General Summerall was a warrior with a mission. In 1888, at the age of 21, he won a competitive appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, embarking on a mission to escape the poverty of Reconstruction in his home state of Florida. He rose to command the United States Corps of Cadets, and was graduated in 1892. He set out on a military mission to inspire his men through his fortitude, courage, and expertise to heroic performance in peacetime and wartime. He led his artillery platoon through the jungles of the Philippines during the Philippine Insurrection, aimed their guns to blast through the massive walls surrounding the Imperial City of Peking to rescue foreigners trapped by the Boxer Rebellion, and he led his troops in fights with frontier outlaws in Alaska. In World War I, he commanded the First Division and V Corps in two decisive operations that helped to secure the Allied victory over the army of the German Empire in 1918. He and the officers and men he commanded never lost a battle. He returned home to command the army as chief of staff, and led its postwar mission to adapt to the future demands of warfare.
Prior to his coming to The Citadel, Summerall’s only higher educational experience had been as a cadet at West Point, and later as an instructor at the academy. What was it like? There was no discussion or dialogue between cadets and instructors in class. Strict obedience to West Point pedagogy, defined and enshrined in the mid-nineteenth century by the Academic Board, prevailed in the classroom. It was based upon the recitation at the blackboard of set assignments, regardless of discipline or subject matter. All instructors were West Point graduates. Some were not at all well prepared. One instructor of French managed to absent himself whenever a group of French speakers arrived on campus. Summerall and others would later complain about this fossilized system of instruction, but reform was slow in coming. Academically he ranked 22nd in a class of 63, but rose to the rank of first captain of the US Corps of Cadets, and president of the class of 1892. Upon graduation, he had accumulated total of only 16 demerits. He returned to West Point in 1906, as instructor of tactics, and could do little to change system, but cadets like George S. Patton, Jr., respected him, and looked to Summerall for advice on “the business of being a soldier,” as Patton said.
After completing a term of four years as army chief of staff, he stepped down in 1930, and retired from military service in 1931. He had served in the army for 43 years. That summer, from his home in Eustis, Florida, he accepted the invitation from the Board of Visitors to become the tenth president of the military college of South Carolina.
What was his mission at The Citadel? It was clear. To save it from the Great Depression, and from being eliminated from the state budget, which was a definite possibility, as South Carolina struggled to cope with that economic disaster. That fall, he appeared before the state senate finance committee to present the college budget, and was criticized for carrying forth a deficit from prior year’s budget. Summerall suddenly rose from his seat, and stated that, as Citadel president, he would not tolerate disrespect. He abruptly wheeled, left the room, and returned to Charleston. The next day, he submitted his resignation to the board, effective immediately. He remained on campus, and two days later received petition from the Corps of Cadets pleading that he rescind his resignation. Soon after, the Board of Visitors, the faculty, Charleston city officials, parents of cadets, alumni, newspaper editors, and citizens from across the state entered similar pleas. In response, he withdrew his resignation. The stand he had taken in Columbia, coupled with the support he received, added stature to his reputation, and strengthened his position as president. Never again in his presidency did the legislature challenge Summerall about his budget figures, and no legislator ever again questioned or tried to interfere with his management of the college.
To cope with The Citadel’s financial crisis, Summerall reduced his salary by forty-five percent, and those of the faculty and staff by thirty to forty percent. Salaries of hourly wage earners were cut from fifteen to twenty percent, and many were laid off. He issued memos rationing electricity and water, disconnected telephones (including his own), used lightweight paper to save on catalog printing and mailing, and made rounds to be certain that his orders were followed.
He raised money for cadet scholarships from wealthy friends, like financier Clark Williams and Colonel Robert McCormick, owner and publisher of the Chicago Tribune. McCormick published regularly in his paper articles that featured Summerall and The Citadel. To limit hazing in the corps, Summerall eliminated the detail system that required freshmen to act virtually as servants to senior cadets. To inspire the corps to achieve the highest standards of personal behavior, he wrote “The Cadet Code,” which can also be regarded as his own personal mission statement as Citadel president. It is printed inside the back cover of The Guidon, the fourth class manual. It is a noble statement that should serve as a model for the behavior of each Citadel cadet, and, indeed, for all of those who have had the distinction of being a member of the corps.
