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The Early Years

Rod Andrew Jr., Associate Professor of History, Clemson University: How Much is Still Relevant? The Citadel and American Military Traditions in the 19th Century.

Good morning. Thank you very much for inviting me. Although I only taught here for two years, whenever I come back to visit The Citadel, I feel like I am among friends.

I’ve been asked to talk about American military education in the 19th century, especially as it relates to The Citadel. How is any of that relevant in 2006, 164 years after The Citadel’s founding? In fact, many people today think of The Citadel as a quaint anachronism, and a few as a harmful one. To many, the sight of undergraduates in uniforms with military haircuts, saluting faculty members, and even of Friday afternoon parades, seems out of touch with modern higher education.

Actually, there are other familiar parts of cadet life today that are far more reminiscent of the past than we realize. If one spends time reading memoirs of former military school alumni or old disciplinary records, one might be struck by how much hasn’t changed – 19th century military school cadets delighted in elaborate pranks and harassing underclassmen; they dreaded formations and inspections, and like today’s cadets, could be absolutely ingenious in finding brilliant ways to sneak out of – and back into – the barracks after “lights out.”

I plan this morning to discuss some important parts of a tradition of American military education that many of us may not be aware of – at least I know I wasn’t aware of them until I began researching this tradition 15 years ago in what eventually became my PhD. dissertation and then a book. First, I want to point out that originally, the concept of the military college – for young men who were probably not destined to become professional military officers – was not an anachronism, but one of the most enlightened innovations in the history of American higher education. Second, there is little evidence that the original justification of for military schools was to preserve conservative traditions of hierarchy or promote a policy of aggressive military preparedness; rather, it was much more common for military school boosters to justify their efforts with appeals to egalitarian democracy (among white males, of course) and the development of character and civic and moral virtue.

The Citadel occupies a central place in the history of American higher education, and also in a unique southern military tradition. It was part of a tidal wave of military education sweeping over the American educational landscape in the early to mid-19th century, especially in the South. (I refer here not to the founding of the USMA or the USNA, but to military colleges and academies whose primary function was to use a form of the USMA’s system of cadet government not to train professional military officers for the United States regular army, but for civilian professions.) It began with Norwich Academy in Vermont, founded in 1820 by an ex-superintendent of West Point, Alden Partridge. Partridge and his former students later led a nationwide movement in the founding of private military academies, which met particular success in the southern states. (By 1860, nearly one hundred military colleges and academies had opened their doors in the slave states, compared to fifteen in the free states.)

In 1839, Virginia founded the first state-supported military college, followed by South Carolina’s founding of The Citadel and The Arsenal in 1842. Partridge and others charged that West Point was training an aristocratic clique of officers that held a monopoly over the nation’s military power. What was needed, they thought, was an efficient, well-led militia in each state that could serve as a check on centralized federal power and protect their states’ citizens. Military academies could turn out young officers who could ensure that the militia was well organized and well trained. At the same time, these “civilian” military colleges and academies could give the nation’s young men a classical and scientific education, training them as engineers, lawyers, teachers, and in other civilian professions.

In Lexington, Virginia, and in South Carolina, the founding of military academies did have another quasi-military purpose. The legislatures of Virginia and South Carolina intended for the student bodies at VMI, The Citadel in Charleston, and The Arsenal in Columbia to function as military guards over state military supplies. The sites were already guarded, but local citizens, especially in Lexington and Charleston, were unhappy with the existing guards, regarding them as an idle, dissolute, and odious class of drones. Many believed that the state could secure the arms as efficiently, and with better educational results, with soldier-students.

But I must emphasize that this emphasis on local military readiness and security was never the sustaining force nor the overriding justification for the dozens of military schools that sprang up all over the South in the 1840s and 1850s. Even as late as 1860, military considerations never overshadowed the collateral civilian benefits these schools supposedly provided to society.

Military school advocates claimed that military training would strengthen the character of young men, instilling habits of order, diligence, and punctuality. It would give cadets less time for the idleness which resulted in drinking, gambling, and the other forms of mischief which were so much a part of antebellum college life. Sentries and military discipline enforced curfews and curbed disorder, which hopefully contributed to study and enhanced academic performance. Additionally, they claimed, military education instilled habits of “submission to lawful authority.” Antebellum college campuses were rowdy places, and southerners in particular were deeply concerned with the perceived unruly behavior of their sons. In 1852 a committee of the Virginia General Assembly applauded the school's attempts to apply military discipline to the young men of Virginia, “just at an age when waywardness is the only fully developed trait in their character.” In place of "waywardness," leaders at VMI, The Citadel, and state legislators and governors sought to substitute patriotism, "subordination to lawful authority," and “prompt obedience to every call of duty.” For example, Professor Asbury Coward’s 1860 commencement address at The Citadel stressed that “love of liberty, love of country, and … reverence of the laws” were vital to the preservation of liberty, and that military education was a safeguard to liberty because it taught respect for the law.

