VMI Cadets at McDowell: “War was not a pastime”

Virginia Military Institute

When were the Virginia Military Institute Cadets (VMI) called to join a Confederate army as reserves? The most obvious answer is: May 1864 for the battle of New Market. But did you know that “Stonewall” Jackson himself “called out the cadets” during his Valley Campaign in 1862 and took them to the McDowell battlefield?

The story started on April 22, 1862. Jackson and his small army had already retreated to Swift Run Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Two Union armies prowled in the Shenandoah Valley or its borders and the situation did not look hopeful for the Confederate defenders. Following the concept that the best defense is offense, General Francis Smith, the superintendent of Virginia Military Institute, kept up with the news from Lexington, in the upper (southern) end of the Valley. If Jackson abandoned the Valley entirely, it could be only a matter of time before Yankees were at his barrack’s door, making it difficult to protect the state’s property. With orders from Virginia’s governor to keep the cadets in readiness to defend the Institute, Smith wanted to extend the defense area and try to help defeat the Union forces before they could directly threaten the military school. On April 22, Smith wrote to General Jackson, offering to send the Corps of Cadets to join his army. That same day Smith cancelled certain academic studies, ordering the cadets to spend the extra time focused on military drill and discipline exclusively.[i]

Eight days later, the message arrived. “Stonewall” wanted the cadets to march to Staunton. They did not know it—hardly anyone knew Jackson’s latest military scheme—but they would join part of the effort to surprise, attack, and clear the Union armies out of the Valley. One cadet wrote to his sister, “The Corps of Cadets leave the Institute this morning to go to Staunton to reinforce General Jackson. All of us are in fine spirits—anxious to get a shot at the enemy.”[ii]


Aside from the day at First Manassas that earned the First Virginia Brigade and Jackson their nickname, the general had not accomplished much remarkable. He had irritated soldiers and civilians alike with the Romney Campaign, retreat from Winchester, and the lost battle at Kernstown. He and his army had been on the run up the Shenandoah Valley. The legendary defender of the Valley had not yet emerged. However, about the time Jackson summoned the cadets, he began the first stages of his deception and counterstrokes.

While the Corps of Cadets (minus eleven students left behind at the barracks as guards) marched through rain and soggy mud toward Staunton, Jackson left Swift Run Gap, vacating the position for the arrival of Richard Ewell’s division. Jackson and his army left the Shenandoah Valley through Brown’s Gap on May 3, then doubled back via railroad and Rockfish Gap, directly into Staunton. West of Staunton, Union General Robert Milroy from Fremont’s command threatened the important little city, and Jackson intended to do something about it.

The cadets waited in Staunton for Jackson’s return, but General Smith found something else waiting with his name on it. Two telegrams. Smith had informed the Institute’s Board of Visitors that he was taking the cadets into the campaign, but had not received their permission. The board strongly felt that the cadets could and should only be used in combat if directly defending the walls of the Institute; they did not accept Smith’s reasoning that Jackson was still the Valley and the Institute’s best defense and that the cadets could tip the balance in the Confederacy’s favor, even if they acted as reserves or guards and freed other soldiers to join the battle line. The issue went by telegraph all the way to Virginia’s governor who replied, “I do not see now how the cadets can be sent back. I think it best to let them go on. The mischief is done and we shall have to let it alone.”[iii]

Superintendent Francis H. Smith, ca. 1862 (VMI Archives Photographs Collection)

Still disturbed, Smith sought Jackson’s advice when that general arrived in Staunton on May 6. Jackson and Smith were long time acquaintances. Smith arrived at Virginia Military Institute as superintendent in 1839 when the school was established. Jackson had taught at VMI during the ten years prior to the Civil War. Now, with roles reversed, Jackson held the authority, and he replied to Smith’s worries about protocols, “The safety of this section of the Valley, in my opinion, renders your continued cooperation of great importance.”[iv] The VMI Corps of Cadets stayed.

Encamped on the lawns of Staunton’s Deaf and Dumb Asylum, the cadets anticipated Jackson’s arrival for a corps review on May 6. In a rare occurrence, “Stonewall” took time to put on a clean Confederate union and even had his hair trimmed before arriving at the cadet’s improvised parade field.[v] The cadets had returned to Old Tom Fool’s classroom, but this time the school of war had real consequences and realities.

One of those realties was the advances of the Union armies. Moving from Winchester in the north of the valley, General Nathaniel Banks had suddenly paused and started to pull back. Meanwhile, General Robert Milroy had also started to retreat from his threatening position to Staunton. Jackson seized the opportunity from his opponents and put troops on the road to the west to aid General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson with Milroy’s defeat. Jackson attached the 200-strong Corps of Cadets to the Stonewall Brigade and sent them all west into the mountains. Johnson and Jackson left Staunton on May 7. They didn’t know their destination or the place of the next battle, but it lay miles into the mountains near a little village called McDowell.

The cadets struggled on the march, but most determined to keep in the ranks and keep moving. Ultimately, they covered 44 miles in 22 hours during the advance to McDowell.[vi]

Spying a horseman, one cadet called politely to him, “Mister, won’t you take me up behind?” The horseman obligingly pulled the cadet onto the back of the horse. Once mounted and resting his feet, the cadet struck up a conversation with the man in front of him, “Mister, what cavalry company do you belong to?”

“I don’t belong to any.”

“Well, what battery?” the boy persisted.

“To none.”

“Well, to what regiment then?”

