The First Rat Mass is a time-honored, solemn ceremony that the Virginia Military Institute has held for 179 years. General Marshall participated. General Patton participated. It has not changed for 179 years.
VMI offers a rigorous education that includes a broad undergraduate program with majors in engineering, science, liberal arts, and social sciences. Woven into every curriculum is leadership and character development that benefit graduates for life.
- Founded: Founded in 1839 in Lexington, Virginia, as the first state-supported military college in the nation
- Corps: About 1,700 cadets, 61% in-state, 11% Female, 89% Male, 45 states, 7 countries
Although primarily for the U.S. Army, VMI trains cadets for service in all branches of the U.S. Military.
The Virginia Military Institute was founded on November 11, 1839, on the site of a Virginia state arsenal in Lexington, whose citizens had sought the change. The inaugural class at VMI numbered twenty-three cadets; until 1860, all cadets were from Virginia. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson served on the faculty. He also taught artillery. The VMI Artillery Corps commanded by Jackson, stood security for the hanging of John Brown. When the Confederate States of America started to form regiments, it was the VMI Cadet Corp who gave the new volunteers basic military training,
During the Civil War, twenty-two men who had taught at or attended VMI achieved the rank of general in the Confederate army, nearly three hundred became field officers, and more than five hundred acted as company grade officers. So many served under Jackson that just before his famous flank attack on the Union army at Chancellorsville in 1863, the general said, “The Institute will be heard from today.” At Pickett’s Charge during the Battle of Gettysburg (1863), for example, thirteen of the fifteen regimental commanders in the Confederate division commanded by George E. Pickett had either taught at or attended VMI.
The VMI Cadet Corps marched off post three times during the war, but only once entered into battle, on May 15, 1864. Confederate forces under John C. Breckinridge—a Mexican War veteran, former U.S. vice president under James Buchanan, and a Democratic Party candidate for president in 1860—raced to meet a threat in the Shenandoah Valley from Union general Franz Sigel. The cadets were called to march eighty miles in four days to meet Breckinridge in New Market, southeast of Harpers Ferry.
That was John Wayne. This is what really happened.
There, Breckinridge told them, “Gentlemen from VMI, I trust I will not need your services today; but if I do I know you will do your duty!” Privately, Breckinridge worried. “They are only children,” he told an aide, “and I cannot expose them to such fire.”
When a gap opened up in the center of his line, however, the Confederate general was forced to send in the approximately 250 cadets, commanded by Captain Scott Shipp. “May God forgive me,” he said, as the cadets joined a Confederate charge. “About this time we passed a group of wounded soldiers who cheered us but a shell, intended for us, burst in their midst, and they fell silent,” cadet Gideon Davenport later recalled. “Suddenly there was a crack in our front[,] a gap appeared in our ranks[,] and First Sergeant Cabell, Privates Wheelwright Crockett and Jones fell dead, and others were wounded … the line went forward in the best of order.”