The tantalizingly brief charge of The Citadel’s Light Brigade

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, 1854

A movement has been inaugurated at The Citadel for the adoption of “Light Brigade” as the appellation designating Citadel sports teams, and the name does not appear a misnomer. Light is the word for the football teams and brigade possesses a military ring that well befits the gun-toting boys on the banks of the Ashley. The whole has a jaunty swing like the name of a movie or a new song. Light Brigade, Light Brigade. It reads good. Clicks off well on the typewriter.

James Harper Jr., The News and Courier, November 22, 1937

Traditions are never started. They exist and grow strong long before anyone discovers them.

– Rev. John W. Cavanaugh, former President of the University of Notre Dame, quoted in ‘The Dome’ yearbook,1924

 

The Citadel’s varsity athletic teams have been called ‘Bulldogs’ for a very long time. The nickname’s origin is slightly obscure, but a quote by former athlete and coach C.F. Myers has been repeated in various school publications for decades:

When The Citadel started playing football [in 1905], we didn’t have real good teams. But the guys played hard and showed a lot of tenacity…like a Bulldog. The local paper started calling us Bulldogs and then the school picked it up.

The ‘Bulldogs’ moniker quickly took hold following the founding of the football program. There are references to the team by that nickname in The News and Courier dating back to 1908; it was likely used for the squad even earlier than that.

All was well and good, and everyone was seemingly satisfied with The Citadel’s teams being called Bulldogs, until an enterprising young sports publicist from North Carolina State had an idea…

His name was Fred Dixon, and besides the work he did for his alma mater, he found time to be a scoutmaster, president of the Raleigh Junior Chamber of Commerce, and president of the Raleigh Jaycees. He also co-owned a local insurance company.

In October of 1937 Dixon was looking for an angle for N.C. State’s upcoming conference football game with The Citadel — the first meeting on the gridiron between the two schools. He apparently found inspiration in the words of Lord Tennyson.

Here is Dixon’s game preview article (headlined “N.C. State to Face ‘Charge of Light Brigade’ Saturday”):

Tennyson’s immortal poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” may have more meaning for the Wolves of State College after their battle here next Saturday with The Citadel Bulldogs in Riddick Stadium.

The Citadel, a military school, has a brigade of football players which is one of the lightest yet most powerful the Charleston institution has developed.

Star of the backfield is Kooksie Robinson, who weighs 134 pounds and who is just five feet seven inches tall. Because of his diminutiveness, Robinson can get through holes that larger backs could only hope to get their heads through. He is believed to be the smallest first string halfback in the nation. Robinson is also one of the fastest members of The Citadel eleven.

Citadel has a comparatively light line from end to end and is light in the backfield, but it is a brigade of hard charging, hard running, speedy and elusive players. State’s Wolves probably will not face as much speed and fight this fall as they will when Citadel’s “Light Brigade” charges into them next Saturday.

The game comes as a feature Southern Conference battle of the week. It was originally scheduled for Saturday night, but for fear that the weather would be too cold for a night game, athletic officials of the schools had the game switched to the afternoon.

As a special feature at the half, Citadel’s famous drill platoon of 90 cadets will parade on the playing field and will go through intricate company maneuvers without commands from any officer or member of the company.

The company is said to be one of the best drilled in the nation and will be unlike anything ever seen in this state before. Officers of the R.O.T.C. staff at State have seen the company in action and are high in their praise of it.

The game will be as colorful as the autumn woods. It is the first time Citadel has appeared on a State college schedule and a large crowd is expected to be on hand to see what the “Light Brigade” will be able to do to State’s Wolfpack.

 

Dixon may have been a fan of the poem, but it is also true that The Charge of the Light Brigade was a very popular film which had been released just the year before. It is thus conceivable that Errol Flynn was an influence on his “Light Brigade” theme (to say nothing of Olivia de Havilland and Nigel Bruce).

