Hunter's Raid on VMI, June 1864
Hunter's Raid top level
Francis H. Smith Letter
About this letter: Francis H. Smith was the Superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute. Richardson was Adjutant General of Virginia.
The final section of the letter is partially illegible. Brackets are used to indicate uncertainty in transcription.
Head Quarters Virginia Mil. Institute
June 17, 1864
Maj. Gen. Wm. H. Richardson, A.G.
I have the honor to report that immediately on the receipt of the orders of the Governor, transmitted through your office under date of June 6, 1864, I moved the Corps of Cadets from their camp near Richmond, and taking the Danville train on the morning of the 7th reached Lynchburg at 11 P.M. Hearing at Lynchburg that the enemy was threatening Lexington from Staunton and that Gen. McCausland's command was resisting his advance, I determined to move immediately to Lexington to his support. The cadets were transported by freight boats back to the mouth of the North River, and marched into Lexington on Thursday [June 9] at 3 P.M.
On Friday [June 10] intelligence was brought to me from Gen. McCausland that the enemy in strong force, estimated by him at 10,000, was advancing on the two main roads from Staunton to Lexington, and by 7 P.M. his command had been driven back from 1 1/2 miles of Staunton to Cameron's farm 2 miles from Lexington. I had a very long interview with Gen. McCausland that night, and said to him, that if, with the support of the Corps of Cadets, he could make an effective resistance, and save the town of Lexington, and with it, the public property placed in charge of the Corps of Cadets at the V.M. Institute, I was prepared to make any sacrifice necessary to this end. But if a sanguinary resistance in front of Lexington could only retard the advance of the enemy a few hours, involving thereby a useless sacrifice of life and endangering the capture of the cadets by a flank movement on either side of the town, I was not willing to make such a sacrifice or to run such a risk.
Gen. McCausland did not think he could hold the position without support from Gen. Breckinridge, but he deeming it important to retard the advance of the enemy, I determined to hold the cadets on their [ground or guard], ready to give support if required, upon the conditions above specified, with the understanding that [early] notice should be given [for them] to withdraw when resistance was no longer effectual. A courier was immediately dispatched by me to Lynchburg with intelligence of the state of things to Gen. Bragg and Breckinridge and the Governor which I desired Gen. Nicholl's command at Lynchburg to transmit by telegram.
About 8 A.M. on the 11th intimation was given to me of the advance of the enemy towards the town and at 9 A.M. three lines of their skirmishers occupied the hills on the north side of the North River. Gen. McCausland having destroyed the bridge over the North River, planted a section of artillery on the Magazine hill, and occupied the adjacent hills south of the river with sharpshooters. Firing soon commenced, and an active artillery fire was kept up for several hours, without loss to our side. By 1 o'clock it became evident that the enemy had crossed above Leyburn's mills, and was advancing by Kerr's Creek. I deemed it prudent at once to withdraw and gave orders to Lt. Col. Ship to move by the Fair Grounds road and cross the N. River by the bridge at its mouth, and encamp near Balcony Falls that night. At 2 1/2 P.M. Gen. McCausland withdrew with his command & proceeded by the Fancy Hill road towards Buchanan, strongly pressed by the enemy who entered the town at 3 1/2 P.M.
As guard & protection to the citizens who were moving their servants & stock by the James River, to Bedford and Amherst, I determined to hold the pass at the Balcony Falls. Effective protection was thus given to a large amount of private property, while I was not without the hope that withdrawal of the enemy from Lexington might enable us to return. A raid, however, upon Amherst, and the advance of Averill & pursuit of McCausland into Bedford, made it unsafe to remain above Waugh's Ferry, and Wednesday I gave orders to to retire towards Lynchburg. We met a dispatch on the way from Gen. Breckinridge directing the movement, and at 8 A.M. on Thursday the 16th we arrived in Lynchburg, and I immediately reported by telegraph to your office, for the orders of the Governor & Board of Visitors.
On Sunday the 12 June all the public buildings of the Institute were burnt by the order of Major General D. Hunter, except my quarters and the quarters of the ordnance Sergeant. The peculiar condition of my daughter, with a child only 48 hours old, induced my wife [Sarah Henderson Smith] to throw herself upon the courtesy of the commanding General. The appeal was not in vain; and I acknowledge with pleasure, this relaxation of the devastation which was unsparingly applied to every species of property owned by the state at the V.Mil. Institute, which we were unable to remove. The beautiful statue of Washington cast by Hubard from Houdon's model, was removed.
I have brought with the command 4 Brass pieces, 2 rifle guns 3 in. and ammunition, and had privately disposed of the section of the Letcher Battery given to the Institute. The mountain Howitzers, ammunition and old cadet muskets were turned over to the Confederate authorities, and I hold the receipt of the commanding officer at Lexington for them. I understand they were caught above the break in the canal, and were destroyed or captured.
The most valuable part of the Library and Philosophical apparatus with the paintings had been removed to Washington College and to the houses of friends. I have not heard whether they had been removed or destroyed. The residence of Governor Letcher, with all his effects, was destroyed, and I have heard [the] house was searched and robbed of the essentials of life, especially of flour & meat.
In a time of war it was not to be expected that the Va. Mil. Institute should escape the effects of the devastations which has visited by fire and rapine the fairest portions of our beloved commonwealth, and the apprehension of its capture became more serious as the necessities of the hour withdrew from from our support, the army [that] had defended the Valley of Va. It was a painful contemplation to all associated with the Va. Mil. Institute, to know, that the buildings erected by the liberality of the state for the use of her favored military school, were in the hands of the spoiler and when the clouds of heaven reflected the conflagration lighted by the torch of the invader, every eye was moistened that the home of the V.M.I. cadet was gone!
But the Virginia Military Institute still proudly and defiantly stands. The brick and mortar which gave a temporary shelter to her nurturing sons, while they were buckling on the armor for the conflict, constituted not the Military school of Virginia. Thank God, that still lives. The Governor--its Board of Visitors--its Professors--its cadets--still remain in organized being, ready to work--and able to send forth, year by year, its alumni, to fill up the ranks of those who have fallen in the deadly struggle.
Some inconvenience will attend its losses--but all are prepared to sacrifice comfort to promote the end of our Revolution, and all become apt scholars when the trials of persecution give spirit and point to the motive which animates them. It cheers the heart of the patriot & especially of every friend of the V.M. Institute to witness the filial affection displayed by the cadets as they cluster around the proud standard committed to their charge by the Governor of Va. Homeless but not defenseless, night by night they pitch their moving camp, but around the camp fires there is a tie of brotherhood which bonds heart to heart, as each remembers he is a V.M.I. cadet!
Some such spirit as this was indeed to have been expected by those of us who have watched the progress of the Institute from its first inception in 1839, and who have been familiar with the peculiar difficulties by which it has been surrounded. But the cheerful alacrity in the discharge of every duty, the patient endurance under great hardships, such only as veterans are accustomed to, and the buoyant spirit, not daunted by the late disaster, speak in [tones] which far transcend any description, and [can] [stand] as hopeful auguries upon which to maintain and [support] the Military Institute.
At present all our supplies are exhausted, except some 50 head of cattle should they have [to be of use]. They were in good hands. The academic year was near its close, & supplies were low of necessity. Flour & bacon may be obtained by the fall, if a suitable place can be provided, until the building can be repaired. Its walls are good.
The following places have occurred to me. The Rockbridge Baths--the Rockbridge Alum Springs--& the Montgomery White Sulphur Spr.
I await the order of the Board of Visitors.
I remain, General, Very Resp. /signed/Francis H. Smith, Supt.