Virginia Military Institute—Building and Rebuilding/2

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Virginia Military Institute—Building and Rebuilding  (1890)  by Francis H. Smith

CHAPTER II. — 1839


In the midst of a very happy and, I trust, useful life as Professor of Mathematics at Hampden-Sidney College, Virginia, I very unexpectedly received by the hands of the Rev. George A. Baxter, D. D., President of Union Theological Seminary, who had just returned from a meeting of synod in Lexington, Va., the following letter from J. T. L. Preston, Esq., a member of the Board of Visitors of the Virginia Military Institute:

Lexington, April 29, 1839.

Sir — The sequel of this letter will explain the liberty which I take in addressing you, though a stranger. You probably have seen in the papers that our Legislature last winter determined to change the Arsenal of this place into a Military School. The Governor has seen fit to make me one of the Visitors, whose duty it will be to organize the school. We are to assemble at this place on the 30th of May.

Of course one of the most important duties of the Board of Visitors will be the appointment of professors, and having had my attention directed to yourself, I write (as an individual, however) to ascertain whether you would be willing that your name should be placed before the Board at its meeting as a candidate for the selection of Commandant or Principal Professor.

There will be twenty or twenty-five cadets admitted into the institution (the name of the institution will be The Virginia Military Institute) to be supported at the expense of the State, and formed into a military corps for the defense of the Pubic Arms deposited at the Arsenal. The salary of the Commandant is expected to be $1,500 per annum, and the house in which the Captain at present lives will also be his, a neat and commodious building. The duties of the professorship will be instruction in a thorough course of Mathematics, especially as applied to Civil and Military Engineering, and the exercising the cadets in military tactics. Besides this professorship there will be one of Modern Languages. There will also be made arrangements with Washington College by which the students of one institution may have the benefits of instruction in the other, and taking the two together the collegiate course will be very complete. By the aid of military discipline, and from the facilities which will be afforded for instruction, the Commandant might give to the Institute the highest character, and as it will be a State Institution, and filled with young men appointed from the different Senatorial Districts, the officers of the institution will be constantly before the pubic eye, and will be sure to enjoy all the reputation to which they may be fairly entitled. Add to this that the field of usefulness is an important one, which will be occupied by one who will preside over the opening of such an institution, and of course in an important degree will determine its future character. As a place of residence, I should hope you would find Lexington agreeable, as the population is moral, intelligent, and religious. Our college is supplied with able professors. We are just reviving our Female Academy under favorable auspices, and if our Military Institute shall sustain the character which we hope to give to it, we will as regards education be the most favored spot in theState.

I have written this letter in great haste, just as Dr. Baxter is starting, and I must ask you to supply its deficiency by inquiring of the Doctor himself. Will you be pleased to let me know, as soon as practicable, whether it would suit your views to accept the appointment if the Board should be inclined to bestow it upon you? If you are disposed to be considered as a candidate, would it not be well to come over to the meeting of the Board on the 30th of May?

John T. L. Preston.

Prof. Francis Smith,
Hampden-Sidney College.

This letter of Mr. Preston gave me much concern. The matter submitted to me was a grave one and demanded very grave consideration.

I was very happy in my Hampden-Sidney home. I was deeply interested in my work here. I had many friends whose kindness had endeared me to the place. The trustees of the College had been most considerate and liberal in providing for my comfort, so that the question was a serious and embarrassing one which called upon me to give up all these associations and enter upon a new, untried, and responsible work.

On the other hand, my long separation from Virginia during my Army life caused me to be but poorly acquainted with my native State. I did not know there was an Arsenal in Lexington. I had not heard of the scheme to convert it into a Military School until these facts had been made known to me by the letter of Mr. Preston.

Of course I made inquiry of my good friend, Dr. Baxter, as Mr. Preston had suggested, but he could only state the general purpose of establishing a military school, but I did learn that 1 was indebted to his kindness that my name was suggested to Mr. Preston to take charge of the school.

