Next to a diploma, graduates of Virginia Military Institute (VMI) hold their class rings as the most important symbol of their association with the college. Presented to cadets in November of their second class (junior) year, it represents a milestone event during their time at VMI.
By this stage in their cadetship, they have survived the rigors of the Rat Line, have taken on some of the responsibility of running the Corps of Cadets, have forged lifelong friendships and seriously are thinking about what they will do following graduation.
Class rings first were presented at graduation in 1848, but their distribution varied from one class to another until the early 20th century. In 1927, however, every class from then on began to design its own ring, which over the years has grown larger and more extravagant. Each class had an elaborate and symbolic design with iconic images worked into the ring’s side.
These iconic symbols clearly demonstrate just how much the school embraced the so-called Cult of the Lost Cause. The majority have petite images carved in them of the Stonewall Jackson statue, and any number of other symbols such as the Confederate battle flag and a portrayal of Robert E. Lee astride his war horse, Traveller.
Why such an obsession with the Confederacy and the Civil War? Both were central to VMI’s heritage. Referred to as “The Confederacy’s Cradle of Command” by one historian, the institute played a crucial role in the Southern war effort. When I attended VMI, more than two-thirds of corps came from states of the former Confederacy.
More than 90% of its alumni, including a dozen generals, served in the Confederate army. Crucial to the war’s narrative was the Battle of New Market, when the entire cadet corps turned an almost certain Confederate defeat of Union forces into a stunning victory in 1864.
After many years of resisting, the school eventually integrated in 1968, and when the first five African Americans became members of the Class of 1972, their class ring prominently featured a large image of the Stonewall Jackson statue and the words “tradition” and “change” on it. Stonewall Jackson and other Confederate symbols were featured on class rings until recent years, when celebrating the Lost Cause increasingly became controversial.
Jackson had an important but relatively brief association with the school. A graduate of West Point, he served as an unpopular and not so effective professor of physics for nearly 10 years. Cadets made fun of him behind his back, calling him “Tom Fool.” Nevertheless, he is regarded as one of the Civil War’s greatest tacticians.
Had there been no Civil War, however, he, much like Ulysses S. Grant, probably would have died in obscurity. Finally, Jackson fought for a cause founded on the defense of slavery, and we all can be thankful that the Union prevailed in the most costly of American wars.
The time has come for VMI to look at other iconic figures that all cadets can admire.
As VMI looks to the future, I suggest that it embrace two graduates who can serve as models for every cadet, regardless of race or gender — George Catlett Marshall and Jonathan Daniels.
In addition to being graduates of the institute (where Marshall served as regimental commander and Daniels as valedictorian), both exemplified a key principle inculcated in every VMI alumnus — service above self.
Marshall went on to a career that would make him one of the most significant figures of the 20th century.
Serving as chief of staff of the Army during World War II, he bore the responsibility for organizing, training and deploying American troops throughout the globe. He was principal adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the prosecution of the war.
With the war’s end, he was appointed secretary of state, where he led the reconstruction of Europe and Japan through the Marshall Plan. After stepping down from the U.S. State Department, President Harry Truman tapped him to lead the Department of Defense. In 1953, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — the only career soldier to receive that signal honor. Winston Churchill described him as “the architect of victory.”
Jonathan Myrick Daniels, VMI Class of 1961, was a civil rights activist who was murdered in 1965 by a special county deputy in Haynesville, Ala., while shielding a Black protester, 16-year-old Ruby Sales, from a shotgun blast.
Both were working to desegregate public spaces and to register Black voters following passage of the Voting Rights Act by Congress earlier in the year. The death of Daniels generated further support for the civil rights movement.
Daniels eventually was designated as a martyr in the Episcopal Church, along with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1997, VMI established the Jonathan Daniels Humanitarian Award to recognize individuals for extraordinary service to humanity.
The latest Daniels Award was bestowed on the late John Lewis, member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia and civil rights activist. In addition, VMI created an arch into the barracks and adjoining courtyard in memory of Daniels.
VMI has much to be proud of. Proclaiming that “the measure of a college lies in the quality and performance of its graduates and their contributions to society,” the school’s record of alumni who have distinguished themselves in a wide variety of endeavors can be matched by few colleges its size.
Former Secretary of Defense and retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis addressed this in 2019 when he spoke to the corps: “I have had [VMI] graduates serve around me, above me, under me and there is a debt this country owes you that goes back many decades for a school that develops this sense of service before self, of putting others first.”
From now on, let the rings the cadets wear represent men and women who can be admired for what they did to best serve the United States of America and contributed to its greatness.
Charles F. Bryan Jr., Ph.D., is president and CEO emeritus of the Virginia Historical Society. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org