Captain Alden Partridge and the Origins of ROTC: A Reappraisal
By Gary T. Lord, Dana Professor of History
The centennial anniversary of the creation of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) in 1916 is an appropriate occasion for reexamining the pivotal role played by Captain Alden Partridge (1785-1854) in the development of the fundamental concepts that underlie the program of military education found on college and university campuses today. Key to Captain Partridge’s thinking about military policy was the importance of preparing citizen-soldiers to play a leading role in the defense of the American republic. Partridge was the foremost advocate in the early nineteenth century for promoting the idea that military education should be integrated into the curriculum of institutions of higher learning. His founding of the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy in 1819 (chartered as Norwich University in 1834) is widely recognized as the beginning of a movement that would culminate in the establishment of ROTC.1 On the eve of the enactment of the National Defense Act of 1916 authorizing ROTC, Norwich University played an important but little known role in demonstrating to Major General Leonard Wood and other leading advocates for military preparedness that college students could reach high standards of military proficiency. The passage of the ROTC legislation in 1916 brought to full realization Partridge’s vision of preparing, in a collegiate context, military leadership for the nation.
The originality and prescience of Captain Partridge’s thinking about military policy became apparent in 1815, when the thirty-year-old superintendent of the US Military Academy submitted to Congress a far-reaching proposal that called for a national system of education for both professional and militia officers. Under Partridge’s plan, the curriculum of the military academy at West Point would be improved by an enlargement of the faculty, the introduction of new courses of study, and the creation of two additional academies, one near Washington, D.C. and another at an undesignated location in the West. Each of the three academies would accommodate, at government expense, 150 cadets committed to serve as officers in either the US Army or Navy. Another 250 cadets, interested in a military education but not in active professional service, could be admitted to each of the academies but would pay the cost of their education. Partridge anticipated that the latter group of cadets would become militia officers and so would be instrumental in the “diffusion of military science” throughout the country. In times of emergency this reserve pool of officers would be available for “officering any additional force that might be necessary.”2 This plan, had it been approved by a Congress determined to implement budget reductions following the War of 1812, would have anticipated the creation of ROTC by more than a century.
Captain Partridge did not lose sight of his interest in upgrading the officer corps of the militia when he founded his own school at Norwich, Vermont, in 1819. In so doing he established the first private institution of higher learning in the United States operated in a military mode. The underlying premise of Partridge’s distinctive curriculum, the “American System,” was his view that education must prepare youth to “discharge, in the best possible manner, the duties they owe to themselves, to their fellow-men, and to their country.”3 Partridge did not recommend a “purely military” education, but one in which military instruction would be an “appendage” to civil education. He was convinced by the lessons of history, both ancient and modern, that a well-trained citizen-soldiery was the best defense of a republic because citizen-soldiers “identified in views in feelings, and in interests, with the great body of the community.” Accordingly, Partridge emphasized the importance of an “extended system of military education and a general diffusion of military knowledge.”4
Perhaps the most distinctive part of Alden Partridge’s American System was the requirement that his uniformed students live under a military regimen and his inclusion of military science as an integral part of the curriculum. Military education at Partridge’s school was both theoretical and practical. Instruction was offered in such subjects as military tactics, military engineering, and military history. Cadets had practical experience with unit drill, firearms, swordsmanship, and artillery fire. Significantly, these exercises were reserved for those hours of the day usually spent by students in “idleness” or “useless amusement.”5
Alden Partridge was one of the first American educators to recognize the educational value of field trips and incorporate them as an integral part of the academic curriculum. Partridge, a pioneer in physical education, regarded military exercises as beneficial to health. Military marches and other field exercise were a regular part of a program of physical education. The Corps of Cadets normally conducted a least one extended march each year, usually in the summer, for the purpose of inuring participants to “hardship and fatigue.”6 Field excursions were made to military installations, including fortifications, arsenals, and dockyards. On occasion, these field trips included what would now be called “staff rides” to historic battle sites.7
