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Bill Thayer

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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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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. IV
Chapter XIII

Third Decision

The visitor proved to be John W. Brockenbrough, rector of Washington College, Lexington, Va., and teacher of a private school of law in that town. To the complete surprise of General Lee, who had not been approached in any way, he stated that on August 4 the trustees of Washington College had unanimously elected the General president of the institution, and wished to know if he would accept. Judge Brockenbrough presented a letter from the committee of the board in which the invitation was extended formally. The salary was to be $1500 per annum, plus a house and garden and one-fifth of the tuition fees of the students, which were raised to $75 each. It was customary for the president, in return for this compensation, not only to administer the affairs of the college but also to teach philosophy.1

The conversation between General Lee and Judge Brockenbrough unfortunately was not reported by either of them. There is no way of telling to what extent General Lee familiarized himself with the extreme poverty and distressful outlook of the college. All that is known is that when the judge started back to Lexington he had the General's promise to consider the call.​2 Lee had never contemplated accepting a college presidency, though General Scott before the war had observed how well suited Lee was for such a post.​3 As he canvassed the idea, however, it seemed  p216  to Lee that the summons was providential, in that it both offered him a livelihood and an opportunity of service to his people.​4 The spiritual aspect of the work appealed to him strongly. In a time of heightened passions and lowered morals, he was being asked to take part in training the youth of the South, his former soldiers and their sons and younger brothers. The labor was one for religion and for the country, but was he qualified for it? He had never taught since he had been a cadet-assistant at West Point, and he did not feel that he had strength for conducting classes in addition to discharging executive duties. If it could be arranged that he had no instruction to do, was he competent to be president?

There were other considerations, also. Should he assume the direction of a college that was Presbyterian in fact, regardless of its name and charter? And what of the hostility that would be aroused against the college because of him? He was excepted from the President's amnesty and was a prisoner on parole. The North hated him, he felt, and looked on him as a traitor and a rebel. Would the college suffer by reason of his connection with it? Would animosity toward him be visited on it? These were the questions he argued with himself after Judge Brockenbrough's visit.

While he was debating, he received a letter from his old chief of artillery, Brigadier General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.W. N. Pendleton, who was rector of the Episcopal church in Lexington. Pendleton urged General Lee's acceptance and assured him that the institution thereafter would be wholly undenominational. That removed one obstacle. "If I thought I could be of any benefit to our noble youth I would not hesitate to give my services," Lee told General Pendleton.5

Before he decided finally, Lee rode to Albemarle County to consult his old friend Reverend Joseph P. B. Wilmer, an Episcopal clergyman whose judgment he much respected. When he told him of the invitation, the General found the cleric distressed to think that a man of Lee's achievements and ability was willing to consider the presidency of a small, wholly inconspicuous college. If Lee inclined to educational work, there were other institutions  p217  of greater fame and standing, Wilmer argued, any one of which would be glad to have him as its head. Lee brushed this objection aside; the cause gave dignity to the institution. It seemed that Providence had opened this, and not another, door to him. Was he competent to undertake the work? That was what he wanted to know. If he was, he would assume the task in the hope that what was left of his life would be a blessing to others and to the South. Mr. Wilmer's chagrin faded away at Lee's avowal. He reassured the General and congratulated him on feeling disposed to give his life and testimony to the cause of education. Wilmer fell to talking, then, about Christian influence on education, and Lee responded with much feeling — with eloquence, Wilmer later affirmed.​6 Perhaps, in his conversation with Mr. Wilmer, the General renewed the arguments he had advanced to Captain Scheibert that day at Chancellorsville when, as battle approached its furious climax, Lee had discussed with the German observer the future of education in the South. Perhaps, too, in brushing aside quickly the suggestion that he might find a more exalted academic office, Lee was influenced by the fact that the college to which he had been called bore the name of Washington, and had received from his model and hero a part of its early endowment.

It must have been very soon after this conversation that General Lee wrote his conditional acceptance in this letter:7

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After the original at Washington and Lee University.

Powhatan County, August 24, 1865.

