Wednesday, August 31, 2016

System of Military Academies - Alden Partridge

Captain Alden Partridge probably did more than any other individual to promote military education in civilian institutions in the United States prior to the Civil War.

Alden Partridge was born on February 12, 1785 and raised on a family farm in Norwich, Vermont. He was the studious and devout son of Revolutionary War soldier Samuel Partridge, Jr. Alden grew into a tall and hardy young man who worked on his father's farm and hiked the Green and White Mountains in his spare time. Alden attended the local district schools and entered Dartmouth College in 1802.

US Military Academy

Alden Partridge in 1817
Partridge left Dartmouth when he gained admission to the US Military Academy on December 14, 1805. He graduated less than a year later on October 30, 1806. In its early days, the post was both the academy for training prospective officers and the headquarters of the United States Army Corps of Engineers. The Academy superintendent was the Army Chief of Engineers. The Army commissioned him as a first lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers and assigned him to the Academy. Partridge served at West Point from 1806 to 1811 and from 1812 to 1817. He was an assistant professor of mathematics from 1806 until June 5, 1811 when he left to fight in the War of 1812. The Army promoted him to captain of the Corps of Cadets on July 23, 1810. He returned to West Point after active service and taught as the principal assistant professor of mathematics from April 29, 1812 to April 13, 1813. The Army promoted Partridge to professor of mathematics on April 13, 1813, and he held this post until made professor of engineering on September 1, 1813. He was professor of engineering from September 1, 1813 to December 31, 1816. From January 3, 1815 to November 25, 1816 and from January 13, 1817 to July 28, 1817, Partridge directed the Academy during the Superintendent's absence.

Partridge set an example for physical fitness during his administration and often led the cadet corps on summer marches in New York and neighboring states. Captain Partridge was never profane or intemperate. As superintendent, he required cadets to attend church services, and occasionally he prepared and delivered the sermon on Sundays. Unfortunately, he developed a reputation among academy faculty as a martinet. He micromanaged subordinates and occasionally demonstrated preference toward favorite cadets.

The "Long Gray Line" tradition at West Point originated during Partridge's tenure when he had gray uniforms made in New York City in 1814 because of a shortage of blue cloth. In 1816, when the War Department decided to select a new Cadet uniform, the department chose gray because the cheaper uniforms better suited "the finance of the Cadets than one of blue."

Unfortunately, his administration as superintendent was lax and unsatisfactory. To correct this problem, the Army selected Major Sylvanus Thayer to become the new Superintendent. Captain Partridge was shocked at his removal and refused to relinquish the command. In response, the Army tried him by court martial on charges of neglect of duty and insubordination. In November 1817, the court martial sentenced him to be cashiered. President James Monroe intervened and reduced the punishment. Captain Partridge resigned from the Army in April 1818.

In the summer of 1818, New York City hired Partridge to drill and instruct a volunteer infantry company. During this assignment, he presented a series of lectures on military science, fortifications, and military education. Partridge advocated a new program of regional military instruction and began a lifelong campaign to champion regional military schools in opposition to the sole national military academy. Partridge argued that the national academies produced a professional officer class. This created a "new military elite," which conflicted with the country's great generals, such as George Washington and Andrew Jackson. Partridge proposed dividing the nation into state-based military departments. These departments would be composed of local citizen soldiers organized into militias with officers appointed by the state military officials. The state units would gather on a regular basis for instruction and drill, similar to the Minutemen of the American Revolution. He also suggested establishing military colleges for officer instruction in each department.

In 1819, Partridge served as chief of the surveying expedition to establish boundaries between the United States and Canada as required under the Fifth Article of the Treaty of Ghent. He mapped the natural watersheds of the Saint Lawrence River and Hudson River. However, he remained interested in his plans for a military college. He resigned from the expedition in 1820 and retired to Norwich, Vermont.

Norwich University

Alden Partridge
with Cadets
In 1819, Partridge founded the "American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy" in Norwich. The Academy, now known as Norwich University, became the nation's oldest private military college and the "Birthplace of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC)". In its first four years, 480 students representing 21 of the 24 states attended the new academy. The success of Partridge's program attracted the attention of Middletown, Connecticut. Middletown obtained a financial subscription of local residents as an inducement to relocate his academy. Partridge moved the school to Middletown, and the academy attracted nearly 1,200 students in three years. However, the school's stay in Connecticut was brief and it had relocated to Norwich by 1829.

The Partridge Curriculum

Partridge's program incorporated the study of liberal arts, agriculture, modern languages, and engineering in addition to the sciences and various military subjects. Field exercises and drills, using cannon and muskets borrowed from the federal and state governments, supplemented classroom instruction. The drills added an element of realism to the college’s program of well-rounded military education.

Partridge advocated physical education as an essential part of school curriculum. As part of that program, he often led his classes on hiking expeditions in the many local mountains of New England. On climb of Vermont's Green Mountains in 1822, Partridge led 27 pack-laden cadets on a four-day, 150-mile hike from Norwich to Manchester.

Partridge believed that "a large standing army was a menace to the country." In its place, he thought the nation should train a large 'citizen soldiery' in the art of war." This was the first purely technical and military school for the training of citizen soldiers in the world. The Academy had an initial enrollment of one hundred cadets. The school developed a reputation for having an excellent academic program as part of a tough, disciplined military environment. Partridge "was one of the few military engineers who by virtue of his remarkable mathematical ability, long service at West Point, and practical field work was competent to train engineers and in laying a foundation for engineering work of his students he gave a course in mathematics equal, if not superior, to that offered by any other institution in America." It was thought by some that Partridge's views on military defense were years ahead of his time.

