At the start of the Civil War, the Union found that it did not have nearly enough trained officers to lead the Army. The 20,000 officers initially required overwhelmed the supply of 1,500 West Point and Norwich graduates available for services. By necessity, the leadership in most regiments passed to military novices. The officer crises impelled the U.S. Congress to make some provision for the education of citizen-soldier military leaders.
Representative Justin S. Morrill of Vermont, a friend and neighbor of Alden Partridge, introduced legislation that came to be known as the Land-Grant College Bill in December 1861. The proposed act gave every state 30,000 acres of public land for each of its member in Congress. Funds generated from the sale of the land were to be used in establishing and sustaining at least one agricultural and industrial college in each state. The bill stipulated that military tactics had to be included in the curriculum of these institutions. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act on July 2, 1862, the day after General George McClellan's disheartening defeat in the Seven Days Battles (June 25 to July 1).
Soon after the passage of the Morrill Act, Land-Grant colleges began to be endowed and military instruction became part of many college curricula. Professors with Civil War military experience headed up most collegiate military programs. They did this, however, as a sideline because they still had to perform their full-time duties in other fields. The training offered in those early years often left much to be desired. In most cases it consisted exclusively of drill of the most rudimentary kind. Perhaps this was all that could be expected from a program that had no defined objective, no authorized provision for uniforms or equipment, no syllabus, and no prescribed outline of courses. Even had the training been better, the Union's officer procurement woes would have been solved since Morrill's bill came much too late to have exercised a significant impact o the courts of the war.
In the post-Civil War era, Congress enacted a number of measures designed to improve collegiate military training and encourage its growth. In 1866, it authorized the president to detail 20 officers to teach military science at Land-Grant institutions; in 1870, small arms and equipment were authorized to be issued; in 1880, retired officers were granted permission to teach; in 1888, War Department assistance was made available to schools outside the land-grant community, to include high schools; and in 1893, legislation raised officer authorizations for detached college duty by 100. By the turn of the century, some 42 institutions, including both state and private colleges, had established departments of military instruction. It was among the Land-Grant institutions, however, that the tradition of military training took firmest root and concept of citizen-soldier officer education became the most firmly embedded. At most Land-Grant school, one year of military training had been made compulsory by 1900.
Despite various steps taken to improve instruction, the contributions of collegiate military training programs to the national defense were limited. No uniform training standards guided instruction nor was the federal government given supervisory authority to regulate the collegiate programs. Officers were allowed to conduct raining according to their personal views and desires. The result was that no two institutions were alike in their courses of military instruction.
According to a board of officers convened in 1911 to consider collegiate military programs, the majority of officers assigned to campus duty lost sight of their principle purpose - to produce volunteer officers - and concentrated on developing "fine drill corps." The board lamented the fact that both institutions and instructors were "judged by parade ground results." The latitude accorded to officer-instructors in developing their own courses of instruction, board members concluded, was largely responsible for this unfortunate state of affairs.
The officer assignment policies of the War Department also limited the effectiveness of on-campus military training programs. The department's stinginess in personnel matters presented a particular problem. In some of the larger Land-Grant schools, the Army detailed one Regular Army officer to manage a corps of several thousand cadets. University administrators complained about the quality as will as the quantity of the officers assigned to their institutions. Many received inexperienced second lieutenants when they expected seasoned colonels. Others got officers who were not physically qualified. In 1911, a War Department inspector deemed the retired major serving at North Dakota Agricultural College in Fargo as unfit for his position because of old age - he was to turn 80 on his next birthday. Cadre motivation was another serious issue. The Army simply did not attach much importance to instructor duty and officers knew it. One university president urged that time spent as collegiate military instructor "should count as time spent with the troops in considering his service and promotion." Otherwise, he warned, the "discrimination" against such work would continue to discourage officers from accepting such assignments.
The Army's lukewarm support of collegiate military training was due in part to personnel and budgetary constraints. Personnel and money were in short supply during most of the period in question. Senior Army leaders were reluctant to detail officers to colleges and universities because, in the words of one department commander, such detached duty "depletes the line and deprives the troops of the services of these excellent officers when they are most needed." The pre-World War I army devoted more words than resources to leader development.
The indifferent attitude of university authorities toward military training also dampened the War Department's enthusiasm for the program. This indifference, one general staff study noted, was displayed by the "wholesale excusing" of students from military instruction. Farm chores, athletic commitments, conflicting civilian job schedules and a host of other activities too numerous to recount got students excused from drill. The failure of college administrators to allot proper time and opportunity for the work of the military department was another sign of this indifference, or s it seemed. A student at the Army War College complained that "college authorities usually designated the last hour of the school day for military work -- time when the ordinary student had no enthusiasm to work or play." The reluctance or refusal of most college administrations to provide adequate facilities and resources for their military departments only confirmed their apathy toward military training in the minds of many military officers.
Student motivation for military training suffered because there were few opportunities available for commissioned service either in the Regular Army or in the state militias. It is true that around the turn of the century the War Department started granting Regular Army commissions annually to one outstanding student from each of the ten most highly rated Land-Grant and military colleges - called "Distinguished Institutions." George C. Marshall received his commission in 1902 upon graduation from VMI as a result of this policy. Yet only a relative handful of students could get commissions in this way.
It seemed odd to some regular officers that state militias (with two exceptions) did not take advantage of Land-Grant institutions to fill their officer ranks. The fact was, however, that most state organizations wanted no part of these colleges or their alumni. One state Adjutant General openly declared that the graduate of a collegiate military training program was not "the material desired for the militia of his state." One college president explained, "The ordinary college graduate usually had difficulty in securing the approval of his untrained and uneducated peers (in the militia). They naturally look upon his as a college fellow who is trying to show off what he has learned in college."
There were some units that achieved a relatively high state of morale and effectiveness. The unit at the University of Nebraska was one of these. During the Spanish-American War, its corps organized itself into the First Nebraska Infantry, which fought with distinction in the Philippines. Yet, despite occasional bright spots, collegiate military training in the half century after the Civil War was under-funded, fragmented, and above all, nonstandard. The training it provided to students was, in the words of one authority, "spotty and varied in time and intensity form one institution to another." It was primarily this lack of uniformity that made the Army question the value of the program and the wisdom of dedicating money and resources to its operation.