The letter of Mr. Preston did not give me the information which I needed to enable me to act definitely. There were many questions which naturally suggested themselves to my mind, in regard to the scope of the school, the field for development, whether to be limited to forty cadets, how far it was to be, as it were, an annex of Washington College, and dependent upon the College for its diplomas; and I deemed it my duty, in my response to Mr. Preston, to ask for further information. I did not feel warranted to attend the meeting of the Board, as he had suggested, on the 30th of May, for I was not prepared to say that 1 would accept the position, if tendered to me.

In the meantime I wrote to my friend and connection, Rev. Dr. Wm. M. Atkinson, and also mentioned the subject to my kinsman, Dr. Maxwell, who was President of the College.

Two old friends, Major Charles H. Smith, of Norfolk, a Paymaster in the U. S. Army, and John R. Triplett, Esq., of Richmond, were anxious that I should accept the position. They were both brothers-in-law of Gen. Tho. H. Botts, a member of the Board of Visitors, and they were intimate friends of Gen. Bernard Peyton, Adjutant-General, and ex officio a member of the Board; and both of these members were using their influence with Major Smith and Mr. Triplett to favor my going to Lexington.

A visit which I made to my aged mother in Norfolk, and to the parents of my wife at Old Point, afforded me an opportunity to confer fully with my friends, and particularly with Major Smith.

Mr. Preston promptly replied to my letter, directing his reply to me at Norfolk. It is as follows:

Lexington, May 17, 1839.
FRANCIS H. SMITH, Esq., Norfolk.

Sir — I fear that this will not reach you soon enough to enable you to reply before the meeting of the Board on the 30th.

I can not give definite and certain replies to the points of inquiry suggested in your letter, inasmuch as the entire detail of the system is to be settled by the Board at their first meeting, and anything which I can say must be regarded rather as an expression of my own views, and those of one or two other members of the Board, with whom I have conversed, than as anything authoritative, or positively to be relied upon.

The institution is expected to be under the charge of two professors, a commandant who must be capable of giving instruction in the Military Art, and also in Mathematics, with particular reference to its application to Civil Engineering. The other professor will hold the chair of Modern Languages. This professorship we do not expect to be able at once to fill, as we will do hereafter, owing to the fact that the arsenal appropriation will be burdened for a year or two with the erection of some new buildings. However, a temporary appointment will be made of an instructor in French and Spanish, but with a smaller salary than will be afterwards given.

The only connection which is expected to exist between Washington College and the Virginia Military Institute is that the students of the latter will be permitted to attend, upon payment of fees, the classes of the Professor of Natural Science in College. This privilege will be reciprocated upon the same terms by the Institute. The Mathematical Professor could not, however, expect any considerable addition to his salary from this source, as the College, of course, supplies its own instruction in Mathematics. Possibly he might receive some students of Civil Engineering.

The College does not teach the Modern Languages, and, therefore, this Professor in the Institute would doubtless be attended by many of the students from College. It is expected that the State will pay fees of the cadets who will attend the classes at College.

The minimum and maximum number of cadets is fixed by law at twenty and forty, and we expect to commence with the minimum. To each of the cadets will be allowed enough to pay his board, washing, fuel, etc., perhaps from $100 to $120 per annum; leaving his clothing as the only expense of his course.

It is a matter of doubt whether any students other than those supported by the State will be admitted, as anything like rivalry of the College ought to be avoided. The course is expected to be three years, with an annual vacation from study of two months, corresponding with that of the College. It is expected that the College will receive three years of the Institute as an equivalent for three years of their course, and will confer a degree upon any one with proper testimonials who will complete his fourth year in College.

We are very desirous to set the institution into operation on the 7th of September next, that our sessions may correspond with those of Washington College, which begin at that time of the year. The State appropriation is a permanent one of $6,000 per annum, out of which the salaries are to be paid, the allowance made to the cadets, etc., and for a few years at least $1,000 a year must be appropriated to building. Upon this sum we must commence, but as soon as the institution is fairly started I do not doubt that the Legislature will make an additional appropriation at least sufficient to sustain the maximum number of cadets.

I have before me, “An Outline of Regulations for the Military Institute” prepared by a member of the Board here, something like which will probably be presented to the Board for their consideration when they meet, from which I will make the following extract with relation to the Principal Professor. Of course you will not understand this as anything more than the opinion of one or two, which may be ultimately adopted or thrown aside.

