History of Army ROTC



Military training at the University of Kentucky has a long, rich tradition dating back to the very founding of the institution. As one of the original eleven schools at what was then called the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Kentucky, military science and tactics have been taught on campus uninterrupted since 1865.

Early Years: 1865-1916

The origins of ROTC at the University of Kentucky lie in the foundation of the University itself. In 1862, during the Civil War, Congress passed the Morrill Act, which provided for public lands in each state to be set aside for the endowment, support and maintenance of at least one college to teach agriculture and mechanic arts and other scientific and classical studies. After the war was over in 1865, John Bowman (a trustee of Bacon College in Harrodsburg) founded the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Kentucky as the first land grant school under the Morrill Act. Although the A. and M. College was at first a part of Kentucky University (now Transylvania University), it was the beginning of what would become the University of Kentucky. One of the provisions of the Morrill Act was that military training would be required for all students, so every student at the A. and M. College automatically became a cadet. These students were, of course, not cadets under the ROTC program, and the military training at the land grant schools was not intended to produce officers. The School of Military Tactics was one of the original eleven schools at the A. and M. College; William E. Arnold was the first Commandant.

For the site of the A. and M. College, President Bowman purchased Ashland, the former home of Henry Clay. He also acquired Woodlands, an adjoining tract of land. The first armory was in the Tilford residence at Woodlands and a small open field nearby was used as a drill field. In 1878, the A. and M. College became independent of Kentucky University, and came to be unofficially called "Kentucky State College." Perhaps the only artifact of the Kentucky State College days which survives at the University of Kentucky today is the decorative KSC lamp hanger on the front of present-day Buell Armory.

The cadets at KSC were evidently popular with the local Lexington townspeople in the early days. An edition of the Kentucky Statesman in 1867 described an elaborate ceremony in which the ladies of Fayette County presented a flag to the cadets. They were probably also popular with at least one local merchant, as the uniform regulations which prescribed the natty cadet gray uniforms with black piping stated that the boys were required to buy their own, and that they were available downtown for $19.75, complete with caps.

A variety of officers served as Commandant of Cadets during the last quarter of the 19th Century. Most of these gentlemen were graduates of West Point who had been unable to secure a post of active duty, or older lieutenants and captains who had retired. Many of these officers seem to have taken their duties quite seriously and tried to improve the cadet corps. The cadets originally formed an infantry battalion armed with 1873 trapdoor Springfield rifles, but to supplement these in 1885 Commandant (Lieutenant) Phelps secured from Rock Island Arsenal two three-inch Ordnance rifled cannons of Civil War vintage, complete with limbers and 200 cartridges. The cadets quickly formed an artillery battery, and cannon firing became a highlight of the frequent sham battles that were part of the exercises.

The life of a cadet in the early days seems harsh to students today. In 1869, the college got a new president in the person of James K. Patterson. For forty-one years, President Patterson would guide the growth of the budding college and was largely responsible for its continued existence in troubled times, but he would be remembered by the students as a taskmaster who brooked no disobedience or breaches of discipline. The students rose at 5:30 a.m. and attended classes all morning. Military drill took place in the afternoons. An 1880's issue of the Kentuckian claimed that:

"The hardest work I ever done
Was drilling on this ground.
The easiest work I ever done
Was stealing out to town."

A few examples from President Patterson's rules for students will serve to illustrate his ideas of discipline:

75. All deliberations of discussions among students having the object of conveying praise or censure, or any mark of approbation or disapprobation toward College authorities, are strictly forbidden.

123. No student shall be absent from his room between taps and reveille without permission from the Commandant.

129. Student quarters any newspapers or other periodical publications without special permission from the President. They are also forbidden to keep in their rooms any books except textbooks, without special permission from the President.

