On the Edge of Discovery: Pennsylvania Military Academy

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Originally posted June 8, 2012

I was astonished by this carte-de-visite (CDV) of a young boy wielding a rifle outfitted with a bayonet, until I recalled that during the Civil War years there were two military academies in West Chester.

Col. Theodore Hyatt (1827-1888) moved his Delaware Military Academy to West Chester when the Bolmar Institute’s campus became available to rent (today the Metropolitan Apartments are on this site on East Marshall St).  Renamed Pennsylvania Military Academy, the school could accommodate 150 students ages 12 – 20.  After spending $60,000 to outfit the school it opened on September 4, 1862.  Advertized as only second to West Point in military education, Hyatt offered primary, commercial, scientific, collegiate and military courses.

Drilling with firearms was an important part in every student’s day. Col Hyatt even had six brass field pieces to teach the students gunnery. Their elaborate drills were a natural fund-raiser for the Ladies Aid Societies.  The cadets performed a drill in the Academy of Music, March 31, 1863 and at Horticultural Hall, West Chester on June 4th. 

F. E. Townsend, Adjutant to the P.M.A. Cadets wrote in a letter dated May 19, 1863, “I received your letter in regard to the drill of the Cadets for the Ladies Aid, and in reply I would state that I am authorized by the Col. to say that the P.M.A. Cadets are ready at any notice, whether of a week, of a day or of an hour, to do that they can in assisting the Ladies in their noble work of aiding the sick and wounded soldiers.”

A curious twist to the story of the Pennsylvania Military Academy is that according to Hyatt’s obituary published in the Daily Local News January 2, 1888, when Pennsylvania was bracing for General Lee’s invasion, Hyatt took his students and their six field pieces to Harrisburg and offered their services to the Commonwealth.  According to the obituary, Governor Curtin refused their offer to join with the troops at Gettysburg, but instead assigned them to two-month service guarding the borders.

However, according to a story published in the Village Record June 30, 1863, the cadets wanted to go as a body to Gettysburg and Hyatt would not let them go without their parents’ permission. According to a subsequent Village Record story on August 11, 1863, some of the students had left the campus without permission and enlisted in Guss’s Battery to defend the border near Chambersburg.

In CCHS library’s collection is a fascinating journal written by Alonzo Jefferies in 1864 and 1865 about his experiences as a student at the Pennsylvania Military Academy. He described in great detail the building, the drills and his daily life as a cadet.

When the Bolmar family finally put their school property up for sale in 1865, it was purchased by William Wyers, who operated a competing military academy in West Chester. Hyatt, moved the Pennsylvania Military Academy to Chester and today the institution continues as Widener University.  Pamela Powell, Photo Archivist