Columbia University has had a long history of educating America's service members, dating back to the French and Indian War (1756-1763). At least three of the fifteen enrolled students in the first class of King's College in 1754 went on to serve in that conflict. A few years later in 1775, another King's College student, an 18-year old named Alexander Hamilton, corralled his classmates into a quasi-military unit styled the "Hearts of Oak", which became the New York Provincial Company of Artillery, serving with distinction throughout the American Revolution. (1775-1783).
Over the course of the 19th century, Columbia educated many notable military leaders including Philip Kearny, CC 1833, a Union general during the Civil War. In that conflict alone, five Columbia graduates became major generals, ten became colonels, thirteen lieutenant colonels, thirteen majors, and twenty-nine captains. Forty-five percent of the Class of 1861 enlisted for service.
More than 2,600 Columbians served in World War I (1917-18). Most of these were students or alumni, but more than 350 were faculty members or administrators. Almost a third of the graduates of the Class of 1918 missed Commencement because of military service.
The Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) traces its legal roots to the 1862 Morrill Act, which provided land grants for major universities on condition that they provide military instruction. The Naval ROTC program was established in 1926. While Columbia was heavily involved in training officers after World War I, the formal inauguration of Columbia’s NROTC program did not take place till September 22, 1945, shortly after World War II (1941-45). More than 15,000 Columbians served in that war, and 450 are reported to have died. The Navy used twelve Columbia buildings, including Furnald and John Jay Halls, to house a midshipmen’s school that trained over 20,000 naval officers. At one point, Columbia University’s Midshipmen’s School rivaled the United States Naval Academy in size.
ROTC was never a mandatory activity on Columbia's campus, as it was at many other major American universities, but it did witness high levels of participation. ROTC would continue to be an option to Columbia students until the events of 1968 spurred the faculty to create conditions that the Navy found unacceptable, at which time they withdrew from the University.