Virginia Military Institute—Building and Rebuilding/12

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



I have reserved for separate treatment an outline of the distinctive policy which has governed me in my administration of the discipline of the Institute.

When I took charge of the Virginia Military Institute, I had no special experience in the discipline of young men. No discipline, properly called, prevailed at Hampden-Sidney College. The young men were “rusticated,” that is, suspended from the institution for a time, a strange way of correcting idleness and bad conduct. All that I had to rely upon for my own government in questions of discipline with the cadets here, was my West Point education, and an effort to follow as closely as I could the principles which seemed to me to direct Colonel Thayer in his wise administration of the U. S. Military Academy at West Point. The regulations of West Point were substantially adopted by the Board of Visitors for the government of the Virginia Military Institute, but the conditions were by no means the same. At West Point the cadets received ample pay to provide for their entire expenses, and, then, on graduation, received a commission in the army of the United States, thus adding great strength to the power of the government Here, the State cadets only receive as a bonus, and, that in the early history of the school, not aggregating more than $150 a year, board and tuition, and never exceeding $280 a year, with no expectation, after graduation, except what individual energy and thrift could secure. The pay cadets paid all their expenses while cadets, and after graduation had to carve out their own fortune. So that the hold we had on the cadet here for good conduct was small, as founded upon the gratuities supplied.

Experience showed that the State cadets, always carefully selected, and, after much competition, were a good class of young men, who realized and valued the privileges allowed them in securing an education on liberal terms, and thus some steadiness was secured to the school.

From the beginning I had to rely upon discipline as a means of forming and developing individual character, and in this way ensuring the strength of the school by enforcing the rules of its government. Many bad subjects were sent here to be reformed, and, although it was by no means a desirable thing to be in any sense a Reformatory School, or “House of Correction,” we started with the idea that we would admit such bad subjects, and try and see what could be done with them. The military organization of the institution had a tendency to fascinate such unruly spirits, who might be made valuable men by the military pride which promotion to the military offices of the school held out to them. I found this a most important element in discipline, and I have now in mind the case of a spoiled boy, who was always getting demerit, and engaging in mischief, who seemed to be insensible to every appeal that I could make to him, but who, at the same time, had honorable instincts, and scorned a mean action, but whose love of fun and mischief, the result of exuberant spirit, kept him all the time on the black list At last I sent for him. As he came into my office he looked like one who was conscious he had been guilty of some new prank, and had probably been detected in it, and was called before the Superintendent to answer for his delinquency, when I said to him: “Mr. Walker, I have tried in every way to influence you that I might ensure greater diligence in study, and make you keep down your heavy list of demerit, but all in vain. I know you have many good qualities, but you will let your love of mischief get the better of you. I am going to try a new method with you. I have to make some appointments of cadet officers, and an order will be issued this evening making you a Lieutenant” “Make me a Lieutenant!” he said, with a surprise and pleasure that caused the flush to rise to his face. “I am sure I don’t deserve it, but I will promise you to show you my appreciation of your confidence, by doing my duty, and my whole duty, like a man.” He kept his word. He was one of the best officers of his class, graduated as Lieutenant, and, in his after career, which has been a very distinguished one, he has never failed to regard this unexpected promotion as the beginning of his new life. The cadet referred to was Reuben Lindsay Walker, the distinguished Brigadier- General of Artillery in the Army of General Lee, and who in his civil life, as an engineer, has made as honorable a record as any graduate of the Institute. Ex mno disce multos.

I aimed to rigidly enforce the regulation in regard to excessive demerit. Before resorting to the extreme penalty I have always carefully reviewed the excuses of each delinquent, having each personally before me, and scanning liberally and fairly the explanations offered for each delinquency, and when the result still showed that the limit was exceeded, the cadet was promptly discharged.

