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Chapter
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
R. E. Lee: A Biography

by Douglas Southall Freeman

published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York and London, 1934

The text, and illustrations except as noted, are in the public domain.


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Vol. IV
p420
Chapter XXIII

Lee's Theory of Education

At the commencement of 1869, thirty-eight students were awarded degrees,1 and some financial progress was recorded. General R. D. Lilley, the chief financial agent of the college, had worked with a zeal that won the fullest commendation of the trustees.2 Miss Anne Upshur Jones of New York had donated a valuable assortment of personal effects during the winter.3 Of his election to the board of trustees, to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Colonel Samuel McD. Reid,4 Cyrus H. McCormick had pledged an additional $5000 to the endowment.5 To encourage small gifts, which had not always been paid when promised,6 the trustees sanctioned a plan whereby endowment certificates with coupons were issued, each good for a year's tuition.7 Vigor in furthering the campaign for funds was now urged once again by the trustees:8 without it, golden plans for making the college more useful to the country could not be started.

These plans were set out for the approval of the trustees by the president and faculty in several papers that embody the fullest expression of General Lee's theory of education. The starting point was the deep conviction of General Lee that for all its poverty and distress, the South must promote general education. "Nothing," he said in 1866, "will compensate us for the depression of the standard of our moral and intellectual culture, and each p421 state should take the most energetic measures to revive its schools and colleges, and, if possible, to increase the facilities of instruction, and to elevate the standard of learning."9 To General John B. Gordon, he stated his premise more fundamentally: "The thorough education of all classes of the people is most efficacious means, in my opinion, of promoting the prosperity of the South."10 Education, he believed, was the best endowment of youth: "We must look to the rising generation for the restoration of the country."11 He did not except the Negroes from the list of those whom education would help.12

While holding the deepest faith in education, and in the college as a means of promoting it, General Lee did not regard academic training as a finishing process. It was only the beginning. He had written one of his sons years before, "The education of a man or woman is never completed till they die."13 Frequently in his correspondence with the parents of his students he spoke of a college as "laying the foundation of a solid education."14

Cultural studies he considered a most desirable element in this foundation,15 and he was always pleased when a student selected them. But from the beginning of his work at Lexington, where he found Mathematics, Latin, and Greek well taught, he saw the South's need of better training in the sciences. With that in mind, he divided the School of Natural Philosophy, enlarged the instruction in chemistry, as already indicated, and built up a department of engineering.

As time passed he saw that the struggling South required men trained for the vocations as well as for the professions. His thought was given increasingly to what was styled "practical education," in the phrase of the day. "I agree with you fully," he wrote in 1867, "as to the importance of a more practical course of instruction in our schools and colleges, which, while it may call forth the genius and energies of our people will tend to develop the resources and promote the interests of the Country."16

p422 At their meeting in June, 1868,17 the trustees had authorized the faculty to work out an extension of the scientific departments. The faculty, in turn, had named a committee to prepare a report, under the direction of Lee. This was presented and considered at a special meeting of the board in March, 1869, and was then made public.18 At the annual meeting in June, 1869, the project was approved in most of its details and was given its final form.

"The great object of the whole plan," General Lee wrote in forwarding the report, "is to provide the facilities required by the large class of our young men, who, looking to an early entrance into the practical pursuits of life, need a more direct training to this end than the usual literary courses. The proposed departments will also derive great advantage from the literary Schools of the College, whose influence in the cultivation and enlargement of the mind is felt beyond their immediate limits."19 In other words the plan proposed "practical education" in the cultural atmosphere of a university rather than in separate technical schools.20

Three new departments were projected — agriculture, commerce, and applied chemistry. The first-named was to supply the student with virtually everything he would require for the scientific management of a farm, from plant physiology to cost accounting or "rural economy." The school of commerce was to combine the modern "business-college course" with commercial geography, commercial law, and "commercial economy, or the administration and financial management of commercial enterprises, banks, insurance and joint stock companies, railroads, canals, ships, steamers, telegraphs, etc."21 Applied chemistry was to cover mining and metallurgy and "chemistry applied to the arts" — industrial geology, botany, zoology and comparative anatomy, physiological chemistry, the use of the mouth blow-pipe, glass-blowing, "the use of tools practically taught," photography, "chemical technology, or the manufacture of acids, alkalies, salts, glass, pottery, illuminating gas and oils, soaps, paints, varnishes, p423 discoveries, drugs, fermented and distilled liquors, vinegar, sugar, starch, bread, gelatine, leather, etc.," and, finally, "economy and the management of chemical manufactures."

