Virginia Military Institute—Building and Rebuilding/7

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



Under the instructions of the Board of Visitors I spent some time in Richmond in the winter of 1845-46, in making known the wants of the institution, and appeared before a committee of the General Assembly for this purpose. The subject was taken up at too late a period in tie session to secure definite action at that time; but at the next session a bill was passed adding one thousand dollars to our annuity. This was a further recognition of the value of the Virginia Military Institute to the State, and it enabled the Board of Visitors to make immediate provision for the appointment of a Professor of the Physical Sciences, aiming at the same time to secure such an officer that his duties might include those of Commandant of Cadets and Instructor of Tactics, thus giving relief to the over-burdened chair held by Captain Williamson.

The choice happily fell upon Lieut. William Gilham, of the U. S. Army, a distinguished graduate of West Point, who had gained distinction in the army of General Taylor in the battle of Palo Alto and Resaca in Mexico. In the organization of the department of Physical Sciences to be assigned to Major Gilham, the design was to meet the wants of the State in this important field of research. It was also intended to transfer from the mathematical department the course of Boucharlat's [1] Mechanics, which I had taught by way of supplementing the course taught the cadets at Washington College, while, in addition, Major Gilham would teach Optics and Astronomy, and also Chemistry, Mineralogy and Geology. No laboratory instruction had been given to the cadets in Chemistry and Mineralogy, and special care was to be taken in this line. Tim outline of work thus presented to the new professor was a very broad one. It embraced work that might well occupy the time of two or three professors. But a beginning had to be made in the new department, and the development of the courses happily fell upon an officer who was most admirably qualified for it.

In command of the battalion of cadets, Major Gilham had no superior. Quick, accurate, and self-possessed, he had a magnetic power on the drill which made the corps of cadets superior even to the cadets at West Point.

In the department of Natural Philosophy he was thoroughly a master, for he had been an assistant professor under Professor Bartlett at West Point in this department for three years.

But his great work was in organizing and developing tie department of Chemistry and Mineralogy, and although the war interrupted him in the midst of his plans, he had placed his department in such a state of efficiency that his adjunct professor, Major M. B. Hardin (who subsequently filled his chair), was enabled to carry forward this interesting and most important course with unexampled force and distinction. Indeed the claims on the time of Major Gilham in the work to which he was called in the application of his department to the agricultural interests of the State were such that it became necessary to provide a separate professor to take charge of the department of Natural and Experimental Philosophy, embracing Mechanics, Astronomy, and Optics, and to this chair Maj. Thomas J. Jackson of the U. S. Army was called in 1851, as will be more fully explained presently.

The messing of the cadets was done by contract, with a steward duly appointed by the Board. When the school was first opened, this was, I suppose, a necessity at the beginning. But the objections to the system were so obvious that as soon as I could see the way clear to remedy it I presented to the Board of Visitors a plan for reorganization.

Under the existing system the contractor had the table pretty much under his own control. His interest guided him in his expenditures, and whether he was to blame or not for the fare, there were always those who thought he might do better for the price paid. I think the stewards we had were faithful and honest men; but, in my view, the Institute ought to have absolute control of the mess, as it had of the clothing, and thus be at liberty to improve the fare, if the price for boarding would justify it. Besides, the minute official inspection of the mess hall, kitchen, etc., could not be made when all the time it appeared like encroaching on the private premises of the steward and his family.

These considerations led to a change in the system, January 1, 1849, which change made the Institute the purveyor, and a steward was appointed to see that the supplies provided for the mess were of standard quality, and were served in the neatest style. The change was not made without many hindrances and annoyances, but experience has so fully demonstrated its value that it is difficult to realize now how we could get along at all under the old system. Besides, the price charged the cadets for board gave some profit, and this profit was used to improve the quality and variety of the fare, and to add to the comfort of the mess. Indeed, the State, through the Institute, has had many thousands of dollars added to the value of its property through the economical administration of the mess hall.

The time had now come when I thought that the State should more distinctly recognize the Virginia Military Institute as an important factor in the educational work of the State. Every step in its progress from the beginning had been trod with care and self-reliance. The experiment which was considered doubtful had been crowned with unexampled success; and although the results achieved had come in the midst of obstructions and embarrassing difficulties, the school was borne steadily onward and upward, until the end of the first decade demonstrated that it had earned for itself a reputation which the State could not fall to recognize.

