Early VMI History & Cadet Life
Valentine Saunders Letter, 1839
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Valentine Cook Saunders was born on November 15, 1820, at Leesburg, Virginia, the son of Everitt Saunders and Susan Bashaw. He entered VMI on November 11, 1839 & graduated July 4, 1842, standing 12th of 16 graduates. After graduation he began a career as a teacher, which he continued until his death on December 21, 1894, at Leesburg, VA. He was an excellent linguist, fluent in five languages. He never married.
About this letter:
This letter from Cadet Saunders to his parents is the oldest extant letter written by a VMI cadet. Dated November 30, 1839, shortly after the first students arrived in Lexington, the letter provides a cadet's view of the newly established Institute. Saunders describes the arsenal; the method of instruction; course of studies; gives his opinion (favorable) of Superintendent Francis H. Smith.
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Spelling has not been corrected. Punctuation added when necessary to convey meaning of sentence. Saunders often omitted periods, commas, and other punctuation marks
Virginia Military Institute
Nov. 30, 1839
Dear Father and Mother
I received your letter of the 21st yesterday, being the first I have got since I left home, and you may be sure it gave me much pleasure. I have just returned from exploring the dusky halls of the old Arsenal. There are deposited in this arsenal at which we are stationed fifty six thousand stand of arms including a vast number of old rifles, muskets, pistols, and dragoon swords. The value of the whole is estimated at about seven hundred thousand dollars so you see we have great responsibility resting upon us for this property is confided to our immediate care.
The method of instruction pursued in this Institute is the best and most efficient that could be possibly adopted. The leisure hours are from breakfast till 9 oclock, from twelve till two, from 4 till supper. There are 4 assigned to each room to pursue their respective studies to themselves; at a particular hour we are marched in squads at the beat of the drum to the recitation room where we are examined individually by Major Smith in the presence of the whole corps to see what progress we have made in our studies. If he finds us deficient in the least we get a mark of demerit besides requiring us to recite the same lesson next morning; his course of instruction is conducted on the [Peohloggian] system, by interrogating us on the particular branch we have been studying and requiring us to demonstrate it on the blackboard put up in the recitation room for that purpose.
Major Smith the principal Professor is a man of the nicest discrimination and shrewdness I ever knew. I will defy anyone to fool or dupe him, for one can't get along here otherwise than doing his duty. He is very polite and kind to the cadets but keeps them at a respective distance as is necessary in such a place this.
I have been particularly fortunate since I have been here. The third night after I came here I was appointed seargeant of the Guard and of course have not acted as sentinel one night since I entered upon duty. My service is to visit the sentinel at stated times in the night to see that he does his duty and don't sleep on post, to make off my report in the morning and present it to the Major for inspection.
I am among an excellent set of fellows. There appears to exist in the breast of every Virginian a homogeneous feeling that prompts them to treat each other like brothers and adapts them to each others company. I never saw so much kind feelings, sociability as are here among these cadets. No ill feeling or discord has occurred among them since we have been together.
I was introduced to Gen. Bernard B. Peyton the other day who told me he had known many of the family, particularly cousin James with whom he had served during the late war. He spoke in the highest terms of him as an officer and made very particular inquiries about his family.
The Corps of Cadets is increased to fifty by an accession from Washington College, each one in full uniform. We are drilled every day by the Major who is making every exertion to qualify us for a display on the 22d of February being Washington's Birthday. Our present course of instruction includes Algebra and French. Algebra is the most important part of Mathematics as it facilitates the acquisition and operations of all the succeeding branches of the Mathematics. In this department we have made great proficiency under the superior guidance and management of our able Professor Francis H. Smith. We also progress rapidly in the study of French under the instruction of Mr. Preston, Professor of Languages. He is an accomplished scholar and gentleman, treats us with the utmost politeness and kindness and is well qualified to discharge the duties in the department which he has the honor to fill.
Our service here is very hard especially those that do not act in the capacity of Sergeant and Corporals for their duty is nothing in comparison to the sentinel. There is appointed a guard every night by the officer of the day, one seargeant, one corporal, 3 privates constitute the guard for the night. It is mounted a 6 oclock P.M. and continued throughout the night in rotation, 2 hours allotted to each sentinel till the revilee proclaims the dawn of day. They are then discharged. No weather will excuse the sentinel from performing his duty.
I was sorry to hear that [brother] was returned again to Florida after suffering so much during his campaign last winter in that detestable county, but it was an office of his own seeking therefore he must submit to all the privations and dangers incidental to the life of a soldier. I wish him all the success in the world and a happy escape from the fatigues and dangers attendant upon a Florida campaign. Let me know about him when you write again (and send the chronicle). Your letter contained very unexpected news of the death of Mr. Peck. When I saw him last he was walking the streets of Leesburg in apparent health, but such is the uncertainty of life no situation or circumstance can exempt us from death. Let it be what it may we must go the way of all the earth sooner or later. I truly pity his large and helpless family left behind.
Tell mother I wish her to look in the Book case and get my Spanish Grammar and lock it up in her side board drawer for me. I shall want it if I ever get home. We can't see home under two years. If I can possibly get home before that time I will. Don't forget the chronicle. I never hear any Florida news at this place. Mother must write to me soon. Tell Uncle Raney I received a short letter from him this morning and will answer it as soon as I can. I have but little time to spare at this place but will write as often as I can. Tell me of John Wildman--what is he doing in Leesburg--now I wish he was here. Give my love to all at home and except the same yourselves.
Yours affectionately, V.C. Saunders.
Mr. Everitt Saunders, Leesburg, Loudoun County, Virginia.
postmarked Lexington, Va. December 1st.