By: Joseph D. Elie ‘88
“He is best who is trained in the severest school.” —Thucydides
In the afternoon of 15 May 1864, about 210 cadets of the Virginia Military Institute, under withering artillery and rifle fire, found scant cover behind a split rail fence north of the Bushong farmhouse in New Market, Virginia and assessed their tenuous position in the pivotal moment of this Civil War battle. Following a 4-day 80 mile forced march, the young cadets had advanced from a reserve assembly area to now plug a gap in the center of the Confederate line. Several of their members were already severely wounded by artillery during their precision, elbow-to-elbow movement – as if on dress parade – down the north face of Shirley’s Hill 2,000 yards south of their present teetering situation. Three others were later blown asunder after cresting Manor’s Hill.
To their immediate front now, atop a hill 300 yards distant and constituting the right flank of the Federal line, were the 1st West Virginia and 34th Massachusetts regiments in addition to 5 cannon of the 30th New York. About 35 other cadets, serving the 2 3-inch rifled cannon of the VMI artillery section, were positioned about a half mile to the east, where they were about to help repulse a 1,000 man Federal cavalry charge. Considering the urgency of their predicament and the heavy casualties they were still taking, the cadets decided upon a bayonet frontal assault. Against a barrage of fire of increasing intensity and hindered by poor visibility due to smoke and the pouring rain of a thunderstorm, they clambered over the fence and ascended the muddy ground of the hill, many losing their shoes in the ankle-deep mud. Their courageous example spurred the entire, more experienced, Confederate line forward in similar fashion. The cadets took the hill and captured a cannon after brief close quarters fighting. The Federal army was routed and retreated across the swollen North Fork of the Shenandoah River. The cadets would suffer 10 killed and 47 wounded, a casualty rate of almost 25%. A Pennsylvanian, impressed by the cadets’ elan and mettle during the entire evolution, would years later send two of his sons to the Institute.
The following month, benefiting from the insurmountable manpower and supply advantage that characterized the war, Federal Major General David Hunter led many of the same soldiers who had fought at New Market farther up the Shenandoah Valley and raided Lexington, Virginia. Hunter shelled and burned the Institute; looting and pillaging the post, the campus of Washington College, and burning houses along the way in the town itself. He then moved on to Lynchburg, where he was defeated.
Today, it’s not the Army of the Potomac that seeks to destroy VMI, it’s an entirely different and more insidious enemy—cultural Marxism, espousing the same techniques used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Under the guise of the anti-Western stratagem Critical Race Theory (CRT) and its innocuously-named subversive offshoot, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), various politically-correct adherents were triggered by a strangely coincidental and ironic confluence of events centered around the election in 2017 of VMI alumnus Ralph Northam to the office of governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Northam administration was dogged by the surfacing of a photo in his medical school yearbook of Northam either in blackface or in Klan attire. In a not-so-subtle attempt to deflect the outrage directed at him, Northam betrayed his alma mater, leveling claims of systemic racism and called for a third-party investigation of the Institute. Concurrently, Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira picked up the scent and began his own inquiries into the matter. Right on queue, a few former cadets availed themselves of the opportunity to recount their own experiences. Although the long knives have been out for VMI for quite some time, its critics considering the Institute part of a chivalrous bygone era, it was late to the DEI party and was running under the radar, free.
In order to substantiate these claims, the subsequent investigation, conducted by an out of state consulting firm, Barnes & Thornburg, determined radical changes had to be made at the Institute. CRT presupposes that all white people are racists, so it’s not surprising the investigation by a firm suffused with the precepts of the New York Times’ 1619 Project would declare a finding that was not agreeable to many startled cadets and stalwart alumni, but things were happening fast. To remediate, the Commonwealth ordered the implementation of a DEI program, in practice a racket to enforce meritless outcomes. The VMI Board of Visitors, with newly appointed members more amenable to a slippery slope of changes, called for the prohibition of future New Market memorial parades and ceremonies each anniversary of the battle coupled with the relocation of Confederate Lieutenant General Thomas J “Stonewall” Jackson’s statue. In the aftermath of the investigation and prior to the implementation of the proposed changes, popular and long-tenured Superintendent J.H. Binford Peay, an alumnus, decorated combat veteran of Vietnam, and commander of the 101st Airborne Division in the Gulf War, resigned upon the receipt of a letter from Governor Northam. One can speculate that Peay simply could not bring himself to do to the Institute what the sudden political pressure was requiring of him since it was contrary to his sense of honor. Peay was replaced by Major General Cedric Wins, VMI class of 1985, who has been working with the Board of Visitors to make more accommodations and has added a DEI department, which is moving VMI away from its meritocratic tradition toward quotas. The short-term result has been a matriculation rate down 25%, despite the dropped SAT/ACT requirement and admissions deadline.
