Virginia Military Institute—Building and Rebuilding/3

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



In the historical sketch of Mr. Preston it was stated that there was a State Arsenal at Lexington, in which there was a deposit of some 30,000 stand of public arms. This arsenal was guarded by a company of soldiers at an annual charge to the State of $6,000. The soldiers were not desirable neighbors to the residents of the vicinity. The scheme of Mr. Preston proposed the substitution of some twenty to forty young men, taken from the different parts of the State, who should serve as a public guard to the arsenal, and receive in consideration for this service their board and such education as could be supplied.

The scheme met with violent opposition, but it was supported by Mr. Preston with great earnestness and ability through the press and in debate, and commended itself so strongly to the public approbation that a bill was passed by the General Assembly of Virginia in March, 1839, establishing a military school at the Lexington Arsenal, and providing for the appointment of a Board of Visitors by the Governor to give effect to the law.

Such was the germ from which sprung the Virginia Military Institute. The future was uncertain. In the minds of extreme men the whole scheme was chimerical; others viewed it as a doubtful experiment, at best; while its best friends would be more than satisfied if the old guard could be removed, and in lieu thereof a class of young men admitted from the different parts of the State, who would receive the discipline and training of soldiers, and be supplied with some educational advantages, and be thus prepared to enter upon the work of life. This was an object worthy of the effort to establish and carry on the institution upon the proposed programme.

The difficulties surrounding the whole subject were seen to be more serious when the Board of Visitors met to put the law into operation. The first Board met in Lexington on the 30th of May, 1839. A careful inspection was made of the buildings and public grounds. The land attached to the arsenal embraced from five to ten acres, bounded on the east by the present cadets’ mess hall, on the west by a line a few feet west of the cadets’ barracks, extending to the main road in front, and to Wood’s Creek in rear. The arsenal was a large and substantial brick building, in the center of a small courtyard. In front of the arsenal were the soldiers’ barracks, embracing a small two-story brick building in the center, with five rooms; and two wings of one story, each having two rooms. The sally-port was closed by a large iron-bound gate, and the court was enclosed by a brick wall fourteen feet high. The windows of the first story of the barracks were guarded by substantial iron bars; the whole establishment presenting the appearance of a prison, and such it was to the old soldiers. The center building was mainly used by the Captain of the Guard and his family.

It was obvious, on this inspection, that the accommodations were insufficient for the purposes of a military school. Setting apart the Captain’s quarters for the steward and his family, four rooms remained as dormitories for cadets, which on the basis of twenty State cadets would necessitate the assignment of five cadets to a room sixteen by sixteen feet. No provision existed for a mess-room, except by the use of the cold and damp basement of the arsenal; and two dilapidated log cabins would have to be used for classrooms. It was apparent at once that some additional provision must be made before it would be possible to open the school.

Limiting the corps of instructors to two professors, one of whom should be placed in command, and give instruction in mathematics and drill the cadets, while the other should have charge of the languages, it was apparent that upon the lowest basis of salaries more than one-third of the entire annuity would be required to support the faculty. At least one-third would be needed to support the twenty State cadets; thus leaving but a small margin at the command of the Board.

Such were some of the difficulties surrounding this first Board of Visitors when they met to put the Virginia Military Institute into operation.

But this first Board was most admirably constituted for the important duties now before them.

The President was Col. Benoit Claudius Crozet, a Frenchman by birth, an élève of the great Polytechnic School of Paris, and a soldier in the army of Napoleon on its retreat from Moscow. He had been for some years professor of engineering and also of mathematics in the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, and was, at the time, Chief Engineer of Virginia. With scientific attainments of the highest order, and an intimate acquaintance with the distinctive system of the West Point Academy, he was, above all others, fitted to give the weight of his large experience and great ability in shaping the destiny of the infant school, if the future should appear possible or hopeful.

There were members of the Board who had strong military predilections, and who, on this account, were specially qualified to direct and control the discipline of a military school. Such was Capt. John F. Wiley, a maimed soldier of the Petersburg, Virginia volunteers, who marched to Canada in the war of 1812. Such were Gen. Bernard Peyton, Adjutant-General of Virginia; Gen. Peter C. Johnston, Gen. Thomas H. Botts, and Gen. Charles P. Dorman; while in James McDowell, Esq. (afterwards Governor of Virginia), Dr. Alfred Leyburn, and Hugh Barclay, Esq., were found gentlemen of large practical experience. Mr. McDowell and Dr. Leyburn were also members of the Legislature of Virginia, when the bill establishing the Institute was passed, giving it their earnest support. To these must be added John Thomas Lewis Preston, Esq., who had originated the enterprise, had supported it by his pen and by his influence, and would naturally watch every step in its organization.

To make a beginning in the work before them, the Board determined to raise the building used as the barracks one story, thus supplying seven additional rooms for dormitories, and to erect a small building for the quarters of the commanding officer. To meet this expense a debt of $4,500 was contracted, and the work was undertaken upon most liberal terms as to payments, by Col. John Jordan, the whole to be completed by the month of November, when the school would be formally opened.

At the suggestion of Colonel Crozet, the regulations of the West Point Academy were made substantially the code of laws for the government of the institute. This code gave form to the military organization and government, and was a necessary and wise step to begin with. The West Point full course of instruction could not be adopted for obvious reasons. The means at the command of the Board were insufficient, while contemplated arrangements with Washington College made this inexpedient.

Provision was made for instruction in mathematics and the French language, and an arrangement was made with Washington College by which the military officer of the Institute was to drill the students of the College, while the cadets were to receive from the College reciprocal instruction in branches not then provided for in the Institute.

