The Literal Reconstruction of VMI: To Obliterate or Not to Obliterate?

By Kaylyn Sawyer ’17

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.

Cadet barracks in ruin following General Hunter’s raid in June 1864. Photograph by Boude and McClelland, courtesy of Virginia Military Institute Archives.

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