The college, meantime, had opened auspiciously and uneventfully for the session of 1867‑68, with an enrollment that exceeded 400 by October 4 and climbed before June to a total of 410,1 eleven more than had been registered the previous session, and nearly three times as many as in 1865‑66. Attendance from Virginia and from Tennessee was slightly lower than during the term preceding, but there were more boys from other states, of which eighteen were represented.2 All the former professors were again in service, reinforced by a number of young assistants. As in 1866, the full membership of the faculty, including the president, was twenty-two.
Lee was kept busy with his administrative duties, which continued so heavy that he protested every absence from his office involved an accumulation of work.3 Agnes and Mary were both away in Maryland for the greater part of the winter. Mildred, the one-time absentee, not only kept house, but had in addition the care of another Mildred, daughter of General Lee's brother, Charles Carter Lee. To distinguish his daughter from this little niece, who had come to Lexington to go to school, General Lee dubbed the younger Mildred "Powhattie," after the name of her native country. Besides "Powhattie," two of her brothers, the General's nephews, took their meals with the family that winter while rooming elsewhere and attending college.4 Custis continued to live with his parents and taught in the Virginia Military Institute adjoining the college. Mildred took seriously the management p345 of this sizeable household and ruled with an autocracy that amused her father. " 'Life' has it all her own way now," the General wrote Robert in January, 1868, "and expends her energy in regulating her brother and putting your mother's drawers and presses to rights."5 To his new daughter-in‑law he confided that Mildred "has . . . had her hands full, and considers herself now a great character. She rules her brother and my nephews with an iron rod, and scatters her advice broadcast among the young men of the college. I hope that it may yield an abundant harvest. The young mothers of Lexington ought to be extremely grateful to her for her suggestions to them as to the proper mode of rearing their children, and though she finds many unable to appreciate her system, she is nothing daunted by their obtuseness of vision, but takes advantage of every opportunity to enlighten them as to its benefits."6
Mildred was so busy that she had little time to go out with the General, who consequently had to take his exercise alone. "My only pleasure," he wrote Mrs. Rooney Lee, "is in my solitary evening rides, which give me abundant opportunity for quiet thought."7 Christmas passed quietly, with Robert up from Tidewater for the season. January opened sadly for Lee. For a time, a brief time fortunately, he lost some of the cheerfulness he had gleaned from the Petersburg visit. "My interest in Time and its concerns," he wrote, "is daily fading away and I try to keep my eyes and thoughts fixed on those eternal shores to which I am fast hastening."8
The gloom of a dark, wet winter was deepened early by the most unpleasant happening of General Lee's entire administration of the college. On North River, flowing directly by Lexington, there was a dam, above which was a long stretch that froze readily and afforded excellent skating in cold weather. Students and townspeople thronged it. On the afternoon of February 4, one E. C. Johnston, a former Federal soldier, went down to the river to enjoy the ice. He had come to Lexington in the autumn of 1865 as an agent of the American Missionary Association p346 and had established some schools for the instruction of freedmen. From this work, apparently, he had turned to store-keeping, but his affiliations with the Negroes made him somewhat notorious and distinctly unpopular. He was accustomed to carry a pistol and had it with him that day, explaining later that he did so at the instance of friends who considered his life in danger.
Soon after Johnston got on the ice he noticed that other skaters shunned him. So he determined to skate down the river, away from those who objected to his presence. He went on for •something more than a mile and then, turning a bend, came in view of a crowd that included town boys of various ages and a number of students from the college. Some of them knew the reputation of Johnston as one who consorted with the blacks, and they commenced to hoot and to yell at him — "just as the rebels used to yell when making a charge in the army," Johnston subsequently narrated. The object of this contempt skated past the crowd, without a word on his part or any act of violence on theirs. He went on to the dam, where he rested awhile, in sight of the young men, and then he started back up the river. His tormentors resumed their jibes at once, as boys always will, when they see their victim is harassed. Johnston kept on toward them, swinging from side to side of the river. At one crossing, a lad of about twelve came close to him and hurled the most insulting of epithets at him.
Then Johnston lost his head. He caught hold of the youngster, drew his pistol and threatened to shoot him if he repeated the words. The boy's older brother and probably some others came up immediately. Johnston thereupon released his grip and started off, pursued by the crowd, which began to abuse him hotly. The Northerner foolishly tried to dispute with them and thereby sharpened their language. In the excitement, some of the youths cried "Hang him" and "Drown him." According to one version of the affair, Johnston was told he had to leave town within ten days, and was warned that if he said anything about the affair, the townsmen would come to his store and lynch him. He finally got off the river. Pelted with ice and clods as he went away, he reached shelter in safety, with sundry bruises and bumps, p347 but with no serious injuries to show for his misadventure. That night a group unidentified men, in disputed numbers — one version says five, Johnston insisted it was "a crowd" — came to his place of business, beat upon the door, rattled the shutters, and shouted insults. After a while, arousing no one, they went away. Johnston, as it happened, was not in the building at the time.
If General heard anything of the episode, it probably was no more than that a Northern radical had drawn a pistol on a little boy and had been driven from the ice. And that was the way the college community looked at it. Johnston, however, was out for revenge. He went forthwith to the mayor of the town, J. M. Ruff, and gave him his version of the affair, insisting that the boy who insulted him was "at least sixteen or seventeen years old." His assumption apparently was that all those he had encountered on the river were students. He demanded protection and called upon the mayor to punish the guilty. In the absence of specific charges against any named student, the mayor told Johnston that he could not control the college boys. Johnston then reported the matter to the military authorities. Word of it reached Brigadier General Douglas Frazer, the assistant military commissioner of the district. He, too, went to see the mayor and came away with an exaggerated picture of the lawlessness of the students. General Frazer thereupon communicated with his superior, Brevet Major General O. B. Willcox, commanding the sub-district of Lynchburg.9 General Willcox came at once to Lexington and investigated. He talked with Johnston and with various witnesses to the affray, and also with the mayor, whom he thought "lacking in energy and determination but . . . well disposed."10 Then he went to see General Lee and, for the first time, acquainted him with the fact that Johnston considered he had been insulted by members of the student-body because he was a Northerner. General Willcox supplied the names of three students who were alleged to have been involved. General Lee expressed his deep regret and immediately began an inquiry into the facts. Finding that two of the accused boys had been engaged p348 in the affair, he directed one of them to withdraw immediately, and wrote the parents of the other to remove him from college. The third young man, who had been present but had not participated in the row, applied for permission to leave the institution and was allowed to do so. This action was taken by General Lee without calling the faculty together and while General Willcox was still in town. It was coupled with assurance to the Federal commander that he would expel any student guilty of disorderly conduct.11 General Willcox went back to Lynchburg well satisfied. Mr. Johns[t]on is partly to blame himself," he reported, "as he threatened to shoot one of the small boys when they first set on him. . . . As Johns[t]on had not complained of any particular person to the mayor he had made no arrests or other progress in the case, the parties being wholly unknown, but I saw no signs of any disposition to screen disturbers of the peace."12
A few days after General Willcox's departure, word was alleged to have been sent to Johnston that he had better leave town, as the students were preparing to give him a "callithumps."13 The Northerner had already planned to remove his business elsewhere and he soon departed for Covington.14 Here the matter might have ended, but for the feeling of Johnston and some of his friends that he had been badly treated. They endeavored to strike back — at General Lee, at the school and at General Willcox, whose refusal to take extreme measures had incensed them.
