Norwich Was Union's `Other' Military School

By Poirier, Robert G. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 3, 1996 | Go to article overview

Norwich Was Union's `Other' Military School


Poirier, Robert G., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The Civil War is known as a West Pointers' war. While the achievements of U.S. Military Academy alumni in the war are beyond dispute, few students of the conflict are aware of the Union's "other" military college, 177-year-old Norwich University.

Capt. Alden Partridge (1785-1854), an alumnus and former superintendent of West Point, founded the university in his native Norwich, Vt., on Aug. 6, 1819. It is the nation's first and oldest private military college and is recognized as the birthplace of today's Reserve Officer Training Corps concept.

Beginning with the Blackhawk War of 1832, alumni - who since 1974 include women - have served in every one of our nation's conflicts and in every rank from private (seaman) to four-star general (admiral). The War to Preserve the Union, however, presented the greatest test.

In the four decades following its establishment, Norwich attempted to put into practice the ideas its founder termed "the American system of education." This concept provided for a balance of physical and intellectual training, an emphasis on liberal arts and the extensive use of field work integrated into a military regimen.

In addition, Partridge believed in the establishment and maintenance of a large body of trained citizen-soldiers and volunteer officers in preference to a professional army and regular officers, such as those trained at West Point.

Mindful of the importance of the republic's ocean frontiers, Norwich cadets were prepared for service either in the Army or Navy. Partridge adopted the motto "I Will Try," a promise made by New Hampshire's Col. James Miller to his commanding general at the Battle of Chippewa in the War of 1812 when asked to assault a dangerous battery; it was a pledge redeemed in victory.

Norwich University, after several name changes, two moves and a major fire, relocated in 1866 to its current home in Northfield, Vt.

While much documentation exists on the Civil War roles of other American military colleges, such as West Point, the Virginia Military Institute and The Citadel, Norwich's role has been largely forgotten.

Yet in 1861, Norwich was unique: While there were 10 non-federal military colleges at the time, Norwich was the only such institution in the North.

A wartime contribution of particular note was the large number of alumni who served as drillmasters - training recruits mustered by state authorities. At least 120 Norwich men filled this role at some time, and Capt. George Tucker - class of '47 - served as drillmaster general of the Army of the Potomac in 1863.

Norwich men served in every theater of war but were most prevalent in the East, particularly in the Army of the Potomac, where they served in all ranks, from private to major general and corps commander (Horatio G. Wright).

Of the five Medals of Honor earned by Norwich alumni in the war, four were won in the East: one in the Peninsula Campaign (Pvt. Willie Johnston), one at Gettysburg (Maj. Edmund Rice), one near Spotsylvania Court House (Col. Thomas 0. Seaver) and one at Trevilian Station, Va. (1st Lt. Edward B. Williston).

Norwich men were prominent in two of the most famous brigades in the Army of the Potomac, indeed in the Union Army: the Iron Brigade and the Vermont Brigade. Eight alumni served in the Iron Brigade, two commanded regiments (2nd and 7th Wisconsin Infantry) and one commanded the brigade for most of its critical fight at Gettysburg.

In the Western Theater, Norwich alumni served in more than 110 regiments and gained contemporary fame through the valor of men such as Maj. Gens. Grenville M. Dodge, "Fighting Joe" Mower and Thomas E.G. Ransom, all of whom rose to corps command. Dodge went on to earn even greater postwar fame as the builder of the transcontinental railroad.

Norwich men took part in all of the key battles fought in the West; for example, at least 25 alumni served at Shiloh (Pittsburg Landing), 19 at Stones River (Murfreesboro), 27 at Vicksburg, 20 at Chickamauga, 21 at Missionary Ridge, 10 at Franklin, 30 at Atlanta and 23 in Sherman's March to the Sea. …

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