It was difficult for parents and others to understand why it should be necessary that extreme penalties should be resorted to when the demerit showed no moral delinquency in the report, all for getting that habitual neglect or incorrigible idleness or carelessness must lead to evil results, unless corrected in time. Still, these complaints against our discipline continued until finally they were brought to the attention of the General Assembly, by a formal complaint made by the guardian of a cadet, dismissed at January for exceeding 100 demerits.

A committee of thirteen senators was appointed by the Senate to hear this complaint. The complainant was represented by Governor J. M. Gregory as counsel, and I was summoned before it. The case excited universal interest, the committee meeting in the Senate chamber at night. The testimony was wide, and argument was made by Governor Gregory and the Superintendent. The report of the committee was unanimous in sustaining as it did the policy of the institution, and the conduct of the Superintendent; it so satisfied the guardian of the dismissed cadet of the wisdom and justice of the administration, that he entered subsequently two of his own sons as cadets, both of whom graduated, one killed in battle as a Lieutenant of C. S. Artillery. I refer to the son of Peyton Johnston, of Richmond.

The inquiry in this interesting case was made at the session of the General Assembly, 1852-53. The report of the committee was full, and minutely reported all the facts. I copy a few paragraphs from this report:—

“In the management of an institution of such vast complexity as the Virginia Military Institute, which seeks to apply the unbending rules of military discipline to the moral and intellectual training of the young men of the State, and by a system which brings its agents into immediate contact with these young men just at an age when waywardness is the only fully developed trait in their character, and with their parents and guardians who on that very account are most keenly alive to all that affects them, ‘it must needs be that offenses will come.’ Human wisdom is wholly inadequate to the task of carrying out the system in such a manner that none shall complain, or even none shall seem to have cause of complaint. And if nothing short of this high and absolutely unattainable standard will meet the demands of an enlightened pubic sentiment, the sooner the fact is known the better, for the State is throwing away her treasures upon a hope never to be realized; and it were wiser to save our money and our disappointment.

“But if an enterprise is to be considered as successful, and the wisdom of its founders as fully vindicated when its general management has been characterized by consummate tact and ability, and when the great objects which it proposes have been realized in no doubtful or stinted measure, then, in the opinion of your committee, have we a right to proclaim and to indulge in an honest pride at the success of the Virginia Military Institute. And if the gratitude and applause of the public are due to those by whose talents, by whose unwearying zeal and unceasing labors, and by whose high integrity and fearless impartiality such results have been achieved, your committee unhesitatingly expresses the conviction that to Col. Francis H. Smith, the Superintendent of the Institute, this reward is preeminently due.

“Resolved, that the committee ask to be discharged from the further consideration of the memorial of Peyton Johnston.”

It may be well understood how the discipline of the school was strengthened by this public investigation, and by the report of the committee which was printed and generally circulated.

The Institute owes much to the wisdom which has been exhibited by the General Assembly in dealing with all such questions, and the report of the committee was worth more to the school than an appropriation of many thousands of dollars.

Besides the discipline as affected by demerits there have been crises in the school, the result sometimes of a spirit of lawlessness; at others, a refusal of what seemed to cadets, at the time, reasonable privileges, when the powers of combination would be resorted to, to overawe the authorities, and to compel a resort to a breaking up of the school for the time, or a forced yielding to their demands.

Great wisdom and judgment are required in all such cases. The cadets invariably have in all these applications some show of justice or equity, in their demands, founded either upon precedent or exciting interest of the moment, or upon some excitement that has been brought about by the influence of a leader or leaders among them, when reason loses its sway and passion reigns supreme. The “situation” has to be clearly understood, and an explosion guarded against by a timely yielding to the demand, by a compromise, or otherwise, when your yielding to the demand is made to have the effect of an uncoerced privilege, and you are thus able to carry their feelings with you.

