36 miles S of Staunton; 180 miles SW of Washington, D.C.; 138 miles W of Richmond
A college atmosphere prevails in Lexington, one of America's most charming small towns. Fine old homes line tree-shaded streets, among them the house where Stonewall Jackson lived when he taught at Virginia Military Institute. A beautifully restored downtown looks so much like it did in the 1800s that scenes for the movie Sommersby were filmed on Main Street (Richard Gere's character was hanged behind Stonewall's house). After the Civil War, Robert E. Lee came to Lexington to serve as president of what was then Washington College; he and his horse, Traveller, are buried here. And Gen. George C. Marshall, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his post-World War II plan to rebuild Europe, graduated from VMI, which has a fine museum in his memory.
Washington and Lee University has one of the oldest and most beautiful campuses in the country. Built in 1824, Washington Hall is topped by a replica of an American folk art masterpiece, an 1840 carved-wood statue of George Washington. Lee reputedly planted some of the massive trees dotting the campus.
Sometimes called the West Point of the South, VMI opened in 1839 on the site of a state arsenal, abutting the Washington and Lee campus (W&L's buildings are like brick Southern manses; VMI's look like stone fortresses). The most dramatic episode in VMI's history took place during the Civil War at the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864, when the corps of cadets helped turn back a larger Union army. A month later, Union Gen. David Hunter got even, bombarding Lexington and burning down VMI. He spared Washington College because it was named for the first president.