There are not one, but three museums operated by the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va. The VMI Museum, located on the VMI campus, chronicles the institution's rich history, which dates back to its founding in 1839. The Virginia Museum of the Civil War in New Market, Va. and the Stonewall Jackson House in downtown Lexington also help tell the story of generations of cadets, many of whom went on to achieve worldwide fame.
The VMI Museum is located in Jackson Hall, which is named after one of it's most well-known professors, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. It's right next to the huge, architecturally-unique cadet barracks building that fronts the spacious VMI parade ground.
The VMI museum entrance is actually via the top floor of a three-story building, which is built into the side of a hill on the VMI campus. The entire top floor consists of a cadet chapel, complete with a huge mural depicting the Civil War Battle of New Market, where a group of young cadets joined Confederate regulars in 1864 for the South's final battlefield victory in the Shenandoah Valley.
The second floor houses the main museum area consisting of a gift shop and the exhibit gallery. The first floor is devoted to a large collection of rare antique weapons that comprise the Henry M. Stewart Collection. Nearly all the pieces displayed there represent weapons development during 1840 to 1870, when revolving-cylinder firearms first made repeating shots possible.
Perhaps the most striking presence in the exhibit gallery is Little Sorrel, Stonewall Jackson's horse. The horse was preserved and mounted in 1886 and is the only Confederate horse that can be seen in any U.S. museum.
Jackson's widow and daughter presented items on display at the museum, including his blue instructor's uniform and the raincoat he was wearing when he was accidentally shot in the shoulder by one of his own troops at Chancellorsville, Va. in 1863. He would later die from complications resulting from an amputation. The bullet holes are plainly visible in the raincoat.
It's a museum that Jackson himself would likely have visited, as it first opened in 1856, making it the oldest museum in Virginia. The museum was moved into its present location in 1970.
The VMI Museum displays also honor other famous cadets, such as Gen. George S. “Blood and Guts” Patton, Jr. who commanded Allied troops during World War II. Patton's great uncle, Waller Tazewell Patton, died during Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. His grandfather, Col. George S. Patton, died in the Shenandoah Valley during the bloody Third Battle of Winchester.
A collection of Medals of Honor that were awarded to VMI alumni are also on display. There's sculpture and other artwork by Moses Jacob Ezekiel, who fought as a cadet and was subsequenetly wounded at New Market. He later moved to Europe to become an artist.
Although the VMI Museum is located within the VMI campus, or “post” as it is properly called, it's a popular destination for a “surprisingly large” number of tourists each year, according to Col. Keith E. Gibson, Director of the Virginia Military Institute Museum System.
“VMI is one of the most visited campuses in terms of just for its historical and architectural significance,” he says.
And although VMI is technically a military post, visitors are free to enter and leave the campus without any travel restrictions.
Gibson says that the best way to see the VMI Museum is to park at the visitor's center on East Washington St. in downtown Lexington, and walk over to the museum. The Stonewall Jackson House is just a few doors away from the visitor's center, and the route travels first through the campus of Washington & Lee University, where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee is buried, and then on to VMI.
“It's a very pleasant, very short walk,” he says. “And that is the best way, really, to explore Lexington, much in the way that Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson would have explored it, on foot.”
The VMI museum is online at www.VMI.edu/museum. The Lexington Visitor Center is online at LexingtonVirginia.com.
Photos and story by Hank Zimmerman, copyright ©2011 by Shenandoah Valley Productions LLC