Washington College that winter had boldly launched in the North a promising campaign for financial support. Reverend E. P. Walton had charge of the solicitation and tactfully prevailed upon more than thirty New Yorkers of prominence to unite in a call for a meeting on the evening of March 3 in the principal hall of Cooper Institute. The signers included Henry Ward Beecher, Bishop Potter, Charles F. Deems, W. E. Dodge, Peter Cooper, and A. A. Low. Despite inclement weather, the assemblage p349 included some 500 persons. It was one of the first gatherings that came together in the North after the war to assist a Southern college directed by former Confederates, and for that reason its proceedings have a place not only in the life of Lee but also in the history of Southern education.
Officers for the meeting were chosen and letters were read from a number of prominent people, who expressed their willingness to help. Among them was Governor R. E. Fenton, James T. Brady, a lawyer who appeared in the case of Jefferson Davis, Horace Greeley, Gerrit Smith, and George William Curtis.
Governor Fenton expressed his pleasure that "practical business education" was to be given in Southern colleges. "I need not say," he wrote Mr. Walton, "that I sympathize with the patriotic and benevolent features of the institution which you represent."
Gerrit Smith's letter contained a check for $200 for the Lexington school. "I wish our wealthy men of the North could give that college a couple of hundred thousand," he wrote, and went on: "Sufficient cause why the North should give large help to the South is that the one is rich and the other poor. 'But the South is a sinner,' say thousands. True, she is; but sinners should be helped as well as saints. What, however, is the North but her fellow-sinner? England cursed us both with Slavery. Then we cursed ourselves with it — the North as well as the South upholding it. And then came on the war. The South, no less brave than the North, yet being by far the weaker party, fell under. Now it only remains for us to forgive each other, to love each other, and to do all the good we can to each other. So shall we become a united people; and, profiting by our great mistakes in the past, we shall enter upon a new and happy national life."
George William Curtis wrote: "I should most gladly do anything in my power to show that the most radical men in this part of the country cherish no unkind, much less any vindictive feeling, toward the people of any State or section as a class, and that the true Radical policy is merely the security of fair play and equal opportunities for all. Prompt and universal education in the Southern States is the truest and most enduring reconstruction. Every word spoken for it, every dollar given to it, is the sincerest peace-offering."
p350 After the letters had been read, Henry Ward Beecher introduced a series of resolutions, one of which is as applicable now as it was in 1868. It was this:
"Resolved, that while we rejoice in the earnest labor which has lately been bestowed upon the primary education of the most ignorant classes of the South, we believe that this labor should be accompanied with equal zeal for the instruction in the higher walks of learning, so that the college may furnish an abundant supply of teachers for the people, and by its example of higher education continually raise the standard and ideal of the common school."
Then Professor Roswell Dwight Hitchcock of New York Union Theological Seminary addressed the audience. Washington College, he said, "was doing a noble work and required aid. The cause of education in the South appeals not to the prejudices of men but to the patriotism of the people. Of General Lee, who led the armies of the Rebellion, he could only speak as of a brave man, who, when he found that the cause he had espoused was a lost one, at Appomattox Courthouse, behaved himself as a gentleman and a Christian. Of Robert E. Lee he could say, that since the war he had acted the part of the gentleman, the patriot, and the scholar, sedulously keeping himself secluded from the public gaze; and laboring now at the head of the institution . . . he was entitled to all honor."
Henry Ward Beecher closed the meeting with a characteristic speech in which he urged the cause of education. He pleaded for Washington College, because it was in Virginia and because Lee was its president. He would not withhold his support from any Southern school, but for this one his sympathies were strong. No one regretted the course which General Lee had chosen in former days more than he, the speaker, did. But if he had been born in Virginia, brought up amid her institutions, educated in a Southern college, he might have been prompted to take a course just as bad or erratic, as did Lee or Johnston. Lee was now pleading for mental bread for his students. Whatever his error in war, Lee had now devoted himself to the sacred cause of education. Did men ask if Lee might not pervert the minds of youth? No! Lee would not fail to instill patriotism and love of country in the p351 minds of all his students. Mr. Beecher spoke with great earnestness and was much applauded.15
Apparently, no collection was taken before adjournment, but the meeting was altogether as good an introduction to the people of New York as could have been asked. If it had been followed by similar endorsements from a few other leading men of the North it might have meant much to Washington College. The gathering, however, aroused the wrath of some of the old abolitionists who at that time knew nothing of the Johnston incident. The New York Independent of March 12 made the rally at Cooper Institute the text for an editorial article on "Education at the South."
It was the duty of the North, to forget all ill-will and to help the South in education, but when it came to "supporting a college of which the late commander of the Confederate army is the president, we must respectfully decline." The Independent went on in this strain:
"We do not think that a man who broke his solemn oath of allegiance to the United States, who imbrued his hands in the blood of tens of thousands of his country's noblest men, for the purpose of perpetuating human slavery, and who was largely responsible for the cruelties and horrors of Libby, Salisbury and Andersonville, is fitted to be a teacher of young men."