The system of education Captain Partridge devised served as a model for many other institutions founded or influenced by him. Prior to the Civil War Partridge, acting alone or in collaboration with former students, established military schools following the Norwich template in New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. Other schools were formed in the South, including Virginia, the Carolinas and Mississippi. In the West the Partridge model was extended to Kentucky and Missouri.8
In addition to providing the inspiration for establishing a network of private military schools Alden Partridge also gave encouragement to the creation of state supported military institutions. While Partridge taught a course on military science and led drill instruction for students at the University of Virginia in the mid-1830s he helped generate public support for military education that ultimately led to the founding of the Virginia Military Institute in 1839. At about the same time he was encouraged by Governor James McDuffie of South Carolina to offer similar instruction in Charleston. However, it was not until 1842 that the legislature of that state made provision for The Citadel. The plan of education articulated by the Board of Visitors of The Citadel followed the basic pattern of the Partridge model of education in place at Norwich University.9
Alden Partridge presented the fullest and most highly developed exposition of his American System of education to Congress in 1841. One authority on the subject described this plan as “the first definite proposal made to Congress to provide large-scale aid to each state for new education.”10 Partridge proposed that Congress allocate sufficient public land to endow as many as 80 institutions of higher learning and 160 secondary “polytechnic” schools. These institutions were expected to offer a curriculum that would include instruction in agriculture, engineering, and military science. The incorporation of military science and drill would, according to Partridge, in time produce a “well organized and well-disciplined militia which the Founding Fathers…declared necessary for a free state.” Ultimately, Partridge envisioned a force of two million citizen-soldiers “who would constitute the best guarantee of peace and render a mercenary army totally unnecessary.”11
Alden Partridge was, in effect, proposing the extension on a national scale of the system of education that was already in operation at Norwich University. In 1862, eight years after Captain Partridge’s death, Congress enacted a very similar proposal for higher education offered by Vermont Senator Justin Morrill, who lived in close proximity to Norwich University and was very familiar with the design and curriculum in place at that institution.12 The requirement for instruction in military tactics would provide an important bridge to the ROTC legislation of 1916.
The Morrill Act of 1862 was vague regarding the requirement for Land Grant colleges to offer instruction in military tactics. It was not clear what should constitute a course of military instruction or what the obligation of the US Army was to support such instruction. As a result, there was a wide divergence of practice among land grant colleges with respect to the obligations and requirements for student participation in military training. Not all land grant colleges required instruction in military tactics and those that did were not in agreement about the amount of time that should be allocated for training. Furthermore, at some institutions military uniforms or equipment was not provided.13 Where military training was instituted it usually was limited to military drill. Indeed, it seems that military instruction was such that it “did little except teach men how to march in straight lines.”14
Supplementary legislation enacted in 1866 allowed the War Department to assign a total of twenty training officers to military colleges and land grant colleges. Norwich University was one of the institutions that benefited from this legislation, as it allowed the assignment, in 1867, of Captain Thomas Walker not simply as a training officer but as president of the institution. Failing health forced the resignation of Walker a year later when Captain Charles A. Curtis was detailed to the university as the Professor of Military Science and Tactics.15 By the end of the century, the number of military officers authorized for deployment to college campuses was increased to one hundred, and provision was made for the issuance of surplus military equipment as well. However, the War Department was not fully responsive to these measures, claiming insufficiency of both men and money. Standardized military training at institutions of higher education, along with the resources to support it, would not be achieved until the passage of the National Defense Act of 1916.16
On the eve of World War I, Norwich was positioned to demonstrate to leading proponents of military preparedness that higher education could play a vital role in providing officer candidates to meet the nation’s growing military manpower needs.At the time, Norwich was one of the institutions designated by the War Department as a “distinguished” military college and the Corps of Cadets was organized as a squadron of the First Cavalry of the Vermont National Guard. In addition to their exposure to military science in the classroom, Norwich cadets participated in five hours of drill weekly (mounted and dismounted) and a mandatory ten-day summer encampment.17 Instruction in equitation at Norwich was first offered in 1909, and two years later polo was introduced. In 1912 an upstart Norwich polo team defeated a strong West Point team by a margin of 3-0, but the full potential of Norwich intermural polo would not be realized until after World War I.18
