Virginia Military Institute—Building and Rebuilding/9

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



The strain of official duty was severely felt by me during the incessant calls made on me at that time. The Board of Visitors realized this, and were convinced that I needed respite, and acting under their advice, and by their authority, I accepted a furlough to visit Europe in 1858. It was made my duty by the Board of Visitors to visit the Military, Scientific, and Agricultural institutions of Europe with instructions to report thereon upon my return. I sailed from New York on the 9th of June, 1858, and returned on the last of December, 1858, being accompanied on my trip by three graduates of the Institute.

Being fully accredited by our Board of Visitors, and by the Governor of Virginia, I found ready access to the chief institutions of a scientific and military character in Europe, and on my return submitted a Report to the Board on “Scientific Education in Europe,” which was printed by the General Assembly of Virginia in 1859. This general report was then followed by a special Report, which was designed to suggest such modifications in the academic work of the Institute as might fit it the better to meet the’demands of the State and country.

My Report to the Board of Visitors of June 24, 1859, presents so full an outine of the scheme suggested by me for the development of the educational work of the Institute that it is proper that it should be made a part of the record:—

“In obedience to the instructions of the Board the verbal Report on Scientific Education in Europe, which I had the honor to submit at their semi-annual meeting in January, last, at Richmond, had been written out and presented, and copies of it are herewith presented for their consideration.

“Although the general views presented in this special Report were fully approved by the Board, I was not prepared at the time to mature any plan for giving definite expression to them, and it was considered best to see how far public sentiment might be in harmony with these views, before committing the institution fully to any scheme founded upon them.

“I had not expected the response to be so immediate or so full. Communications which I have received, some of them official, others semi-official, all of which will be submitted to the Board, the overwhelming list of applicants seeking admission to the privileges of the institution, and the fact that gentlemen of large means and expanded views have been awaiting an opportunity to give expression to their beneficence in the endowment of professorships in the School of Agriculture, and are at this time looking to the institution as affording the most available facilities for consummating their wishes; these are the grounds which give the force of demonstration to my convictions, that it is the present duty of the institution to assume a distinct and definite form of organization in harmony with the general principles of the Report to which I have referred.

“I beg leave, therefore, respectfully to submit, for the consideration and immediate action of the Board, the following project of the Virginia Military Institute, as a General Scientific School, with three special schools of application:— 1. Agriculture. 2. Engineering. 3.Fine Arts.

“Regarding a preparatory course of liberal general education as an essential condition for the successful prosecution of the studies in either of these special schools, I propose that no student be admitted into either of them, unless he shall have passed through the entire course of studies embraced in the fourth and third classes of the Institute, or stood such an examination before the Academic Board as shall demonstrate his proficiency in all the branches of study embraced in the courses of the first two years of the Institute.

“The first two years of academic study, as arranged under our present system, would constitute a common course for the regular graduate of the Institute, and for all those who might desire to prosecute, and graduate in, the studies of either of the special schools. At the end of the second year the candidates for regular graduation would proceed as with the courses of the third and fourth years, as at present arranged for the second and first classes; while those who desire to graduate in either of the special schools would take up the particular studies embraced in the specialty engaging their attention, respectively.

“The discipline of the institution would require no particular modification; at least it would be unwise to make any changes experimentally, but leave these to be determined by enlightened experience. The duty now imposed upon the regular cadets in the military organization of the institution would not be incompatible with the course of the engineer, agriculturist, or artist. On the contrary, the military exercises and discipline, besides the special knowledge acquired, would preeminently promote those habits of order, police and obedience to lawful authority, which are important elements of character for every good and useful citizen, but are especially needed by those who may have the control of operatives, or who may be charged with the management of large interests.

“The particular branches of instruction to be embraced in the special schools might be arranged by the Academic Board, but for the efficient development of the schools, I consider it indispensable that some division be made of the present chairs of the institution, and, in addition, two or three new chairs organized, embracing branches of study not now taught.

“The School of Agriculture will demand:—

“1. A division of the chair of Chemistry, etc., and the organization of a chair of Scientific Agriculture, embracing the subjects of Natural History, and scientific and practical Agriculture.

“2. The organization of a chair of Human Physiology and Anatomy and Veterinary Medicine.

“3. I propose also the erection of a hall for the establishment of an Agricultural Museum. The building would embrace convenient apartments for the collection of specimens of seed, plants, wood, roots, fruits, and other agricultural productions; and a Hall of Forestry in which specimens of every variety of forest timber might be collected, and arranged by proper classification. A room should be reserved in this building for models of the most approved agricultural implements.

