On October 1, 1872, Virginia Tech opened as the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College. All students were cadets organized into a battalion of two companies with an enrollment of 132. The Commandant of Cadets was General James H. Lane, formerly the youngest general in the Army of Northern Virginia, who was wounded three times in combat. He worked to provide both the best education and the best military training in the state for his cadets based on his experience in the Civil War, as a student at VMI and UVA, and teacher at Florida State Seminary and North Carolina Military Institute. General Lane is considered the father of the Corps. He wrote the first cadet regulations and began a tradition of academic and military excellence. In 1878, President Charles Minor wanted to do away with the strict military requirements. Lane opposed him and their disagreement became so heated that a faculty meeting ended with a fist fight between the two. Both left campus in the ensuing scandal but the Corps remained.
The VAMC cadets made their first Corps trip in 1875 to Richmond to the dedication of the Lee Monument. Through the years the Corps has made many trips. These trips were more frequent in the early years including the Pan–American Exposition in New York in 1901 and the St. Louis Worlds Fair in 1904. In 1880, political mismanagement from Richmond helped enrollment drop to 78 cadets. That same year William & Mary dropped to 27 students and closed temporarily. In the ensuing years, however, enrollment and educational opportunities were expanded. E Battery, manning four Civil War artillery pieces with upperclassmen, existed between 1883 and 1907.
In 1896, VAMC, by law changed its name to the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute. Right away usage took on its new designation abbreviated as VPI or Virginia Tech. Also, that year began a tradition that lasted nearly three-quarters of a century, the VPI-VMI annual football game in Roanoke. Known as the Military Classic of the South, the annual Corps trips and associated parades ended in 1969.
In 1898, with the outbreak of the Spanish American War, the Corps of Cadets formally volunteered to the governor for combat service. This request was declined, but most of the band and the director enlisted as the Band of the 2nd Virginia Infantry Regiment. Many alumni served in the Spanish- American War and the Philippine Insurrection. Among them, one was awarded the Medal of Honor during the Philippine Insurrection; another was cited for gallantry at the Battle of Santiago, Cuba and awarded the Silver Star. Alumni also participated in the Mexican Border Conflict between 1910 and 1919, including one who received the Medal of Honor for actions of a true peacekeeping nature in 1911.
The band had first been organized in 1892. Prior to that, as early as 1883 music was provided by the “Glade Cornet Band,” an organization made up of towns people. The summer of 1902 saw the band serving as part of the 70th Virginia Infantry during large-scale national military maneuvers held in Manassas.
With the approach of World War I, ROTC was established at Virginia Tech. In January of 1917, Infantry ROTC was established followed shortly by Engineer and Coast Artillery. During the war, Virginia Tech became an army post. Cadets were inducted and became enlisted men of the Student Army Training Battalion and its Navy detachment. They were uniformed in Army and Navy uniforms. Two army-training detachments of between 226 and 308 men each trained on campus.
CPT J.W.G. Stephens ’15, of the 26th Infantry, led the first American forces “over on top” in combat near Montdidlier, France. Many alumni served with distinction with the 1st, 2nd, 29th and 80th Divisions, all of which saw heavy combat. A hero of note was MAJ Lloyd Williams ’07, US Marine Corps. One of the famous quotes of the war, used for years as a Marine standard was attributed to him. “Retreat, Hell No!” was his reply to the French orders to retreat his company. His company held its ground but he was killed in the action and awarded the Distinguish Service Cross. In the air, alumni, even as early as World War I, foreshadowed VPI’s contribution to the Air Force. CPL Robert G. Eoff, ’18, French Foreign Legion, attached to the 157 French Fighter Squadron shot down the first of 6 enemy aircraft credited to Techmen. LT John R. Castleman ’19 was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism in completing an aerial recognizance despite an attack of 12 enemy aircraft of which he shot down two.
Virginia Tech’s contribution to the war effort included 2,297 in uniform. These included 2,155 in the Army, 125 in the Navy, 19 in the Marine Corps, 6 in the Coast Guard, 1 in the British Army and 1 in the French Foreign Legion. One alumni was awarded the Medal of Honor, seven the Distinguished Service Cross and one the Navy Cross. At least eight were awarded the Silver Star. Twenty-six died in service and another twenty-six were wounded. Based on this Virginia Tech was designated as one of twelve Distinguished Colleges by the War Department.
After World War I, veterans both as new cadets and returning cadets impacted positively on the corps and university. At the same time, two other Corps of Cadets, Louisiana State and Mississippi State disbanded due to the negative reaction of post war students and veterans. In 1921, women were admitted as civilian students and attended classes as day students. The next year the Corps was reorganized into a regiment of two battalions. Two years later, military service as a cadet was reduced from four years to two; however after two years of the camaraderie of Corps’ life, very few cadets chose to convert to civilian student status. During the national rail strike of 1923 the Corps again volunteered to the Virginia Governor for active military service. They were not called upon. A Third Battalion was added to the regiment by 1927. Rapid growth followed as Virginia Tech’s reputation as both an outstanding academic and military institution grew. In 1939, a Fourth Battalion was added.