Partridge originated a novel system of education, which combined civilian and military studies in order to produce enlightened and useful citizen-soldiers. He advocated a liberal education, which prepares students for the responsibilities of peace and war. Partridge thought that education must prepare youth “to discharge, in the best possible manner, the duties they owe to themselves, to their fellow-men, and to their country.”
The US Constitution guided Partridge's educational plan. The defense of the nation is vested in the great mass of citizens who form “an impregnable bunker around the Constitution and liberties of the country.” At the very least, the militia needed to be trained in the elements of military science and tactics. "Hence arises the necessity - of an extended system of military education and of a general diffusion of military knowledge." Partridge was emphatic in pointing out that he was not recommending a system of education for youth that was “purely military.” The military was to be only an "appendage" to civil education.

Partridge believed traditional “liberal education” was too restrictive and not liberal enough. He thought the standard curriculum was not practical enough nor designed to prepare youth for the duties of an American citizen. He said the existing educational system failed to provide adequate attention to the operations of government and the important sources of national wealth - ”agriculture, commerce, and manufacturers.”
Partridge sought to transform the traditional curriculum by making it more practical, scientific, and liberal. He expanded the classical curriculum to include modern languages, history, political economy, and engineering. Partridge’s institution was the first in the United States to offer instruction in civil engineering. Partridge also played a pioneering role in physical education and was one of the first educators to offer instruction in agriculture. He was also in the vanguard of academicians who adopted field training as a regular and important extension of theory learned in the classroom.

Partridge was a pioneer in using field trips as an integral part of the process of education. Field excursions provided excellent opportunities to combine exercise, recreation, and improvement. Arduous hikes, according to Partridge’s design for education, were physically challenging and promoted self-reliance. Students involved in excursions became accustomed to “fatigue and privation.” Furthermore, they learned “to take care of themselves,” a process Partridge considered essential to the proper development and education of youth.

These excursions supplemented classroom instruction with "practical and everyday knowledge of the world, which can never be derived from books." Field Trips provided valuable educational experiences in areas such as botany, mineralogy, surveying, engineering, military science, and history. Students visited and examined factories, navy yards, arsenals, railroads, bridges, canals, and historic sites. Partridge concluded that his students derived "more real advantage" and improvement from excursions than from any other activities.

Other Colleges

Historians consider Partridge to be the founder of the system of military academies of elementary and secondary grade. He founded six other military institutions during his quest to reform the United States military:

  • Virginia Literary, Scientific and Military Academy at Portsmouth, Virginia (1839–1846)
  • Pennsylvania Literary, Scientific and Military Academy at Bristol, Pennsylvania (1842–1845)
  • Pennsylvania Military Institute at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (1845–1848)
  • Wilmington Literary, Scientific and Military Academy at Wilmington, Delaware (1846–1848)
  • The Scientific and Military Collegiate Institute at Reading, Pennsylvania (1850–1854)
  • Gymnasium and Military Institute at Pembroke, New Hampshire (1850–1853)
  • The National Scientific and Military Academy at Brandywine Springs, Delaware (1853).

Former Norwich graduates administered these schools.

In the 1830s, he helped create support for creating the Virginia Military Institute. Partridge sent letters to members of the Virginia General Assembly and editors of Virginia newspapers.

As part of his vision to create military departments, Partridge worked to revitalize and reform state militias. The militias became inactive during the long period of peace following the War of 1812. Partridge and Norwich University faculty members who served in the militia, assisted Franklin Pierce, a militia officer in New Hampshire, and and Frederic Williams Hopkins of the Vermont militia to increase recruiting and improve training and readiness.

Personal Life

Partridge married Ann Swasey in 1837, and the couple had two sons. He was an avid hiker and "noted pedestrian." He climbed Mount Monadnock and Mount Moosilauke in New Hampshire. In 1818, he walked seventy-six miles from Norwich and climbed Camel's Hump and Mount Mansfield. It rained the entire journey. One friend joined him in his ascent of Mansfield, but he hiked the rest of the expedition accompanied only by his "inseparable companions," his knapsack and barometer.

Partridge served as Vermont's Surveyor General from 1822 to 1823. Vermont voters elected him to the legislature as a Democrat in 1833, 1834, 1837, and 1839. He ran unsuccessfully for the United States House of Representatives five times between 1834 and 1840. He lost each of those contests to Anti-Masonic and Whig Party candidate Horace Everett.

Partridge died in Norwich on January 17, 1854. His family buried him at Fairview Cemetery in Norwich. His widow survived him by forty-eight years.

He received an honorary master's degree from Dartmouth in 1812. The University of Vermont awarded him an honorary master's degree in 1821. However, he declined the University's offer to become its president.


Partridge published articles in newspapers and books about his many travels, mathematical and scientific subjects, and his opposition to the US Military Academy at West Point. The following is a partial list of his writings.
  • "Observations Relative to the Calculation of the Altitude of Mountains, etc, by the Use of the Barometer" (1812)
  • "Method of Determining the Initial Velocity of Projectiles" (1812)
  • "Account of Some Experiments on Fire of Artillery and Infantry at the Military Academy in 1810 and 1814"
  • "Newton's Binomial Theorem" (1814)
  • "Meteorological Tables" (1810–1814)
  • "A General Plan for the Establishment of Military Academies" (1815)
  • "Reports of the National Academy" (1814–1817)
  • "Lectures on National Defense" (1821–1827)
  • "Discourse on education" 1826. The art of epistolary composition, or Models of letters, billets, bills of exchange ... with preliminary instructions and notes : to which are added, a collection of fables ... for pupils learning the French language; a series of letters between a cadet and his father, describing the system pursued at the American, literary, scientific and military academy at Middletown, Connecticut.
  • "The Military Academy, at West Point, unmasked: or, corruption and military despotism exposed," under the pseudonym Americanus

  1. Cullum Register, Vol. I, 69-70.

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