGANIZATION OF THE VIRGINIA MILITARY INSTITUTE, prepared, at the request of the Board of Visitors, by Col. John Thomas Lewis Preston, Professor Emeritus V.M.I., July 4, 1889.


“The Board of Visitors, in view of the approaching Semi-Centennial Anniversary of the Virginia Military Institute, has deemed it proper that there should be put into permanent form a compendious historical account of this important State Institution, from its organization to the close of this the first semi-centennial of its existence. In connection with this purpose, though not essential to it, it desires to secure a brief sketch of the causes and conditions of its organization, and of the steps which led to its establishment.

“The Board has done me the honor to request that I should undertake the preparation of this sketch. It involves what was done by the citizens of the town and county to bring the subject before the General Assembly of Virginia, the preliminaries, and final action of that body, and the work of the first, or organizing, Board of Visitors.

“Except incompetency for the execution of the task, I am the person upon whom it most naturally devolves. I was closely associated with the most prominent movers and agents of the enterprise, of whom few now remain on earth. I am the only survivor of the original Board.

“I was one of the two original Professors of the Institute, the honored Superintendent being the other. As such I lived with it almost the whole of its fifty years, as I did the whole of my active life, and have the honor of having my name still borne on the roll of its officers.

“As I stand thus, almost solitary in my position. I must be excused for what would otherwise be inexcusable egotism, in the necessarily frequent reference to myself.

“By an Act of the Legislature of Virginia, February, 1816, the Lexington Arsenal was established for the storing and safe keeping of about 30,000 stand of arms. An independent company of twenty-eight regularly enlisted men, under the command of a captain, was organized for its occupation and ddefense. Their sole and exclusive function was guard duty and drill, just as is the case with every post garrison in the regular service. The discipline was strict, but could not prevent them from making use of their leisure in ways that made them a very undesirable element in the population of a small town, containing, at that time, not more than a thousand or fifteen hundred inhabitants.

“The Franklin Society, an incorporated Literary and Debating body, still in existence, was then one of the important institutions of the town. It was composed of its most influential citizens, lawyers, physicians, merchants and mechanics. It owned then, as it still does, valuable real estate, on which was erected a commodious brick building. At its weekly meetings were discussed, with ability, questions literary, scientific, moral, local, and political. In politics its influence was felt throughout the country, and no practical matter of interest to the town or community escaped its inquiry.

“Among these discussions, perhaps no one was productive of larger, or more enduring, results than that which took place December, 1834 — , ‘Would it be politic for the State to establish a military school, at the arsenal, near Lexington, in connection with Washington College, on the plan of the West Point Academy?’ Of those present at this important debate, I alone am left to report its proceedings. This question was twice introduced, and the vote on the last night was unanimous in favor of making the change. So earnest was the sentiment, that before the members left the Hall, it was agreed to give the matter a practical shape.

“Accordingly in August, 1835, three articles, written by myself, under the signature ‘Civis,’ the first dated August 28, 1835, were published in the Lexington Gazette. The subject announced is, ‘Whether it be practicable to organize the Lexington Arsenal, that it shall preserve its present charter and uses as a military establishment, and be, at the same time, a Literary Institution for the education of youths.’

“It is not necessary to refer to the arguments by which the writer maintained the affirmative of the question, but it may not be irrelevant to state that he disclaims being the first to suggest the idea, and that he announces it to be the purpose of the friends of the measure to endeavor by all proper means to effect the change.

“It is, however, a matter not of mere curiosity, but of much interest, to learn what was the initiate scheme of the originators of the enterprise, how much of it was adopted by the organizing Board, and how much has been preserved, and enlarged, and how much discarded, in the development of the Institute during its brilliant history of fifty years.

“With this purpose, the following extracts from the articles of ‘Civis' will not, I trust, be considered superfluous.

“In the latter part of the first article, the writer says:

“ ‘Various plans may have been thought of, though we do not suppose that consideration. Enough has been bestowed upon the subject to mature any, or to determine which was best. We will, however, sketch out one, not as that which ought to be adopted, but merely as a basis upon which to discuss the practicability of the scheme in general.

“ ‘The object is to supply the place of the present guard, by another, composed of young men, from seventeen to twenty-four years, to perform the necessary duties of a guard, who would receive no pay, but, in lieu, have afforded to them the opportunities of a liberal education.

