Virginia Military Institute—Building and Rebuilding/6

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

CHAPTER VI. — 1842-1845


Those of the first class who, after due examination in all the branches of the Arts and of Science and Literature, in the presence of the Board of Visitors, by the Faculty, had been judged worthy to receive the degree required by law to be conferred upon graduates, were now to receive this honor, and the 4th of July, 1842, was fixed as the first Graduation Day.

It is to be specially noted that these examinations had been conducted in the presence of the Board of Visitors. Members of the Board often took part in the examinations, and this rule continued with the strictest fidelity until the Civil War of 1861. At times distinguished gentlemen, professors of West Point, and others, were invited by them to attend these examinations, and cooperate with the Board in this important duty. Professors Bartlett and Church and Mahan and Colonel Hardee honored the Institute by their presence on these occasions; and since the war Professor Davies, Professor Cochran, and General Barry of the U. S. Army, and General Grigsby of Kentucky, attended.

The presence of the Board at these examinations was regarded by the Board as a necessary part of their duty. Besides enabling them to see the efficiency of the instruction, it encouraged the professors and stimulated the cadets to greater industry; and there can be no doubt that it tended to elevate the dignity of the examinations and to improve the general scholarship.

Sixteen cadets of the first class, who had borne all the hardships of the first years of trial, were now to receive the award for work well done, and to be sent forth as the first graduates of the Virginia Military Institute to show to their State the value of the education which they had received. They are as follows:

  1. Win. D. Fair *
  2. Wm. H. Henderson *
  3. Jno. B. Strange
  4. J. T. B. Cramer
  5. Edmund Pendleton
  6. James H. Lawrence
  7. Wyatt M. Elliott
  8. James H. Jameson
  9. C. P. Dyerle
  10. John T. Smith
  11. Wm. Forbes
  12. V. C. Saunders
  13. J. W. Bell
  14. O. M. Knight
  15. James Marshall
  16. Louis A. Garnett


Distinguished. *

Of these Colonel Strange, after a distinguished career as Principal of the Norfolk Academy, was killed at Boonesboro, Md., while in command of a Virginia Regiment. Colonel Forbes, with a like distinction as a teacher and professor in a College in Texas, was killed while commanding a Tennessee Regiment at the Battle of Second Manassas. Captain Jameson died as he was returning from prison by an order for an exchange of prisoners of war. Colonel Pendleton was wounded while in command of a Louisiana Regiment, having served in the Senate of Virginia, and as a member of the Board of Visitors of the Virginia Military Institute. General Elliott was in command of a Regiment of Virginia forces, served in the Legislature of Virginia, as a member of the Board of Visitors of the Virginia Military Institute, and as Rector of the University of Virginia. Dr. Dyerle died, before the war, as an assistant surgeon in the U. S. Army. Dr. Knight was a surgeon in the Confederate Army. Mr. Fair was a member of the Senate of California. Captain Marshall served as a teacher, and commanded a company of cavalry in the C. S. Army; and Mr. V. C. Saunders made a high reputation in his native county, Loudoun, as a teacher and scholar. Ex uno disce omnes.

The 4th of July, 1842, was a marked day, as the first graduation day of the Virginia Military Institute. It is thus noticed in the Lexington Gazette:

“The first Commencement day of the Virginia Military Institute! It was indeed an interesting, a glorious day! It was held on the 4th of July, the anniversary of the National Independence. And surely never has that anniversary been celebrated in a more splendid and appropriate manner. We could wish that in the crowd that witnessed, the members of the General Assembly of Virginia had been present, to have enjoyed with our own people (he brilliant and imposing spectacle; to have witnessed for themselves how worthy of their patronage and favor is the military school which Virginia has established — a school which, with the encouragement it deserves from the Legislature, will soon be equal in every respect to the U. S. Military Academy at West Point — a school which is destined to confer the greatest blessings on Virginia, in sending forth accomplished soldiers to impart skill and discipline and a military spirit to her militia; and in giving to her common schools gentlemen who are educated, and capable to instruct the youth of our State. Are not these most important objects, and can any one doubt that the true interest of the Commonwealth is to encourage, by every means in its power, an institution by which these objects can be certainly attained?”

