The idea of conducting pre-commissioning military education and training of Army officers in America’s colleges and universities is as old as the nation itself. In 1783, George Clinton, prominent statesman and six-term governor of New York came forward with a plan that called for the introduction of military instruction at one civilian college in each state of the Union. Under this plan, students, after completing their degree and prescribed course of military instruction, would be commissioned and serve a short period on active duty. Upon returning to civilian life, they would form a trained officer reserve that would be available in time of emergency. A system of inspections and reports was to give coherence and uniformity to his officer education program. Nothing came from the Clinton proposal.
The University of Georgia claims to have hosted on-campus military instruction as early as 1807. Georgia state law in the early nineteenth century requited all male citizens (except clergy) between the ages of 18 and 45 to assemble five times a year for a military muster. Because many university students fell into the designated age group, they attended campus drills. The purpose of this training was not to prepare its recipients to receive commissions but to allow them to fulfill their military obligation.
The first civilian institution of higher learning in the United States to actually incorporate military education into its curriculum was the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy – now Norwich University. Capt. Alden Partridge former superintendent of U.S. Military Academy at West Point, founded the school in 1819 at Norwich, Vermont. Modern ROTC traces its heritage back to this institution.
The citizen-soldier ideal was the driving force behind Partridge’s educational experiment. Partridge wanted officers who would be “identified in views, in feelings, and in interest, with the great body of the community,” and a college that would reconcile the efficiency and discipline demanded by a regular Army and thereby broadened the education base and expanded the political outlook of the professional officer corps.
The college’s curriculum was advanced for its time and much more diverse than the curriculum at West Point. It included courses in agriculture and modern languages in addition to the sciences, liberal arts, and various military subjects. Field exercises for which Partridge borrowed cannon and muskets from the federal and state governments, supplemented classroom instruction and added an element of realism to the college’s program of military training.
Between 1819 and the Civil War, a number of other essentially military school were established. Lafayette College, Oak Ridge Academy, and the Kemper and Marion Institutes were private institutions, while the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and the Citadel were state-supported ventures. At these latter two colleges, attachment to the citizen-soldier idea was not as strong as at Norwich. Their founding was bound up with the southern military tradition and the practical need to provide a management education for the sons of the planner aristocracy.
A number of civilian institutions hosted by military instruction during the antebellum period. Saint John’s College (Annapolis, MD) began offering it in 1826. The University of Tennessee and Indiana University purportedly had it as early as 1840, while William Tecumseh Sherman introduced it at Louisiana State in 1859. Collegiate military training enjoyed a brief and checkered run at the University of Virginia in the 1820s and 1830s. When he founded the university in 1825, Thomas Jefferson made tactical drill and training mandatory. Such training, he hoped, would produce qualified officers for a national militia. He even foresaw military education developing into a recognized academic field of study. Jefferson’s dreams were soon dashed, however. Within a decade of its activation, the university’s cadet company was disbanded after a spirited confrontation with the university’s faculty.