In addition, the report recommended the development of the engineering schools to include training in mechanical engineering. With the proposed department of applied chemistry, this would so broaden the instruction that three branches would be taught — civil engineering, mechanical engineering, and applied chemistry.22 English and French were to be taught with all the engineering courses. "In the mechanical studies," the report concluded, "a large portion of time should be given to the neat and exact execution of working drawings of machines, masonry, carpentry, &c.: without skill in which essential labour no one is qualified to take charge of works of construction, or superintend industrial establishments, in such a manner as is called for by the present advanced state of the arts."

"Laboratory methods," though not given precisely that name, were emphasized. "It is very important," read the report, "that the instruction in these professional courses be made as practical as possible; and, to that end, that there be annexed to those Departments a farm and garden, a mechanical workshop and a laboratory or workshop for metallurgical and chemical operations." All these might be remunerative, or at least should support themselves, the committee contended. "Even the laboratory, if judiciously conducted, may be self-sustaining, instead of requiring heavy appropriations and fees to pay for costly experiments and destroyed apparatus; which has been the difficulty generally encountered in imparting instruction in practical chemistry to young and unskillful beginners — a difficulty, which has often compelled this method of instruction, confessedly the best, to be reluctantly abandoned, even in institutions amply endowed."23

Along with the extension of the scientific departments, the faculty report of March 30, 1869, recommended the establishment of "press scholarships," not exceeding fifty, to "young men intending to make practical printing and journalism their business p424 in life; such scholarships to be free from tuition and College fees, on condition that when required by the Faculty, they shall perform such disciplinary duties as may be assigned them in a printing office or in the line of their professions to a time equal to one hour in each working day." The faculty suggested, further, that the trustees either make some agreement with a printing office, or else provide a plant at the college, where students could receive instruction and, as far as practicable, be compensated for their labor. To establish desirable contacts and to simplify the entry of young printers and journalists into the college, the faculty suggested, moreover, that it be authorized to buy $5000 of advertising and to pay for it in tuition and college fees.

The trustees had promptly approved the general idea and the proposal to supply tuition in return for newspaper advertising, but they had called on the faculty to see what arrangements could be made outside the college for practical instruction in typographical art.24 Faculty members duly did this and reported in June that a limited number of boys could receive instruction in the plant of Lafferty & Company, in Lexington, without cost to the college. This expedient was approved in the hope that some larger or better plan would be developed from it.25 Pursuant to this authority, the college on August 9, 1869, circularized the typographical unions of the South, inviting them to nominate candidates, over fifteen years of age, for scholarships that were to be good for a term of two years. Each holder of a scholarship was to labor one hour a day at his calling.26

This school, it must be remembered, was projected at a time when most of the country weeklies and many of the journals in small towns were owned and operated by practical printers, who usually conducted a job-printing business as well. These papers generally afforded a living for only one man, and perforce were "edited" by their owners. Often the editorials were "written at the case." That is, they were not penned and then put in type but were composed as the "editor" stood in front of his type case with his "stick," and "set" them. Printers of this sort, their sons p425 and helpers, were those for whom the "press scholarships" were intended. Apparently the aim was to train the printer to be an editor rather than to qualify the prospective editor in the art of printing. "The reason we propose giving these press scholarships is this," Professor William Preston Johnston told a reporter of The New York Sun, ". . . Printing is one of the arts which diffuse education and we should therefore seek to qualify printers for the task of educating as far as possible. We do not hope to make men fit for the editorial chair at once, but we do hope to give them as thorough a training as possible in the ways of their profession and to give them as good an education as possible that they may make better and more cultivated editors."27

