Tuesday, August 23, 2016
August 23, 2016: Virginia Places: Lexington
[Inspired by my annual Virginia pilgrimage with the boys, this year’s series will focus on AmericanStudying interesting places in the Commonwealth. Leading up to a special weekend post on my presentation at the Historical Writers of America conference in Williamsburg!]
Two prominent histories that echo in the tiny Western Virginia city, and one lesser-known but very telling complement.
1) Revolutionary renamings: Named in 1778 (upon its incorporation as a town) by the Virginia Legislature, Lexington was one of the first American cities named after the Massachusetts site of the Revolution’s first battle. In 1796, President George Washington donated a substantial gift of James River Canal stock to the city’s struggling Augusta Academy, which changed its name to Washington Academy (later to become Washington & Lee University, as I’ll detail below) in appreciation. Besides providing interesting historical trivia answers, these renamings remind us of the breadth of the Revolution’s and Early Republic’s effects and legacies, the ways in which those founding periods and their prominent moments and figures changed the trajectory of every American community (even one with a population that as of the 2010 census still hadn’t come close to 10,000) in a variety of ways.
2) Confederate memories: Lexington saw even less Civil War action than Lynchburg, although the same Union general (David Hunter) from the Battle of Lynchburg did also lead a raid on the city’s Virginia Military Institute (VMI). But in the war’s aftermath, few Virginia spaces became more crucial to the South’s evolving collective memories of the conflict and the Confederacy than Lexington. The city hosted General Stonewall Jackson’s house, which quickly became and remains a museum to the controversial Confederate (who is also buried there). But it was the process of deifying Jackson’s boss, Robert E. Lee, in which Lexington participated most centrally. Shortly after the war’s end, Lee became President of what was now known as Washington College and remained in the role until his 1870 death, leading to the final renaming of the institution as Washington and Lee University. Due to that connection, the university constructed Lee Chapel, the final resting place for both Lee’s body and (just outside) the remains of his famous horse Traveller. These are quite literally sacred sites for the Lost Cause narrative of the war and the South, making Lexington one of the holiest places in that belief system.
3) A different story: Revolutionary and Civil War histories obviously occupy a central place in Virginian and American history overall, and those connections thus make tiny Lexington a significant part of our collective memories. Yet while Washington, Jackson, and Lee were of course hugely prominent players in those histories, they were also wealthy white landowners, and ones closely linked to the system of slavery at that. Providing a provocative and necessary complement to those histories, in terms of both race and class, is an award-winning Young Adult novel written by Lexington’s own William H. Armstrong: Sounder (1969), the classic story of an African American sharecropping family and their faithful dog. While Armstrong purposefully leaves his novel’s setting ambiguous in both place and time, he also based it directly on a local story he heard as a child; Armstrong family were poor white farmers in the Lexington area, and writes in the book's "Author's Note" that he learned the story from his "teacher, a gray-haired black man who taught the one-room Negro school several miles away." So it’s fair to say that in every way, Sounder reminds us of Lexington histories and communities that contrast with, complicate, but ultimately can complement those of the Revolutionary and Confederate leaders.
Next VA place tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Interesting places (in any state) you’d highlight?