University of Kentucky
The very first Commissioning Class in 1866.

The very first Commissioning Class in 1866.

The Wildcat Battalion

 

A HISTORY OF ROTC AT THE UNIVERSITY OFKENTUCKY

Military training at the University of Kentucky has a long, rich tradition dating back to the very founding of the institution. As one of the original eleven schools at what was then called theAgricultural and Mechanical College of Kentucky, military science and tacticshave been taught on campus uninterrupted since 1865.

The history and traditions of military training at the University of Kentucky are a source of great pride. The men and women that have passed through the doors of Barker Hall and Buell Armory have gone on to represent the University and the State of Kentucky as leaders in both business and government as well as the military.

Today, the Department of Military Scienceat the University of Kentucky continues to build upon the legacies of the past,preparing, educating and inspiring leaders for the 21st century. 

Early Years: 1865-1916

The origins of ROTC at the University of Kentucky lie in the foundation of the University itself. In 1862, during the Civil War, Congress passed the Morrill Act, which provided for pubic lands in each state to be set aside for the endowment, support and maintenance of at least one college to teach agriculture and mechanic arts and other scientific and classical studies. After the war was over in 1865, John Bowman (a trustee of Bacon College in Harrodsburg) founded the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Kentucky as thefirst land grant school under the Morrill Act. Although the A. and M. Collegewas at first a part of Kentucky University (now Transylvania University), it was the beginning of what would become the University of Kentucky. One of the provisions of the Morrill Act had been that military training would be requiredfor all students, so that every student at the A. and M. College automatically became a cadet. These students were, of course, not cadets under the ROTC program, and the military training at the land grant schools was not intended to produce officers. The School of Military Tactics was one of the original eleven schools at the A. and M. College; William E. Arnold was the first Commandant.

For the site of the A. and M. College, President Bowman purchased Ashland,the former home of Henry Clay. He also acquired Woodlands, an adjoining tract of land. The first armory was in the Tilford residence at Woodlands and a smallopen field nearby was used as a drill field. In 1878, the A. and M. College became independent of Kentucky University, and came to be unofficially called"Kentucky State College." Perhaps the only artifact of the Kentucky State College days which survives at the University of Kentucky today is the decorative KSC lamp hanger on the front of present-day Buell Armory.

The cadets at KSC were evidently popular with the local Lexington towns people in the early days. An edition of the Kentucky Statesman in 1867 described an elaborate ceremony in which the ladies of Fayette County presented a flag to the cadets. They were probably also popular with at least one local merchant, as the uniform regulations which prescribed the natty cadet gray uniforms with black piping stated that the boys were required to buy their own,and that they were available downtown for 19.75, complete with caps.

A variety of officers served as Commandant of Cadets during the last quarter of the 19th Century. Most of these gentlemen were graduates of West Point who had been unable to secure a post of active duty, or older lieutenants and captains who had retired. Many of these officers seem to have taken theird uties quite seriously and tried to improve the cadet corps. The cadets originally formed an infantry battalion armed with 1873 trapdoor Springfield rifles, but to supplement these in 1885 Commandant (Lieutenant) Phelps secured from Rock Island Arsenal two three-inch Ordnance rifled cannons of Civil War vintage, complete with limbers and 200 cartridges. The cadets quickly formed an artillery battery, and cannon firing became a highlight of the frequent sham battles that were part of the exercises.

The life of a cadet in the early days seems harsh to students today. In 1869, the college got a new president in the person of James K. Patterson. For forty-one years, President Patterson would guide the growth of the buddingcollege and was largely responsible for its continued existence in troubledtimes, but he would be remembered by the students as a taskmaster who brooked no disobedience or breaches of discipline. The students rose at 5:30 a.m. and attended classes all morning. Military drill took place in the afternoons. An 1880's issue of the Kentuckian claimed that:

"The hardest work I ever done
Was drilling on this ground.
The easiest work I ever done
Was stealing out to town."

A few examples from President Patterson's rules for students will serve to illustrate his ideas of discipline:

75. All deliberations of discussions among students having the object of conveying praise or censure, or any mark of approbation or disapprobation toward College authorities, are strictly forbidden.

123. No student shall be absent from his room between taps and reveille without permission from the Commandant.

129. Student quarters any newspapers or other periodical publications without special permission from the President. They are also forbidden to keep in their rooms any books except textbooks, without special permission from the President.

