* Researched & written by Duke Fancher, ’58 *
In the beginning …
When Charles Summerville Roller died in August of 1907, he was known as one of the most successful teachers of his day. His legacy is ours – the Augusta Military Academy and all that it stands for.
When Charles Summerville Roller died in August of 1907, he was known as one of the most successful teachers of his day. In addition to his scholastic qualifications, he possessed rare abilities as an administrator and had few equals as a disciplinarian.
Roller’s success as a teacher, an administrator and a disciplinarian was based in part on his genial disposition and his high estimate of his profession as a teacher. He was always an active contributor in his community. For more than 15 years, he served as a justice of the peace in his magisterial district of Augusta County. He served in the State Legislature, he actively attended worship services in the Old Stone Church, and he was a participant in local civic and social organizations. His legacy was one of service to his community and state, and the founding of a school which achieved an international reputation for excellence in the field of secondary-level military education.
Charles S. Roller was born 8 May 1839 in Mount Sidney, Virginia. He was the oldest of 7 children of Jacob and Margaret Roller. Four of his siblings died before their 5th birthday, so he grew up with 2 brothers, one 2 years younger and the other 15 years younger. Jacob Roller was a farmer and a merchant, and both he and his father, Peter, were postmasters at Mount Sidney.
There were no public schools in Augusta County before the Civil War, and Charles Roller received his early education at local private schools including the Mossy Creek Academy during the time Jed Hotchkiss was its principal. He worked most summers as a farmhand for his father, and as a youth he was known for his athletic abilities, his horsemanship and his devotion to his books. He attended the University of Virginia for 2 years, 1859 – 1861.
Jed Hotchkiss was principal of the Mossy Creek Academy when Charles Roller attended classes there before Roller entered the university of Virginia in 1859.
Hotchkiss was General Thomas J. Jackson’s Civil War topographical engineer. On March 26, 1862, Jackson issued an order to Hotchkiss: “I want you to make me a map of the Valley from Harper’s Ferry to Lexington…”. This was the beginning of an assignment which resulted in celebrity and honors to Hotchkiss during and after the war.
He was a friend of the Roller family and his diary shows he spent a night in June of 1862 in the Roller home in Mount Sidney during Jackson’s Valley Campaign. He also spent a night in October 1862 with the Rollers while he was on a mapping assignment of the Valley north of Staunton.
Hotchkiss, a Staunton resident after the war, and Charles Roller maintained a life-long friendship, and Hotchkiss delivered the commencement address at AMA on June 1, 1898.
On 24 July 1861, 3 days following the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), Roller enlisted as a private in the Confederate States military forces at Fairfax Court House. He joined General J. E. B. Stuart’s 1st Virginia Calvary Regiment which fought in that first major conflict of the war. For 4 years he served with Company E which had been organized in Waynesboro and was composed almost exclusively of men from Augusta County. The company was known as the Valley Rangers, or the Augusta Rangers.
The Valley Rangers participated in skirmishes and battles throughout the war, suffering casualties at Port Republic, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Spottsylvania, Cedar Creek and many other places. The Regiment’s first casualty of the war was a soldier in Company E.
On 8 April 1865, Roller was riding as a courier for General Fitzhugh Lee’s command near Appomattox Court House. He was injured slightly when thrown by his horse, and he was captured and made a prisoner of war. The following day Lee surrendered to Grant ending the war in Virginia and prompting Roller’s release.
VMI cadets marched past
Although no battles were fought in Mt. Sidney or Ft. Defiance, people living along the Valley Pike witnessed the constant movement of troops, artillery pieces and supply wagons. On 11 May, 1864, over 250 cadets from Virginia Military Institute began their historic march down the Valley Pike from Lexington to their engagement with fame at New Market. On 13 May they passed through the community of Ft. Defiance, marching northward just a few feet from the land that was eventually to be the home of the Augusta Military Academy.
Information about Union Major General David Hunter’s brutal treatment of civilians in the lower valley around Woodstock and Newtown following the Battle of New Market rapidly found its way to Augusta County. The reports of Hunter’s advance toward Staunton created fear and feelings of revulsion and loathing against Union Soldiers.
On 5 June 1864, the Battle of Piedmont, just a short 4 miles east of Ft. Defiance, brought the carnage of war to the doorsteps of area residents. On that day, over 7,700 Union troops under the command of General Hunter fought 5,600 Confederate troops for over 9 hours in the fields and woods just north of New Hope. Ten percent of the soldiers on each side were killed or wounded, some for long periods of time following the battle.
Parts of the Shenandoah Valley had been devastated during the war. Homes, barns,. livestock and crops had been destroyed and lives had been lost. There had been no educational opportunities for the area’s young people for 4 years. It was to this scene, at the age of 25 and after 4 years of war, that Charles Roller returned home.
