I remember my first trip to Lexington, in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, was to see a Gordon Lightfoot concert at Washington and Lee University. Lexington is the home of Washington and Lee, as well as the Virginia Military Institute. I also attended a football game at VMI that chilly afternoon. Even so, I was quick to discover that Lexington is not your typical college town.
Downtown Lexington by Tim Menzies via wikimedia commons
Don’t get me wrong, Lexington has a lot of the same college hang outs you will find in other college towns. If I remember correctly I enjoyed a very tasty bowl of chili at a typical college eatery there. Lexington also has a lot of history for a small town with a population of about 7,000. If you are interested at all in the American Civil War, then you need to make a stop in Lexington, Virginia.
Washington and Lee University gets its name from the first president of our country, George Washington and Civil War general Robert E. Lee. Originally a small struggling Presbyterian college known as Liberty Hall Academy, it was later renamed Washington College after George Washington made an endowment to the college of $20,000. After the Civil War, Lee served as its president until his death in 1870. After Lee’s death the school changed its name to Washington and Lee.
The Lee Chapel and Museum on campus houses a memorial sculpture of the recumbent Lee and a family crypt underneath which holds Lee, his wife, mother and father, plus his children and other family members. Lee’s famous horse Traveler is buried in a plot outside the building.
Robert E. Lee Monument by Jan Kronsell via wikimedia commons
Sitting next to Washington and Lee is the Virginia Military Institute usually referred to as VMI. VMI is strictly a school for military cadets. All cadets take part in the Reserve Officer’s Training Corp, but upon graduation they may choose to forgo the military to return to civilian life to pursue their goals.
There is a lot of tradition at VMI. During the Civil War many of its cadets were called into active duty in the Confederacy. There were VMI alumni enlisted on both sides during the war. Stonewall Jackson was an instructor at VMI prior to the Civil War and trained many of the cadets after the war started. VMI cadets fought as a unit at the Battle of New Market just north of Lexington.
When visiting Lexington, one of the stops you will not want to miss is Stonewall Jackson’s home. Guided tours are available and you will be informed about Jackson’s life while he lived in the only house he ever owned, while teaching at VMI.
Stonewall Jackson House by Jan Kronsell via wikimedia commons
You may enjoy walking through the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery where Jackson and his family are buried beneath a statue of him created by artist Edward Valentine, who also created the memorial sculpture of Lee in the Lee Chapel.
If you aren’t up for a walking tour of Lexington, you should check out the Lexington Carriage Company. They will be happy to provide a horse-drawn carriage tour of the city. There is so much to see and do in this charming town nestled in the Shenandoah Valley. So take that exit off of I-81, slow down a little, and enjoy the history. You’ll be really glad you did!