At this point in the article, an asterisk was inserted and a footnote added to this effect:
"We have been reminded, since this article was in type, that the last thing which Gen. Lee did, as an officer of the American Army, was to hold an interview with Gen. Scott at his request; and, when Gen. Scott, trusting to his loyalty, showed him his maps and drawings of the defences of Washington, he took them with him to Arlington, upon the pretense that he wished to examine them more particularly and then, without returning them, went over to the rebel side!16 We have also been reminded of the fact that slaves found on his plantation at Arlington averred that he had treated them with atrocious cruelty."
p352 Such a man, the article continued, must give evidence of repentance and some guarantee that students would not be taught to honor and imitate his example. "We wish to be assured, moreover, before contributing money to Gen. Lee's college, or any other similar institution at the South, that it does not tolerate the hell-born spirit of caste, by turning from its doors students of a dark complexion."
After more in this tone, The Independent proceeded to show what it was pleased to call "the spirit that prevails in Gen. Lee's college" by quoting the following from a letter written by "a loyal clergyman of Tennessee."
" 'In passing over the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, I occasionally meet with young men dressed in a singular uniform. Upon inquiry, they tell you they belong to Gen. Lee's school at Lexington, Va. I remarked on one occasion that I was not aware that that institution was a military school.
" 'Oh! well, it isn't exactly. But we wear uniforms, and drill," was the reply.
" 'What do you call your uniform?'
" 'Officers' gray.'
" 'Do you like it?'
" 'Yes; we won't have anything else. We won't wear the d–––––––––––––d Yankee blue at Gen. Lee's school.' "
"Is this the sort of college to which the Christian loyalists of the North should make contributions?" indignantly asked The Independent, wholly unconscious that the Virginia Military Institute, as well as Washington College, was located at Lexington, and that some of the uniformed cadets of the institute evidently had been joking with the worthy "loyal clergyman of Tennessee."
Not content with the testimony of one minister, The Independent quoted another, who had written in a letter:
"As I told you before, it is out of the question for our children to go in any peace to the rebel schools. They are neglected, insulted, and finally driven out of the school; and we want to have a position where they can be treated as they deserve."
p353 On this The Independent commented: "Is there any evidence that Washington College, under the presidency of Gen. Lee, is anything else than a rebel school, in which a loyal student would be subjected to insult and persecution? The friends of freedom at the North will be likely, we think, to demand an answer to this question before contributing to its support." If believers in education wanted to promote that cause in the South, let them help Berea College, Kentucky, where instruction was given "last year [to] more than three hundred students — of whom something over half were colored, the most advanced class in the South."17
When the issue containing this article reached Lexington, one of Johnston's friends, who signed himself "A Resident of Lexington," wrote a very bitter letter to the periodical, instancing the treatment of that young man as further proof of what The Independent had charged. The letter began in this fashion:
"Residing in Lexington, and having seen more or less of the students and professors of Washington College daily since Lee assumed the presidency of the institution, I feel it my duty to give to the people a few facts, which will, I trust, show the philanthropists of the North the animus of the institution to which they are contributing. The professors are, without a single exception, thoroughly rebel in sentiment, and act accordingly. . . . No student can remain in the college who is not a rebel; not, I suppose, from any law of the institution to that effect, but from the universal sentiment of those connected with the school."
Then followed a partisan view of Johnston's encounter and of his efforts to procure redress.
The Independent printed with this a statement that as efforts were being made in the North to collect money for Washington College, it felt called to print the letter, "showing how rampant is the spirit of rebellion, proscription and mobocratic violence in that institution." The editor appended to the communication a paragraph in kindred spirit: "In view of facts like these, which come to us from a responsible source, we should p354 think that every man who has given a cent to Gen. Lee's college would see and feel that he has been imposed upon, and that his money has been worse than thrown away."18
In the same issue appeared an article by William Lloyd Garrison, protesting against donations to Washington College. "What of the patriotism of General Lee or Washington College?" he demanded. "Is the vanquished leader of the rebel armies now a patriot, or disposed to teach the rebel sons of rebel parents lessons of patriotism? . . . Who is more dumb, or, apparently, more obdurate than himself? He at the head of a patriotic institution, teaching loyalty to the Constitution, and the duty of maintaining that Union which he so lately attempted to destroy!"
The incidents related by the "Resident of Lexington" and those quoted in The Independent were exceedingly bad advertising for the college in the eyes of those who knew nothing of the facts. In another letter, which The Independent printed on April 16, 1868, more of the same sort of publicity was given. This was written by Miss J. A. Shearman, a Northern woman, who recounted how she had gone South to teach school in the fall of 1865, "with a heart full of forgiving pity and yearning sympathy." She was soon disillusioned, she said.