This is emphatic language from the press of Lexington. Almost prophetic. It must be noticed that the Institute had not been in operation three years. What difficulties surrounded its early struggle for life! What doubts were prevalent even among its well wishers! Surely there must have been something good, very good, in what it was trying to accomplish. There must have been some marked success thus early seen in what it had done.

So marked was the sentiment of approval throughout the State that it became necessary to devise ways and means for increasing the accommodation for cadets, the demand for admission on the part of pay cadets being largely in excess of the means to quarter them. Availing of a small appropriation of $250 to restore a wall surrounding the arsenal, which had been blown down in a severe gale, it was determined to erect a suite of dormitories along the space which the was covered, so ordered and arranged that they might be added to and completed as means would allow. In aid of this important work, the tuition fee of the pay cadets, which had been only $20, was increased to $30, and the work was completed exclusively from the tuition fees of the pay cadets.

But a new trouble arose to disturb the work, and affect the influence of the new school.

The community in which the Institute was located was, in a large degree, Presbyterian, and the feeling was growing among some of the most zealous members of this church, of suspicion of, if not a jealousy towards, a new denomination which was just beginning its distinctive work here. The Superintendent and his family were Episcopalians. So were the Professor of Drawing and his family. Many of the cadets were Episcopalians, and to provide the necessary church privileges to these, a neat and substantial house of worship was erected.

This was followed by the Presbyterian congregation taking down the old church in which they had worshipped for many years, and erecting a large and handsome building. Special services were appointed in connection with the beginning of this good work, and the Rev. Dr. B. M. Smith was selected to deliver a sermon appropriate to so interesting an occasion. The officers and cadets of the Institute were invited to attend, and they did attend.

The sermon was an exposition of what Presbyterianism was, and what Presbyterianism was not. Under the second head it was contended that it did not aim to take possession of the institutions of the State, and use them to build up the church.

The sermon was so pointed in its application that, although the Institute was not mentioned by name, there could be no doubt that it was designed to apply to it. Major Preston was an elder in the Presbyterian church, and his attention was called to the subject. He agreed with the Superintendent that the sermon was intended to apply to the Institute; and he was requested by the Superintendent to inquire of Dr. Smith whether he meant his sermon to apply to the Institute, Dr. Smith replied that while his sermon was originally prepared for Staunton, and was intended for the State institutions there, still, believing the views he had expressed to be equally applicable here, he did not hesitate to say that he meant what he said to apply to the Institute; and, on request, he formulated the grounds on which his opinion was based, as nearly as Major Preston could get at them, as follows:

1. That the Superintendent of the Institute exercised his influence in framing the denominational character of the Board of Visitors.

2. That he exerted an influence in the appointment of sons of Episcopalians, as cadets, to the exclusion of others.

3. That in his dealings with the merchants of Lexington, the patronage of the Institute was given to Episcopalians, and that a like influence was exerted in the dealings of the cadets.

4. That the Superintendent was arbitrary and partial in requiring the attendance of the cadets at the services of the Episcopal church, to the neglect of the other churches.

5. That he afforded privileges of access to the cadets, to Episcopal clergymen, which were denied to other clergymen.

6. That he secured the appointment of officers to the Institute who were either Episcopalians, or who, being neutral in church predilection, might be influenced to become Episcopalians.

7. That the Superintendent himself was a zealous Episcopalian. The complaints as thus stated were communicated to the Board of Visitors for their consideration in the annual report of the Superintendent, of the 24th of June, 1844. Inasmuch as no one appeared to establish these complaints, and that they were manifestly inconsistent with facts, except that the Superintendent was a zealous Episcopalian, the Board refused to take any action thereon.

