Much rich history has been sown in the fertile soil of Virginia’s famed
While many towns of this valley have laid claim to immortality, many people consider the tiny, Blue Ridge Mountain town of Lexington a small piece of heaven. This town, that witnessed much of the Civil War, is the epitome of heritage and tradition. It is the site of Natural Bridge - one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World - it serves as the final resting place of Generals T. J. “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee; it is the birthplace of famed “Texian” revolutionist Sam Houston; and it is the home of two great universities - Washington & Lee University and the Virginia Military Institute.
Lexington had become a college town even before the United States became a country. Founded in 1749, Augusta Academy would become Liberty Hall Academy in 1776. The school was renamed Washington College in George Washington’s honor after he contributed $50,000 worth of stock to the school in 1796. After the death of the school’s most illustrious president, Robert E. Lee, the college became known as Washington & Lee University.
In 1865, at the end of the bloodiest war our nation has ever seen, the two institutions were but shadows of their former selves. VMI had been burned nearly to the ground and Washington College was severely damaged when it was used as Union barracks. With no money and no president, Washington College had somehow remained open throughout the war. During this time it served primarily as a preparatory school, with four professors teaching about forty boys who were too young to serve in the Confederate army.
However, the school’s trustees were determined to save their desperate college. On August 4, 1865, they met to discuss applying for a loan and the prospects for the college’s presidency. At that meeting, a board member rose and said that he had heard that General Lee was looking for a position that would allow him to earn a living for his family. Brashly, the trustees immediately elected Lee as president - contingent on his acceptance of course. They offered him an annual salary of $1,500, and the use of a house and garden and a small percentage of the tuition.
Everyone in the country knew that Lee could lead soldiers but few remembered that he also had served as superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. For Lee, the position in tiny Lexington was an opportunity to lead his people not into battle, but into recovery. On August 31, 1865, Lee became the president of a school named for his mentor and his wife’s grandfather, George Washington.
“I think it is the duty of every citizen, in the present condition of the country, to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony,” he wrote to the trustees in his letter of acceptance. “It is particularly incumbent of those charged with the instruction of the young to set them an example of submission to authority.”
Beset by the war’s legacy of poverty, only 50 students were enrolled at the time of Lee’s inauguration. As word of his presence spread, others arrived, until finally, 146 young men had registered for the college’s first post-war session. Among those first students were three of KA’s four founders, James Ward Wood, William Nelson Scott, and William Archibald Walsh. Founder Stanhope McClelland Scott, brother of William Nelson Scott, entered the college’s second post-war session, the spring semester of 1866.
James Ward Wood was born on December 26, 1845, in rural Hardy County, Va. (now West Virginia). He was the fifth generation of Woods to farm the land near Lost River and his descendants (who also continue the KA tradition) occupy the family land even today. Wood was studying the law when his part of Virginia entered the Civil War. He was blessed with a fantastic home library which was wide and varied. While his education was not formal as we know today, he had a rich and broad base of learning. This was accomplished by his intense reading and study of all types of literature. As a young man, Wood was very “dignified and deferential.” He was also very engaging and friendly. Wood joined the 12th Virginia Cavalry (the famed Laurel Brigade).
It was, in part, Lee’s acceptance of the presidency of Washington College, and a new job as the head master of the Ann Smith Academy for girls, that caused the well-respected Reverend John A. Scott to move his family to Lexington in 1865. The Scott family had once lived in Hardy County and was intimate with the Woods for two generations. Wood’s father recognized his son’s natural intellect and high moral character and sought to formalize his education. He also believed that his son would profit under the influence of the Reverend Scott, an esteemed Presbyterian minister throughout Virginia. Rev. Scott’s influence immediately inspired Wood because he soon became known as the “College Bard” on campus. He became a member of the Washington Literary Society and became known for his poems and essays that appeared in the campus paper. He was also known to enrich his conversations by quoting biblical scripture and lines from literature. He was impressed with phrases that he had not heard before. Ammen actually met Wood, while walking to campus, when he overheard him repeating a Latin phrase and translated it for him. It was this phrase first appearing in Wood’s ritual, which later became the great theme of Kappa Alpha Order. In an 1866 essay that Wood read to Alpha Chapter, he gives insight into his thoughts on the purpose of his young K.A. Fraternity: “Let us be just, charitable and good. Let us be great by the prayers of widows and orphans rather than by their tears and lamentations. Let us be of one mind and faith, let us banish all that is evil and cling to all that is good. Let us pull together and pull hard, but above all things let there be no doubt that we are pulling right.”