"My first year in the South took me to Lexington, Va. I travelled one entire day in the company of Gen. Lee; and, being confirmed by his external deportment in my preconceived belief that he was what the world is accustomed to call a gentleman, I took heart as regards my novel position. My first excursion in Lexington, which was simply to a hardware store, on a shopping errand, was the occasion of my first insult from the students of Washington College. A group of them followed me into the store, and then beckoned to their comrades outside to come and take a look at the Yankees, at the price of twenty-five cents a look. I wrote to Gen. Lee, saying that I had come there with kind and peaceable intentions; that it was my purpose to conduct myself as a lady; and that, while I did so, I claimed the right to be treated as such. To this I received no reply; and I soon decided that to expect protection from that quarter would be vain. p355 Thenceforth I met every insult in silence and patience. Never did I walk the streets of Lexington without rudeness, in one form or another. Ladies glorified in compelling the Yankee woman, in her good nature, to step into the mud for their accommodation; the boys of the aristocratic school of the place hooted every time I passed them; and the students sneered and cursed alternately. From one set of students, whose boarding-house I was compelled constantly to pass, I habitually red the polite salutation of '––––– Yankee ––––– of a nigger teacher,'19 with the occasional addition of an admonition to take up my abode in the infernal regions. I have been awakened from my sleep, in the dead of night, by horrible serenades, performed under my window, by these same gentlemanly young men. I have taught an evening school while brickbats were being thrown by them at the window. And, finally, I came near being driven out, with my companions, in consequence of a statement, made by the ex-mayor of the place, that the students were planning to burn the school property in which we were living."20
It would have been hard for General Lee to have combated hostility to the college based on his failure to answer the complaint of an unknown woman that she had been ridiculed in a Lexington hardware store by unidentified young men whom she took to be students of Washington College. Fortunately for the college, however, its anonymous critic, the "Resident of Lexington," had trod on the toes of General Willcox, and had hinted that the Federal commander had been much too lenient in the Johnston case. This aroused "L," one of Willcox's admirers, "L," probably Captain Lacey of his staff, who had accompanied him to Lexington in February.21 This officer wrote The New York Tribune22 a correct account of the affair, which The Independent had the grace to reproduce. "This correction," wrote "L," "will, I trust, be sufficient to exonerate General Lee, but for whom and p356 the cause of education, so essential to the welfare of the South, I should not notice the letter and article referred to. As to the slur which was sought to be cast upon General Willcox in the letter 'for consulting with Lee and other notable rebels,' instead of making military arrests, his duty and orders first required him to confer with and demand redress at the hands of town and college authorities; and, as all was done that could be properly demanded, and military interference was called for. . . . I can assure you that General Willcox is not the man to slight his duty, or to refuse redress and protection when required; and, in this case, where the offenders were promptly punished by General Lee, and where the attack on the part of the boys was invited by Johnston's threat of shooting a little boy, and the presentation of pistol, he does not, certainly, deserve censure for not further prosecuting it. No further complaints have been received from Lexington which is as quiet as any college town in the United States."23
Johnston saw this letter, after he had taken up his residence in Covington, and he returned to the charge in a long argumentative communication to The Independent.24 He denied that proper efforts had been made to identify the boys who had attacked him. "The Tribune correspondent," he went on, "says three have been expelled. Now I don't know but they have. But this I do know, that every time I have been in Lexington since that time I have seen some students going to and from college who were foremost in the riot; and why are they not expelled? Not merely because I could not identify them; for Gen. Lee kept the matter in his own hands, and I was not allowed an opportunity to identify them — for reasons known to himself, I suppose. At that time examinations were going on at the college, and some were being expelled because they could not pass examination [sic]. Is it possible that these three were of the number that could not pass examination?"
Again, he argued, in the latter part of his letter, "The Tribune correspondent says 'Lexington is as quiet as any college-town in the United States.' I have been in a good many college-towns, p357 and I have never been in a place where the students were in the habit of getting drunk and going through the town, two or three nights a week, firing pistols and threatening to shoot people; and this certainly is the case in Lexington."
He aimed his parting blow at the college: "The following will show you how much they regard Mr. Beecher. A few days since, a gentleman stepped into the office of one of the trustees with a check of $5000 from Northern men to get the signature of the trustee upon it. This remark was made: 'Why, this is from Beecher's party, isn't it? Well, if Beecher and the Devil were to draw straws, I don't know who would get the longest.' 'Well, but we are getting money from them,' said he with the check. 'Yes,' was the reply, 'their money is as good as anybody's, I suppose.' This is a fact which cannot be controverted."
While Johnston's final defense apparently did not circulate beyond the columns of The Independent, the first letter from Lexington and the accompanying editorial comment of the periodical were copied widely. Other publications joined in denunciation of the college.25 Among others, the Yale College weekly, The Courant, reproduced the initial article from The Independent. Until that time General Lee had taken no notice of the attacks, no doubt feeling it was futile to argue with publications that printed absurd lies as sober fact, but he did write the New Haven paper. "I regret," said he, "that such an accusation against any literary institution in the country should have been copied in The Yale Courant. The statements of the 'Resident of Lexington' have been repeatedly denied, and I had hoped that a letter from an officer of the army, published in The New York Tribune of 20th April, would have satisfied all fair-minded persons of their injustice. As it gives all the facts in the case, and will have more weight than anything I could say, I enclose a slip from The Lexington Gazette, which republished it. Very respectfully, your obedient servant." The Courant promptly and generously made the amende honorable.26 Similar letters were written several p358 individuals who inquired directly of Lee for the facts in the case.27
Mr. Walton got pledges and cash amounting to $4300 in New York, including $1000 from Henry Ward Beecher, Gerrit Smith's $200, and $100 each from John A. Griscom, Samuel J. Tilden, and Jas. W. McCulloh.28 But it is quite likely that the vehemence of the attacks prompted the college to withdraw its agent and to abandon the canvass. The agitation exhibits, moreover, one reason why General Lee avoided all public appearances and every act that might lead to controversy. The temper of the times was not suited to co-operation between North and South. Every effort to that end, no matter how honestly planned or how sincerely undertaken, was certain to spur extremists, North and South.
Before the Johnston affair had been forgotten, there came another episode that might easily have had troublesome results. In an altercation one Friday evening, May 8, 1868, near the gate leading to his home, Francis H. Brockenbrough, a younger son of Judge Brockenbrough, was shot by a Negro youth named Caesar Griffin. The injury did not result from any organized clash nor did it concern the college directly, for Francis was too young to be a student there, though two of his brothers were. But as the boy's wound threatened to cause his death, excitement was high.