Along with the extension of the scientific schools and the establishment of the press scholarships, the faculty recommended and the trustees approved the establishment of a separate chair of English Language and Literature, as soon as funds were available. History and Political Economy were to be taken from that chair and, with International Law, were to constitute a separate school.28

At the same time the trustees authorized the selection of six "resident masters," who corresponded, in a sense, to the fellows of more recent appointment in American universities. Three men were to be named annually, for terms of two years, from among the graduating masters of arts of the college. They were to pursue at least one study in the college, were to teach one hour a day, were to have exemption from all college fees, and were each to receive $200 annually from the college. Efforts were to be made to endow these masterships at $3000 each.29

Finally, in this enlarged program, a summer school was projected. It was to be under the care of an executive committee consisting of three members of the faculty and was to be taught by the assistant professors or by others specially licensed for the purpose. Students who passed the course of this summer school could be admitted to the regular college classes.30 Apparently the purpose of this school was to supply the deficiencies in preparation that were then hampering the work of the college.

p426 These plans, like those General Lee had received when he came to Lexington, were pervaded with the ideals of Christianity. Taught in no school, religion was to be inculcated through all of them. Lee had come to Lexington as much a missionary as an educator. When he had told Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pendleton in 1865 that he would not hesitate to give his services to the college, if he thought he could be of any "benefit" to the youth of the South, he had used the word as much in its moral as in its educational sense.31 He meant precisely what he said in an oft-quoted remark: "If I could only know that all the young men in the college were good Christians, I should have nothing more to desire. I dread the thought of any student going away from college without becoming a sincere Christian."32 His first conversation about the college, that with Reverend Mr. Wilmer, had turned to the part religion should have in his work there. The same purpose dominated to the last. Yet he rarely employed the term "Christian education"; he did not believe there was any other kind worthy of the name.

If General Lee had lived longer and the funds had been found, still other educational ideals doubtless would have been developed at Washington College. As it was, the program of 1869 represents the scene at its widest before the curtain dropped. To summarize, General Lee took a college whose president and four professors, prior to his coming, had been teaching Greek, Latin, "Natural Philosophy," Mathematics, and "Moral Philosophy" to a handful of boys, and he either enlarged, or planned to enlarge this institution to this general plan:

I. A classical college, with a Christian atmosphere, elective courses, and high standards, presenting the cultural studies as the "foundation of a solid education."

II. A group of scientific schools, with special emphasis on chemistry and engineering, civil, mining, and mechanical, and with laboratory facilities for all the sciences. In these scientific schools, as in the classical courses, the elective system prevailed, but a fixed minimum of work was required.

III. In the classical college and for the schools of science, adequate training was to be provided in modern languages, including p427 Spanish, which General Lee himself insisted was of special importance because the relations of the United States with Latin America were destined to be much closer.

IV. A school of commerce, similar in many respects to those established in recent years in the United States. It did not cover economic theory, however, so fully as do modern courses in commerce, and it was intended to give students practical knowledge of subjects among which were some now relegated to business colleges, namely, office-methods, including penmanship, book-keeping, and stenography.

V. A school of agriculture, with what would now be styled a "demonstration farm."

VI. A system of press scholarships, designed primarily to acquaint young printers with editorial methods and to enlarge their education.

VII. A school of law as an integral part of the college.33

VIII. A summer school to assure the better preparation of students entering the regular courses.

IX. The encouragement of advanced study through the establishment of "resident masterships," corresponding to modern university fellowships.

X. The conduct of research, for the public welfare, by members of the faculty, or persons appointed for the purpose. In the particular circumstances of the college, the investigations undertaken were in topography.

XI. Provision, by scholarship, for bringing selected young men to the college from the high schools and private academies of the South.

XII. Frequent and rigid examination of all students in all departments.34

p428 XIII. In all the activities of the college, the honor system in its fullness to prevail.

