Before the War
The Virginia Military Institute was founded on November 11, 1839, on the site of a Virginia state arsenal in Lexington, whose citizens had sought the change. (Off-duty soldiers constituted a “very undesirable element,” according to one of the town’s residents.) Norfolk-native Francis Henney Smith, an 1833 West Point graduate and a professor of mathematics at Hampden-Sydney College, was hired as the school’s first superintendent and remained in that position until 1889. Claudius Crozet—a French-born graduate of the École Polytechnique in Paris, an officer who served under Napoléon I during his invasion of Russia (1812), and a professor of engineering at West Point—was president of the Board of Visitors. The inaugural class at VMI numbered twenty-three cadets; until 1860, all cadets were from Virginia. John B. Strange of Fluvanna County became the first cadet sentinel when he relieved the arsenal guard. Strange graduated third in the class of 1842, founded the Albemarle Military Institute sometime between 1854 and 1856, and in 1862 was killed at the Battle of South Mountain during the Maryland Campaign.
In 1851, Thomas J. Jackson became a professor of natural and experimental philosophy (physics) and an instructor of artillery and was widely considered to be a strict, even inflexible teacher. John McCausland graduated first in the VMI class of 1857 and returned to the school as a mathematics instructor in time to assist Jackson in leading eighty-five cadets to Charles Town (in present-day West Virginia) to help maintain order for John Brown’s execution on December 2. The secessionist Edmund Ruffin, a month short of his sixty-sixth birthday, stood with the cadets in order to view the execution.
By 1860, the school had graduated 848 cadets, classifying them as either regular (state-supported) or irregular (tuition-paying). Regular cadets were required to teach in Virginia for two years following graduation, while other alumni entered professions such as education, law, medicine, but rarely the military. During the Civil War, twenty-two men who had taught at or attended VMI achieved the rank of general in the Confederate army, nearly three hundred became field officers, and more than five hundred acted as company grade officers. So many served under Jackson that just before his famous flank attack on the Union army at Chancellorsville in 1863, the general said, “The Institute will be heard from today.” At Pickett’s Charge during the Battle of Gettysburg (1863), for example, thirteen of the fifteen regimental commanders in the Confederate division commanded by George E. Pickett had either taught at or attended VMI.
Within a week of the Virginia Convention’s approving the Ordinance of Secession on April 17, 1861, and under Jackson’s command, cadets entered Confederate service. They transferred to Camp Lee in Richmond, where they helped to train recruits in preparation for the First Battle of Manassas (1861). The forty-seven younger cadets who reluctantly remained in Lexington to protect the state armory and property were rejoined by the rest of the Cadet Corps in January 1862. Throughout the war, 614 young men between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one served as drillmasters and generally avoided active military service. Although the administration successfully kept VMI cadets exempt from conscription, older cadets often left school to enlist and graduations were accelerated. Cadets drilled and trained as many as fifty thousand Confederate soldiers.
The VMI Cadet Corps marched off post three times during the war, but only once entered into battle, on May 15, 1864. Confederate forces under John C. Breckinridge—a Mexican War veteran, former U.S. vice president under James Buchanan, and a Democratic Party candidate for president in 1860—raced to meet a threat in the Shenandoah Valley from Union general Franz Sigel. The cadets were called to march eighty miles in four days to meet Breckinridge in New Market, southeast of Harpers Ferry. There, Breckinridge told them, “Gentlemen from VMI, I trust I will not need your services today; but if I do I know you will do your duty!” Privately, Breckinridge worried. “They are only children,” he told an aide, “and I cannot expose them to such fire.”
When a gap opened up in the center of his line, however, the Confederate general was forced to send in the approximately 250 cadets, commanded by Captain Scott Shipp. “May God forgive me,” he said, as the cadets joined a Confederate charge. “About this time we passed a group of wounded soldiers who cheered us but a shell, intended for us, burst in their midst, and they fell silent,” cadet Gideon Davenport later recalled. “Suddenly there was a crack in our front[,] a gap appeared in our ranks[,] and First Sergeant Cabell, Privates Wheelwright Crockett and Jones fell dead, and others were wounded … the line went forward in the best of order.”
The Union line broke, and the Cadet Corps suffered forty-seven wounded and ten killed, including Thomas Garland Jefferson, a relation of Thomas Jefferson. (Future U.S. senator Thomas Staples Martin was a VMI cadet at this time but missed the battle because of sickness.) Two-thirds of the cadets at New Market were recent VMI appointees, with an average age of eighteen; the Cadet Corps suffered the second-highest casualty rate in the battle.
Sigel was relieved of command four days later, but his was just one of two Union forces operating in the Valley. The other, under Union general David Hunter, occupied Lexington the following month. Because VMI was regarded as a legal military target since it was home to a state arsenal and a military educational institute, on June 12, Hunter ordered the Virginia Military Institute burned. The barracks, mess hall, two faculty residences, and the library—all but two buildings on campus—were destroyed. By then the cadets had already joined Confederate forces under Jubal A. Early near Lynchburg, where they helped repulse Hunter a few days later. The cadets then transferred to Richmond, where they spent the rest of the war. On July 30, former VMI professor John McCausland, under Early’s orders, burned the town of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in part to retaliate against Union actions in the Valley, including the torching of VMI.
VMI reopened in Lexington in October 1865, with Francis H. Smith still serving as superintendent and two prominent Confederate navy officers—Matthew Fontaine Maury and John Mercer Brooke (the latter of whom helped to convert the USS Merrimack into the CSS Virginia )—joining the faculty. Scott Shipp, who led cadets at New Market, became the school’s second superintendent in 1890. VMI served as a model for other institutions in the South, including Louisiana State University and Texas A&M, and was the alma mater of U.S. general George C. Marshall (class of 1901), who served as chief of staff of the United States Army during World War II (1939–1945), as well as U.S. secretary of state and secretary of defense in the administration of U.S. president Harry S. Truman. In 1997, following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in United States v. Virginia, VMI became the last state-supported American military college to admit women.