Gentlemen: I have delayed for some days replying to your letter of the 5th inst. informing me of my election by the Board of Trustees to the Presidency of Washington College, from a desire to give the subject due consideration. Fully impressed with the responsibilities of the office, I have feared that I should be unable to discharge its duties to the satisfaction of the trustees or to the benefit of the Country. The proper education of youth requires not only great ability, but I fear more strength than I now possess, for I do not feel able to undergo the labour of conducting classes  p218  in regular courses of instruction. I could not, therefore, undertake more than the general administration and supervision of the institution. There is another subject which has caused me serious reflection, and is, I think, worthy of the consideration of the Board. Being excluded from the terms of amnesty in the proclamation of the President of the U. S., of the 29th May last, and an object of censure to a portion of the Country, I have thought it probable that my occupation of the position of President might draw upon the College a feeling of hostility; and I should, therefore, cause injury to an Institution which it would be my highest desire to advance. I think it the duty of every citizen, in the present condition of the Country, to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony, and in no way to oppose the policy of the State or General Government directed to that object. It is particularly incumbent on those charged with the instruction of the young to set them an example of submission to authority, and I could not consent to be the cause of animadversion upon the College.

Should you, however, take a different view, and think that my services in the position tendered to me by the Board will be advantageous to the College and Country, I will yield to your judgment and accept it; otherwise, I must most respectfully decline the office.

Begging you to express to the trustees of the College my heartfelt gratitude for the honour conferred upon me, and requesting you to accept my cordial thanks for the kind manner in which you have communicated their decision,

I am, gentlemen, with great respect,

    Your most obt servt.,
R. E. Lee.

Messrs. John W. Brockenbourgh [sic], Rector, S. McD. Reid, Alfred Leyburn, Horatio Thompson, D.D., Bolivar Christian, T. J. Kirkpatrick, Committee.

As the trustees promptly relieved General Lee of all instructional duty, and expressed their agreement with his views, the question of his future work was quickly settled.​8 The effect on  p219  Lee was immediate. Idleness and uncertainty were at an end. He had a task and he would discharge it. In his correspondence he began to set even more vigorously than before the example he thought the South required. He may have been prompted also to a more positive course because he saw the gloomy portents of the troubled times. A reaction was under way in the country. The North, being misled by partisans, was turning towards a policy of repression and revenge, of treason trials and of Negro rule. By this, the South was stirred to a bitterness worse than that of war. More men were talking of emigrating. Others were hopeless, and still others were affirming they would never take the oath of allegiance to the United States.

Were these feelings to continue, the future was dark, indeed. Were they allayed, and unity and good-will substituted for them, prosperity and happiness would come again to the South. So General Lee reasoned. He still believed that public activity on his part, which was in itself distasteful to him, might react against the cause he wished to aid. "I am unfortunately so situated," he often said, "that I can do no good; and as I am anxious to do as little harm as possible, I deem it wisest for me to keep silent."​9 Especially as the head of a college, he should avoid controversy and submit to constituted authority. But in the distress of the day he saw his duty. This much he could and should do: on all those who asked his counsel, in person or by letter, he would continue to urge patience in repression, diligence in adversity, justice in judgment, and courageous acceptance of the consequences of war. To this he turned himself more fully. Lee the warrior became Lee the conciliator. Within less than five months from the time he had said he would rather die a thousand deaths than go to General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant, he was telling Southern men to abandon all opposition, to regard the United States as their country, and to labor for harmony and better understanding. Seldom had a famous man so completely reversed himself in so brief a time, and never more sincerely. In the stormiest of the days that followed he was not to shift a foot. The stern asperities of congressional reconstruction might cause him to fear that reconciliation would be long delayed, but they were not to make him despair. "I look forward to better  p220  days, and trust that time and experience, the great teachers of men, under the guidance of an ever-merciful God, may save us from destruction, and restore to us the bright hopes and prospects of the past"​10 — that was the foundation of all his political faith during the reconstruction, and it was a foundation that stood. From quiet Derwent, as soon as he had decided conditionally to take the presidency of the college, letters went out in answer to one and another of his old associates who sought his advice. In these letters Lee's state of mind is mirrored. "It should be the object of all," he wrote in declining to contribute to a magazine that A. M. Keiley was planning to publish in the interest of better relations between North and South, "to avoid controversy, to allay passion, give full scope to reason and every kindly feeling. By doing this and encouraging our citizens to engage in the duties of life with all their heart and mind, with a determination not to be turned aside by thoughts of the past and fears of the future, our country will not only be restored in material prosperity, but will be advanced in science, in virtue and in religion."11

More in detail he wrote former Governor Letcher:

"The questions which for years were in dispute between the State and General Government, and which unhappily were not decided by the dictates of reason, but referred to the decision of war, having been decided against us, it is the part of wisdom to acquiesce in the result, and of candor to recognize the fact.