Two highly capable US Army cavalry officers, Captain Frank Tompkins and 1st Lieutenant Ralph M. Parker, were instrumental in bringing the horse cavalry program at Norwich to a high level of performance. Tompkins, from a distinguished military family, served as Professor of Military Science and Commandant (PMS&C) from 1910 to 1913 when Parker succeeded him for the next three years. In 1916, Tompkins participated in the Punitive Expedition along the Mexican Border. The valor he displayed in his daring pursuit of Mexican forces under Pancho Villa resulted in the award of the Distinguished Service Cross. Twice wounded in the campaign, Frank Tomkins returned to Norwich University to serve briefly as PMS&C, 1916-1917, before taking regimental commands in France with the rank of colonel. Severely wounded by mustard gas, Tompkins was no longer fit for frontline duty and eventually returned again to Norwich as PMS&C, 1919-1923.19
Significantly, General Leonard Wood, US Army Chief of Staff, (1910-1914) recommended 1st Lieutenant Ralph M. Parker to succeed Captain Tompkins as PMS&C in 1913. Clearly, Wood recognized Parker as a junior officer who possessed exceptional ability and promise, calling him on another occasion an officer of “marked initiative and capacity.”20 Parker had served under Captain Frank Tompkins for six years, first in the Philippines and then in Cuba, in the 11 US Cavalry. Captain of the regimental polo team and in charge training all new mounts, Parker had the requisite skills and experience to strengthen the Norwich equitation program by introducing initiatives in instruction and training that proved highly successful.21
Lieutenant Parker set high standards for the Norwich military program and was energetic in pursing his goals – a strategy of leadership facilitated by his ability as a communicator and promoter. For example, in September of 1913 he led cadets on a 150-mile endurance ride across the Green Mountains of Vermont, and two months later, Parker and the Norwich cadet major competed in the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden in New York City. In 1915 Parker accompanied a cadet equestrian team to the Brooklyn Horse Show in New York City, which performed very well and prompted a number of compliments from officials and military officers, including General Leonard Wood. Parker, on his horse Halcyon won the distinction of becoming the first American to win a ribbon in the international broad jump event.22
As Army Chief of Staff, Leonard Wood spoke and wrote forcefully and persistently about American military policy and what he viewed as the urgent need to enlarge and improve the military readiness of the nation. To meet the challenges of time, the United States must, Wood maintained, enlarge the size of the regular army, create a substantial reserve force, and upgrade the militia (national guard). To accomplish this it would be necessary to place heavy reliance on a well-prepared citizen soldiery. Military preparedness, not militarism, Wood reasoned was the best strategy for the security of a democracy.23
According to General Wood’s plan, a large corps of reserve officers would be required, perhaps as many as 40,000. In a commencement address at Norwich University in June of 1915, Wood, now commander of the Army Department of the East, outlined a plan of officer procurement that anticipated the ROTC legislation enacted a year later. Wood saw in the national pool of 40,000 students who were at colleges where they received some degree of military instruction by army officers a potential supply of reserve officers. Of about 8,000 to 9,000 graduating seniors, no more than 4,500 would be fit for a five-week course of “intensive training” and would be qualified to participate in a summer military training encampment. The result of such a program of military training would be a “very well prepared junior officer…many times better prepared than any we have ever had.” From this group as many as 1,500 could be attached to the regular army under provisional commissions as second lieutenants. Those not selected for the regular army would be eligible for commissions as reserve officers. General Wood’s remarks included an observation that echoed and were consistent with Captain Alden Partridge’s pronouncements on military policy:
We do not want a big standing army, but one big enough for the needs of the day, and back of it we want the largest possible number of men who while following their normal industrial or professional lives have been trained, and are ready to come to the country’s service in time of need if necessary. This is real preparation not for war, but against it. It is the best insurance for peace.24
The military exercises and drills General Wood observed at the Norwich commencement left him with very favorable impressions. In the aftermath of his visit, Wood wrote to Lieutenant Parker from his headquarters in New York City:
I want to express to you my appreciation of the admirable work you are doing at Norwich, evidence of which was everywhere apparent during my recent visit. The type of military work which is being done at Norwich is of great value to the country in preparing the graduates of the University for duty as officers in case of war.
