Last June, the tradition of 157 years at single-sex Virginia Military Institute was changed by the vote of seven Justices in Washington. The statue of Stonewall Jackson still guarded the parade grounds, but the general who stood like a stone wall at Manassas could not prevail against those seven Justices. His slogan is still emblazoned over the approach to the main entrance of the Institute: “You May Be Whatever You Resolve To Be.” But no resolve could preserve the all male institution which VMI had been when Jackson taught there and when George C. Marshall studied there. Millions of alumni dollars only delayed the inevitable. An era was ending.

That ending could have been, and was, widely predicted. It was both constitutionally and politically correct. We are all children of our culture, and gender equality is now assumed and enforced. Writing the majority opinion. Justice Ruth Ginsburg declared that “Women seeking and fit for a VMI-quality education cannot be offered anything else.” The women will come to VMI in the fall of 1997.

Though agreement for the decision was widespread—ranging from the White House to the Court House, and praised by scholars like Abigail Adams who was certain that VMI “will benefit from learning how to mentor and be mentored by women”—questions remain. How will what we do now affect what happens later? George Will was one of the few cautionary voices. “The Supreme Court gave women the right to enroll in an educational institution which, the moment they enter it, will essentially cease to exist.” This is the irony: in order to protect diversity, the Court is destroying it.

Journalists are mainly concerned with now. They give us news of the moment for the moment—then move to the next fast-breaking story. Not so historians, who must factor in the “then,” and try to understand worlds quite different from ours. They try to see patterns, not mere stories. What is the pattern that some think was destroyed in June 1996, at VMI?

I have a bit of firsthand knowledge, having lived on the Washington and Lee campus adjoining VMI, and seen the Corps in action. There was a proud precision in their drills, and a ring to their commemoration of New Market Day. When the names of the fallen cadets were read out, a living cadet would step forward to say: “Died on the field of honor.” And when the cadets passed Lee Chapel, they stopped talking and saluted smartly, in honor of Robert E. Lee. The French phrase for this, which many would think silly now, was esprit de corps.

That esprit might be embedded and embodied in the bronze Stonewall Jackson. Once he stood there in the flesh. He was unusually forward-looking and devout for his day. He was one of the first Sunday school teachers to admit what were then called Negroes, and later on he sent money to a Negro Sunday school. He was a twice-a-Sunday churchgoer, who carried his Bible into battle and prayed before attacks. What made Mighty Stonewall one of the most admired generals in history? Why did he stand firm when many turned and ran? Why is his statue on the parade grounds? Why did the men who followed him all but worship him?

His core values were discipline, duty, sacrifice, and honor—four words that are seldom heard today. If the draft is unpopular, burn your draft card. Look out for Number One in what Tom Wolfe calls the “Me Too generation.” This is the Age of Entitlement. If you don’t get your share, sue. With only five percent of the world’s population, the United States has 70 percent of the lawyers. Suing is easy and the courts are sympathetic. Make it big and quick.

Stonewall Jackson followed a different path. His battle uniform was a dingy yellow, and you would not have noticed him riding along on Old Sorrel. He might be anywhere when the fighting came—between the guns, up front with the snipers, sucking on a lemon. Soldiers like Stonewall seem superfluous until a crisis arises. Then we are glad to have a Washington, Andrew Jackson, Lee, MacArthur, Patton, or Eisenhower.

In Virginia we still remember Jackson’s soldiering. In 32 days, with fewer than 15,000 men, he marched 400 miles, fought five major battles, routed two armies completely, defeated a third—all this with the loss of 1,000 men killed, wounded, or missing. Who really understands how 19th-century Southerners felt about valor and freedom and honor, or why they held out for four bloody years? Or why the Virginia Military Institute cadets, ranging in age from 14 to 18, marched from their barracks through seas of mud while the Confederate band played “Rockabye Baby”? And why these young cadets kept going into the mouths of Yankee cannon at New Market. Why? “The Spirit of VMI.”

The spirit emerges in anecdotes. Once, when Jackson was on the VMI faculty, the superintendent ordered him to sit and wait in the outer office. The superintendent became engrossed in another matter and left by the rear door. The next morning he found Jackson sitting in the outer office. He had received no order to change position. But we change positions quickly these days, and our black-robed Justices in Washington can change over a century of tradition in a single day. History will judge in ways we cannot. What then are we to say? I defer to the poet Stephen Vincent Benét:

If you must have a word to say,

Say neither in their way,

“It is a deadly magic and accursed,”

Nor “It is blest,” but only, “It is here.”