Sigma Nu’s past is a proud and colorful one. Founded by three cadets at the Virginia Military Institute in a period of civil strife known as the Reconstruction, Sigma Nu represented a radical departure from the times. The system of physical abuse and hazing of underclassmen at VMI led to James Frank Hopkins, Greenfield Quarles, and James McIlvaine Riley (Image on right) to form the “Legion of Honor” which soon became Sigma Nu Fraternity. So, amidst a backdrop of turmoil, North America’s first “Honor” fraternity was established.
The story of Sigma Nu began during the period following the Civil War, when a Confederate veteran from Arkansas enrolled at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington Virginia. That cadet was James Frank Hopkins, and it is to him and two of his classmates that Sigma Nu owes its existence. When Hopkins enrolled at VMI, the south was in a state of turmoil and just beginning to recover from the devastating military defeat it had suffered. The Virginia Military Institute was highly recognized for its civil engineering program and the South badly needed to repair its bridges and railroads. At the Institute cadets suffered, not only of the ravages of war and a disrupted homelife, but because of the system of physical harassment imposed on lower classmen by their fellow students in the upper classes.
Hopkins had experienced military subservience during the war, and was willing to tolerate a reasonable amount of constraint intended to induce discipline. However, Hopkins was unwilling to accept any amount of hazing then being allowed at VMI. Not one ounce of hazing was he willing to suffer and he was doggedly adamant about eliminating it.
Hopkins soon was joined by two classmates and close friends who were also equally unhappy with the hazing situation. They were Greenfield Quarles, from Arkansas, a Kentuckian by birth, and James McIlvaine Riley from St. Louis, Missouri. These three men began a movement to completely abolish the hazing system at VMI. Their efforts climaxed on a moonlit October night in 1868, presumably following Bible study at the superintendent’s home, when the three met at a limestone outcropping on the edge of the VMI parade ground. Hopkins, Quarles and Riley clasped hands on the Bible and gave their solemn pledge to form a brotherhood of a new society they called the Legion of Honor.
The vows taken by these three Founders bound them together to oppose hazing at VMI and encouraged the application of the Principle of Honor in all their relationships. That the founders should adopt Honor as a guiding principle was a natural move since a rigid code of Honor was already an established traditon of the VMI Corps of Cadets. The Honor system at VMI required each cadet to conform to the duty imposed by his conscience that each act be governed by a high sense of Honor.
Although Sigma Nu Fraternity began in October 1868 as the Legion of Honor, its existence was kept secret until the founders publicly announced their new society on the first day of January 1869, the accepted birthdate of Sigma Nu. What a New Year’s celebration it must have been for cadets who could not go home for the holidays! In those days the Institute did not close for “breaks” as we know them. It suspended classes only for the day on such occasions as Christmas and New Year’s.
The Fraternity’s spiritual birth, however, actually occured in 1866, the year the Founders entered VMI, when Frank Hopkins first rebelled against hazing at the Institute. Still, the Founders did not create Sigma Nu with any feeling of animosity toward others; rather they were prompted by the impulses of sympathy and affecton for all people which underlie abiding peace and contentment. They had experienced enough hate and destruction all during and after the War. They wanted to end all abuses, and they knew it would not come easily. It was never an issue of who won or lost the War. It was only an issue of winning the peace.
The Legion of Honor society in its first year assumed the outward aspects of a college Greek-letter organization. The organizaton kept its original name secret but was recognized publicly as Sigma Nu Fraternity. It was soon to win the respect of all.
The new Fraternity needed an identifying symbol, and Founder Hopkins designed a Badge for the members to wear on their uniforms. That Badge was patterned after the White Cross of the French Legion of Honor, which was worn on the uniform of a favorite professor of Hopkins. The Badge was first introduced in the spring of 1869. Keeping with the Founders’ decree, the Badge has remained unchanged ever since, except in size and the raised center. Even today, the collegiate Commander’s Badge, and the Badge of the Grand Officers remain identical to Hopkins’ original Badge. When the first slate of Officers was chosen, Riley, the most popular, was elected Commander and Hopkins the Lieutenant Commander. Typically, Hopkins, the epitome of humbleness, was delighted that “Mac” Riley was chosen leader. It gave Hopkins “the doer,” thinker, planner, along with Quarles who had similar talent, more of an opportunity to concentrate on solidifying ol’ Alpha before he graduated in 1870. By the 1869 commencement, the group had grown to fifty-one members.