The South has a long and storied military history; our narratives are rife with savvy sergeants and daring heroes. Many of those dauntless icons earned their know-how—and degrees—at the Virginia Military Institute. For over a century and a half, through Civil and World Wars, the VMI (colloquially known as the West Point of the South) has produced some of the finest military officers in the country.
The Virginia Military Institute is the oldest state-supported military college in the country with staunch roots stretching all the way back to the 1830’s. Those roots found their foundation in a different kind of military edifice entirely.
Following the War of 1812, when sabotage and unpreparedness for it almost cost the country its victory, Virginia built a series of arsenals across the state. These safe houses stored stockpiles of weapons; in the event of an insurrection or invasion, the now-zealous militias would have access to their respective hoards of weaponry. But by the mid-1830’s, Virginians were beginning to realize their enthusiasm for arsenals may have been a bit excessive, and rumblings of converting the untapped buildings into more useful projects began.
During a meeting of his debate club, the Franklin Society, John Thomas Lewis Preston proposed transforming the arsenal at Lexington into something new. According to Preston’s argument, the unused arsenal would be better utilized as a school for general education and military training. After a few tweaks, the Franklin Society said “yea” and began efforts to convert the arsenal into what would become the VMI.
Preston, as the progenitor of the idea, spearheaded the ensuing PR campaign. He sat down with Virginia’s most influential leaders in every sphere—military, politics, business, education—and set forth the advantages of turning the arsenal into an academy. He wrote letters to the editors of prominent publications under a pseudonym, swaying the opinion of the public. And in 1836, what began as a simple debate club discussion became law when the Virginia Legislature passed a bill to convert the arsenal into a school.
When it came to designating the leadership of the new school, responsibility once again fell on the shoulders of Preston. For President of the Board of Visitors, he chose Claudius Crozet, whose former employment included a prominent military and engineering position under Napoleon. Even before the period of his employment with the VMI, Crozet had earned regard in America; Thomas Jefferson referred to him as “the smartest mathematician in the United States.” Along with Crozet, Preston assigned the greatest militaristic and educational minds in the South. The combination was unparalleled, as the best characteristics of French Ecole Polytechnique educational techniques melded with traditional US Military Academy models. When classes began in 1839, one of the best military academies in the country opened its doors to the South’s brightest and most promising students.
And bright soldiers they proved to be. During the Civil War, the Confederacy called on the cadets for assistance fourteen times. They trained recruits under Stonewall Jackson (formerly their professor) and fought—and won—at what seemed to be lost battles. Alumni were almost unerringly regarded as the best officers in the Confederacy (and even one in the Union). Though Union forces destroyed the VMI in June of 1864, the institute opened once again in the fall of 1865.
The Virginia Military Institute still adheres to original tenets set forth years ago. Unlike other modern military schools, the VMI still enrolls only military cadets and only offers baccalaureate degrees. It’s a disciplined and strenuous environment, requiring both physical and academic rigor and exactitude. With few exemptions, the VMI has posted a student sentinel to duty every hour of every day of the school year. Following graduation, students can enter any branch of the military with any active or reserve commission. It may seem harsh, but when students leave, they’re prepared not just for the real world but for the professional military world as well.