The students organized a man-hunt, and when the Negro was found, they put a rope around his neck and marched him to the courthouse square. Some spectators thought they intended to lynch him then and there, but that was not their intention. At General Lee's instance they turned the miscreant over to the officers of the law, and went back up the hill to college.29
Two days later a rumor got afloat that the students intended to storm the jail and to kill the black in case young Brockenbrough died. This rumor came to the ears of the military commissioner of Lexington, Lieutenant Jacob Wagner of the Twenty-ninth Infantry, and he passed it on to General Lee. The General not infrequently received complaints which some of his friends p359 thought were preferred against the students by people seeking notoriety, but whenever these were officially presented, he always investigated them.30 In this instance, as the day was Sunday and the academic body was scattered, the only way the General could reach the boys was through the Y. M. C. A. So he immediately wrote the president of that organization, a former captain in the Confederate army, telling him of the commissioner's apprehension. Lee expressed his confidence that the students contemplated no such action as Wagner feared, but he concluded, "I earnestly invoke the students to abstain from any violation of law, and to unite in preserving quiet and order on this and every occasion."31 Finding the next day that there was no foundation for the report that the college boys planned to lynch the Negro, General Lee so advised Lieutenant Wagner.32 But that officer had become alarmed for the good order of the town under his charge, and at some stage of the affair called on General Willcox for troops. A company arrived promptly, but this patrol of the streets did not relieve the commissioner's concern. He feared the soldiers were so few in number that a conflict with the citizens was likely, and he appealed for reinforcements. General Willcox was cooler and more experienced and decided to wait for further demonstration before putting more armed men into the town. His judgment was vindicated. In a short while order was fully restored, without any violence beyond that of language and the harmless discharge of a few pistols in the air.33
Fortunately, the college was not hurt by this incident, which, however, became historic. Caesar Griffin was tried before Judge Hugh W. Sheffey in the circuit court of Rockbridge County at the November term, 1868, and as Francis Brockenbrough had recovered by that time, the assailant was given a penitentiary term of only two years. Federal Judge J. C. Underwood forthwith issued a writ of habeas corpus, and soon released the culprit on the grounds that Sheffey was not a duly-constituted judge but a mere usurper, and that there was, in reality, no legal machinery for the punishment of crime in Virginia. This was a virtual declaration p360 of anarchy, and might have had the direst consequences had not General Bradley Johnson interested Judge Salmon Chase in the situation. The chief justice came to Richmond, heard the case in the United States circuit court in May, 1869, and promptly reversed Underwood.34
A third unpleasant occurrence took place that winter. In time it antedated the others. In importance it ranked below them. The Senate of the United States had before it the credentials of Philip F. Thomas, duly-elected junior senator from Maryland. Thomas had been Secretary of the Treasury during part of the administration of Buchanan and had been accused by the radicals of consorting with "traitors," on the eve of the war. He also had a son in the Confederate army. His admission to the Senate was challenged for these reasons. On February 19, 1868, when the resolution to seat Thomas was about to come to a vote, Reverdy Johnson, the other senator from Maryland, made a final appeal for his colleague. In the course of his argument, he contended that attempts at compromise, and official failure to take extreme measures early in 1861, did not constitute treason or display sympathy with rebellion, as was alleged against Thomas. Instancing Senator Cameron, who had been Secretary of War at the beginning of Lincoln's first term, Johnson maintained that Cameron's action in not arresting Lee when he came to tender his resignation did not carry with it any imputation of disloyalty on the secretary's part.
Cameron, who was slow to understand what Johnson was talking about, at length explained the circumstances of Lee's resignation, as he understood them.
"I will tell you why he was not arrested," said he. "General Lee called on a gentleman who had my entire confidence, and intimated that he would like to have the command of the Army. He assured that gentleman, who was a man in the confidence of the administration, of his entire loyalty, and his devotion to the interests of the administration and of the country. I consulted with General Scott, and General Scott approved of placing him at the head of the Army. The place was offered to him unofficially, p361 with my approbation, and with the approbation of General Scott. It was accepted by him verbally, with the promise that he would go into Virginia and settle his business and then come back to take command. He never gave us an opportunity to arrest him; he deserted under false pretenses. . . ."
Johnson inquired: "Did I understand the honorable member to say that General Lee made the statement which he now mentions to him, or that he got it through a third party?"
"Through a gentleman who had my confidence and in whom I relied entirely."
"That is another matter," Johnson insisted. "The statement was not made to the honorable member."
"I have no doubt of its truth," Cameron retorted.
"That I am equally sure of," said the Marylander, "but I doubt very much its truth. It is not in keeping with the character of Lee."
At this point he was interrupted by laughter, led by Senator Conness of California. Johnson fired.
"Gentlemen may laugh," he retorted, "but I say to the honorable member from California, who indulges in merriment, that General Lee is as honorable a man as any man to be found in the State of California. He has offended; that I admit."
The argument veered away from Lee and ended presently in a vote to refuse to seat Thomas.35
Cameron's charge, which of course went into the record, soon came to General Lee's eyes. Never did he reply to attacks on his strategy or on his conduct of campaigns. He had ceased to answer the oft-repeated old lie that he had been cruel to the Arlington Negroes. But Cameron's allegation, like the charge that he starved prisoners of war,36 Lee regarded as a reflection on his personal honor, and he met it on February 25 in a letter he wrote Senator Johnson. This read as follows:
"My attention has been called to the official report of the debate in the Senate of the United States, on the 19th instant, in which p362 you did me the kindness to doubt the correctness of the statement made by Honorable Simon Cameron, in regard to myself. I desire that you may feel certain of my conduct on the occasion referred to, so far as my individual statement can make you. I never intimated to any one that I desired the command of the United States Army; nor did I ever have a conversation with but one gentleman, Mr. Francis Preston Blair, on the subject, which was at his invitation, and, I understood, at the instance of President Lincoln. After listening to his remarks, I declined the offer he made me, to take command of the army that was to be brought into the field; stating, as candidly and as courteously as I could, that, though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern States. I went directly from the interview with Mr. Blair to the office of General Scott; told him of the proposition that had been made to me, and my decision. Upon reflection after returning to my home, I concluded that I ought no longer to retain the commission I held in the United States Army; and on the second morning thereafter I forwarded my resignation to General Scott. At the time, I hoped that peace would have been preserved; that some way would have been found to save the country from the calamities of war; and I then had no other intention than to pass the remainder of my life as a private citizen. Two days afterwards, upon the invitation of the Governor of Virginia, I repaired to Richmond; found that the convention then in session had passed the ordinance withdrawing the State from the Union; and accepted the commission of commander of its forces, which was tendered me.
"These are the ample [simple?] facts of the case, and they show that Mr. Cameron has been misinformed."37
He never again wrote of the details of his resignation from the army.
The hard, wet winter that had just ended at the time of the Brockenbrough shooting was accompanied by much sickness in Lexington. Two of the cadets of the V. M. I. died of pneumonia. Mrs. Lee suffered more than usual, and "Powhattie" did not escape. The General took such exercise as he could get and he p363 found much satisfaction, one March day, in following the ploughs of a neighboring farmer around the circuit of his fields.38 He caught cold, however, and had to admit, when the rough weather was past, that he had "not been as well . . . as usual,"39 but he still delighted in his occasional rides of Traveller.40 The depression of January vanished; he had pleasure in his work. "I much enjoy the charms of civil life," he wrote General Ewell about this time, "and find too late that I have wasted the best years of my existence."41
Perhaps the prospect that detracted most from the "charms of civil life" was the approaching trial of President Davis. Going to Richmond as an unwilling witness in the proceedings was a "painful errand" for General Lee, even though it held out the prospect of meeting with his sons.42 To Agnes, who had seen Mr. Davis as he passed through Baltimore, Lee wrote: "It is a terrible thing to have the prosecution hanging over him, and to be unable to fix his thoughts on a course of life or apply his hands to the support of his family. But I hope a kind Providence will shield and guide him."43 As the time for the expected trial drew on, his tone was even more serious. "God grant," said he, "that, like the impeachment of Mr. Johnson, it may be dismissed."44 On May 1, 1868,45 Lee went to Richmond, under summons, only to find the proceedings deferred until June. He took advantage of his proximity to his sons, and paid them a brief visit.
