Remarks for the Dedication of Crozet Plaza, Nov. 11, 2011
An officer of the Grand Armee of Napoleon rests here with us.
The French Revolution was six months old when
Claudius Crozet was born in the south east of France on 2 January 1790. At age
15 he gained entrance into the famed Ecole Polytechnique
from which he graduated in July, 1807. His standing in the middle of his class
destined him to become an artillery officer. Two more years of study and he received
his commission as a 2nd LT in the Grand Armee and was assigned to Napoleon’s headquarters. The young
engineer spent the next four years in the capacity of a combat engineer,
building bridges and road ways across Europe.
With a promotion to Captain, Crozet and the Grand Armee began its invasion of Russia
on 23 July 1812. He was captured at the Battle of Borodino. Legend suggests
that Crozet spent the next two years in captivity at the manor house of a
Russia nobleman, where he taught the captor’s children French and hunted
wolves. In the spring of 1814 he was released and returned to Paris. The
following year Napoleon’s forces were defeated at the Battle of Waterloo.
Crozet began to think of America.
Now that he was out of the army, the 26-year old
married Agathe Decamp on 7 June 1816; two months later they were en route to
New York City. A fellow passenger, the great French engineer Simon Bernard, may
have arranged for Crozet to be hired by the US Military Academy upon his arrival
in the new world. 1816 was a pivotal year in the life of Claudius Crozet; in a
few short months, he left the army, married, immigrated to America and was
appointed Professor of Engineering at West Point. That same year, the Commonwealth of Virginia
opened an arsenal in the hamlet of Lexington for the storage for militia arms.
Crozet remained at West Point for 7 years during
which time he observed—and participated in -- the often volatile development of
the young military academy as Joseph Swift, Alden Partidge and Sylvanus Thayer each
struggled to impose their own educational philosophy. This experience proved to
be a great education for what lay ahead in Crozet’s life.
In 1823 Crozet eagerly accepted the request of the
Commonwealth of Virginia to become the State Engineer under the Board of Public
Works. This was the era of great internal improvement projects around the
nation. Virginia realized that to stay economically viable, she too must
develop transportation systems and natural resources. Regrettably, the unruly
manner by which this was to happen had little to do with transportation or
engineering, and much to do with politics. The General Assembly proposed civil
engineering projects around the state from which the Board of Public Works
would create a list for the State Engineer to execute. The State Engineer did
not actually oversee the construction of projects—he was simply to lay out the
course of a proposed roadway or canal. Private companies with state funding were
to execute the projects— often with disregard for the State Engineer’s well
thought out plans. The frustrations inherent in the position lead Crozet to
resign his post in 1832 to become the State Engineer of Louisiana. His hoped
that the position in Louisiana would be less political– it was not.
Crozet returned to his adopted state of Virginia in
1837 when he was once again asked to resume his post as State Engineer. By now
many of the old issues of canal versus turnpike versus railroad had been
On 30 May 1837 the Governor of Virginia David
Campbell appointed Claudius Crozet and three others as the first Board of
Visitors of a “military school to be established in Lexington.” It was left to
the group to appoint a president from the membership. The other three members
were all generals officers in the state militia. Assuming that the president
would be doing all the work, the GENERALS unanimously elected the COLONEL to
the post. It proved to be the perfect choice. Crozet tirelessly threw himself
into the work. He proposed that the state military school be framed on the
model of West Point, but with several distinct differences. While West Point pursued a focused mission of
educating career officers, the Virginia school would educate Citizen Soldiers.
Later that year Crozet toured the State arsenal in Lexington
for the very first time. The road leading up to the building followed the very
path where we now gather. It was apparent to the engineer that buildings
designed for housing firearms would not serve to house a college. Over the next two years Crozet attended to
the smallest detail in preparing for a yet to be determined opening date of this
new experiment in higher education. One
of the most important details was hiring the first principle professor—the Superintendent,
as he would be called. Only two men were seriously considered: Joseph A.
Anderson and Francis H. Smith, both graduates of West Point. On the day Crozet
had the board debate the merits of the two candidates, most of the discussion
centered on the merits of MRS Smith and MRS Anderson! Finally Crozet
stood up and called for a vote on which of the two charming ladies
should be elected Superintendent!
