An Overview of the Virginia Military Institute


Virginia Military Institute (VMI) is a public senior military college (SMC) in Lexington, Virginia. It was founded in 1839 as America’s first state military college and is the oldest public senior military college in the United States. In keeping with its founding principles and unlike any other senior military college in the United States, VMI enrols cadets only and awards bachelor’s degrees exclusively. VMI offers its cadets strict military discipline combined with a physically and academically demanding environment. The institute grants degrees in 14 disciplines in engineering, science, and the liberal arts.

While Abraham Lincoln first called VMI “The West Point of the South” because of its role during the American Civil War, the nickname has remained because VMI has produced more Army generals than any Reserve Officer Training Programme (ROTC) programme in the United States. Despite the nickname, VMI differs from the federal military service academies in many regards. For example, as of 2019, VMI had a total enrolment of 1,722 cadets (as compared to 4,500 at the Academies) making it one of the smallest NCAA Division I schools in the United States. Additionally, today (as in the 1800s) all VMI cadets sleep on cots and live closely together in a more spartan and austere barracks environment than at the Service Academies. All VMI cadets must participate in the ROTC of the United States Armed Forces programmes, but are afforded the flexibility of pursuing civilian endeavours or accepting an officer’s commission in the active or reserve components of one of the six US military branches upon graduation.

VMI’s alumni include a secretary of state, secretary of defence, secretary of the Army, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, 7 Medal of Honour recipients, 13 Rhodes Scholars, Pulitzer Prize winners, an Academy Award winner, an Emmy Award and Golden Globe winner, a martyr recognised by the Episcopal Church, senators and representatives, governors, lieutenant governors, a Supreme Court justice, numerous college and university presidents, many business leaders (presidents and CEOs) and over 290 general and flag officers across all US service branches and several other countries.


The Board of Visitors is the supervisory board of the Virginia Military Institute. Although the Governor is ex officio the commander-in-chief of the institute, and no one may be declared a graduate without his signature, he delegates to the board the responsibility for developing the institute’s policy. The board appoints the superintendent and approves appointment of members of the faculty and staff on the recommendation of the superintendent. The board may make bylaws and regulations for their own government and the management of the affairs of the institute, and while the institute is exempt from the Administrative Process Act in accordance with Va. Code (which exempts educational institutions operated by the Commonwealth), some of its regulations are codified at 8VAC 100. The Executive Committee conducts the business of the board during recesses.

The board has 17 members, including ex officio the adjutant general of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Regular members are appointed by the governor for a four-year term and may be reappointed once. Of the sixteen appointed members, twelve must be alumni of the institute, eight of whom must be residents of Virginia and four must be non-residents; and the remaining four members must be non-alumni Virginia residents. The Executive Committee consists of the board’s president, three vice presidents, and one non-alumnus at large, and is appointed by the board at each annual meeting.

Under the militia bill (the Virginia Code of 1860) officers of the institute were recognised as part of the military establishment of the state, and the governor had authority to issue commissions to them in accordance with institute regulations. Current law makes provision for officers of the Virginia Militia to be subject to orders of the governor. The cadets are a military corps (the Corps of Cadets) under the command of the superintendent and under the administration of the Commandant of Cadets, and constitute the guard of the institute.

Brief History

Early History

In the years after the War of 1812, the Commonwealth of Virginia built and maintained several arsenals to store weapons intended for use by the state militia in the event of invasion or slave revolt. One of them was placed in Lexington. Residents came to resent the presence of the soldiers, whom they saw as drunken and undisciplined. In 1826, one guard beat another to death. Townspeople wanted to keep the arsenal, but sought a new way of guarding it, so as to eliminate the “undesirable element.” In 1834, the Franklin Society, a local literary and debate society, debated, “Would it be politic for the State to establish a military school, at the Arsenal, near Lexington, in connection with Washington College, on the plan of the West Point Academy?” They unanimously concluded that it would. Lexington attorney John Thomas Lewis Preston became the most active advocate of the proposal. In a series of three anonymous letters in the Lexington Gazette in 1835, he proposed replacing the arsenal guard with students living under military discipline, receiving some military education, as well as a liberal education. The school’s graduates would contribute to the development of the state and, should the need arise, provide trained officers for the state’s militia.

After a public relations campaign that included Preston meeting in person with influential business, military and political figures and many open letters from prominent supporters, in 1836 the Virginia legislature passed a bill authorising creation of a school at the Lexington arsenal, and the Governor signed the measure into law.