I once refused a skating privilege, and at 8 A.M. not a section appeared on the parade for recitation. The facts were promptly reported to me by the commandant of cadets. At 8:30 I had every cadet before me in No. 10. In a few brief words I pointed out the real issue, viz., that the mob was to rule, or I was, and if necessary to dismiss every cadet, I would do it before I would relinquish my right, as Superintendent, to govern. The point was so sharply made, that one of the Hotspurs rose, and asked, “If we go at once to duty, will you overlook the past?” “Surely I will,” was my prompt reply. They evidently saw they had made a mistake under the impulse of disappointment, when their feelings were fanned by a heady leader, and they were glad to get out of the difficulty.

I thought it better to compromise than to force an issue which would have been doubtful, to say the least, as to the effects. Great tact is required in all cases of this kind. What I mean is that there is no necessity to force the issue of the wholesale dismissal of a class, or of the corps, when the question assumes such a condition that you have to resort to an extreme course to maintain authority at all; a plain statement to the body of the cadets, of the absolute necessity of enforcing submission to lawful authority, will carry conviction, and when this is secured, you are master of the situation, and you can make honorable concessions without damage.

The “mutiny” at West Point would never have occurred if Colonel Thayer had listened to the reasonable complaints against Major Bliss, and then when Loring, Vining, Fairfax, etc., were dismissed, the ground upon which they were made examples was unjust. They were voted for by their comrades, as the first five in the first class, to press their complaints, and their election was spontaneous, not the result of their greater guilt. Charles I and Louis XVI might have saved their heads, if not their crowns, by yielding at once to reasonable demands, which afterwards they were ready enough to give, when it was too late.

Young men can clearly discern the right. They are sometimes unreasonable in their demands, and they are not unwilling to get all they can. If dealt with fairly and squarely, they can readily be made to see where the limit is, beyond which they can not pass.

In my personal dealings with cadets, I never allow myself to doubt their word. Even in cases where there is occasion to doubt, I prefer to impress upon all that implicit reliance is placed on their honor. If this is forfeited, then summary discharge is the only proper recourse.

It is much more difficult to maintain discipline now than it was twenty or thirty years ago. I find a sad change in the bearing of young men who come to us now. Parents no longer enforce respect to the fifth commandant of the Decalogue (10 Commandments), as they did in former times. Boys rule their parents, and where want of filial respect and obedience exists, nothing but an iron rule will bring submission to such here.

I had a case last year of an issue between the father and son. The cadet had had two extra tours of guard duty assigned to him for some delinquency. He refused to obey the order. He was promptly dismissed. His father came on to try to secure his reinstatement. I told him that I could not even entertain the proposition until his son manifested some disposition to obey my order by performing the extra guard duty. The father turned to his son: “Theodore, General Smith is right; you must do the guard duty.” He refused to do this.

This is an exceptional case, but it serves to illustrate what I am trying to bring out, the great falling off in parental government of late years. Much of the evil in our social system, in the strikes, nihilism, and other forms of conspiracy and combinations against law, have their origin in the slackness of domestic family government.

I close what I have to say on the matter of discipline, with a brief remark on the general principles of my administration. Until 1882 the Board of Visitors respected my recommendations in the appointment of all administrative officers. They knew I had no motives but the best good of the institution. I knew what the school wanted, and endeavored to select the men who would be faithful and competent, and who could not be induced to swerve from the path of duty by fear, favor, or affection. No institution could have been blessed with two better officers than Richard H. Catlett, who served as Treasurer and Quartermaster over twelve years, and Thomas M. Wade, who served for about the same time.

As Commissary and Steward the Institute had a peculiarly well-qualified man in John T. Gibbs, who discharged his duties with singular success and ability. And James W. Gillock, Assistant Military Storekeeper, has served the institution for many years with marked zeal and fidelity.

The officer for the place having been once selected, I left him untrammeled to discharge his duties, by choosing his subordinates, but held him to a rigid responsibility.

Even in the subordinates was there ever such fidelity found as in Christy Birmingham, who was a laborer here for nearly forty years, or Jerry McCarthy, who was butler to the mess hall for thirty years.

