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DESTINATION: VIRGINIA

Soldiers' stories echo in Lexington

Walk in the footsteps of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee in the Virginia town that was the setting for the film 'Gods and Generals.'

March 16, 2003|James T. Yenckel | Special to The Times

Lexington, Va. — This pretty little college town in the Shenandoah Valley usually gets no more than a brief mention in history books, belying its status as a major Confederate shrine. No great battles were won or lost here, yet the Civil War movie "Gods and Generals," which opened last month, begins and ends in Lexington.

Fate has bequeathed the town a notable heritage, fueled in part by two of its institutions: Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University. Notable leaders have been affiliated with both.

As an American interested in my country's history (although a Northerner by birth and conviction), I've returned repeatedly, most recently in December, drawn by its curious tale.

If you see the movie -- I caught it on opening day -- you'll notice early on a scene depicting Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, the Confederate general-to-be, as an instructor in 1861 at Virginia Military Institute, now the nation's oldest state-supported military college. Jackson, the movie's main character, was accidentally shot and killed by his own troops in 1863 at the Battle of Chancellorsville, and the film's conclusion depicts his body being returned to Lexington for burial.

Jackson's link to Lexington would be enough to turn the town into a shrine, but this is only part of its claim to fame.

After the war, Gen. Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Confederate army, became president of what was then called Washington College. Like Jackson, he is buried here. The Confederacy's two most beloved leaders, who rode together on the battlefield, rest not far from each other in death.

Lee and Jackson are not the only generals honored in Lexington. George C. Marshall, who earned five stars as the U.S. Army chief of staff during World War II, graduated from VMI in 1901. The school's George C. Marshall Museum details his distinguished career, which earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953.

All this history comes wrapped in a tidy package. When I first visited this town, I was immediately charmed by its beauty. Lexington, which has about 7,000 residents, seems to get prettier every time I return. With inviting inns, a summer theater and beautiful views, it has become a popular weekend getaway destination from Washington, about 3 1/2 hours northeast, and Richmond, about 2 1/2 hours southeast.

Draped across a cluster of tree-shaded hills between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Alleghenies, Lexington looks as if it had been neatly arranged in the middle of a large, well-tended park. The wide lawns of the two college campuses begin at the edge of the town center, which is decorated in season with baskets of flowers dangling from 18th century-style lampposts. Inviting shops, art galleries and fine cafes and restaurants prove relaxing after the history lesson.

The visitor center at 106 E. Washington St. is the place to begin a history tour; everything is within easy walking distance.

Lexington was founded in 1777 and is named for the pre-Revolutionary War Battle of Lexington, Mass., two years earlier. Nineteenth century Federal-style brick and stone buildings still line streets that Lee and Jackson surely would recognize.

A few steps from the visitor center is the Stonewall Jackson House, a modest structure where he and his second wife, Mary Anna, lived from 1858 until the outset of war in 1861. (His first wife, Elinor, died in childbirth in 1854, a little more than a year after their marriage.) The house contains much of the Jacksons' furniture and includes such touches as his razor resting on a bedroom nightstand. On one visit, a guide told me that Jackson vowed not to shave until the South won the war. In "Gods and Generals," Jackson's beard dangles to his chest.

I've heard guides at the house describe his religious fervor, also made evident in the movie. Jackson reportedly was often seen walking about town with his hand held high, presumably deep in prayer. He is said to have viewed every act, even the most mundane, as part of his duty to serve God.

Though Jackson had many talents, teaching apparently wasn't one of them. Occasionally one of the guides will reveal that, despite Jackson's military genius, he was tediously dull in the classroom. This explains a scene near the beginning of the film that shows the cadets sitting benumbed after the day's lesson.

Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery, where Jackson and Mary Anna are buried, is a short walk from the house. His crypt lies beneath a soaring bronze statue of him in uniform. Another statue, this one with his coat whipped by the wind, stands at the end of VMI's 12-acre parade ground and depicts Jackson as he surveyed the field at Chancellorsville before his death. At its base are the cannons he used to drill students in artillery practice.

VMI, founded in 1839, has about 1,300 students. (Women joined the ranks in 1997.) During the school year, visitors can watch a cadets' dress parade at 4:15 p.m. Fridays.

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