Virginia Military Institute—Building and Rebuilding/8

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



The second decade in the life of the Virginia Military Institute opened with the preparation for another of the distinctive parts to be borne by it in promoting the great interests of the State. It had entered upon its work from the beginning with the lofty purpose of doing its whole duty to the State.

1st. In supplying teachers who should be qualified to take with them the training here received, in its thoroughness and in its discipline, into the schools of the Commonwealth.

2d. In elevating the standard of scientific education in Virginia.

But now it was called to a more important work, in providing for the defense of the State, by reason of the threatening probabilities of Civil War.

When the corner-stone of the new barracks was laid on the 4th of July, 1850, an address appropriate to the occasion was delivered by the Hon. John W. Brockenbrough. In this address reference was made to the portentous cloud which was gathering in the North, and to the wisdom of the maxim, “In peace prepare for war.”

The military education and discipline here supplied were designed by the State as a means of preparation for the casualties of war; for, upon the élèves of the Virginia Military Institute the State must rely for her defense.

As important in this preparation I note the call of Brevet Major Thomas J. Jackson of the United States Army to the professorship of Natural and Experimental Philosophy, and Instructor of Artillery, by the Board of Visitors on the 21st of March, 1851.

The Board of Visitors had been sensible of the heavy burden borne by Major Gilham in the important department which he so ably filled. His active mind was constantly developing his courses, particularly in the applications of Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Geology, to the agricultural interests of the State, and also to the Arts. There was a constant demand made upon him in the varied interests which his department embraced, while, in addition, his duties as Commandant of Cadets and Instructor of Tactics made daily demands upon his services. The Board of Visitors, in view of this state of things, determined to establish a new chair, and to secure, if possible, a graduate from West Point, who might relieve Major Gilham of Natural and Experimental Philosophy, and Artillery, and the Superintendent was instructed to make inquiry as to a suitable person to fill this chair.

I immediately went to West Point, and sought information in aid of this scheme from the Superintendent and Professors, and then visited the War Department at Washington. The result was, that I was supplied with the names of several of the graduates of West Point who were recommended to me as possessing peculiar qualifications for the new chair. Among those thus recommended, I note Gen. George B. McClellan, General Rosecrans, General Reno, and Brevet Major T. J. Jackson. I did not know personally any of the parties named, but the notes of the merits of each were laid before the Board of Visitors, which met in Richmond in March, 1851. So strongly were the claims of Major Jackson pressed on me by Major D. H. Hill, then a professor in Washington College, and who had served with him in Mexico, that I was prompted to write to him and ask him whether he would permit me to submit his name to the Board for appointment to this chair. He replied as follows:

Fort Meade, Fla., Feb. 25, 1851.

Dear Sir — I have just received your communication of the 4th instant, containing the kind proposition of bringing my name before the Board of Visitors of the Virginia Military Institute as a candidate for the professorship of Natural and Experimental Philosophy.

Though strong ties bind me to the Army, yet I can not consent to decline so flattering an offer. Please present my name to the Board, and accept my thanks for your kindness.

I am, sir,
Very respectfully,
Your obedient servant,
[Signed] T. J. Jackson.

When the Board of Visitors met and the recommendations of the officers who had been named to me had been read, Hon. John Brannon, then State Senator from Lewis County, arose and nominated Major Thomas J. Jackson to the chair. He said he was from the section of the State which he represented in the Senate; that he was well known in western Virginia, and the distinguished reputation he had gained in Mexico made him the idol of the people, and his election to the chair would greatly strengthen the Institute in that section. This nomination was promptly seconded, and Major Jackson was unanimously elected.

The notification of his election was immediately communicated to him, and I received the following response:—

Fort Meade, Fla., April 22, 1851.

Colonel — Your letter of the 28th ultimo, informing me that I had been elected Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy, and Artillery Tactics in the Virginia Military Institute, has been received.

The high honor conferred by the Board of Visitors in selecting me unanimously to fill such a professorship gratified me exceedingly.

I hope to be able to meet the Board on the 25th of June, next, but fear that circumstances over which I have no control will prevent my doing so before that time. For your kindness in endeavoring to procure me a leave of absence for six months, as well as for the interest you have otherwise manifested in my behalf, I feel under strong and lasting obligations.

Should I desire a furlough of more than one month, commencing on the 1st of July, next, it will be for the purpose of visiting Europe.

