Virginia Military Institute—Building and Rebuilding/5

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

CHAPTER V. — 1841-1842


The arrangements made by the Board of Visitors for the supply of the clothing, etc., of the cadets were very imperfect. They had pass books, and the Superintendent gave orders on these books for all needed articles, and the cadets would purchase on these orders from the Lexington merchants, and at the end of each quarter the accounts were audited by the Superintendent, and orders were given by him to the treasurer for their payment.

It was evident there would be a want of uniformity not only in the quality of the goods, but in the prices charged by the different merchants. But a still more serious trouble soon manifested itself in the order of the Superintendent for supplies being applied by some unscrupulous dealers to the substitution of contraband articles. In the supply of the cadet cloth there was great irregularity. A very defective article of log-wood dye was sometimes issued to the cadets. These evils became so serious that it became the duty of the Superintendent at the annual meeting of the Board in July, 1841, to direct their attention to the subject, with the recommendation that these supplies should be furnished to the cadets by the Institute. After a very careful consideration of the subject, the following order was adopted by the Board, July 10, 1841:

“Resolved, that the Board would prefer that the cadets’ clothing should be furnished by the merchants of Lexington, provided good materials are furnished at fair prices. But if, at any time, in the opinion of the Principal Professor, there should be either a deficiency in the quantity or quality of the materials, or the prices should be, in his opinion, excessive, that then he take such measures as he may deem expedient to procure the clothing in some other form.”

This resolution did not meet the full state of the case. The merchants of Lexington brought strong pressure to bear upon the Board, and they had friends on the Board who sympathized with them, so that although the general sentiment of the Board sustained the views of the Superintendent, the resolution adopted was a compromise. It threw a weighty responsibility upon the Superintendent But his views were clear and emphatic on the subject. He was ready to assume all the responsibility thrown upon him. He did assume it, and communicated his action to the Board in his annual Report of July, 1842:

“Agreeably to the authority vested in me by the Board at their last annual meeting, I found it necessary to take immediate steps to procure suitable clothing for the cadets. The cloth furnished by the merchants of Lexington was not only inferior in quality, but it was absolutely worthless; every coat, it is believed, which was made for the third class having been threadbare in little more than a few weeks’ use. Finding no other remedy for this evil than the purchase of this cloth direct from the factory, I went to the North in August last, and made a contract with the Jefferson Woolen Factory, which I herewith lay before the Board. By this contract it will be seen that the cadets are secured against imposition, for should the cloth furnished prove inferior to the standard article, the remedy is in our own hands. The cadets have been using this cloth for nearly a year, and, while its cost is nearly $1.00 per yard cheaper than that furnished by the Lexington merchants, it has proved to be far superior in every respect. I have also procured a grey pilot cloth for overcoats and winter pantaloons, which costs, delivered in New York, but $3.00 per yard. The cloth now furnished to the cadets costs at the factory $2.75, and the cadets were charged $3.50. I think an article somewhat heavier, which may be had at $3.00, and which we can hereafter afford to sell at $3.50, will answer their purposes better than the articles now used, and will be cheaper in the end.”

The benefits resulting from the new system of furnishing clothing and other needed articles to cadets soon became apparent to the Board of Visitors, and was altogether satisfactory to the cadets. The operations of the military store then established have been continued ever since.

Still, these satisfactory results to the Institute did not allay the prejudices of the merchants of Lexington. After failing in all their remonstrances, an indictment was made by the Grand Jury of the Circuit Court against the Superintendent for “selling goods without license.” A trial on this indictment was commenced, but on the motion of the counsel of the Superintendent, Hon. John W. Brockenbrough and Gen. C. P. Dorman, Judge Thompson quashed the proceedings.

The proceedings connected with this indictment of the Superintendent would have caused no concern to him if regarded as a legal question only, which the Court was asked to define. But it assumed a personal bearing, by the general circulation of imputations against the Superintendent, charging him with seeking the proposed change because of the pecuniary benefit that would result to him. The fact was established before the Court, beyond doubt, that the Superintendent received no pecuniary benefit from the change, but that his labors and responsibilities were largely increased without the slightest compensation for the same.

The regulations were revised at this time, and a new edition of the same ordered to be printed. By the new code the title of Principal Professor was changed to Superintendent, and the Legislature having passed a law authorizing military rank to be conferred upon the professors and officers, commissions were duly ordered, with the grade fixed by the Board of Visitors, viz., that of Colonel to the Superintendent, and that of Major to full professors.

The strain upon the Superintendent during the first two years in organizing, drilling, teaching, inspecting, and all the duties incident to the work, was very great Having no adjutant, all the class marks, demerit, and orders were copied by him. The correspondence of the office was greatly increased.

Members of the Board of Visitors were conscious of this strain, and, after a conference among themselves, it was determined, in some way, to give relief. They had a surplus of $500 only at command, and it was concluded that this small sum should be used to secure, if possible, the relief required. The duty before them was the more urgent because the third year brought with it the necessity of making provision for the first class in Civil and Military Engineering, while Drawing had not yet been taken up.