The rude soldiers’ barracks alone gave the necessary shelter to the corps of cadets. These were enlarged and improved, upon the most economical basis, to provide for the increased demand for admission from those who were willing to pay their own expenses.

It is true a small appropriation of $4,500 had been made by the State in 1840 for a mess hall and for water, and a like sum in 1848 for Superintendent’s quarters; but the cadets were still living in the old and uncompleted soldiers’ barracks, or in the rooms added to them, of small dimensions, while no suitable provision had been made for lecture rooms, society halls, or library.

When the Board of Visitors met in June, 1848, I submitted to them the question of making an appeal to the Legislature for the appropriation of $50,000 in three annual payments, to be used in removing the old barracks and constructing a new building, upon the most approved architectural plan, so that the institution should be presented, in its buildings and grounds, in such proportions and beauty as would be in harmony with its established reputation as the military and scientific school of Virginia. There were those on the Board who regarded the application as unwise. These would hail with pleasure the success of such an appeal to the State, but they apprehended failure, and they feared the damaging effect of such failure. But we had two members on that Board who knew no such word as failure, and who most earnestly seconded the recommendation; and these were Philip St. George Cocke, Esq., and Gen. William H. Richardson. Mr. Cocke said with emphasis that his “negroes were better quartered than the cadets were,” and General Richardson was most emphatic in his opinion that the General Assembly would appropriate the necessary means.

The following extract from the Annual Report of the Board of Visitors, of date July 4, 1848, will clearly present the grounds on which this important application to the Legislature was based:

“The State has made a successful experiment She has substituted educated and intelligent students, taken in all cases from her own children, and made them the guardians of her means of defense; and by educating them, and sending them forth as instructors throughout the Commonwealth, she has made even the means of defense less necessary. The moral power of an intelligent and disciplined corps of young men, annually sent to mix in the affairs of society, will exercise the greatest influence in maintaining respect abroad and peace at home. Young men who are educated in a strong moral sense of the duties of patriotism will not desert the standard of the Commonwealth, nor see the flag trailed in the dust; and educated for usefulness, and trained to virtue, their influence in all the relations of society must be beneficent.

“Such, in the opinion of this Board, is the character of this Institute, and such the results which manifest themselves in no equivocal manner, flowing from its discipline and system of education. This course of learning was substituted for the common duties of the public guard. The buildings which for many years have been used by this guard, were converted into apartments for the cadets of the Institute. The Institute itself has been in operation for more than nine years. The building has been enlarged, from time to time; it has had new stories elevated upon old walls; and temporary constructions added, with many disadvantages to the buildings already erected, excluding proper light and ventilation, and, more than all, not admitting that police and discipline necessary to the perfection of the system so auspiciously commenced. The expense of these additional buildings, and the outlay that has been necessary to keep the whole in habitable repair, has been met by the funds of the Institute, without one dollar by the State. The thorough repair of the various buildings has become a matter of necessity, and it is submitted whether the truest considerations of public economy will direct a permanent and substantial repair, or the erection of new buildings, adapted to the wants of the institution, and its system of education. If the former shall be determined upon, it should be executed thoroughly, and without delay. If the latter, an annual appropriation, extending over several years, should be made, and the work speedily commenced, and steadily prosecuted to its accomplishment. A majority of the Board recommend the latter.”

I regretted that this able report did not carry with it the unanimous voice of the Board. The force of the argument was necessarily much weakened by the fact that a majority of the Board only concurred in it.

Still, this report, supported as it was by statements of facts, and by argument before a committee of the Legislature by Mr. Cocke and the Superintendent, led to important results, and, on the 16th of March, 1849, the following Act was passed:

“Whereas, it is represented to the General Assembly by the Board of Visitors of the Virginia Military Institute, that a thorough repair of the buildings of said institution has become a matter of necessity, and that the accommodations now provided are insufficient for the number of cadets now admitted, or who are applicants for admission; and it is proper that such repairs should be made, and that the benefits of said institution should be extended:

“1. Be it, therefore, enacted by the General Assembly, that the Board of Visitors of the Virginia Military Institute, at their next annual meeting, ascertain by personal examination whether a more suitable location for the Institute can be had, combining the advantages of health and grounds better adapted to all military exercises; what this public property at Lexington will sell for (as nearly as may be) in the event of a removal of the Institute from that place; what will be the cost of locating it elsewhere, including lands and buildings, and report fully thereupon, before the first Monday in December, next, to the Governor, that the same may be laid before the General Assembly.