I regret that recent illness has prevented my giving you an earlier answer. Any communication which you may have to make previous to the 1st of June, please direct to this place.

I am, Colonel,
Very respectfuly,
Your obedient servant,
T. J. Jackson.

To Col Francis Smith,
Sup’t Virginia Military Institute,
Lexington, Rockbridge County, Virginia.

Major Jackson duly reported for duty, and took charge of the classes in Natural and Experimental Philosophy on the 1st of September, 1851. He took command also of the Cadet Battery, gave instruction in Artillery, and in the preparation of ordnance, and he continued in the active discharge of these duties until April, 1861, when he was called upon to enter upon that career of distinction which in two years made the name of Stonewall Jackson immortal.

It could not have entered into the mind of any one, while these arrangements were being made for the efficiency of the educational course of the Virginia Military Institute, and in the preparation for the defense of the State, that we were to be engaged in training for the distinguished career that awaited him — the renowned hero, Stonewall Jackson. Yet so it was. The ten years of his labors as professor in the Virginia Military Institute, from the fall of 1851 to the spring of 1861, were the preparation years for his two years of military glory in the army of the Confederate States, and in these two years the modest professor who, when nominated to the Convention of Virginia in May, 1861, by Governor Letcher, as Colonel of Infantry, was so little known that the call was made by members of the Convention, “Who is this Thomas J. Jackson in two years became the world-renowned hero, of whom it has been truly written:

“ ‘Twas his to strike
With living fire the hearts of men;
To lead them through the battle storm,
As though it were a summer rain;
To make his name the rallying cry
That bore our hosts to victory on,
A household word in foreign lands,

Wherever Freedom’s throb is known.

“A little child
In simple and unquestioning faith,
‘Twas his to be the world renowned,
Sublime in life, sublime in death;
Twas his from vanquished foes
To wrest a tribute to his worth,
Then, at God’s will to lay aside
The highest honor known to earth.”

It is not my purpose to present in this History of the Virginia Military Institute a memoir of Stonewall Jackson. This belongs to the history of the great struggle for Southern Independence in which he was a master spirit, and will be written by other hands.

But it is proper to connect his work at the Virginia Miitary Institute, during the eventful years of his life here, with the special work which did so much to establish his own fame, and to add honor to the institution which placed him in this special field of his usefulness and distinction.

As a Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy, Major Jackson was not a success. He had not the qualifications needed for so important a chair. He was no teacher, and he lacked the tact required in getting along with his classes. Every officer and every cadet respected him for his many sterling qualities. He was a brave man, a conscientious man, and a good man, but he was no professor. His genius was in the Science and Art of War. He found a field for the display of this genius when the war opened in 1861, and it is doubtful whether any soldier ever lived who won and deserved so high a reputation as was achieved by Stonewall Jackson in the brief period of his military career.

When the war opened all the professors of the Institute went into the military service under the military commissions they held from the State, and they were placed on furlough by the Board of Visitors to enable them to do this, and during the temporary suspension of the school, made necessary by the demand on the corps of cadets to act as drill masters to the Confederate States, as they rendezvoused at Camp Lee, Richmond.

This duty by the cadets was faithfully performed during the summer of 1861, and, by the effective instruction given to the troop at Camp Lee, they were, in great measure, prepared for the first victory of the war at Manassas. But it soon was made the duty of the Board of Visitors to resume the regular work of the Institute, and accordingly the professors and cadets were ordered to report at the Institute on the 1st of January, 1862. To this circular letter from the Board of Visitors, General Jackson addressed the following reply:—

Heaquarters 1st Brigade, 2d Corps, A. P.,
Centreville, Oct. 22, 1861.

Gentlemen — Your circular of the 9th instant has been received, and I beg leave to say in reply that I only took the field from a sense of duty, and that the obligation that brought me into service still retains me in it, and will probably continue to do so as long as the war shall last. At the close of the hostilities I desire to assume the duties of my chair, and accordingly respectfuly request that if consistent with the interest of the Institute the action of the Board of Visitors may be such as to admit of my return upon the restoration of peace.

your obedient servant,
T. J. Jackson,
Prof. Nat. & Exp. Phil., V. M. I.

Gen. Wm. H. Richardson,
Gen. T. H. Raymond, } Committee

The following order from the Adjutant-General of Virginia announces the close of the brilliant career of Lieut-Gen. T. J. Jackson.