Committed to the virtues a disciplined lifestyle,
COL Crozet personally wrote the 244 regulations governing the daily routine of
the Cadet Corps—today every cadet recognizes this volume as the Blue Book. It
was clear that the President of the Board drew heavily upon his own cadetship
at Ecole Polytechnique and his seven
years at West Point to fashion a new model for higher education in a military
11 November, 1839.
At last the day arrived when the arsenal was ready to assume its
expanded role as the nation’s first state sponsored military college. The name
Virginia Military Institute had been suggested by co-founder John Preston, but
the initials by which the school would become universally known—VMI-- was first
penned by Claudius Crozet when he submitted his first report to the Governor on
Crozet would continue to serve a President of the
Board until 1845, but in a very real way, his greatest work had been done. The
vision of this officer of Napoleon would be executed by his lieutenants. Once
the Institute was a reality, others, such as Francis Smith and John Preston,
ably guided the young school. Crozet found himself increasingly more occupied
with his responsibilities as State Engineer.
His most important engineering accomplishments lay
before him: the completion of a new map of the Commonwealth in 1848 and the
construction of a railroad across the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1850. Traversing
the mountain range required four tunnels,
including the 4,263-foot Blue Ridge Tunnel near the top of the pass at Afton
Mountain. Construction proceed from each side, digging though granite and shale
with only hand drills and black powder.
When the two ends came together on Christmas Day 1856, the bores were a
remarkable 6 inches off perfect alignment! Heralded as one of the great engineering feats
of its day, Crozet had built the longest tunnel in America.
The outbreak of Civil War in 1861 threatened much of
the world Crozet had helped build. For the first time in his long and
productive life, he was only an observer of the events around him. Claudius
Crozet died at the home of his daughter, just west of Richmond, on 29 January
1864. He was buried beside his wife in
Richmond in a cast iron casket. The casket was a new item of technology in the
1860s—it must have appealed to the Engineer.
When the Institute, which owed so much to the vision
of this Napoleonic soldier neared its 100th anniversary in 1939, the
Board of Visitors resolved to bring the body of Crozet to VMI. Just a few years
earlier, in 1935, the Institute had named the mess hall in tribute to the
French engineer. The original plan was to bury Crozet at the entrance to this
The emergencies of World War II, however, precluded
moving Crozet to Lexington until 1942. Under war-time conditions, only a simple
grave was prepared in front of Preston Library. It would take another 6 years before that spot
was marked by a simple tripartite granite stone. The cadet newspaper reported
that a bronze medallion was to be placed on the stone at some later date but
soon that detail was forgotten.
In 2006 a construction project required the remains
of Crozet to be moved once again. I called the noted forensic anthropologist Dr.
Doug Owsley, at the Smithsonian Institution who I knew was conducting a survey
of 19th century cast iron caskets. Dr. Owsley was very interested in
examining both Crozet and the casket. He assembled a team of internationally
recognized experts to perform a complete forensic examination of our first
president. The study that followed revealed that this war veteran and engineer,
who spent much of his life in the field, never suffered a broken bone. His
sturdy skeleton was remarkably free from arthritis. The remains of Col Crozet
were returned to the casket, placed on a VMI monogrammed blanket, and interred
in a vault across from Crozet Hall. We
could now create the monument our visionary founder deserved.
Crozet Plaza is in the same parabolic shape as the
entrance portal to his great work, the Blue Ridge Tunnel. His grave and marker align
with the entrance to the building which bears his name. And, at last, through the
generosity of Dr. Battle Haslam, Class of 1961, the bronze medallion likeness
of Crozet now adorns his stone.
When Crozet stepped down from the VMI Board in 1845,
Superintendent Smith wrote to his mentor “I hope you will permit me to add that
nothing has transpired since the establishment of the Institute, which its friends have more
cause to lament, than your separation from it….Although the state of your
adoption has not rendered you the credit to which your eminent services have
entitled you, the time will come when
your services in the organization and control of this favored institution of
the state will be more generally known and appreciated.”
That, in a small way, is what we gather here to do this
It has been estimated that a cadet will pass this place
over 7,600 times during a cadetship.
Perhaps on one or two of those 7,600 occasions the cadet will pause at
this spot and reflect on the amazing circumstances that resulted in an officer
of the Grand Armee of Napoleon to rest
here with us.