The story of Sigma Nu began during the period following the Civil War, when a war 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 from the ravages of war and a disrupted domestic life, but because of the system of physical harassment imposed on underclassmen by their fellow students.
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 and was adamant about eliminating it.
Hopkins was soon joined by two classmates and close friends who were also equally unhappy with the hazing situation. They were Greenfield Quarles from Helena, Arkansas, 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 new fraternal society they called the Legion of Honor.
The vow the Founders took bound them together to oppose hazing at VMI and encouraged the application of the Honor Principle 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 tradition 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.