There were also egalitarian justifications for military training. Military school leaders conceived the state military schools as beacons of opportunity for poorer young men who, they claimed, would otherwise not been able to continue their education. They were able to make this claim because the military schools’ admissions policies were quite unique for their time. The Virginia G. Assembly required VMI to provide free tuition, room, and board for at least 20 indigent youths known as “regular” or “state” cadets. These cadets’ annual expenses amounted to about $80 in 1839. In the first years of VMI, they outnumbered the “pay” cadets, who paid about $225 a year. South Carolina adopted a similar system for admission to The Arsenal and The Citadel. Expenses for South Carolina cadets were even lower -- $200 for pay cadets and absolutely no fees for “state” cadets.

Egalitarianism at southern military schools went farther than an enlightened admissions policy. In American colleges of this time, students from poorer families often found themselves tipping their hats and blacking boots for classmates who were their social betters. But in military colleges, rank and authority within the corps of cadets rested on experience and past achievement, not social class. First-year students were privates in the corps of cadets, while the best performers from the sophomore and junior classes were NCO's, and the best performing seniors were cadet officers.

The egalitarian spirit prevailing at military schools was due partly to conscious design; it was not just a natural product of military life. Uniforms tended to erase social distinctions, and school authorities deliberately used them for this purpose. Regulations forbade cadets from keeping civilian suits in their barracks, which ensured that planters’ sons and farmboys were always dressed alike. The Citadel’s regulations explicitly mandated that “no difference shall be made in the treatment, or in the duties required, between the pay and State Cadets, nor shall any distinction between cadets be known in the Academy, other than that arising from merit.”

In response to the state’s assistance, educators expected military school graduates to serve their states. Many became officers in the state militia, but even more (a majority) became teachers. Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama actually required alumni who had received reduced tuition to teach for at least two years in the public schools or colleges of their states.

American military schools could claim as their heritage a body of republican thought stretching back to Greek antiquity and running through the Enlightenment, from Xenophon and Aristotle through John Milton, which said that an armed, trained, and disciplined citizenry was vital for the health of a free government; that there was something about military training which made a young man a more valuable, useful, and honorable citizen. As private military academies spread from Vermont across the nation, southern states initiated the idea of state-supported military schools which aimed not only to bolster the militia, but also to democratize higher education through an innovative student aid program for poorer scholars, expand the ranks of qualified public school teachers, and produce a more enlightened and public-minded citizenry.

They made their debut, then, as enlightened innovations in American higher education. As the Civil War approached, however, they showed that, while preaching patriotism and public service, they could also represent the forces of tradition and conservatism. As sectional tensions mounted in the 1840s and 1850s, southerners scrutinized all their institutions for their ability and willingness to defend southern “rights” if necessary, including the “right” to own slaves. Southern military colleges proved faithful to the states who bore them, purging their curricula of texts that might encourage abolitionism. When the guns fired at Fort Sumter in 1861, Citadel cadets were there, pulling the lanyards, following their governor’s orders, determined to show that they were willing and able to defend the southern version of republicanism. Teenaged cadets from VMI, The Citadel, the University of Alabama, and Georgia Military Institute fought bravely, and tragically, in the Civil War. Hundreds of alumni from these schools, especially VMI and The Citadel, volunteered as Confederate officers, proving that patriotism, state loyalty, and service were not empty words to military school graduates.

By the spring of 1865, the southern military school tradition appeared dead. VMI was in ashes, The Citadel occupied, and other schools destroyed or closed. One might think that the South’s bitter experience with war would make southerners turn their backs on traditions that honored military service and advocated military training for boys. Instead, the opposite occurred. As the mythology of the Lost Cause glorified the courage and sacrifices of Confederate soldiers, the links between moral virtue and martial virtue only grew stronger in southerners’ minds. Now that secession and slavery were dead, military readiness was even less of a justification for having a military school than the notion that military training produced useful, honorable citizens. VMI was resurrected, with its superintendent claiming that it could produce men who would be “useful” in the rebuilding of the state. The Citadel remained under federal occupation until 1879, after which alumni conducted a letter-writing campaign to the state’s newspapers to convince the legislature to reopen their alma mater. The titles of their articles summarizes their arguments: “Military Training Useful Principally in the Formation of Character and the Maintenance of Discipline, not to Make Professional Soldiers”; The Low Cost of the Education at The Citadel, and the Opportunity for the Poor Boy;” and “Results of Military Training on the Bearing, Character, and Spirit of the Cadet.”

Meanwhile, southern states took advantage of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, which provided federal support for state colleges that focused on scientific agriculture and the practical sciences. The law stated that the schools must include some instruction in military tactics, but every white land-grant college founded under the Morrill Act went far beyond that requirement. Instead of requiring tactics classes in the senior year or uniforms once a week, they operated as military schools on a 24-hour basis, much like The Citadel and VMI. Virginia Tech, NC State, Clemson, North Georgia College, Auburn, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi State, LSU, and Texas A & M operated as, or soon became, military schools. The same arguments about military education and character development reappeared. Officials at these schools said that military discipline facilitated the workings of the college, complemented study, produced law-abiding and patriotic citizens, guarded against moral dissipation, and trained young men in the responsible exercise of authority and leadership. North Georgia College proclaimed that the benefits of military training were moral, mental, and physical, and “valuable to the citizen as to the soldier.” Asbury Coward, serving in 1909 as superintendent of the Citadel, recycled his 1860 speech, saying that military education engendered respect for the law “upon which the safety of the Republic must ever depend.”

