Originally published in the Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 16. 1888

While the Virginia Convention of 1861 was in session in Richmond, wrestling with the weighty problems of the day, and the grand old “Mother of States” was doing all in her power to prevent the terrible strife which her breast was so soon to bear, there occurred at Lexington, Va., a little episode in the history of those momentous times, which, though nearly resulting in a horrible disaster, would hardly deserve narration now, but for its Connection with one of the greatest heroes of the Civil War.

Up to the time of Lincoln’s proclamation calling for seventy-five thousand men, the prevailing sentiment throughout Virginia was decidedly for the preservation of the Union. Notably was this the case in Rockbridge county, in which, at Lexington, the State Military School rears its imposing towers and embattled walls. In the election of members of the Convention, this county had given an overwhelming majority against Secession. Nor was this to be wondered at, when one considers the conservatism of the sturdy Scotch- Irish population of that lovely portion of the Valley of Virginia.

In the town of Lexington there were many “conditional” Union men and some unconditional Secessionists. But Secession had then its strongest and rashest advocates amongst the students of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) and the cadets of the Virginia Military Institute. Whenever the seeds of revolution are floating in the political atmosphere, they generally find in the colleges and universities their most congenial soil. Lexington proved no exception to the rule.

At that time the president of Washington College was a Northern man by education and birth. He was an excellent scholar and an eminent divine. In politics he was a Unionist of the most pronounced and uncompromising type. He had boldly proclaimed from the pulpit that he would rather have a negro in the Presidential chair than see the Union dissolved. For the cadets of the Institute he had no love. Whenever any deviltry was committed at night, particularly when some of his favorite fruit disappeared from his garden between two suns, the doer of the deed was, in his opinion, some “ little bobtailed cadet.” The bitter Union spirit of the president of the College seemed to intensify and make more demonstrative the Secession spirit of the students. If the Secession flag, found in the morning floating from the cupola of the college, was removed by orders of the president during the day, it was sure to be replaced by determined students during the night. Finally the students prevailed, and the president of the College resigned and returned to his native State.

At the Institute the sentiment of the cadets was generally for Secession. While many, particularly from the cotton States, were pronounced in their views, there was no violence of expression and no clash of opinion with the officers and professors of the Institute. The latter, whatever their political opinions, were prudent in language and conservative in bearing. As good soldiers of the State, they were ready and willing to follow her fortunes, however she might command. But while there was no turbulence of spirit or relaxation of discipline, there was with the cadets an increasing interest in public affairs, an eager watching of the moves then being made on the political chessboards at Richmond and Washington, Charleston and Montgomery, and a decreasing interest in all academic studies, save those which pertained to military science. Several cadets, whose States had seceded, resigned their cadetships and hurried home to offer their services to the new confederacy. All were restless, and the most of them anxious for the opportunities of war.

In the town, the Secession sentiment was slowly gaining ground, not so much from desire for the dissolution of the Union as from a feeling that Secession was becoming a dire necessity. The ignominious failure of the Peace Conference at Washington; the fruitless efforts of Virginia to effect a compromise and avert the storm—efforts generously persevered in until she was taunted by her enemies and distrusted by her friends—the persistent preparation of the government at Washington for the reinforcement of Fort Sumter, which many believed was intended to provoke resistance and force the South into an overt act; all this had not only caused many conservative men to despair of a peaceable solution of the questions of the day, but was forcing upon them the belief that, by longer delay to secede from the Union, the old Commonwealth was compromising her honor and allowing time for the forging of shackles to bind her hands. Still the Union party remained largely in the majority in the county if not in the town.

At a Secession meeting, in the early spring, a tall pole had been erected on Main street in front of the courthouse and a Secession flag unfurled from its top and left to fringe its edges in the crisp mountain breeze. Not to be outdone, and to show their greater strength, the Unionists set a day in April for a mammoth Union demonstration. They decided to erect on that occasion a pole near by which should tower above the Secession pole, and to fly from its peak a Union banner which should make the Secession flag below look insignificant by comparison. As none of the neighboring forests could furnish a single tree that would answer this purpose, a pole was to be made of segments from several trees. Accordingly, suitable parts were procured and hauled into position, the scarfs cut and the rings made, and everything was in readiness for putting the pole together on the following day.