In the actual on-field matchup, The Citadel wound up with a sizable advantage in total offensive yardage, but was bedeviled by turnovers and lost, 26-14, before an estimated crowd of 7,000 fans.

Tangent #1: the game story printed in The News and Courier was written by Frank B. Gilbreth Jr., who was then working for the AP out of its Raleigh bureau. Later, Gilbreth co-wrote two bestselling books that were made into movies (including Cheaper By The Dozen, which has been filmed twice). He eventually relocated to Charleston permanently, and for many years wrote a widely quoted column in the N&C using the pen name Ashley Cooper.

It didn’t take long for several people, residing both inside and outside the gates of the military college, to decide that “Light Brigade” would be an ideal nickname for The Citadel, much more so than “Bulldogs”. Just two weeks after the contest in Raleigh, James Harper Jr. penned a column outlining the advantages of the new designation, the first few sentences of which are quoted at the beginning of this post.

Harper was ready for a change, claiming that with the Bulldog nickname, the “first thing you think of is rabies and the Health Department.”

The column also included comments from an article written in the student newspaper, which was then called The Bull Dog (it would somewhat ironically undergo a name change to The Brigadier in 1954).

According to cadet J.G. Morton:

…The Citadel footballers have become known as the “Light Brigade”. It is strange that no one has conceived of this idea before. Light Brigade — how well it fits the Citadel eleven! With due respect to tradition, Light Brigade has much more of an implication than Bulldogs.

Again the subject of originality arises. There are high school and college teams all over the United States known as the Bulldogs…Distinction is something vital to greatness in an institution.

Morton went on to name several schools with particularly distinctive nicknames, including Wake Forest’s Demon Deacons, Nebraska’s Cornhuskers, Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish, Washington and Lee’s Generals, and Erskine’s Seceders.

(Of course, by 1937 Erskine was no longer known as the Seceders, having changed its nickname to “Flying Fleet” back in 1930, but news travels slowly out of Due West.)

The cadet summed up his feelings on the subject by stating that “Light Brigade, both military and distinctive, seems to fit The Citadel like the proverbial glove…This columnist favors the retention and official adoption of ‘Light Brigade’ as the term to designate the stalwart and stubborn little teams of The Citadel. A galloping cavalryman, saber extended, charging to the fracas, would look mighty attractive and most distinctive on Citadel stickers.”

By early 1938, it was apparent that Morton was going to get his wish. On March 1, a column by The News and Courier‘s Russell Rogers included the tidbit that Fred Dixon was “proud to learn that the locals were planning to adopt his nickname for the team officially”.

On September 10 of that year, The News and Courier‘s new sports editor, R.M. Hitt Jr., noted in his weekly column that “Citadel authorities have abandoned the name of ‘Bulldogs’ in favor of ‘Light Brigade’ when referring to the football team. In the 1938 Blue Book of College Athletics, ‘Light Brigade’ is the only nickname given for Citadel teams.”

Hitt wasn’t so sure going with “Light Brigade” exclusively was a great idea:

Personally, we like Light Brigade but we don’t believe we would abandon Bulldogs entirely. Light Brigade doesn’t fit too well in snappy cheers and Bulldog does…We like Bulldogs for the cheering section and we like Light Brigade for the writers. There’s no reason why The Citadel doesn’t use both. After all, Furman’s teams are Purple Hurricanes and Purple Paladins.

Clearly, the switch had the support of more than just a few random students and journalists. It certainly had the backing of important administrators at The Citadel, presumably including David S. McAlister, then just a few years into his long career as the Director of Student Activities for the military college. It is also easy to see how the new nickname could have had a personal appeal for the school president, Gen. Charles P. Summerall, who among other things was an advocate of maintaining a peacetime cavalry corps.