In that day as in this, the students did not always obey the rules. Cadetsnot infrequently"stole out to town," and in some instances raised enough havoc to require police intervention. A popular pastime during the Patterson administration was firing the cannons of the cadet battery at nigh or setting off fireworks. A December 1894 edition of the Lexington Daily Press reported "Young Nehilists at the State College Explode a Bomb Under the Window of Col. Swigert's Quarters on Saturday Night and Follow This Up With Another Active Bomb On Sunday Night. Matters Pretty Lively."In reality, it was just the "Midnight Artillery" celebrating a football victory.

The cadets even managed to have some legitimate fun. By 1889, there were 330 students at Kentucky State College, of whom 160 were in the Military Department(seniors at this time were exempt from drill and training). In 1900, the"KSC boys" formed an honor guard at a Confederate veterans' reunion in Louisville, took part in a reenactment of the battle of Perryville at Churchill Downs, and participated in their first annual summer training encampment, which was held at Chattanooga. The encampment was designed for training in the form of sham battles, but, from the report in the 1901 Kentuckian, a lot of attention was also paid to striking up relationships with the local Tennessee Belles.

At the turn of the century, the cadets got a new home. In 1882, the A. and M. College had moved to the present location of the University of Kentucky, and the main part of Buell Armory was finished in 1901. The Armory was officially named for General Don Carlos Buell, commander of the Union forces at Perryville and a member of the A. and M. College board of trustees, but the building was more popularly called the Gymnasium because it housed the college's exercise center (where the Women's Gym is now.) The Armory proper was on the first floor of the central part of the building (where the cadet lounge and offices are now, marked off by the heavy sliding doors), and the second and third floors contained offices , the Trustees' Room, Alumni Hall, and halls for literary societies. During inclement weather, drill was conducted in the right wing,where the concrete portion of the floor now is. But there was no concrete floor then; in 1909, Lieutenant Corbusier reported to President Patterson that"the drill-hall should be floored, as at present it is almost impossible to keep down the dust, which flies all over the building and into the Armory, where the rifles are stored."

In addition to a new building, 1901 saw a radical change in the conduct ofthe corps of cadets and of military training. The Commandant at the time was a Captain Carpenter, who was regarded by the students as an "extremist indiscipline and military duties so exacting as to take away from studies."The students placed a petition before the faculty which called for the resignation of Captain Carpenter and threatened that the cadets would no longer form for drill if their demands were not met. A Lexington reporter who tried togain access to the cadets was pelted with eggs, and the situation was in danger of getting out of hand when the unfortunate Carpenter decided to leave the College.

He was succeeded by two more Commandants, who were also evidently unpopular and also resigned. It was not until late 1902 that an officer who met with the cadets' and faculty's approval applied for the position of Commandant. Major Byroade saw what he was up against and decided to institute new training techniques and activities for the boys. The 1903 Kentuckian reported that under his direction "drill hour has acquired such real charms that it now holds no terrors for the students' hearts." The new Commandant saw to it that the cadets were kept busy with summer encampments at Bowling Green and Ashland, Kentucky, and surely did not suffer in popularity when he took them to the World's Fair at St. Louis in 1904. By this time, the Cadet Corps was large enough to be organized into five companies and the artillery battery.

As the cadets at KSC entered the new century, they tried to modernize theirappearance and weapons to keep up with current military practices. In 1907,Commandant Burtt traded in the old "Trapdoor Springfield" rifles for250 bolt-action Krag Jorgensen rifles. The next year saw a much-needed changein uniforms; instead of the old cadet gray, the students would now wear olivedrab uniforms identical to the Reguar Army's, with the exception htat theircollar insignia would read "KSC." The Commandant, in the same year,began the training f a cavalry troop so the cadets could have all three arms ofthe service represented.

As Europe became embroiled in World War I, the future of some cadets at Kentucky State College was uncertain. The program of military training had never been intended to produce officers, although some graduates had enlisted and secured commissions on their own. Some cadets had joined the Kentucky National Guard while they were in school under a program that would allow them to serve during the summer; in September 1916, some of these students were not allowed to return to school but were kept at Fort Thomas in northern Kentucky for additional training It was obvious to many that the United States would not be able to avoid the war in Europe, and the time was ripe to start producing a trained officer corps in case the country needed great numbers of officers quickly.