But during the night some hot-blooded young Secessionists attempted to destroy the butt piece of the pole by boring holes in it and charging them with powder. This plan proving a failure, the top segment was then carried away. It would be difficult to depict the looks of the Unionists when this discovery was made the next morning, or to describe their feelings of vexation and rage. Denunciation was bitter, and threats of vengeance became more violent as the nature of the act was realized and the crowd increased. It was rumored that cadets in citizens’ dress had been seen in town long after taps, and that college students had been met on the streets under suspicious circumstances at suspicious hours of the night. Fortunate was it that no cadet or student was in reach at that exciting hour.

This act caused more bitterness than delay. With great pluck and determination the Unionists soon either recovered or replaced the missing piece, the pole was erected, and the grand rally for the Union took place at the appointed time. There was a great gathering of clans. People poured in from every part of the county— from highland and glen, from lowland and bog.

Before the war there were no academic duties at the Institute on Saturdays. Between inspection, from 8 to 9 o’clock A. M., and dress-parade, a little before sunset, all cadets, except those on guard duty, were allowed to go beyond the limits; but they were required to be at dinner roll-call at 1 P. M., unless specially excused. Naturally, many cadets went up town immediately after inspection to witness the Union parade. Political feeling was bitter, and on the part of the Unionists some mutterings were heard; but up to 1 o’clock there had been no serious outbreak, if any conflict at all.

After dinner a few cadets returned to town, and some strolled off in other directions, but the majority repaired to quarters, either to discuss the issues of the day or to enjoy an afternoon nap; for it was Saturday, and if there was any thing a cadet considered a luxury it was sleep. Abundance of exercise and a minimum of rest—retiring at taps at ten o’clock, and rising at reveille at five—his sleep was generally so monotonously sound that it was often a pleasure to be aroused during the night to enjoy the delightful sensation of falling asleep again. For this reason, cadets not unfrequently requested the corporal of the guard to wake them on visiting their rooms at night. To the exclamation of Sancho Panza, “ Blessed be the man who invented sleep!” the whole corps would have responded with a hearty “ Amen !”

Soon all steps had ceased on stairs and stoops, and many a cadet lay stretched out on his narrow couch, his thoughts of the present or visions of the future quickly fading away in sleep, or taking the forms of reality in dreams. Suddenly he springs to his feet, listens for a moment, to assure himself that it is not a dream, seizes his arms and accoutrements and hurries from his room. It is the call to arms! In an instant the whole building is astir. From every room, on every stoop, down every stairs, and through the lofty archway, cadets, accoutred and armed, are rushing to the front of barracks (as the main building is commonly called).

Although but little attention had been paid to the threats of the Unionists against the would-be destroyers of their pole, a few cadets had been apprehensive of trouble as the day wore on. These, therefore, suspected the cause of the alarm from the first tap of the drum, and some of them loaded their muskets immediately on leaving their rooms. Other cadets blindly followed their example.

About thirty yards in rear of the archway, and flanked by the wings of barracks, stood the State arsenal, in which were stored many thousand stand of arms, mostly flintlock muskets of the Revolutionary model. (This building, together with the Institute buildings. was destroyed by General Hunter, in his unsuccessful expedition against Lynchburg in 1864, and was never rebuilt. On the contrary, the blackened walls and rubbish were removed and the ground leveled, so that of the old arsenal scarcely a vestige remains today).

The guarding of this depository of arms was one of the duties of the corps of cadets. (In fact, this arsenal was the germ of the Virginia Military Institute). About the time of Lincoln’s first inauguration, it had been rumored that an attempt would be made to capture the arsenal and remove the arms. Who the attacking parties were to be, rumor did not state. The report probably grew out of the apprehension of some excitable Secessionist, or the boast of some over-zealous Unionist. Of course many gave credence to the rumor, and throughout the whole corps there was a feeling of anxiety. At one time the long roll had been beaten in the small hours of the night. In a few minutes the battalion, accoutred and armed, was in line in front of barracks. It was a false alarm, the object of which was to test the rapidity with which the corps could be assembled in an emergency. The next day at dress-parade ball cartridges were distributed, ten rounds to each musket—a small supply, it is true, but sufficient to inspire confidence. These cartridges, intact, were in possession of the cadets on that memorable Saturday afternoon.