"The interests of the State are therefore the same as those of the United States. Its prosperity will rise or fall with the welfare of the country. The duty of its citizens, then, appears to me too plain to admit of doubt. All should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war, and to restore the blessings of peace. They should remain, if possible, in the country; promote harmony and good feeling; qualify themselves to vote; and elect to the State and general Legislatures wise and patriotic men, who will devote their abilities to the interests of the country, and the healing of all dissensions. I have invariably recommended this course since the cessation of hostilities, and have endeavored to practice it myself."12

 p221  Captain Josiah Tatnall of the Confederate navy, who wrote him about taking the oath, and of the possible bad effects of such action on Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Mr. Davis's defense against the charge of treason, was sent a copy of Lee's application for pardon, a statement of Lee's reasons for filing it, and a few words about the future: "The war being at an end, the Southern States having laid down their arms, and the questions at issue between them and the Northern States having been decided, I believe it to be the duty of every one to unite in the restoration of the country, and the reestablishment of peace and harmony. . . . It appears to me that the allayment of passion, the dissipation of prejudice, and the restoration of reason, will alone enable the people of the country to acquire a true knowledge and form a correct judgment of the events of the past four years. . . . I have too exalted an opinion of the American people to believe that they will consent to injustice; and it is only necessary, in my opinion, that truth should be known, for the rights of every one to be secured."13

The optimism of the concluding sentence of this message to Tatnall appeared in many messages to discouraged Confederates. These letters were not meant for the newspapers and were not published, but copies were passed from hand to hand, no doubt, and the sentiments of General Lee became well known. Necessity forced Southern men to set their jaws and to strengthen their hearts for the black vigil of reconstruction; General Lee's example made it easier to do so. General Wise had said, on the retreat to Appomattox, that General Lee was the Confederacy in the eyes of his army: Lee's advice now became the law of public conduct for men of moderate mind in the South. They were the quicker, also, to enter upon hard, unremunerative employment, when they heard that he had accepted, at a salary of $1500 per annum, the presidency of a small college.

The South was inspired by his choice, and so were the men who had elected him.​14 They had acted in the first instance on a remark attributed to one of General Lee's daughters, Mary — that the people of the South were willing to give her father everything he might need but that no offer had been made of any position in which he could earn a living for himself and his family.​15 After  p222  they had voted unanimously on August 5 to offer the presidency to General Lee, they had sat for a few minutes as if stunned by their own temerity.​16 Now that they had his acceptance, they prepared to work with him and to raise funds for the restoration of the college.

At the same time they may well have felt that their new president was out of scale with their institution. Washington College at that time was a name, a site, a small body of faithful men, and little besides. Established in 1749, at Greenville, Augusta County, as the Augusta Academy, it had been the pioneer classical school in the Valley of Virginia. At the first meeting of the trustees after the battle of Lexington,​17 the name of the institution was changed to Liberty Hall. Its principal at that time was William Graham, who had been a Princeton classmate and friend of Henry Lee's, soon thereafter distinguished as "Light-Horse Harry."