“ ‘For instruction, let there be:
“ “1. A Tutor to teach the classics, and the higher branches of an English education.
“ ‘2. A Professor to teach sciences generally.
“ ‘3. A Captain to discharge his present duties as an officer, and, in addition, those of an instructor in the Military Art.

“ ‘For the first four years, all these instructors might not find classes ready for them, but they might be fully occupied to advantage in assisting in the inferior departments, and in maturing their system of instruction and discipline, and in preparing themselves for their respective duties. After that, however, there would be a succession of classes, and the modus operandi might be something like this:

“ ‘The first class would be principally engaged in military exercises, and upon these, with the second, would the duties of the guard mainly devolve. The third class would be more occupied in study, and the fourth, as far as practicable, released from military duty, and under the present liberal provisions of the Trustees of Washington College, might attend the lectures there. A plan of study might be digested and arranged in conformity with this classification — something like the following, for example:

“ ‘For the first year, let the higher branches of English be attended to, and the Latin language (or whatever might be substituted for it), be commenced. In the second, Latin continued, and mathematics begun, and also modern languages; and in the fourth year, Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, and the Military Art.

“ ‘This does not comprise the drill of a complete education, but it is sufficiently liberal to enable a young man to prosecute it further unassisted, or creditably to enter upon the study of any of the learned professions.

“ ‘We would have the whole guard or school under military discipline, not only to secure the object of the State in establishing this military post, but likewise that industry, regularity, and health might be promoted. Let us say that the number of young men should be that of our Senatorial Districts, and that each Senator have the privilege of nominating a candidate for admission, subject, of course, to the decision of the Faculty when he should present himself. A Board of Examination should likewise be appointed, whose duty it should be to visit and examine the Institution, and to report annually upon its condition to the Governor.

“ ‘We repeat that these details do not pretend to accuracy or maturity, but are brought forward merely to exhibit, in a tangible shape, the object at which we are aiming, and although they may be found faulty or incomplete, that is not an objection to the plan, if better ones can be suggested.’

“The scope of the proposed course of instruction will, I think, be recognized as very liberal under the circumstances.

“The writer looks forward to the accession of students other than State cadets. He says:

“ ‘The military discipline of the place would essentially conduce to good habits, and the exercise to health, and many a parent anxious about the morals or the constitution of his son, might be glad to send him here rather than to the collegiate institutions of the country.

“The last number of ‘Civis’ closes with a pleasing ideal picture of the future, now turned into reality:

“ ‘Who would not wish to see those really handsome buildings which, upon their commanding site, adorn the approach to our village, no longer the receptacle of drones obliged to be restrained by coercion of military rule, a discordant element in our social system — but the healthful and pleasant abode of a crowd of honorable youths, pressing up the hill of science, with noble emulation, a gratifying spectacle, an honor to our country and our State, objects of honest pride to their instructors, and fair specimens of citizen-soldiers, attached to their native State, proud of her fame, and ready in every time of deepest peril to vindicate her honor, or defend her rights?”

“The writer little supposed that he should live to see the unconscious prophecy of the last fulfilled in blood, and recorded in glory.

“It is somewhat singular that the author nowhere makes any reference to West Point, either as an example of the value of a military school, or as a model for the organization of the one proposed.

“The proposed change was strongly supported by the sentiment of the county. A memorial to the Legislature for an Act to effect it was circulated in every district, and received abundant signatures. The articles of ‘Civis’ were republished on a single sheet.

“At the succeeding session of the Legislature the author visited Richmond in order to promote, as far as he could, the views of the memorialists. He carried with him the articles, and caused a copy to be laid upon the desk of each member of the House of Delegates.

“The result of these memorials was an Act at the session of 1835-36 providing for the disbanding of the arsenal at Lexington, the establishment of a military school in its stead, and the appointment of a Board of Visitors by the Legislature, consisting of four members with the Adjutant-General, ex officio.

“By this act the school was ‘To be regarded and taken as a part and branch of Washington College.’ This Act was amended at the session of 1837-38, and at the session of 1838-39 was repealed as assuming an illegal control over Washington College, and thus interfering with its incorporate rights. The final Act organizing the school was passed March, 1839, giving to it an independent organization, but providing for such arrangements with Washington College as might be agreed upon by the two institutions.

