The Father of Virginia Military Institute

A Biography of Colonel J.T.L. Preston, CSA


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About the Book

The Virginia Military Institute launched an educational revolution when it became the first school in the American South to combine classical and practical courses under an effective system of military discipline. It pioneered free schooling for the poor and exemption from tuition and board in exchange for two years of teaching. It has furnished fully qualified citizen-soldiers for both civilian and military life since before the Civil War.

Who first conceived of VMI has been the subject of multiple claims since the school’s founding in 1839. Attempting to answer that problem, this biography of Col. J.T.L. Preston unfolds the life of a teacher and soldier, husband and father, who defined the school as it exists today, served Stonewall Jackson as his first adjutant general, married the Poetess of the Confederacy and sired a family whose members bore the stamp of their father’s character. Preston is revealed as a man of faith who suffered “anguish beyond remedy” under “the bloody, remorseless hand of war,” which “tore from his heart what, to him, was more precious than liberty, home, or anything but heaven.”

About the Author(s)

Randolph P. Shaffner is a retired professor of English and comparative literature and author of several books and articles on a variety of historical subjects. He is archivist for the Highlands Historical Society in the mountains of western North Carolina.

Bibliographic Details

Randolph P. Shaffner

Format: softcover (7 x 10)
Pages: 284
Bibliographic Info: 52 photos, 8 maps, notes, bibliography, index
Copyright Date: 2014
pISBN: 978-0-7864-9395-1
eISBN: 978-1-4766-1723-7
Imprint: McFarland

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix
Preface  1
Prologue: “A Day I Will Never Forget”  5

Part I: In the Beginning
1. The Growth of the Mind  14
2. A Classical Education  25

Part II: Father of the Dream
3. The Cives Letters  36
4. The Battle of the Arsenal Bills  47
5. From Dream to Reality  59

Part III: The First Decade
6. Professor of Modern Languages  76
7. Classical and Practical  79
8. VMI Under Attack  85
9. Fluctuations  89
10. The Challenge of Discipline  96

Part IV: Morning and Evening Star
11. A New Physics Professor  104
12. Irreparable Loss  108
13. Venus  115
14. A Grave Question of Educational Reform  119

Part V: Reluctant Confederates
15. Shades of Conflict  126
16. Virginia First and Last  134
17. Jackson’s Chief of Staff  140
18. Craney Island  145
19. He Cannot Be Spared  149

Part VI: The Gloom and the Glory
20. Slain in Battle  156
21. The Shuddering Horror of Death  162
22. This Savage and Ferocious War  167
23. It Made Our Hearts Leap  171

Part VII: Twilight
24. Like a Bolt of Lightning  182
25. God and Slavery  189
26. Beyond the Sunset  197
27. Brigadier General and Doctor of Laws  204
28. Finis Opus Coronat  209

Epilogue  215
Chapter Notes  223
Bibliography  249
Index  263

Book Reviews & Awards

  • “highly recommended”—Midwest Book Review
  • “highly recommended”—Civil War News
  • “well documented…a thorough biography of a complex man, but the author tells Preston’s story in a very readable manner”—Army History
  • “impressive…an important contribution to our outstanding of this significant nineteenth-century Virginian. The author does a commendable job of weaving together the many facets and contributions of his subject”—The Journal of Southern History
  • “exceptionally written…a commendable and much overdue analysis of one of nineteenth-century Virginia’s most influential intellects and under appreciated educational pioneers”—Virginia Magazine
  • “A fascinating, well-researched and long overdue biography of the Virginia Military Institute’s most unheralded founder and underappreciated champion of educational reform.”—Dr. Bradford A. Wineman, Marine Corps University
  • “Shaffner’s biography, the result of extensive research, has many fine qualities…quite literate and readable…Shaffner has provided readers with an admirable and worthy biography of the father of VMI.”—Dr. Thomas W. Davis, VMI Emeritus Professor of History