White southerners, then, equated military service with responsible citizenship. In the North, there were plenty of people who agreed with the notion that training a good soldier was also a good way to train a good citizen. However, unlike in the South, there was also a strong strand of dissent against that idea. Most northern land-grant schools did not become full-fledged military schools like the southern ones did, or if they did, they remained so for so only a short time before public dissent killed the idea. Northern newspapers, faculty, cadets, and legislators were more likely to see military institutions as potentially sinister, and were more likely to claim that having students march in formation and follow orders was an “undemocratic” or “un-American” way to run a college. Southerners appeared much more adept at reconciling military traditions with republicanism, democracy, and notions of independent manhood. (In my book, I spend some time arguing that this is mainly what made the “southern military tradition” unique from the American military tradition.)

But if white southerners connected militarism with citizenship, apparently, so did black southerners. South Carolina State, Savannah State, Florida A & M and the Hampton Institute in Virginia operated as full-fledged military schools in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They too believed that military training would enhance their students’ bearing, self-discipline, and sense of duty, and make them better citizens. Sadly, military traditions at black military schools were not allowed to develop fully. Black cadets wore uniforms, learned to follow orders, and marched in formation, but they did so without rifles. Nor did white state authorities usually allow them to study military tactics in the classroom. White Americans in the 1890s and early twentieth century did not really want African Americans to be fully trained soldiers. This was the same period in which southern states disbanded their black militia units, in which the tiny handful of black West Point cadets were severely hazed and court-martialed on trumped-up charges, and commissions for black officers in the United States Army were virtually nonexistent. All Americans, black and white, understood the connection between soldiership and citizenship, and whites were not willing to concede full citizenship to blacks. Thus, black military school cadets suffered their indignities not so much because they were members of military institutions, but because of flaws within American democracy itself.

What does all of this mean for us today? Historians should not make predictions about the future. Since they spend their time immersed in the past, they are not very good at it. Nor do they have the right to prescribe a correct course of action based on their knowledge of the past. However, they should use the past to invite reflection and make educated observations.

What legacies from The Citadel’s past are worth keeping? Surely not the defense of slavery, or any form of racism at all. For one thing, that was never The Citadel’s most defining legacy. The Citadel was not unique for defending slavery and segregation. In fact, when the first South Carolina college to desegregate, Clemson, did so in 1963, The Citadel followed quietly a few years later.

The Citadel continued all-male until 1996, but until the last quarter of a century, most Americans did not consider that fact remarkable. For most Americans, all-male education did not seem to be the defining characteristic of The Citadel until the issue itself made headlines in the 1990s. (Before, it simply seemed unremarkable that a military school was all-male.) Only later did both conservatives and liberals made firm mental connections in their minds between The Citadel and single-sex education – whether they passionately defended or attacked it. But when lawful authority decreed change, The Citadel “submitted to lawful authority.” All-male education went away; The Citadel did not.

The point is not to deny either racism or all-male education in The Citadel’s history, but to recognize that neither is the central element in The Citadel’s legacy, and that they cannot be what we cling to as we seek to define what The Citadel should be today.

If The Citadel has a worthwhile legacy to hold onto and to build upon, I humbly suggest that it is the commitment to the idea that discipline and duty are worthwhile in the development of character; that education is not complete if it does not stress integrity and a sense of one’s duty to others --- And a sense that while knowledge helps one achieve his or her personal potential (and get a good job) -- knowledge is less useful, or maybe even dangerous, if it is not complemented with character, and a willingness to be part of something larger than oneself.

We should not over-glamorize or over-romanticize the Old Citadel’s professed commitment to developing integrity and character. Surely not all Citadel graduates from the 19th century became admirable citizens. But we should not ignore those claims, either, because they took them seriously. Those claims defined what Citadel superintendents, trustees, alumni, and faculty thought The Citadel should be. It did not make them perfect people or The Citadel a perfect school. But the notion that part of education is making the citizen aware of his duties to others, that self-indulgence has its limits, is still relevant today, and unfortunately too often forgotten. And the principle that integrity is absolutely essential to leadership needs as much emphasis today as it ever did. One need look no further for proof of this than to some of the political and corporate leaders of our own day. As long as the United States continues as a republic, these ideas about discipline, duty, integrity, and character will always be critical elements in higher education, and the most important part of The Citadel’s legacy.

Rod Andrew Jr.
Associate Professor of History
Clemson University
Presidential Inaugural Celebration
April 20, 2006
Mark Clark Hall
The Citadel