The coming of spring had already awakened the General's love of agriculture and had increased his faith in the South's recovery through hard labor, particularly by the men who had fought sterner battles. "Work is what we now require," he had written Hill Carter in earnest strain, "work by everybody and work especially by white hands. Labour and economy will carry us through. We must spend less . . . than we formerly did. We p364 require very little and we must use that little sparingly. By this course the good old times of former days which you speak of will return again. We may not see them but our children will, and we will live over again in them. I hope they may imitate the virtues and avoid the errors of their ancestors, and maintain the moral and literary standards which they practised."46 He went to his sons' plantations in a cheerful spirit and found them doing better with their farms than he had anticipated.47 Rooney had built a new house, which Lee praised as "convenient, well-arranged and well-built."48 Robert was living in an old and dilapidated structure which his father did not visit at the time but described as "scarcely habitable."49 The stay was all too brief, but as the General had laid out a schedule he was soon back in Lexington.50
While Lee was away, Colonel R. E. Withers wrote for The Lynchburg News a statement of the General's political views. It was not directly attributed to Lee but it reflected certain of his opinions with measurable accuracy. It read as follows: "General Lee deprecates the acerbity of political feeling now so rife in the land, and is disposed to believe that more moderation and prudence in the expression of opinion, and less bitterness in the denunciation of political opponents, would conduce more to the speedy settlement of the vexed questions which now agitate the country. He, however, studiously avoids political discussions, and, with rare discretion, affords no room for cavil to the enemies of the South."51
p365 Lee was in Richmond again on June 3 when Mr. Davis's case was due to be called and Chief Justice Chase was expected to be present. While the General was waiting in a room opposite that set aside for the judges, he was unexpectedly and somewhat unwillingly forced to hold an informal reception. H. H. Wells, a New Yorker who held the office of Governor of Virginia by military appointment,52 was in court as a spectator, and came forward for an introduction. The General chatted with Wells for only a few minutes and then was interrupted by friends, most of them Richmond lawyers, who gathered about him to shake hands. Lee greeted all of them cordially but did not engage in much conversation.
By agreement, when the Davis case was reached on the docket it was postponed to November 30, and General Lee and the other witnesses were recognized in the sum of $5000 each for their appearance at that time. As Rooney was one of his fellow-witnesses, the General had opportunity of seeing him while he was in the old capital,53 but once again he hastened back to Lexington, this time in order to be present during the examinations. He left Eastern Virginia somewhat unwillingly because he had wanted to spend a day at Shirley. "It was the loved home of my mother," he wrote rather wistfully, "and a spot where I have passed many happy days in early life, and one that probably I may never visit again."54
In gratifying contrast to the two calls to Richmond, and coming between them, was a mission to Lynchburg, on May 20, 1868, to attend the annual council of the Protestant Episcopal Church of Virginia, as a lay delegate from Grace Church, Lexington. Lee was present when the body met in Saint Paul's Church, Lynchburg, and he doubtless heard the sermon of Reverend J. A. Latané of Staunton from the text: "Sow to yourself in righteousness, reap according to kindness; break up your fallow ground; for it is time to seek the Lord, till he come and rain righteousness upon you"55 — a discourse intended to show the p366 special need of the Church at that time. Following the sermon, Bishop Johns made an appeal for the diocesan missionary society and took up a collection. Then the holy communion was administered. At the afternoon session, which began at 2:20 o'clock, the General was again in his place.56
The next two days must have been busy, for Lee was named a member of three committees, that on the state of the Church, that on Church salaries, and that on a memorial to his old friend, Bishop William Meade.57 On the last day of the council meeting, the General was nominated a delegate to the general convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church, the highest honor the council could pay one of its members, but he was not elected, doubtless because he did not feel he could attend. He made no speeches on the floor of the council: "He was a constant but silent attendant," according to a newspaper report.
The guest of John William Murrell, he received as much attention from the citizens of Lynchburg as his regular presence at the council meetings permitted. An odd incident happened while he was at Mr. Murrell's. One night he was awakened by sounds as of some one gasping in pain. He waited awhile, listening for some member of the family to come to the relief of the sufferer. Hearing no one, he got up, put on his clothes and went to his host's door. He awoke Mr. Murrell with a tap and explained. Mr. Murrell made the rounds of the house but was unable to find anything amiss. The family concluded that the General had been dreaming of a battlefield.58 Perhaps General Lee decided that some one had been snoring.
In all other respects, the session of the council passed without incident, and on the afternoon of May 22, the General took the packet-boat up the James River and Kanawha Canal for home.59
Examinations crowded the days that followed Lee's June trip to Richmond, which occurred soon after the council meeting. Then came commencement. The college had a graduating class p367 of fourteen — two in civil engineering, seven bachelors of law, five bachelors of arts — and it staged for them the most elaborate ceremonies that had been held since the war. The chapel was formally dedicated on June 14, much to General Lee's satisfaction, and the baccalaureate sermon was preached in the Presbyterian church by the president's former Richmond rector, a courageous German refugee, Doctor Charles Minnigerode.
