Stop Here! Virginia Military Institute

Virginia Military Institute’s castled walls dominate the town of Lexington, visible from some parts of the historic district. Still a military school, the Institute dates back to 1839 and has a rich history and tradition of honor and courage.

Let’s stop and take a look…

Getting Here

If you’re at Lee Chapel on the grounds of Washington and Lee University, head north along the paths. The road – Letcher Avenue – will take you directly into the Institute.

Just arriving in town? Take Interstate 81 South to Exit 195 (the first Lexington exit) onto US Rt. 11 South. Proceed about 5 miles. Stay in your right lane as you cross the Maury River Bridge and bare right onto Main Street. The tan stucco buildings to your left and right are the grounds of the Institute. Just ahead you will bare right and then immediately take a right turn up the hill onto Letcher Avenue. You will pass through the campus of Washington & Lee University. The VMI Barracks and museum are straight ahead.

Exploring Tips 

  • It is strongly advised that visitors check VMI’s website for information about any special events that may limit touring opportunities.
  • Cadet-led tours are often available and are an excellent way to learn about the history, monuments, and buildings at VMI.
  • It’s recommended to start your visit at the VMI Museum located in Jackson Memorial Hall (the cadet chapel building).
  • Please obey the directions of the volunteers, staff, and cadets regarding available locations to visit. VMI is still an active military school; use proper decorum at all times and do not attempt to enter the barracks.
  • Check the school schedule or call ahead; on Fridays, there is often dress parade and visitors may observe!

Let’s Talk History 

Established in 1839 for the purpose of preparing young men to be citizen-soldiers, VMI served a dual purpose, guarding the arsenal located in Lexington, Virginia, and providing a high-quality educational course for young students. Cadets—typically between ages fifteen and early twenties—entered the Institute by application and remained if they were apt students who did not acquire the maximum demerits.

Part of the original barracks.

As faculty at a military academy sponsored by the state, VMI professors and instructors taught military discipline, drill, and weaponry in addition to mathematics, sciences, history, and composition. Not all graduates who exited the Institute on July 4—the original graduation day—entered professional U. S. or militia military service; most returned to civilian occupations, often achieving leading roles in their community or state as they grew older.

VMI’s reputation was forged during the American Civil War when the school’s professors, alumni, and students took conspicuous roles of leadership and courage in the Confederate military. For example, Thomas J. Jackson – the legendary “Stonewall” – had taught at VMI prior to the conflict.

On May 15, 1864, the Corps of Cadets charged onto a battlefield about seventy-seven miles north of Lexington. The Battle of New Market became the first and thus far only time in American history when a college student body participated in pitched battle as a independent unit.

Benjamin Clinedinst’s painting of the Charge of the Cadets at New Market.

Partly for the cadet’s role in the Confederate victory at New Market, Union General David Hunter burned the Institute in June 1864. Fortunately, the leaders still held hope and vision and the school rose from the ashes following the Civil War.

VMI alumi have fought in every war with U.S. involvement since the Civil War, and many of today’s students will join the armed forces. George C. Marshall and George S. Patton – both World War II generals and heroes – are among the well-known graduates from VMI in the 20th Century.

What We’re Looking At

There’s a lot to see at Virginia Military Institute. Here are a few of my favorite highlights:

The VMI Museum (lower level of Jackson Memorial Hall) exhibits uniforms, weapons, and artifacts from the cadets through the decades, with an emphasis on the Civil War. (You can even see Little Sorrel, Jackson’s horse!)

In the upper level of Jackson Memorial Hall, Benjamin Clinedinst’s 18 foot by 21 foot painting of the cadets at New Market hangs the chapel and is worth time to study.

As you exit Jackson Memorial Hall, look north on Letcher Avenue and walk to the statue of George Washington, standing by the road. This statue pre-dates the Civil War. The barracks in front of the Washington statue are original. Though burned, parts of the structure survived and has been restored.

Stonewall Jackson – by Sir Moses Ezekiel

On the north end of the parade field (closest to the barracks), a statue of “Stonewall” Jackson guards a set of Civil War cannons. The cannons – nicknamed Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – briefly formed part of the Rockbridge Artillery in the early days of the war.

Sir Moses Ezekiel – the first Jewish cadet to attend VMI – became a famous artist. Later in his life, he sculpted the Jackson statue and Virginia Mourning Her Dead. The latter statue stands guard of the graves of the ten cadets who died at or because of the Battle of New Market. (The Virginia statue stands between Jackson Memorial Hall and Preston Library, visible from the parade field.)

The George Marshall Museum stands on the south side of the parade field and offers a tribute to his life and legacy through displays and ongoing leadership seminars and research. Exhibits rotate and hours may differ from the other museums and libraries at VMI. A small admission fee is required.

Going Farther

Drive seventy-seven miles north of Virginia Military Institute on Interstate 81 or Route 11 and you’ll reach the town of New Market, Virginia. This is where the VMI Cadets fought on May 15, 1864.

This is the battlefield I’ve been researching for two years. My new nonfiction book Call Out The Cadets is available for pre-order, and in the coming weeks, I’m going to take you on a tour of the battlefield and tour. Literally. During last year’s research trips, we shot video footage and now I’ve got a surprise for you!

Check out the new series and new format next Wednesday…

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Notes and some text from the new book were used in the creation of this blog post!

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