Newspaper headlines started to incorporate the new nickname. Just a sampling from 1938 and 1939:

  • “Citadel Light Brigade Opens Season Against Davidson Here Tonight”
  • “Citadel Light Brigade Rolls Past Scrappy Wofford Terriers, 27-0”
  • “Citadel Brigade Prepares For Final Game Of Season”
  • “Light Brigade Leaves Today for Wilmington – Will Play Tomorrow”
  • “Bantams and Brigadiers To Perform Here This Week-end”
  • “Brigadiers To Battle Blue Hose Warriors Here Tonight”

Those are fairly typical. (The “Bantams” referred to the High School of Charleston.)

In a bit of a surprise, local newspaper writers rarely used “Light Brigade” as an excuse to wallow in florid prose. Much of the time, “Bulldogs” could have been substituted for “Light Brigade” in the various previews and stories about the football team without having any effect on the descriptions contained in the game accounts or the ancillary articles.

There were intermittent references to “Brigadiers” (as seen in a couple of the headlines noted above), but not as many as one might expect.

While most prominently employed for football, the nickname was used by The News and Courier for all of The Citadel’s varsity sports. For example, it occasionally appeared in descriptions of the boxing team (“Light Brigade Mittmen to Meet North Carolina”) and the hoops squad (including at least one reference as late as 1943).

Meanwhile, a new fight song, “The Fighting Light Brigade”, made its debut at The Citadel. This song first appeared in The Guidon in 1939:

We’re here cheering loudly, as the Brigadiers parade.
Bucks, we claim you proudly as THE FIGHTING LIGHT BRIGADE!
March on, ye valiant warriors; your courage shall not fade;
As we yell, we yell like hell for you, THE FIGHTING LIGHT BRIGADE!

 

“The Fighting Light Brigade” remained a staple in The Guidon‘s listing of school fight songs until 1968, when it disappeared from that publication. However, the tune made its triumphant return to the book in 1993, and is today one of five more or less “official” fight songs at The Citadel, even though it was inspired by a team nickname that has not been in use for almost 80 years.

In 1940, another song with lyrics referencing the Light Brigade made an appearance in The Guidon. This was “Cheer, Boys, Cheer”, not to be confused with the popular 19th-century song featuring that exact title (or yet another, unrelated fight song at The Citadel by that same name from the 1920s).

The 1940s-era “Cheers, Boys, Cheer” featured lyrics by Erroll Hay Colcock and music by Carl Metz (who served as The Citadel’s band director from 1912 to 1943). However, “Cheer, Boys, Cheer” evidently did not have the staying power of “The Fighting Light Brigade”, as its last appearance in The Guidon came in 1946.

Incidentally, Colcock and Metz teamed up to write several musical numbers for the school during this period, one of which (“The Citadel Forever”), like “The Fighting Light Brigade”, enjoys a place on the college’s list of official fight songs.

Tangent #2: if the name ‘Colcock’ sounds familiar, Erroll Hay Colcock was related to Richard W. Colcock, Superintendent of the South Carolina Military Academy (now known as The Citadel) from 1844 to 1852. He was her great-grandfather’s brother. Erroll Hay Colcock’s father was the principal of Porter Military Academy for many years.

Despite the push for the new nickname from the school, and the willingness of the press to go along with it, there was clearly always resistance to the change. Primary evidence for this comes from a noticeably long column by R.M. Hitt, Jr. in the October 15, 1939 edition of the local newspaper.

Hitt began his column (amusingly called “Hitt’s Runs and Errors”) by noting the dismay of Teddy Weeks over the switch. Weeks was a well-known former football and basketball star at The Citadel, an all-state performer for three consecutive years in both sports, and a hero of The Citadel’s first Homecoming game in 1924.

Later, he was a prominent coach in the Lowcountry at the high school level. (Weeks’ older brother was also an all-state quarterback at The Citadel; his son, Teddy Jr., played basketball at the military college for Norm Sloan.)

The sports editor quoted from a letter Weeks had written to him:

As you know, the Citadel teams have always been called the Bulldogs for as long as can be remembered. And they have been known for their ferocious attack, fighting always, never conceding defeat until the end.

