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Teaching and Learning with Locating Slavery’s Legacies at VMI

By Jonathan S. Jones, Civil War historian, formerly at VMI, now at James Madison University

I got involved in the LSLdb because my students and I wanted to know more about the hidden and oft-overlooked impressions of the Lost Cause at VMI. I also wanted to find a medium that would teach research methods to undergraduates while allowing them to create a “real,” authentic final product they could be proud of. 

LSL fit the bill on both counts. 


When I joined the faculty of Virginia Military Institute in the fall of 2021, I was shocked by the extent of the Lost Cause’s reach on post (VMI lingo for the campus) and in Lexington, Virginia, the small Shenandoah Valley town where VMI is located. Naturally, being a Civil War historian, I brushed up on the history of the institute before coming to VMI. I learned that VMI was founded in 1839 out of a converted arsenal. This was in the aftermath of the 1831 Southampton Rebellion (“Nat Turner’s revolt”), so part of the institute’s mission was to provide trained militia members to guard against future slave rebellions.

Dr. Jonathan S. Jones, Civil War historian, formerly at VMI, now at James Madison University.

Training civil engineers during the Transportation Revolution was another mandate for VMI. Considering that in Virginia infrastructure projects relied heavily on enslaved labor, the defense of slavery and “internal improvements” went hand in hand. Slavery thus loomed large in VMI’s early history.

So did the Confederacy.

Most Civil War buffs know that Confederate icon Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson famously taught at VMI from 1851-61. But few Americans remember that during Jackson’s time in Lexington, he enslaved at least 6 people, including a man named Albert whom Jackson hired out to VMI. I eventually learned that Albert was one of several enslaved men whose labor was essential to the day-to-day operations at VMI before the Civil War. During the war, VMI faculty, staff, and cadets overwhelmingly supported the Confederate cause. The Corps of Cadets (the student body) trained Confederate soldiers and, in May 1864, fought as a unit for the Confederacy at the nearby Battle of New Market. Subsequently, VMI became a military target for the Union army, which raided the post in June 1864. 

None of this history was a huge revelation, considering VMI’s age, location, and martial culture.

I wanted to get some sunshine on the Lost Cause at VMI! 
Locating Slavery’s Legacies was an ideal medium for this goal … The database could host a lot of content in an accessible medium. It also offered an opportunity for cadets to do the archival legwork and learn research and writing skills along the way.

However, what I did not realize before arriving on post was how much VMI’s post-Civil War history was steeped in the Lost Cause. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, VMI embraced the Lost Cause with gusto. Indeed, the cult of Jackson and other expressions of the Lost Cause were crucial to VMI’s postwar survival.

Pro-Confederate propagandists likewise embraced the boy soldiers of New Market and the 1864 destruction of VMI as quintessential examples of the Lost Cause. Jackson and Robert E. Lee are both buried in Lexington (where Washington and Lee University is also located, adjacent to VMI), so ever since Reconstruction, the town has been a mecca for Lost Cause pilgrims.

Also, during my first year at VMI, the institute was embroiled in a scandal about racism and sexism on campus. It became obvious that the Lost Cause played into this controversy, and it was unclear what, if any, steps would be taken at the institutional level to reckon with this history. Additionally, few historians have written critically about VMI’s history, so the opportunity to dig into a VMI history project beckoned.


In the 2021-22 academic year, I took matters into my own hands. I set out to work with my cadets to learn about how the Lost Cause has affected VMI and to document this history in a public-facing way… I wanted to get some sunshine on the Lost Cause at VMI! 

Locating Slavery’s Legacies was an ideal medium for this goal, so I joined LSL as a pilot partner. The database could host a lot of content in an accessible medium. It also offered an opportunity for cadets to do the archival legwork and learn research and writing skills along the way. 

To that end, I incorporated the LSL database as a research project in two upper-level undergraduate classes, the Civil War and Reconstruction and Frederick Douglass’s America. Collectively about 40 students and I worked on the project over two semesters. We operated under the premise that the cadets inherently knew more about VMI than I did. They were the experts, since they live and learn on post. Cadets thus served as the primary researchers; I acted as the principal investigator, providing research and editorial guidance. 

We started with a simple research question: How has the Lost Cause affected VMI in the century and a half since the Civil War? 

Answering this question required cadets to learn significant research skills and content. Cadets formed teams of 2-3. I assigned each team a series of tasks, or “checkpoints,” scaffolded throughout the semester. The first day of class ended with a VMI scavenger hunt that challenged students to draw on their hard-earned institutional knowledge of VMI. They fanned out across post and recorded as many Lost Cause data points as possible, including Confederate statues, artworks, building names, and traditions. I sorted this data to generate a list with many choices, and each team picked an item to research all semester.

Next, cadets visited the VMI Archives and created an annotated bibliography of primary and secondary sources. This was the first time most cadets had ever been inside an archive, and one cadet described his visit as “exhilarating.” Many professional historians can recall similar experiences, but few undergraduates get to discover the thrill of the archive firsthand.

Armed with annotated bibliographies, cadets sketched out the bones of an LSL entry by analyzing their primary sources using a worksheet created by the LSL staff. Toward the end of the semester, cadets wrote a draft history of their items. They described the background and context in about 250 words and provided additional physical descriptions, images, and a further reading section. This process forced cadets to analyze historical information and translate their findings in an accessible, real-world format. Finally, a team of cadet editors uploaded the entries to the database, and I edited the content and writing. 


What did we learn from this process? 

Frankly, I was stunned by what my cadets discovered about the Lost Cause at VMI. By participating as a pilot partner in LSL, my cadets uncovered the history of the Lost Cause in greater detail than ever before. They discovered approximately 70 expressions of the Lost Cause. Many of these appear on the database, ranging from statues and buildings commemorating Confederate generals to objects and traditions celebrating VMI’s role in the Confederacy in both brazen and subtle ways.

Crucially, this work provided an opportunity for the cadets to learn historical skills like how to do archival research and how to critically interrogate primary sources. They were also introduced to the concept of digital history and honed their public communication skills. Finally, cadets deepened their knowledge of the Civil War era and VMI’s institutional history.

Simply put, we learned that without the Lost Cause, there is no VMI—at least, VMI as we know it today. 

We invite you to explore the database to learn more about these items! 

Editor’s note: You learn more about Dr. Jones’s LSL course assignments on the LSLdb Resources for Instructors page.


PI: Jonathan Jones (Assistant Professor of History at VMI, 2021-23) 


Clint Albrecht

Brian Addison Culpepper 

Jamison Pitts

Patrick Donahoe

William Jefferson Tarter III

Eric Annet

Sarah Liebenow

Wei-chieh (Louis) Tang

Jack Culbreath

Mason Rudolfs 

Nathan S. Benton

Michael Dale

Connor Cherry

William Lauerman IV

Zachary Poche

Kyle Dargis

Dalen T. Armeni 

Jimmy T. Cockerham

Kenneth A. Dinkel

Stephen Andrew Varsi

Connor Carroll

Jacob Kretzing

Callum R. Boyd

Matthew Sisk

Joseph McNeill

Luke Tarbox

Samuel Parramore

Jackson Lloyd

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