“1. The Principal Professor shall be styled the Commandant of the Virginia Military Institute, shall receive a salary of $1,500 per annum, payable quarterly, and shall be required to reside upon the premises as” the military officer of the institution. He shall take command of the cadets, and shall instruct and exercise them daily in Military Tactics, including, on suitable occasions, the service of Artillery, and shall take charge of the Arsenal, buildings and grounds, belonging to the Post, and shall attend to the safe keeping and preservation of the same. The Professor shall give instruction in a thorough course of Mathematics, embracing the principles and practice of Surveying, of Civil and Military Engineering, Fortification and Gunnery, and shall likewise deliver a course of lectures on the Art of War.” These lectures, if that provision should be retained, of course would not be required until the third year.

I feel afraid that 1 have not afforded to you much additional information, and I would again urge you, if you think that the situation might be agreeable to you, to be present, if your engagements will permit, at the meeting of the Board. If you can not do that, it has occurred to me that perhaps it might be as well if you would go to Richmond and call upon Gen. Bernard Peyton, who is a member of the Board, and who might be able to give you some information, and might be of service to you if your name should be brought before the Board.

Should you meet with General Peyton, I must ask of you not to mention to him the manner in which I have spoken of what I expected would be done by the Board, as it might seem to him premature and perhaps officious in one member thus to express so freely his opinion as to the action of the whole body.

Yours, etc.
John T. L. Preston.

This letter gave me some additional information, but it was not such as was calculated to remove the difficulties that seemed to be in the way to my undertaking the work to which it was proposed to call me.

The number of cadets was limited to forty, and it was “a matter of doubt whether any others than those supported by the State will be admitted, as anything like rivalry with the College ought to be avoided.” I could not feel that it was right for me to undertake a work so limited in its scope and so restricted in its field of operations. The law made no provision for the conferment of degrees upon the graduates of the Institute. These could only be secured from Washington College, after the cadet had been three years at the Institute and this course accepted by the College as equivalent to a like term there, and then upon proper testimonials the cadet might receive a diploma from the College after spending a fourth year there. I was not willing to bind myself to a life work limited to teaching some forty boys, with no prospect before me of expansion or extension in the work. The end proposed by the scheme was a good one, but I was a young man, I had received a liberal education, I had made some reputation as a teacher, and had some ambition, and I could not see my way clear to accepting the position as thus presented to me in the letter of Mr. Preston. On these accounts I was unwilling to attend the meeting of the Board of Visitors appointed for the 30th of May, and I also felt some delicacy in calling upon General Peyton. I preferred to wait and see what would be done when the Board met. My friend, Major Smith, had reason to believe that both General Peyton and General Botts would support me should my name be presented to the Board for election. On the 8th of June I was unanimously elected Principal Professor by the Board of Visitors, and, by the order of the Board, Mr. Preston communicated to me my election in the following letter:

Lexington, Va., June 8, 1839.

The Board proceeded to the appointment of a Principal Professor at the Institute. Whereupon, Francis H. Smith, of Hampden-Sidney College, was unanimously elected.

C. P. Dorman, Secretary.

Dear Sir — It is with the greatest pleasure that by order of the Board I inform you of your unanimous election as Principal Professor of the Virginia Military Institute. We expect much from your services in aiding us in giving to this new institution the character and value which ought to belong to it, and we hope there will be no obstacle to your acceptance of the important trust which we would confide to your hands.

In conformity with the tenor of the letter which I received from you, I suppose that you will come to Lexington in person before you announce your decision upon the matter. I hope we shall see you, as you would form a more distinct idea of the duties of the station from a perusal of a quite voluminous code of laws which we have adopted, than from any details which I could give in a letter.

There is at present some uncertainty upon a very material point of our arrangements, the time at which we shall be able to open the institution for the reception of students. This uncertainty arises from the fact that we were disappointed in a contract which we had made with a workman for the erection of new buildings, which are indispensable before we can commence. This contract must be made anew, and we can not say whether we can procure a workman to finish the buildings this season. Whenever the buildings are completed the school will be put into operation, and your services will be required, and your salary will commence, from that date. I hope that this uncertainty may not affect your present arrangements injuriously, as I suppose that it will be within your power to accept the situation this fall, or to continue in your present station until next spring. Our expectation is, however, that we shall be able to contract for the finishing of the buildings by November or December next As soon as we shall have made a positive contract I will inform you.