On this occasion it was no false alarm. Information had just been brought in breathless haste from the town, that several cadets had been assaulted and beaten by Unionists, and then carried off under arrest. The report spread immediately throughout the corps, those in front repeating it to those behind, so that it was known by every cadet before he had reached the front of barracks. Therefore no explanation was needed; and certain it is that no persuasion was required. Right or wrong, every cadet was actuated by the same impulse—eagerness and impatience for the rescue.

The cadet battalion was composed of four companies. But on that afternoon, owing to the absence of some of the ranking cadet officers, and the failure of any of those present to assume the responsibility, no orders were given, and no attention was paid to company organization. On the contrary, the cadets, as fast as they came up, took their places in ranks without command, and moved off toward the town without a leader. The fact is (and the admission is made with some feeling of mortification even today), the movement of the cadets, when they first started off, was very unlike that of a column of disciplined soldiers. It might have been expected otherwise of a body of intelligent young men, educated and trained at such a military school. But if there was wanting the coolness of veterans, there was an abundance of determination and dash. If there was an absence of order and plan, it must be remembered that there was no time for deliberation, but that hot-headed, impetuous youth were unexpectedly called on to rescue their comrades from the violence of an infuriated political mob.

To the courthouse, near the center of the town, it was about eight hundred yards. It could be reached by two lines of march—the upper, or principal route, passing the College and Grace Church; the lower route leading by a broad pathway diagonally across the front slope of the Institute hill, down into the Valley turnpike below, and thence up Main street by Governor Letcher’s house and Craft’s Hotel. The former route was the one taken on anniversary parades, the latter was the more direct.

Main street slopes gradually downward nearly from its western extremity to where, with a reversed curve, it joins the turnpike not far from the Institute. Such is the commanding elevation of the Institute grounds, that, looking southwest, nearly the whole of this street is in view from a point a little east of the courthouse almost to its western limit. It will now be understood that, to the many persons gathered in front of the courthouse, the cadets were not only visible when assembling in front of barracks, but, having taken the lower route, they were in full view the greater part of the way when moving down the front slope. Whether or not an attack had been expected, the movement seems to have been understood at once by many persons in the town. The alarm was instantly given and rapidly spread. The scene that followed was one of the wildest tumult. Anxious mothers ran about the streets seeking their frightened children. Excited men rushed from house to house and store to store to provide themselves with such arms and ammunition as they could obtain. In a few minutes the supply of buckshot was exhausted in every store within reach.

It happened that the two local military organizations were taking part in the proceedings of the day—one a company of infantry known as the Rockbridge Rifles, neatly uniformed, well armed and fairly drilled; the other a squadron of cavalry, newly organized, but neither drilled nor equipped. The Rifles, hastily supplied with ammunition and reinforced by many citizens armed with shot-guns and other weapons, took possession of the courthouse and the corners near by, ready and determined to receive with deadly fire the advancing column of cadets.

After reaching the turnpike the cadets, who from force of habit had assumed the order of march in columns of fours, were out of sight of the central part of the town, the route being here for several hundred yards hidden from view by trees and houses and the curve in the street. By this time the corps had been joined by most of the absentees from barracks. These, hurrying in from different directions and securing their arms, had come up in a run, so that the column was now over two hundred strong. The movement had become formidable and alarming indeed. It was no holiday parade, no Fourth-of-July march to town, when, with martial music, waving banner, neatest uniform, burnished plates and gleamings guns, the battalion moved gayly along the upper route, all hearts aglow at the thought of the bright eyes that would greet them on the way, and jubilant in anticipation of the brilliant ball that would close the year’s exercises at night. Now, with determined mien, these impetuous youth are moving forward, silently, but with quick and resolute step, imagining little and recking less the danger ahead.

At that time the superintendent of the Institute, Colonel Francis H. Smith (now Major-General and venerable with years), was an invalid in his chamber recovering from- an attack of pneumonia. His attention being arrested by the beating of the drum, he went to the window and saw the cadets moving down the hill, many loading their guns as they went. He did not know the cause, but was sure trouble was brewing. Hurrying as soon as possible across the parade ground and through private lots, he reached the street in time to bring the column of cadets to a halt between Governor Letcher’s house and Craft’s Hotel. A few moments more and the head of the column would have rounded the curve in the street and appeared in full view and range of those ready and waiting to meet its attack. Fortunate halt! It doubtless saved the corps from destruction.