The general also expressed the hope that the Vermont State Legislature (it recognized Norwich as the Military College of Vermont in 1898) would provide funding for facilities necessary for military instruction, especially for a badly needed riding hall.25
In 1916, a much stronger association between Norwich University and General Wood developed. Since 1913, Wood had fostered the operation of summer military training camps for college students and older men in an effort to bolster the military preparedness of the nation.26 Attendance was on a voluntary basis, and attendees typically paid most of their own expenses. Norwich planned a similar camp for the summer of 1916 but with an additional component for high school students.27 The Norwich venture was called the Summer School of Citizenship. Lieutenant Ralph Parker, PMS&C, took responsibility for directing practical military training, and General Wood was scheduled to be a lecturer at the school.28 However, the projected summer school did not materialize.
In May, Leonard Wood wrote to the secretary of the Rough Riders Preparedness Association to recommend that the Eastern Branch of the association take the initiative to raise $150,000 to build a “Commons Hall” and a “Riding Hall” at Norwich University. Wood, the former commander of the famed cavalry regiment of the Spanish American War, indicated that he was “familiar with the work, history, condition and present needs as well as the possibilities” of the university. Wood further observed:
Norwich University is the oldest military college in America except West Point, and has done splendid work for almost one hundred years. It is the only strictly Cavalry School in America, and that leads me to suggest that it is peculiarly appropriate that the Rough Riders take an interest in a practical fashion in Norwich University…It is urgently in need of buildings such as those mentioned, and the organization will be doing real work towards preparedness in helping to build up this fine old military college.29
Theodore Roosevelt, who had been second in command of the Rough Riders, sent a similar letter to the secretary of the association about two weeks later, as if cued by Leonard Wood. Roosevelt wrote:
The regular army officers who have inspected Norwich University, including General Wood, speak with marked enthusiasm over the military efficiency of the institution…Like General Wood, I should be glad to do anything I can to help along in this most commendable work.30
In June, Norwich University expressed its appreciation for Wood’s achievements and, undoubtedly, for his support of the university by conferring an honorary Master of Military Science degree on him at the 1916 commencement. It was only the third time that the university had awarded such a degree; the first two recipients were alumni, Major General Grenville Dodge, Class of 1851, and Admiral George Dewey, Class of 1854. At its annual meeting in June, Norwich Board of Trustees selected General Wood to fill the vacancy on the board created by the death of General Dodge earlier in the year. Wood continued to serve on the board until his death in 1927.31
At a luncheon meeting of the Rough Riders Association in November in New York City. General Wood continued his campaign to raise funds for Norwich. In a speech on that occasion Wood said, in part:
The present war in Europe has brought to the attention of the public more and more the need for a thorough military preparedness, and the interest of the thoughtful public is being directed to such institutions as Norwich, which have long given such splendid service. In looking about for other services for our old regiment we decided that Norwich was one of the first institutions which we should try to help…
The National Defense Act of last June provided for service institutions to become units of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. Norwich has been designated as the sole Cavalry unit, senior division, Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.32
An announcement was made at the same luncheon that a donor was willing contribute half of the cost of a riding hall and stables. A Norwich alumnus pledged another $5,000 and William R. Meade, also an alumnus and principal in the firm of McKim, Meade and White, offered his architectural services.33 Despite this display of generosity and enthusiasm, planning for a new stable and riding hall was stalled by the war, and when the facilities were built it was with the support of additional benefactors and through the efforts of Colonel Frank Tompkins who had returned to the university as PMS&C.