The compensation of the Principal Professor is fixed at $1,500 per annum, payable quarterly, but no fees. We have not as yet elected a professor of Modern Languages, but will do that at the next meeting of the Board. I myself expect to apply for that situation. I hope it may suit your convenience to visit us immediately, and, should you come, it will give me pleasure that you should be my guest during your stay.

John T. L. Preston.
Prof. Francis H. Smith,
Hampden-Sidney College

P. S. By a resolution of the Board the title of Major is assigned to the Principal Professor, and we will at the coming session of the Legislature request that the rank may likewise be given.

Leaving my family at Old Point I returned to Hampden-Sidney about the 1st of June, and resumed my duties, but I was immediately called back by the extreme illness of my oldest child from scarlet fever, and the death of one of my wife’s brothers from this disease. I did not receive Mr. Preston’s letter until my return to Hampden-Sidney about the last of June. I had, however, seen in the papers the notice of my appointment, and, although my mind was still unsettled as to my duty to accept the appointment, I felt it to be my duty to lay the state of the case before the Trustees of Hampden-Sidney College, for such action as they might deem proper to take.

My cherished friend Major Smith was very decided in his opinion that it was my duty to go to Lexington. His view was that while the position was one involving great care, labor, and responsibility, and was not free from serious embarrassment, I was a young man and it afforded me a field to build up my own reputation while I was laboring to build up that of the school. He said his friends Generals Peyton and Botts took this view also, and both thought the State would second and support any well-directed effort to give success to this military school.

On reaching Hampden-Sidney about the last of June I found the letter of Mr. Preston of the 8th of June, and sent to his address the following reply:

Hampden-Sidney College,
Prince Edward County, Va., July 1, 1839.

John Thomas Lewis Preston, Esq., Lexington, Va.

Dear Sir — I have the pleasure to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 8th ultimo, communicating to me my election as Principal Professor of the Virginia Military Institute. You will do me the favor to express to the Board my thanks for the honor conferred upon me, and my acceptance of the appointment.

I had fully intended visiting you immediately on the adjournment of your Board, but I had no sooner returned to my duties here on the 1st of June than I was called back to Norfolk by the illness of my family. The death of my wife’s brother and the great danger of my oldest daughter detained me until last Monday. Your letter in consequence was not received until Saturday, which will account to you for the delay of my answer.

As my duties at the College will close on the 25th of September, I will be at the services of the Board immediately after. I hope you will be enabled to commence operations this fall, as it will be impossible for me to continue longer on duty here than this term without remaining another year. I felt so confident from the tenor of your second letter, and other sources, that you would commence early this fall, that as soon as I saw by the public papers that 1 had been elected I intimated by letter to the Board of Trustees of this College my intention of leaving it at the close of this session. Being in Norfolk at the time, and of course without seeing your letter, I felt this to be my duty, especially as they were to meet in a few days to fill the vacancy occasioned by the resignation of the Professor of Chemistry. Under the circumstances the Board deemed it advisable to appoint a successor to me conditionally, and I shall be compelled, as soon as I can hear from you, to hand in my resignation, or remain another year. You will see, then, the necessity of my being early advised on this point.

On some accounts it would be my wish that the opening of the Institute should be delayed for a month or two after I leave here. I am particularly desirous of conferring with Colonel Thayer, the late distinguished superintendent of West Point, and also with others of my military friends, from whom I expect important suggestions. The arms also which will be issued to the cadets will probably be larger than it would be proper for them to use. A loan or donation of a set I would hope to obtain from West Point.

There are other points, such as the clothing, uniforms, music, etc., which require consideration, and to aid me in the proper arrangement of which I had proposed visiting West Point. To do this my salary should commence immediately on entering upon these duties, say the 1st of October. I should also add that before the cadets are received many important arrangements are required for their comfort and organization, all of which will require time and my presence in Lexington.