“2. Be it further enacted, that the said Visitors do also report upon the expediency and expense of repairing the present buildings, or the erection of such buildings as may be deemed necessary for the accommodation of the cadets, and the cost thereof.”

When it is remembered that only ten years had elapsed since this new enterprise of substituting a military school for the public guard was undertaken, this Act evidences a high appreciation on the part of the General Assembly of the work of the school.

The form of the action taken by the General Assembly requires some notice and explanation.

The friends of the Institute had seen, with great dissatisfaction, the unfriendly, if not hostile, attitude sustained by the town of Lexington towards the Virginia Military Institute, as exhibited: first, in the presentment by the grand jury and subsequent prosecution of the Superintendent, upon the charge of selling goods without a license; second, in the effort to assail the Institute and its administration upon the charge of sectarianism; and, third, in the still more serious attempt made by the Trustees and Faculty of Washington College to circumscribe the work of the Institute; all of which proceedings, if not prompted by the public sentiment of the town, were certainly promoted by it. And, therefore, the friends of the Institute in the General Assembly, in the passage of the Act, were seriously contemplating the question of moving the Institute from so unfriendly a community. The purpose was to place the institution, in regard to its public buildings, upon the highest plane of dignity, beauty, and usefulness, but, before appropriating the large sums of money needed for this object, they desired to examine into the question, so as to remove the school from the worry and annoyances which had marked the whole of its career, from the time that its position as an independent, useful, and popular institution had been established.

The people of Rockbridge County, and the Trustees of Washington College, at once saw the significance of the Act of March 16, 1849. The people of Rockbridge realized that the annual expenditure of from $50,000 to $75,000 in their midst was too valuable a consideration to be lost. The Trustees of the College could not but notice the fact that so far from the proximity of the Institute to the College being a disadvantage to the College, the average number of students in the College had been doubled since the establishment of the Institute, whilst a great stimulus had been given to their educational work, the necessary result of a generous rivalry.

A public meeting was held in the court-house of the citizens of the County of Rockbridge at which Governor James McDowell presided, and at this meeting the following resolution was adopted:

“Resolved, that the Military Institute deriving its students as much from the most remote portions of the State as from its immediate vicinity, as a State institution there is not, and can not be, any conflict of interest between it and Washington College, resulting from their proximity to each other. That we rejoice to see the harmony that prevails between the professors, students, and cadets of the two institutions, in the success of which we feel a deep interest, and the prosperous condition of which reflects credit on the County and State. And we are gratified to find that the only effect of their being located in the same vicinity has been to stimulate the professors and students in both to extraordinary exertions in their respective avocations.”

And on the 21st of June, 1849, the Trustees of Washington College tendered to the Board of Visitors of the Virginia Military Institute the following preamble and resolution:

“Whereas, certain action of the Virginia Legislature and of a Public Meeting of the Citizens of Rockbridge, on the .removal of the Virginia Military Institute, has given rise to rumors of a certain character; and, whereas, various members of this body conceive that an expression of the views of this Board on the subject is at once courteous to the Board of Visitors, and agreeable to the public sentiment of this community, therefore:

“Resolved, that this Board, while declining allw ish or authority to influence the Board of Visitors, do hereby cordially and, candidly assure that body that the Trustees of Washington College have no desire for any change in the present location of the Virginia Military Institute, and no disposition to interfere in the slightest manner with its management, and, in their opinion, there need be no conflict between the two institutions to disturb their present harmonious relations.

[Signed] SAMUEL McD. REID,

To this resolution of the Trustees of Washington College the following response was made by the Visitors of the Virginia Military Institute:

“GENTLEMEN—The Visitors of the Virginia Military Institute have entrusted to us the following duty of responding, in their name, and with their unanimous sanction, to the kindly and liberal sentiments contained in the Preamble and Resolution adopted by the Trustees of Washington College on the 21st of June, 1849.