“While the legislation on the subject was in progress, Mr. James McDowell (afterwards Governor McDowell), then a member of the Legislature from Rockbridge, serving with his colleague, Dr. Alfred Leyburn, did the author of ‘Civis’ the honor of applying to him for a name of the proposed school. The present name, Virginia Military Institute, was furnished and adopted; it seemed appropriately significant: Virginia — as a State institution, neither sectional nor denominational. Military—indicating its characteristic feature — Institute — as something different from either college or university.

“The three elements thus indicated are the basis of a triangular pyramid, of which the sides will preserve their mutual relation to whatever height the structure may rise.

“I take from a special Report of General Smith to Governor Frederick William Mackey Holliday, dated November 11, 1881, the following enumeration of those who composed the first, or organizing, Board of Visitors:

“ ‘Forty-two years ago, the first Board of Visitors, appointed by Gov. David Campbell, placed me in charge of the infant military school, and on that memorable day, Adjutant-General Bernard Peyton raised the flag of Virginia over its walls, to signalize the exclusive proprietorship of Virginia in the institution, and her purpose to maintain and defend it.

“ ‘Governor David Campbell, Adjutant-General Peyton, and every member of that Board, save one, has passed away — Colonel Claudius Crozet, Gen. P. C. Johnston, Capt. John F. Wiley, Gen. Tho. Botts, Gen. C. P. Dorman, Gov. James McDowell, Dr. Alfred Leyburn, and Hugh Barclay, Esq. Col. John Thomas Lewis Preston, a member of the first Board of Visitors, but elected on the 11th of November, 1839, as Professor, alone remains of that Board, and we have been most signally spared to work together through this long period, in building up an Institution which he has the distinguished honor of having originated.

“The Board convened in Lexington, May 30, 1839, and was organized by the election of Colonel Claudius Crozet, President.

“By a pleasant coincidence, it held its sessions in the Franklin Hall, where had originated the scheme now about to be put into operation. The daily laborious sessions were continued for ten days, with entire harmony of view as to fundamental principles, and the main outlines, but with active discussion upon some details.

“If it was singular that the original advocate of the proposed school seemed not to have looked at all to the United States Academy at West Point, it was altogether natural that those upon whom devolved the difficulty of organizing the second governmental military school in the country should take for its model, as closely as differing conditions would allow, the military school of the United States, which had already taken rank with the best military schools of the old world.

“It was fortunate that at this juncture the Board had at its service the ability and experience of its presiding officer, Colonel Crozet, a Frenchman by birth, who had been educated at the celebrated Ecole Polytechnique, and had been a soldier in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army in the retreat from Moscow. He had been for many years Professor of Engineering, and also of Mathematics, at the U. S. Military Academy, and was at this time Chief Engineer of Virginia, and, as such, had distinguished himself for his science and skill. Under his control was constructed the tunnel through the Blue Ridge, the first great achievement of this kind in the South, and still one of the greatest in magnitude.

“The other members of the Board were worthy coadjutors of the president. Some of them had been gallant officers and soldiers, and were now all alive to a revival of the military spirit in the State; and fully prepared to maintain the discipline which the regulations required.

“Such was Capt. John F. Wiey, one of the Petersburg volunteers, who marched to Canada in the war of 1812, and such was Adjutant-General Peyton, General Botts and General Johnston. In the Board there were also scholars, legislators, trustees of Washington College — practical men, well acquainted with the conditions, State and local, to be considered and adopted. Such were McDowel, Dorman, Leyburn, and Barclay.

“To copy exactly the model of West Point would have been quite simple, had it been practicable; but it was impracticable.

“1. It had a single object to accomplish, viz., to give the best possible military education to army officers.

“2. Every graduate was immediately assigned to a rank in the army that secured to him a competent support, with prospect of promotion in a brilliant service.

“As the education, though of a high grade, was limited in range, greater proficiency within the range could be demanded of graduates. As the entire support of the cadet was assumed by the government, and a coveted position secured to the graduate, to forfeit this advantage would be a much more serious loss than to be obliged to leave a school where much less was offered, and hence discipline could be enforced with a minuteness and rigor impossible under other conditions.

“Compared in these particulars with West Point, the Virginia Military Institute:

“1. Must begin with a very meager endowment, which it could hope to increase only by proving itself worthy of fuller support from the State, and larger patronage from the public.

