Main Street in Lexington, Virginia

Lexington During the Civil War

The town of Lexington is the seat of Rockbridge County in the Shenandoah Valley. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), it was home to Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) and the Virginia Military Institute. Although not of great strategic importance, the town nevertheless smoldered in the atmosphere of war long before many other Virginian communities felt the conflict. In November 1859, a detachment of its resident corps of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute was deployed to Charles Town (in what is now West Virginia) to provide security at the execution of the infamous John Brown for his raid on Harpers Ferry. Unionist sentiments prevailed, however, until U.S. president Abraham Lincoln's call for troops, when many of Lexington's male citizens enlisted in service of the Confederate States of America. Events such as the burial of Confederate general Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and Union general David Hunter's fiery raid brought the quiet mountain town momentary attention from the wider world, but the demands of the Civil War also siphoned its resources on a daily basis. MORE...

 

Despite the cadets' involvement with the execution of John Brown, Lexington citizens edged toward secession with reluctance. A volunteer regiment called the Rockbridge Rifles formed late in 1859. Students at Washington College and the young ladies in town were the most prone to war fever and exhibited their symptoms by wearing secessionist badges and seeking to form military classes. It was Lincoln's call for troops that pushed many Lexingtonians in favor of secession. Before long "all except the old men of the town of Lexington were in the army," as resident poet Margaret Junkin Preston noted in her journal. By April 1862, only five students remained enrolled at Washington College, and VMI was also unnaturally vacant.

Lexington's role in the war was rarely enough to make headlines until May 1863, when the body of Stonewall Jackson, who had died following Chancellorsville, was brought home for burial amid what Preston described as "the flowing tears of a vast concourse of people." In December of that year, the war itself finally came to Lexington, as Confederate troops under John D. Imboden and Fitzhugh Lee joined with the Lexington Home Guard and remaining VMI cadets to guard the town from a potential attack by Union general William W. Averell. The Union threat headed south rather than descending upon Lexington; but like many communities in the Civil War, it narrowly escaped harm once, only to be scathed in a second encounter.

Union general David Hunter targeted Lexington in June 1864, as he marched his troops south through the Shenandoah Valley. Rushing to its defense were Confederate forces under John A. McCausland, who gave enough notice for frantic Lexingtonians to hide their valuables in attics, under floors, and in outhouses. On June 11, McCausland burned the bridge over the North River (now Maury River) in an attempt to delay Hunter's advance, effectively cutting it off from its main supply route. By mid-afternoon, Union shells were raining on the town, followed by three days of Union troops raiding and looting virtually every private home, business, and institution in Lexington. On June 12, Hunter burned Virginia governor John Letcher's home, the Virginia Military Institute, and several faculty houses. Hunter departed Lexington on June 14, leaving it to face a long, hungry winter. Lexington's war-weariness was evident by the spring of 1865, but there was also one striking sign that its characteristic practical, energetic spirit was as lively as ever: a rebuilt bridge spanned the North River.

The town was convulsed in violence during Reconstruction (1865–1877), beginning when William L. Coan, a representative of the American Missionary Association, opened a school for freed blacks in December 1865. Agents of the federal Freedmen's Bureau warned Coan that "General Lee's boys" would make Lexington "a hard place" for such work, and it was. Meanwhile, General Lee—former Confederate general Robert E. Lee—became president of Washington College and was interred there after his death in 1870. His remains are now in Lee Chapel on the campus of Washington and Lee University

Time Line

  • December 2, 1859 - Eighty-five Virginia Military Institute cadets, under the leadership of Thomas J. Jackson and John McCausland, attend the execution of John Brown in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia).
  • December 17, 1863 - Forces under Confederate general John D. Imboden converge in Lexington and join with the Lexington Home Guard and cadets from the Virginia Military Institute to fend off attack from Union general William W. Averell.
  • June 11–14, 1864 - Union general David Hunter's forces shell Lexington and burn the Virginia Military Institute before occupying the town for several days during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864.
Further Reading
Allan, Elizabeth Preston. The Life and Letters of Margaret Junkin Preston. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, and Co., 1903.
Driver, Robert J., Jr. Lexington and Rockbridge County in the Civil War. Lynchburg, Virginia: H. E. Howard, 1989.
Turner, Charles W., ed. "Gen. David Hunter's Sack of Lexington, Virginia, June 10–14, 1864: An Account by Rose Page Pendleton." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 83:2 (April 1975): 173–183.
Cite This Entry
APA Citation:
Wright, C. M. Lexington During the Civil War. (2010, October 11). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Lexington_During_the_Civil_War.

MLA Citation:
Wright, C. M. "Lexington During the Civil War." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 11 Oct. 2010. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: March 31, 2009 | Last modified: October 11, 2010


Contributed by Catherine M. Wright, the collections manager at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. She is the editor of Lee's Last Casualty: The Life and Letters of Sgt. Robert W. Parker, Second Virginia Cavalry (2008).