“The Visitors assure the Trustees of the College that they have not been moved or influenced in the remotest degree by the rumors adverted to, nor have they participated at all in the excitement or disquiet occasioned by them. Personally and officially they ardently desire that the most cordial and friendly relations may continue to exist between the two institutions. They heard with profound regret that these relations had been temporarily interrupted; and they have heard since, with unaffected satisfaction and delight, that the most entire harmony now prevails.

“The sentiments expressed by the Trustees give assurance that this harmony will be hereafter preserved in all its integrity, and the Visitors sincerely hope that the only rivalry which will mark the future course of the two institutions will consist in a generous emulation, a noble desire to be foremost among those institutions of learning which are now engaged in imparting intelligence and refinement to Virginia’s sons.

“Accept the assurances of our high personal consideration for yourselves, and our earnest wishes for the prosperity of the institution over which you preside.


The proceedings of the citizens of the County of Rockbridge, and the action of the Trustees of Washington College indicated that great changes had taken place in the expressed public sentiment.

The Board of Visitors, however, proceeded with the duty enjoined upon them by the Act of March 16, 1849. They visited Winchester, Harrisonburg, Waynesboro, and Salem, and overtures were made from Alexandria, Romney, and Martinsburg. These three last places were deemed to be too near the border. Propositions for the donation of large tracts of land were made, but the Board, after a careful consideration of all the questions before them, stated, “that if the question were an original one of location, grounds better adapted for military purposes than those immediately connected with the Institute may be found, and at places equally healthy, but considering the extent and cost of the buildings already erected here, and the great loss the State would sustain by removal to another place, the Board were impressed with the importance of overcoming, if possible, the natural difficulties of the position, so as to avoid the sacrifice which must result from a removal, and therefore deem it inexpedient to remove the Institute from its present location.”

A careful comparison was then made of the cost of repairs to the old buildings, and of building new ones, and a decided opinion given for the erection of new buildings, at an estimated cost of $46,300.

The report of the Board was duly submitted to the General Assembly, by the Governor, and the subject referred to an appropriate committee.

Having been directed by the Board of Visitors to appear before this committee, explain the necessity for the appropriation asked for, and to watch the progress of the bill in its various stages through the two houses, much of my time was spent in Richmond after the 1st of January, 1850. In the work assigned to me I was effectively supported by members of the Board, particularly by Adjutant-General Richardson and Philip St. George Cocke, and on the 8th of March, 1850, my labors and anxieties were more than repaid by the passage of an Act by a very large majority through both houses, appropriating $46,000, in three equal annual payments, for the erection of cadets’ barracks at the Virginia Military Institute.

The successful passage of this bill was made the more gratifying by reason of the fact that on the 4th of February orders were received from Adjutant-General Richardson, directing the corps of cadets to proceed to Richmond, that they might be present at the ceremony of laying the cornerstone of the Washington Monument [ July 4th, 1848.] The president of the United States was to be present on the occasion, [ James Knox Polk, President March 4, 1845 – March 4, 1849] and the corps of cadets designated to be his body-guard. The whole scene was an imposing one, and so much impressed was President Taylor [ Zachary Taylor, President March 4, 1849 – July 9, 1850], with the soldierly bearing of the cadets, that he ordered a battery of six-pounder guns to be made especially for their use. This was a battery of six guns, made of bronze, bearing the arms of the State of Virginia, of lighter weight than the ordinary service guns. It formed what was afterwards historically known as the Cadet Battery. It constituted a part of the artillery serving in the Stonewall Brigade at the battle of First Manassas, and was used to bear the remains of Lieut. Gen. T. J. Jackson from the cadets’ barracks to their last resting place. It was finally captured by General Hunter, when the Institute was burnt in 1864; was returned by the orders of the Secretary of War, handsomely remounted, and is still used by the cadets at all artillery drills.

The distinguished position held by the Cadet Battalion on this trip led to their being invited to the cities of Petersburg and Norfolk, in both of which they were received and entertained with true Virginia hospitality. After returning to Richmond from this excursion, the cadets embarked for their homes, and regular duties were resumed on the 14th of March, 1850.

