Francis H. Smith: architect of antebellum southern military schools and educational reform
Wineman, Bradford Alexander
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This study examines the historical significance of the Virginia Military Institute??????s (VMI) first superintendent, Francis Henney Smith, and his influence not only at his home institution but also on his broader social, educational, and political importance. Historiography neglects to credit or identify Smith??????s contributions to the notable expansion of military education in the antebellum South and his influence beyond VMI. Not only did he play a key role in the developing of Southern military education, but overwhelming evidence indicates that the growth of these schools in the South would not have happened without Smith acting as an influential father figure. He provided the structure, ideology and pedagogical models of these institutions and advised, guided and inspired nearly every other Southern military school in the two decades preceding the Civil War. Moreover, his innovations spread far beyond those of military schools as he promoted a new vision for Virginia and the South, one in which independence could be established through intellectual solidarity by creating a society centered on education. As a West Point graduate, Smith structured VMI on the Sylvanus Thayer educational model and sought to promote this system throughout every school in Virginia and the South, both in military and non-military institutions. He also created a network of like-minded academics, mostly with alumni from the U.S. Military Academy who launched a movement to encourage a more practical education in the South, focusing on mathematics, engineering and the sciences. VMI graduates would also spread Smith??????s academic gospel throughout the state and region as he encouraged them to serve their republic as teachers rather than soldiers. In spite of the popularity of his reforms and ideologies, Smith contended with the challenges of the volatile nature of antebellum Virginia politics as well as the social constructs of his native South, particularly in the forms of honor and masculinity demonstrated by his cadets. The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 temporarily destroyed his dreams improving VMI on the model of the most advanced scientific institutions in Europe as the Institute converted to an exclusively military mission to serve the Confederacy.