“2. The object was not to fit the graduate for a single profession exacting in its demands, and not comprehensive in its scope, but to prepare young men for the varied work of civil life. This made necessary an education of which the intensity diminished as the comprehensiveness enlarged. The result when obtained is nobler, but to many young men the prospect is not so attractive as that of a military career. And hence less pressure of restraint is practicable. The military feature, though essential to its discipline, is not primary in its scheme of education.

“Therefore, to take West Point as a model, and yet to provide for necessary variations, was a problem of difficult solution.

“The report of the first Board is not accessible, but the scope of their course of education may be gauged by the examination programme of the first graduating class, who received their diplomas July 4, 1842.

“It was: Mathematics, Mechanics, Chemistry, Engineering and Tactics, French and German, English and German Literature.

“Drawing was also a part of the regular course. The next year Latin was substituted for German.

“We see here the distinct adoption of the West Point system, as also the variations from it, made necessary by difference of conditions.

“I may say that the general controlling purpose of the Board was to furnish to the graduates for their personal benefit, and for the advantage of Virginia, an education which, while not antagonizing the established system of classical education, should have a strict bearing upon what, for want of a more distinctive term, may be designated the practical pursuits of life.

“And this purpose was to be effected by the thorough mastery of a purposely limited course. Military discipline was made indispensable by the conditions of the establishment of the school, and, it was anticipated, that it might be of great importance in some possible emergencies of the State, while it was believed it had special advantages in promoting the health of its pupils, in training them in habits of subordination to lawful authority, to industry and punctuality, and to accustoming them to prompt obedience to every call of duty, small or great, without regard to preference or self-indulgence.

“I would sum up this statement in these words, as indicating briefly, though incompletely, the foundation principles of the work of the first Board: practical utility, thorough discipline, formative training.

“In my opinion, just in proportion as these fundamental principles have been adhered to, the Institute has prospered; if at any time they have been departed from, weakening more or less serious has been the consequence.

“The Institute has, in its history, vindicated the practical value of its training. Energy, Efficiency, Reliability have been characteristics of its graduates in every pursuit of life, practical and professional, in peace and in war. To verify this as a fact by historical records, is beyond the duty assigned to me by the Board; but to illustrate it, I will quote a brief summary from the Report of General Smith, already referred to:

“‘In the forty-two years just closed, forty classes embracing 3,470 cadets, have been admitted, and of these 1,241 have been graduated. The record shows 200 killed in battle, 175 professors and teachers, 135 civil and mining engineers, 120 merchants, 94 farmers and planters, 59 physicians, 30 clergymen, and 19 bankers.

“I will add that while Virginia was the first to establish a State military school, her example has since been followed by many of her Southern sisters, and the military feature has been introduced into very many schools for advanced boys.

“My prescribed sketch ends with that memorable and often-mentioned 11th of November, 1839, when amidst the falling snow the solitary cadet made his appearance in history, by mounting guard in front of the disestablished arsenal, that gave place to the Virginia Military Institute, which this day celebrates the first of what we trust will be a long series of jubilees — Lotus Deo.

“One more paragraph remains for my reminiscent pen. The first Board had been entrusted by the State with a most difficult work, when directed to organize a school for which they had but a partial model. They accomplished this work with wisdom, rare skill, and surprising forecast They gave to the original outlines staunch firmness with flexibility to meet conditions that could not be anticipated, and which were, when they actually occurred, so critical that had the foundation been less broad and strong the whole structure would have fallen in ruins.

“One of the things done by them, too fortunate to be ascribed to chance, was the selection for carrying out their plan of one who, by natural ability, early training, and peculiar gifts, comprehended fully the work before him, saw its possibilities, and, with originating energy, seized them as they successively presented themselves, turned them into actualities, gained by his achievements the confidence of successive Boards of Visitors, of Governors, of the Legislature, and of the public, and leaves for the benefit of his successor an experience acquired in many a struggle, and the example of a life devoted, without stint, to the accomplishment of a high purpose.

“I would be untrue to my convictions of the Providences connected with the history of the Institute did I omit to mention the fact known to me personally and specially, that one thing that largely commended him to those who proposed his name for appointment, was that he possessed a qualification for the position, more rarely then than now found in West Point graduates. He was known to be an earnest Christian man. Shall I not repeat the jubilee sentiment — Lous Deo ?”