Just after the column had halted, the steps of approaching men were heard on the plank-walk around the bend in the street. Instantly every eye was turned in that direction.

“Here they come!” exclaimed the son of the lamented Bishop-General of Tennessee, and, weeping with rage, he stepped a little to the left for a quicker view, cocked his musket, and brought it to the position of aim.

“Don’t fire, you fool you!” cried a cadet officer near by, who seized the gun and pushed it up.

The footsteps proved to be those of a committee of citizens from the town, who were hurrying to meet the cadets, and if possible prevent bloodshed. In the meantime other officers of the Institute had arrived on the ground.

The ear of the corps was quickly caught. No authority was asserted, no threats were made, but with the voice of sympathy the superintendent showed his coolness and wisdom by saying to the cadets that although he did not know the cause of the threatened contest between them and the citizens of the town, he claimed the right to lead them in the fight, but he must insist on a prompt obedience to orders. “ All right! ” cried the cadets, whose confidence was thus won. The spokesman of the committee then stepped forward and made a strong appeal to the cadets to desist from violence, assuring them of the release of their comrades, and of ample redress for all wrongs. The cadets being satisfied by this assurance, the superintendent gave the command, “ Right-face! forward, march! ” and the corps returned promptly to barracks. The rattle of musketry when, after entering the Institute grounds, the cadets discharged their loaded guns in the air, must have sent a shudder of horror through many an anxious heart.

After returning to barracks the cadets were assembled in Major Preston’s section-room, which had the largest seating capacity in the building. The object of this meeting was the pacification of the cadets and the prevention of further trouble. To this end speeches were made by the superintendent and others, and then a long pause ensued.

Amongst the academic officers present was one who was conspicuous by the bolt-upright position in which he sat. His body did not touch the back of his chair, and his large hands rested motionless on his thighs. Usually he kept his eyes to the front, but on this occasion he was closely scanning the faces and reading the thoughts of the young men before him. This person was no other than Major Thomas Jonathan Jackson. In church he always sat in the same posture, never touching the back of the pew nor turning his eyes from the preacher. If during a dull sermon he ever fell asleep (and he had been seen to close his eyes at times) he always retained this position. It is no wonder that he afterwards received—with the baptism of fire—the immortal name of “ Stonewall.”

Major Jackson then seemed most eminent for Christian piety, a stern, unwavering sense of duty, a noble straightforwardness, and a beautiful simplicity of character. In short, he exhibited that strong individuality which always accompanies genius, but which the world’s stupidity characterizes only as eccentricity. In this age he would have been called a crank. His singularity was often ridiculed, and his peculiar ways were a subject of mimicry. Although possessing such manly virtues, he was regarded by cadets and others as ‘‘a failure” as a teacher. He was wanting in tact in the class-room, although he afterwards displayed such brilliant tactics in the field. In his classes he never asked leading questions. If the student was not familiar with the subject, and requested a repetition of the question, with the hope of a change of words embodying a useful hint, he was sure to get it again in the identical words, and even with the same emphasis and peculiar intonation of voice. By some this was considered indicative of lack of thoroughness in the subjects he professed to teach. But the fact is, Jackson had but one way of saying things, and that the best matured and most direct. He was clumsy, and often unsatisfactory in his experiments. All this, together with his eccentricity, caused him to be looked upon as an unpractical man.

He was also unpopular with some of the professors, and amongst the cadets he was regarded as the butt of the school. At times, on his way to and from barracks, walking as usual with measured step, body erect and eyes to the front, cadets have been known to throw stones just in front of him, not to strike him, but on a wager that he could not be made to look around. On he would go, without ever turning his head or changing his gait, or, as some have alleged, without even blinking his eyes. Up to the time the writer became a second-class man, when, by the voluntary action of his, the leading section, such conduct was broken up, it had been the custom of many of the members of Jackson’s classes to create wanton disorder in his section-room, often to the extent of downright disrespect. He was imperturbable throughout it all, never losing his dignity nor seeming in the least annoyed.

