It was a moment of deep solemnity, and suggestive of thoughts that make the bosom swell. The field of execution was a rising ground, and commanded the outstretching valley from mountain to mountain, and their still grandeur gave sublimity to the outline, while it so chanced that white clouds resting upon them, gave them the appearance that reminded more than one of us of the snow peaks of the Alps. Before us was the greatest array of disciplined forces ever seen in Virginia; infantry, cavalry and artillery combined, composed of the old Commonwealth’s noblest sons, and commanded by her best officers; and the great canopy of the sky overarching all, came to add its sublimity ever present, but only realized when other great things are occurring beneath each.
But the moral of the scene was its grand point. A sovereign state had been assailed, and she had uttered but a hint, and her sons had hastened to show that they were ready to defend her. Law had been violated by actual murder and attempted treason, and that gibbet was erected by law, and to uphold law was this military force assembled. But, greater still — God’s Holy Law and righteous Providence was vindicated, “Thou shalt not kill” — “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” And here the gray-haired man of violence meets his fate, after he has seen his two sons cut down before him, in the same career of violence into which he had introduced them. So perish all such enemies of Virginia! All such enemies of the Union! All such foes of the human race! So I felt, and so I said, with solemnity and without one shade of animosity, as I turned to break the silence, to those around me. Yet, the mystery was awful, to see the human form thus treated by men, to see life suddenly stopped in its current, and to ask one’s self the question without answer — “And what then?”
In all that array there was not, I suppose, one throb of sympathy for the offender. All felt in the depths of their hearts that it was right. On the other hand, there was not one single word or gesture of exultation or of insult. From the beginning to the end, all was marked by the most absolute decorum and solemnity. There was no military music, no saluting by troops as they passed one another, nor anything done for show.
John T. L. Preston (one of the founders of the Virginia Military Institute and one of its first faculty members) in a letter written to his wife, and published in the Lexington Gazette, 15 December 1859.