Poverty prevented the full attainment of this ideal in General Lee's time. Work in commerce did not develop beyond the modest proportions of a "Students' Business School," which had been privately established some years before35 and subsequently was affiliated with the college.36 The department of agriculture was not opened, nor were the press scholarships used. Nevertheless, Lee's plan was definite and advanced. It attracted much attention at the time, particularly in the emphasis placed on "practical education." The New York Herald predicted that the movement was "likely to make as great an impression upon our old fogy schools and colleges as [General Lee] did in military tactics upon our old fogy commanders in the palmy days of the rebellion."37

The educational ideal of Washington College was not expressed solely in a formal curriculum and in the development of a more extended range of study. The college believed, also, in the physical training of youth. At a time when the trustees were searching for money with which to establish new departments, they considered the purchase of a playground, an "athletic field" in modern collegiate phraseology. And when they scarcely were able to provide money for needed laboratory equipment, the trustees cheerfully appropriated $1100 to equip a students' boat club.38 The literary societies were equally esteemed. "There is scarcely a feature in the organization of the college," wrote General Lee, "more improving or beneficial to the students than the exercises and influence of the societies. . . ."39

The alumni took their place, too, in the academic order that came into being during General Lee's administration. They had been organized for many years,40 but their society was vitalized and their part in the commencement exercises was magnified. In 1868‑69 a general catalogue of the alumni was prepared and was printed by order of the trustees.41 It contained a sketch p429 of the history of the college, a list of all the known officials and teachers and a roster of some hundreds of graduates and former students. Under many of the names were notes of service in the Confederate army, and not a few were followed by the grim phrase, "Killed at Manassas" or at Chancellorsville or "Died in Service." Alumni were proud of their connection with the college and conscious of their responsibility toward it. "The objects of this association," read the second article of the constitution, "are, to keep fresh the pleasant memories of College life; to preserve and strengthen the ties of friendship there formed; and to exercise a filial care over the interests and welfare of Alma Mater, to whom we acknowledge a debt of gratitude never to be forgotten."42

Such was the college envisioned at legislation as Lee's five-year administration was drawing to its close. The question now to be answered is, How much of the ideal was directly contributed by General Lee? To what extent was he the author of the projects, many of them novel, presented for the approval of the trustees?

The new professorships were established in 1865 with his consent and warm approval but probably not on his initiative. Plans for the extension of the scientific schools were prepared under his direction, and the section relating to instruction in agriculture probably originated with Professor Campbell and with him.43

Beyond this it is difficult to go. Nothing was put forward that was not approved by Lee or, at the least, acceptable to him, yet his authorship of specific proposals cannot be established. Many of the advances undoubtedly were suggested by his able colleagues. The press scholarships, for instance, were an advanced conception, yet it is far more likely that William Preston Johnston suggested them than that General Lee did. Johnston was interested in public affairs and was professor of English. He was a member of the committee that drew up the plan of the extension of the scientific courses. When a representative of The New York Sun journeyed to Lexington to know what the press scholarships were designed to do, Johnston and not Lee was the man p430 who explained them to him.44 General Lee's connection with the plan probably was limited to endorsing it. From his own unpleasant experience with newspapers he probably felt there was abundant need for the training Johnston advocated.

The adoption of new methods and courses by members of the faculty was made easy by the nature of Lee's relations with the professors. He was president: none of his associates ever was in any sort of doubt about that, though he was often an elder brother to them and never an autocratic executive.45 He counselled them in their problems and visited them in their distress,46 but he required them to be at their posts and he insisted on prompt and accurate reports.47 In the only instance when he had to take disciplinary measures against a member of the faculty, an assistant professor, he promptly dismissed him and paid no heed to a students' petition for the reinstatement of the offender.

