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WebXtra: Virginia Prepares for War
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Robert E. Lee
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Robert E. Lee's sword and scabbard
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Thomas J. Jackson
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Thomas J. Jackson's sword and scabbard
In the final words of my last Civil War sesquicentennial WebXtra, I wrote, “Once Virginia’s die was cast, its strong Unionists fell in line with the State.” Let me pick up on that theme by talking about the actions of two famous Virginians just before and just after Virginia’s vote to secede on April 17, 1861. What did VMI Professor Major Thomas J. Jackson do? And what did U. S. Colonel Robert E. Lee do?
April 13th was the day that Confederate forces in Charleston, South Carolina, were continuing to fire on Fort Sumter. But before that news reached Lexington, Virginia, 180 VMI cadets confronted a group of pro-Union civilians in town. Major Jackson arrived on the scene and got the cadets back to barracks. Jackson was a military man who took orders from his state, which had not yet seceded. He stated to the cadets, "The time for war has not yet come, but it will come and that soon, and when it does come, my advice is to draw the sword and throw away the scabbard.”
Virginia’s move came four days later, on the 17th, as its Convention voted to secede in response to Lincoln’s call for Virginia troops to help put down the insurrection in South Carolina. On the 21st, the VMI Corps of Cadets was ordered to move to Richmond, led by the same Major Jackson.
Arriving in Richmond on the evening of the 22nd, Jackson took the VMI cadets to the old Hermitage Fairgrounds on the western outskirts of town. There, he led his teenaged cadets as the training cadre (the current term would be “drill instructors”) for the volunteers for the Confederate Army, who were pouring into town. Upwards of 50,000 men were trained by Jackson’s cadets in the next few months.
April 1861 found U. S. Colonel Robert E. Lee at his home in Arlington. As the Virginia convention debated in Richmond, he was called to a meeting with Francis Blair, one of the members of newly inaugurated President Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet. There, on the 18th, Blair offered Lee the command of the U. S. forces that were being organized to crush the “rebellion.” Lee declined the offer and spent the night composing his letter of resignation from the U. S. Army. Using words amazingly similar to those of Jackson only five days earlier, he stated his loyalty to Virginia by saying, “Save in the defense of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword.”
Lee was asked to come to the capital on the 22nd, the same day that Jackson got there with the cadets. The following day, Lee arrived in Richmond and, in the House of Delegates Room of the State Capitol, was sworn in as the commander of all of Virginia’s military forces.
The war had begun, and Virginia had drawn its sword.