I would like to suggest and I believe that I am voicing the sentiments of all the old Bulldog graduates…that you drop the term ‘Light Brigade’ and put back the old term of Bulldogs. In doing this I believe you might revamp the present team and put more vim, vigor and the will to do or die for the team and more spirit in the alumni.

Hitt then wrote 19 more paragraphs on the issue, one of the longer opinion columns on a single topic I can remember in the sports section of The News and Courier. It was particularly unusual for its length when considering the fact that it did not concern an actual game.

His initial comments following Weeks’ plea were as follows:

So there you are, Citadel men. After all, it’s your football team…it belongs to Citadel cadets and Citadel alumni.

It seems to us that if Citadel men want their team to be called Bulldogs it ought to be called Bulldogs. It certainly wouldn’t make much difference to us. In fact, Bulldogs can be more easily fitted into a headline that Light Brigade in many cases.

Hitt pointed out that there were arguments in favor of “Light Brigade”, observing that it was unique in a way that “Bulldogs” was not. He listed numerous other schools that shared the old nickname, including Arizona State (which changed its moniker from Bulldogs to Sun Devils in 1946).

The columnist wrote that school officials “decided the term was a trifle on the hackneyed side but they probably wouldn’t have touched it” if not for Fred Dixon’s efforts.

At that point, stated Hitt, “the phrase [Light Brigade] caught on. It carried the same atmosphere of grim determination, of fight to the death, and it was unique. No other institution had it. Light Brigade also brought in a military angle, an angle of which The Citadel is justly proud.”

However, Hitt then perceptively noted some of the drawbacks of the new nickname:

Use of ‘Light Brigade’ leaves much to be desired. It is not snappy enough and while newspapermen might delight in having the Brigade charge into the jaws of death with cannon on the right of them and cannon on the left of them, the nickname won’t fit very well into a good old salty college yell.

Imagine a wad of cadets screaming with zest such phrases as “Light Brigade! Light Brigade! Rah! Rah! Rah! Bulldogs would fit much easier. In fact Bulldogs does fit much easier.

All the yells in The Citadel’s category, as far as we know, fail to mention even once the term Light Brigade. The cadets, we noticed the other night, were still yelling about Bulldogs, fight, fight, fight.

The fact of the matter is, Light Brigade, because of its almost sacred historical significance, just never would sound right mixed up with rah-rahs and boom-booms.

Hitt finished his column by stating that “we have no authority to change the name back to Bulldogs. That’s up to The Citadel. If they say they’re the Light Brigade, then, by George, we’ll call them the Light Brigade. And if they say they’re not the Light Brigade but are the Bulldogs, then you’ll see us calling them Bulldogs. We ain’t mad at nobody.”

Reading it decades later, it seems to me that one of the more interesting things about Hitt’s column is its impartiality.

Hitt himself had not been a big sports fan, and had only been named the sports editor in the spring of 1938, when the job opened suddenly. Prior to that the native of Bamberg (whose parents had published the local weekly paper there) had worked the city beat for The News and Courier. 

When he was appointed to helm the sports section, he was just 24 years old. Hitt would eventually become the editor of The Evening Post, holding that job for 15 years until dying of complications from a brain hemorrhage at the age of 53.

Oh, and one more thing — Hitt was a 1935 graduate of The Citadel. You would never know it from reading that column.

The controversy, such as it was, limped along over the next couple of years. Over time, it became obvious that “Light Brigade” was not going to gain a following among alumni or the public at large.

One probable reason for this, something subtly alluded to by Teddy Weeks in his letter to the newspaper, was that the school’s teams were not all that successful while called the Light Brigade.

For the four years (1938 – 1941) in which The Citadel’s varsity athletic teams were officially known as the Light Brigade, the football team had a cumulative win/loss record of 17-21-1. The basketball squad was 30-40 over that same four-year period.

