"Shells went through the houses"
On May 26, 1864, Union Gen. David Hunter marched south from Cedar Creek near Winchester to drive out Confederate forces, lay waste to the Shenandoah Valley, and destroy transportation facilities at Lynchburg. His raid was part of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's strategy to attack Confederates simultaneously throughout Virginia. After defeating Gen. William E. "Grumble" Jones at Piedmont on June 5, Hunter marched to Lexington, burned Virginia Military Institute, and headed to Lynchburg. There, on June 17-18 Gen. Jubal A. Early repulsed Hunter and pursued him to West Virginia. Early then turned north in July to threaten Washington.
Union General David Hunter's 18,000 soldiers crossed the North (Maury) River and entered Lexington from the north and west on June 11, 1864. Confederate Gen. John C. McCausland's skirmishers contested the crossing near the river and artillerists fired from the Virginia Military Institute parade ground. Union gunners shelled Lexington from the high ground north of town, causing significant property damage. For the next three days, Hunter's men plundered private homes, Washington College (now Washington and Lee University), and the Institute. Hunter also ordered the destruction of a mill and several warehouses at Jordan's Point, the dock and terminus of the canal system. Just before his arrival, six barges loaded with private property and armaments from the state arsenal at the Institute departed for Lynchburg, but Union cavalrymen destroyed the flotilla 10 miles downstream.
McCausland's 1,400 Confederates (including Virginia Military Institute cadets) retreated toward Lynchburg. On June 12, Hunter ordered the Institute and the home of former Virginia governor John Letcher burned, but spared Washington College after administrators pleaded that the school was named for George Washington. By the afternoon of June 14, the last of Hunter's army had departed Lexington for Lynchburg.
"Some shells went through the houses, frightening the inhabitants terribly."
- Mrs. Cornellia McDonald, refugee