Virginia Military Institute (VMI) is a senior military college located in Lexington, Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley. VMl's history is inextricably linked to the preservation and perpetuation of slavery, the Confederacy, and the Lost Cause since the institute's founding in 1839 when the Virginia legislature converted an existing arsenal into a military college. The antebellum institute served several purposes. Its geographic location helped placate westerners in a politically and economically fractious commonwealth, and its math and engineering curriculum provided an alternative to northern colleges in an era of increasing section tensions.
Most important, VMI served as a training ground for Virginia Militia officers amidst heightened fears of slave revolt that swept the state in the aftermath of the 1831 Southamton Rebellion (“Nat Turner’s Revolt”). VMI utilized enslaved labor on post throughout the antebellum years. VMl's faculty, staff, and corps of cadets stood guard at the execution of John Brown in 1859 and helped train Confederate soldiers at the outset of the Civil War. Hundreds of VMI alumni and faculty fought for the Confederacy to defend slavery during the Civil War, including “Stonewall” Jackson. The Corps of Cadets fought as a Confederate unit at the Battle of New Market in 1864, with ten cadet fatalities and dozens of casualties. A month later, the U.S. army sacked VMI, deeming the post a Confederate military target.
Today, VMI operates the Virginia Museum of the Civil War at the New Market battlefield site, where, until 2020, cadets commemorated these events by charging across the battlefield at the annual “New Market Day.” Immediately following the Civil War, VMI’s administrators, alumni, and cadets adopted a vanguard role in developing and propagating the Lost Cause. During the era of sectional reconciliation and Jim Crow, scores of statues, buildings, traditions, rituals, awards, scholarships, and endowed professorships were created at VMI to highlight and celebrate the institute’s role in the Confederacy. Consequently, for a century and a half, the VMI post, along with the nearby graves of Jackson in Lexington and Robert E. Lee at Washington and Lee University, served as Lost Cause pilgrimage sites. The Civil Rights Movement saw challenges to this commemorative landscape. In 1968, VMI became the last public college in Virginia to admit black students, and protests by the first African American cadets in the late 1960s forced the administration to abandon or modify rituals such as the playing of Dixie at football games. Yet even today, Jackson’s affiliation with the institute as well as the Battle of New Market continues to fuel the Lost Cause. In recent years, investigations into the racial climate at VMI sparked a short-lived effort by the administration to catalog and inventory VMl's Confederate iconography, which resulted in the removal of a prominent statue of Stonewall Jackson from the parade ground.
This project endeavors to uncover, document, and make accessible the historical ties between VMI, the Confederacy, and the Lost Cause. Research was conducted by Jonathan S. Jones and cadets in Civil War and Reconstruction and Frederick Douglass’ America in 2022-2023. This database is intended to foster dialogue among institutional stakeholders. The database is operated independently of VMI and does not purport to represent the views of VMI.