The reference here made to the subject is necessary to illustrate and explain the nature of those trials through which the institution had to pass, as well as the form of those struggles which had to be made in the special and delicate work which devolved upon the Superintendent.

Times have changed very much since 1844. Dr. Smith is an older and much wiser man now; and I am sure that our friendly relations have been mutually strengthened in the passing years, as we have known more of each other. Religious controversy, when it passes into sectarian prejudice, is sure to be bitter. The period during which this subject came up, was one of peculiar acrimony on theological subjects, all of which is now happily substituted by a broader and more liberal view of Christian charity.

All feeling on this subject has long since passed away from me, as I know it has from Dr. Smith; and now we can both talk over the past, and wonder how, we could have so much misunderstood each other.

This subject may be appropriately closed by quoting the article of the Regulations, prescribing the order of attending church:

Article 323.—The cadets will be marched to church every Sunday morning (weather permitting), unless excused by the Superintendent on the ground of their religious faith, and will attend the several churches in the following order:

________________Company A____Company B
First Sunday______Presbyterian____Methodist
Second Sunday____Episcopalian____Baptist
Third Sunday______Methodist_____Presbyterian
Fourth Sunday_____Baptist_______Episcopalian

_______________Company C____Company D
First Sunday______Baptist________Episcopalian
Second Sunday____Methodist_____Presbyterian
Third Sunday______Episcopalian___Baptist
Fourth Sunday_____Presbyterian____Methodist

Fifth Sunday at the discretion of the officers commanding companies. The Staff will always attend one of the churches attended by the companies.

Article 324.—As no preference is given to any religious sect or denomination in the Institute, officers commanding companies will be held accountable for their faithful compliance with the order in Paragraph 323, that the principle of the institution may not be violated by their neglect or caprice.

Cadets, who are communicants of any church, are exempted from the duty of marching to church with their companies, as prescribed in Article 323, and are permitted to attend their own churches every Sunday.

The work of the Virginia Military Institute at this time was sadly shaded by peculiar trials. Scarcely had the sectarian troubles, just adverted to, passed away, when a new one appeared, and in a very serious form. In this case Washington College was the complainant.

Although a formal agreement still existed between the two institutions under which an exchange of instruction was kept up, the College became apprehensive of the rapid growth and increasing popularity and iniueece of the Institute, and it was determined by the Trustees of the College, at a special meeting, to invoke the authority of the Legislature to circumscribe its work, and to restrict its usefulness. There is also reason to believe that the course of the College authorities was strongly stimulated by the sectarian spirit which had recently found expression in the sermon and complaint of the Rev. Dr. Smith. Of the four professors of the College, three were Presbyterian clergymen, while a large proportion of the trustees was also of that church.

That the record of this remarkable controversy may be fully reported, so much of the Annual Report of the Superintendent, of date June 30, 1845, is herewith presented:

“Having thus briely reviewed the interior operations of the Institute for the past year, it becomes my duty to lay before the Board the facts connected with my appearance before a committee of the Legislature last winter, upon an inquiry into an alleged interference on the part of this institution with Washington College. The Irst intimation given to me that an inquiry was contemplated was by the accompanying letter from John R. Edmunds, Esq., acting chairman of the committee on schools and colleges. Although it appeared, in the course of the investigation, that it was prompted by the Trustees of Washington College, who had deputed the Reverend Professor Armstrong to represent the College, and that the causes of the complaint thus presented had been existing, in part, since the establishment of the Institute, and, further, that legal advice had been sought and obtained upon the points at issue, no intimation had been or was made to me by any of the authorities of the College either of the existence of any ground of complaint, or of any intention to make such complaint. When it is borne in mind that the two institutions are under reciprocal obligations of connection and cooperation, and that any complaint on the part of the College would be promptly entertained by the authorities of the Institute, the failure to serve a notice seems unaccountable. I am glad to be informed that this failure was unintentional, and while this fact changes, in a measure, the spirit in which the proceedinp were begun, it does not excuse so palpable a neglect.