Ralph Parker, a year after leaving Norwich as PMS&C and now a captain, published An Officers Notes (1917), a pocket manual intended as a useful guide for young army officers. The work was based on Parker’s experience as PMS&C at Norwich, as an instructor in military training camps, as an administrator of a correspondence course for officers, and as the originator of a series of lectures he offered after the creation of ROTC in June of 1916. Significantly, the manual was dedicated to the “Prophet of Preparedness,” Leonard Wood. General Wood in turn wrote a complimentary introductory letter in which he commended the “very excellent work” which concisely offers a “vast amount of useful information.”34
That Norwich University played a significant role as a testing ground for General Wood’s thinking about military training for college students is confirmed by a letter that Colonel Ralph Parker wrote to Colonel Frank Tompkins in 1938. Parker observed to his old comrade-in-arms:
We would not have ROTC today if I had not demonstrated the practicality of real military training and its real value to National Defense. Then too, if I had not had General Wood with his wonderful broad-minded attitude toward civilian training, I would not have been heeded in the least. There was no other General officer in the Army that would have lent a sympathetic ear to my proposals.
Parker did not ignore the critical contribution of Tompkins in preparing the way for the success of the cavalry program at Norwich. In his concluding remarks Parker acknowledged the role Tompkins played by noting:
You [Tompkins] turned over to me a wonderful lot of boys thoroughly imbued with a spirit of National Defense and it was that spirit that made the project possible. You laid a wonderful ground work the like of which has never been done at any other institution, that I know of. It was first you, then I, and then General Wood that brought about this whole fine ROTC, which is the finest institution of is [sic] kind that the world has ever known.35
The American System of education devised by Captain Alden Partridge in the early nineteenth century provided a workable model for integrating military science into collegiate education. In doing so, he supplied the means for preparing citizen soldiers to fill the ranks of the officer corps in times of military exigency. Partridge was less successful in winning support for a national system of military education financed and regulated by the federal government. Nevertheless, in the early twentieth century, Partridge’s legacy institution, Norwich University, provided evidence to progressive army officers, such as Frank Tompkins, Ralph M. Parker and Leonard Wood that it was possible to prepare junior officers in a collegiate setting and to do so with highly satisfactory results. Thus the Partridge pattern of military education in operation at Norwich University, in no small measure, prepared the way for the creation of ROTC in 1916.
1 Arthur T. Coumbe, Paul N. Kotakis & W. Anne Gammell, History of the U.S. Army Cadet Command; Second Ten years, 1996-2006 (Fort Monroe, VA: Cadet Command, U.S. Army, 2008), 1-2.
2 Edgar Denton, III sees the plan as the work of Colonel Joseph Swift, Inspector of the Academy, “Formative Years of the United States Military Academy, 1775-1783” (Ph.D. diss., Syracuse University, 1964), 113. However, an earlier draft of the plan by Partridge dated April 1815 is included in his notebook (1811-1816), Partridge Papers, Norwich University Archives, Kreitzberg Library, Norwich University, Northfield, VT. Partridge’s plan is printed in Lester A. Webb, Captain Alden Partridge and the United States Military Academy, 1806-1833 (Northport, AL: American Southern, 1965), 207-209.
3 Henry Barnard, Military Schools and Course of Instruction in the Science and Art of War…(New York, rev. ed., 1872), 843.
4 William A. Ellis, ed., Norwich University, 1819-1911: Her History, Her Graduates, Her Role of Honor (Montpelier, VT: Capital City Press, 1911), 1:5-6.
5 Catalogue of the Officers and Cadets of the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy (Hanover, NH, 1821), 9-10.
6 Catalogue…of the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy…(Middletown, CT, 1827), 14.
7 For a more detailed discussion what Partridge called “pedestrian excursions” see Gary Thomas Lord, “Alden Partridge’s Excursions to the White Mountains, 1811-1824, and the Emergence of Modern Views of the Mountain Environment,” Historical New Hampshire 57 (Spring-Summer, 2002): 4-5.