The organisers of the planned school formed a board of visitors, which included Preston, and the board selected Claudius Crozet as their first president. Crozet had served as an engineer in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army before immigrating to the United States. In America, he served as an engineering professor at West Point, as well as state engineer in Louisiana and mathematics professor at Jefferson College in Convent, Louisiana. Crozet was also the Chief Engineer of Virginia and someone whom Thomas Jefferson referred to as, “the smartest mathematician in the United States.” The board delegated to Preston the task of deciding what to call the new school, and he created the name Virginia Military Institute.

Under Crozet’s direction, the board of visitors crafted VMI’s program of instruction, basing it off of those of the United States Military Academy and Crozet’s alma mater the École Polytechnique of Paris. So, instead of the mix of military and liberal education imagined by Preston, the board created a military and engineering school offering the most thorough engineering curriculum in America, outside of West Point.

Preston was also tasked with hiring VMI’s first Superintendent. He was persuaded that West Point graduate and former Army officer Francis Henney Smith, then professor of mathematics at Hampden-Sydney College, was the most suitable candidate. Preston successfully recruited Smith, and convinced him to become the first Superintendent and Professor of Tactics.

After Smith agreed to accept the Superintendent’s position, Preston applied to join the faculty, and was hired as Professor of Languages. Classes began in 1839, and the first cadet to march a sentinel post was Private John Strange. With few exceptions, there have been sentinels posted at VMI every hour of every day of the school year since 11 November 1839.

The Class of 1842 graduated 16 cadets. Living conditions were poor until 1850 when the cornerstone of the new barracks was laid. In 1851 Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson became a member of the faculty and professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy. Under Jackson, then a major, and Major William Gilham, VMI infantry and artillery units were present at the execution by hanging of John Brown at Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1859.

Founding of the Virginia Military Institute Museum

In a letter dated February 27, 1845, addressed to William S. Beale, VMI Class of 1843, Superintendent Francis H. Smith solicited items to create an Institute museum to inspire and educate cadets. Superintendent Smith accepted a donation of a Revolutionary War musket in 1856, thus establishing the first public museum in the Commonwealth of Virginia. On June 12, 1864, the museum was destroyed by General David Hunter, but reopened in 1870. For the first 75 years the museum was a “special collection” administered by the VMI library, a common model still in use by many colleges and universities. In the early 20th century, the collection was organized as a public resource and took the form of a modern museum. In 1970 the VMI Museum was recognized as its own department, and was professionally accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.

Today the VMI Museum System consists of the VMI Museum on the VMI Post, the Virginia Museum of the Civil War located at the 300-acre New Market Battlefield State Historical Park; and the Jackson House, interpreting the life of VMI Professor Thomas J. (later “Stonewall”) Jackson and his household on the eve of Civil War.

Civil War Period

VMI cadets and alumni played instrumental roles in the American Civil War. On 14 occasions, the Confederacy called cadets into active military engagements. VMI authorized battle streamers for each one of these engagements but chose to carry only one: the battle streamer for New Market. Many VMI Cadets were ordered to Camp Lee, at Richmond, to train recruits under General Stonewall Jackson. VMI alumni were regarded among the best officers of the South and several distinguished themselves in the Union forces as well. Fifteen graduates rose to the rank of general in the Confederate Army, and one rose to this rank in the Union Army. Just before his famous flank attack at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Jackson looked at his division and brigade commanders, noted the high number of VMI graduates and said, “The Institute will be heard from today.” Three of Jackson’s four division commanders at Chancellorsville, Generals James Lane, Robert Rodes, and Raleigh Colston, were VMI graduates as were more than twenty of his brigadiers and colonels.

Battle of New Market

On 14 May 1864, the governor of Virginia once again called upon the cadets from VMI to participate in the American Civil War. After marching overnight 80 miles from Lexington to New Market, on 15 May 1864, 247 members of the VMI Corps of Cadets fought at the Battle of New Market. This event marks the only time in US history wherein the student body of an operating college fought as an organised unit in pitched combat in battle (as recognised by the American Battlefield Trust). This event was the 14th time VMI Cadets were called into action during the Civil War. The VMI battalion received an institutional battle streamer for its part in the battle of New Market, one of only five American institutions to be awarded such an honour. The four other institutes are: The Citadel for the Battle of Secessionville and the Battle of Tulifinny, Florida State for the Battle of Natural Bridge, William and Mary for the Siege of Yorktown, and the University of Hawaii for the Hawaiian Islands Campaign.

