The Virginia Military Institute

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.
Quick Facts

  • 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.”






General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson

Before you start calling him a racist and tearing his statue down, you might want to read this.

Thomas Jonathan  Jackson was born January 21, 1824, Clarksburg, WV. Clarksville was then part of Virginia.  Jackson was accepted to the United States Military Academy at West Point.  He graduated 17th out of 59 students in the Class of 1846.

Jackson distinguished himself during the Mexican/American War.  Commanding a battery of artillery, he found himself of the vanguard of the entire American Army.  On one occasion, his battery of 3 six pounders and a brigade of infantry chased the entine Mexican Army for six miles. For these actions, he was promoted to Brevet Major.

After the war, he was posted to several Forts acting as the quartermaster or commisariate.  In 1851 he resigned from the Army and accepted a position at the Virginia Military Institute.  He taught  Natural and Experimental Philosophy (physics) and instructed the cadets in artillery.


By the time the Civil War started, Jackson had carved out a comfortable middle class life.  He owned a small farm and a tannery.  He also owned six slaves.  Hetty, Cyrus, and George, a mother and two teenage sons were received as a wedding present. Another, Albert, requested that Jackson purchase him and allow him to work for his freedom; he was employed as a waiter in one of the Lexington hotels and Jackson rented him to VMI. The slave, Amy also requested that Jackson purchase her from a public slave auction and she served the family as a cook and housekeeper. The sixth, Emma, was a four-year-old orphan with a learning disability, accepted by Jackson from an aged widow. Jackson was not a harsh master.  He treated his slaves more like employees or sometimes family.  All were provided a pension for old age except for Emma who’s care was provided for her entire life.

Jackson was revered by many of the African Americans in town, both slaves and free blacks. In 1855, he was instrumental in the organization of Sunday School classes for blacks at the Presbyterian Church. His second wife, Mary Anna Jackson, taught with Jackson, as “he preferred that my labors should be given to the colored children, believing that it was more important and useful to put the strong hand of the Gospel under the ignorant African race, to lift them up.” 

The pastor, Dr. William Spottswood White, described the relationship between Jackson and his Sunday afternoon students: “In their religious instruction he succeeded wonderfully. His discipline was systematic and firm, but very kind. … His servants reverenced and loved him, as they would have done a brother or father. … He was emphatically the black man’s friend.” He addressed his students by name and they, in turn, referred to him affectionately as “Marse Major”.

Thomas J. Jackson was called many things in his life.,  hypochondriac, idiot, aloof, religious Zealot and genius.  His nicknames included “Tom Fool”, “Old Jack” and of course “Stonewall”.


Jackson’s first assignment was to march his VMI cadets to Richmond and use the cadets to train the thousands of volunteers that were descending on the city.  He and his cadets also provided security for the hanging of John Brown.

In combat, his Area of Operation was the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.  He had fought suscession until the last minute and only agreed to command the First Virginia Brigade when Virginia was invaded.  He was the first Commander to realize the brutality required in modern warfare.  Later in the war, Union Generals Grant and Sherman adopted the same tatics Jackson had used.  Historians agree that Jackson’s agressiveness and ability to see enemy weaknesses and taking immeadiate action produced the lengedary victories of the Army of Northern Virginia under General Lee.

On May 2nd, during the Battle of Chancellorsville, General “Stonewall” Jackson was shot my his own pickets.  Surgeons amputated is left arm.  He survived the amputation and yet died of pneumonia on May 10, 1863.

On his deathbed, he asked his wife what his prognosis was.  She told him the the doctors feared he would die this day. He then asked what day it was ans she said it was Sunday. “Very well”, he replied “I always wanted to die on a Sunday”.

Dr. McGuire wrote an account of Jackson’s final hours and last words:

“A few moments before he died he cried out in his delirium, “Order A.P. Hill to prepare for action! Pass the infantry to the front rapidly! Tell Major Hawks”—then stopped, leaving the sentence unfinished. Presently a smile of ineffable sweetness spread itself over his pale face, and he said quietly, and with an expression, as if of relief, ‘Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.”

Jackson is well portrayed by Stephen Lang, in the movie, “Gods and Generals”.

To read more about the life of this remarable man, please read

I’m looking at you Taylor Morton.