Under Graham and his early successors, several changes in the site of Liberty Hall were made, and its fortunes varied with the times, but it enjoyed the support and patronage of the Presbyterian Church in the Shenandoah Valley and thereby was kept alive through the Revolution. In 1796, on representation by the trustees, George Washington gave the school the hundred shares of stock in the James River Company which the general assembly of Virginia had voted him. In gratitude, the trustees thereupon resolved to call the institution Washington Academy.​18 Following a fire in 1802, it was moved to Lexington, and on January 2, 1813, it was chartered as Washington College. Built on the old frontier, the college always looked westward and trained many youths from Tennessee and Kentucky, though most of its students came from the Valley of Virginia. On April 18, 1861, the day following the secession of Virginia, the Unionist president of the college, Doctor George Junkin, tendered his resignation.​19 Before his successor could be chosen, the war broke out. The students of 1861 volunteered as a unit, joined Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jackson at Winchester, and fought through the war, many of them in the Stonewall brigade. The plant of the  p223 school suffered in the struggles. When Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.David Hunter's raiders reached Lexington in 1864, they looted Washington College and burned the Virginia Military Institute, where Jackson had taught. The college library was scattered past recovery. Even the books of the literary societies did not escape. The laboratory equipment was broken up or carried away.​a During the last winter of the war, though the professors remained at their posts and taught the forty-five students who offered, chiefly in the preparatory department, the work of the institution was virtually suspended.​20 The end of the war found the buildings in such disrepair that some of them were scarcely habitable. Others were commandeered and used by the Federal garrison of the town.​21 Part of the campus was under cultivation.​22 In the summer of 1865 so dire was the plight of the college that the faculty, which consisted of four professors, was authorized to borrow money to repair the buildings. The trustees undertook to see that a sufficient number of rooms to house prospective students were put in order.​23 Even after these efforts, it was necessary to negotiate a loan of $5000 with which to meet salaries, buy apparatus, and pay interest on previous indebtedness.​24 The institution, in a word, was as nearly dead as it could be, without causing its supporters to abandon it altogether.

Prospects for attendance in the fall of 1865 were as gloomy as for everything else. Few had the money to pay for college training and some of those who had the means had been touched by the turbulence of the times and had no desire to settle down to the quiet of academic life.​25 But with Lee as their leader, the trustees were willing to carry on. Following the meeting of  p224  August 31 the rector issued a public announcement that the General would be the president of the college. This read as follows:

"The gratifying duty of announcing to the country the acceptance by Gen. Robert E. Lee of the Presidency of Washington College has been devolved upon the undersigned by the Board of Trustees of that institution. The accession of this distinguished gentleman to the faculty of this venerable college, and as its honored chief, is destined, we trust, to mark the commencement of a new era in its history, and most cordially do we congratulate its numerous friends on this most auspicious event. The high, noble and patriotic motives which impelled our beloved chief, in accepting the honorable, but comparatively humble, position tendered to him by the authorities of the college, must win for him a new title to the admiration and love of his countrymen. The college, under the administration and supervision of Gen. Lee will resume its exercises on the 14th inst.

"At a meeting of the Board of Trustees of the college, convened at Lexington on Thursday, the 31st ult., the following resolution was unanimously passed, the publication of which is demanded, as an act of justice alike to Gen. Lee and themselves:

"Resolved, That the board heartily concurs in and fully indorses, the sentiments so well expressed by Gen. Lee in his letter of acceptance of the Presidency of Washington College, that 'it is the duty of every citizen, in the present condition of the country, to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony, and in no way to opposite the policy of the State or General Government directed to that object'; and that 'it is particularly incumbent on those charged with the instruction of the young to set an example of submission to authority'; sentiments that cannot fail to commend themselves to the approval of the President of the United States, and to the unqualified assent of all sensible and virtuous citizens.

"In dedicating his future life to the holy work of educating the youth of his country, Gen. Lee presents a new and interesting phase of his grand and heroic character — a character than which no more perfect model exists among living men. ' 'Tis a solid fabric, and will well support the laurels that adorn it.' Let the  p225  young men of the country, North as well as South, be wise, and profit not less by his precepts than by his great example.

John W. Brockenbrough,    
Rector of Washington College.

"Lexington, Va., Sept. 1, 1865."26

This document was widely printed. Dispute its moderate tone, it aroused the antagonism of some rabid individuals who thought President Johnson should forbid Lee's acceptance of the office.​27 Little of this comment, however, found its way into the press. Apparently the country did not realize the significance of what General Lee had done. It seemed to most editors, from their silence, that the former Confederate general-in‑chief simply had "found a position."