The Superintendent suggested the name of an old friend and classmate at West Point, Thomas H. Williamson, Esq., of Norfolk. Whereupon the following order was passed by the Board on the 19th of July, 1841:

“Resolved, that five hundred dollars be appropriated for the pay of a Professor of Tactics and Drawing for one year, and that Thomas H. Williamson be appointed Professor of Drawing and Tactics, etc., with the tide and rank of Captain.”

In making this appointment the Board designed to apply to the Legislature for an increase to the annuity of the Institute. Although the school had been in operation but two years, so many evidences of popular favor had been manifested as to justify the hope that relief would be given by the State. It was given, and the professor was soon placed on lull pay, with the title and rank of other professors.

The Act of March 8, 1842, which gave the needed relief by increasing the annuity $1,500 from the surplus revenue of the Literary Fund, placed the Institute, by the second section of the Act, on its distinctive mission, as a Normal School to supply the schools of the Commonwealth with efficient teachers.

The second section of the Act is as follows:

“Be it further enacted, that every cadet who shall hereafter be received on State account, shall be required to act in the capacity of a teacher in some one of the schools of the Commonwealth, for the term of two years after finishing his course at the Institute, unless excused by the Board of Visitors: Provided, however, that nothing in this Act shall be construed to deprive such cadet of any portion of his tuition fees as a teacher.”

The provisions of this section of the Act have had a far-reaching influence on the educational work of the State. Before its passage, the schools of the State were, for the most part, supplied with teachers from the northern states, many of whom were simply adventurers. Here and there a graduate from the universities of Great Britain taught, and some of them were very superior teachers. The University of Virginia had also some distinguished graduates, such as Professors [Socrates] Maupin, Powers, and Jud Coleman, who conducted large classical schools, but the State was much in need of good teachers.

Our first teachers went out in 1843. At that time it was regarded as an unworthy calling for a young Virginian to teach school. J. B. Strange was sent to Norfolk, afterwards followed by J. S. Gamble, then by Robert Gatewood; J. H. Pitts was sent to King and Queen, followed soon by J. C. Council; J. C. Wiis was sent to Northumberland, afterwards to Randolph-Macon College, as Professor of Mathematics; Geo. S. Patten and W. D. Stuart went to Richmond; D. Lee Powei, first to Alexandria, then to Richmond; J. L. Bryan and W. M. Nelson to Petersburg; J. J. Philips to Nansemond; W. Mahone to Rappahannock Academy; J. B. Brockenbrough and Ben FicHin to Abingdon; R. T. W. Duke to Greenbrier; J. W. Wildman to Fredericksburg, while many others were distributed through the various sections of the State. These graduates had been specially trained to teach mathematics and the practical branches. They carried with them the distinctive discipline which the military system enjoined. Their influence was impressed upon the general educational interests of the State; and so marked were the benefits that in 1856, under the provisions of the Act of March 12, 1856, an increase of $1,500 was made to the annuity of the University of Virginia upon “the condition that the said institution, during its continuance, shall educate fifty young men, above the age of seventeen, one for each Senatorial District, if there be applicants, and if not, from the State at large, without charge for tuition, use of the laboratories, lecture-rooms, public halls or dormitories, to be selected by the Visitors and Faculty with reference to the character and capacity of the applicants, and the inability of the parent or pupil to furnish the means of education, upon such testimonials as may be presented. The said young men shall, each sign an engagement to teach as private tutors, in some school or academy of this State for the term of two years, after leaving the University, in consideration of the education there received.”

The Act of March 8, 1842, and of March 12, 1856, brought out the full influence of the two State institutions to the important duty of providing teachers for the schools of Virginia. The character of the instruction thus supplied made them remunerative. Under the operation of these laws, and the concurrent labors of the other Colleges of Virginia, a work was accomplished in elevating the grade of scholarship in the schools of the State, and in stimulating young men to seek college education, that the number of College students in Virginia had risen from 500 in 1845 to 2,500 in 1860, thus giving to Virginia the proud preeminence of having a larger number of young men attending college in 1860, in proportion to white population, than any other state of this country.

The passage of the Act of March 8, 1842, was evidently promoted by the presence of the corps of cadets in Richmond under the following order from the Adjutant-General of Virginia, dated December 23, 1841:

“The Commander-in-Chief, in pursuance of a Resolution of the House of Delegates, directs that you repair to the City of Richmond, at some time during the present session of the General Assembly, with such portion of the officers and cadets of the Virginia Military Institute as can be safely and conveniently spared from the public service, in order to hold the semi-annual examination of the cadets before the Houses of the General Assembly.

By Command:
Wm. H. Richardson,

In obedience to this order the cadets were embarked on boats at Lexington about the 5th of January, 1842, passing through the sluices of Balcony Falls, and on reaching Lynchburg were transferred to freight boats.

The appearance in Richmond of this fine body of Virginia cadets produced a profound impression. Most of them were quartered at the Armory; some of them were entertained in private families.