At New Market, in a matter of minutes, VMI suffered fifty-five casualties with ten cadets killed; the cadets were led into battle by the Commandant of Cadets and future VMI Superintendent Colonel Scott Shipp. Shipp was also wounded during the battle. Six of the ten fallen cadets are buried on VMI grounds behind the statue “Virginia Mourning Her Dead” by sculptor Moses Ezekiel, a VMI graduate who was also wounded in the Battle of New Market.

General John C. Breckinridge, the commanding Southern general, held the cadets in reserve and did not use them until Union troops broke through the Confederate lines. Upon seeing the tide of battle turning in favour of the Union forces, Breckinridge stated, “Put the boys in…and may God forgive me for the order.” The VMI cadets held the line and eventually pushed forward across an open muddy field, capturing a Union artillery emplacement, and securing victory for the Confederates. The Union troops were withdrawn and Confederate troops under General Breckinridge held the Shenandoah Valley.

Burning of the Institute

On 12 June 1864 Union forces, under the command of General David Hunter, shelled and burned the institute as part of the Valley Campaigns of 1864. The destruction was almost complete, and VMI had to temporarily hold classes at the Alms House in Richmond, Virginia. In April 1865 Richmond was evacuated due to the impending fall of Petersburg and the VMI Corps of Cadets was disbanded. The Lexington campus reopened for classes on 17 October 1865. One of the reasons that Confederate General Jubal A. Early burned the town of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, was in retaliation for the destruction of VMI.

Following the war, Matthew Fontaine Maury, the pioneering oceanographer known as the “Pathfinder of the Seas”, accepted a teaching position at VMI, holding the physics chair. Following the war, David Hunter Strother, who was chief of staff to General Hunter and had advised the destruction of the institute, served as Adjutant General of the Virginia Militia and member of the VMI Board of Visitors; in that position he promoted and worked actively for the reconstruction.

World War II

VMI produced many of America’s commanders in World War II. The most important of these was George C. Marshall, the top US Army general during the war. Marshall was the Army’s first five-star general and the only career military officer ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Winston Churchill dubbed Marshall the “Architect of Victory” and “the noblest Roman of them all”. The Deputy Chief of Staff of the US Army during the war was also a VMI graduate as were the Second US Army commander, 15th US Army commander, the commander of Allied Air Forces of the Southwest Pacific and various corps and division commanders in the Army and Marine Corps. China’s General Sun Li-jen, known as the “Rommel of the East”, was also a graduate of VMI.

During the war, VMI participated in the War Department’s Army Specialised Training Programme (ASTP) from 1943 to 1946. The programme provided training in engineering and related subjects to enlisted men at colleges across the United States. Over 2,100 ASTP members studied at VMI during the war.

Post World War II

VMI admitted its first female student in 1995 after the US Justice Department pursued a seven-year long lawsuit against the institution alleging discrimination. Although that first female student dropped out soon after matriculating, 30 female students enrolled in 1997, cementing VMI’s new status as a coeducational institution.

On 19 October 2020, following an exposé in The Washington Post, Governor Ralph Northam and multiple other state officials wrote the VMI Board of Visitors that they had “deep concerns about the clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism” at VMI. They reported that they had received reports from students of a racist culture at VMI. The students reported a threat of lynching, attacks on social media, and a staff member promoting “an inaccurate and dangerous ‘Lost Cause’ version of Virginia’s history.” The letter was signed by Northam, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, State Senate President Louise Lucas, Attorney General Mark Herring, and Chairman of the Black Caucus Lamont Bagby. Northam, a 1981 VMI alumnus, ordered a state-led investigation.

Six days later, on 26 October 2020, Superintendent General J.H. Binford Peay tendered his resignation, saying in his resignation letter that he’d been told that Governor Northam and other state legislators had “lost confidence in my leadership” and “desired my resignation”. Three days later, the VMI Board of Visitors voted unanimously to remove from campus the statue of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, a former VMI professor, and create a building and naming committee. The school reaffirmed the statue’s removal in December and began plans to relocated it to a Civil War museum located on a battlefield where a number of VMI cadets and alumni were killed or wounded.

In October, the board also announced several diversity-related decisions: a diversity officer would be appointed, a diversity and inclusion committee would be created, and diversity initiatives created to include a focus on gender and the adoption of a diversity hiring plan. Nine months later, a report into racial intolerance charged by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia was delivered. The independent report concluded that VMI “maintained and allowed a racist and sexist culture that, until recently, it had no appetite to address.” The authors, employed by the law firm Barnes & Thornburg, also accused the institution’s leadership, including its governing board, with an “unwillingness to change or even question its practices.”