General Wade Hampton was another commencement guest, as orator before the literary societies,60 and he of course met his old commander. Lee was busy with the board of trustees, but he arranged his engagements so that he could entertain the South Carolinian at dinner, and with him he talked frankly of the war. It was one of the few occasions after 1865 on which he did so.61 Their exchange ranged far — back to the beginning of the struggle and to their decision to share the fortunes of the South. Then it was that Lee made the simple observation that is the surest answer to all those who have contended that he hesitated before resigning from the United States army in 1861: "I did only what my duty demanded," he said. "I could have taken no other course without dishonor. And if all were to be done over again, I should act in precisely the same manner."62
The conversation turned, ere long, to Early's last campaign in the Shenandoah Valley. "When everything is known," said General Lee, "I don't think General Early will be blamed as much as he has been." Presently Stuart's name was mentioned. Instantly the voice of Lee, which had been low, became clear and warm. "General Stuart was my ideal of a soldier. He was always cheerful under all circumstances, always ready for any work and always reliable. He was able to stand any amount of fatigue and privation. When he stopped for a night's rest, he could throw himself on the ground, and, with his saddle or a log for a pillow, he would fall asleep almost immediately, and sleep as if in a bed. Then, if sent an officer to him with an order, he was awake at the first call or touch. When his eyes opened his mind became fully awake. He did not have to yawn or stretch p368 to get himself awake, but his mind and body seemed to awake at the same time and to become active and alert. Before any other officer that I ever had could get himself and his men awake, Stuart would be in the saddle, with his men in line, and be ready to move."63
The trustees were in session three days, June 16‑18, inclusive, and heard the usual reports, including that on the endowment campaign. Reverend E. P. Walton, who had conducted the canvass in New York, had been able to gather only $9200 in large gifts during 1867‑68 as compared with $45,280 in 1865‑66, and $27,950 in 1866‑67. His total for the three years, including $5278 of small gifts, had been approximately $88,848 and •640 acres of land. Mr. Walton had opened a separate account for "Contributions to the Building Fund for Genl. R. E. Lee's residence as Prest. of Washington College," but as he listed only six subscriptions, it is likely that Lee insisted this form of solicitation should be stopped. The same thing probably applies to Mr. Walton's proposed "Annual Subscriptions to Gen. R. E. Lee's salary," for only one pledge is listed under this heading.64 Undeterred by the small increase in endowment, the trustees outlined new plans for interesting friends of education in the college, and authorized the expenditure of $600 for the employment of canvassers the following year.65
Numerous appropriations were made, including one of $500 for clerical assistance to General Lee, to be expended as he pleased.66 A great volume of minor business was transacted. As the college still lacked funds for the establishment of a law school of its own, the arrangement with Judge Brockenbrough was continued, though a new committee was named to devise a plan for the permanent connection of a law school with the college.67
The important decisions of the trustees had to with the course of study. The department of English was taken from the p369 School of Modern Languages and added to the School of History and English Literature. New courses in natural history and geology were authorized. The faculty was instructed to proceed with plans for enlarging the scientific department, a work that subsequently took on large importance. A "survey board" also was established. This was to consist of the president and the professors of mathematics, applied mathematics, natural philosophy, and chemistry. It was intended to prepare maps and to make geological surveys.68
Twenty-five new scholarships were approved, five of them to go to selected students already in college, and twenty to promising young men in academics and high schools selected by the faculty. Finally, in a commendable determination to raise the standards of the college, the trustees decided to change the requirements for the degree of master of arts. Up to this time that degree represented satisfactory graduation in nine schools, five of which had to be completed with "distinguished attainments" that justified the award of the "certificate of distinguished proficiency." It was now provided that after the session of 1868‑69, the master of arts would have to win this distinction in seven instead of five schools. In only two schools was he to be allowed merely to "pass."69 The suggestions for all these improvements were made in the president's report and in faculty papers transmitted to the board by him.
So ended the third session at Lexington under Lee's presidency. It had brought its vexations and its disappointments, and it had witnessed the only serious attack made on General Lee and the college during his administration. Although the endowment had not been increased largely, the year, financially, had not been very difficult, and scholastically it had been the best since the war. To Lee, along with some sorrows and sickness, it had brought new satisfactions. He made no move to resign as he had p370 intimated the previous year he might do when the session of 1867‑68 closed. Instead, as his devoted associates saw, his love for the college increased with each year.70 He showed that feeling very positively when he received a call to accept the vice-chancellorship and active administration of the University of the South. This invitation was based on a report that Lee was dissatisfied at Washington College and would be glad to make a change. Lee answered that he appreciated the honor the trustees of Sewanee had done him. "They have, however," he wrote, "been misinformed as to my feelings concerning my present position, and even if they were as represented, I could not now resign with propriety unless I saw it was for the benefit of the college." With a few more polite words he declined the offer.71
1 Lee to Martha Williams, Oct. 4, 1867; Markie Letters, 78.
2 This total of eighteen does not include Virginia and Tennessee. For the list see 1867‑68 Catalogue, 16.
3 R. E. Lee to Mrs. W. H. F. Lee, May 29, 1868; R. E. Lee, Jr., 313.
4 They were George Taylor Lee and Henry Lee (Lee to Hill Carter, MS., April 25, 1868; Shirley MSS.). The previous winter George Taylor Lee and Robert Carter Lee, son of Sidney Smith Lee, had been the General's guests on the same basis (Mrs. R. E. Lee to Mrs. R. H. Chilton, MSS., March 10 and May 6, 1867; Chilton Papers).
5 R. E. Lee to R. E. Lee, Jr., Jan. 23, 1868; R. E. Lee, Jr., 302.
6 R. E. Lee to Mrs. W. H. F. Lee, March 10, 1868; R. E. Lee, Jr., 304.
8 Lee to Martha Williams, Jan. 1, 1868; Markie Letters, 78.
9 There is a possibility, here, that the order of these various conferences and appeals may be confused, as the accounts do not agree.
10 O. B. Willcox to S. F. Chalfin, A. A. G., MS., Feb. 15, 1868; Adjutant General's Office, U. S. A.
11 Willcox to Chalfin, loc. cit.; MS. Faculty Minutes, Feb. 17, 1868.
12 Willcox to Chalfin, loc. cit.
14 The first version of this affair, written by a sympathizer with Johnston, appeared in The New York Independent, April 2, 1868, page 2, col. 5. Johnston's own account is in ibid., May 21, 1868, page 6, col. 1. Willcox's views were reflected in a letter signed "L," published in The New York Tribune, April 20, 1868, reprinted in The Independent of April 30, 1868. Willcox's brief official report has already been cited.
15 This account is epitomized and in part is quoted directly from The New York Tribune and from The New York Times of March 3, 1868.
16 This unfounded story, in a slightly different guise, was revived by Harpers Weekly in the summer of 1870 (cf. R. E. Lee to Sidney Herbert, June 29, 1870; Alexandria Gazette, July 14, 1870).
