Our nation’s military has for generations secured America’s freedom both at home and overseas and thus has a long and impressive history. Few cities can boast as much of that history and such a diversity of it as Lexington, Virginia, a trim and neat college town that has contributed greatly to America’s military heritage. From its origins in 1778 when it was settled and named for Lexington, Massachusetts—the New England town where the first shots of the American Revolution were fired—this city has been entrenched in history and has connections to some of the most crucial events and people of America’s legacy.
Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson both are buried in Lexington, and General Jackson taught at the Virginia Military Institute here prior to the Civil War. The only house the great military leader ever owned is preserved as a museum today, kept as much as it would have been when Jackson and his wife lived here during his tenure as a professor. The Virginia Military Institute remains as well and continues as one of the nation’s foremost and most-esteemed four-year military colleges. The school is unique in being outside the service academy system yet contributing a great number of young officers to the military service. Famed general and statesman George C. Marshall was a cadet here, and today there is a museum to his honor in Lexington, as well as VMI’s museum of military history and weaponry.
Of the sites you absolutely must see, Stonewall Jackson’s grave and his home are easily at the top of this list. His grave and those of his immediate family are in the middle of a cemetery named for him that is one of the most beautiful and serene cemeteries you could ask to visit. A few short blocks away is his house, and the museum certainly does not disappoint the Civil War buff. Furnished as close as possible to how he would have lived in it in the years before the Civil War, it offers a rare look into not only the life of one of the Confederacy’s best-regarded leaders, but also into how a college professor or other successful yet not wealthy man in the South lived in a prosperous town like Lexington at the close of the antebellum period. As well as the interior of his house, the garden of the Jackson home also has been kept planted as his wife, Mary Anna Morrison Jackson, would have maintained it, with her selection of vegetables and herbs and traditional growing methods employed. The museum, which is now owned and managed by VMI, also offers educational tours for elementary, middle, and high school students.
As mentioned earlier, General Robert E. Lee is also buried in Lexington, where he finished his long career of service to both the United States and Confederate States: after retiring from the military following the close of the Civil War, Lee served as the president of Washington College, now Washington and Lee. The Washington and Lee campus contains the Lee Chapel, designed by Lee’s son Major General George Washington Custis Lee and military architect Colonel Thomas Williamson. After a stroke, Lee’s health declined markedly and he fell ill to pneumonia, succumbing to it on a very rainy morning, 12 October 1870. The streets of Lexington were flooded and, even worse, the roads leaving the small town were considered impassable. The local undertaker had previously ordered three caskets from Richmond, but the flooding washed the coffins off a barge and into the river. Two local boys, however, found one of the caskets washed ashore and alerted local men to it; so it was recovered and found unharmed and was selected for the burial of General Lee. It is said he was buried without his boots, though, as the coffin was slightly short for him. The general’s beloved horse, Traveler, is also buried in Lexington—presumably with his shoes on, however.
The George C. Marshall museum on the VMI campus is well worth seeing. It traces the entire life of the great man from his boyhood in Pennsylvania to his time as a cadet at VMI, early Army career, work as a general officer culminating in his promotion to five-star General of the Army during WWII and his roles as Secretary of State and Defense after retiring from the military.
Not all of Lexington’s history, however, is military in nature: Cyrus McCormick, the inventor of the horse-drawn mechanical reaper which revolutionized the harvesting of wheat and led the way for farm automation, came up with his invention at his family’s farm in Rockbridge County (Lexington is the county seat). A monument to McCormick today stands on the campus of Washington and Lee University. VMI and Washington and Lee together formulate a basis of higher education for the city’s main economy, but tourism is a big draw as well. With a good economy and visible affluence due to the success of its universities, early architecture from the later 1700’s to the mid-1800’s has been very well-preserved here, and the downtown is beyond charming. Students from the two schools and their professors can be seen mingling with tourists, business-people, and lawyers on a typical day downtown, and a number of small inns and hotels offer convenient lodging in the heart of downtown.
Between the Lee Chapel, the two universities’ campuses, the George C. Marshall Museum, the Stonewall Jackson home museum, or just looking around town, one can easily work up quite an appetite. Fortunately, Lexington’s restaurant scene is quite advanced and diverse. The Southern Inn has long been a local favorite, offering a combination of traditional Southern, new Southern, and traditional contemporary American fare for lunch and dinner. Expected dishes such as their hamburger or calf’s liver are augmented by innovative ones such as house-smoked duck sliders or lamb meatballs. Their fried chicken however is what the restaurant has long been renowned for and is still a major draw.
Down the street from the Jackson House Museum sits a small and humble building containing one of the most highly-regarded restaurants in the entire state, The Red Hen, where farm-to-table cuisine is taken very seriously and the menu is informed daily by the best local food production the owners can obtain—from purveyors like 2 Farmers and Jo, who are known for their vegetables, or steak from the Potter family’s beef ranch. Grouper Vierge, a skirt steak, and a chilled rhubarb and cantaloupe soup are some of the outstanding examples of how local produce, classic cuisine traditions, and the chef’s own innovations have propelled The Red Hen to the top of regional restaurants. Another restaurant, Haywood, also offers fine dining with a Southern flair in such dishes as their shrimp and grits and their sirloin, while the Palms is a local bar and a VMI institution that has attracted many college kids over the years.
A rather new restaurant worthy of mention for its innovation, simplicity, and quality alike is the Pronto Caffé and Gelateria, which is on the first floor of the Robert E. Lee Hotel and offers sandwiches, an extensive list of coffee drinks, and best of all, delicious gelato in a streamlined, modern atmosphere. It has already become a favored gathering place for students and professors of the two local schools, and while there I ran into Washington and Lee’s track coach. The small size and synergy of Lexington is like that: you’re bound to see some familiar faces if you’re in town even a few days. While able to offer up big city culture, the longstanding devotion to history, pride, and Southern charm is always evident in this lovely college town.
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