Between 1839 and 2021, VMI has had fifteen superintendents. Francis H. Smith was the first and the longest serving, filling the position for 50 years. Twelve of the fifteen superintendents were graduates of VMI.

  • Francis H. Smith (1839-1889), United States Military Academy West Point Class of 1833
  • Scott Shipp ’59 (1890-1907), wounded while leading VMI cadets into the Battle of New Market
  • Edward W. Nichols ’78 (1907-1924)
  • William H. Cocke ’94 (1924-1929)
  • John A. Lejeune (1929-1937), United States Naval Academy Class of 1888, 13th Commandant of the Marine Corps
  • Charles E. Kilbourne ’94 (1937-1946), Medal of Honour recipient and first American to earn the United States’ three highest military decorations.
  • Richard J. Marshall ’15 (1946-1952)
  • William H. Milton Jr. ’20 (1952-1960)
  • George R. E. Shell ’31 (1960-1971)
  • Richard L. Irby ’39 (1971-1981)
  • Sam S. Walker (1981-1988), matriculated at VMI transferred to United States Military Academy West Point Class of 1946
  • John W. Knapp ’54 (1989-1995)
  • Josiah Bunting III ’63 (1995-2002)
  • J.H. Binford Peay III ’62 (2003-2020)
  • Cedric T. Wins ’85 (2021-present)


The VMI campus covers 134 acres (54 ha), 12 of which are designated as the Virginia Military Institute Historic District, a designated National Historic Landmark District. The campus is referred to as the “Post,” a tradition that reflects the school’s military focus and the uniformed service of its alumni. A training area of several hundred additional acres is located near the post. All cadets are housed on campus in a large five-story building, called the “barracks.” The Old Barracks, which has been separately designated a National Historic Landmark, stands on the site of the old arsenal. This is the structure that received most of the damage when Union forces shelled and burned the institute in June 1864. The new wing of the barracks (“New Barracks”) was completed in 1949. The two wings surround two quadrangles connected by a sally port. All rooms open onto porch-like stoops facing one of the quadrangles. A third barracks wing was completed, with cadets moving in officially spring semester 2009. Four of the five arched entries into the barracks are named for George Washington, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, George C. Marshall ’01 and Jonathan Daniels ’61. Next to the Barracks are offices and meeting areas for VMI clubs and organizations, the cadet visitors centre and lounge, a snack bar, and a Follett Corporation-operated bookstore.

VMI’s “Vision 2039” capital campaign raised more than $275 million from alumni and supporters in three years. The money is going to expand The Barracks to house 1,500 cadets, renovate and modernize the academic buildings. VMI is spending another $200 million to build the VMI Centre for Leadership and Ethics, to be used by cadets, Washington and Lee University students, and other US and international students. The funding will also support “study abroad” programmes, including joint ventures with Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England and many other universities.

In October 2020, VMI Board of Visitors announced that the institute will relocate a statue of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, a Confederate general and slave owner, from the front of the historic barracks to the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park. It was taken from view in December 2020.


VMI offers 14 major and 23 minor areas of study, grouped into engineering, liberal arts, humanities, and the sciences. The engineering department has concentrations in three areas: civil and environmental engineering, electrical and computer engineering, and mechanical engineering. Most classes are taught by full-time professors, 99 percent of whom hold terminal degrees.

Within four months of graduation, an average of 97 percent of VMI graduates are either serving in the military, employed, or admitted to graduate or professional schools.

As of 2010, VMI had graduated 11 Rhodes Scholars since 1921. Per capita, as of 2006 VMI had graduated more Rhodes Scholars than any other state-supported college or university, and more than all the other senior military colleges combined.


In 2021 VMI ranked fourth nationally, after the United States Military Academy, the United States Naval Academy and the United States Air Force Academy, in the US News & World Report rankings’ “Top Public Schools, National Liberal Arts Colleges” category.

Forbes’ 2012 Special Report on America’s Best Colleges ranked VMI in the top 25 public universities in the nation, well ahead of any other senior military college in the country. VMI was ranked 14th in the “Top 25 Publics” section, just behind the United States Military Academy, the United States Air Force Academy, and the United States Naval Academy, but ahead of the United States Coast Guard Academy and the US Merchant Marine Academy. Overall, VMI ranked 115th out of the 650 colleges and universities evaluated.

Kiplinger’s magazine, in its ranking of the “Best Values in Public Colleges” for 2006, made mention of the Virginia Military Institute as a “great value”, although the military nature of its programme excluded it from consideration as a traditional four-year college in the rankings.