“The information conveyed through Mr. Edmunds placed me in possession of the heads only of the complaint, presented by Professor Armstrong. In his statement furnished to the committee it was alleged that the course pursued by the officers of the Virginia Military Institute must of necessity bring that institution into direct rivalry with Washington College:

“1. In the course of instruction.

“2. In their patronage ground.

“3. There is no need of such an institution as its officers contemplate making the Virginia Miliary Institute.

“4. It is not good policy in the State to establish at Lexington a rival institution to Washington College.

“5. The Legislature never intended to establish such an institution as the Virginia Military Institute is becoming.

“Not knowing upon what grounds these positions would be maintained, I felt it to be my duty, as advised by Mr. Edmunds, to proceed to Richmond forthwith, and I requested Major Preston to accompany me. I was placed in possession of Professor Armstrong’s statement, a copy of which accompanies this report. During the two days which intervened before the meeting of the committee, a reply marked K was prepared by Major Preston and myself. In this reply it was maintained that the Virginia Military Institute was an ‘independent pubic military school, responsible to the State, and designed to provide a military education for the youth of the State’; that it was not only peculiar as to its organization and government, but so peculiar as to be altogether unlike any other institution in the State. These points were severalty enforced and established:

“1. Its public character was shown by the terms of the Act of March 29, 1839.

“2. Its independence, by reference to the same law, and to the terms of cooperation which distinctly recogniied the independence of each institution, one of the other.

“3. That it was unlimited in the character of its instruction, except that military knowledge was to be taught, and especially so in regard to the character of the pupils admitted, as shown by the law itself, and by the terms of cooperation.

“4. The peculiar system of government and discipline was urged as a reason why it could not be regarded as a rival by the existing institutions, only so far as this peculiar system was preferable to those now adopted; and so far from Washington College having cause of complaint, the records of the institution would show that the number of students in Washington College had doubled, during the period of the connection with the Institute, the average number of any former period; thai if this increase was not traceable to this connection, but to other causes, it was clear that no serious consequences had resulted from the proximity.

“Several minor points were presented by Professor Armstrong in his statement, and were severally examined and answered, especially those relating to the expenses of the cadets, and the comparative expenses of the guard, under the present and former systems. The statement thus prepared was shown to Professor Armstrong before we appeared before the committee. He expressed his determination to remodel the grounds of his argument, should he appear before the committee, but expressed a preference that the controversy should be compromised, and some plan of union or consolidation agreed upon which might prevent the rivalry complained of.

“I replied that I was not authorized by the Board of Visitors to entertain any plan of union, and could not convene them, at so short a notice, to consult upon it; and, furthermore, as the grounds of the complaint had been made pubic, and embraced points upon which erroneous impressions had gotten abroad, I felt it due to the Institute that the investigation should go on. This opinion met the approbation of the Visitors whom I was permitted to consult in Richmond, as well as of Major Preston.

“The discussion accordingly proceeded, and was commenced by Professor Armstrong, and continued by myself and Major Preston, and concluded by Professor Armstrong. The whole ground of the controversy was examined by the two parties.

“Not knowing what course the examination might take, and desirous of presenting before the committee a defense of the Institute, a reference was made by me to the charge of sectarianism alleged against the Virginia Military Institute, and a full answer was given by Major Preston to the various specifications charged. This point, however, was not aluded to by Professor Armstrong. It was rendered necessary that the committee might be advised of the cause of the coolness, which Professor Armstrong alleged to exist in Lexington towards the Board of Visitors of the Virginia Military Institute; as the change in the relations of the citizens of Lexington towards the Visitors was accounted for by Professor Armstrong as the ground of the coolness alleged to exist between Washington College and the Virginia Military Institute. This point was met by reference to two sufficient causes of alienation, if any did exist:

1. The charge of sectarianism;

2. The proceedings of the Board relative to the supply of clothing to the cadets.

“The two institutions having been fully heard, the committee asked to be excused from a consideration of the complaint, by a vote of seven to two.