For the duration of World War II, academic sessions and the Corps operated on a twelve-month cycle. The Corps had grown to a brigade of 2,650 cadets consisting of two regiments with a total of five battalions. The First Battalion was primarily Infantry ROTC. The Second Battalion was Engineer ROTC and the Third, Fourth and Fifth consisted of Cadet Batteries taking Coast Artillery ROTC. The war demanded that seniors were graduated and commissioned early. Juniors were on an accelerated schedule and brought on active duty. Finally, sophomores and freshmen over 18 were largely inducted into military service. The Corps soon numbered under 300 and was organized into a single battalion.
The Commandant, in addition to the cadet battalion, supervised a unit of the Army Specialized Training Program and Army Specialized Training Reserve Program (ASTRP) (soldiers under 18 years of age) and a Navy pre-flight training unit. These units included many former cadets and they adopted many of the traditions of the Corps to include the Honor Code and saluting the Rock. The young men of the ASTRP were actually uniformed in cadet gray. Once again Virginia Tech was largely an active duty military installation. During World War II, 7,285 alumni served in uniform. The army had 5,941 men, the navy 1,059 men, 110 in the Marine Corps, 29 in the Merchant Marine, 23 in the Coast Guard, and one in the Royal Air Force. These included ten brigadier generals, five major generals and a rear admiral. Three Hundred and twenty-three died, three were awarded the Medal of Honor, seven the Distinguished Service Cross, two the Navy Cross and at least 73 the Silver Star and 94 the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Following World War II, returning veterans were not required to serve in the Corps and the great influx of veterans swelled the number of civilian students. Civilian students outnumbered cadets for the first time in 1946. That same year Air Force ROTC was introduced to Virginia Tech. Initially civilian-cadet relations with the corps were not good as most veterans were attending Virginia Tech for the first time. Thanks to the regimental commander, Cadet Rolfe Robertson ’49, a World War II Coast Guard veteran, greater understanding was promoted among his fellow veterans and the Corps continued to grow and flourish. At the same time the Corps at Clemson was disbanded.
During the following years the Corps would expand again back to a regiment and eventually organize into four battalion size units. The Cadet 1st Battalion was housed at Radford Army Arsenal for two years at “Rad-Tech”. There in World War II Army barracks, the cadets lived and took many of their classes. For classes unavailable there, a fleet of buses brought them back to the main campus. As new dorms were completed, the battalion returned to campus.
During the Korean War, 1,867 alumni served of whom 30 died in service and one was awarded the Medal of Honor. In 1952, the university employed a retired general as the commandant of cadets. This was a departure from the policy since 1884 where the senior active duty military instructor functioned as commandant. In 1958, Virginia Tech became the first traditionally white southern college to graduate an African American, with the graduation of Cadet Charles Yates ’58.
In a move to expand educational opportunities at Virginia Tech, the board of visitors made participation in the Corps completely voluntary starting in 1964. However, the taking of ROTC continued to require Corps membership. Similar action had been taken the prior year at Texas A&M. The Vietnam War period saw unrest on campus outside the Corps ranks. In 1970, demonstrations were conducted with the aim of halting Corps drill. Cowgill and Williams Halls were occupied and over 100 arrested. Various other disorderly incidents occurred including the suspected arson of an on campus building. Civilian-Cadet relations were at an all time low. Throughout all of this, the Corps maintained discipline and high morale while at the same time the Pennsylvania Military College disappeared.
The post Vietnam years saw the Corps numbers decline and reorganization to a two-battalion size regiment. In 1973, Virginia Tech was one of the first Corps of Cadets in the nation to enroll women, assigning them to L Squadron. In 1975, the first female cadet was assigned to the Band Company. In 1979, L Squadron was disbanded and female cadets integrated into the line companies. In 1981, the Cadet dormitories became coed. Naval ROTC was established in 1983. The cadet regiment expanded to a three-battalion structure in 1998. Today the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets is one of only six senior military colleges outside the five federal military academies. Virginia Tech is one of only two large, public universities in the nation that maintains a full time Corps of Cadets. The other is Texas A&M.
The Corps at Virginia Tech has seen many turbulent years and weathered them all. Since the Spanish American War the Corps has provided leadership in our nation’s times of need. Most recently, Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom saw nine Virginia Tech alumni killed, five of which were Corps alumni. The valor of our alumni is legendary, with seven Medal of Honor recipients, and 22 recipients of the nation’s second highest award for valor - the Distinguished Service Cross or Navy Cross. The Corps continues and always will because the spirit and devotion of its cadets and alumni will never waver. Whenever the nation has called, the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets was ready to live up to the University motto Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).