Home to Washington and Lee University
and Virginia Military Institute
Washington and Lee University has one of the oldest and most beautiful campuses in the country. Built in 1824, Washington Hall (shown below), a decidedly handsome structure, is topped by a replica of an American folk art masterpiece, an 1840 carved-wood statue of George Washington. W&L is the ninth oldest institution of higher education in the nation and nearly a hundred years older than neighboring VMI.
Robert E. Lee, who had earlier been superintendent of West Point, was president of Washington College after the Civil War in 1865 until his death in 1870, after which the school was renamed Washington and Lee University, to honor him. There was also a family connection between the Washingtons and Lees: Robert E. Lee’s wife was the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. General Lee reputedly planted some of the massive trees dotting the campus, and his son, George Washington Custis Lee, followed as the school's next president. It is a little known fact that Lee revolutionized higher education in the country during his tenure as president of Washington College. He established the first school of professional journalism in the country and added both business and law schools to the curriculum, under the conviction that those occupations should be linked with the liberal arts. Prior to that time, the disciplines of business, journalism and law been considered technical crafts, not intellectual endeavors. Lee joined them for the first time to the liberal arts and sciences, as they remain to this day.
Washington and Lee was all male until 1972, when women were admitted to the law school; the first female undergraduates did not enroll until 1985. There are no graduate or teaching assistants, thus every course is taught by a faculty member. Its academic standing is highly competitive, with an acceptance rate of only 15%. The 2010 Forbes Magazine college rankings place W&L 37th in the nation, seven places ahead of nearby academic rival University of Virginia. Combining academics with an active social culture, Washington and Lee ranked 14th in "Best Overall Academic Experience for Undergraduates" by Princeton Review.
Trivia: Journalist, social critic and author Tom Wolfe (looks best in an all-white suit) was a graduate of W&L, as was John Warner, Secretary of the Navy and Virginia Senator (not to mention former husband of the recently deceased Elizabeth Taylor).
Called the West Point of the South, Virginia Military Institute opened in 1839 on the site of a state arsenal, abutting the Washington and Lee campus (W&L's buildings are like brick Southern manses, whereas VMI's look like stone fortresses). The campus, referred to as "the Post," sits on 134 acres, 12 of which are designated as a National Historic District.
Footnote: However, the arm that was amputated was buried separately by Jackson's chaplain at “Ellwood,” the J. Horace Lacy house in the wilderness of Orange County, near the field hospital where the arm was amputated. A marker notes that Lee’s arm was interred there on May 3, 1862, a day after the amputation. The Ellwood property, located off Rt. 20 before the intersection of Rt. 3 at Lake of the Woods, is now owned by the National Park Service as part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park – Battle of the Wilderness. The property and house may be visited.
The most dramatic episode in VMI's history, however, took place during the Civil War at the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864, when the corps of cadets helped turn back a larger Union army. After a four-day long march to the rain soaked battlefield, all 257 cadets took part in the effort; 10 were killed in action or died later as a result of wounds received, and 57 cadets were wounded. The youngest cadet was only fifteen years old. This brave event is commemorated in a large mural which dominates a wall in the VMI chapel (see below). A month later, Union Gen. David Hunter got even, attacking Lexington and burning down VMI (he spared Washington College because it was named for the first president).
The service of the VMI Corps of Cadets during the 1864 Battle of New Market marks the only time in the nation's history that an entire student body fought as a unit in pitched battle. That service entitles VMI cadets to be the only school in the United States to parade with fixed bayonets, and to fly a battle streamer on its flag. VMI honors its fallen every May 15 on the anniversary of the Battle of New Market with a parade, cannon salutes and a wreath-placing ceremony.
Footnote: In November of 1859, just prior to the Civil War, Jackson moved a contingent of his VMI cadets to Harper's Ferry, WV, where they helped maintain order during John Brown's execution on December 2.
All VMI students are military cadets pursuing bachelor degrees. Distinct from the other five senior military colleges in the United States, all VMI cadets must participate in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC); however, they are not required to serve in the military upon graduation. Instead, graduates may either accept a commission in any of the US military branches or pursue civilian endeavors upon graduation. Prospective cadets must be between 16 and 22 years of age. They must be unmarried, physically fit for enrollment in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and be graduates of an accredited secondary school or have completed an approved home-school curriculum. Among its distinguished military alumni was the first five-star General of the Army, George C. Marshall (class of 1901). General George Patton attended VMI (1903-1904) prior to his transfer to West Point.
A controversy occurred in 2002 when two students sued the school over the non-denominational prayer recited daily over dinner (all cadets are required to eat in the mess hall). The Fourth Circuit court ruled that the prayer, during an event with mandatory attendance at a state-funded school, violated the U.S. Constitution. Not until the Supreme Court declined to review the school's appeal in April 2004 was the prayer tradition discontinued.
• Ronald Reagan starred in the films Brother Rat and Brother Rat and a Baby, which were both filmed at VMI. Originally a Broadway production, the play Brother Rat was written by John Monks Jr. and Fred F. Finklehoffe, both 1932 graduates of VMI.
• Jack Holt (1888–1951), a leading man of silent and sound films, was known for his many roles in Westerns. He grew up in Winchester, VA, and attended VMI, but was expelled for misbehavior. Interestingly, Holt was Margaret Mitchell’s preference for the screen role of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind (1939), even though she had no say in the casting.
• Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, was the wife of 1971 VMI graduate Steven J. McAuliffe (a federal judge in New Hampshire). She had his VMI ring with her onboard the shuttle. His brother VMI Rats subsequently replaced his ring.
Lexington (population 7,000) is located in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, just west of I-81 (exit 188). Roanoke is to the south, and Harrisonburg lies to the north. Distance from Washington, D.C., is approximately 180 miles.
First Catch Fish Market (in a percolator)
In an amazing building recycling triumph, this post WW II corrugated aluminum structure now serves as a fresh fish market (Tue-Sat 11:00a-6:00p; 540.261.1001). Originally built as a coffee diner just east of Lexington, the building sat vacant after the owner retired to Virginia Beach. Used for a short time as a river outfitter, it was brought back to life last year. Kudos to the present occupants for salvaging a roadside landmark! It's all still there, down to the spout and handle. You can visit them at 1870 E. Midland Trail (Route 60), east of I-81 (exit 188A toward Buena Vista).