17 New York Independent, March 12, 1868.
18 New York Independent, April 2, 1868, p4, col. 5.
19 The lady spelled out the plain words in her letter.
20 New York Independent, April 16, 1868.
21 This assumption is based upon the fact that the letter was signed "L," was dated at Lynchburg, Willcox's headquarters, was shaped in much the same language as Willcox's report, was said by General Lee (infra, p357) to have been written "by an officer of the army," and manifestly was composed by some one who had investigated the facts.
22 April 20, 1868.
23 This letter, loc. cit., is dated April 10, 1868.
24 New York Independent, May 21, 1868.
25 Lexington Gazette, May 6, 1868.
26 Yale Courant, June 3, 1868, which quoted Lee's letter. The next autumn The Boston Traveler assailed the college as lawless and denounced Lee's administration as perfunctory, but it commanded no such audience as listened to the old abolitionists, speaking through The Independent (Lexington Gazette, Nov. 11, 1868).
27 Cf. Lee to F. B. Lewis, MS., May 18, 1868; Lee's MS. Letter Book.
28 Walton's Subscription Books, Treasurer's MS. Records, Washington and Lee University.
29 Cf. D. Gardiner Tyler, in Riley, 129‑30, and R. E. Lee, Jr., 300.
30 Kirkpatrick in Jones, 97‑98.
31 R. E. Lee to G. B. Strickler, MS., May 10, 1868; Lee's MS. Letter Book.
32 R. E. Lee to Jacob Wagner, MS., May 11, 1868; Lee's MS. Letter Book.
33 Lexington Gazette, May 27, 1868.
34 Chase's Circuit Court Decisions, 364. For this reference and a scholarly review of this extraordinary case, the writer is indebted to State Senator Henry T. Wickham.
35 Congressional Globe, 2d Session, 40th Congress, 1270‑71; B. C. Steiner: Life of Reverdy Johnson, 214‑15.
36 For two of Lee's letters denying the charges of cruelty, see 1 S. H. S. P., 121‑22, 178.
37 R. E. Lee, Jr., 27‑28.
38 R. E. Lee to R. E. Lee, Jr., March 12, 1868; R. E. Lee, Jr., 306.
39 R. E. Lee to Agnes Lee, March 28, 1868; R. E. Lee to R. E. Lee, Jr., April 25, 1868; R. E. Lee, Jr., 308, 311.
40 R. E. Lee, Jr., 311.
41 R. E. Lee to R. S. Ewell, March 3, 1868; Jones, 118.
42 R. E. Lee to Mrs. W. H. F. Lee, March 10, 1868; R. E. Lee, Jr., 303.
43 March 28, 1868; R. E. Lee, Jr., 307‑8.
44 R. E. Lee to Mrs. W. H. F. Lee, May 29, 1868; R. E. Lee, Jr., 312.
45 Richmond Enquirer and Examiner, May 2, 1868; Richmond Dispatch, May 2, 1868.
46 R. E. Lee to Hill Carter, MS., April 25, 1868; Shirley MSS. Lee believed in a wise immigration policy to supply Southern farms with white labor. On Dec. 30, 1869, he wrote: "The question of supplying labour to the South is one of vital importance in which all classes are concerned and particularly the agriculturist, inasmuch as regular and constant work is more necessary to his prosperity than in most of the other industrial pursuits. I believe this can only be secured by the introduction of a responsible class of labourers from Europe, for although a temporary benefit might be derived from importation of the Chinese and Japanese, it would result I fear in eventual injury to the country and her institutions. We not only want reliable labourers, but good citizens, whose interests and feelings would be in unison with our own . . ." (R. E. Lee to Thos. H. Ellis, MS., copy of which has been generously supplied the writer by James R. Gilliam, Jr., of Lynchburg, Va.).
47 R. E. Lee to Hill Carter, MS., May 18, 1868; Shirley MSS.
48 R. E. Lee to the architect, Albert L. West, MS., May 14, 1868; kindly placed at the writer's disposal by Miss Georgia West, daughter of the addressee.
49 Lee to Martha Williams, April 14, 1868; Markie Letters, 81‑82.
50 R. E. Lee, Jr., 312.
51 Reprinted in Richmond Dispatch, May 6, 1868.
52 Eckenrode, 104.
53 Richmond Dispatch, Richmond Whig, Richmond Enquirer and Examiner, June 4, 1868; for the departure from home, Lexington Gazette, June 3, 1868; for the proceedings in court, 7 Rowland, 195‑96.
54 R. E. Lee to Mrs. W. H. F. Lee, May 29, 1868; R. E. Lee, Jr., 213.
55 Hosea 10: 12.
56 Lynchburg Virginian, May 20, May 21, 1868. For all these references to Lee's visit to Lynchburg, the writer is indebted to Miss J. M. Campbell, librarian of the Jones Memorial Library, Lynchburg, Va.
57 Lynchburg Virginian, May 22, 1868.
58 MS. Memoirs of John W. Murrell, most courteously lent by Doctor Thomas W. Murrell of Richmond.
59 Lynchburg Virginian, May 23, 1868.
60 Richmond Dispatch, May 27, 1868; Washington College, Virginia: Commencement Week (one-sheet program); Washington and Lee Library.
61 The only other men with whom he talked as freely of hostilities were his brother, Charles Carter Lee, his cousin, Cassius Lee, and Custis Lee.
62 Jones, 142, on the authority of General Hampton.
63 General Lee's nephew, then a student at the college, overheard this part of the conversation. See G. T. Lee: "Reminiscences of General Robert E. Lee," South Atlantic Quarterly, July, 1927, pp249‑50.
65 Trustees' Minutes, June 17, 1868.
66 Trustees' Minutes, June 17, 1868.
67 Trustees' Minutes, June 16‑17, 1868.
69 Trustees' Minutes, June 17, 1868; for the degree requirements, see 1867‑68 Catalogue, 39. At this meeting the trustees dismissed the committee previously appointed to consider that part of the president's report for 1866‑67 relating to a "National System of Military Education." The institution's records do not show where this proposal originated, but it probably was devised elsewhere than at Washington College (Trustees' Minutes, June 16, 1868).
70 Joynes, in Jones, 121.
71 R. E. Lee to Right Reverend William M. Green, Sept. 23, 1868, Dr. Quintard, 179.
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