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Virginia Military Academy, USA

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Virginia Military Institute (VMI) is a senior military college in Lexington, Virginia. It was established in 1839 as America’s first state military college and is the country’s oldest public senior military college. VMI enrolls only cadets and only awards bachelor’s degrees, in keeping with its founding principles and unlike any other senior military college in the United States. 

It provides cadets with strict military discipline and a physically and academically demanding environment. The institute awards degrees in 14 engineering, science, and liberal arts disciplines.

While Abraham Lincoln dubbed VMI “The West Point of the South” because of its role in the American Civil War, the moniker has stuck because VMI has produced more Army generals than any other ROTC program. Despite its moniker, VMI is not like the federal military service academies in many ways. 

Please continue reading to learn more about the Virginia Military Institute, its history, its contribution to the World Wars it survived, its campus setting, and its academic offerings.

History of Virginia Military Institute

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Following the War of 1812, the Commonwealth of Virginia constructed and maintained several arsenals to store weapons for use by the state militia in case of an invasion or slave revolt. One of them was assigned to Lexington. Residents began to resent the soldiers’ presence, which they saw as drunken and undisciplined. In 1826, one guard murdered another. Townspeople wanted to keep the arsenal but needed a new way to protect it to eliminate the “unwanted element.”

“Would it be politic for the State to establish a military school, at the Arsenal, near Lexington, in connection with Washington College, on the plan of the West Point Academy?” debated the Franklin Society, a local literary and debate society, in 1834. They were all in agreement that it would. Lexington attorney John Thomas Lewis Preston became the proposal’s most vocal supporter. 

In three anonymous letters published in the Lexington Gazette in 1835, he proposed replacing the arsenal guard with students who would live under military discipline and receive both military and liberal education. Graduates of the school would contribute to the state’s development and, if necessary, provide trained officers for the state’s militia.

Following a public relations campaign that included Preston meeting in person with influential business, military, and political figures, as well as numerous open letters from prominent supporters, the Virginia legislature passed a bill authorizing the establishment of a school at the Lexington Arsenal in 1836, and the Governor signed the measure into law.

Preston was on the board of visitors formed by the organizers of the planned school, and the board chose Claudius Crozet as their first president. 

The board of visitors crafted VMI’s curriculum under Crozet’s direction, basing it on that of the United States Military Academy and Crozet’s alma mater, the École Polytechnique de Paris. Private John Strange was the first cadet to march a sentinel post after classes began in 1839.

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World War II

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Many of America’s commanders in WWII came from VMI. The most important of these was George C. Marshall, the top general in the United States Army during the war. Marshall was the first five-star general in the Army and the only career military officer to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Winston Churchill called Marshall the “Architect of Victory” and the “noblest Roman of all.” During the war, the Deputy Chief of Staff of the United States Army, as well as the Second United States Army commander, the 15th United States Army commander, the commander of the Allied Air Forces in the Southwest Pacific, and various corps and division commanders in the Army and Marine Corps, were all VMI graduates. 

VMI participated in the War Department’s Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) from 1943 to 1946 during the war. The program provided engineering and related subject training to enlisted men at colleges across the United States.

Virginia Military Institute Contribution to the Civil War

During the American Civil War, VMI cadets and alums played critical roles. The Confederacy called cadets into active military service 14 times. VMI was authorized to carry battle streamers for each of these engagements but only carried one: the battle streamer for New Market. Many VMI Cadets were sent to Richmond’s Camp Lee to train recruits under General Stonewall Jackson.

VMI graduates were regarded as some of the best officers in the South, and several made notable contributions to the Union forces. In the Confederate Army, fifteen graduates rose to the rank of General, while one rose to the rank of General in the Union Army. 

Just before his famous flank attack at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Jackson turned to his division and brigade commanders and said, “The Institute will be heard from today.” Generals James Lane, Robert Rodes, and Raleigh Colston, three of Jackson’s four division commanders at Chancellorsville, were all VMI graduates, as were more than twenty of his brigadiers and colonels.

The Virginia Military Institute Museum

Superintendent Francis H. Smith solicited items for an Institute museum to inspire and educate cadets in a letter dated February 27, 1845, addressed to William S. Beale, VMI Class of 1843. In 1856, Superintendent Smith accepted a donation of a Revolutionary War musket, establishing the Commonwealth of Virginia’s first public museum.

General David Hunter destroyed the museum on June 12, 1864, but it reopened in 1870. For the first 75 years, the museum was a “special collection” managed by the VMI library, a common model many colleges and universities still use today. 