But if held by many in low estimate as a teacher of Physics and Astronomy, he was respected by all for the gallantry he had displayed in the Mexican War. His military record was well known, and criticism of his methods in the class-room was frequently off-set by some such remark as, “ But old Jack knows how to fight.” His conscientious discharge of duty and uniform soldierly bearing could not but be admired. As an instructor in artillery tactics he gave satisfaction. His explanations of the battery movements were clear and concise, and his commands were given with determination and force. He alone of all the officers of the Institute pronounced the word “oblique” in his commands as if spelled oblike. Another peculiarity was the manner in which he carried his sabre when walking to or from duty. Although belted around him, he invariably held it in a horizontal position, well up under his left arm, handle to the rear, curved edge up, and left hand seizing the scabbard near the middle.

Now that civil war was daily becoming more probable, and the strain of excitement was too great for much interest in academic studies, Major Jackson began to be estimated less by his qualifications for the class-room than by his fitness for the field.

Men, as well as women, admire the brave. That Jackson possessed courage, no one doubted; that he was well suited for subordinate command, and, if so ordered, would march unflinchingly into the jaws of death, every one believed; but if asked to name the professor at the Institute most likely to rise to the highest rank and win the greatest fame in the event of war, probably four cadets out of five would have thought of Jackson last.

As mentioned above, after several speeches had been made there ensued a long pause. Perhaps some reply was expected from the cadets. At last the painful silence was broken by a cadet crying out, “Major Jackson!” The cry was taken up by others, until it became general and continuous. Aware of Jackson’s awkwardness and shyness, many may have called for him in the spirit of mischief; but doubtless the majority of the cadets, knowing his straightforwardness and sense of justice, desired from him some expression of approval or sympathy. Rising from his seat, he was greeted with loud applause. He waited till the noise subsided; then, with body erect and eyes sparkling, as they did so often afterwards on the field of battle, he said, with a vigor and fluency that were a surprise to all:

“Military men, when they make speeches, should say but few words, and speak them to the point. I admire, young gentlemen, the spirit you have shown in rushing to the defence of your comrades; but I must commend you particularly for the readiness with which you have listened to the counsel and obeyed the orders of your superior officer. The time may be near at hand when your State will need your services, and if that time does come, then draw your swords and throw away the scabbards.”*

Pregnant events followed in rapid succession. News was not received until the next day of the bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter. There was no telegraph line to Lexington in those days. On Monday news came of Lincoln’s proclamation calling for seventy-five thousand men. On the following Wednesday Virginia seceded from the Union. The Rockbridge Rifles had already received marching orders. Excitement was now intense. After the secession of the State public sentiment was completely revolutionized. But one feeling filled every breast—loyalty to the State and resistance to coercion. Before setting out on their march down the Valley, the Rockbridge Rifles came to the arsenal to complete their equipment for active service. Volunteers and cadets mingled freely on the grounds, extending hands in friendship and swearing to die together for the Old Dominion. Some of the Rifles said to a group of cadets, “Boys, you were right.” Only a few days before they were ready to shoot each other down in the streets. How quickly a common cause obliterates individual differences.

On the following Sunday, the 21st of April, the corps of cadets, under the command of Major Jackson, was on its way to Richmond. Their first post of duty was at Camp Lee. After rendering at that place and at the Baptist College excellent and much needed service as drill-officers of infantry and light artillery, they scattered in the field, where all served their cause well, not a few with distinction, and many to find a soldier’s grave.

Jackson, as is well known, was slow at first to receive from the authorities the recognition which his military abilities deserved; but once given a command, he displayed the rarest military genius, rose rapidly to the highest rank, never lost a battle, immortalized his name as a soldier and fell too early for his cause, in the midst of victory, adored by his people, respected by the enemy, admired by the world.

* This speech is quoted from memory, after a lapse of twenty-five years. It made so deep an impression at the time that the writer believes he has given the first and last parts in Jackson’s own words. The other part may vary somewhat in language, but it is the same in substance.

William A. Obenchain

William Obenchain was an engineer on the staff of Robert E. Lee. He was a great mathematician, a rare scholar, and a chivalric gentleman. He was for a quarter of a century the president of Ogden College, and through his tutelage and lofty character he made a profound impression upon the students and the community.

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