Historical Development of VMI

Before its formation as an institution of higher education in 1839, VMI’s site was occupied by an arsenal, one of three in the State of Virginia.

The arsenal guard of some 20 soldiers, although living a strict military life while on duty, lacked self-discipline, and their leisure-time activities upset the decorum of Lexington. In 1834, several of Lexington’s leading citizens, including attorney John Thomas Lewis Preston, proposed that the arsenal be transformed into a military college so the cadets could pursue educational courses while protecting the stand of arms.

The plan led to legislation establishing the Virginia Military Institute. It was Preston, generally credited for conceiving the idea of VMI, and later one of the original members of the faculty, who gave the new institution its name: “Virginia—a State institution, neither sectional nor denominational. Military—its characteristic feature. Institute—something different from either college or university. The three elements thus indicated are the basis of a triangular pyramid, of which the sides will preserve their mutual relation to whatever height the structure may rise.”

On November 11, 1839, 23 young Virginians were mustered into the service of the State and, in a falling snow the first cadet sentry, John B. Strange, relieved the old arsenal guard. To this day cadets perform guard duty and serve the State as a military corps, as the first Corps of Cadets did.

Professor (later Major General) Francis H. Smith, a graduate of the United States Military Academy, was named the first Superintendent of VMI and presided over the affairs of the Institute for its first half-century. During his 50-year tenure, the Corps increased in size, the curriculum broadened, and the faculty grew. Among them was a moody, eccentric professor of “natural philosophy”—“physics,” it is called today—named Thomas Jonathan Jackson, who joined the faculty in 1851 and served until April, 1861. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he resumed military duty and became a general of the Confederate forces, earning the name “Stonewall” Jackson. He is considered one of the greatest commanders in military history. The first president of the Board of Visitors was Colonel Claudius Crozet, a graduate of Ecole Polytechnique and former faculty member at West Point, who was the State engineer of Virginia at the time of his election to the board.

With the outbreak of the war, the Cadet Corps, under command of its professor of physics, Major Jackson, was ordered to train recruits for the Confederate Army in the Richmond area. The Corps was later reconstituted at the Institute to supply officers for the Southern armies. The Cadet Corps was called into active service a number of times in the Valley of Virginia during the next three years.

On May 15, 1863, the Corps of Cadets escorted the body of “Stonewall” Jackson to his grave in Lexington, after his death in the battle of Chancellorsville. Just before the battle, Jackson, after surveying the field and seeing so many VMI men around him in key positions, spoke the oft-quoted words: “The Institute will be heard from today.”

One year to the day after the funeral of Jackson, the VMI Cadet Corps was engaged as a unit in pitched battle. Called upon to bolster the Southern line against the advance of Union General Franz Sigel, the Corps marched down the valley to New Market and, in the battle fought there, won credit for helping turn the tide in favor of the Confederate forces. Ten cadets were killed and 47 wounded. Six of the dead are buried on the VMI grounds. The Corps of Cadets pays tribute to the courage and valor of the New Market Cadets in formal ceremonies held at the Institute yearly on May 15.

The Institute was shelled and burned on June 12, 1864, by Union forces under the command of General David Hunter. The courageous efforts of General Smith and dedicated members of the faculty allowed the Institute to reopen on October 17, 1865.

The devoted service of the thirteen Superintendents who have followed General Smith has enabled the Institute to strengthen its position as a uniquely valuable source of honorable and dedicated citizen-soldiers for the Commonwealth and the nation. Among VMI graduates are General of the Army George C. Marshall, Class of 1901, the World War II Army Chief of Staff, architect of the Marshall Plan and Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Jonathan M. Daniels, Class of 1961, murdered during the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s and named a Lesser Saint of the Episcopal Church for his sacrifice.

Early in VMI history, Colonel Preston declared that the Institute’s unique program would produce “fair specimens of citizen-soldiers,” and this observation has been substantiated by the service of VMI graduates in peace and war. Since the Institute was founded, VMI alumni have fought in every war involving the United States, starting with the Mexican War just four years after VMI graduated its first class.

VMI alumni continue to serve their nation with 266 having achieved the rank of General or Flag officer in the Armed Forces of the United States and several foreign countries, most notably Thailand and the Republic of China. During World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, over 300 alumni gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country, and two alumni were killed during Operation Desert Storm. Two VMI alumni were among those killed on September 11, 2001 in the terrorist attacks on America and 12 alumni have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

VMI is proud of its uniquely rigorous and constantly evolving system of education, and its earned reputation as one of America’s premier institutions of higher education. Our mission of producing leaders — educated men and women of unimpeachable character and absolute integrity — remains our clear focus today and for the future.