General David Hunter and the Burning of the Virginia Military Institute

Remains of VMI Cadet Barracks

On July 1, 1863, Confederate General James Ewell Brown Stuart ordered the burning of the United States Cavalry Barracks at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Almost one year later, U.S. General David Hunter had the Virginia Military Institute torched at his order on on June 12, 1864. The targets of both generals were legitimate acts of war against military installations of their opponents. However, while Stuart’s actions are relegated to the footnotes of history, Hunter’s burning of VMI has attracted widespread condemnation since the act occurred. The outcry against Hunter was not doubt heightened because of his unjustified destruction of private residences throughout his tenure as commander of the Department of West Virginia. Nevertheless, the burning of VMI, although a military training facility of the Confederacy that had sent troops into the battle of New Market less than a month before its destruction, was viewed as an atrocity along the same lines of the burning of private residences.

In the South however, the extreme animus toward Hunter predated his actions in the Shenandoah Valley. On May 9, 1862, Hunter decreed all slaves within his command, the Department of the South which encompassed SC, GA and FL, freed. This action not only outraged the South but created political trouble in the North for Abraham Lincoln, who rescinded Hunter’s order only months before he issued his own Emancipation Proclamation. Hunter further enraged Southerners by enlisting African-Americans as soldiers in the Union Army.

The Confederacy responded to Hunter’s actions by declaring him an outlaw who would be executed as a felon for arming and organizing slaves for a rebellion against there masters. One Southern newspaper described Hunter as “a cold blooded abolition miscreant” who served Abraham Lincoln, the “Imperial Gorilla” who ruled the “brutish and degraded North.” In attempting to free the slaves within his Department and organizing and training black men for military service, Hunter had gained the ire of the Confederacy long before putting the torch to VMI in 1864. His destruction in the Valley only added to the contempt in which Southerners held him.

To be continued….

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4 Comments

Filed under War Beyond the Battlefield

4 responses to “General David Hunter and the Burning of the Virginia Military Institute

  1. I had originally intended this as a full blown assessment and analysis of Hunter’s incendiary proclivities in the Shenandoah Valley. However due to unforeseen circumstances, my blogging time will be curtailed and I’ll be sharing this as a series of posts on the topic.

  2. David Lowe

    Hey it happens, dude. I look forward to the continuation because this is still a visceral event in Valley history.

  3. Hunter’s Raid on lexington was the subject of my first publication–an article in the Washington Times’s Civil War Page, Feb. 1996.

    I grew up just outside of Lex., and went to W&L.

  4. Dave Powell

    I’m a graduate of VMI, but I always wondered why there was fuss about burning the institute. It was clearly a military institution, an arsenal as well as a school, and periodically provided active duty forces when the corps was sent into the field.

    Of course, there is always a certain amount of Victorian sentimentality involved, not to mention Hunter’s already tarnished reputation. If George Crook (just to name an example) burned the place, would there have been as much outrage?

    Burning Governor Letcher’s residence seems more beyond the pale.

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