From the February 1995 issue of TLD


A Clutch of Nettles
By Virginia Dare


Jesus, my father, and Robert E. Lee


In the early 1960s — the centennial years of the War for Southern Independence — I lived in Lexington, Virginia, a small town that enshrined the heroism and the hopelessness of the conflict. Elsewhere in this issue, [Sarah] Knox Taylor alludes to the ways in which the South was humiliated in her defeat but managed to retain a basic civility. The Lexington of my childhood in many ways was formed by those events.

There are two institutions of higher learning in town: Virginia Military Institute, where Thomas Jackson taught mathematics at the outbreak of the War, and Washington and Lee University, which as Washington College enjoyed General Lee's guidance during a formative period in its development. These two schools, the Spartan military academy and the patrician liberal arts university, tell us a lot about the Southern character under fire, both real and figurative.

In May 1864, few able-bodied men remained in the Valley of Virginia, and General Franz Sigel's march toward Staunton, with the objective of cutting off a major railroad supply line to Lee's forces, was opposed by a force one-quarter the size of his army, led by General J.D. Imboden. VMI's Corps of Cadets, 253 strong, was ordered to Staunton and then to New Market, closer to the head of the Shenandoah Valley, to head off the invading forces. The youngest cadet was 15 years old, the oldest 24. On May 15, 1864, at New Market, five cadets were killed in battle and five others received wounds that later proved mortal. Although the Confederate forces routed the Union army, the Northern forces marched into Lexington barely a month later, looted the town, and burned much of VMI to the ground.

New Market Day is the sacred festival of VMI's modern-day corps. Thirty-five years ago, when I first saw it, I was dazzled as the entire corps of cadets came marching onto the parade ground that serves as the center of campus life, red cape linings catching the May breeze as the band played "Dixie" — and I was moved as the various companies answered the roll call for their 1864 members. When the name of each of the 10 fallen cadets was called, the captain of his company responded, "Died on the field of honor, sir," and a moment's pause fell before the roll call was resumed.

At the edge of the parade ground is a massive statue of the Amazon warrior who on Virginia's flag stands armed over a defeated tyrant. Here she sits desolate, her spear falling neglected. She is Virginia Mourning Her Dead, erected to commemorate the New Market casualties. Several of the fallen cadets were interred beneath that statue after its erection in 1912, and others have joined them since. (My first New Market Day was particularly chill-inspiring: a seventh cadet's remains were reinterred during the ceremonies.) The school is still seeking permission from the families of the remaining casualties to reunite the boys' remains with those of their comrades-in-arms.

Today, the rebuilt barracks of the Institute are as Spartan as the originals. The cadets sleep in doorless bedrooms on wooden camp cots with mattresses barely an inch thick, and they rise before dawn for roll call and calisthenics before beginning a rigorous academic schedule that ends at 11 p.m. with taps and lights out. The school is enmeshed in a court battle to preserve its male-only student body, and armchair psychics are putting their money on VMI primarily because its lack of privacy is built into the bedrock, and there is nowhere on the tiny campus to add the sort of sleeping and latrine accommodations needed to preserve female dignity.

A walk of under five minutes takes visitors to the Washington and Lee campus, a typical tree-shaded quadrangle inspired by Jeffersonian architecture. Unlike their VMI counterparts, the students here enjoy a 1950s-style small-town collegiate life, complete with active fraternity houses and a girls' junior college seven miles away in the next town. Although today's university gentlemen are a few years older, on the average, than the student body in Lee's day, they remain a relatively clean-cut lot, looking ahead to creditable careers in respectable law firms.

When Lee assumed the presidency of the college in September 1865, his first administrative act was to abolish all rules save the general principle that each student was expected to attend faithfully to his college duties and to conduct himself as a gentleman. The General took his duties very seriously; he was accountable to Almighty God for each of these young men. On display in the university museum today is one of the many letters Lee wrote during his administration (twice yearly to the parents of each student), commenting on the character, academic accomplishments, and potential areas of improvement which he had observed in one of the boys. Mrs. Lee frequently occupied herself in the evenings doing mending for the young men. Clearly both the General and his lady considered themselves to be serving as surrogate parents, and the students' journals reveal that they would rather have walked barefoot on hot coals than risk the president's gently expressed disappointment if their academic performance slipped or their youthful experimentation with spirits caused any disturbance in the community.

Lee, with several of his family members, is interred in the chapel crypt of Washington and Lee University. A white marble statue of the General on his bier, carved by Samuel Valentine, lies in the chapel; a friend of mine, reaching out to touch the carved draperies, was startled to find them cold and hard under his fingers. Tourists are visibly moved not only by the lifelike depiction of Lee — asleep, one hand resting lightly on his sword hilt — but also by the letters and other memorabilia in the adjoining museum, which demonstrate the exacting standard by which he conducted his life. There is a lovely story, probably apocryphal, although one rather hopes not, about an elderly maiden lady in Lexington who told acquaintances that she looked forward with joy to her death. "For when I arrive in Heaven," she stated cheerfully, "I will be with the three men I most revere in the world: Jesus, my father, and Robert E. Lee." One would be hard-pressed to come up with a more impressive group of heroes.

Jackson's return to Lexington from the War was an affair much more tragic than Lee's quiet arrival by horseback. A company of VMI cadets met the funeral cortege on its return from the lying-in-state at Richmond, and his coffin was taken to the classroom where he had taught before the War, where it remained under guard of honor until the next day's simple Presbyterian funeral. Jackson — his winding sheet the first Confederate flag ever sewn, a gift sent by President Davis — was buried in the family plot in the town cemetery. His widow wore a borrowed mourning dress. In 1891 Valentine completed a statue of Jackson in uniform, standing to face the South he had defended in life; it stands in the center of the cemetery. Jackson's mortal remains were translated to a crypt beneath the statue in a splendid ceremony at which Generals Wade Hampton and Jubal Early spoke, and all of Lexington turned out in a gala celebration of Jackson's life and achievement.

Ten years ago, I returned to Lexington on May 15 with two friends who sympathized intellectually with the Southern cause, but didn't, I suspected, totally understand the Southern mystique. I found that political correctness had left its imprint on the VMI parade: "Dixie" had been replaced in the intervening 25 years with "Shenandoah" (not a bad choice for a musical tribute to ten young men who gave their lives to defend the Valley of Virginia against invaders). But although we have become increasingly a nation of cynics, there wasn't a dry eye among the spectators on the field as the roll call of the fallen was answered in the traditional way.

One of my companions noted in some surprise that the Stars and Stripes whipped in the May breeze above a gathering that commemorated a battle in which it was an enemy symbol. Actually, the presence of the flag underscores the peculiar purity of the cause for which Lee and Jackson, among so many others, sacrificed so painfully. For Virginians, and Southerners generally, fought not for their government, but for their country. They honored the flag that symbolized their country then, and they honor the different flag that symbolizes it now. If only those who claim its custody today could deserve it; they could do worse than emulate the soldier-scholars of Lexington.

Virginia Dare writes from the Old Dominion, where stone statues soften hearts, and gray ghosts yet walk.

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