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The Burning of VMI: 155 Years Ago Today

Updated: Jun 13, 2019

Robert Price

He buried history to save it . . .

On the 12th of June, 1864, Union General David Hunter ordered the burning of Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. I wrote about one of the lesser known stories from that destructive raid in my book, Lexington, Virginia and the Civil War. The story is about a slave who saves some important VMI history and artifacts . . .

Another VMI slave who served the household of Superintendent Francis Smith provided a much overlooked, yet valuable service; not so much for the Confederate cause as for the preservation of historically important documents and artifacts. Robert Price, known simply as “Old Bob”, served the Smith family for fifty years—from the 1840’s through the post-Civil War era. Smith had “attached to his household” the slave shortly after marrying Sarah Henderson and assuming his duties at the Institute. Very few even knew Bob’s last name. Fewer today are aware of his contribution. William Couper provides some of the details to this incident in his book, 100 Years At V.M.I. Couper footnotes one of his sources as an article which appeared in The Cadet newspaper in January of 1925 and authored by Dr. Larkin W. Glazebrook who was a grandson of Smith. As Smith was often away for long periods of time during the war, Price “assumed charge of the household as a protector and each night he would spread his pallet in the hall, in front of the bedroom of his mistress”, even though Price was, himself, the “father of a large family.” Shortly before Union General Hunter’s army fell on Lexington in June of 1864, “an old family horse died who had served faithfully for many years.” The account in the The Cadet states that “With due ceremony and affection, ‘Old Bob’ buried him in the garden to the rear of the house.” As the news spread that Hunter was headed toward Lexington,

“Bob” realized at this time that his responsibility was not only for the family of his master, but for all else in which he was interested. Quietly he set to work gathering valuable papers, institute records, family silver, and other valuables in order that they might be preserved. Rumors which arrived caused him to hesitate as to where to store them, when he thought of the solitary grave. Without hesitating he set to work digging up the remains of the old comrade and placed his collection at the bottom of the grave. He then returned the horse to its resting place.

Price then recalled that there was a “supply of brandy and wines” stored in the cellar for “hospital purposes.” Apparently concerned that the Yankees would discover the spirits, get drunk, and cause “a possible menace”, he emptied out the contents. Finally, Union “hunting parties” arrived and discovered the freshly disturbed dirt. Price was immediately summoned and a suspicious yankee soldier demanded, “What’s there?” Old Bob, reasoning to himself that it was no sin to lie to the devil answered, “Nothin’ butta ole daid hoss.” Unconvinced, the soldier ordered, “Dig it up.”

As Price got closer to the rotting carcass, the stench became more and more unpleasant; at last becoming so offensive that it was “evident that they were in truth working on the grave of a horse.” Disgusted, the soldiers finally gave up, satisfied that they had at last found a slave “who was truthful and that he could fill the grave.”

Price's act may seem somewhat humorous from our vantage point, but deceiving the Union soldiers in such a manner took courage. This enslaved man took great personal risk in preserving part of the history of VMI, yet he is unknown to most.

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