ECW Weekender: The Historic Artillery Battery at Virginia Military Institute

There are many battlefields and historic sites to visit to study the creation, use, and preservation of artillery pieces. For today’s Weekender post (keeping with the artillery series theme), we’ll journey away from the battlefields to a location where young men learned the use of cannon and where artillery became part of a military school’s heritage and tradition.

Photograph by S.K. Bierle.

Virginia Military Institute (VMI) crowns the hill, overlooking the town of Lexington, Virginia, and the Maury River. There are several cannons located on the Institute grounds, but most visitors are attracted to the line of four, red-wheeled cannons at the north end of the parade field, watched over by the sculpted figure of “Stonewall” Jackson.

These cannons – named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and originally used by VMI cadets for drill – briefly formed part of the Rockbridge Artillery during the early days Civil War. Why were they named after the four gospels in the Christian Bible? Well, the first commander of the Rockbridge Artillery – William Nelson Pendleton, from Lexington – served as an Episcopalian minister prior to and during the conflict. He theorized that his artillery pieces would “preach the gospel” by striking fear into the enemy hearts and prompting many battlefield conversions. Eventually, full-size cannons arrived for the Rockbridge Artillery. The guns finally returned “home” for the last time in 1875 by the federal government which had disarmed the school during the early Reconstruction Period.

The artillery pieces, cast specially built for VMI by Cyrus Alger Foundry in Boston in 1848, were purposely created smaller than standard cannon sizes for easier handing and since the cadets typically moved them by muscle-power around the drilling field. The cannon tubes weigh over 550 pounds each, and the artillery carriages, which have been replaced many times through the years – are now constructed on cast aluminum carriages, crafted to the original dimensions and appearance from a more durable material than the traditional wood.

With these cannons, Major Jackson – the grim, stoic professor of natural philosophy and instructor of artillery – taught teens the principles of artillery during the 1850’s; many of his students became Confederate artillerymen or commanders during the Civil War. Fittingly, a statue of “Stonewall”, sculpted by Moses J. Ezekiel, a former VMI cadet, stands guard over the battery. On the statue’s pedestal the inscription reads: “The Virginia Military Institute will be heard from today,” one of Jackson’s quotes prior to the flank attack at Chancellorsville.

Photograph by author

If you visited Virginia Military Institute with artillery in mind, be sure to take a look at the other historic cannons. Across from the Washington Arch Barracks, you’ll find eight cannon. Six of them – French bronze guns – are original from the 17th Century. The other two – cast at Richmond’s Tredegar Foundry – were created from bronze salvaged from French cannons left behind during the Revolutionary War and used by the Letcher Artillery.

For more information about visiting Virginia Military Institute and exploring their museums, please visit:  https://www.vmi.edu/museums-and-archives/vmi-museum/