Crowds followed them as they paraded through the streets, and they were honored with a public collation at the old Market House. A Battalion Flag was presented to them by a member of the Board of Visitors, the old veteran soldier, Gen. William Ligon. When at the collation, the “Flag of the V.M.I.” was toasted, the color bearer, Cadet Wm. S. Beale, got on the table and responded, as he grasped the flag with his right hand:--


He was received with thunders of applause; and the manly form and chivalric bearing of young Beale added much to the effect of what he said. After his graduation, this noble son of Virginia was drowned in an heroic effort to save the life of a negro man. The boat bearing a party up the Ohio river to a Christmas festival at the residence of his uncle, Gen. William Steenbergen, was swamped while the party was attempting to land. Beale saved the life of his cousin to whom he was engaged to be married; and then, in the effort to save the life of one of the negro boatmen, he was drowned. All honor to this noble youth!

The visit of the cadets to Richmond clearly added great strength to the pending bill before the General Assembly for an increase of the annuity. It is also probable that the examination of the cadets in mathematics and French before the General Assembly may have suggested the second section of the Act of March 8, 1842, in regard to State cadets serving as teachers.

The examinations at night were held in the House of Delegates; those in the day, in the First Baptist church. Three cadets were acting assistant professors, and the sections taught by them were examined by them. The effect of the examinations, as conducted by these young cadet instructors, was most gratifying, and demonstrated that the Virginia Military Institute was doing a good work in thus training its pupils for duty as teachers.

Upon the recommendation of Gen. W. H. Richardson, who was Secretary of State and also State Librarian, a resolution was passed by the General Assembly authorizing him to transfer to the Library of the Institute all books of the State Library of which there were duplicates. This led to the founding of the Library of the Institute. It was soon followed by an Act, appropriating to the Library $500 a year for five years. Under this Act the valuable scientific library of Colonel Crozet was purchased.

By the regulations of the Virginia Military Institute, it was enjoined that “Duties appropriate for the Sabbath, including attendance on Divine service, which shall be imperative, shall be prescribed by the Superintendent, and each cadet shall be required to conform thereto.”

It became the duty of the Superintendent to determine what duties should be prescribed for the Sabbath, in addition to the “imperative” duty of attending Divine service. After a mature consideration of the question, the Superintendent directed that all cadets, except those whose parents objected on the ground that the regulations would infringe on the liberty of conscience, were required to attend Bible recitations every Sunday. The Superintendent took charge of the first and second classes, and Major Preston of the third and fourth classes. The view taken by the Superintendent was that the school stood in loco parentis, and must enjoin all those duties for the Sabbath, which, in a well-regulated Christian home might properly be required by the parent, subject to the limitation of religious scruples stated above. Thus the foundation was laid for systematic religious instruction, under the authority and sanction of law; and upon this foundation without varying the slightest particular, the cadets have been trained year by year, and class by class, in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

The responsibility thus imposed upon the Superintendent in the spiritual care of the cadets was impressively presented to him by those who entered in 1841 from homes which had been blessed the manifestation of God’s spirit; and the appeals made to him by their pastors, to watch over them with by care, deepened his sense of duty. After much consideration, and profoundly impressed with his inexperience and unfitness for the duty, he determined to hold a special meeting in his office for prayer for the benefit of those who were professing Christians among the cadets. God blessed this effort to serve Him. Great good was done to the young Christian by strengthening the sense of his duty to God. Others were brought into the meeting, and some of these made a profession of religion. But the range of this duty was so much extended in subsequent years, and the cadets’ prayer-meeting, never suspended during these many years, became so important a factor in the spiritual work of the school, that a more detailed treatment of the subject is reserved for another part of this history.

The Act organizing and establishing the Virginia Military Institute made no provision for the conferment of degrees by the Institute upon those cadets who had successfully passed the prescribed course of studies of the Institute. As was stated in one of the letters of Mr. Preston, before quoted, it was expected that three years’ study at the Institute by a cadet might be received by the authorities as an equivalent for three years spent at Washington College, and then upon proper testimonials, one year spent at the College might ensure a diploma from the College.

The Board of Visitors, in 1841, deemed it their duty to ask authority from the Legislature to bestow a diploma of graduation upon such cadet as after careful examination should successfully pass all the prescribed studies in the Arts, Literature, and Science taught at the Institute. On the 10th of July, 1841, the following order was passed:

“Resolved, that the Principal Professor be authorized to contract with some artist to engrave a suitable plate for the diplomas for the graduates, according to a design prepared by him, and furnish 100 copies for present use.

The plate for the diplomas was duly prepared, as directed by the Board, and on the 14th of February, 1842, an Act was passed by the General Assembly, “Authorizing the degree of graduate to be conferred on the cadets of the military school at Lexington.” It was directed that this diploma be signed by the Governor of Virginia, under the seal of the State, and also by the Board of Visitors and the Faculty of the Virginia Military Institute.