Then in “Old Judge,” the negro baker, and old Sam Corthorn, and Ben Colbert, we had faithful men, who did their work truly and lovingly as long as life lasted.

So much depends on administration that I make this single reference as due to the subject.


It was the aim of the Superintendent from the beginning to try and organize a Literary Society among the cadets, and thus encourage public speaking, declamation, reading and writing. The military and scientific character of the institution was not unfriendly to such a means for literary improvement. The Dialectic Society of Cadets at West Point, although without a public hall, or library, was a potent influence for the cultivation of speaking and writing. The recitations of Ritner, of the class of 1831, and the poems of Sidell, of the class of 1833, “One Muster More,” and other exhibitions of such men as Park, of 1830, and Clay, of 1831, were remembered by the Superintendent, and he convened the cadets, only thirty-two in number, in Room No. 16, to consider the subject. They met in a small section room 16 by 16 feet, and were seated on benches. Each cadet brought his Japan tin lamp, and the Superintendent laid before them his object. The obvious difficulties were frankly admitted. They had no hall, no library, and they were few in number. Well, in regard to the two first points they were no worse off than the old “Di” of West Point. They were few in number, but the success of a Literary Society did not depend entirely on a hall or a Society Library, but upon the brains and work of its members, and the Public Library of the Institute would be helpful to them. If each of the thirty-two members would make it a point to work, some to declaim, some to debate, some to write voluntary essays and papers, and others to read, each would give play to his own taste, and results would follow. Colonel Preston and the Superintendent promised to aid them. The Society of Cadets was thus formed, and continues to this day a first-rate Literary Society, and it owes much of its success to the earnest and effective work of the first class of 1839.

After a few years a small appropriation was made by the State for a Gun House. The Superintendent so constructed this house as to supply a very commodious hall over the gun room for the Literary Society, and the society was continued with marked success until 1848, when an application was made to the Superintendent by cadets J. W. Massie and Sam Garland, of the first class, for a division of the Society of Cadets, and for authority to form a new society to be called the Virginia Dialectic Society of Cadets. The Superintendent was not indeed at first inclined to favor this division, fearing it might tend to encourage divisions among the cadets. This apprehension was not well founded, and orders were accordingly issued, authorizing the formation of a new Literary Society, to be called the Virginia Dialectic Society of Cadets. Upon the construction of the new barracks, commenced in 1850, provision was made for two large and well-arranged society halls, with library rooms to each, and the operations of the two societies were well conducted, and their reputation well sustained until the destruction of the Institute in 1864, by General Hunter, when their library, records and books were wholly destroyed.

In the restoration of the cadets’ barracks the library halls were put in their former good order, and these two societies have continued their appointed work with varied success, but rarely has either of these societies worked with the energy, zeal, and united effort that the members of the Society of Cadets labored from 1839 to 1842.


I have postponed the consideration of the topic of religious training for separate handling, because of the distinctive methods prevalent in the Virginia Military Institute.

Shortly after the establishment of the Institute, say in 1840 or 1841, a general religious interest prevailed in Virginia, and the cadets as they came in brought me letters from the pastors of their respective churches, asking my special interest in their religious life. Here was a new duty added to my lifework. I came here to teach mathematics, and to discipline the young men. These I was prepared to do, in a measure at least. But I was only a young Christian myself, and had no experience whatever in religious teaching.

After much deliberation, I concluded to invite the young Christian cadets to my office on Sunday afternoons for a private prayer-meeting. I felt much hesitation in undertaking this. But, in reliance on Divine help, it was begun. After some meetings were held, I was requested to allow others who were not church members to attend. The meetings grew in interest until a very general religious interest prevailed, which resulted in quite a number connecting themselves with the church.

These meetings were helped very much by the zealous cooperation of Rev. Mr. Bryant, an adopted brother, who was the pastor of the Episcopal Church, so that daily meetings for prayer were held; three of these, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and sometimes on Sunday, in my office.

