The academy was military in name only and was for protestant children of mostly noble descent, who were destined one day perhaps to the arms career. The number of pupils rarely went over 40 and the school seemed bound to fall into discreet obscurity. Within a short time, however, it became known all over Europe and helped to increase the fame of the city.
When Pfeffel decided to found his military academy, he was still suffering from the loss of his son, Christian, who is supposed to have appeared to him one night in a dream and encouraged him to start the academy. In fact, Pfeffel had decided on the school well before his son´s death, as can be seen from his Dramatische Kinderspiele, published in 1769. Another slightly more prosaic reason was quite simply that Pfeffel found he could not live off poetry alone.
Pfeffel founded the academy on the teachings of Basedow, a German native who was influenced by Rousseau, and of baron Salis Marschlin who ran an educational establishment in Graubünden along the lines recommended by Basedow.
"The school accepts children of all families" the academy´s promotional pamphlet went, "without regard for their destination or their country of origin ; the only qualities we require of our pupils are a well-born heart, a mind open to culture and a good constitution". In 1781, Pfeffel said of his school: "Our establishment is not an elite school for soldiers or tradesmen, but a breeding ground for all those who want to escape from vulgarity."
Pupils could enter between the ages of 10 and 14. The curriculum lasted three years and covered a number of subjects: languages, history, mathematics, music, fencing, horse-riding and heraldry. The pupils were to be prepared for life in the world and particular attention was paid to keeping good manners. Their masters would take them to balls and introduce them to the authorities. The uniform, organisation (in companies) and discipline was all along military lines, for the "military" part of the academy needed to be justified. The focus of the teaching, however, was the heart and moral rectitude was considered more important than work and intelligence. The aim was not to teach an elite, but to form honest men: "instead of wanting to breed intelligent citizens in my kingdom, I should before anything else, have made them into honest citizens" complained the monarch in the Die Aufklärung fable.
The Military Academy was a considerable success and attracted 288 students in 20 years, a majority of them Swiss, but also Germans, French, Russians, Scots, Swedes and even an American. The whole of Europe came flocking to Colmar to have a look at this fake military, unashamedly Rousseauist school run by a blind poet. Over a period of 20 years 2,198 people came to Colmar to see the school and sign the poet´s Fremdenbuch, including 41 princes, 36 university professors, 28 lawyers and legal experts and 343 women. The list is impressive and made Colmar better known than ever.