Military education has long been popular in the American South, and South Carolina has been a leader for this type of instruction.
Military education has long been popular in the American South, and South Carolina has been a leader for this type of instruction. Since the antebellum period, southerners have regarded military education as an excellent way to instill self-discipline, integrity, patriotism, moral virtue, and a sense of civic duty in youths, particularly young men.
Private military academies began appearing in the South in the 1820s, though information about them is sketchy. Richland Academy, for example, opened near Rice Springs Creek in 1827, though it survived only a few years. After the founding of the Virginia Military Institute in 1839, South Carolina and then every other slave state founded state-supported military schools or provided state support for military education programs. The South Carolina Military Academy was founded in 1842 and consisted of the Arsenal Academy in Columbia and the Citadel in Charleston. In 1845 the Arsenal became a preparatory academy for new cadets before they matriculated as upperclassmen to the Citadel. During the 1850s Citadel graduates founded several private military academies, including King’s Mountain Military School, Patrick Military Institute, Yorkville Military Academy, Aiken Military Academy, and academies in North Carolina and Georgia.
Supporters of the military system argued that it represented a more democratic, egalitarian way to run a college. In military schools, authority within the corps of cadets depended on class rank and academic standing, not socioeconomic status. Seniority and grades translated into military rank within the corps. Since all students wore uniforms, there were no distinctions in dress between planters’ sons and upcountry plowboys. At the Arsenal and the Citadel, poorer cadets who passed competitive examinations paid no tuition, and these “beneficiary” cadets made up about one-half of the Citadel’s student body. Additionally, politicians and educators argued that military school graduates could help train and improve the state militia in case of conflict with the federal government or slave revolts. Most importantly, many South Carolinians, including parents, believed that military training was vital for instilling character and discipline in the state’s rowdy youth.
On January 9, 1861, Citadel cadets on Morris Island fired artillery shells at a vessel attempting to reinforce Federal troops at Fort Sumter. During the Civil War, state authorities often called the Arsenal and Citadel cadets to active duty. The cadets saw action in December 1864 during the Battle of Tulifinny, suffering eight casualties. They continued in active service until the end of the war.
Union forces burned the Arsenal in 1865 and began a military occupation of the Citadel that lasted until 1879. Citadel alumni, however, founded new private military academies in the state and managed to reopen the Citadel in 1882. The southern military school tradition received another boost after the Civil War as the former Confederate states took advantage of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862. This law provided significant federal support to state colleges that focused on “scientific agriculture” and the “mechanic arts,” but specified that those schools must also include some instruction in military tactics. Every white, southern land-grant school exceeded that requirement by operating as a full-fledged military school along the lines of Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and the Citadel. When Clemson Agricultural College opened in 1893, for example, it immediately instituted the military system. The land-grant institution now known as South Carolina State University established a strong military program for the state’s black youth after the school was reorganized in 1896.
The Citadel, Clemson, and South Carolina State provided hundreds of trained young men to serve in the nation’s military forces in the world wars, the Korean War, and Vietnam. These institutions all were proud of their contributions to national defense but continued to regard military training primarily as a way to maintain discipline and instill character, not train for war.
In the twentieth century the southern military school tradition weakened somewhat but remained a recognized part of southern culture. In South Carolina, South Carolina State began moving away from the military requirement by the 1920s, and Clemson disbanded its corps of cadets in 1955. Both schools, however, continued to maintain strong Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) detachments on campus. The Citadel is one of a handful of surviving state-supported military schools. It adapted to changing times by obeying a court order in 1995 to allow women in its corps of cadets. The number of female cadets has increased steadily ever since. Meanwhile, Camden Military Academy thrives as a private military preparatory school. At the turn of the twenty-first century, military education remained an established feature in the South Carolina landscape.
Andrew, Rod. Long Gray Lines: The Southern Military School Tradition, 1839–1915. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Baker, Gary R. Cadets in Gray: The Story of the Cadets of the South Carolina Military Academy and the Cadet Rangers in the Civil War. Columbia, S.C.:
Palmetto Bookworks, 1989. Bond, Oliver J. The Story of the Citadel. 1936. Reprint, Greenville, S.C.: Southern Historical Press, 1989.