I’ve wanted to visit Lexington, VA for a long time — I think I can pinpoint it to this painting by Mort Kunstler. I love Kunstler’s Civil War paintings, and after seeing this one depicting Jackson leaving the Virginia Military Institute with his cadets to go fight in the War, I’ve wanted to see VMI. After living in Virginia for four years, it’s hard to believe I didn’t make it down there earlier. It’s a history major’s dream — especially one who loves George Washington, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson.
I finally made the trip earlier this month, although I know I need to go back for a longer proper visit. I didn’t even stop at VMI!
My main objective was the Lee Chapel on the grounds of Washington & Lee University. Robert E. Lee is buried in this chapel, which was built with his encouragement while he was president.
(Pictures weren’t allowed anywhere in the Chapel or the museum, so I had to be creative and take pictures of the postcards I purchased.) The famous statue of recumbent Lee was very impressive in real life — contrary to what one might think, the statue is not a deceased Lee, but a sleeping Lee. The statue was created to honor the fact that during the War General Lee would often sleep on the battlefield with his men, not in an inn or home.
Below the statue, in the chapel crypt, Robert E. Lee is buried, along with his wife, their 7 children, and Lee’s parents and other family members.
The museum under the chapel was fascinating, and I walked through it wishing I had more time to spend reading everything. It chronicled not only the history of Washington & Lee University — its early days, the fact that Washington kept it running with his benefaction, and its flourishing under Lee, who steered it towards becoming a modern university– but also the life of Robert E. Lee.
The museum really drove home for me the connection between George Washington and Robert E. Lee. I had known that Mary Anna Randolph Custis, Lee’s wife, was the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington (I learned that at the Custis-Lee mansion), but I hadn’t known that Lee’s father was one of Washington’s closest friends. Both of these things meant that Lee had many of Washington’s things in his possession.
I think sometimes 1860 can seem so distant from 1776, it’s easy for us to forget that Robert E. Lee was still living very much in the spirit of Washington. The museum reminded me that Lee did what he did, not because he loved slavery or because he hated Yankees, but because he was a Virginian in the mold of George Washington.
Next to the museum was Lee’s office, supposedly untouched from when he last walked out of it on September 28, 1870. He suffered a stroke that night and died on October 12th. You could walk a few feet into the room, where there was a short railing preventing you from going all the way inside. On the railing there were descriptions of the various things in the office and quotes from Lee about forming gentlemen at the university. To this day, Washington & Lee has a honor system that is based on Lee’s statement: “We have but one rule here, and it is that every student must be a gentleman.” The students are held to a standard of integrity and respect that is upheld and enforced by the students themselves. (You can read more here. I was impressed.)
Now I know he’s not a canonized saint or anything. But I can honestly say that I’ve only felt this way in holy places. And I’m not even going to give examples, because it just seems so crazy. But it’s true. As I was standing there in the silence, I had an overwhelming feeling of Robert E. Lee’s presence.
It was very moving. That’s all I’ll say.
Just outside the door is Traveller, Lee’s beloved horse. There are lots of stories about Traveller around the campus — he lived in the stable connected to Lee’s house in Lexington, which is now the garage– to this day, supposedly the door of the garage of the president’s house is left open, allowing Traveller’s spirit to roam. [Liza, perhaps Paul can verify that? :)] He used to graze on campus, and Lee would take him on late afternoon rides.
In Lee’s funeral procession, Traveller followed the casket, Lee’s boots backwards in the stirrups, black crepe draped over his saddle. Not long after Lee died, Traveller stepped on a nail, developed tetanus, and was euthanized.
After saying goodbye to Lee Chapel, I headed a few streets over to the cemetery to pay my respects to the other great Confederate general, Stonewall Jackson. Although his arm is buried closer to where he was shot (we think- it’s sort of a mystery), Jackson is buried in Lexington near his beloved VMI and his friend Lee. (He wasn’t even Catholic, yet his body parts are scattered about. hm!)
Next time, I definitely have to visit VMI. I owe it to him.
I definitely recommend a trip to Lexington for anyone remotely interested in history. Besides visiting VMI, I would have spent much more time in Lee Chapel (I missed checking out Lee’s pew — I didn’t know to look for it until I came home) and the museum, plus exploring the rest of campus (which looked beautiful).
I only realized later that the 140th anniversary of Lee’s death was two days after I stopped in Lexington to pay my respects.