Roller went back to Mt. Sidney intending to return to the University of Virginia to study law. Tradition suggests he was asked by Confederate veterans to begin teaching and resume the education of the young men of that part of the Shenandoah Valley who had not seen blackboards or textbooks for several years.
Confederate veterans try to forget
One of Charles Roller’s younger brothers, Courtney A. Roller, had served in the war first as a member of the 5th Virginia Infantry and later with his brother in the Valley Rangers. In their 20’s, immediately following the war, “Court” and Charles Roller, with confederate veterans from around the Mt. Sidney and Ft. Defiance area, were seen at the taverns and bars in Mt. Sidney, “to fraternize, drink deep and forget the horrors of Antietam, Chancellorsville, Vicksbug and Gettysburg.”
In September of 1865, five months after the end of the war, Charles Roller joined C. M. Packer as a teacher in the school at the Augusta Church. Before and after the war there were schools in the vicinity of the church; they were variously referred to as the Old Fort Academy, Augusta High School and Augusta Academy. There was a red brick building on the grounds of the church which housed one or more of these schools over a period of time.
Beginning in September of 1866, Roller was the Principal of the Old Fort Academy near the church and arranged for boarding opportunities for students in the homes of private families near the academy. The cost for a 5-month term with classes in “Advanced English” and “Languages” was $45.00 payable at the end of each term. 1867 and 1868 newspaper advertisements for the Old Fort Academy also show Roller as the Principal.
On 7 November 1871, Roller was elected to the Virginia State Legislature as a member of the Conservative Party in a contest primarily between Conservatives and Republicans. The Legislature convened on 6 December 1871, less than a month after the election. In the House of Delegates, Roller was a member of the committees of education, schools and colleges, public appropriations and others. (He joined the Republican Party in the 1880s because of a disagreement over a state debt issue.) His time in the Legislature ended on 2 April 1873, and he was not a candidate for reelection in November of 1873.
His attendance at legislative responsibilities was limited in time and it is believed he continued to manage the school during his brief absences. In 1874 he moved his school from the immediate area of the Augusta Church to a newly erected frame building a short distance south of the Church and the name became Augusta Male Academy.
Charles Roller married Rosabelle Moorman on 26 October 1874. The couple had four children: Margaret Belle, William C., Thomas J., and Charles S. Jr. Thomas and Charles, Jr., were to follow their father into life-long commitments to secondary school education.
Professor Roller buys land
On 1 December, 1879, Roller purchased the land south of the Augusta Church which was the eventual site of all of the buildings of the academy as well as the Roller Home. By the school session of 1879-80 half of the 30 students were from outside the local community.
A program of military instruction including uniforms and use of Civil War style muskets during military drill was adopted by the academy by 1880. The only precedent for such an idea in Virginia was the operation of Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, thus, Roller’s school became the first of several military preparatory schools in the state. Roller built his family home on the property he had purchased and over a period of several years constructed a group of frame buildings extending in a line parallel to the Valley Pike, most of which were later torn down to make way for more permanent structures, including Main Barracks which was first occupied in 1917.
In the 1880s, life in the original frame barracks was considerably lacking in the personal conveniences available to cadets in later years. The rooms were designed to accommodate 2 boys and each room had its own heating unit – a small wood burning stove. Each cadet had a turn at carrying the needed supply of kindling from the academy woodpile.
The beds were wooden frames with rope springs and the mattresses were filled with corn shucks. Light for after dark studying was supplied by a coal oil lamp. The cadets had to furnish their own coal oil, and, since this was an excellent medium with which to get the little stoves started on a cold morning, there was much sport in “borrowing” each other’s supply of the precious fluid. Each room contained 1 or 2 wash basins and 2 buckets – one for carrying water from the school spring and the other served as a slop pail. The basins had to serve as bath tubs, of a sort, when the occasion demanded. Toilet facilities were the traditional outdoor privy with a battery of seats.
Saturday was woodchopping day. The entire group of boarding students would split logs and stack them in a large community pile to be used during the week to heat the cadet rooms. The sooner the woodpile was build up to the required size, the sooner the boys could get away for Saturday recreation. So long as there was neither snow on the ground nor a temperature so low as to cramp the fingers beyond accurate play, marbles was reportedly THE game.
Saturday nights were devoted to meetings of the Literary Society which was designed for the practice of debate, elocution and declamation. Roller believed that no man was educated until he could stand on his own two feet and convey his ideas to an audience by means of his own voice. Diplomas or graduation certificates were not commonly awarded by secondary schools during this period, but the first “commencement” exercises were held at AMA by 1878. Those exercises occupied several hours on just one day and, in addition to a commencement address, an address buy an alumnus and the awarding of academic medals, declamations and debates were an integral part of those ceremonies
AMA had its beginnings in a building which once stood among the old, tall trees in the churchyard of the Old Stone Church, One of the most historic buildings in the Shenandoah Valley.