Military Service

While all cadets are required to take four years of ROTC, accepting a commission in the armed forces is optional. While over 50 percent of VMI graduates are commissioned each year, the VMI Board of Visitors has set a goal of having 70% of VMI cadets take a commission. The VMI class of 2017 graduated 300 cadets, 172 (or 57%) of whom were commissioned as officers in the United States military.

VMI alumni include more than 285 general and flag officers, including the first five-star General of the Army, George Marshall; seven recipients of the highest US military decoration, the Medal of Honour; and more than 80 recipients of the second-highest awards, the Distinguished Service Cross and Navy Cross. VMI offers ROTC programmes for four US military branches (Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force).

VMI has graduated more Army generals than any ROTC programme in the United States. The following table lists US four-star generals who graduated from VMI. It does not list alumni who did not graduate from the school, such as General George S. Patton and General Sam S. Walker, and the many VMI graduates who served or still serve as four-star generals in foreign nations such as Thailand, China, and Taiwan.

NameVMI ClassBranch & Date of RankDetails
George Marshall1901Army, 01 September 1939First General of the Army (five stars), 10th four-star general in US Army history & 1st non-USMA four-star general
Chief of Staff, US Army, 1939-1945
Secretary of State, 1947-1949; Secretary of Defence, 1950-1951;
Special Representative of President to China, 1945-1947
President of the American Red Cross, 1949-1950
Nobel Peace Prize, 1953; Congressional Gold Medal, 1946
Thomas T. Handy1916Army, 13 March 194522nd four-star general in US Army history
Deputy Chief of Staff, US Army, 1944-1947
Commanding General, Fourth Army, 1947-1949
Commander-in-Chief, European Command (1949-1952) & USAREUR/Commander, CENTAG (1952)
Deputy Commander-in-Chief, EUCOM 1952-1954
Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr.1917USMC, 01 January 19523rd four-star general in USMC history
Commandant, US Marine Corps, 1952-1955
Chairman, Inter-American Defence Board, 1956-1959
Leonard T. Gerow1911Army, 19 July 1954Commanding General V Corps 1943-1945
Commanding General US 15th Army, 1945-1946.
Randolph M. Pate1921USMC, 01 January 19564th four-star general in USMC history
Commandant of the Marine Corps, 1956-1959
Clark L. Ruffner1924Army, 01 March 196051st four-star General in US Army history
US Military Representative, NATO Military Committee, 1960-1962
David M. Maddox1960Army, 09 July 1992149th four-star general in US Army history
Commander-in-Chief, USAREUR/Commander, CENTAG (1992-1993) & USAREUR (1993-1994)
J.H. Binford Peay III1962Army, 26 March 1993150th four-star general in Army history
Vice Chief of Staff, US Army, 1993-1994
Commander-in-Chief, Central Command, 1994-1997
Superintendent, VMI, 2003-2020
John P. Jumper1966Air Force, 17 November 1997152nd four-star general in US Air Force history
Commander in Chief, USAFE/Commander, AAFCE, 1997-2000
Commander, Air Combat Command, 2000-2001
Chief of Staff, US Air Force, 2001-2005
Darren W. McDew1982Air Force, 05 May 2014200th four-star general in US Air Force history
Commander, Air Mobility Command (COMAMC), 2014-2015
Commander, United States Transportation Command (TRANSCOM), 2015-2018


Prospective cadets must be between 16 and 22 years of age. They must be unmarried, and have no legal dependents, be physically fit for enrolment in the ROTC, and be graduates of an accredited secondary school or have completed an approved homeschool curriculum. The Class of 2022 at VMI had an average high school GPA of 3.70 and a mean SAT score of 1210.

Eligibility is not restricted to Virginia residents, although it is more difficult to gain an appointment as a non-resident, because VMI has a goal that no more than 455 of cadets come from outside Virginia. Virginia residents receive a discount in tuition, as is common at most state-sponsored schools. Total tuition, room & board, and other fees for the 2008-2009 school year was approximately $17,000 for Virginia residents and $34,000 for all others.

The first Jewish cadet, Moses Jacob Ezekiel, graduated in 1866. While at VMI, Ezekiel fought with the VMI cadets at the Battle of New Market. He became a sculptor and his works are on display at VMI. One of the first Asian cadets was Sun Li-jen, the Chinese National Revolutionary Army general, who graduated in 1927. The first African-American cadets were admitted in 1968. The first African-American regimental commander was Darren McDew, class of 1982. McDew is a retired US Air Force General and former Commander, United States Transportation Command, Scott Air Force Base, IL. It is unknown when the first Muslim cadet graduated from VMI, but before the Iranian Revolution of 1979, under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, several Persian cadets attended and graduated from VMI. Other Muslim graduates have included cadets from Bangladesh, Jordan, Indonesia, Somalia and other nations.