After his arrival on campus, Summerall saw the faculty as the reincarnation of his West Point instructors. Most were Citadel graduates, and many had been graduated in the spring before they began teaching in the fall. He obtained funds from wealthy donors to enable them to pursue advanced degrees. He obtained money from the federal government to build faculty quarters, new academic buildings, and new barracks. He revamped the curriculum, added new majors, and attracted professors with doctoral degrees. Under his leadership the college received full accreditation as an institution of higher learning. He secured funding to build a build chapel, and a grateful Board Visitors named it Summerall Chapel. They might well have believed that naming it St. Charles Chapel would have been equally appropriate.
Faculty and cadets greatly respected and were grateful for his rescue of the college. Through obedience to his orders, his mission at The Citadel had been accomplished. His orders were not to be questioned, certainly not discussed; they were to be followed to the letter, down through the military chain of command for the cadets and staff, and through the academic chain of command for the faculty. For the faculty, the authority of department heads over their departments was like Summerall’s authority over them. Faculty, staff, and cadets were in awe of the man and his achievements. For Summerall, The Citadel had become his most cherished and triumphal command, and he refused to yield it to anyone else, just as he had refused to yield the field of battle in any of his campaigns.
In 1953, the chairman of board asked him about the possibility of retirement. The inquiry came just after Summerall had served 22 years as president, had just recovered from a prostate operation, and just after he had passed his 86th birthday. He was deeply offended; said that he was just as good as he ever was, and, rather than retire, he resigned. After the faculty hosted a farewell dinner, and after commencement in June, he drove alone to his retirement home in Aiken, a gift of Colonel McCormick of the Chicago Tribune. He refused to return to the campus to accept on honorary doctoral degree, remaining a solitary and lonely figure, having lost Laura, his wife of 45 years, seven years before. He grew increasingly weak from leukemia, was moved to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, and died there two years later. He is buried on a shaded, sloping hillside in Arlington National Cemetery, along his wife Laura, his son Colonel Charles P. Summerall, Jr., and his wife.
Summerall’s presidency set the stage for the equally imperious Mark Clark, whose prestige and leadership also secured the future for the college, and, at the same time, perpetuated Summerall’s command and control of decision-making. Clark stepped down in 1965, amid the growing social pressures of the 1960s, but the foundations that Summerall laid, and that Clark built upon, remained strong enough to enable the college to adapt to these challenges.
And what of the faculty, those faithful and obedient servants? Across the decades of the 1960s and 1970s they worked to achieve a more collegial form of college governance. Perhaps what inspired them was their admiration for Summerall’s dedication to his work and his love for The Citadel, or perhaps they were driven by their reaction against his and Clark’s magisterial control. Quite probably, both admiration and reaction were linked in their desire to share in shaping The Citadel for the present and into the future. Across those decades, the tension that resulted developed into a healthy, open, and constructive dialogue between administrative and academic realms, and served to strengthen, not weaken the college. And those teachers and scholars who engaged in this dialogue, emerged as men and women of fortitude, of academic achievement and excellence, and strength of character. They embodied then, as they do today, not only the purpose and mission of the college, but also the dedication and devotion to their profession and to The Citadel. And these very qualities are those that exemplified the life of service, and devotion to duty, of General Charles P. Summerall. Thus, the legacy of Summerall continues and will live on, not through a system of abject obedience, but through the embrace, by the entire Citadel community, of the ideals of service and devotion to a higher calling and mission; for these were the ideals that inspired him throughout his long and fruitful life.
I have based portions of this paper on my article, “The General As President: Charles P. Summerall and Mark W. Clark As Presidents of The Citadel”, that appeared in the South Carolina Historical Magazine 95 No. 4 (October, 1994).