8 For a detailed discussion of these schools see Ellis, Norwich University, 1:395-401.
9 Partridge’s activities in Virginia at this time are detailed in Gary Thomas Lord, “Alden Partridge: Promoter of an ‘American System’ of Education,” 20-23, a paper read at the annual meeting of the American Military Institute, Lexington, VA, April 14, 1989 and deposited in the Norwich University Archives, Kreitzberg Library, Northfield, VT.
10 George N. Rainsford, Congress and Higher Education in the Nineteenth Century (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1972), 79-80.
11 House Document, 69, 26th Cong., 2nd Sess., 6.
12 The striking similarity between Partridge’s 1841 proposal and the Land Grant Act of 1862 is explored by Gary Thomas Lord, “Alden Partridge’s Proposal for a National System of Education: A Model of the Morrill Land Grant Act,” History of Higher Education Annual 18 (1998), 11-24.
13 The discussion of military training in Land Grant colleges after the Civil War relies on Gene M. Lyons and John W. Masland, Education and Military Leadership (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959), 30-33.
14 Michael S. Neiberg, Making Citizen Soldiers: ROTC and the Ideology of American Military Service (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 22.
15 Ellis, Norwich University, l: 145-146, 148.
16 Lyons and Masland, Education and Military Leadership, 32-33.
17 The evolution of the horse cavalry program from1906 to 1916 is detailed in Robert Darius Guinn, The History of Norwich University, 1912-1965 (Burlington, VT: George Little Press, 1966), 14-21, 271-275.
18 War Whoop 1914 (Norwich yearbook), unpaged: see section headed “Polo.”
19 For biographical sketches of Tompkins see Guinn, History of Norwich University, 19-20; John J. Pershing; John J. Greenwood, My Life Before the World War, 1860-1917: A Memoir (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2013), 591-592.
20 Col. Frank Tompkins to Col. Lawrence Gant, July 28, 1932, Frank Tompkins Papers, Norwich University Archives, Kreitzberg Library, Northfield, VT.
21 For biographical information on Parker see Guinn, History of Norwich University, 21;War Whoop 1916 (Norwich yearbook), 19; Greg Krenzelok, “The Eleventh Cavalry: Commanders of the 11th Cavalry, 1901 to 1941,” http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~gregkrenzelok/veterinary%20corp%20in%20ww1/11thcavcommanders.html.
22 The Reveille, 48, no. 1 (October, 1913), 13; Norwich University Record, 5, no. 28 (November 29, 1913), 1-2; Norwich University Record, 6, no. 32 (May 8, 1915), 1.
23 Leonard Wood, The Military Obligation of Citizenship (London: Princeton University Press, 1915), 56-57, 63-64.
24 For the text of the address see Norwich University Record, 7, no.4, (July 3, 1915), 15-17. The statistics regarding the number of college students and the size of military forces are at variance with what appears in Leonard Wood, Our Military History; Its Facts and Fallacies (Chicago, The Reilly & Britton, Co., 1916), 207-211,
25 Norwich University Record, 7, no. 5 (July 17, 1915), 1.
26 John Garry Clifford, The Citizen Soldiers: The Plattsburg Training Camp Movement, 1913-1920, (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1972), passim.
27 For details see Guinn, The History of Norwich University, 42.
28 Norwich University Record, 7, no. 26 (May 6, 1916), 5.
29 Leonard Wood to Arthur F. Cosby, May 13, 1916, facsimile appearing in a promotional booklet, Norwich University’s Contributions to the United States found in the student scrapbook kept by W. A. Upham, class of 1917, Norwich University Archives, Kreitzberg Library, Northfield Vermont.
30 Theodore Roosevelt to Arthur F. Cosby, May 26, 1916, ibid.
31 Vermont Phoenix (Brattleboro, VT), June 30, 1916; Orleans County Monitor (Barton, VT) June 28, 1916.
32 The Reveille, 66, no. 10 (December, 1916), 8-10.
33 Ibid., 11.
34 Captain R.M. Parker, An Officer’s Notes (New York: Harvey Press, 3rd ed., 1917), dedication, preface, introductory letter.
35 Ralph M. Parker to Frank Tompkins, December 2, 1938, Frank Tompkins Papers.