Wood, because of the manner of his upbringing, had a “preference for activity and doing things that he enjoyed.” Wood was “not used to organized study.” He “was a dreamer.” Ammen perceived his friend Wood as “seeing the allegorical; the deep meaning; and, the symbolism” of things. Unfortunately, Wood did not take to the environment of a formal education. In January of 1867, Lee wrote Wood’s father and advised him his son was not succeeding academically. Accordingly, Wood was “called home by his father” and resigned his chapter office of secretary on January 25, 1867. On February 1, 1867, Wood called his chapter together at the Main Building of Washington College and made a departing speech and a small presentation. Wood remained at home at Woodlawn until 1871. He then began travels in the west and migrated to Missouri where he took part in the Grange Movement. In 1875, he returned to Woodlawn where he raised blooded stock. He married at the age of 40 and eventually had eight children. As well as a farmer/rancher, Wood, during his life, became a justice of the peace, school board president, county judge, surveyor, and notary public and representative in the West Virginia State Assembly. He died on January 7, 1926, and is buried in the Ivanhoe Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Lost River, W. Va.
William Nelson Scott was born in Houston, Va., on September 25, 1848. He was the only other founder who was engaged in military service during the Civil War. Although his service, like Wood’s, was limited, at the age of fifteen he became part of the reserves in Virginia. Will Scott was introduced to Wood in September of 1865 by Rev. Scott and the two young men became fast friends. He joined in Wood’s evolving effort during the fall of 1865 to form a new society on campus. When the group formally organized, Will Scott, because of his impressive personality, was selected as its first president. He worked with Wood to guide the fledgling fraternity through its trying first year. While it was Wood who first met S. Z. Ammen, it was Will Scott who convinced him to join the group of seven in October of 1866. Ammen said of Scott, “I have never seen any in equal to him in charm of voice, in solemnity of manner, in dignity of demeanor, or in general impressiveness in the initiatory customs.” Will Scott presided over Ammen’s initiation. After departing Washington College, Scott entered Union Theological Seminary and completed his study there. In 1872, he became a Presbyterian minister. After heading a parish in Richmond, Va., for a few short years, Scott moved to Galveston, Texas, where he led the First Presbyterian Church there for 19 years. After surviving the Great Hurricane and Flood of 1900, that decimated the island and killed thousands, he returned to Staunton, Va., where he remained pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church until his death on June 3, 1919. He is buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Va.
William Archibald Walsh was born in Richmond, Va., on September 11, 1849. Although Walsh was not present when Will Scott first joined in Wood’s idea of forming a new society, he soon was made aware of the idea and joined the effort. It was in Walsh’s dorm room that Wood and Scott spent time between classes. The friendship that was cemented focused the group. On December 21, 1865, Wood proposed a toast to the “two Williams” which caused this group who “swore together” to form a society. Wood wrote: “The principal work of the first year was done in Walsh’s room. Walsh was bright and capable, and he helped me a great deal, especially in connection with the badge.” Because Walsh’s family had resources, it is likely that he financed the first seven badges from the Lexington jeweler, D.M. Riley. Wood also spoke of the “many conferences in October and November while preliminary plans were laid.” While he also revealed that “Christmas caused delay” it is important to note that the first meetings occurred in Walsh’s quarters. After one year at Washington College, Walsh left in June of 1866 to take up his family’s business as a merchant. The first document revealing the name of the group as “K.A.” was issued to Walsh as a fees receipt in April of 1866. Walsh continued to correspond with Alpha Chapter, even after his departure, and is generally considered to be our first Alumnus member. In 1874, Walsh traveled in Africa and returned home to Richmond in impaired health. He died in 1876 and is also buried in the Hollywood Cemetery.
Stanhope McClelland Scott, the younger brother of Will, was not enrolled in school during the Fall of 1865. However, he was “soon enlisted as he would enter Washington College in January.” He was 15 years old at the time of our founding making him the youngest founder. This occurrence set the minimum age for eligibility for membership in KA, which endures to this day. Stanhope graduated from Washington and Lee in 1871 and went on to study medicine at the University of Virginia. After receiving his medical license, he returned to his hometown to practice. Dr. Scott practiced medicine in western Maryland and northern West Virginia for over 50 years. Stanhope Scott was the last of the four original founders to survive. He passed away on September 4, 1933, and is buried at Terra Alta, W. Va.