The teachers had a certain awe of Lee. Humphreys found it easy to start a conversation with him but sometimes embarrassing to continue it.48 On one of their long rides together, General Lee and Captain White were overtaken by darkness and had to spend the night at a farmhouse, where there was only one vacant room and only one bed in that room. To White's dismay, he had to share the General's couch, but he spent the night on the rail and slept not at all, for fear of disturbing his chief. Privately, the professor admitted afterwards that he "would as soon have thought of sleeping with the Archangel Gabriel as with General Lee."49 Outside the family, White was the General's closest friend in Lexington. That he was Lee's intimate, White insistently denied. "No man," said he, "was great enough to be intimate with General Lee."50 The other professors shared his feeling toward the General, and they would not have thought of crossing him or of presuming upon him.

p431 But in conferring with the instructors and in planning for the college, Lee encouraged free expression of opinion and the largest initiative. In matters of departmental control he gave the teachers the maximum liberty of action. "In his intercourse with his faculty," wrote Professor William Preston Johnston, "he was courteous, kind, and often rather playful in manner. We all thought he deferred entirely too much to the expression of opinion on the part of the faculty, when we would have preferred that he should simply indicate his own views or desire."51 In Professor Joynes's eyes, Lee seemed deliberately to minimize himself. If an associate had a new idea, he could present it without fear that it would be frowned upon or regarded as an act of insubordination. Lee never pretended to educational omniscience. In one of the most illuminating of all the observations on the relations of General Lee with his faculty, Doctor Gordon wrote: "One proof of [Lee's] wisdom was his unwillingness to express his opinion on a subject which he had not carefully considered. On subjects which he had considered he was the most dogmatic of men. But not infrequently at the meetings of the faculty he would say: 'Gentlemen, this is a new question to me; I cannot venture an opinion. I prefer to hear what Doctor K[irkpatrick] or Colonel A[llan] or Professor M[cCulloh] has to say about it.' In every case he would name the man who ought to have been, and who generally was, most familiar with, and best informed on, the subject under discussion."52

Lee never made a speech before the professors, though he quieted many a brewing storm.53 Faculty meetings, one imagines, had much the atmosphere of General Lee's headquarters mess during the quiet periods of the War between the States. But when his professors faced problems of instruction or of organization, he treated them much as he did his corps commanders in action: he gave them the warmest moral support and he brought to the scene all his resources for their use, but he let them make their own dispositions. Under this system the best qualities of his faculty were aroused. Their ambition was to please him. They considered it an honor to work in a college he directed, and they p432 felt that they were making educational history. Complete harmony and the utmost energy, in Joynes's phrase, pervaded the college.54 The faculty did not labor in vain or follow to no purpose the leadership of the president. Washington College became a mighty force in Southern education and, through its engineering school, was largely the inspiration of the men who developed the steel industry in the South.55 Defeated in war, Lee triumphed in his labor to upbuild the South.


The Author's Notes:

1 Trustees' Minutes, June 23, 1869.

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2 Trustees' Minutes, June 23, 1869.

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3 Jones, 272; R. E. Lee, Jr., 335 ff.; Lee's MS. Letter Book, Feb. 13, 1869, Feb. 26, 1869. This lady had intimated that she intended to make the gift and that she was inclined to favor the Virginia Theological Seminary near Alexandria. General Lee had replied, answering her inquiries, but had assured her that he did not wish to divert any donation from the seminary, which he esteemed highly (R. E. Lee, Jr., loc. cit.).

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4 Colonel Reid, who retired because of age and ill-health, had been a member of the board since Feb. 20, 1819 (Trustees' Minutes, March 30, 1869).

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5 Trustees' Minutes, March 30, 1869, June 22, 1869.

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6 See Trustees' Minutes, June 23, 1869, for resolution on the collection of subscriptions then overdue. See also report of J. H. McLeary, MS., June, 1871; Archives of Washington and Lee University.

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7 Trustees' Minutes, March 30, 1869.

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8 Trustees' Minutes, June 23, 1869.

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9 R. E. Lee to G. W. Leyburn, March 20, 1866; Jones, 214.

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10 R. E. Lee to John B. Gordon, Dec. 30, 1867; Jones, 97.

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11 R. E. Lee to R. S. Ewell, March 3, 1868; Jones, 117‑18.

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12 Jones, 269.

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13 Jones, L. and L., 117.

