J. T. L. Preston and the Origins of the Virginia Military Institute, 1834-42

By Wineman, Bradford | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

J. T. L. Preston and the Origins of the Virginia Military Institute, 1834-42


Wineman, Bradford, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Today, southern military colleges represent some of the last physical vestiges of the Old South and still hold the distinction of being among the region's oldest institutions of higher learning. Too often, however, these schools have been viewed through a narrow historical lens that has given short shrift to their broad social, political, and cultural influence. Scholarship that examines antebellum southern military education can be divided into two rudimentary categories: the military/Civil War school and the social/violence school. Recently published works by Joseph Conrad, Gary R. Baker, and Richard McMurry give passing attention to the antebellum development of these academies by regarding the era as simply a prelude to their eventual contribution to the Confederate armies.1 The large number of officers produced by these institutions overshadows details of their existence before secession. The second school treats military education simply as an extension of the Souths innately violent culture. Historians John Hope Franklin and Samuel Huntington argue that these "West Points of the South" promoted military training in institutions of higher learning to prepare for either inevitable conflict with the North or potential slave uprisings.2

Rod Andrews Long Gray Lines provides the most recent interpretation of the southern antebellum military tradition and makes a critical departure from the aforementioned historiography. Andrew effectively attributes the success of these academies to a southern culture that defined militarism as the attraction to values such as honor, patriotism, and courage, not aggressive military preparedness. His analysis of the broad southern military tradition unfortunately does not allow for an examination of the local and state influences that helped shape the establishment of individual institutions.3 To complement Andrew's arguments, this essay will examine Lexington, Virginia, resident John Thomas Lewis Preston, whose efforts led to the founding of the first of these schools, the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and the replication of his plan throughout the antebellum South. Preston intended for the benefits of his proposed military school to extend beyond the betterment of the individual young men who attended. Indeed, the young lawyer envisioned this new institution benefiting his entire state-its economy, society, and even its democratic values. The process of VMIs establishment included such variables unique to Preston's time and setting as Virginia's political party system, community activism, reform movements, and concepts of state service, in addition to the broader reconciliation of militarism and republicanism. This essay will also explore the often-overlooked challenges Preston and other founders met in order to create the school and will identify their direct influence on nearly all academies that followed VMI's surprising success.

In the years following the Militia Act of 1798, the Commonwealth of Virginia had difficulty establishing a uniform system for the storage and maintenance of the states military equipment. Later, the conclusion of the War of 1812 provided the ideal opportunity for the state to organize the weapons and equipment that accumulated as the size of the militia declined. Early in 1816, the state legislature called for the establishment of three arsenals-one west of the Allegheny Mountains and two east of the mountains but west of the capital at Richmond. In April 1816, Gov. Wilson C. Nicholas wrote to the citizens of Lexington announcing that their town had been selected by the General Assembly as the site of the central arsenal. Nicholas's letter declared that "The Executive has it in contemplation to establish an Arsenal in or near the town of Lexington in the county of Rockbridge. . . . The Executive directs that each Arsenal to be established shall contain at least 20,000 stand of arms and that there shall be a guard of one officer and twenty men for the Arsenal. …

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