The story of how Kappa Alpha Order began revolves around James Ward Wood’s life experiences and influences. Wood planted the seed that Ammen cultivated into our Order.
While Wood was born and raised in what is now West Virginia, his family aligned with the sentiments of Virginia, as Hardy County was actually only fifteen miles or so from the newly created state line. In 1861, the fifteen year-old Wood joined a local unit of the 12th Virginia Cavalry. Since he was familiar with the area, he was assigned to patrol the border land and to scout for the westward advance of the Federal Army. Ammen related that Wood’s “service was limited, but useful.” He believed that the military experience “made [Wood] confident.” Near the end of the war, while at home on leave, Wood decided to ride and visit with a local girl. He prudently stuck his cavalry pistol into his boot as he was aware of dangers on mountain roads during wartime. As he mounted his horse, the pistol discharged, severely wounding him. Tragic as this event was, it was actually a blessing in disguise for Kappa Alpha Order. The wound was so severe that it ended Wood’s military service.
As he recuperated during the spring and summer of 1865, Wood spent his time at the Lost River General Store. This country store, which still stands today, was a community center, as well as a county office. A man named Van Arsdale, whom Ammen described as a “worthless unionist” was an incumbent in an important local office. Both Wood and his father were ineligible to serve in this office because of their southern alliance. Apparently, Van Arsdale was “too dissolute to do more than draw a salary,” however, he was a great storyteller. He was a mason (Freemasonry is the world’s oldest fraternal organization that has existed for a thousand years). He was also a member of half dozen other secret societies and fascinated young Wood with his “stories of the lodge room.” Ammen was convinced that every proceeding of these secret societies were “unfolded” to Wood “without scruple, so that the summer’s recitals were equivalent to a course of lectures on the esoteric.” Wood was captivated and searched for more information about Masonic work. He had to look no further than his own father’s library and found materials which likely fueled the fire of fraternalism within him.
On August 2, 1865, Wood arrived in Lexington. Once enrolled in school, he discovered that two fraternities, Phi Kappa Psi and Beta Theta Pi, had reopened their chapters at Washington College. In November, Alpha Tau Omega started their second chapter there. Ammen relates that Wood, drawing from his recent summer education, may have attempted to “petition” Phi Kappa Psi, as is the custom in Freemasonry. This may have caused him to be “criticized and even rejected by the aloof fraternity.” Whatever occurred, Wood decided to form his own group. Since he was unfamiliar with fraternities at the college level, Wood had nothing to draw from as a model. It is fortunate that he was given the ritual of a small fraternity, Epsilon Alpha, founded at University of Virginia in 1855 which had perished during the recent war. It is unknown when Wood received these “papers,” however, it is well-established that on December 21, 1865, our four founders met and formally bound their friendship by a “mutual pledge of faith and loyalty.”
Wood chose the name for the new group and called it Phi Kappa Chi. The name had no meaning and it is likely that Wood chose it to rival the popular Phi Kappa Psi which had rejected his interest. Though Will Scott assisted, the ritual of Phi Kappa Chi was primarily drafted by Wood. The ceremony that he penned was brief, but contained a great theme which endures even today. Wood organized the group and Will Scott was chosen as the Number I; Walsh, Number II; and Wood, Number III. Christmas delayed the group somewhat, but they became known in the spring of 1866. The other societies at Washington College resented the appearance of a new secret society on campus. Phi Kappa Psi was especially perturbed at Wood’s choice of a name for the group. They told him so and it was only at the request of an alumnus of that fraternity, a professor, that Wood agreed to select a different name. The new organization became known as K.A. by April of 1866. Private letters written by early members of Alpha Chapter indicate that Wood likely borrowed the letters K.A. (which had no initial meaning) to immediately attract attention. The popular old society, Kuklos Adelphon, founded at the University of North Carolina in 1812, had all but perished during the recent war, but was well known in the south. The new organization initiated seven additional members by the end of the 1866 spring term.