In that day as in this, the students did not always obey the rules. Cadets not infrequently "stole out to town," and in some instances raised enough havoc to require police intervention. A popular pastime during the Patterson administration was firing the cannons of the cadet battery at night or setting off fireworks. A December 1894 edition of the Lexington Daily Press reported "Young Nihilists at the State College Explode a Bomb Under the Window of Col. Swigert's Quarters on Saturday Night and Follow This Up With Another Active Bomb On Sunday Night. Matters Pretty Lively." In reality, it was just the "Midnight Artillery" celebrating a football victory.

The cadets even managed to have some legitimate fun. By 1889, there were 330 students at Kentucky State College, of whom 160 were in the Military Department (seniors at this time were exempt from drill and training). In 1900, the "KSC boys" formed an honor guard at a Confederate veterans' reunion in Louisville, took part in a reenactment of the battle of Perryville at Churchill Downs, and participated in their first annual summer training encampment, which was held at Chattanooga. The encampment was designed for training in the form of sham battles, but, from the report in the 1901 Kentuckian, a lot of attention was also paid to striking up relationships with the local Tennessee belles.

At the turn of the century, the cadets got a new home. In 1882, the A. and M. College had moved to the present location of the University of Kentucky, and the main part of Buell Armory was finished in 1901. The Armory was officially named for General Don Carlos Buell, commander of the Union forces at Perryville and a member of the A. and M. College board of trustees, but the building was more popularly called the Gymnasium because it housed the college's exercise center (where the Women's Gym is now.) The Armory proper was on the first floor of the central part of the building (where the cadet lounge and offices are now, marked off by the heavy sliding doors), and the second and third floors contained offices , the Trustees' Room, Alumni Hall, and halls for literary societies. During inclement weather, drill was conducted in the right wing, where the concrete portion of the floor now is. But there was no concrete floor then; in 1909, Lieutenant Corbusier reported to President Patterson that "the drill-hall should be floored, as at present it is almost impossible to keep down the dust, which flies all over the building and into the Armory, where the rifles are stored."

In addition to a new building, 1901 saw a radical change in the conduct of the corps of cadets and of military training. The Commandant at the time was a Captain Carpenter, who was regarded by the students as an "extremist in discipline and military duties so exacting as to take away from studies." The students placed a petition before the faculty which called for the resignation of Captain Carpenter and threatened that the cadets would no longer form for drill if their demands were not met. A Lexington reporter who tried to gain access to the cadets was pelted with eggs, and the situation was in danger of getting out of hand when the unfortunate Carpenter decided to leave the College.

He was succeeded by two more Commandants, who were also evidently unpopular and also resigned. It was not until late 1902 that an officer who met with the cadets' and faculty's approval applied for the position of Commandant. Major Byroade saw what he was up against and decided to institute new training techniques and activities for the boys. The 1903 Kentuckian reported that under his direction "drill hour has acquired such real charms that it now holds no terrors for the students' hearts." The new Commandant saw to it that the cadets were kept busy with summer encampments at Bowling Green and Ashland, Kentucky, and surely did not suffer in popularity when he took them to the World's Fair at St. Louis in 1904. By this time, the Cadet Corps was large enough to be organized into five companies and the artillery battery.

As the cadets at KSC entered the new century, they tried to modernize their appearance and weapons to keep up with current military practices. In 1907, Commandant Burtt traded in the old "Trapdoor Springfield" rifles for 250 bolt-action Krag Jorgensen rifles. The next year saw a much-needed change in uniforms; instead of the old cadet gray, the students would now wear olive drab uniforms identical to the Reguar Army's, with the exception the collar insignia would read "KSC." The Commandant, in the same year, began the training of a cavalry troop so the cadets could have all three arms of the service represented.

As Europe became embroiled in World War I, the future of some cadets at Kentucky State College was uncertain. The program of military training had never been intended to produce officers, although some graduates had enlisted and secured commissions on their own. Some cadets had joined the Kentucky National Guard while they were in school under a program that would allow them to serve during the summer; in September 1916, some of these students were not allowed to return to school but were kept at Fort Thomas in northern Kentucky for additional training. It was obvious to many that the United States would not be able to avoid the war in Europe, and the time was ripe to start producing a trained officer corps in case the country needed great numbers of officers quickly.