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14 E.g., R. E. Lee to B. B. Blair, MS., Jan. 17, 1870; Lee's MS. Letter Book.

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15 Kirkpatrick in Jones, 90.

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16 R. E. Lee to unnamed correspondent, Jan. 18, 1867; Lee's MS. Letter Book; Jones, 91.

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17 Trustees' Minutes, June 17, 1868; see supra, p369.

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18 Trustees' Minutes, March 30, 1869; New York Herald, quoted in Richmond Dispatch, May 1, 1869.

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19 1868‑69 Catalogue, 57.

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20 Joynes in Jones, 127, also in Cent. U. S. C., 28.

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21 Cf. C. S. Marsh in 34 Journal of Political Economy, 657‑59.

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22 In the technical lay-out presented in the report, agriculture was considered one "course," commerce another, civil and mechanical engineering a third, and mining engineering and metallurgy a fourth.

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23 For the complete report, see 1868‑69 Catalogue, 56 ff.

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24 Trustees' Minutes, March 30, 1869.

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25 Trustees' Minutes, June 23, 1869.

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26 Roscoe Ellard: "Robert E. Lee and Journalism" (Washington and Lee University Bulletin, vol. 25, no. 11, p7), quoting Augustus Maverick: Raymond and New York Journalism, 355.

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27 Ellard, op. cit., 9‑10, quoting New York Sun.

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28 Trustees' Minutes, March 30, 1869.

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29 Trustees' Minutes, March 30, 1869.

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30 Trustees' Minutes, June 23, 1869.

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31 Jones, 146.

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32 See supra, p283.

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33 Almost every year during General Lee's administration some proposal was made for a more intimate connection between the college and the law school operated by Judge Brockenbrough, rector of the college since 1865. The usual condition, lack of money, prevented any expansion of the law course and led the trustees to continue the annual agreement with Judge Brockenbrough. In 1869, General John C. Breckinridge visited the college to see his student-son (R. E. Lee, Jr., 341) and made so favorable an impression that the trustees decided to sound him out and to see whether he would accept a law professorship. If he were willing to do so, the college planned to add him with Judge Brockenbrough in a formal department of law. Otherwise, the existing arrangement was to be continued (Trustees' Minutes, March 30, and June 24, 1869). Breckinridge would not accept, and the college took no further action until 1870, when J. Randolph Tucker was chosen second professor of law.

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34 Cf. report of committee on the president's report, Trustees' Minutes, June 23, 1869.

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35 1867‑68 Catalogue, 37.

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36 1869‑70 Catalogue, 44. Cf. MS. Faculty Minutes, Oct. 5, Oct. 12, 1869.

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37 Quoted in Richmond Dispatch, May 1, 1869.

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38 Trustees' Minutes, June 22‑23, 1869.

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39 R. E. Lee to unnamed correspondent, March 27, 1866; Jones, 246.

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40 1865‑66 Catalogue, 27.

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41 Trustees' Minutes, March 30, 1869.

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42 Catalogue of the Alumni of Washington College, Virginia, 71.

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43 MS. Faculty Minutes, June 7, 1870.

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44 Supra, p425.

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45 Joynes, in Jones, 121.

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46 Professor Joynes recorded (Cent. U. S. C., 22), that when he was sick one winter in Lexington, General Lee came every day through a deep snow and climbed high steps to inquire about him and to encourage Mrs. Joynes.

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47 Professor C. A. Graves (Riley, 27) described how General Lee rebuked an assistant professor who had absented himself from college without asking leave of the president. When Lee met him on his return, he said: "Good morning, Captain. I am glad to see you back again. It was by accident, sir, that I learned that you were away."

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48 M. W. Humphreys in Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jan. 20, 1907.

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49 Valentine, quoting White, in Riley, 153‑54.

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50 Riley, 66 n.

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51 R. E. Lee, Jr., 315.

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52 E. C. Gordon, in Riley, 83.

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53 Cent. U. S. C., 33.

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54 Cent. U. S. C., 28, 33.

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55 Robert Ewing in Tenn. Hist. Mag., January, 1926, pp214 ff.


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