Adjutant-General’s Office, Virginia,
May 11, 1863.

Sir — By command of the Governor, I have this day to perform the most painful duty of my official life, in announcing to you, and through you to the Faculty and cadets of the Virginia Military Institute, the death of the great and good, the heroic and illustrious, Lieut-Gen. T. J. Jackson, at fifteen minutes past three o’clock yesterday.

This heavy bereavement, over which every true heart in the Confederacy mourns with irrepressible sorrow, must fall, if possible, with heavier force upon that noble State Institution to which he came from the battlefield of Mexico, and where he gave to his native State the first year’s service of his modest and unobtrusive but public-spirited life. It would be a senseless waste of words to attempt an eulogy upon this great among the greatest of the sons who have immortalized Virginia. To the corps of cadets of the Virginia Military Institute, what a legacy he has left you! What an example of all that is good and great and true in the character of a Christian soldier!

The Governor directs that the highest funeral honors be paid to his memory; that the customary outward badges of mourning be worn by all the officers and cadets of the institution.

By Command,

Maj.-Gen. F. H. Smith,
Superintendent Virginia Military Institute.


MAY 13, 1863.


It is the painful duty of the Superintendent to announce to the officers and cadets of this institution the death of their late associate and professor, Lieut-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson. He died at Guinea’s Station, Caroline County, Virginia, on the 10th instant, of pneumonia, after a short but violent illness, supervening upon the severe wounds received in the battle of Chancellorsville. A nation mourns the loss of General Jackson. First in the hearts of the brave men he has so often led to victory, there is not a home in the Southern Confederacy that will not feel the loss, and lament it as a great national calamity. But our loss is distinctive. He was peculiarly our own. He came to us in 1851 a Lieutenant and Brevet Major of Artillery, from the Army of the late United States, upon the unanimous appointment of the Board of Visitors, as Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy, and instructor of Artillery. Here he labored with scrupulous fidelity for ten years in the duties of these important offices. Here he became a Soldier of the Cross, and as a humble, conscientious and useful Christian man, he established the character which has developed into the world-renowned Christian hero.

On the 21st of April, 1861, upon the order of His Excellency, Governor Letcher, he left the Institute in command of the corps of cadets, for Camp Lee, Richmond, for service in defense of his State and country, and he has never known a day of rest until called by Divine command to cease from his labors.

The military career of General Jackson fills the most brilliant and most momentous page in the history of our country, and in the achievement of our arms, and he stands forth a colossal figure in this war for our independence. His country now returns him to us, not as he was when he left us. His spirit has gone to God who gave it, and his mutilated body comes back to us, to his home, to be laid by us in the tomb. Reverently and affectionately we will discharge this last solemn duty, and

“Though his earthly sun is set,
Its light shall linger round us yet,

Bright, radiant, blest.”


The memory of General Jackson is very precious to you. You know how faithfuly, how conscientiously he discharged every duty. You know that he was emphatically a man of God, and that Christian principle impressed every act of his life. You know how he sustained the honor of our arms when he commanded at Harper’s Ferry; how gallantly he repulsed Patterson at Hainesvile; the invincible stand he made with his Stonewall Brigade at Manassas; you know the briliant series of successes and victories which immortalized his Valley Campaign, for many of you were under his standard at McDowell, and pursued and discomfited Milroy and Schenck at Franklin. You know his rapid march to the Chickahominy; how he turned the flank of McClellan at Gaines Mill; his subsequent victory over Pope at Cedar Mountain; the part he bore in the great victory at Second Manassas; his investment and capture of Harper’s Ferry; his rapid march and great conflict at Sharpsburg; and when his last conflict was passed, the tribute of the magnanimous Lee, who would gladly have suffered in his own person, could he by that sacrifice have saved General Jackson, and to whom alone, under God, he gave the whole glory of the great victory at Chancelorsvlle. Surely the Virginia Military Institute has a precious inheritance in the memory of General Jackson. His work is finished. God gave him to us, and to his country. He fitted him for his work, and when his work was done He called him to Himself. Submissive to the will of his heavenly Father, it may be said of him, that while in every heart there may be some murmuring, his will was to do and suffer the will of God.

Reverence the memory of such a man as General Jackson. Imitate his virtues, and here, over his lifeless remains, reverently dedicate your service, and your life, if need be, in defense of the cause so dear to his heart; the cause for which he fought and bled, the cause in which he died.

