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