Virginia Military Institute—Building and Rebuilding/4

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

CHAPTER IV. — 1840


The rough winter of 1839-40 had been successfully passed. As the spring opened, the cadets were in squad and company drills, in their becoming grey coats; more comfort was secured by the completion of the addition to the barracks, the grounds were in good police, a valuable addition had been made to the parade ground by the purchase of four acres of land, the drum and fife from Reuben Howard and Mike enlivened the parades, and every afternoon the Institute Hill was honored by the presence of ladies and gentlemen from Lexington, who came down to witness the military exercises of the cadets.

The Board of Visitors met again in June, 1840, to attend the annual examination of the cadets, and to make a general inspection of the work of the year. Two new members had come into the Board:—

Adjutant-General W. H. Richardson, vice Peyton; and Gen. William Ligon, vice Wiley. Every alumnus from 1840 to the day of his death knew the value of the services of General Richardson, in his devoted labors of thirty years to the best interests of the Institute, and who, in his dying breath asked that no monument should be placed over his remains, but a simple stone, with the inscription:—

Placed here by the graduates of the Virginia Military Institute

The corps of cadets was reviewed by the Board of Visitors. The company drill compared favorably with that of West Point. The police and order of the rooms, and the discipline of the cadets were warmly commended by the Board of Visitors. The examinations were held in one of the halls of Washington College, which had been kindly tendered by the Faculty for this purpose. Many trustees of the College, all the Faculty, and citizens of Lexington were present.

The examinations embraced Algebra, Geometry, and Trigonometry in Mathematics, and French. These were conducted chiefly and orally by the professors. In mathematics, subjects were given to each cadet for discussion at the blackboard. He was then closely questioned by the professor, and then turned over to the President of the Board of Visitors, Colonel Crozet, for examination.

Colonel Crozet was a distinguished mathematician and skillful teacher; his questions were rigid, close, but clear, and were readily apprehended by the class. When this was completed a murmur of satisfaction passed through the crowd of spectators, it was obvious that the examination was no “made up” affair; and on that day the Virginia Military Institute earned for itself the title, which it has ever since proudly borne, of the West Point of the South. This was secured as well by the discipline enforced as by the severe ordeal of the examinations.

The examination in French was no less satisfactory, and gave peculiar gratification to the Board of Visitors.

Of the thirty-two cadets, twelve of whom were pay cadets, who were examined, eight were found deficient in studies, two of whom were also deficient in conduct, as being in excess of the maximum limit of demerits, for the year. Two of these were recommended by the Superintendent to be discharged, and the others to be turned back to review the studies of the year. This recommendation seemed severe to some members of the Board, as it was thought such severe discipline would diminish our patronage. On the other hand, it was maintained that it was all important to begin right, that discipline was needed in our schools, and that the action that was recommended would tend to increase, rather than diminish, our patronage. The Board of Visitors sustained this view, and the result exceeded the most sanguine expectations, for the next session opened with double the number of cadets on the rolls for the first year, and the accession was of pay cadets.

Considering the many drawbacks to study during the first year, and that every cadet was really “pursuing knowledge under difficulties,” it may be truly said that so satisfactory were the results attained that the examination was a keynote to the academic course which placed the Institute at once upon the highest plane for thoroughness in the limited course of studies embraced in the curriculum for that first year.

By a steady adherence to the fundamental principles which had been enunciated at the beginning: viz., thoroughness in the distinctive scientific education supplied, and perfect discipline, the Virginia Military Institute, which had been started as a doubtful experiment, so advanced, year by year, in the public confidence and in the public support that the number of applicants for admission, as pay cadets, largely exceeded its ability to accommodate.

The Board of Visitors at the meeting in June, 1840, recognized fully the influence of these principles. They felt greatly encouraged in their work. The Legislature had appropriated the sum of $4,500 to erect a steward’s house, and to supply the Institute with water, two felt necessities for the comfort and health of the cadets; and the Superintendent was directed to have these important works executed according to the plans which he had submitted for the mess hall, limiting the sum to be expended on both undertakings to the sum appropriated for these objects. Notice had been given in the spring by the Superintendent that the Board would at this annual meeting make additional appointments of pay, as well as State, cadets. Six State and twenty-three pay cadets were appointed, which, with additional pay-cadet appointments made before academic exercises were resumed in September, more than doubled the number of cadets on duty the first year.