Growth of ROTC: 1917-1940

In 1916, Congress passed the National Defense Act which provided for, among other things, a Reserve Officers' Training Corps at colleges and universities to provide the military with a  ready pool of trained, college-educated officers who could be called to active duty in time of war.  The University of Kentucky (no longer called Kentucky State College) was not slow to follow the provisions of the act.  On March 22,1917, ROTC was established at the University.  The program was designed as a four-year program of military instruction.  The first two years of the program were to be mandatory for all male students (as at all land grant colleges), while the final two years were to be voluntary at the application of the student.  Those cadets who were accepted for the final two years' course of study were to receive pay of thirty cents a day and were commissioned in the Reserves upon graduation.  Evidently there were some problems with the pay for these early ROTC cadets, as the 1919 Kentuckian said that the biggest joke of the season was "the forty cents received by the members of the ROTC."

Some former cadets from Kentucky did not wait for commissioning or for the United States to enter the war before they left for overseas.  Former student Alexander McClintock received the Distinguished Conduct Medal in France and Merritt Powell served in the Canadian Overseas Force.

The grave necessity to quickly train soldiers and officers as the United States entered the war in November 1917 produced some military programs on colleges that overshadowed ROTC.  In January 1918, a new military signals course was instituted at the University of Kentucky.  This course was primarily for students who knew they would be drafted, when they finished school, to study communications and signaling and be placed in the Signal Corps instead of the Infantry.  Entry into the program did not guarantee a commission, but those cadets in ROTC who took the signals course would become Signal Corps lieutenants.  In July 1918, a series of training camps began which would provide military training for the majority of male students.  The "Student Army Training Corps" had all men at the University enlist in the Reserves, whether they were in ROTC or not.  There were three separate SATC camps and the University built barracks for them, but the SATC demobilized with the end of the war in November 1918. 

ROTC training continued during the war.  In the summer of 1918, ROTC held its first six-week summer camp on a farm in Woodford County.  All juniors and seniors were to attend, and the camp was also open to sophomores who intended to join the last two years of the program.

World War I left its mark not only on the Kentucky soldiers who served, but also on those cadets who did not graduate before it was over.  A page in the 1919 Kentuckian listed some new meanings for military terms:  "over the top" was passing exams, and "gas attack" was attending a lecture!

The ROTC program received new interest after World War I.  A directive of 1919 stated that all graduates of the program were to be commissioned and all would serve on active duty for a period of six months.  This probably corresponded to the training they received that we call the Officers' Basic Course today.  Instead of retired officers, the Department of the Army now detailed officers from active duty to serve as ROTC cadre.  These officers were interested in improving the program.  Enrollment greatly increased in the early 1920s, and the Commandant could be very selective in whom he allowed to enter the Advanced Course and be commissioned.  In 1926, the University of Kentucky ROTC Department received a Distinguished Service rating in annual inspection, which placed it in the top 30 percent of all programs across the nation.

In the 1920s and 30s, the Kentucky program also started some extracurricular activities for cadets.  In 1924, Company D of the 4th Regiment of Scabbard and Blade was founded at the University.  Membership in this national honorary society was a prestigious award for a cadet.  Since women could not join ROTC, some girls who were interested in the program formed the "Sponsor Corps" in the spirit of fraternity little sisters.  The ROTC sponsors served as hostesses at military balls.

Two of the most successful ROTC groups of the time were the rifle marksmanship team and the Pershing Rifles.  The rifle team attended many matches, and in 1930, won the treasured William Randolph Hearst Cup as the victors in the southern region match.  Company C of the 1st Regiment, National Society of Pershing Rifles, was chartered at the University of Kentucky in 1931 as an organization for basic course cadets to foster excellence in military bearing and drill.  The P/R company won its first drill meet and went on to win prestigious First Regimental Drill Meet for the next ten years. 

