Cornell’s Rich Military History and the Excelsior Battalion Legacy
Cornell University is incredibly rich with military history; a legacy of military leaders that spans all the way back to its founding in 1865. Cornell has produced some of the finest military officers our nation has ever seen and, at one point, was one of the finest institutions of higher learning that had a military focus.
Cornell’s military legacy began with the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, a piece of federal legislation that was the brainchild of Congressman Justin Smith Morrill. The act gave each state a plot of land that was to be used to create institutions of higher learning, particularly in agricultural and mechanical arts. However, there also existed a clause that required that each land-grant school teach military tactics to all male students. This set the stage for military science classes, and Cornell’s first president, Andrew Dickson White, in conjunction with the school’s founder, Ezra Cornell, had a deeply seeded understanding of the importance of military training for men of higher learning. During the Civil War, A.D. White and Ezra Cornell witnessed first-hand the horrors of battle; particularly what happens when drunken, irresponsible officers send good men to die in battle. A.D. White and Ezra believed that the nation needed educated men who also understood military tactics in order to prevent such thoughtless bloodshed from happening again. They also hoped that it would allow for men of an educated background to have an easier path to leadership in the U.S. Military in the event of another war.
Their aspirations for a generation of well-educated leaders with military knowledge led them to create a requirement for all male students; two years of mandatory military drill and military sciences classes with the ability to optionally continue into more advanced classes and drill during the junior and senior years. This “Corps of Cadets,” with its own military band, would often be seen parading around the arts quad on spring days and it was inspiring to see thousands of uniformly dressed cadets marching with beautiful Cayuga Lake in the background. The Corps of cadets was well disciplined, with a rigorous and regimented day that turned the most rowdy, young farm-boys into fine, educated, young men.
A.D. White and Ezra Cornell got their first validation of the Corps of Cadets and the mandatory military training during the Spanish American War. 165 Cornellians answered the call of duty during the short war and nearly 2/3rd of those men served as commissioned officers. Additionally, Mario Garcia Menocal, a Cornellian from the class of 1888, would serve as a Cuban general for the duration of the war and would later serve as president of the country from 1913-1921. This demonstrated the great value of the military training and leadership that Cornellians received and would only be a foreshadowing of the bright future of the Corps of Cadets.
On the eve of the United States’ entrance into WWI, the New Drill Hall (Renamed Barton Hall in 1940) was completed and allowed for the Corps of Cadets to expand its training. Barton Hall was used as an airplane hangar and the Army School of Aeronautics instructed military aviation. In 1915, Company I was created for cadets who were very advanced in their tactical knowledge. It gave broader and more thorough instruction into military sciences and was unique in the fact that it allowed every member to lead to company at some point during the academic year. This structure was similar to the way today’s ROTC leadership rotations work, and made for an easy transition a year later when Congress created the Reserve Officer Training Corps.
When the United States Officially entered WWI, Cornell was able to make its mark on the world stage. The University was partially turned into a military camp and Army and Navy training schools were established on the campus. Soldiers and sailors replaced many students as many of them went overseas to fight. In fact, Cornell University had nearly 9,000 students and alumni participate in the Great War in service of the US. Out of those 9,000 Cornellians, a total of 4,598 became commissioned officers during the war. This amounted to more commissions that any other program in the US, including the famed US Military Academy at West Point.
Cornell had its fair share of high-profile individuals during the Great War as well. Edward Tinkham (’16) led the first American unit into combat alongside 30 other Cornellians. His unit was part of the allied ambulance corps and set sail for Europe just eight days after the US declared war on the axis powers.
The women of Cornell were able to make their mark during WWI by breaking through the bans on females in the military, with the exception of the volunteer nurse corps. Cornell has the distinction of producing the first three American women to ever hold Army rank. LT Caroline Sanford Finley (’01), LT Anna I. Von Sholly (’02), and LT Mary Lee Crawford were all given commissions in the French Army in 1917. The women were surgeons in the overseas medical hospitals and were recognized for performing excellent surgical work during bombardments.
All told, Cornellians managed to earn 526 awards and decorations during the course of the great war, including four ace pilots and a Medal of Honor, earned by Alan Louis Eggers (’19). Despite serving with great success, a total of 264 Cornellians gave the ultimate sacrifice in the name of world peace. On West Campus stands the WWI memorial that honors all of the Cornellians who were lost during The Great War. It contains two dormitory towers with a connecting cloister with plaques that list the names of each Cornellian lost.
During World War II, Cornell again stepped up to the plate; opening its doors to the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps training camps that came to Cornell. Some of the camps included the Army’s language training program that taught languages such as Russian, German, and Chinese as well as a military psychology program.
Cornellians not only served and sacrificed during the First World War, but they also made a big impact on the Second World War. More than 20,000 Cornellians served the United States throughout the duration of the US’ involvement, more than double the amount that participated in The Great War. LTC Matt Urban (’41) became the Army’s most decorated infantryman in history during his service. His valorous, selfless actions in Europe earned him a medal of honor, two silver stars, three bronze stars, seven purple hearts, and a French Croix de guerre.
Many Cornellians gave their lives during the Second World War. Having lost 500 students and alumni during the course of the hostilities, a memorial was constructed in Anabel Taylor Hall to list all those lost.
Since World War II, Cornellians have served with distinction in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan, and the War in Iraq and many graduates continue to serve in the military today. In June of 1993, another Anabel Taylor Hall memorial was created to honor the 47 Cornellians lost during the Vietnam and Korean conflicts and was rededicated to add names of those who perished during the Persian Gulf and all on-going conflicts.
Cornell remains home to the Army, Navy, and Air Force ROTC programs, and is the only Ivy League school to retain all three services. The Tri-Service brigade boasts nearly 200 cadets and midshipmen today. The University also has a strong veteran student body with nearly 400+ veterans self-reporting in 2014.
Members of Cornell’s tri-service ROTC brigade continue to carry on the great legacy of the old Corps of Cadets by striving to be the best students, leaders, and warriors that we can be. Recognizing the great name we have to live up to, we refuse to let the Cornellians before us down. We remain convicted in our patriotic duties and wish to serve this great nation with distinction as those before us have done.