“4. I propose the purchase of a farm for experimental and practical purposes.

“With these additional means of instruction in the special School of Agriculture, the institution would afford facilities to the agriculturist equaled by few Institutions of the kind in this or any other country.

“For the School of Civil Engineering I would propose:—

“1. A division of the chair of Engineering so as to divide between two professors the duties now manifestly too extensive for one. The class of studies embraced in each professorship might be arranged by the Academic Board. So much of the course of Mechanics as now taught might be legitimately embraced in the Department of Natural Philosophy, and, constituting what might be called the Mechanics of Engineering, would be embraced in the new chair proposed to be arranged.

“2. I propose also the erection of a Model and Drawing Room for the Department of Civil Engineering, and the introduction of suitable models, etc., as shall make the course eminently practical, as well as thoroughly scientific. The models procured by me while in Europe, which I have selected with great care, will exhibit, in part, some of the advantages likely to result from these special arrangements.

“With this single additional chair, and these facilities supplied, the School of Civil Engineering will be organized upon a basis which will tend to elevate the grade of engineers who will leave it, and must tend to increase the reputation of this department of the institution, already reflecting high credit upon it.

“For the School of Fine Arts I propose the appointment of a professor of Fine Arts, embracing Human and Landscape Drawing, Modeling and Architecture. This chair would relieve the present Department of Drawing from those branches for which there is no time under the existing arrangements of that department, and leave to it the course of topographical and industrial drawing, as more legitimately connected with the School of Engineering. I propose also to transfer the Department of Agriculture to that of Fine Arts, as there is manifestly too little time for this important branch in the laborious chair to which it is now assigned. While the School of Fine Arts, as proposed, looks to the development of native genius, by giving dignity and honor to the professional education of an artist, there is much that is comprehended in the school that would have a direct bearing upon the schools of Agriculture and Engineering, and which would, at the same time, exercise an important influence in cultivating the taste of an educated gentleman.

“As tending to promote the value and efficiency of these special schools, I would also propose the organization of a chair of History, Political Economy and English Studies, and the introduction of the Spanish language in connection with that of French, forming thus a chair of Modern Languages, in place of that of French alone.

“To sum up the make propositions embraced in the above project it is recommended that the Board at once organize:—

“1. A Department of Scientific Agriculture, with one professor.
“2. A Department of Human Physiology, Anatomy and Veterinary Medicine, with one professor.
“3. An additional professor of Engineering.
“4. A Department of Fine Arts, with one professor.
“5. A Department of History, Political Economy and English Studies, with one professor.
“6. The assignment of the Spanish language to the present Department of French, requiring no additional professor.
“7. The erection of a hall as an Agricultural Museum.
“8. The purchase of a farm for experimental and practical agriculture.
“9. The erection of a hall for Models and Drawing, in connection with the departments of Engineering and Fine Arts.

“If the Board shall approve these recommendations, in whole or in part, I then propose that they at once proceed to elect the new professors required to fill the new departments they may organize, the appointments to go into effect as soon as the means shall have been provided for their support. The reasons which urge me to press this last recommendation are urgent.

“In the first place, as I have already intimated, liberal- minded gentlemen of our own and of another state, are at this time contemplating donations to this institution, having in view the founding of two, and perhaps three, of the chairs above mentioned.

The full organization of the Institute upon the plan which I have proposed, or some similar plan, will definitely settle the essential character of the school, and will enable these gentlemen to act understandingly in bestowing their benefactions.

“Again, should my expectations in these respects be realized, I can not but hope and believe that these examples of individual beneficence would be suggestive to other gentlemen of wealth and liberality, who may be only waiting for a proper field to give expression to their views.

“And, finally, it must be remembered that this institution has, from its foundation, been essentially a self-sustaining one in the support of its professors. It receives but $1,500 from the Literary Fund of the State, as an educational institution, for which a full equivalent is returned, in the services rendered by the State cadet graduates as teachers. Should it be shown to the Legislature that private liberality has come to the aid of this State institution, in order to enable it the better to promote the important interests of Agriculture and Engineering, a strong argument would be presented for such additional aid from the Literary Fund as might sustain at least three of the chairs above mentioned.

“To these views I might add, that this Institution now has distinguished graduates in at least four of the departments which it is proposed to organize. Young men of talent and cultivation may now be secured, who would at once commence a special preparation for the sphere of usefulness to which they might be assigned, in their own alma mater, and hold themselves in readiness to enter upon their duties whenever their services should be demanded.