The congregation of the church dates from about 1737. The church’s first permanent pastor, John Craig, arrived in 1740 and he conducted services in a wood building which was east of the present Valley Pike. That structure is long gone, but the graveyard which developed close to it can be visited today.
Craig undertook to build a permanent, stone building on the hill west of the original church site and the first worship service was held in that new building on 22 January 1749. After renovations in 1855 and a major expansion in 1921, it is that building which AMA cadets came to love. A brochure on the history of the church (available to visitors to the church Session House Museum) notes that the 1921 expansion was required, in part, due to the “increased enrollment of Augusta Military Academy…”
In 1899, the church celebrated the 150th anniversary of that first 1749 worship service. The Reverend J.N. Van Devanter, the pastor of the church at the time, wrote a history of the church which includes a review of the extensive ceremonies which observed that event. He reports no less than 2,000 people attended one event and that “a company of cadets from the Augusta Military Academy were drawn up in line on one side of the crowd,” contributing “to making a most imposing and touching scene.”
The 1880’s curriculum included Greek, Latin, French, German, English, U.S. History, geometry, algebra, elocution, physics, word-analysis, English literature and surveying. Along with other teachers, Professor Roller taught classes daily. He was considered an imposing figure but was very nearsighted. His glasses were bifocals and in order to see as best he could, he sat very erect so that his line of sight would pass through the bottom half of his glasses.
Tobacco chewing was an accepted custom of the period and the Professor enjoyed this particular luxury. Many of his students also chewed tobacco, sometimes in class. Those on the front row would avail themselves of the Professor’s spittoon to which he seemed to have no objection unless their aim was not accurate. He also occasionally smoked a pipe, but cigarette smoking was taboo.
Professor Roller’s favorite retreat was his study which was located in the room to the right as one entered the Roller home. The room has numerous bookcases, a large desk and a large, upholstered, swivel chair. The mantle above the fireplace held the Professor;s tobacco box and his pipes. Boys who were not making sufficient progress in their studies were required to spend evenings in the study under Professor Roller’s instruction and surveillance. Since his personal chair had a high back which required him to make a half turn to face the door, it was considered quite an accomplishment for a cadet to transfer a pinch of the Professor’s tobacco from the box on the mantle to the cadet’s pocket before the Professor had completed his half turn.
Professor Roller and his family worshipped at the Augusta Stone Presbyterian Church, and he insisted that his students attend religious services also. Early academy catalogs informed prospective students that a one-dollar “pew rent” for the church must be paid.
As a diversion from the daily routine of the school, the professor often walked to the Valley Pike toll gate located near Willow Spout to talk with Mr. Arthur Groome a Confederate veteran who had lost his arm at Chancellorsville and who collected tolls imposed on Valley Pike travelers.
Roller suspended operations at the academy for the academic year of 1883-1884 after his appointment as Principal of the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind in Staunton on 10 January 1883. He had served on the Board of Visitors of VSDB during the same time as his service in the State legislature. Roller was politically aligned with the “Readjuster Movement” in Virginia which was centered on the handling of the state’s debt. His assignment to VSDB was a political appointment and his removal from VSDB just a year later was also a political decision. It is believed that his brother, Dr. Hugh Sheffey Roller, managed the school for the last few months of the 1882-83 school term. Sheffey, an educator himself, was later to become superintendent of public schools in Augusta County. Their brother, Courtney, also involved in education, was then a board member of the Middle River District School Board. Charles Roller resumed operations of Augusta Male Academy 24 September 1884.
During the school year of 1888-89 Professor Roller changed the name of the school to Augusta Classical and Military Academy. By 1890 he had changed the name of the school to Augusta Military Academy. The founding date of Augusta has been a matter of discussion for many years. The cornerstone of the academic building which was ready for use in September of 1910 shows “AMA 1874” and graduation certificates awarded in the 1920’s include a seal showing 1874 as the founding date. The Academy’s catalog for the school session of 1905-06 and Circular of Information for 1906-07 identifies the session which began September 19, 1906, as the 32nd session of the school.
Charles Roller’s service to Virginia in the Civil War had been that of an enlisted man.. However, he was later a Colonel in the Virginia militia. In published material he was frequently referred to with a military title. He was commonly called “The Professor” or “The Old Boss” by his students. He was an eloquent debater and speaker. He was Deputy Grand Master in Virginia of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and was several times commander of the Staunton-based Stonewall Jackson Camp of Confederate veterans.
The Academy celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1965 based on the beginning of Professor Roller’s teaching career in Ft. Defiance in 1865. In a newspaper story which followed the funeral of Professor Roller in 28 August 1907, it was reported that the cortege “passed over the spot where the house once stood” in the churchyard in which “Roller first taught when he established Augusta Military Academy.” That was indeed the seed from which grew that beloved school.