In the four years prior to the nickname switch, the football team went 18-18-2, while the hoopsters were 33-31. In other words, the fortunes on the gridiron and on the hardwood declined while The Citadel’s teams were called the Light Brigade.

In 1942, the year after the school reverted back to “Bulldogs”, both the football and basketball teams finished with winning records.

Lack of on-field and on-court success is obviously not the only explanation for why the “Light Brigade” moniker didn’t appeal to many of the school’s fans, but it certainly didn’t help.

In February of 1940, The News and Courier printed a short blurb which seemed to gently mock the nickname situation:

Many Charlestonians have suggested a new nickname for The Citadel’s football team.

The gridmen, instead of being called the Light Brigade, should be called the Bo-Cats.

The head coach is Bo Rowland and the assistant Bo Sherman.

I seriously doubt that many (if any) Charlestonians were making this suggestion, but I suppose it did fill up some blank space in the newspaper.

The death knell for the “Light Brigade” nickname was announced publicly on September 19, 1942. Under the heading “Citadel Nickname Again Bulldogs”, The News and Courier reported:

Citadel’s athletic teams this year again will be called the Bulldogs. For the past several years Blue and White aggregations from the military college have been carrying the nickname “Light Brigade”, but football publicity being churned out this fall shows that the school has returned to its original appellation — Bulldogs.

That wasn’t the end of “Light Brigade” in print, although the term’s usage with regards to The Citadel became increasingly rare.

In 1955, Ed Campbell (then The News and Courier‘s sports editor) used “Light Brigade” while mentioning a 1938 football game. From what I can tell, that was the last time in the 20th century in which the term was used in the local press to describe one of The Citadel’s varsity athletic teams, and even then the context was in reference to the past. The last use of the nickname in the newspaper while chronicling a “current” squad from the military college came in 1951, and that was in an AP article originating from New York.

My personal opinion is that the school eventually got it right. Sure, “Bulldogs” is a common nickname. So what? Over the years, The Citadel has put its own inimitable spin on “Bulldogs”.

Spike The Bulldog is very much unique among anthropomorphic characters, and the establishment of the live mascot program in 2003 has certainly helped differentiate The Citadel’s bulldogs from other collegiate exemplars of the breed (and has also generated a great deal of positive publicity for the college in the process).

More importantly, it is a nickname with which cadets and alumni can identify. It is something very traditional at a school that values tradition.

Conversely, I am not enamored with “Light Brigade” as a school nickname. The most famous light brigade, the one immortalized in poetry by Lord Tennyson, was a British military unit that is best known for:

…a failed military action involving the British light cavalry led by Lord Cardigan against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava on 25 October 1854 in the Crimean War. British commander Lord Raglan had intended to send the Light Brigade to prevent the Russians from removing captured guns from overrun Turkish positions, a task for which the light cavalry were well-suited. However, there was miscommunication in the chain of command, and the Light Brigade was instead sent on a frontal assault against a different artillery battery, one well-prepared with excellent fields of defensive fire. The Light Brigade reached the battery under withering direct fire and scattered some of the gunners, but they were forced to retreat immediately, and the assault ended with very high British casualties and no decisive gains.

Is that really what anyone wants as a sobriquet for a football team?

I know, I know…Tennyson’s poem is largely about honoring bravery and sacrifice, no matter the circumstances, and that is very fine and laudable.

Let’s face it, though: players don’t suit up expecting to get badly beaten, and fans don’t go to a game hoping to experience the glory of a six-touchdown defeat.

The suggestion that the Light Brigade appellation has “almost sacred historical significance” also rings true. It is arguably difficult, if not impossible, to fully reconcile the term with a sporting motif.

The move to the “Light Brigade” nickname was a brief and curious episode in the long history of The Citadel, and is now a distant and mostly-forgotten memory. However, the valiant warriors will march on, and their courage shall not fade.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

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