The attack on VMI is just one battle in the larger war for the future of Western civilization. No organization is immune. They are even targeting America’s military and service academies, where woke ideology is now deeply entrenched and BLM and ANTIFA must be accepted as apolitical movements; to do otherwise is considered a political statement branded as racist, and numerous military personnel have been terminated as a result. The CCP seeks to defang our military and fill it with their “running dogs” without firing a shot, and we’re obliging them. The more we force our military to conform to these dictums of race vengeance and hereditary guilt, the weaker we become due to the loss of morale and good order and discipline.
Cultural Marxism is the most dangerous threat we face as a society. Contradicting our founding principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the long-term goal is to sow the seeds of division, leading to the overthrow of the American Republic and its replacement with a communist tyrant. The early American Marxists that settled in New York City from Frankfurt quickly realized their European model of exploiting class resentment would not be successful in the United States due to economic mobility and the informal nature of our interclass associations. Instead, they opted to pick at the scab of slavery to divide us by race through decades-long indoctrination into cultural Marxist ideology in the school systems and colleges. DEI essentially fights non-existent racism with racism. Many people are unwitting participants who don’t understand the ramifications. These are the CCP’s “useful idiots” who dismiss CRT and DEI saying that they are being taught everywhere and we just have to get in compliance. Such a statement only underscores the gravity of our plight. These naive accomplices should enlighten themselves, as it’s usually the smuggest virtue signalers among us that require the most edification.
The polarization of identity politics can lead to civil strife and is reminiscent of how cultural and class revolutions in other countries began. Those of us who are educated rather than indoctrinated are familiar with the purges of the past. History is rife with examples. From Lenin to Stalin to Mao to Pol Pot, those tyrants killed millions of their own people to attain and retain power. And it always starts out the same way – restrictions on speech, double standards, changing the meanings of common words in order to control the narrative and more easily identify non-conformists, breakdowns of law and order, violent unrest, and judges afraid to rule according to what is just and fair.
Cultural Marxists tear at the threads of our tapestry of traditional values and common identity. They strike at the heart of society and its underpinnings, using fear, intimidation, and violence to achieve their ends. They propagandize their targets using classic oppressor vs. oppressed dogma. Columbus, Washington, Jefferson, Lee, Jackson, and the New Market cadets are all in their sights. Divorce a culture from its heroes, and the national identity can more easily be reconceived. They unreasonably view the past through today’s lens in order to engage in historical revisionism. Out with the old in with the new. The next thing you know, you’re banning books, assaulting speakers at colleges and other venues, and reporting on your neighbors to the FBI, which is exactly what’s been happening across the country.
Like the victims of Mao’s 1966 Red Cultural Revolution, VMI is enduring its own struggle session and show trial while being forced to renounce and dishonor the memory of the New Market cadets. The argument is you cannot honor those cadets because they fought for slavery. The reality is they found themselves in the tragic maelstrom that was the Civil War and fought for one another in pitched battle, for their hearths and homes against an invading army, and for their native states in what they viewed as the second American revolution. Their exemplary example cannot be relegated to history ’s dustbin simply because they wore the uniform of the losing side. New Market remains the seminal moment in the history of VMI, and that’s precisely the reason it’s being canceled. After a mere 25 years in existence, the battle became VMI’s proof of concept and a perennial touchstone; integral to what the Institute’s mentally and physically grueling regimen seeks to imbue in its graduates to this present day. If Esprit de Corps can be ascribed to a military unit that forged a sterling reputation under fire, then the New Market cadets are inextricably intertwined as the embodiment of the The Spirit of VMI, which will never be extinguished.
Despite its well-known imperfections, the United States is the greatest country in history because it has done more to promote freedom, peace, and prosperity at home and around the world. Most Americans refuse to rob themselves of this heritage and legacy, yet criticizing the notion that America is fundamentally racist today is like touching a societal third rail that results in being cancelled, the figurative modern-day assassination. We are given two false choices – either bend the knee or be canceled. The only viable alternative is to reestablish the ideal of MLK Jr’s colorblind society in which Americans are judged by the content of our character rather than the color of our skin. We do not have a problem of systemic racism at VMI nor in our wider society. We have a problem of a woke mob cowing us on the long march to oblivion. It’s time to throw off the woke yoke.