The Timeless Southern Charms of Lexington, Va.

By John Thompson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 1, 2009

I picked an unseasonably warm winter day to visit -- or, rather, revisit -- Lexington. I'd come through town decades before with my father. He figured that since I was born on Robert E. Lee's birthday, I'd want to see the Lee Chapel. Back then, sharing a birthday with the Confederate general was considered an honor.

Touring on my own this time, I stopped at the visitor center and was told that though a lot had changed since I was here last, a lot was the same.

One thing that apparently has not changed is the ease of getting around. There's not much traffic, and you can park all day for free at the visitor center, then head out to tour downtown and the surrounding historic neighborhoods.

A few blocks south of the center, the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery holds the graves of Revolutionary and Civil war veterans. Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson has the most elaborate memorial, a larger-than-life statue by noted Richmond sculptor Edward Valentine. Jackson's birthday had been observed only two days earlier: Fresh wreaths bedecked the pedestal, as did lemons. A health fanatic, Jackson was known to suck lemons during battle.

I continued along the adjacent streets, admiring the antebellum houses with their wide porches and views of the blue-tinged mountains off to the west. The streets were neat and clean, and everyone I encountered said a cheerful hi. I couldn't help wondering: What is wrong with this place?

The tour route leads onto the "front campus" of Washington and Lee University, with its stately brick and white-columned buildings. A gift from George Washington saved the 1749 academy from financial ruin. It was then named for him, and later renamed to also honor Lee, who served as college president after the Civil War.

Just behind the stage in the Lee Chapel, a gated chamber holds a recumbent marble of Lee, another Valentine masterpiece. It was hard at this point not to think of the place as a kind of Confederate Graceland, without the crowds. A crypt downstairs holds the tombs of Lee and his family. But of more general interest is Lee's office, preserved as he left it when he died in 1870.

Besides the usual books and papers, he had a huge fossilized shark's tooth on his mantel. Natural history was a big craze then, and Lee was interested in all kinds of things. He also introduced such liberal arts courses as journalism, business and law into the curriculum, a move labeled by the Virginia Military Institute superintendent as "twaddle from beginning to end."

It's hard now to imagine how venerated he was, how people not only forgave him for losing (and, in the North, forgave him for rebelling) but also made him into an icon of whatever they most needed -- honor, bravery, humility, hope -- and thereby gave meaning to four years of tragic suffering.

A headstone outside the chapel marks the grave of Lee's beloved warhorse, Traveller. For years its skeleton was on display in the museum, alongside that of a pony. When I visited as a boy, the guide pointed out Traveller, then, indicating the smaller skeleton, said, "That's Traveller as a young horse." I laughed because my father did, but I didn't really get it.

You could easily spend half a day at the adjoining campus of VMI, the original portion of which ranks as a National Historic District. After checking out its museums, I strolled up the hilly streets of downtown, past bookshops, tony restaurants and ungritty college hangouts.

Situated on Washington Street, the Stonewall Jackson House is the only home Jackson owned. The brick townhouse dates to 1800; Jackson and his second wife and five slaves lived here before he went off to fight.

My tour guide was a thin sparrow of a woman who told me that Jackson's military tactics are still studied all over the world. He took a cold bath every morning, then a long, brisk walk; he lifted weights, ate mostly fruit and vegetables, and traveled as far as Vermont for mineral springs and health spas. Yet all this disciplined attention to his health couldn't stop a bullet from fatally wounding him in 1863 at age 39.

Lexington remains a citadel of conservatism, though the university seems to lend a healthy air of modernity. Several days before the inauguration of President Obama, the town celebrated Lee-Jackson Day, marking the birthdays of its Confederate War heroes, with a big parade. But VMI cadets marched in Obama's inaugural parade, and the university observed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday by inviting comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory to speak at the Lee Chapel. It had been a busy week in little Lexington, a matrix of seemingly incongruent threads meshing together in one Southern Pleasantville.

I guess I wasn't around long enough to discover what, if anything, was wrong with Lexington. The town's a perfect gentleman, and I was charmed.

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