Will you inform me at what time in September your Board will probably meet? I may possibly find it convenient to be with you at that time.

I feel much indebted to you for your kind invitation to stay with you, and should 1 visit Lexington I shall be happy to avail myself of it. Should business or pleasure bring you to this neighborhood, I shall be pleased to see you.

I am very respectfully,
Your ob’t serv’t,
Francis H. Smith.

My duties to my classes prevented me from attending the meeting of the Board of Visitors at Lexington, appointed for an early day in September. But I was gratified to receive the following letter from Colonel Crozet, President of the Board, so full of encouragement to me as showing that West Point was to be the model upon which the Virginia Military Institute was to be guided, and at the same time confirming the views which I had expressed to Mr. Preston in my letter to him of July 1st

Lexington, September 12, 1839.
Maj. Francis H. Smith.

Dear Sir — You will receive by mail a printed copy of the Regulations adopted by the Board of Visitors for the government of the Virginia Military Institute.

We understand that it is your intention to take a trip to the North previous to your coming to this place: in this event you might assist the Board in procuring several things which will be wanted at or shortly after the opening of the Institute. Among them are some parts of the uniform and accoutrements which you will observe are similar to those used at West Point.

Would it be convenient to you, while there, to inquire what prospect there would be of obtaining 100 such muskets and complete accoutrements as are used there, and to take such steps as will secure this object speedily; as also from fifty to one hundred caps, introduced by Major Delafield, without the plate, of course? The muskets and equipments will be obtained from the U. S. Government free of charge. It will consequently be sufficient to apply for them in the proper quarter, and correspond with General Peyton, if necessary, on the subject. As regards the caps, if you can purchase them, you can draw, or direct the merchant to draw, on Mr. Hugh Barclay, the Treasurer of the institution.

By a resolution of the Board forty copies of each of the following books are directed to be purchased, viz.:

La Croix’s Arithmetic,
Bourdon’s Algebra, by Davies,
Legendre’s Geometry, by Davies or Brewster,
Berard’s French Grammar,
Berard’s French Lessons,
Nugent’s Dictionaries,
Gil Blas .

A request to that effect was addressed to Capt. Wm. H. Richardson, State Librarian in Richmond. Will you please, in passing through the city, call on him, and ascertain what he has done, and what success he has met with; and assist him in the business, or take entire charge of it as may seem to you most expedient?

These books were selected by the Board in order to prevent all delay in the beginning; the regulations of West Point guided in the choice. But on a recent visit I personally made to the Academy, I learned that Berard’s Grammar had never been published, and I doubt whether his French Lessons are now in print. The Board, therefore, request you to substitute in their stead such other books as you may approve.

Captain Richardson has funds for the purpose of this purchase.

The last and most important object I have to write about is the appointment of an Assistant Professor, to be made by the Board at the time of the opening of the Institute. It is desirable that, in the beginning, the Assistant Professor should be able to give instruction in the French language. To one coming up to the requisite qualifications, both in this and in the Military department, the Board would be disposed to give from 700 to 1,000 dollars.

Will you oblige us to make inquiries on this subject and procure the names of the candidates for the office? If none offer combining all the qualifications desired by the Board, such an officer might be chosen as will be well qualified to render you the most efficient assistance, especially in the incipiency of the institution. Probably your acquaintance among the graduates of West Point may afford you facilties in the furtherance of this object, possessed by no other member of the Institute.

We have now appointed twenty regular cadets, and thirteen paying cadets, which is the complement that our present buildings can accommodate. We had upwards of seventy candidates, and it is gratifying to add, as fine young men as could have been desired, and of a character, indeed, exceeding our most sanguine expectations. The influence of the institution is already felt in the Washington College, which, at its reopening, a few days ago, received an accession of twenty students already, and probably ai have not yet arrived. There is a general feeling all over the State, and even abroad, favorable to our infant school.

The Board has fixed the 11th day of November for the opening of the Institute, when we expect, all, collectively and individually, the pleasure of meeting you.

With great regard,
Your obed’t serv’t, C. Crozet,
Pres't B’d of Visitors.