This large increase added much to the labor of instruction, particularly in the department of mathematics. The cadets of the first class having completed the elementary branches in mathematics, were now to study Analytical Geometry, Descriptive Geometry and its applications, Surveying, and the Differential and Integral Calculus. The new cadets coming in would need division into two sections, at least, and probably three, while the first class might require a like division. The French department could readily be provided for, at least for the next year. To provide for this necessity and to maintain that thoroughness in the course of instruction which was deemed so essential to the school, the Board of Visitors at this session adopted the following order:—

Resolved, that when the Principal Professor shall deem it expedient, he be authorized to detail and appoint one cadet as an assistant instructor for the junior classes, and report said appointment to the Board for their ratification, which assistant instructor shall receive a compensation, during his service as such, of $5.00 a month.”

The provision thus made for cadet assistant instructors was soon afterwards enlarged, so as to provide for the French as well as mathematical departments, and at the annual session of July, 1842, the sum of $240 was appropriated for this purpose, thus providing for four of such assistants.

The principle guiding the Board of Visitors in making this provision for assistant instructors was, by enabling the Superintendent to divide the classes into small sections, to ensure thoroughness in the instruction, by the daily drill of each cadet on the appointed lesson. This is an important principle, and has contributed, in a great degree, to the efficiency of the graduates of the Institute, in their professional pursuits, particularly in the work soon to be given them by law as teachers. It was steadily adhered to over forty years; and every departure from it has uniformly tended to dilute the instruction, and to increase the number of deficient cadets.

Another important principle adopted by the Board of Visitors in adopting the West Point Regulations as the basis on which the code of laws of the Institute was framed, was to give due dignity to conduct, by providing, in addition to special penalties for excessive demerit, that demerit should constitute an important factor in the general merit of a cadet. Habits of industry, punctuality, and system in the discharge of all duty, constitute helpful elements to ensure success in life; and by giving higher class standing to a cadet who has good conduct, the regulation illustrated and enforced what universal experience confirms.

By the Act establishing the Virginia Military Institute, provision was made giving authority to the Board of Visitors to make such arrangements with the Trustees of Washington College as would provide for an interchange of instruction between the two institutions; the Institute giving to the students of Washington College all needed military instruction, the cadets receiving instruction in those branches in which no provision existed at that time in the Institute. The special advantage sought by the College, in this arrangement, was to place itself in a condition to draw from the State the donation of the Cincinnati Society of over $15,000, which was dependent on the College establishing a professorship for instruction in military science and gunnery. Accordingly, when a Principal Professor to the Institute was elected, he was also elected by the Trustees of Washington College Cincinnati Professor of Military Science in the College.

As soon as the Institute was put into operation, a squad of students of the College was formed, styled the “Cincinnati Class,” which was regularly drilled with the cadets of the Institute by its Military Professor. The Cincinnati cadets were uniformed like the Institute cadets, except having a Mack star on the collar of the coatee. Much irregularity followed this arrangement. The Institute exercised no authority over this student class except when in drill, and as they wore their distinctive uniform on the streets, and in the country, they were generally taken for cadets by strangers, and the Institute suffered much by reason of irregularities that could not be controlled.

On the other hand, Washington College gave instruction to the cadets in Chemistry, but not in Mechanics, which constituted a part of the course of the Professor of Natural Science in the College. This was made a part of the mathematical department in the Institute, and instruction was given in this department from Boucharlafs Mechanics, in French.

By the agreement between the two institutions the Institute was to receive, for the first year, the whole of the net income from the Cincinnati fund, after paying certain pensioners who were charges upon it; and after the first year, one-third of the net income. The connection between the two institutions commenced on the 11th of November, 1839, and terminated on the 22d of February, 1846, and during this period the total amount received from this fund by the Institute was $390.97. When the agreement terminated, the whole of the income from this fund attached to the College, and on the death of the last pensioner, the entire Cincinnati fund was transferred to Washington College.

Upon the recommendation of the Superintendent, the cadets very soon organized a literary and debating society, called “The Society of Cadets.” Although they had no pubic hall, and no library, it was deemed best to make the beginning, in one of the small section rooms in the attic of the center building of the old barracks. The cadets took with them their tin lamp, and in this simple and unattractive manner their meetings were held and conducted with great earnestness and benefit. The society increased in its influence, and was in a short time supplied with a hall, in the new mess hall building, and then to a hall over the gun house, and in 1850 ample provision was made for two literary societies in the new barracks, the Dialectic Society of cadets having been formed in 1849. These societies have been well conducted, with appropriate libraries, and have exercised a marked influence on the prosperity of the Institute.