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The collection was organized as a public resource and became a modern museum in the early twentieth century. The VMI Museum was established as a separate department in 1970 and was professionally accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.

The VMI Museum System now includes the VMI Museum on the VMI Post, the Virginia Museum of the Civil War at the 300-acre New Market Battlefield State Historical Park, and the Jackson House, which depicts the life of VMI Professor Thomas J. (later “Stonewall”) Jackson and his household on the eve of the Civil War.

Star Officer: Chesty Puller

Chesty Puller, full name Lewis Burwell Puller, was a United States Marine Corps officer who was the most decorated and revered Marine in the Corps’ history. He was born on June 26, 1898, in West Point, Virginia, and died in Hampton, Virginia, on October 11, 1971. 

Puller earned five Navy Crosses and an unrivaled place in Marines’ hearts as the quintessential Leatherneck—”hard as the frontal armor of a tank, tenacious as a bulldog, courageous to a fault, and scornful of anyone or anything that did not wear the eagle, globe, and anchor insignia.”

VMI Academic Programs

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VMI offers 14 majors and 23 minors, divided into engineering, liberal arts, humanities, and sciences. Civil and environmental engineering, electrical and computer engineering, and mechanical engineering are the three concentrations in the engineering department. Most classes are taught by full-time professors, most of whom hold terminal degrees.

Within four months of graduation, 97 percent of VMI graduates serve in the military, are employed, or are accepted into graduate or professional schools.

Since 1921, VMI has graduated 11 Rhodes Scholars. VMI had graduated more Rhodes Scholars per capita than any other state-supported college or university and more than all other senior military colleges combined as of 2006.

Student Requirements

Prospective cadets must be between the ages of 16 and 22. They must be unmarried, have no legal dependents be physically fit for ROTC enrollment, and have graduated from an accredited secondary school or have completed an approved homeschool curriculum. VMI’s Class of 2022 had a high school GPA of 3.70 and an SAT score 1210.

Eligibility is not limited to Virginia residents; however, obtaining an appointment as a non-resident is more difficult, as VMI strives to have at most 45 percent of cadets come from outside Virginia. Tuition is discounted for Virginia residents, as is common at most state-sponsored schools. 

School Rankings

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Virginia Military Institute was ranked fourth nationally in the “Top Public Schools, National Liberal Arts Colleges” category by U.S. News & World Report in 2021, after the United States Military Academy, the United States Naval Academy, and the United States Air Force Academy.

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In Forbes’ 2012 Special Report on America’s Best Colleges, VMI was ranked among the top 25 public universities in the country, far ahead of any other senior military college. VMI was ranked 14th in the “Top 25 Publics” section, just behind the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and the US Naval Academy, but ahead of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the US Merchant Marine Academy. 

Service in the military

While all cadets must complete four years of ROTC, accepting a commission in the armed forces is optional. While more than half of VMI graduates are commissioned each year, the VMI Board of Visitors has set a target of 70% of VMI cadets taking a commission. The 2017 VMI class graduated 300 cadets, 172 (or 57%) of whom were commissioned as officers in the United States military.

VMI alums include the first five-star General of the Army, George Marshall, and seven recipients of the highest U.S. military decoration, the Medal of Honor, and more than 80 recipients of the second-highest awards, the Distinguished Service Cross and Navy Cross. VMI provides ROTC programs for all four branches of the United States military (Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force).

Virginia Military Institute: Campus Structure

The campus is known as the “Post,” a tradition that reflects the school’s military focus and the alumni’s uniformed service. Near the post is a training area covering several hundred acres. All cadets live on campus in large five-story “barracks.” The Old Barracks, a National Historic Landmark in its own right, stands on the site of the old arsenal. When Union forces shelled and burned the institute in June 1864, this structure bore the damage. The new barracks wing (“New Barracks”) was finished in 1949. The two wings encircle two quadrangles linked by a sally port. 

All rooms lead out onto porch-like stoops that face one of the quadrangles. A third barracks wing was completed, and cadets began classes in the spring semester 2009. Four of the five arched entrances to the barracks commemorate George Washington, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, George C. Marshall ’01, and Jonathan Daniels ’61. There are offices and meeting spaces for VMI clubs and organizations, the cadet visitors center and lounge, a snack bar, and a Follett Corporation-operated bookstore next to the Barracks.

The VMI Board of Visitors announced in October 2020 that the institute will relocate a statue of Confederate general and enslaver Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson from the front of the historic barracks to the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park. It was removed from public view in December 2020.

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