The Author's Notes:

1 Judge Brockenbrough brought a letter from John Letcher, in which the former governor said: "The salary now increased to $1,500 and fees, will provide the means of support in a country like this, where everything is usually abundant and easily to be obtained." — Statement of H. D. Campbell. See Riley, 4, 23; R. E. Lee, Jr., 179; MS. Minutes of the Trustees of Washington College (cited hereafter as Trustees' Minutes), Aug. 3‑4, 1865; J. W. Brockenbrough et al. to Robert E. Lee, MS., Aug. 5, 1865, Archives of Washington and Lee University, made available through the kindness of Doctor H. D. Campbell, former dean and later historian of that institution. For copies of the Trustees' Minutes and of General Lee's Letter Books while president of Washington College, the writer is indebted to Doctor William Moseley Brown, as is set forth in more detail in the appendix of acknowledgments.

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2 Riley, 4.

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3 E. C. Gordon, in Riley, 75.

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4 Cf. Mrs. Lee to Miss Mason [Sept. 14, 1865]: "I do not think he is very fond of teaching, but he is willing to do anything that will give him an honorable support" (Avary: Dixie After the War, 159).

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5 Riley, 5n; Jones, 146.

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6 Wilmer's familiar account (Riley, 9; R. E. Lee, Jr., 182, and in many other places) was first given in an address delivered at Sewanee, October, 1870, when a memorial service for General Lee was held. Reverend J. P. B. Wilmer, who was named Protestant Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana in 1866, is not to be confused with his first cousin, Right Reverend Richard H. Wilmer, Protestant Episcopal Bishop of Alabama.

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7 Facsimile in Riley, 8.

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8 Trustees' Minutes, Aug. 31, 1865.

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9 Jones, 199.

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10 R. E. Lee to M. F. Maury, Sept. 8, 1865; Jones, 206.

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11 R. E. Lee to A. M. Keiley, Sept. 4, 1865; Jones, 204.

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12 R. E. Lee to John Letcher, Aug. 28, 1865; Jones, 203.

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13 R. E. Lee to Josiah Tatnall, Sept. 7, 1865; Jones, 205‑6.

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14 Professor E. S. Joynes, in R. E. Lee, Jr., 180.

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15 Mrs. Preston, 272.

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16 Riley, 1‑3.

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17 May 13, 1776.

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18 "The name Washington Academy appears for the first time in the Trustees' Minutes, March 9, 1798, but the General Assembly of Virginia on Jan. 19, 1798, changed the name from Liberty Hall Academy to Washington Academy." — Statement of Doctor H. D. Campbell.

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19 Doctor Junkin died in Philadelphia, May 20, 1868.

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20 Faculty report, June 20, 1865, quoted by Riley. The early history of the college and the roster of the alumni were published as Catalogue of the Alumni of Washington College, Virginia, for the Year 1869. For conditions generally at the college, see R. E. Lee, Jr., 180; Riley, 38‑39; Jones, 80‑81.

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21 Trustees' Minutes, Aug. 3‑4, 1865.

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22 Trustees' Minutes, Aug. 4, 1865.

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23 Trustees' Minutes, June 21, 1865.

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24 Trustees' Minutes, Aug. 4, 1865. This poverty was not shaken off quickly. As late as February, 1866, when place had to be provided for the geological specimens, the faculty had to make the erection of the necessary shelves conditional on the carpenter's willingness to wait seven months for his money (Riley, 7n). In April, 1866, the water rent of the college for 1863 and 1864 was still unpaid (Trustees' Minutes, April 26, 1866).

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25 Cf. Jones, 95, quoting Doctor J. L. Kirkpatrick. Besides the regular fee of $75 (Trustees' Minutes, Aug. 4, 1865) every student was charged $10 for each modern language. This included lodging but not board. Indigent, worthy students, unable to pay these fees, could give bond that they would do so (ibid.).

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26 New York Times, Sept. 7, 1865, quoting The Lexington Gazette Special.

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27 Cf. Bright to Sumner, Oct. 20, 1865: "Now nobody is punished. Lee is allowed to become a Principal of a College to teach loyalty to your young men, and I suppose bye and bye Davis will be free" (Proc. Mass. Hist. Soc., 1912, p145). Cf. also "M. Le B." to President Johnson: "Aren't you ashamed to give Lee the privilege of being a President of a college? Satan wouldn't have him to open the door for fresh arrivals . . ." (Fleming: Documentary History of Reconstruction, 34).

Thayer's Note:

a For an excellent summary account of the effect of his raid on the Virginia Military Institute, two photos, and over a dozen primary and secondary sources, see this page at VMI.

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