History of the Original Liberty Hall Volunteers
By: Thomas B. Williams
In the early spring of 1861 the tidy community of Lexington, tucked away neatly in Virginia's Upper Shenandoah Valley, was busily preparing for an anticipated armed conflict between the states of the North and South. The capitulation of Fort Sumter, in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, in April, was soon followed by the secession of the Virginia Commonwealth from the United States. War was now unavoidable.
During the winter of 1860-61, the citizens of the Rockbridge County seat had been divided on the question of secession. Debates about whether Virginia should stay in th Union or join her sister Southern States in separating from th United States dominated every town gathering. There were even war-related incidents at its two schools of higher education, Washington College and the Virginia Military Institute, one of the which involved the raising of Palmetto flags before Virginia's secession. While such actions displayed the feelings of the youths, the people of the town elected anti-secessionists to the Commonwealth Secession Convention at Richmond.
Lexington's colleges reflected contrasts. While most of the students of Washington College were preparing for theological study, the cadets of V.M.I. were developing their talents for waging war. In 1859, Major Thomas J. Jackson, professor of mathematics and cadet artillery instructor, led the cadets to Charleston to witness the execution of John Brown, a militant abolitionist. The following year he conducted a demonstration of a revolutionary concept of field artillery with a rifled cannon borrowed from its designer, Major Robert Parrot of the West Point Military Academy. Upon Jackson's recommentdation the Virginia Militia purchased two complete batteries of the Parrott Rifles.
After the secession of Virginia, the boys of Washington College placed seminary preparation aside and began daily drill practices on the campus. Initially led by friends from V.M.I., drill instruction soon was assumed by Rev. William N. Pendleton, rector of Grace Episcopal Church of Lexington. A West Point graduate, Pendleton later commanded the Rockbridge Artillery, a battery initially outfitted with four old six-ponders used by the V.M.I. cadets. He subsequently became the Chief of Artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia and Robert E. Lee oldest staff officer.
The college company took on the name of the "Liberty Hall Volunteers" from an early Lexington militia company of the American Revolutionary War. The original militia company was formed at the Liberty Hall Academy, one of Washington College's antecedents. The ladies of Rockbridge County took one of the public halls as a workshop and soon fashioned linen gaiters and snowy white Havelock, while trousers and blouses were made of gray cloth secured from a woolen factory near Whistle Creek, west of Lexington. Virginia Military Institute became the source of muskets and caps on which the initials of the company, "L.H.V.," were emblazoned in brass letters.
On June 8, 1861 the 73 members of the Liberty Hall Volunteers were mustered into service on the Washington College campus. A beautiful flag made by the ladies of Falling Springs (Presbyterian) Church and bearing the inscription "pro aris et focis" (for alter and home) was presented to the volunteers.
The company proceeded to Harpers Ferry at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley where they were officially designated Company I of the 4th Virginia Infantry Regiment, First Virginia Brigade. Their Brigade commander turned out to be Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, the familiar major seen strolling daily across the Washington College campus to his classroom at V.M.I. They soon learned that the former professor was a strict disciplinarian and always a soldier.
The Liberty Hall Volunteers became "blooded" on the Henry House Hill along Bull Run Creek near Manassas Junction in July, three months after drill sessions were commenced on the campus green of lovely Washington College. In providing Gen. Thomas J. Jackson a nickname and earning the sobriquet "Stonewall Brigade" for itself, Jackson's five Virginia regiments accounted for 20 percent of the total Confederate losses. The college boys lost 7 killed and 6 wounded.
After First Manassas the company served as headquarters quard for Gen. Gustavus Smith and in October, 1861 became assigned to Stonewall Jackson's headquarters. During 1862 it marched with the Army of the Shenandoah on the Romney Campaign, Jackson's famous Valley Campaign, the Seven Days Battles outside of Richmond, around Pope's Army to Manassas, and the Maryland invasion of 1862. During that year they fought in the Battles of Romney, Kernstown, Winchester, Port Republic , Gaines Mill, Malvern Hill, Cedar Mountains, Brawner's Farm, Second Manassas, Chantilly, Harpers Ferry, and Sharpsburg. It mustered less than 10 members as losses had reduced the Stonewall Brigade to about 250 men before the battle. It is interesting to note that after Sharpsburg the whole of the 27th Virginia Infantry Regiment of the Stonewall Brigade mustered only 12 men.
The Liberty Hall Volunteers were annihilated on Culp's Hill at Gettysburg when they charged impetuously over the crest and into the Federal works. As John McKee was pulled over the breastworks by a burly Federal soldier, the captor said, "Gim-me-your hand, Johnny Reb; you've give'us the bulliest fight of the war!" Their losses were 1 killed, 5 wounded, 16 captured and the regimental colors. After the battle, the 4th Virginia numbered just 66 men and the college company 3.
New recruits allowed the company to fight along Mine Run, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. It was at the Mule Shoe of Spotsylvania where much of Jackson's old division was captured from the rear and the 4th Virginia lost a battleflag. The remnats marched to the outskirts of Washington with Early, suffered in Petersburg's trenches and fought in Lee's rear guard to Appomattox. Of the eight members paroled at Appomattox, only two were mustered at Washington College 1861