The 1866-67 school year brought promise to Washington College and K.A. Largely because of Lee’s presidency at the school, the enrollment more than doubled to nearly 400 students. K.A. initiated seven more members into their group that fall. On October 17, 1866, twenty-two year-old Samuel Zenas Ammen of Fincastle, Va., was initiated. Ammen was a serious student, immaculate in appearance and precise in manner. He was very confident and Will Scott, who bestowed nicknames, dubbed him “Lord.” Ammen’s initiation into this early group, while now known as K.A., was conducted with a revised version of the Phi Kappa Chi ritual penned by Wood. In a letter written by Ammen to one of the early Alpha members, Jo Lane Stern, described the experience as, “mere verbal pyrotechnics in florid sophomoric style.” It is clear that while Ammen was moved by certain parts of the ceremony, he felt that it was too brief and uninspiring. Unlike Wood, Ammen did have significant fraternal experience. Ammen had become a Master Mason in Fincastle, Va., in 1865. As a member of that highly esteemed order, he was well versed in organized ritual which had been refined over hundreds of years. Ammen would later say that this first ritual had “nothing to touch the imagination of initiates nor stir their fancy.” However Ammen was inspired by the possibilities of this young fraternity and its members whom he greatly respected. He urged the society to enhance its initiation ceremonies.
In Wood’s room at
Sunnyside, an estate on the edge of town, Ammen and Wood discussed possibilities
for a new ritual, and it was agreed that Ammen should continue the work.
Accordingly, Ammen, along with Wood and Will Scott, was appointed to a committee
to review the ritual. In order to gather material, Ammen observed the chapter’s
activities and listened to their ideals and beliefs. He was particularly
impressed by an essay presented to the chapter by Wood, in November of 1866,
wherein the plight of the ancient Knights Templar was detailed as a model of
inspiration for the group’s purpose. Ammen, Scott, and Wood conferred on several
occasions, many times late until the night. Wood presented Ammen with the
“papers” that he received from the old fraternity. The old ritual was
essentially discarded; however, Ammen preserved a few of its impressive parts
and began construction of a new ritual.
Nearly two decades later, Will Scott would write to Ammen, “the Ritual was all so altered, changed and improved upon, mainly by you, that we can say it underwent a complete regeneration, or new birth.” Ammen later related that Wood was completely deferential to his advanced experience with the esoteric. Indeed, Wood’s departure from school was only a few weeks away. Wood’s own correspondence with the Order over the remainder of his life indicate that he confidently left the fraternity he began under the stewardship of Ammen.
Before his death, Wood credited Ammen with transforming K.A. into the Order of national prominence that it remains today. Ammen’s development of the ritual, constitution, by-laws, grip, symbols and regalia and his lifelong commitment ultimately earned him the title of Practical Founder of Kappa Alpha Order.
Ammen later revealed, “The present ritual, in fact, was not made, it grew.” It grew from a seed planted by Wood. The new ritual transformed the K.A. Council into Kappa Alpha Order, an order of christian knights (first inspired by Wood’s November 1866 essay to Alpha Chapter, and set to work by Ammen) pledged to the highest ideals of character and personal achievement. Ammen and his Alpha Chapter brothers sought to preserve the virtues of chivalry, respect for others, honor, duty, integrity and reverence for God and woman.
Despite the milestone of establishing a solid identity and presence at Washington College, the young Order was not without the startup problems typical with most new organizations. Indeed, the brothers of Old Alpha stood at a crossroads. The chapter had very recently expelled five members who had violated their obligations and were not strong enough to endure growing pains. Will Scott, the chapter’s first Number I, was preparing to leave Lexington to attend seminary. Truly, the chapter brothers had to decide whether they should keep up the effort.
One moonlit night in May 1867, Ammen and a recent initiate, Jo Lane Stern, with whom he had become fast friends, were taking one of many walks they enjoyed together throughout their lives. This particular walk, they were discussing the future of their young fraternity. They paused along the way, and sat on the steps of White’s General Store, on the corner of Lexington’s Main and Nelson Streets. There, they seriously contemplated the viability of Kappa Alpha and whether or not they should continue the chapter. They asked, “Shall we let the lodge die?” Ammen well-remembered that conversation and recalled, “The outcome was a decision to keep up the fight, and from that time on our prospects improved.” Clearly, Ammen and Stern spearheaded that effort. For that reason, Stern is appropriately given a status on a par with our founders.
With the fortitude to forge ahead, the chapter began the 1867-1868 school year with Ammen as the new Number I. They began looking beyond Washington College to establish KA’s second chapter; their first prospect was naturally the school’s neighbor, VMI An invitation for membership was extended to John Eliphalet Hollingsworth, a VMI cadet, and by Spring 1868, three more cadets were initiated. Subsequently, Beta chapter was formed March 8, 1868.