“To none. I am General Winder of the Stonewall Brigade.”

Benjamin Colonna’s Cadet Portrait (VMI Archives)

Probably a bit mortified at asking for a ride on the general’s horse, the cadet replied, “Oh, General, I beg your pardon. I never would have asked you to take me up if I had known who you were.” But Winder assured him it was alright and even insisted that the cadet ride awhile longer.[vii]

Ahead them on the road and in the mountains, the battle of McDowell unfolded on May 8, 1862. Still on the road and destined not to fire shots in combat this day, Cadet Benjamin Colonna found the march tedious, writing later:

“Now,” I thought, “we are about twenty-four miles from Staunton this 8th day of May, 1862, and we will surely go into camp.” It was growing monotonous, and though I did not like to own it, I was getting a little tired of carrying that musket and other toggery. But, no; we were called attention and soon found ourselves climbing Shenandoah Mountain. The boys were beginning to feel the strain, but none of them had fallen by the wayside, though we saw several veterans of the Stonewall Brigade resting by the roadside and looking unhappy. Though I thought it took ages, we finally reached the top of Shenandoah Mountain and to the westward could see the valley of Cow Pasture River…. It was down grade, and that brought another set of muscles into play, so that we reached Cow Pasture River in better shape. We crossed the river and ascended a hill, where in a pretty little valley near a small rivulet we filed to the left and went into camp along with the brigade…. Then we all rolled up in our blankets and went off dozing and dreaming of “the girls we left behind us.” It was probably an hour later when the beating of drums all around us called me to my feet…. The long roll…was sounding…. So far as I can remember all the cadets were present, but it was a peaked-looking crowd that faced to the right and took up the march along with the Stonewall Brigade, still to westward. Some of the boys were limping, but though sore, we were much refreshed by that short rest….

The sun was getting low in the west, and I suppose it was about 5 P.M. when we took up the march toward McDowell. We were soon on top of the flat-topped hill that formed the divide between Cow Pasture and Bull Pasture rivers, and could hear continually and distinctly the fire of the infantry and occasionally a cannon. It seemed to put new life into the boys as we pressed forward, and on reaching the west slope of the hill we heard a band playing; a little later we passed it on the north side of the road….

As we progressed the firing gradually ceased; we were halted and a rest ordered, and finally marched back to our camp. I was certainly tired when at about midnight we filed to the right, marched to our bivouac, were given “stack arms,” and dismissed. I was about five or six yards from my blankets when I fell to my knees and crawled to my blankets, wrapped them about me and fell asleep.”[viii]

The Corps of Cadets did not take a combat role in the battle of McDowell and the securing of that first major Confederate victory in the Valley Campaign, but that had been by Jackson’s design. “Stonewall” never intended to put the cadets in battle. Instead, he wanted them behind the lines to allow other units to move to the front, and they had performed that role. “The duty I know would not be congenial to the feelings of our brave Corps which I am well satisfied would desire to advance; but the patriot…is willing to take any position where he can best serve his country.”[ix]

Though they did not go into battle at McDowell, the corps did see the aftermath of war. In a hurry to get his fighting troops back to Staunton and the next part of his campaign, Jackson left the cadets to help care for the wounded and bury the dead. After a day of burials, the cadets continued marching in difficult weather as Jackson chased the Yankees deeper into the mountains. Finally, on May 14, they returned to McDowell, and “Stonewall” decided to return the cadets to the barracks in Lexington with military praise. “Major General Smith and the officers and cadets under him” were thanked for “the promptitude and efficiency with which they have assisted in the recent expedition.”[x] The Corps of Cadets did suffer a casualty from their McDowell march; Cadet Private John T.D. Gisiner died of an illness contracted during the expedition.

Cadets took pride in their marching accomplishment and delighted in the reports in the New York Herald that “General Jackson has been reinforced by 2000 well drilled cadets.” Someone wrote with McClellanish math since, as one cadet confessed to his sister, “we were not 200 strong.”[xi]

General Smith felt success of a different sort. For months, his cadets had been complaining anxiously to leave the Institute and go into military service. In his July report, Smith noted that the McDowell experience “showed them that war was not a pastime, but an irksome and laborious duty; and most of the restlessness among them…has been quieted.”[xii]

Two years to the day when the Corps of Cadets turned homeward from McDowell, VMI’s cadets would be marching in more rain toward the village of New Market. Unlike the battle of McDowell where Jackson successfully kept the boys sidelined, another Confederate general would be forced to send the cadets into combat during the battle of New Market. While the VMI cadets made several military marches during the Civil War, their two main battlefield/campaign experiences as a unit were at McDowell and New Market. In some ways, the march to McDowell paved the way for the trek to New Market because the precedent had been set in 1862 that the cadets would join a Confederate army when requested.


[i] James Lee Conrad, The Young Lions: Confederate Cadets at War (Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1997). Page 53.

[ii] Ibid., Page 54.

[iii] Ibid., Page 54.

[iv] Ibid., Page 55.

[v] Ibid., Page 55.

[vi] Ibid., Page 57.

[vii] Peter Cozzen, Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008). Pages 261-262.

[viii] Life Time Books, Shenandoah 1862, Voices of the Civil War (Life Time Education, 1997). Pages 76-77.

[ix] James Lee Conrad, The Young Lions: Confederate Cadets at War (Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1997). Page 56.

[x] Ibid., Page 58.

[xi] Ibid., Page 58.

[xii] Ibid., Page 58.

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