General David Hunter & the
Burning of VMI, June 1864
For four days in June 1864, Union troops commanded by General David Hunter occupied the small Shenandoah Valley town of Lexington, the home of the Virginia Military Institute. The federal forces, about 18,000 strong, entered the town on the afternoon of June 11. Although their arrival had been briefly delayed by the resistance of a small cavalry force led by General John McCausland, a VMI graduate and former faculty member, the Confederate troops were greatly outnumbered and were soon forced to retreat. The VMI Corps of Cadets, having only recently returned to VMI after their participation in the Battle of New Market on May 15, were also ordered to retreat; they camped near the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains, about two miles from Balcony Falls, on the night of the 11th.
There were no civilian or military casualties as a result of this occupation. However, VMI was both the site of a state arsenal and a military training school, and the Institute was considered to be a legitimate military target. On June 12, Hunter ordered the burning of VMI. The cadet Barracks (at left) and two faculty residences were extensively damaged, and other Institute property--most importantly the valuable library, laboratory and scientific equipment--was destroyed. The troops also removed the Institute's statue of George Washington, which was taken to Wheeling, West Virginia as a trophy of war; it was returned in 1866. The Union forces left on June 14, marching over the mountains to Lynchburg.
Following these events, the Corps of Cadets was furloughed while officials examined various plans for reopening the school. Because of extensive damage to the buildings, library, and supplies, Gen. Smith and the VMI Board of Visitors decided that is was not feasible to bring the cadets back to Lexington. In December 1864, academic work resumed at the Alms House in Richmond, which became VMI's temporary headquarters. The Corps remained in Richmond until the war ended in April 1865. VMI reopened in Lexington in October 1865.
In addition to documents found in the official records of the Virginia Military Institute, this page features many other resources, including accounts of the events written by Union and Confederate soldiers, and citizens of Lexington. Unless otherwise noted, all full-text documents are from the collections in the VMI Archives.
Primary Sources-- Confederate
- Letter from General Francis H. Smith, Superintendent of VMI,
to Gen. William H. Richardson, Adjutant General of Virginia. Gen. Smith relates the event from the perspective of the Institute. Dated June 17, 1864
- VMI Annual Report, July 1864.
Superintendent Smith's official report to the VMI Board of Visitors
- VMI Surgeon's Report
"Estimating losses sustained by the Hospital Department at the hands of Yankee thieves and incendiaries, June 11, 1864" (page 1)
- Official Confederate Army Correspondence, June 1864
- Capt. Achilles J. Tynes letter, June 13, 1864 General John McCausland's 5th Cavalry Brigade
- Fannie M. Lyle Wilson letter, June 17, 1864
Fannie was a 16 year old living in Lexington, Virginia; she wrote this account of the event to her father.
Primary Sources-- Union
Secondary Sources--check your library or request through interlibrary loan
- Allan, Elizabeth Preston. The life and letters of Margaret Junkin Preston by Elizabeth Preston Allan. (Boston ; New York : Houghton, Mifflin, ©1903).
Life in wartime Lexington, including an account of Hunter's Raid. Margaret Junkin Preston, a noted southern author, was the wife of John T. L. Preston, a VMI faculty member.
- Miller, Edward A. Jr. Lincoln's Abolitionist General: the Biography of David Hunter. (University of South Carolina Press, 1997).
- Turner, Charles W., editor. "General David Hunter's Sack of Lexington, Virginia, June 10-14, 1864: An Account by Rose Page Pendleton." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (vol. 83, No. 2, April 1975, pp. 173-183).