Find Your VMI Ancestor

The VMI Archives receives many inquiries from family historians seeking information about a VMI ancestor. This page includes answers to some common questions. Have a question not answered here? For additional information, contact the VMI Archives

How do I determine if my ancestor attended VMI?

First, search our Online Historical Rosters Database. The database contains the names of all students who attended VMI from the opening of the Institute in 1839 through 1945; some historical faculty and staff members; and non-alumni who were sent to VMI for training during World Wars I and II. Many 19th and early 20th century roster records also contain a biographical summary.  Once you identify an ancestor, contact us for additional available records. Please note that we do not release information about living individuals.  

Ancestor research FAQ

  • The rosters just provide a name or summary. What about details?
    One of our most popular and valuable resources is our collection of 19th and early 20th century biographical files. A file exists for every early alumnus--both graduates and non-graduates, as well as for early faculty and staff members. A typical cadet record consists of correspondence from parents regarding a cadetship; correspondence from the alumnus; alumni questionnaires, often containing genealogical information; and obituaries and other clippings. Family historians can frequently locate a wealth of information about VMI ancestors. In addition to the items listed above, the files of Civil War veterans may include documents pertaining to war service, often in the form of letters or biographical information submitted at the request of the Institute.
  • My relatives have always told me that my great-great-grandfather attended VMI, but the name does not appear in the online rosters. Are some of your early enrollment records missing?
    If you don't find a name in the online rosters, contact us  and we will double check our physical records.  Our enrollment records are very complete and we are confident that we can document VMI enrollment. Family oral history is a valuable tool for starting your research, but it is not always accurate. Your ancestor may have attended another military college, or a military secondary school, or served in the military; or he may have applied to but not actually attended VMI.  
  • Why do your records refer to my ancestor as a member of the "Class of 1858" even though he did not graduate?
    VMI uses the "Class of" designation to refer to the group with which a cadet matriculates and to the individuals within that group. A cadet entering in the Fall of 1854 became a member of the Class of 1858; this Class identification is used whether or not the student continued until graduation. Think of "Class" in terms of a descriptive label rather than graduation status.
  • My ancestor attended a "military school" before the Civil War, but he was much too young for college. Was VMI ever a secondary school/prep school/high school?
    VMI was established as the first state-supported military college in the United States and it has never offered high school level classes. Numerous military secondary schools were established throughout the South during the 19th century, but these prep schools were not part of or affiliated with the Institute. To see if your ancestor attended VMI, see our Online Rosters Database.
  • My ancestor attended VMI in the 19th century. Can you provide a copy of his application?
    The application process during the 19th century did not include the kind of formal application document with which we are familiar today. Rather, it typically consisted of correspondence between the school and parents, as well as gathering letters of recommendation for consideration by the VMI Board of Visitors. We often have correspondence in our files relating to the admission process and cadetship of individuals. For information about a specific person, please contact us.
  • I'm looking for a photograph of my ancestor. Can you help?
    We have a very extensive photograph collection, which can be searched online. Individual photographs exist from the 1850's forward, although not of every cadet. Class group photos first became popular in the 1870's, but were typically taken only during the First Class (Senior) year. The first yearbooks were not published until the late 19th century. In short, we have many cadet photographs, but do not have a photograph of every cadet.  If you have a question, please contact us.
  • My ancestor entered VMI as a "third classman." What does that mean?The VMI class system is: Fourth=Freshman, Third=Sophomore, Second=Junior, First=Senior. In the 19th century, it was relatively common for well-prepared students to enter the Institute as a "third".
  • What is a "Rat"?
    A "Rat" is the name for new cadets; the term was first used in the mid-19th century. Here is a reference by new cadet Edward Watson, dating from 1868:
    "I will begin my description just at 5 o'clock when I was awakened by a most dreadful noise. I at first thought that the house was falling or that a volcano had burst in about a quarter of a mile from -- I hardly knew where-- as I found myself lying with nothing between me and floor except a mattress about three feet wide. I was soon enlightened as to the cause of the disturbance by an old cadet who in the dim light of the very early morning, as he stood dressing close by, I had not noticed. He remarked in a tone which seemed anything but motherly, "Rat, get up, Sir, and go to reveille."
  • My grandfather attended VMI in the 1940's and he is still living. I'm writing a family history for a reunion and I'd really like to see his records. Can you send me copies?
    Records of living alumni are covered by FERPA and privacy statutes and are closed to research. We do not release the records of living alumni. The only exception is when the alumnus has provided us with written permission specifically authorizing release to a third party. If your grandfather provides us with such a signed release, we can send copies of his records to you. In the absence of a signed released, we provide only publicly available material such as that found in the yearbook or a newspaper article.