A Present Built on the Past; in Virginia, History Is Warmly Embraced

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 3, 2005 | Go to article overview

A Present Built on the Past; in Virginia, History Is Warmly Embraced


Byline: Christina Bellantoni, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The Old Dominion's got a lot of new in it these days: New highways carrying newcomers from shiny towers full of high-tech jobs to McMansionhoods that were little more than meadows 10 years ago.

But new isn't always better in a state where history is woven into the fabric of almost every aspect of life, from politics to education to culture.

In Virginia, the future doesn't happen without the past.

In early May, on a weekend when most of his fellow college students were making the weekly trek to their favorite watering holes, Virginia Military Institute senior Jeff Durham was marching to a different drummer.

The Forest, Va., native - a lifelong history buff - donned a pair of wool socks, steel-plated shoes and strapped on a canteen filled with water. Then the 21-year-old cadet walked 84 miles north of his Lexington campus and ended the weekend re-enacting a pivotal Civil War clash, the Battle of New Market.

The Confederate victory on May 15, 1864, was largely attributed to the courage of 257 VMI cadets who left class to join the fight. Ten students died in combat.

"The entire student body found itself engaged in battle," said VMI Col. Keith E. Gibson. "It's a long, lingering moment in VMI history. It's really about what it represents, about duty and sacrifice. These boys wanted to prove themselves."

Mr. Durham led the VMI Civil War Roundtable Club up Route 11 to New Market, where the cadets re-enacted of one of the last Confederate victories in the Shenandoah Valley.

"We're trying to re-create the march as authentically as possible," said Mr. Durham, who is going into the Air Force. "This is as close as you can possibly come to commemorating the memory and the sacrifices of the cadets."

The cadets, who spent months researching old diaries and photographs, ate salt pork and corn meal and wrote letters home - just as their predecessors did on the way to the fateful battle.

It's a tradition. And in Virginia, especially in places like VMI, such things still matter.

World War II veteran Cabell Brand, 82, knows what it is like to be called to duty. As a VMI cadet in 1943, he and other students were sent to fight in France. He returned to graduate in 1946 and later worked for civil rights in Virginia.

In the 1960s, Mr. Brand, who lives outside of Roanoke, worked hard to persuade VMI to accept black students. By 1968, the three black students in the graduating class were "very visible," he said.

Legendary Civil War Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, a professor at VMI in the 1850s, might not recognize the school's 2005 graduating class - which, like its predecessors, shouted out the names of the men killed in the New Market battle during May's commencement. Six of those cadets are buried on campus.

VMI, founded in 1839, was once all-male and all-white, but now boasts more ethnicities than ever. Of the 1,251 students enrolled in 2005, 66 were black, 39 were Asian and 34 were Hispanic. There were 71 women enrolled this year. Female students were first accepted in 1997. Even more women are expected for the 2006 year.

Education counts

The changing demographics are visible everywhere in Virginia - from the growing immigrant population in Northern Virginia to the rapidly changing military region in Tidewater.

Many of the newcomers are drawn to the state's top-ranked schools, like the University of Virginia, William & Mary and Virginia Tech. It's there, in the classrooms, where newcomers find out how important history is to the natives.

On a recent sunny day in Lexington, Va., Washington and Lee students in backwards caps and sunglasses unearthed artifacts as they dug out the foundation of a two-centuries-old campus dorm.

"We're hoping to find a glimpse back at student life in the 1800s - what happened and what they were like," said Taylor Alexander, 21, a junior. …

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