In 2018, Norwich celebrated 120 years of being the Military College of Vermont, a status bestowed by the Vermont State Legislature on November 29, 1898. That legislative action was, in part, a reflection of the pride Vermonters shared in the prominent roles played by native sons in the Spanish-American War, notably Henry Hersey and George Dewey, who were also both Norwich alumni. In another sense, the designation was simply a formal recognition of a role that the University had assumed well before 1898. In fact, the military association between the State of Vermont and the University extended back to the school’s early years.
Alden Partridge held a fundamental conviction about the importance of a citizen soldiery in sustaining a constitutional republic. Hence, military science was a vital part of the comprehensive curriculum that Partridge devised. He expected that his students would provide leadership as part of the officer corps of the national militia system. That expectation ultimately was realized in the various state militias.
The transformation of Captain Partridge’s American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy into Norwich University in 1834 was accomplished through a charter from the State of Vermont, which included a provision requiring that the University offer “military instruction, both theoretical and practical.” Because University students were of militia age, they were enlisted by the early 1840s as a light infantry company in the Vermont Militia.
At that time, however, the traditional militia was in decline in Vermont and throughout the United States. Despite Partridge’s effort to reinvigorate the institution, the compulsory enrolled militia was dissolved in 1844. It was replaced by a volunteer system that was significantly strengthened by the leadership of Brigadier General Alonzo Jackman, a Norwich alum and faculty member, who became responsible for all of the state’s militia units in 1859. After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, General Jackman took charge of all military training in the state.
In 1864 the Cadet Corps was briefly called into voluntary service because of the Confederate raid on St. Albans, Vt. In 1870, the Corps was organized as a company of state militia infantry, along with an artillery battery that trained with the six- pound James cannon still used for ceremonial purposes today. The Norwich units functioned as independent units of the Vermont Militia through the end of the century. By then, the term “militia” had been replaced by the designation “National Guard.”
By 1910 the Norwich Corps of Cadets, still an active component of the Vermont National Guard, was reorganized to include a cavalry troop. In 1914 the Corps was reconstituted entirely as a mounted cavalry unit with the designation Squadron One, First Vermont Cavalry—a highly proficient unit that consistently earned superior ratings from federal inspectors.
Soon after the creation of the Reserve Officer Training Corps in 1916, Norwich joined that program and had to withdraw from its role in the National Guard. However, from 1922 until World War II, Norwich was the site of a headquarters company of the 172nd Vermont National Guard Infantry Regiment. That unit was comprised exclusively of volunteer guardsmen who were Norwich students and faculty.
More than a century after it gained legislative recognition, the Military College of Vermont still does the name proud. Norwich students and alumni play a leading role in the Vermont National Guard, and the state-of-the-art Vermont National Guard Readiness and Regional Technology Center was built on campus in 2001. Norwich and the State of Vermont will doubtless continue to build on the long and productive collaboration forged over 120 years, anticipating new opportunities in the decades to come.
Adapted from an article by Professor Emeritus Gary Lord that appeared in the Winter 1999 edition of the Norwich Record.