Admission of Women

In 1990 the US Department of Justice filed a discrimination lawsuit against VMI for its all-male admissions policy. While the court challenge was pending, a state-sponsored Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership (VWIL) was opened at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia, as a parallel program for women. The VWIL continued, even after VMI’s admission of women.

After VMI won its case in US District Court, the case went through several appeals until 26 June 1996, when the US Supreme Court, in a 7-1 decision in United States v. Virginia, found that it was unconstitutional for a school supported by public funds to exclude women. (Justice Clarence Thomas recused himself, presumably because his son was attending VMI at the time). Following the ruling, VMI contemplated going private to exempt itself from the 14th Amendment, and thus avoid the ruling.

Assistant Secretary of Defence Frederick Pang, however, warned the school that the Department of Defence would withdraw ROTC programmes from the school if privatisation took place. As a result of this action by Pang, Congress passed a resolution on 18 November 1997 prohibiting the Department of Defence from withdrawing or diminishing any ROTC programme at one of the six senior military colleges, including VMI. This escape clause provided by Congress came after the VMI Board of Visitors had already voted 9-8 to admit women; the decision was not revisited.

In 1996, VMI was forced to either end its prohibition of the admission of women, or become a private college without federal funding. VMI reluctantly became the last US military college to admit women. Then Superintendent Josiah Bunting III called this a “savage disappointment”.

In August 1997, VMI enrolled its first female cadets. The first co-ed class consisted of thirty women, who matriculated as part of the class of 2001. In order to accelerate VMI’s matriculation process, several women were allowed to transfer directly from various junior colleges, such as New Mexico Military Institute (NMMI), and forgo the traditional four-year curriculum required of most. The first female cadets “walked the stage” in 1999 for graduation, although by VMI’s definitions they are considered to be members of the class of 2001. Initially, these 30 women were held to the same strict physical courses and technical training as the male cadets, and even were required to shave their heads. In a July 2021 Washington Post Article, it was alleged that derision, misogyny, sexual assault were continuous issues at VMI.

Admission of Black Students

Virginia Military Institute was the last public college in Virginia to integrate, first admitting black cadets in 1968, but interracial problems persisted long afterward. According to The Washington Post, even in 2020 “Black cadets still endure[d] relentless racism [in an] atmosphere of hostility and cultural insensitivity”.

Student Life

Just as cadets did nearly 200 years ago, today’s cadets give up such comforts as beds, instead lying upon cots colloquially referred to as “hays”. These hays are little more than foam mats that must be rolled every morning and aired every Monday. Further, cadet uniforms have changed little; the coatee worn in parades dates to the War of 1812. New cadets, known as “Rats”, are not permitted to watch TV or listen to music outside of an academic setting. Living conditions are considered more austere here than other service academies.


During the first six months at VMI, New Cadets are called “Rats,” the accepted term (since the 1850s) for a New Cadet. The VMI ratline is a tough, old-fashioned indoctrination-system which dates back to the institute’s founding. All “Rats” refer to their classmates, male or female, as “Brother Rats.” The term “Brother Rat” is a term of endearment which lasts a lifetime amongst VMI graduates. Legend has it that when Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) students and VMI cadets drilled together in the 1830s, the students called the cadets “Rats” perhaps because of their gray uniforms. The cadets responded in kind calling the neighbouring students “Minks” perhaps because many of them were from wealthy backgrounds. The purpose of the Ratline is to teach self-control, self-discipline, time-management, and followership as prerequisites for becoming a VMI cadet.

New freshmen, known collectively as the “Rat Mass,” walk along a prescribed line in barracks while maintaining an exaggerated form of attention, called “straining.” This experience, called the Rat Line, is intended by the upper classes to instil camaraderie, pride, and discipline into the incoming class. Under this system, the Rats face numerous mental and physical challenges, starting with “Hell Week.” During Hell Week, Rats receive basic military instruction from select upper classmen (“Cadre”); they learn to march, to clean their M14 rifle, and to wear their uniforms. During Hell Week, Rats also meet the members of various cadet-run organizations and learn the functions of each.