“The Reverend Professor Armstrong has thought proper to renew this unpleasant controversy, by presenting the subject through the columns of the public papers. Believing any further discussion unnecessary, I have declined to take any part in such a contest.

“It became my duty to notice an anonymous communication under the signature of ‘Alumnus' which renewed the charge of sectarianism, formerly adduced against the institution, embracing in his remarks the Visitors, the officers, and the cadets; two-thirds of whom jointly and separately were believed to be of one denomination. As such a charge, if true, would justiy entitle the institution to the condemnation of the people of the State, by whose funds it was supported, I called upon ‘Alumnus’ to make known his name, and expressed my readiness to prove that his charges were unfounded. Although the circumstances were such as to warrant the beief that an opportunity for our vindication would be permitted, ‘Alumnus’ did not exhibit the firmness to meet the issue, or the honesty to correct the error.

“I, therefore, again present the subject to the notice of the Board, and hope they will fully and fairly examine the grounds upon which these charges have been based. If they are not contradicted, it will be considered by some that grounds exist for them. I do not make this request to satisfy the curiosity of such anonymous scribblers as ‘Alumnus.’ None are so bind as those who will not see. But it is due to the institution as a public school, it is due to the members of the Board and to the officers, to whom improper iniuenccs have been attributed, and it is due to the respectable denomination, thus frequently and improperly presented to the public, that the opportunity be given for a full examination of the facts at issue.

“What will be the result of the controversy which has been unexpectedly brought upon us by Washington College, it is impossible to say. The grounds of the controversy have been materialy altered since it was commenced, and may now be considered as covering only two points:

“1. That the law does not authorise the Board to admit a larger number than forty cadets, embracing both classes, pay and State cadets.

“2. That the Institute is limited in its kind of instruction to tlwse branches which are purely military.

“It must be admitted that upon the first point the terms of the law are vague, but this vagueness was, in a measure, to be accounted for in the fact that those who modeled the law had very indistinct ideas of the character of the school to be established. The scheme was regarded as chimerical, and it seems as if the Legislature had given a carte blanche to the Board to do the best they could with it.

The exposition which the Board gave to this law at the time throws great light upon the intention of the Legislature, especially as the Board embraced two members who bore a most conspicuous part in passing it. The limit thus spoken of was regarded as referring to the ‘State or ‘regular’ cadets, for there were no reasons apparent why pay cadets should not be admitted ad libitum. Motives of security to the public property required at least twenty regular or State cadets. It was proper also that a maximum limit should be prescribed, that the consideration allowed the State cadets should not be too much reduced. In every communication from the Board of Visitors to the Legislature, a distinct reference has been made to their action upon the law, as thus interpreted, and especially is this question presented in the first communication made by them after the organization of the Institute. They ask for additional means to erect a new house, and they argue that this will enable them to increase the number of pay cadets, thus adding to the security of the property, and diminishing the guard duty then discharged by the State cadets. A law appropriating $4,500 was passed on this report, and distinctly referring to it.

“Indeed, the contemporaneous expositions of the Legislature clearly established the interpretation of the law as given by the Board. When the law is examined apart from the cloud of difficulty which has been lately thrown upon it, no reasonable mind can doubt that two classes of students are included tinder it; and that the limit referred to has respect to the ‘regular cadets’ alone. At all events, until a better interpretation is given, the decision of the legislative committee last winter is final.

“Upon the second point, the clause which reads: ‘The Visitors shall have power to appoint one or more professors, qualified to give instruction in military science, and in other brancies of knowledge, which they, the said managers, shall deem essential gives the fullest power over the subject. The power is also distinctly admitted by the Trustees of Washington College, in the 6th Section of the terms of cooperation entered into between the two institutions in 1839.