Transfers from Washington College established chapters at the University of Georgia (Gamma) in 1868 and at Wofford College (Delta) in Spartanburg, S.C., in 1869. Epsilon was also established in 1869 at Emory University in Atlanta by members of Gamma. One account of early expansion efforts tells of Stern’s recollection that Lee permitted him to miss class and travel to Ashland, Va. in 1869 to found Zeta at Randolph-Macon College. Although Lee was known for only permitting absences because of illness, it is believed that he approved Stern’s journey to Randolph-Macon and then again to Richmond College in 1870.
Stern stated that he arrived in Richmond amid little enthusiasm for fraternities, but that he brought with him a letter of introduction from Lee to J.L.M. Curry, an influential law professor, that explained his mission. Allegedly, Curry called a faculty meeting and announced, “If General Lee will let a man come away to establish a chapter, I vote for it. If he thinks a fraternity is a good thing, I think so too” hence, Eta was born. Theta (prime) was also established in 1870 at Atlanta’s Oglethorpe University by members of Gamma and Epsilon chapters. By the close of 1870, five years after KA’s founding, the Order’s ranks had grown to eight chapters.
In 1870, Ammen’s efforts finally achieved the permanence of ink in Kappa Alpha’s first publication. A copy of the forty-six page booklet, which contained the Order’s constitution, ritual and bylaws, was sent to each chapter. Called the “Green Book,” because of its green paper cover, the publication established the “General Council,” now called Convention. The first Convention was held that same year in Richmond, Va., where Ammen presided in a dual capacity as Number I of Alpha chapter and as Knight Commander (our national president).
Initially, the chapters that were assembled at the General Council had limited power and Alpha retained control of the fraternity. However, by 1873, with the close of Alpha, sovereignty had been relinquished to the General Council or Convention, as it was now known. Since then, the Convention has convened in odd-numbered years, with Special Conventions called from time to time in order to address extraordinary matters.
With organization, KA continued to grow. Over the next twenty-five years, the Order expanded deeper into the South, to the North (in Baltimore and Philadelphia) and in 1895, to the West Coast with chapters at the University of California-Berkeley and Stanford University. By the turn of the century, the number of active chapters had increased to 44.
As the Order matured, our chapters began graduating more and more men that longed to continue their KA association after college. These men began to search out fellow brothers in their local areas and, before long, alumni chapters were springing-up all over the country.
The rapid growth of the Order, from coast to coast, necessitated a reorganization of our chapters, and in 1891, the Convention established guidelines for organizing alumni chapters. The main restriction placed on alumni chapters was that they could not initiate new members.
At the 1911 Convention, the province system was created and the Knight Commander appointed seven brothers to establish an an organizational structure for the growing national fraternity. The brothers selected were the personal representatives of the Knight Commander and evolved into the first province commanders. A province is a specific region of the country that contains active and alumni chapters. The United States is currently divided into 22 provinces, 20 of which are active (meaning there are active chapters within its boundaries). Each province is named for a Founder, Former Knight Commander or National Officer. The province commander, a representative of the Knight Commander, is directly responsible for the chapters in his province. A province commander may enlist the aid of other alumni (deputy province commanders) to assist him in carrying out his duties.
Province councils were first convened in the fall of 1912 and today, serve several functions. Province councils exist for brothers to discuss the business of the Order and of the province. However, the most important aspect of province councils are the educational sessions.
By 1933, KA’s growth necessitated a restructuring of the Order’s national government. There were 72 undergraduate chapters and the national hierarchy was laden with outdated positions. Delegates to the 38th Convention in 1935 adopted a new constitution and governmental structure consisting of the Knight Commander and Executive Council (board of directors).
As a part of the reorganization, the first National Administrative Office was opened in New Orleans, La. in 1934. After brief stints in New Orleans, Atlanta, Ga. and Louisville, Ky., the Order’s National Office returned to Atlanta in 1954. For the next 32 years, the National Office would remain there until the fulfillment of KA’s long-time dream of owning our own national headquarters would come to fruition.
In 1986, the National Administrative Office returned the Order to its roots by moving home to Lexington, Va. The move marked a progressive change for Kappa Alpha as it became fully computerized for the first time in its existence. The first office in Lexington was operated out of temporary space until a suitable structure could be purchased.
In 1990, the Order purchased the old Rockbridge County Jail, which had been vacant for two years, and began the massive task of transforming it into a beautiful, modern functioning office. After two years of painstaking restoration, the office moved into the federal-style building, located on the courthouse square in Lexington’s historic downtown district, in April 1992.