At the end of the first week, each Rat is paired with a first classman (senior) who serves as their mentor for the rest of the first year. The first classman is called a “Dyke,” reference to an older Southern pronunciation of “to deck out,” or to get into a uniform, as one of the roles of the rat is to help prepare their “Dyke’s” uniform and dress them for parades. While the Dyke watches out for the Rat and the Rat works for the Dyke in accordance with Institute policy, Cadre still enforce all rules for the Rats. The combination of the warm relationship with the Dykes and the harshness of the school system, with countless push-ups, sweat parties, and runs, is calculated to instil the required military outlook and competence on everyday tasks in the Rats.

The Ratline experience culminates with Resurrection Week ending in “Breakout,” an event where the Rats are formally “welcomed” to the VMI community. After the successful completion of Breakout, Rats are officially fourth class students and no longer have to strain in the barracks or eat “square meals.” Many versions of the Breakout ceremony have been conducted. In the 1950s, Rats from each company would be packed into a corner room in the barracks and brawl their way out through the upperclassmen. From the late 1960s through the early 1980s the Rats had to fight their way up to the fourth level of the barracks through three other classes of cadets determined not to let them get to the top. The stoops would often be slick with motor oil, packed with snow, glazed with ice, greased, or continuously hosed with water. The barracks stairs and rails were not able to take the abuse, so the Corps moved the breakout to a muddy hill, where Rats attempt to climb to the top by crawling on their stomachs while the upper classes block them or drag them back down. The Rats no longer breakout in the mud but instead participate in a gruelling day of physical activity testing both physical endurance and teamwork.

The entire body of Rats during the Ratline is called a “Rat Mass.” Since Rats are not officially fourth classmen until after Breakout, the Rat Mass is also not officially considered a graduating class until that time either. Prior to Breakout, the Rat mass is given a different style of year identifier to emphasize this difference. The year identifier starts with the year of the current graduating class (their dykes’ class), followed by a “+3” to indicate the anticipated year of their own class. For example, cadets that make up the Class of 2022 were considered the “Rat Mass of 2019+3” as the members of their dykes’ class graduated in 2019 and they themselves will graduate three years onward from then.


In addition to the Ratline, VMI has other traditions that are emblematic of the school and its history including the new cadet oath ceremony, the pageantry of close-order marching, and the nightly playing of “Taps”. An event second only to graduation in importance is the “Ring Figure” dance held every November. During their junior year, cadets receive class rings at a ring presentation ceremony followed by a formal dance. Most cadets get two rings, a formal ring and a combat ring; some choose to have the combat ring for everyday wear, and the formal for special occasions.

Every year, VMI honours its fallen cadets with a New Market Day parade and ceremony. These events take place on 15 May, the same day as the Battle of New Market in which VMI cadets fought in 1864 during the Civil War. During this ceremony, the roll is called for cadets who “died on the Field of Honor” and wreaths are placed on the graves of those who died during the Battle of New Market. Since 2021, this ceremony has expanded to also include VMI graduates who have died in service to the United States.

The requirement that all cadets wishing to eat dinner in the mess hall must be present for a prayer was the basis for a lawsuit in 2002 when two cadets sued VMI over the prayer said before dinner. The non-denominational prayer had been a daily fixture since the 1950s. In 2002 the Fourth Circuit ruled the prayer, during an event with mandatory attendance, at a state-funded school, violated the US Constitution. When the Supreme Court declined to review the school’s appeal in April 2004, the prayer tradition was stopped.

The tradition of guarding the institute is one of the longest standing and is carried out to this day. Cadets have been posted as sentinels guarding the barracks 24 hours a day, seven days a week while school is in session since the first cadet sentinel, Cadet John B. Strange, and others relieved the Virginia Militia guard team tasked with defending the Lexington Arsenal (that later became VMI) in 1839. The guard team wears the traditional school uniform and each sentinel is armed with an M14 rifle and bayonet.

Honour Code

VMI is known for its strict honour code, which is as old as the institute and was formally codified in the early 20th century. Under the VMI Honour Code, “a cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do.” There is only one punishment for violating the VMI Honour Code: immediate expulsion in the form of a drumming out ceremony of dismissal, in which the entire corps is awakened by drums in barracks and the honour court to hear the formal announcement. VMI is the only military college or academy in the Nation which maintains a single-sanction Honour Code and in recent times, the dismissed cadet is removed from post before the formal announcement is made.

Clubs and Activities

VMI currently offers over 50 school-sponsored clubs and organisations, including The Cadet, recreational activities, military organisations, musical and performance groups, religious organisations and service groups. Although VMI prohibited cadet membership in fraternal organisations starting in 1885, VMI cadets were instrumental in starting several fraternities. Alpha Tau Omega fraternity was founded by VMI cadets Otis Allan Glazebrook, Alfred Marshall, and Erskine Mayo Ross at Richmond, Virginia on 11 September 1865 while the school was closed for reconstruction.

