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Union Officer Who Destroyed VMI Is Honored

This is the stuff of movies: A young man who longed to attend Virginia Military Institute and could not, ends up as a Union officer ordered to destroy the school in 1864. Then, a half-century later, he arranges a $100,000 reparation from the U.S. Congress.

The officer, Henry A. du Pont, was honored Tuesday with the unveiling of a plaque hung in the foyer of Jackson Memorial Hall, which was built with the congressional funds. The building is named for Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, who was a teacher at VMI when the war broke out.

Henry du Pont's father, also named Henry, graduated from West Point in 1833. His roommate, Francis H. Smith, would later become the founding superintendent of VMI. The younger du Pont grew up with the expectation he would attend VMI, but at the time Virginia limited enrollment to residents of the state. Instead, he went to West Point and graduated in 1861.

Capt. du Pont, a field artillery officer, participated in the Battle of New Market, where VMI cadets on May 15, 1864, were instrumental in breaking the Union line and forcing a retreat. Less than a month later, Union troops under the command of Gen. David Hunter, occupied Lexington and the VMI campus. Hunter ordered a protesting du Pont to shell the school, destroying most of the buildings.

Following the war, du Pont served in the Army for 10 more years and then joined the family business in Wilmington, Del. He was elected to the Senate in 1906 and remained in office until 1917.

Du Pont introduced a bill in 1914 to compensate VMI for the damages caused by the Union forces during the war. Testifying before the Committee on Claims, he told members that when ordered to destroy the school, "I was very much opposed to the destruction of the Institute buildings, as I thought it was a wholly unnecessary destruction of private property and not justified by the rules of war, excepting so far as the destruction of the cadet barracks was concerned, which I thought was proper."

Yesterday, a du Pont descendant, former Del. Gov. Pete du Pont, unveiled the plaque. According to an institute spokesman, du Pont said of his relative, "he knew he'd made a mistake, but he was simply following the order of a general. In 1914, he repaid the debt he owed VMI from 1864. I think it's extraordinary that he got the job done after so many years."

By Linda Wheeler  |  April 21, 2009; 10:42 PM ET
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A very intesting and well written story that is accurate historically

The writer captures the human interest dimension of an unusual event that causes the Civil War to be of such continuing interest. The destinies of the Virginia Military Institute, and a young Union officer became intertwined to produce a tradition that years later is still honored

Posted by: jomarsh | April 23, 2009 12:26 PM | Report abuse

This is a great story -- irony and great human interest. It puts a terrible period of our history into very human terms. You've done a great job of telling about it. Thanks.

Posted by: macinnissd | April 23, 2009 4:28 PM | Report abuse

Great item. I had never heard this story before and found it fascinating. It is interesting how so often history contains incredible ironies. Please give us more unusual stories like this and keep up the good work.

Posted by: yankeebob | April 24, 2009 11:38 AM | Report abuse

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