Thursday, July 28, 2011


Home to Washington and Lee University 
and Virginia Military Institute

A college atmosphere prevails in Lexington, one of America's most charming small towns. The town certainly has a blue-blood pedigree, since George Washington, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee all figured prominently in its history. Fine old homes line tree-shaded streets, among them the house where Stonewall Jackson lived when he taught at Virginia Military Institute (VMI). A beautifully restored downtown looks so much as it did in the 1800s that scenes for the movie Sommersby were filmed on its Main Street (Richard Gere's character was hanged behind Stonewall's house); all the film makers had to do was cover the asphalt streets with dirt to achieve an authentic period look. After the Civil War, Robert E. Lee came to Lexington to serve as president of what was then Washington College (now W&L); he and his horse, Traveller, are buried on the campus. Gen. George C. Marshall, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his post-World War II plan to rebuild Europe, graduated from VMI, which has a museum in his memory.

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.

The school from which Washington and Lee descended was established in 1749 as Augusta Academy, about 20 miles north of Lexington. In 1776, in a burst of revolutionary fervor, it was renamed Liberty Hall. The academy moved to Lexington in 1780. In 1796, George Washington endowed the school with the largest gift ever given to an educational institution at that time: $20,000 in James River Canal Co. stock. The gift rescued Liberty Hall from near-certain insolvency. In gratitude, the trustees changed the school's name to Washington Academy. In 1803 the Liberty Hall main building burned, and the campus was moved a half mile away to its present location. The stone ruins of Liberty Hall are still standing (see photo below, click to enlarge). In 1813 the academy was chartered as Washington College. Dividends from Washington's gift continue to help pay part of the cost of each student's education.

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.

Lee, his wife and seven children, as well as his father, the Revolutionary War hero "Light Horse Harry" Lee, are buried in the Lee Chapel (above) on campus. His horse Traveller is buried on the chapel grounds. "A Recumbent Lee" is a marble memorial to Robert E. Lee (see photo below) that is placed inside the chapel, directly behind the pulpit. Lee attended daily worship services in the chapel and maintained an office in the basement (restored and open to visitors). Several of the campus buildings have National Historic Landmark status.

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.

In 1851 Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson became a member of the faculty as professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy (physics) and Instructor of Artillery. Jackson's teachings are still used at VMI today. He was a singularly unpopular teacher, and the cadets mocked his stern, religious nature and eccentric traits. In 1856, a group of alumni attempted to have Jackson removed from his position. However, he was revered by many of the African-Americans in town, as he was instrumental in the organization of Sunday School classes for blacks at the Presbyterian Church, where he served as a deacon. His second wife, Mary, taught Sunday School with him. Jackson took his first wife, Ellie, in 1853, while he was an instructor at VMI. Ellie, the daughter of the president of Washington & Lee, died in childbirth in 1854.

In 1859 Jackson purchased a home in Lexington, the only house he ever owned. Built in 1801, the brick house at 8 E. Washington Street was Jackson’s home until he was called to serve in the Confederacy (click photo to enlarge). But Jackson never returned to Lexington, except to be buried. Jackson was badly wounded in the arm (accidentally shot by his own troops) at the battle of Chancellorsville, and had his arm amputated. The operation did not succeed, and pneumonia set in, causing his death on the 10th of May, 1863, near Richmond. After his body was moved to the Governor's Mansion in Richmond for public mourning, he was then moved to Lexington by packet boat on the afternoon of May 14. The VMI Corps of Cadets met the boat and escorted the body of their former commander to the VMI campus, where it lay in state in his old classroom, with cadets standing as guards. The cadet battery, which Jackson so long commanded, fired salutes from sunrise to sunset. One day later, Stonewall Jackson was buried in the Lexington cemetery that now bears his name.

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.

At VMI, a bronze statue of Stonewall Jackson stands outside the main entrance to the cadet barracks; first-year cadets exiting the barracks through this archway are required to honor Jackson's memory by saluting the statue.

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.

Traditions are long lived. Women were excluded from the Corps of Cadets until 1997 (25 years after neighboring W&L became co-ed), making VMI the last U.S. military college to admit women. Today’s cadets forswear such comforts as beds, lying upon cots (aired every Monday) that are little more than foam mats that must be rolled every morning. Cadet uniforms have changed little over the years; the coatee, a parade uniform, dates back to the war of 1812. New cadets, called Rats, experience even further deprivations, being unable to watch TV or listen to music or use the telephone outside the presence of their assigned upperclassman mentors. The tradition of guarding the Institute is carried out to this day. Cadets have been posted as sentinels guarding the barracks 24 hours a day, seven days a week, while school is in session since the first cadet sentinel relieved the Virginia Militia guard team tasked with defending the Lexington Arsenal (which later became VMI) in 1839; each sentinel is armed with an M-14 rifle and bayonet and wears a traditional uniform.

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.

Most of Stonewall Jackson (he's missing an arm, as revealed above) is buried in the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery in downtown Lexington. The memorial statue (left) makes a fine contrast to the one on the campus at VMI.

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.

Roadside Curiosity:
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).