After the re-opening, Kappa Sigma Kappa fraternity was founded by cadets on 28 September 1867 and Sigma Nu fraternity was founded by cadets on 01 January 1869. VMI cadets formed the second chapter of the Kappa Alpha Order. In a special arrangement, graduating cadets may be nominated by Kappa Alpha Order alumni and inducted into the fraternity, becoming part of Kappa Alpha Order’s Beta Commission (a commission as opposed to an active chapter). This occurs following graduation, and the newly initiated VMI alumni are accepted as brothers of the fraternity.


VMI fields 14 teams on the NCAA Division I level (FCS, formerly I-AA, for football). Varsity sports include baseball, basketball, men’s and women’s cross country, football, lacrosse, men’s and women’s rifle, men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s swimming & diving, men’s and women’s track & field, and wrestling. VMI is a member of the Southern Conference (SoCon) for almost all sports, the MAAC for women’s water polo, and the America East Conference for men’s and women’s swimming & diving. VMI formerly was a member of the Mid-Atlantic Rifle Conference for rifle, but began the 2016-2017 season as part of the Southern Conference. The VMI team name is the Keydets, a Southern style slang for the word “cadets”.

VMI has the second-smallest NCAA Division I enrolment of any FCS football college, after Presbyterian College. Approximately one-third of the Corps of Cadets plays on at least one of VMI’s intercollegiate athletic teams, making it one of the most active athletic programmes in the country. Of the VMI varsity athletes who complete their eligibility, 92% receive their VMI degrees.


VMI played its first football game in 1871. The one-game season was a 4-2 loss to Washington and Lee University. There are no records of a coach or any players for that game. VMI waited another twenty years, until 1891, when head coach Walter Taylor would coach the next football team. The current head football coach at VMI, Scott Wachenheim, was named the 31st head coach on 14 December 2014. The Keydets play their home games out of Alumni Memorial Field at Foster Stadium, built in 1962. VMI won the 2020 Southern Conference Football Championship, their first winning football season since 1981.

Men’s Basketball

Perhaps the most famous athletic story in VMI history was the two-year run of the 1976 and 1977 basketball teams. The 1976 squad advanced within one game of the Final Four before bowing to undefeated Rutgers in the East Regional Final, and in 1977 VMI finished with 26 wins and just four losses, still a school record, and reached the “Sweet 16” round of the NCAA tournament.

The current VMI basketball team is led by head coach Dan Earl and assistant coaches: Steve Enright and Austin Kenon. Tom Kiely is the director of Basketball Operations.


VMI’s alumni include: former governors of Virginia (Ralph Northam, Westmoreland Davis); the 25th secretary of the Army (Ryan D. McCarthy); a five-star general, secretary of state, secretary of defence, and Nobel Peace Prize recipient (George C. Marshall); Pulitzer Prize winners, 13 Rhodes Scholars, Medal of Honour recipients, an Academy Award winner, an Emmy Award and Golden Globe winner, a martyr recognised by the Episcopal Church, senators and representatives, governors, lieutenant governors, a Supreme Court justice, numerous college and university presidents, many business leaders (presidents and CEOs) and over 285 general and flag officers, including service chiefs for three of the four armed services.

Two recent chiefs of engineers of the Army Corps of Engineers, Lieutenant Generals Carl A. Strock and Robert B. Flowers, as well as Acting Chief of Engineers Major General “Bo” Temple, were VMI Civil Engineering graduates.


A 2007 study by the National Association of College and University Business Officers found that VMI’s $343 million endowment was the largest per-student endowment of any US public college in the United States. 35.4% of the approximately 12,300 living alumni gave in 2006. Private support covers more than 31% of VMI’s operating budget; state funds, 26%.

In Popular Culture

  • Ronald Reagan starred in the films Brother Rat and Brother Rat and a Baby, which were filmed at VMI. Originally a Broadway hit, the play was written by John Monks Jr. and Fred F. Finklehoffe, both 1932 graduates of VMI.
  • Both the novel and film Gods and Generals depict Stonewall Jackson teaching at VMI before Virginia secedes. The film also depicts Jackson’s funeral at VMI.
  • In 2014, the film Field of Lost Shoes premiered in Richmond to the Corps of Cadets and the cast. The film depicts the Battle of New Market in 1864. VMI now owns and operates this historical battlefield museum and site.
  • The VMI marching song is referenced and in part performed in the documentary film Grey Gardens.

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