The story of Sigma Nu began during the period following the Civil War, when a Confederate veteran from Arkansas named James Frank Hopkins enrolled at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. When Hopkins enrolled, the Confederate South was in a state of turmoil and just beginning to recover from the devastating military defeat it had suffered. VMI was highly recognized for its civil engineering program and the South badly needed to repair its bridges and railroads. The cadets suffered, not only from the ravages of war and a disrupted home-life, but also because of the system of physical harassment imposed on lower classmen by their fellow upper classmen. As a military veteran, Hopkins accepted a tolerable amount of structure and subservience, however found the hazing at VMI unacceptable and was doggedly adamant about eradicating the system of mistreatment.
Two compatriots soon joined Hopkins: Greenfield Quarles, from Arkansas, a Kentuckian by birth, and James McIlvaine Riley from St. Louis, Missouri. They both shared the same vision of eradicating hazing at VMI. These three men began a movement to completely abolish the hazing system at VMI and their efforts culminated on a moonlit October night in 1868. Following Bible study at the Superintendent's home, 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 society of brotherhood they called the Legion of Honor.