By the 1930s, the program had grown to the point of 1,200 cadets, and the University rated ROTC as "the only department where the honor system works successfully."  The program continued to improve and was said to "lead the South" in the years between the wars.  A General Duncan (retired) urged that the University of Kentucky should become the first land grant college to have an aviation unit as part of ROTC.  However, nothing came of this proposal until World War II.  Scabbard and Blade hosted a large Military Ball every year and the Pershing Rifles began to hold yearly drill meets on Stoll Field for teams from other universities.  A highlight of these drill meets was the performance of the Pershing Rifle "Confederate Squad," which gave a comedy routine with Civil War weapons.

World War II to the Vietnam Era: 1941-1975

World War II brought great changes to the ROTC Department and to the University as a whole.  As in World War I, the armed forces needed a large number of trained officers quickly, and programs were put into effect at the University of Kentucky to increase and augment ROTC.  There were increased applications to enter the Advanced Course, but a 1943 graduate stated that it was difficult to do so, perhaps because of more stringent standards.  In January 1942, all cadets in the Advanced Course were required to join the active Reserves.  Approximately 65 new lieutenants a year were commissioned during the war, though there were other officer producing programs available.  The Army Enlisted Reserve Corps on campus allowed students to finish their degrees before entering the service.  Members could be in ROTC and enter as a lieutenant; many also secured slots for Officers' Candidate School (OCS).

As the program was expanded, so were the ROTC facilities.  An addition to Buell Armory was finished in 1942.  It joined the two wings of the old Armory and comprised the area on the first floor where the wooden floor and classroom 109 are today.  The rifle range was also added at this time.  Colonel Donnelly, the Professor of Military Science and Tactics at the time, said that the Armory was still too small for the size of the ROTC program, even with the addition. 

Most cadets were commissioned in Infantry when they graduated, but in 1942 a Signal Corps program similar to that which had been in effect in World War I was begun which allowed electrical engineering and physics majors to be commissioned in the Signal Corps.  At the same time, programs such as the Engineering Specialty School and the Army Specialized Training Program provided specialized education for soldiers who were already enlisted, but these programs were not part of ROTC. 

Several University of Kentucky graduates reached prominence in the Army during World War II.  Major General Allen W. Gullion was Provost Marshal General of the Army.  Major General Hugh M. Milton served in the Pacific and was later Under Secretary of the Army.  Captain Seth Botts receive the German surrender of the city of Aachen and earned the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star with two Oak Leaf Clusters, and the Bronze Star.  In all, 334 University of Kentucky students and alumni were killed in the war.

The aftermath of World War II affected ROTC at Kentucky in much the same way as it had after World War I.  The specialized training programs were disbanded, so that ROTC remained the only military training program on campus.  In 1947, Air Force ROTC was formally installed on campus.  Advanced Course enrollment increased to about 450 cadets, largely due to the fact that veterans were permitted to enter the Advanced Course as long as they had been on active duty for twelve months.  This provision also applied for veterans of "allied" armies.  Around 50 new lieutenants were commissioned by Army ROTC each year, still either in Signal Corps or Infantry.  In 1948, 23 cadre were assigned; a 1954 graduate stated during this time many cadre who had been at the University for ten years or more were phased out and younger officers and non-commissioned officers were assigned as instructors. 

While ROTC continued to commission new officers and serve both the University and community during the late 1950 and early 1960s, enrollment declined during the period.  This fact probably reflects the national opinion of the time that a strong military was not necessary in peace.  During the period, many ROTC organizations continued to be active.  The Pershing Rifles sent winning teams to many drill meets, ROTC coached the winning University fencing and rifle teams, and in 1961, the Army Sponsors were revived.  The Sponsors were a women's group that promoted better relations between the corps of cadets and other organizations, promoted interest in ROTC, and acted as official ROTC hostesses.  The organization was reasonably popular and successful; the Homecoming Queen was often a Sponsor.  Not until 1966 would women be permitted to take ROTC classes.  In 1965, the two new ROTC organizations were founded.  The Kentucky Longrifles formed a coed affiliate drill team called the Kentucky Babes.  For many years the Kentucky Babes dominated coed drill team competition with their sabre drill and French commands.  Also in 1965, the Pershing Rifles and Kentucky Longrifles journeyed to Washington, D.C., to march in President Johnson's inaugural parade. 

