The Literal Reconstruction of VMI: Reunion, Restitution, Remembrance

By Kaylyn Sawyer ’17

This is the second in a three-part series on the legacy of the Civil War at the Virginia Military Institute. You can also check out part one to read about VMI’s struggle for survival in the years immediately after the war. You can access part three at the bottom of this post. 

Jackson Memorial Hall, home of the VMI Chapel, is a sacred space on a secular campus. Stark wooden pews face the front of the chapel, gothic-style lanterns hang alongside state flags from the exposed-beam ceiling, and a mural depicting the charge of VMI’s New Market Cadets hangs prominently as the focal point. The stuffed hide of Little Sorrel, Stonewall Jackson’s horse, stands one level below in the VMI Museum. Yet an even more unexpected item exists in this multi-purposed hall: a plaque honoring Henry Algernon du Pont, the Union artillery captain who shelled the Institute in June of 1864. Fifty years of sectional healing following this destruction resulted in changes not only for the Institute but throughout the reuniting nation.  I’ll begin with du Pont’s story.

Inside Jackson Memorial Hall. Photo courtesy of the author.
Inside Jackson Memorial Hall. Photo courtesy of the author.

Henry Algeron du Pont’s father was a West Point classmate of Francis Smith, the VMI superintendent who successfully advocated for VMI’s rebuilding in 1865 and again for its very existence in 1868.   Du Pont graduated from West Point and rose to the rank of captain in the Army of the Shenandoah. His Union artillery encountered the VMI cadets on the battlefield at New Market in May 1864.  One month later in Lexington, VA he fired his cannons at the cadet barracks that housed VMI’s students, including Cadet Thomas Martin of Charlottesville, VA.  This would not be du Pont’s last experience with the Virginia Military Institute. Continue reading “The Literal Reconstruction of VMI: Reunion, Restitution, Remembrance”

Pennsylvania College During the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg

Nineteen thirteen was an eventful year in the United States, as Woodrow Wilson was sworn in as President of the United States, Congress established the Department of Commerce and the Department of Labor, the 16th and 17th Amendments were ratified,…

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Nineteen thirteen was an eventful year in the United States, as Woodrow Wilson was sworn in as President of the United States, Congress established the Department of Commerce and the Department of Labor, the 16th and 17th Amendments were ratified, and the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.  Between July 1st and 4th, in 100-degree weather, more than 53,000 Civil War veterans from 46 of  the 48 states visited Gettysburg where they lived in tents located southwest of the town, about 200 yards from the High Water Mark Monument on the battlefield.  The average age of the participants was 72, with New York veteran Micyah Weiss at 112 the oldest, and Colonel John Lincoln Clem, aged 61 (who had run away from home at the age of 10 to serve as a drummer boy in the Union Army of the Cumberland), the youngest.

The first time that Union and Confederate veterans reunited in Gettysburg was in 1887.  In 1906, another small reunion occurred in Gettysburg when Union veterans from the Philadelphia Brigade and Confederates from Pickett’s Division met.  In April 1908, Brigadier General H.S. Huidekopper, a Civil War veteran who lost his right arm in the battle, suggested to then Pennsylvania Governor Edwin Smart that the state host a 50th anniversary event at the battlefield. Smart used Huidekopper’s idea and organized a special legislative committee to plan the first major reunion of the Blue and Gray.  On May 13, 1909, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania created the 50th Anniversary Battle of Gettysburg Commission to consider and arrange for a proper and fitting recognition and observance at Gettysburg.  In June 1910, the United States Congress created a Joint Special Committee on the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg to confer with the commission and recommend proper actions to be taken by Congress.  The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania contributed $450,000 toward the cost of the event.  In August 1912, Congress passed a bill that appropriated $150,000, along with the use of Army troops to set up and operate a massive tent city to house the veterans.  Altogether, the individual states contributed $1.75 million toward the reunion.
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Lewis Tway’s Tin Cup

On July 1, 1913, veterans of the American Civil War, both Union and Confederate, gathered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. The anniversary activities served a dual purpose of commemorating the battle and those who p…

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On July 1, 1913, veterans of the American Civil War, both Union and Confederate, gathered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. The anniversary activities served a dual purpose of commemorating the battle and those who perished there, and giving veterans the chance to come together and reminisce and share with each other experiences that few outsiders would be able to appreciate or understand. Despite worries that hostility may lie between veterans from the North and South the event as a whole was a harmonious occasion that ultimately commemorated the anniversary of one of the greatest battles fought on American soil.

For many, mention of the American Civil War conjures up notions of excitement and danger; these elements, while certainly present, had less of a presence than many of us would believe. In fact estimates say that up to 75% of a soldier’s time was spent marching and in camp, in situations that were relatively safe from the threat of combat. This led to periods that soldiers described as times of intense boredom.
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The Veterans’ Home That Wasn’t

The Veterans??? Home That Wasn???t: What the Gettysburg Asylum for Invalid Soldiers can tell us about the tangled themes of place and healing In July of 1913, well over 50,000 Civil War veterans from both the Union and Confederate armies descended upo…

By Brian Johnson ’14

What can the Gettysburg Asylum for Invalid Soldiers can tell us about the tangled themes of place and healing?

In July of 1913, well over 50,000 Civil War veterans from both the Union and Confederate armies descended upon Gettysburg.  They had come to commemorate the events that had transpired there 50 years earlier but not the viscerality of the fighting and loss that they had experienced.  These silver-haired men came to Gettysburg amidst the triumph of sectional and spiritual reconciliation; healing was the order of the day.  And where could healing take place more powerfully and symbolically than at the site of one of the climactic battles of the Civil War?  If veterans of the Blue and Gray could shake hands at a place as brutally contested as the stone wall of Pickett’s Charge – and do so amidst sincere good feeling – reconciliation and healing must have been complete.

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What does this have to do with the Gettysburg Asylum for Invalid Soldiers?  The 1913 Gettysburg Reunion was a testament to how powerful place can be in creating a fitting sense of healing and even closure to a painful historical event.  National cemeteries at Civil War battlefields, like the one at Gettysburg, represent the same concept.  Many Union soldiers killed during the battle are buried in Gettysburg, the place where they fell, in what is seen as a fitting resting place.  But beyond these better known examples of the 1913 Reunion and the National Cemetery, a very similar process – one that utilized a place to create a sense of healing – was also at work in 1867 with the proposal of a veterans’ home known as the Gettysburg Asylum for Invalid Soldiers.
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