My habit was, in those I conducted, to make the service short, to begin with a hymn, then prayer, reading a portion of God’s word, with a close, practical application of the same, and close with a benediction. On Sunday evenings my parlor was opened, and I read the service and a sermon.

The clergy of the town very cordially cooperated with me, each taking an evening in the week, and thus it was found necessary, by reason of the great interest which prevailed among the cadets in 1856 to transfer the meetings from my office to sect on room No. 10. These meetings have been regularly kept up for about forty years, and they constitute an important feature in the life of the Virginia Military Institute cadet. They have done much good and under their influence there have been five or six, or more, general revivals of religion among the cadets, some of which, especially that in 1869, when some eighty cadets made a profession of religion, were confined to the Institute itself, no general interest prevailing in the churches at the time. Through the influence of these meetings nearly 250 cadets have been brought into the church, some of whom entered the ministry, and have made useful members of Gospel ministry. The meetings being purely voluntary, and in no respect compulsory, gave full opportunity to the leader of the meeting to make his addresses close and practical, and many were thus made ready and willing to accept the terms of the Gospel.

There is no part of my life at the Institute that I look back upon with more real pleasure than the cadets’ prayer-meetings. Sometimes I would only have two or three present. But I was never discouraged by the small attendance. We had always enough for the Divine blessing. Then the meetings would increase, and I have night after night had every seat in the large section room of No. 10 filed, and many standing, all anxiously listening to the word of God. My dear wife in times of revival would write some poems for me, suitable to the occasion, and this was particularly the case in the great revival of 1869, and these poems I printed on leaves and circulated among them.

Having written out a full account of the revivals of 1856 and 1869, I forbear to dwell here on this interesting subject, and only add that no duty will meet with a more certain, more abiding, and more comforting blessing than the effort to labor for the religious interest of young men at college, on the part of those charged with their training.

The revival of 1869 was much helped by the prayers and labors of a dear friend, who was living with me at the time, Mrs. Eleanor Burwell, of West River, Md., who had two sons educated here.

So also, by the prayers and deep interest of Mrs. Mary Custis Lee, whose son Custis was at the time a professor here. This interest is touchingly expressed in the following note to Mrs. Burwell, in sending her some religious tracts for circulation, dated April 20, 1869:—

“It gives me great pleasure, my dear friend, to send you these little tracts. If they pour comfort into one anxious heart, or enlighten one dark soul, they will have fulfilled their mission. I have put my name to some I had time to examine, as it might save you the trouble of doing so. They are all good, I believe. Those of Doddridge I know are, as his work was so useful to me when first my young heart was led to seek my God. I pray that many hearts may be touched now, as well officers as cadets, and that the impressions now received, and the interest now felt may be enduring, and bring forth the fruit of righteousness.” —Mary Custis Lee.


In closing the reminiscences of my long public life I can not withhold the expression of my gratitude to God for the “goodness and mercy” which have supported me in all these long years of labor and care. No one knows what the anxieties of my life have been in the responsible burden laid upon me, but the partner and sharer with me in it all, my beloved wife. Those who have had like duties to discharge can tell you their own experiences, but experience of these trials has to be known and felt to be fully understood.

The late Archbishop of Canterbury [Archibald Tait] most pointedly gave utterance to his opinion when asked by a friend which of the two stations in life had filled him with the greater anxiety, the Head Mastership of Rugby School, or the Archbishopric of Canterbury. His reply was: “The Head Mastership of Rugby. I never woke up in the morning and went to my daily work that I did not have the anxiety lest some act of mine might prove a disaster to the school. The church is in God’s hands, and He will take care of that,” or words to this effect.

Oh! how often have I realized this, as day by day I went to my work, not knowing what the day might bring forth. Yet, in all, I do believe I have had the supporting and directing hand of my Father in Heaven, which I have never failed to seek, and for which I am devoutly grateful.