There is little controversy in claiming that the Civil War casts a long shadow. Whether you’re a history enthusiast, a reenactor, or even someone who doesn’t study history, it’s hard to completely get away from it. Shifts in political discourse and race relations are the most commonly discussed results of the conflict, but the war also brought about a considerable change in dominant moral philosophies that led to the establishment of several organizations, which continue to enjoy prominence to this day at different institutions of higher learning across the United States.
I speak particularly about Greek letter organizations. You can debate their merit in current times until you’re blue in the face, but that’s not what this is about. The Greek system was directly influenced by the Civil War, and it is that development which I hope to trace. There is, after all, a reason why the span of three decades after the war is commonly referred to as “the golden age of fraternities.” The founders and advocates of Greek letter organizations all cite different interpretations of morality as the inspiration behind their actions, and a general consensus came about in the wake of the Civil War that there were several prevailing moral deficiencies which actively obstructed not only the integrity of individuals, but also the total reunification of the United States. The emergence of several Greek letter organizations after the war, particularly in the South, shows an attempt to aid civic reconciliation by creating societies and orders focused on codes of honor and integrity. Continue reading “A Bid for Brotherhood: The Civil War and the Emergence of the Lexington Triad”
This is the last 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 and part two for information about the Institute in Civil War memory.
The Virginia Military Institute was reconstructed on the same ground upon which it was founded in 1839. The Institute has progressed and evolved, at times contentiously, to become the school it is today. Racial integration was realized in 1968, and in 1997, following an unfavorable Supreme Court ruling, women were admitted into the corps. That same year, the Jonathan M. Daniels Humanitarian Award was established to commemorate the life and legacy of Jonathan Daniels ’61 who was killed in Alabama during the civil rights struggles of 1965 while accompanying an African American teenager into a store. A ceremony is held every March, two months prior to the Institute’s long-standing New Market Ceremony, which has expanded in scope to commemorate all cadets who have sacrificed in service to the nation. The Institute has not remained “frozen in time” but has instead moved forward with the currents of the nation. The school’s current mission statement reflects an evolution of Civil War era Superintendent Francis Smith’s 1868 characterization of the Institute as a “school of applied science,” producing graduates competent in civilian life and as officers in the military.
Smith characterized VMI as an institute that utilized military-style discipline not for the primary purpose of producing soldiers but as one component of a broader educational goal. Statistics show this continues to be true. On average, 50% of current graduates pursue military commissions and 15% make a career of military service. With social sciences and engineering as top majors, graduates are prepared for careers either inside or outside of the military. For evidence of VMI’s continuing role in preparing civilian leaders, one need look no further than the Virginia General Assembly, where Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam (D) and State Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment Jr. (R) are on opposite sides of the aisle. While their paths to civil service and their political leanings differ, they share a common bond in their alma mater. Continue reading “The Literal Reconstruction of VMI: Resolved to Be”
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.
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”
My family-driven fondness for the Virginia Military Institute is not a secret. I actually have a vintage gridiron-inspired VMI bobble head doll, an inheritance from my great grandmother who was proud to see both her sons graduate from the Institute. While thinking about the Civil War history of VMI for an academic course, I was struck by a most obvious question: Why was Virginia allowed to rebuild the Institute, described by some as a factory for the mass production of Confederates, after its destruction in 1864? I considered the challenge an opportunity for engaging research, and I offer this as the first in a series of three posts focusing on the literal reconstruction of the Virginia Military Institute. My hope is to explore the challenges the Institute faced following the Civil War, examine how the Institute’s story reflects greater movements in the nation, and assess how the Institute functions and influences today.
The story begins in June 1864, two months after Confederate forces achieved victory at the Battle of New Market with the help of VMI’s Corps of Cadets. Union General David Hunter arrived in Lexington, VA after a march up the Shenandoah Valley. Abandoned without mounting a significant defense, the Virginia Military Institute was left at the mercy of General Hunter and his guns. In Hunter’s own words, “On the 12th I also burned the Virginia Military Institute and all the buildings connected with it.” The Institute’s Board of Visitors quickly began making plans to rebuild, but the defeat of the Confederacy one year later left VMI uncertain of its very existence.
It was one of the heaviest and most uncomfortable things I had ever worn, but I did not care. The scratchy gray wool pants hung by suspenders from my shoulders, the sleeves on the oversized jacket came down past my hands, and the smell of mothballs was overwhelming. The shiny buttons gave the jacket a certain level of dignity despite the humorous appearance of a man’s coat on a small girl. I was in fifth grade, and I was proudly dressed in my grandfather’s uniform from the Virginia Military Institute to give a speech in character as General George Pickett. With fellow students portraying Civil War figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas Jackson, I was not the most prestigious general in the room. I was, however, in my mind, the most dashing. I had never felt so authoritative or connected to my grandfather.