One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 15, Number 3
March 2007

This year is very special as we celebrate the 200th birthday of one of our most revered and respected countrymen, Robert Edward Lee, who was born January 19, 1807.

As members of the Civil War Roundtable we all are, of course, very familiar with Lee as commander of the Confederacy’s incomparable Army of Northern Virginia from 1862 to 1865. However, his achievements in the aftermath of the war have received far less attention from historians. That’s unfortunate, because in my mind his record in the post-war period as a civilian deserves as much acclaim and respect as his wartime exploits.

Like his army, Lee could have ridden off into history, and, in the immediate aftermath of the surrender, he probably intended to do so. He had only two primary goals initially, both personal. First, he had to find a place to live and a way to make a living to support his invalid wife and three dependent daughters. His family had lived in a rented house in Richmond during the last few years of the war, but it was obvious that he had to get away from the turmoil and noisy clamor of city life. He owned no land, no home, and his wife’s Arlington estate had been confiscated. He originally dreamed of buying a small farm where, as he wrote his daughter, “I shall endeavour to procure some humble, but quiet, abode for your mother and sisters, where I hope they can be happy.”. He hoped to farm and to live in peace and quiet.

His second goal was to write an account of the campaigns of the Army of Northern Virginia—”My only object is to transmit, if possible, the truth to posterity, and to do justice to our brave soldiers.” Knowing the truism that the “winner gets to write the history” of all wars, he wanted the “world to understand the odds against which we fought.”

In addition, there was always the question of Lee’s legal status. He had been indicted for treason in June 1865, and his request for a pardon from the Federal Government had never been acted upon. (His amnesty was finally signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1975.) It was not until Christmas Day, 1868, when President Johnston declared a general amnesty to former Confederates that the treason indictment was lifted, Lee’s civil rights were restored, and his status as a “paroled prisoner of war” officially ended. He could not, however, hold elective office until officially pardoned.

In reality Lee’s status as a “prisoner” did not end until his death in 1870. Out of their needs, the people of the late Confederacy created a symbol of Lee. He served as the custodian of an ideal; and lived the last five years of his life as a public example, an idol, a symbol, and as a role model. It was an unsought burden, but arguably his achievements in those years represent his greatest contribution to the heritage of his country, and are the least remembered.

But there was another major and immediate concern. He had very little money and he had to make a living. His oldest daughter Mary Custis said that “although the people of the South stood ready to give her father everything he might need, what he really needed was a job by which he could earn a living for himself and his family.” Many offers of lucrative jobs and honors came, but Lee was not willing to sell his name. He had a self-imposed task: “I have led the young men of the South in battle. I have seen many of them die on the field. I shall devote my remaining energies to training young men to do their duty in life.”

On April 15, the Saturday before Easter, and six days after signing the surrender document at Appomattox, a markedly aged and exhausted Lee rode back to Richmond to meet his family at 707 East Franklin Street. The red-brick, three-story house had been rented for the family during the war from the Stewart family. Two days later Mathew Brady took several photographs of Lee, his son Custis, and aid Walter Taylor on the back porch. (The house still stands and you can go today to the very back door and porch where the photos were taken.) The classic pictures show a determined man with the light of battle still in his eyes. A man who may have surrendered, but is not defeated.

Late in June he and his family left the turmoil and public exposure of Richmond and moved to a cottage in Powhatan County that had been offered to them by an old family friend. While Lee was enjoying his quiet life and peacefully riding about the countryside on Traveller, the trustees of Washington College in the little town of Lexington were meeting to decide the future of their institution. Despite its name and long history, the school’s reputation barely extended into Eastern Virginia. It was a small school and was nearly destroyed during the war by David Hunter’s marauders in the Summer of 1864. Nearly bankrupt, with a spring enrollment of only forty young boys under military age and four professors, its survival was in doubt. But on August 4, in a stroke of good fortune for both the little college and future generations, Lee was unanimously elected President of Washington College.

Judge John Brockenbrough, the head of the board, traveled in a borrowed suit to see Lee at his cottage in Powhatan County and offer him the job. Lee was reluctant to accept for a variety of reasons. It would be a stressful position given his state of health, he had not yet been pardoned and his name and association with the school might cause adverse reaction in the North and thus be a liability rather than an asset, and he doubted his qualifications as an educator. But after considering the offer for almost a month, he accepted under the condition that “I could not undertake more than the general administration and supervision of the institution,” and that he would have no classes to teach. His salary was to be $1500 per year. He would go to Washington College not for acclaim but for service.

Lee arrived in Lexington on September 18. Since the house to be provided for him and his family was not available, he took up residence at the Lexington Hotel. It would be early December before the promised permanent president’s home was ready and Mrs. Lee and his daughters could join him in residence.

Meanwhile, the new president went right to work. If the trustees and faculty thought that Lee might be just an esteemed figurehead and fund-raiser rather than an active president, they instantly learned otherwise. He entered his office at eight in the morning and stayed until tow in the afternoon. After a mid-day dinner, he took a short nap, and if there was no faculty meeting or other college business, he would go on a long ride on Traveller, returning home in the early evening. He went to bed at 10 o’clock; he believed that every hour of sleep before midnight was worth two afterward.

His output at the office was prodigious. He answered every inquiry about admission, audited every account, presided over every faculty meeting, and studied every report. He knew every student by name. Lee’s working relationship with his faculty soon resembled the one he had developed with his generals. He approved the overall plan; they must execute the details. When Lee was inaugurated at the beginning of classes in October of 1865, only 50 students were on hand; within a few months the numbers had increased to 140. Washington College was on the road to recovery.

Under his leadership there soon emerged a new and more practical vision of education at the school. Lee saw the need to give students an education that would prepare them for postwar realities. He wanted very much to help the people of the South and believed that education was the key: “I consider the proper education of its youth one of the most important objects now to be attained, and one from which the greatest benefits may be expected.” The new curriculum did not abandon the traditional Latin and Greek classics, but was extensively supplemented with elective offerings in mathematics, the sciences, economics, modern languages, English literature and others. He encouraged a marriage of the practical, even technical education with the liberal arts. Within a few years the student body swelled from a handful to almost 500.

But survival and all these changes took money. Like college and university presidents in the 21st century Lee, of necessity, was soon forced into the fund-raising business. His presence was a magnet, and many small contributions came unsolicited, especially from people in the impoverished South. But substantial sums were needed, and to achieve that goal the college was forced to actively seek financial assistance. Lee was loath to write “begging letters,” but successful appeals were made to such well-known Northern philanthropists as Cyrus McCormick, Warren Newcomb, George Peabody, and W. W. Corcoran. The response was heartening and “General Lee’s College” was soon on much more secure financial footing.

By late 1869 Lee’s health had declined alarmingly, and in the early months of 1870 he was constantly in pain and could not walk much more than a hundred yards before stopping to rest. He tried to carry on as usual, but in March he suggested to friends that if he did not get better, he would be obliged to resign his position as President of Washington College. Much concerned about Lee’s condition, the College faculty and his physicians suggested that he take an extended vacation to the South and seek a warmer climate away from Lexington’s long-lasting winter cold. Although reluctant to leave home, he formally notified the faculty on March 22, 1870, that he accepted their offer of a leave of absence and decided to take a southern trip in hopes of improving both his physical and spiritual well-being.

Next month we will journey with Lee on his fateful trip.