At its meeting in May the Board elected the Principal Professor and Commandant, and adjourned until September, when the condition of the work on the buildings could be examined, and, after due notice, it could make appointments of cadets, and fix a period for the opening of the institution.

In September twenty State cadets, and thirteen pay cadets were appointed, and the 11th of November was fixed as the day when the school would be put into operation. It is specially to be noted that this first Board recognized their authority under the law to appoint pay cadets, and that they did appoint thirteen pay cadets, the accommodations at the time allowing the admission of no greater number. This question, as will be seen hereafter, assumed grave importance on the complaint of Washington College.

The Superintendent met this Board for the first time on the 11th of November, 1839, when he reported for duty, and was placed in command of the Virginia Military Institute. He was, personally, a stranger to every member of the Board, but was received by them with such courtesy and consideration as to inspire him with great encouragement and hopefulness as he entered upon the discharge of his responsible duties.

Twenty cadets reported for duty, were examined by the Superintendent, in Franklin Hall, in the presence of the Board of Visitors, and their duties having been fully explained to them, under the regulations, they signed their matriculation obligation, and were then marched by their commanding officer to the arsenal, relieving the public guard of their duty, and were placed in charge of the public property, while Adjutant-General Peyton raised the flag of Virginia over the wall of the Virginia Military Institute, to signalize the exclusive proprietorship of Virginia in the institution, and her purpose to maintain and defend it.

As illustrating the spirit aimed to be impressed on those who were embarking in this new enterprise, the following poem was written by F. H. Smith’s wife, Mrs. Sarah Henderson-Smith, on the occasion of raising the State flag by Adjutant-General Peyton, on this memorable day, the 11th of November, 1839:—

Our work is nobly done,
We have raised our flag on high,
A pledge is made at Freedom’s shrine
That speaks in every eye;
And hearts with fervor and with faith
In youthful courage strong,
Are echoing back the patriot cry:
“My Country, right or wrong.”

It is waving high in air,
And Liberty’s proud form,
Borne upward by the mountain breeze
In sunshine and in storm,
Is planted on the tyrant’s breast.
Thus shall it ever be,
For while Virginia owns her name,
Her gallant sons are free.

It is waving high in air,
We will guard it while we live,
Our fathers shed their hearts
This heritage to give.
No traitor spirit soils our ranks,
Our birthright we will keep,
And freemen proudly tread the soil,
Till under it we sleep.

The following orders were then promulgated:—

LEXINGTON, VA., November 11, 1839.

Orders — No 1.

I. Maj. Francis H. Smith assumes command of the Virginia Military Institute. All reports, permits, etc., will be made to him during the morning office hours.

II. The present guard will consist of one Sergeant, one Corporal, and three privates, and one sentinel will be habitually posted at the main gate.
III. The following temporary appointments are made: —
Cadet W. D. Fair to be Adjutant of Corps of Cadets.
Cadet H. B. Sumpter to be First Sergeant.
Cadet J. H. Jameson to be Second Sergeant.
Cadet L. A. Garnett to be Third Sergeant.
Cadet J. H. Lawrence to be Fourth Sergeant.
Cadet C E. Carter to be First Corporal.
Cadet W. S. Beale to be Second Corporal.
Cadet T. J. B. Cramer to be Third Corporal.
Cadet J. W. Jones to be Fourth Corporal.
Cadet V. C. Saunders to be Fifth Corporal.
IV. The exercises of the Institute will commence on Monday next, by which time cadets will apply to Mr. Hugh Barclay for one copy each of the following text-books:—
Davies’ Bourdon’s Algebra.
Levizac’s French Grammar.
By Order:

Major Commanding.

The work was begun. It was a most unpropitious day to begin the important work in hand. A heavy fall of snow rested on the ground. The work on the barracks had been delayed, and the buildings were in a most unfinished condition — without roof, and no rooms in a condition to be occupied except those used by the old guard. The Superintendent had to crowd the little band of Virginia youths, who had accepted their appointments as cadets expecting comfort, at least, eight in a room, in extemporized bunks, without shelter overhead. No fuel had been laid in. Their provisions had to be cooked in the sally-port, and every conceivable discomfort existed.

It was a severe ordeal. It is not surprising that schemes were planned for all to desert and go home. This recital gives but a faint picture of the actual hardships that had to be endured by the pioneer class. All honor to the young men who, in the midst of such trials, by their endurance, and by their devotion to duty, laid the foundation of the Virginia Military Institute!

The educational arrangements were further made by the Board on the 11th of November, 1839, by the unanimous election of John Thomas Lewis Preston. Esq., as Professor of Modern Languages.

In the several interviews which took place at this meeting of the Board with the Superintendent, the future of the school was fully and more hopefully considered. The Superintendent had been educated at West Point, had been an instructor there, and for two years had filled the chair of Mathematics in one of the oldest colleges in Virginia; and his observation and experience enabled him to confirm the views of the Board in the policy which they had marked out for the Institute, by stating that there were conditions and influences existing in Virginia which gave promise of a grand development of the institution. There was a felt necessity at this time for a better discipline for youths attending college. There was also a demand for more thorough practical instruction in mathematics, and in science generally. Why should the Virginia Military institute be dependent upon Washington College for its course of instruction? Why could not the Virginia Military Institute, under its West Point code of laws, so wisely adopted by the Board, by a steady adherence to thorough discipline, and to a distinctively scientific and practical course of instruction, be to Virginia what West Point was to the whole country? With the conditions and influences existing in Virginia as stated, there seemed to be a great future for the school, and, therefore, the work might be undertaken with hopefulness and confidence.

It was with such views of public duty, and under such inspiration of the responsibilities of the future, that the Virginia Military Institute, under the guidance, direction and control of the able men who constituted its first Board of Visitors, entered on its grand mission on the 11th of November, 1839.