“Virginia, too, has at this time one or two young artists, who are making for themselves national reputation, and it has occurred to me that perhaps the services of one of these might be secured at once, and without present compensation for the advantages which the institution might afford for the prosecution of professional studies.

“With reference to the halls for the departments of Agriculture and Civil Engineering, and the purchase of a farm, I do not propose any immediate action, nor indeed any action that would commit the Institute to the expense involved in the recommendation, until means are provided to secure them. The increased receipts from the tuition fund would probably meet the expenses of erecting the new halls, and I anticipate, with some confidence, a liberal spirit from among the enlightened citizens of the vicinage, to secure the experimental farm.

“The scheme embraced in this extended outline, and the special recommendations which I have presented in connection with it, cover important measures, but yet I am persuaded I have not moved in advance either of public necessity, or of public sentiment, and, at all events, I have presented my whole plan fully and frankly, and whatever opinion the Board may form of it, I am sure they will give it a full, deliberate, and honest consideration.”

After a most careful consideration of this Report by the Board of Visitors, its recommendations were unanimously adopted, and their action was promptly followed by a donation of $20,000 by the President of the Board, Col. Philip St. George Cocke, and of $10,000 by Dr. W. Newton Mercer, of Louisiana, for the endowment of chairs in the School of Agriculture. These munificent gifts were soon followed by one of $5,000 by Mrs. E. L. Claytor, of Lynchburg, for the erection of a Hall of Natural History, to bear the name of her son, a graduate of the Institute, who had died while on duty as a Civil Engineer.

Dr. W. N. Mercer supplemented his gift by the tender of $10,000 additional, provided a like sum should be raised in Virginia, within one year. The war interfered with the execution of this scheme, as it did with plans so cordially and so encouragingly entered upon for the development of the Institute.

On the 1st of November, 1859, the President of the Board, Colonel Cocke, on behalf of the Board, submitted to the Governor, to be laid before the General Assembly, an elaborate report setting forth fully the action taken by them at their annual meeting on June 1st, in which he states:—

“Actuated by these considerations, the Board of Visitors feel it to be their duty to urge upon your Excellency, and beg that your Excellency will enforce upon the General Assembly, the importance and expediency of granting the inconsiderable, yet essential, aid from the State, which may enable the Institute to satisfy the pressing public wants, and reasonable expectations.

“In looking forward, and preparing for that future expansion which circumstances appear so clearly to indicate will be forced upon the Institute, the Board of Visitors, as well as the Superintendent, have proceeded with the utmost caution and deliberation, rather following up marked and sure indications of public wants and wishes, than venturing to anticipate them, and are resolved to apply to each advancing step, before another is taken, the sure test of demonstration or experiment.

“Pursuing this safe and cautious policy, the Board have had before them a full and interesting Report from the Superintendent on Scientific Education in Europe, a report the result of observation arid inquiry, during a recent tour in Europe, and with the special object of investigating the present state of scientific education abroad. The other members of the Academic Board have also been consulted in regard to the proposed course of instruction, and finally the Superintendent has recommended a definite plan for the ‘Organization of the Institute as a General Scientific School, with three schools of application: 1. Agriculture. 2. Engineering. 3. Fine Arts.’

“And the Board have not hesitated to adopt the plan, believing it will be ultimately carried into operation, by means of the strictest economy in the management of the finances of the Institution, by the liberal donations of public-spirited individuals, and by the aid of the Legislature. And while giving this expansion to the course of instruction in the Institute, the Board have not been unmindful of its distinctive feature as a military school, and have given important development also to this feature in the establishment of a chair of military strategy, which chair has been ably filled by the appointment of Colonel Colston as professor. Already the Board have found themselves enabled, by the donations heretofore mentioned ($20,000 by Colonel Cocke, and $10,000 by Dr. W. N. Mercer, through Hon. Wm. C. Rives), to establish a School of Agriculture, with two professors; and by means of the additional tuition fees, they can provide for another professor in the Departmcnt of Engineering, whilst the other parts of the proposed organization must remain to be filed out, as means hereafter to be placed at the disposal of the Board may justify.”

This Report received the prompt consideration of the General Assembly, and by the Act of March 28, 1860, the annuity to the Institute was increased from $9,210 to $15,000, and the sum of $20,000 was specially appropriated for building purposes.