The Vietnam War had a profound effect on ROTC at most universities and colleges.  Many students and some faculty at Kentucky questioned whether ROTC belonged on the campus.  Even though new programs such as ROTC Basic Camp at Fort Knox were instituted and a 1969 graduate reported that cadets still proudly wore their uniforms on campus, the nationwide feelings of many people against the war hurt ROTC.  Enrollment suffered; by 1967 there were only 200 total cadets in the Army ROTC program, instructed by nine cadre.  In 1963, the ROTC Basic Course had been made optional instead of mandatory for all male students, and this factor also decreased enrollment.  As troop withdrawal from Vietnam began and the war became more unpopular on the home front, feelings against ROTC increased.  In 1970, the temporary building that housed Air Force ROTC was burned down, reportedly by an arsonist who had demonstrated against ROTC.  From 1969 to 1972, the College of Arts and Sciences conducted an investigation to determine what the status of ROTC should be in the University.  The investigation went through several committees and was discussed before the University Senate.  At stake were the questions of whether or not ROTC should be a department under the College of Arts and Sciences and whether ROTC classes should count for academic credit in the University.  The majority ruling of the final committee was favorable, and both Air Force and Army ROTC remained departments within the College of Arts and Sciences.  Sixteen credit hours in Military Science courses were accepted for graduation.

Regardless of demonstrations, building burning, and student committees, UK ROTC cadets continued to graduate, commission, and many served with honor in the Vietnam War. The existence of ROTC at the University of Kentucky does not seem to have been in real jeopardy, and the program continued on after Vietnam.  Even though enrollment was low and many students still disapproved of military training, the program was helped by the strength of the student organizations.  The Kentucky Rangers attracted students to ROTC with their tactics and rappelling demonstrations.  During the 1973-74 school year, the Pershing Rifles drill and rifle teams and the Kentucky Babes drill teams won forty-seven trophies, earning them the prestigious John Archer Memorial Award and the title of Best Company in the Regiment.  With the support and dedication of these cadets, the ROTC program slowly moved back toward the strong position it had previously occupied.

Revitalization Period: 1976-1989

The late 1970s saw a renewed interest in ROTC at the University of Kentucky.  As the stigmas attached to the Vietnam War faded, more students were attracted to ROTC.  In 1964, Congress had passed the ROTC Revitalization Act, which provided scholarships for outstanding students and raised the monthly subsistence allowance for Advanced Course cadets.  Increasing numbers of students decided to take advantage of the scholarships and other rewards ROTC had to offer.  The Kentucky program took another step forward with the addition of cross-enrolled schools.  Under the cross-enrolled program, a local college or university near an existing ROTC unit may also offer the ROTC program to its students.  Basic Course classes are taught at the cross-enrolled schools by cadre from the host institution to receive their instruction and training.  The program offered ROTC access to several smaller schools which could not support a host unit of their own.  In 1976, the University Kentucky ROTC program added Centre College in Danville, as a cross-enrolled school, and in 1980 Transylvania University and Georgetown College also joined the program.  In 1988, Midway College entered into a cross-enrollment agreement to offer ROTC to its nursing students, along with those in other majors.  Many of the cadets at the cross-enrolled schools were attracted by scholarship opportunities, mainly due to the higher tuitions at the schools. 

In 1979, the University of Kentucky also gained Kentucky State University as a cross-enrolled school.  Kentucky State University had its own Assistant Professor of Military Science and cadre assigned under the supervision of the University of Kentucky program.  During the program's initial years it was a very successful program commissioning an average of 10 lieutenants each year. 

