Historic Tours & Sites
With power lines buried underground and a dozen buildings dating from the 1700s and 1800s, the Lexington business district hasn’t changed much in 150 years. Civil War notables grab the spotlight throughout the county, but Native Americans, Scots-Irish, and German settlers, and a slew of fascinating inventors also contributed to the rich regional history.
Historic Sites and Special Exhibits
Give yourself a tour of downtown Lexington when you pick up a complimentary map at the Lexington Visitor Center (106 E. Washington Street). The map includes summaries for 46 historic stops across downtown. The Stonewall Jackson House is closed in January and February.
After the Civil War, Confederate General Robert E. Lee served as the president of Washington College, known today at Washington & Lee University. He was inaugurated as the school’s 11th president in the fall of 1865. Tour University Chapel after you marvel at the beauty of the Colonnade.
On the VMI post, the George C. Marshall Foundation spotlights the life and accomplishments of graduate General George C. Marshall. Marshall served as Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense under President Harry Truman and authored the European Recovery Plan (also known as the Marshall Plan), for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953. The museum is no longer open but a strong emphasis on research and the George C. Marshall Legacy Series remains.
In the 1830s Cyrus McCormick developed the mechanical reaper at the family farm - Cyrus McCormick Farm - in Raphine, Virginia. His invention, which harvested grain five times more efficiently than farmers using scythes and sickles, revolutionized agricultural methods and introduced the era of modern farming. Visitors can step into McCormick’s blacksmith shop and a log cabin gristmill.
An honor guard of VMI cadets carried the body of famed 19th-century oceanographer and mapmaker Matthew Fontaine Maury through Goshen Pass after his death. Nicknamed The Pathfinder of the Seas, the VMI professor had asked that his remains travel through the gorge when the rhododendrons were in bloom. Today, a memorial commemorates his love for the beautiful pass, which unfurls just beyond the marker. In 2015, USA Today named Goshen Pass one of America’s best waterside drives.
On a drive along bucolic Route 11, once known as the Great Road, it’s easy to envision the mountain men and hardy pioneers flowing south in search of adventure or their own patch of farmland. This historic path, also known as the Great Wagon Road and the Wilderness Road, carried German and Scots-Irish settlers through the Shenandoah Valley toward the Carolinas in the 1700s and 1800s.
There are three photogenic mills in and around Raphine. Wade's Mill, built in the mid-1700s, is a working flour mill with a 21 ft. waterwheel. Up the road at McCormick Farm, where Cyrus McCormick invented the mechanical reaper, you can poke around the 200-year-old gristmill, which sits beside Marl Creek. Downstream, Osceola Mill, which was also owned by the McCormick family, is home to a B&B and restaurant.
Civil War Sites
In June 1864, Union General David Hunter began his infamous march of destruction through the Shenandoah Valley. His goal? To destroy industrial sites and transportation infrastructure in Staunton, Lynchburg, and Charlottesville. The Civil War Trail traces Hunter's route.
On June 10, Hunter's forces skirmished with Confederate cavalrymen near Brownsburg. The Confederates retreated south to Lexington, and Hunter soon followed. The next day, 18,000 Union infantry and artillery forces lined the Maury River across from Jordan's Point, just north of downtown Lexington. A historic marker describes the standoff between 1,500 Confederate soldiers and the imposing Union forces.
The rebels retreated, but before heading south they burned the bridge leading into town. The bridge's abutments are still visible in the Maury River at Jordan's Point today. Hunter shelled the city, and his troops crossed the river in the late afternoon. His men ransacked and burned VMI, and classrooms at Washington College – later renamed Washington & Lee – were pillaged. During the four-day occupation, the Federal troops helped themselves to food and supplies at local homes.
Other Civil War destinations that are prime spots for winter exploring? From downtown Lexington, you can easily stroll to W&L and VMI. General Robert E. Lee's office, preserved as he left it, is a highlight at University Chapel & Museum on the front lawn of W&L. A vivid canvas mural in Jackson Memorial Hall at VMI depicts the Battle of New Market. This violent confrontation claimed the lives of ten VMI cadets in 1864.
Historic markers describe key battle sites along the Civil War Trail, which ribbons through Virginia and neighboring states. Civil War Trail sites in Lexington include the visitor center, the Stonewall Jackson House, Univesity Chapel, the VMI Museum, Jordan's Point, and Jackson's tomb. Beyond the city, you'll also find trail sites in Brownsburg and Natural Bridge.
A marker at Old Courthouse Square, part of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, commemorates the return of Lewis & Clark from their western explorations. Clark stopped in Lexington on his way to Monticello in 1809. As you explore downtown, look down for the Righteous & Rascals of Rockbridge County sidewalk pavers. These flat engraved stones share details about Lexington's most interesting former visitors and residents.