“The question, however, finaly becomes one of principle, and an infringement of the corporate rights of Washington College is the platform on which their arguments must rest; for, if no principle of law or justice be violated, a modification of the law (which has been made), which would clearly confirm the powers exercised by the Board, would remedy every difficulty. To this, however, Washington College objects. They maintain that the Legislature has no right to establish a rival institution by their side. Were the question one purely of pecuniary profits, the position would be untenable, as has been distinctly affirmed by the unanimous opinion of the Court of Appeals of Virginia. But in a question in which the cause of education and military knowledge is involved, every principle of reason, justice, and humanity warrants the widest liberty. The ability of William and Mary College to accommodate and educate every student in Virginia who goes to college would, under such conditions as Washington College holds, deprive every other College in Virginia of its charter; and the interference of the Richmond Medical College with the corresponding school of the University of Virginia would be a violation of its corporate rights.

“Should the controversy result in a severance of the connection now existing between the two institutions, it would be the duty of the Board to consider the best means of securing instruction in the Physical Sciences, or whether some parts of this course may not be advantageously dispensed with. This question will arise in the consideration of the changes which it may be proper to make in the organization of the classes, and the distribution of the studies. In my report for the year 1842, to which I would again refer you, a schedule for a four year course is presented, and various arguments urged, showing the propriety of this arrangement. I may here add that it seems indispensable in an institution like this, which is designed to provide an education for the poorest of our citizens, that provision be made to suit the character of the instruction to the previous preparation of the candidates. Many cadets are now admitted, of both classes, who are very imperfectly taught in the elements of a common English education. Our regulations suppose an amount of previous preparation, which is often wanting in youths possessing good natural abilities. This suggests the propriety of forming a fourth class which shall embrace the least advanced scholars, the instruction in which shall be confined to the elements of an English education, including Grammar, Geography, History, and Arithmetic, as the principal subjects; and when time will permit, then take up the elements of Algebra, Geometry, and French. The subject is one of great importance, and will claim your attentive consideration.

“It is a source of real pride and congratulation that amid the varied trials through which the Virginia Miliary Institute has passed during the last year, its character as a seminary of learning has not been assailed. Though the law of love has been somewhat violated by our sister institution, and anonymous scribblers taunt us with sectarianism, no one has been bold enough to question the character of the school, or to reflect upon the eminent service it is now rendering to the cause of education. The greatly increased list of applicants which will be presented to the Board for admission at their present meeting, embracing youth from every portion of the State, proves the high popularity which it now enjoys. If, then, in the face of opposition and prejudice its popularity and infiuence have steadily increased, to what cause may this be traced? Not to its connection with the State, for other institutions have enjoyed this connection, with more ample means, but without a corresponding success. What then makes us differ? Two causes may be assigned: 1. The character of our discipline. 2. The character of our instruction. Parents know that here laws are not to be dead letters, that obedience is to be enforced, and the unruly wills of the youths are to be kept in subjection. We also aim to teach thoroughly whatever we undertake. Our course of instruction covers a limited field, but only that we may more faithfully plant and nurture it With these two distinguishing characteristics governing this institution, we can expect nothing but increased confidence and strength.

“Since the above was written, a resolution of the Trustees of Washington College has been presented to me by the President, indicating the determination of the trustees to appoint a Professor of Military Science, who shall reside in the College, and withdrawing their appointment and appropriation for the Professor of Tactics, on the 22d of February, next I lay the communication before the Board.

Francis H. Smith,

The action of the Trustees of Washington College in withdrawing their appointment of Cincinnati Professor from the Professor of Military Science in the Institute, was not a surprise. It was expected, and in the report of the Superintendent, above quoted, reference is made, in anticipation of the step, to the necessity for an independent provision in the Institute for instruction in the Physical Sciences. Washington College had secured the Cincinnati Fund upon very cheap terms, and the benefit to the Institute was so small, with many irregularities incident to the connection, that no one regretted the action of the trustees. Some temporary provision was made for the military instruction to the students of the College, but the time had come when it was clearly the duty of the authorities of the Institute to place the Physical Sciences upon a higher plane; and it was confidently believed that in doing this the step would be sustained by the Legislature of the State.