Enrollment dramatically increased during the 1980s.  From commissioning an average of fifteen to twenty second lieutenants a year, the program leaped to commissioning an average of over 50 new officers each year.  This success was recognized nationwide; in 1982, Life magazine featured an article on the Kentucky program which illustrated the new interest in patriotism and the ROTC program on the campus.  The program's size and vitality made it the strongest in the nine-state Second ROTC Region, and, in 1985, the University of Kentucky was awarded the honor of Best Battalion in the Second Region and was designated by the Chief of Staff of the Army as one of the top fifteen programs in the nation.  In 1989 the program commissioned 58 new lieutenants.

The 1990 Commissioning Class sparked the end of an era. Cadets previously had the option of going to Ranger School instead of the Leader Development Advanced Course if they were a top cadet, but not after the 1990 class. This was also the last class that was not required to have a Bachelor’s degree to Commission. Before this class a Cadet could Commission with an Associate level degree. The 90s brought major changes to the Army in force structure, doctrine and training, and UK ROTC changed along with them. With class cohorts during the 90s averaging not more than twenty Second Lieutenants commissioned per year, the number of permanently assigned cadre was reduced from more than ten to less than six before the millennium was over.  Despite the constraints, UK ROTC continued to provide cutting edge leaders, dedicated to serving the nation.

Post 9/11

On September 11, 2001 tragedy struck when the World Trade Center was attacked. Ever since, the Pershing Rifles (Cadets from both Army and Air Force ROTC programs) held an annual 9/11 Vigil in commemoration of those who were affected by the attacks, soldiers who fought in Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, and those who served in Afghanistan. The Pershing Rifles members place a small American flag, representative of each fallen person, on Administration Lawn, read each name, and stand guard at the flag from the time of the attack until all the names have been read. In recent years the Pershing Rifles have been forming “9/11” with the flags to further the remembrance of that fateful day.

The War on Terror resulted in increased interest in UK’s ROTC program. Program participation saw steady growth throughout the early 2000s.

In 2007, the Cadre from Wildcat Battalion (Army) and Detachment 290 (Air Force) formed a partnership. Together, the programs created an ROTC Living Learning Program inside Blanding Tower Resident Hall, hosted joint Military Balls, Commissioning ceremonies and other events. The first Joint Commissioning featured the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Glenn “Mike” Mullen as the guest speaker. By 2010, the Battalion took to social media to assist with communicating to parents, Alumni and the community.

2012 marked the start of an extremely successful Buell Armory and Baker Hall renovation campaign. With the help of the Arts & Sciences Development Office, generous Army ROTC alumni and the UK Athletics Department, over $500,000 was raised. This campaign allowed a complete remodel and upgrade of office spaces, Cadet lounge and study areas and the drill hall floor. The historic Buell Armory was not only preserved for the future, but made functional for the present.

In 2014, all Cadet summer training was consolidated at Fort Knox, Kentucky. The Leader Training Course (Basic Course) became Cadet Initial Entry Training and the Leader Development Advanced Course transitioned to the Cadet Leader’s Course with emphasis placed on developing leaders for the 21st Century who thrive in complex, chaotic situations and environments.

Centennial Year: 2016-2017

1916-2016 marks the 100 year anniversary of Army ROTC in the United States. Appropriately, in 2016, UK Army ROTC enjoyed its highest commissioning numbers since 1989 with over thirty Cadets earning the gold bars of Second Lieutenants.

22 March, 2017 marks 100 years of Army ROTC at the University of Kentucky. From 1917 to 2017, UK ROTC has commissioned thousands of Second Lieutenants. Since inception, UK’s Army officers have served honorably in every major conflict of the United States including WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today, Kentucky’s flagship ROTC program at the University of Kentucky continues to build upon the legacies of the past, preparing, educating and inspiring leaders for the 21st century.

(History of US Army Cadet Command http://www.cadetcommand.army.mil/history.aspx).


Enter your linkblue username.
Enter your linkblue password.
Secure Login

This login is SSL protected