Telegraphic communication did not exist in those days. Mails were slow, taking two and a half days from Richmond to Lexington. Upon the passage of the Act of March 8, 1850, I immediately hurried home, to communicate the good news. My horse, “Old Coaly,” met me in Staunton, so that I rode on horseback from Staunton to Lexington on the 10th of March, reaching Lexington at 4 P.M.

No one knew of the passage of the bill. I kept it a profound secret from every one but my wife; and requesting her to have a nice supper prepared, I wrote a note to Major Preston, and invited him to come down and bring our friend John B. Lyle with him, and take supper, and I would then give them an account of the condition and prospects of our bill. They promptly came, but found me very slow to answer their many questions. I told them I had a great deal to talk about, that I had had a long ride, was very hungry, and after we had all taken a good supper and then a smoke, I should be prepared to talk about public matters. There was nothing in my manner to indicate success. They knew I had had a busy time, and while Major Preston hoped for good news, Lyle was skeptical.

At last supper was over, and we were all seated around the fire, for the weather was cold, and allowing my wife to form one of the council, I commenced to unfold my budget.

“Well, gentlemen, what do you think here as to the prospects of our bill?” Preston said: “Well, I am in hopes the visit of the cadets will have a good effect.” But Lyle put in: “Too much money for the State to appropriate. I always thought Smith was too sanguine in expecting to get $50,000. The State is never going to pull down all these buildings. It is all nonsense.”

In conversation of this kind some half hour or more was spent, and as the minutes glided on, and no revelation made by me of the result the hopes of both seemed to be getting lower and lower, especially as I answered them by giving them some incidents of the trip, and particularly an account of the presentation of a battalion flag to the corps of cadets. The presentation speech was made by James B. Dorman, Esq., a member of the House of Delegates, in the name of the alumni and responded to by Cadet Charles Denby (now, 1885, U. S. Minister to China), on behalf of the cadets. When Major Preston said: “Well, Colonel, when do you think our bill will come up, for it is getting late in the session?” I replied, “Our bill was called up on the 8th of March,” speaking very slowly, “on its final passage,” and, putting my hand to my pocket, I went through the form of drawing out a bag, “and here I have the neat little sum of forty-six thousand dollars to begin with.” I took them so much by surprise, that they would not credit me.

“What’s that you say?” asked Preston. “None of your nonsense,” said Lyle, and neither would be satisfied until I showed them the documents in a certified copy of the Act of March 8, 1850.

Nothing could exceed the joy of this little company. Here we were, four only in number, enjoying to ourselves what no one else in Lexington knew, that in the first year of the second decade in the life of the Virginia Military Institute, the State of Virginia had so signally impressed her seal of approbation upon the work accomplished by this young school, as to provide for cadet’s barracks upon the most extended scale, and most approved plan, and, by the Act of March 8, 1850, appropriated $46,000 to begin the good work.

Comment is unnecessary.

The liberal appropriation made by the Act of March 8, 1850, was followed by further appropriations, as occasion required, as follows:

March 29, 1852, heating and lighting___________$30,000
March 4, 1854, addition to barracks___________20,000
March, 1856, Houdon’s Washington, by Hubert__10,000
March 31,1858, cadet barracks and water_______25,000
March 28, 1860, additional buildings___________20,000
Previously appropriated, March 8, 1850________46,000

Totaled $151,000

Thus, in the space of ten years, constituting the second decade in the life of the Virginia Military Institute, the State had shown its appreciation of this important institution by the appropriation of $151,000 for building purposes, including the statue of Washington, that nothing might be wanting to make it effective for usefulness to the State.

In securing all these appropriations it was made my duty, as the representative of the institution, to appear before the appropriate committees. I was at all times most courteously received, and seeing the credit given to my statements by members, I was always particular to present the wants of the institution clearly and explicitly before them, and in pressing our claims I think I was able to demonstrate to the General Assembly that in fostering the Virginia Military Institute, the State was securing an important establishment for her educational and industrial development, and at the same time providing for her defense in the event of war. Indeed, the preamble to the Act of March 28, 1860, recites that “it appearing further that the corps of cadets, in the course of their regular military education, may readily be employed to prepare such munitions of war, as may be demanded by the wants of the State.

“1. Be it enacted, etc, etc. . . .”

Note: [1] Boucharlat, Jean Louis (1775-1848)