Let the Cadet Battery, which he so long commanded, honor his memory by half-hour guns tomorrow, from sunrise to sunset, under the direction of the commandant of cadets. Let his lecture room be draped in mourning for the period of six months.

Let the officers and cadets of the Institute wear the usual badge of mourning for the period of thirty days; and it is respectfully recommended to the alumni of the institution to unite in this last tribute of respect to the memory of their late professor.

All duties will be suspended to-morrow.
By Command of Major-General Smith,
A. Govan Hill,
Acting Adjutant, V. M. I.

But I resume now the record of the Virginia Military Institute.

Our discipline was brought to a severe test by a rebelion in the corps of cadets in the spring of 1851.

Public duty carried me to the North. While absent a most exciting criminal trial took place before the Circuit Court holding its session in Lexington, founded upon indictments of parties for the murder of a family near House Mountain. The trial was one which enlisted great and very general interest, and when the argument commenced, Major Preston, acting Superintendent, gave permission to cadets to attend the court. This permission embraced absence from duty for three or four days, and it was generally expected that the associate Commonwealth’s attorney, Thos. J. Michie, Esq., would close the argument on Saturday evening, and give the case to the jury. He did not finish his argument, as was expected, and it was resumed on the following Monday. The first class presented a “permit” to Major Preston for an extension of their privilege that they might hear the close of Mr. Michie’s speech. This was refused by Major Preston, by reason of the indulgence granted, and which had been specialy limited to Saturday evening. The class disregarded the refusal of Major Preston, absented themselves from all duty, and went to the Courthouse. The other classes, in order, followed the example of the first class, but asked no permission. They took it for granted that it would be refused, so that all the cadets, except those on guard, or sick, absented themselves from their duties. There was perfect order in this crowd of rebels. They wanted the liberty to hear the closing argument. It had been denied them, and they took it without leave, and, after this was over, they went on with their regular duty.

Mr. Michie had just reached the height of his argument on Saturday evening when the court adjourned. His speech was one of great power and eloquence, and every one was absorbed in the interest which it excited.

Major Preston promptly reported to me, on my return, all the facts connected with the affair, and seemed to think the discipline, under the peculiar circumstances, might be maintained without a resort to the extreme penalty. We talked over the matter very freely, and I reserved my opinion for the next Monday, allowing the intervention of Sunday.

I had to deal with the case as it was presented to me by him, acting as he was as the Superintendent, and I could take no other view of the case than that of its being a direct resistance to lawful authority, and I never doubted for one moment what my duty demanded, and that was to dismiss every member of the first class who had absented himself from duty. The first class was specially responsible.

They had asked permission to go to Lexington, and it had been refused. The other classes had not asked permission. Had the first class been faithful to duty, the other classes would have followed their example.

Having prepared my order, accompanying it with a carefully written paper, giving in distinct terms the grounds of my action, I convened the first class, and read to them my order with the accompanying paper. The action taken by me was a surprise, and yet there was not one who did not regard the action as proper and necessary. They of course regretted it, but they felt that they deserved dismissal.

To show the spirit of the class, one of them had gone to Lexington, and met a gentleman not very friendly to the Institute or to myself, who asked the cadet if it was true that I had dismissed the entire first class. When informed that it was true, he broke out into violent denunciation of me for the “outrage” as he styled it. The cadet replied: “I don’t see what you have to do with the matter. There is not a man in the class that blames Colonel Smith, and we think he would have been unfit for his office had he done otherwise.”

When discipline produces such conviction, it is sure to be salutary.

The class made a respectful appeal to the Board of Visitors for clemency. The Board was a very able one, and was strongly inclined to reject all overtures for mercy, but after carefuly weighing all the facts and attendant circumstances, reinstated the class, but the members of the class were confined to the limits of the Institute until their graduation.

Cadet W. Y. C. Humes, the valedictorian on the Graduation Day, made a very graceful acknowledgment of the act of insubordination of his class, and of gratitude to the Board of Visitors for the clemency extended to them, and closed with an earnest appeal to his fellow cadets to take warning from their folly.

The mutterings of the war clouds which were beginning to be heard, as the Institute entered upon the second decade of its history, and which grew more threatening, as the years rolled on, admonished the Board of Visitors of the duty in peace to prepare for war.