The campuses of Washington & Lee University and Virginia Military Institute abut each other. W&L looks like a classical college: Roman Revival architecture, painted red brick, white columns. Stately. The main road through W&L runs north past the Colonnade, its early buildings, and through a gate into VMI. It’s a jarring shift to Gothic Revival—think jousting knights in front of Medieval castles—brick painted a faded green.
The road opens to the parade ground. Wrapping around the far end to the north is a single, enormous building, perhaps 250 yards wide, concave angles forming three sections. As I approach, a bronze statue comes into view: George Marshall, the school’s most revered alumnus. On opposite sides of the center archway, behind the statue, are plaques with quotes from Presidents Eisenhower and Truman extolling Marshall’s virtues as army chief of staff and later secretary of state and then defense.
Through three archways, behind the castle-like façade, are the cadet barracks, four stories tall, whose design is a cross of prison and public housing. On the walled courtyard of each section stands a uniformed cadet, rifle at his side. Each cadet that passed me on my stroll offered a crisp “Morning, sir.” The first-year cadets, or “rats,” are easy to identify: they stride at right angles.
I walk back around the west side of the parade ground. Facing it are large houses, same Medieval architecture—the homes of faculty members. At the door of each is a plaque with the name of the resident and his “Mrs.” Beyond the houses are the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The effect on me is awe. I consider what would have a teenager—especially a woman—choose this institution, founded in 1839 as a state-funded undergraduate college. Its 1,700 cadets (220 are women) choose one of the military branches to serve upon matriculation. They study the liberal arts and the science of war. They learn discipline, service, discomfort, endurance. Marshall is everywhere. In the courtyard next to the Marshall Hall Center for Leadership and Ethics, a quotation from a speech in Washington in November 1945 is inscribed on a wall: “It is to you men and women of this great citizen-army who carried this nation to victory that we must look for leadership in the critical years ahead. You are young and vigorous, and your services as informed citizens will be necessary to the peace and prosperity of the world.”
I walk back through Washington & Lee. Students and faculty, passersby on largely empty sidewalks, greet me with a casual “hi.” (I see students in classrooms through the windows.) W&L’s enrollment is about 1,800; slightly more than half are women.
It’s had several names through its history. Founded in 1749 as Augusta College, it was moved to Lexington as Liberty Hall Academy in 1782. In 1796, George Washington gave it 100 shares of James River Canal Company stock, which the Virginia General Assembly had gifted him. In 1865, the Washington College board offered the presidency to Robert E. Lee, who had been superintendent of West Point before the Civil War. In a letter to his wife, Lee wrote: “Life is indeed gliding away and I have nothing good to show for mine that is past. I pray I may be spared to accomplish something for the benefit of mankind and the honour of God.” In his five-year tenure, Lee incorporated the local law school, instituted undergraduate courses in business and journalism, introduced modern languages and applied mathematics, and expanded offerings in the natural sciences. Upon his death in 1870, the board added his name to Washington’s. Today it enjoys a good reputation among small liberal arts colleges.
As at the University of Virginia (narrative to come on that), W&L has begun to confront its racial history, at least outwardly. A plaque on one end of the Colonnade outlines “A Difficult, Yet Undeniable, History” of the college’s ownership of enslaved people. It concludes with a 2016 quote from the university’s president: “Acknowledging the history record . . . requires coming to terms with, and accepting responsibility for, a part of our past that we wish had been different, but that we cannot ignore.” It’s not clear what “accepting responsibility” looks like, at least from a plaque.
On the edge of the campus is Grace Episcopal Church, established in 1840 amid a primarily Presbyterian population. One mission was instilling religious values among the students of both schools. At his last vestry meeting, Washington College President Lee proposed a new building. The church was renamed R.E. Lee Memorial in 1903, when honoring the Lost Cause was all the rage in America. One month after the 2017 Nazi riot in Charlottesville, the board voted, 7-5, to change the name back to Grace Episcopal Church. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported:
“It’s been a very divisive issue for two years,” said the Rev. Tom Crittenden, the church’s rector. “But Charlottesville seems to have moved us to this point. Not that we have a different view of Lee historically in our church, but we have appreciation for our need to move on.”