The Life of General Robert E. Lee
G. Mercer Adam


GENERAL LEE lived for over five years after the close of the war; and though by a section in Congress he was the object, as was the South and its late President also, of suspicion and partizan dislike, he remained uniformly loyal to the new order of things, as well as unflinching in his patriotic purpose to restore the nation to unity and quiet, orderly government. Reconstruction, for a time, made slow progress, for President Johnson’s ability to smooth matters and heal the sores of the nation were not such as would doubtless have been his great predecessor’s, had he lived; while many, like Davis and even Lee, who had participated in rebellion, were excluded from the measure of amnesty and pardon that had been proclaimed. In Lee’s case, he was even indicted for treason, at the instigation of a Federal judge; though his old antagonist-in-arms. General Grant, whom he lived to see fill the Presidential chair, pleaded the sacredness of the Southern Commander’s military parole, and legal proceedings were consequently dropped. His personal attitude during these trying years was most patient and retiring, as well as consistently dutiful, as a letter to his son, General Fitzhugh Lee, emphatically attests: “As to the indictments,” writes the General, “I hope you, at least, may not be prosecuted. I see no more reason for it than for prosecuting all who ever engaged in the war. I think, however, we may expect procrastination in measures of relief, denunciatory threats, etc.; but we must be patient and let them take their course.”

When Lee, at the close of the war, returned to his family at Richmond, he found the city not only in much confusion, but largely destroyed; and, as his ancestral home there of Arlington had in his absence been appropriated to public purposes, and was now occupied by Federal officials and army officers, his desire for quiet and privacy led to his re-establishing himself and his family in a country house on the James River in Powhatan county. Hither came to him the announcement that the Board of Trustees had elected him to the presidency of Washington College, Lexington, Va., a compliment which, as it was alike unsought and unexpected, he greatly appreciated. The offer, while a politic one on the part of the Trustees, and intended as an honor to the gallant old soldier, as well as a tribute to his learning and high character, General Lee hesitated, however, to accept, and that for two reasons. These were, first, what he deemed his inability, at his advanced years, to undergo the labor of conducting classes in regular courses of instruction—though he might be equal to undertake the general administration and supervision of the institution; and, second, the fact that he was still, politically, under the ban of the United States Government, as an unamnestied man; and, hence, did he accept the post, might draw hostility upon the College to its injury, as well as animadversion from certain partizan quarters. These scruples and objections were, however, and wisely, waived by the Board; and the close of September, 1866, found him on his way to Lexington, to be inaugurated as President of the College.

The installation of the soldier-president took place October 2nd; and though at General Lee’s request it was quiet and simple in its exercises, there was a roortiful of prominent people present, including the students, faculty, and trustees, to witness and do honor to the occasion. After a prayer, Judge Brockenbrough, chairman of the Board, made a eulogistic address, in which he congratulated “the Board and College, and its present and future students, on having obtained one so loved and great and worthy to preside over the institution;” then the oath of office was administered and taken, and the keys were given up by the Rector into the keeping of the new President. After this, followed the customary introductions and handshakings, etc., the whole proceedings, it is stated, being at once most pleasing and impressive.

On entering upon his academic duties. General Lee removed his wife and daughters to their new home; while his eldest son was, meanwhile, called to a chair in the Virginia Military Institute, located also at Lexington. His management of the College was productive of excellent results, bringing to it numbers of students from many sections of the South, while raising it to high distinction as a widely approved center of intellectual training and well-maintained discipline. The incentive General Lee set himself in his arduous, though self-imposed, task, we find in his own characteristic declaration, that “I have led the young men of the South in battle; I have seen many of them fall under my standard. I shall devote my life now to training young men to do their duty in life.”

At this time, there was much talk in Virginia and elsewhere in the South of a wholesale immigration to Mexico, in which Lee’s coöperation was sought: but the General, though admitting the possibility that a movement of the kind might conduce to prosperity, discountenanced the project, deeming it better, as he said, that Southerners should remain at home and mold, as well as share in, the fortunes of their respective States.

In public office, even that of the governorship of his own State, which was offered him early in 1867, Lee could not be induced to serve, preferring a quiet, unostentatious life and the enjoyment of privacy and home comforts. He was, however, thoroughly alive to and interested in public affairs, and in his letters to friends he shows and gives expression to his thoughtful views on many important questions of the time. In one of these letters, written in frank terms to a correspondent and sympathizer, he obviously cannot resist giving expression to his alarm at the dangers that then threatened the nation and its republican institutions, as well as his regret at the many existing signs of aggression on the rights of his own section of the country. In the following extract from a letter written to a friend abroad at the close of 1866, we see what were his views on the traditional question of State Rights and the aggressions of an overpowerful and autocratically-inclined General Government:

While I have considered the preservation of the constitutional power of the General Government to be the foundation of our peace and safety at home and abroad, I yet believe that the maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the States, and to the people, not only essential to the adjustment and balance of the general system, but the safe-guard of the continuance of a free government. I consider it as the chief source of stability to our political system; whereas the consolidation of the States into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of that ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it.

On the important matter of self-government, and the attitude of the South on the once-distracting topic of slavery and the tendency of recent laws to place the political power, sectionally, in the hands of the negro race, General Lee felt strongly, as we see from the following expression of his views, in reply to a request for such from General Rosecrans and other public men. Writing from White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., in the summer months of 1868, Lee observes:[2]

Whatever opinions may have prevailed in the past with regard to African slavery or the right of a State to secede from the Union, we believe we express the almost unanimous judgment of the Southern people when we declare that they consider that these questions were decided by the war, and that it is their intention, in good faith, to abide by that decision. At the close of the war, the Southern people laid down their arms and sought to resume their former relations to the Government of the United States. Through their State conventions they abolished slavery and annulled their ordinances of secession; and they returned to their peaceful pursuits with a sincere purpose to fulfill all their duties under the Constitution of the United States, which they had sworn to support. If their action in these particulars had been met in a spirit of frankness and cordiality, we believe that, ere this, old irritations would have passed away, and the wounds inflicted by the war would have been, in a great measure, healed. As far as we are advised, the people of the South entertain no unfriendly feeling towards the Government of the United States, but they complain that their rights under the Constitution are withheld from them in the administration thereof. The idea that the Southern people are hostile to the negroes, and would oppress them, if it were in their power to do so, is entirely unfounded. They have grown up in our midst, and we have been accustomed from childhood to look upon them with kindness. The change in the relations of the two races has wrought no change in our feelings towards them. They still constitute an important part of our laboring population. Without their labor, the lands of the South would be comparatively unproductive; without the employment which Southern agriculture affords, they would be destitute of the means of subsistence, and become paupers dependent upon public bounty. Self-interest, if there were no higher motive, would therefore prompt the whites of the South to extend to the negroes care and protection.

The important fact that the two races are, under existing circumstances, necessary to each other, is gradually becoming apparent to both, and we believe that but for influences exerted to stir up the passions of the negroes, the relations of the two races would soon adjust themselves on a basis of mutual kindness and advantage.

It is true that the people of the South, in common with a large majority of the people of the North and West, are, for obvious reasons, inflexibly opposed to any system of laws that would place the political power of the country in the hands of the negro race. But this opposition springs from no feeling of enmity, but from a deep-seated conviction that, at present, the negroes have neither the intelligence nor the other qualifications which are necessary to make them safe depositaries of political power. They would inevitably become the victims of demagogues who, for selfish purposes, would mislead them, to the serious injury of the public.

The great want of the South is peace. The people earnestly desire tranquillity and a restoration of the Union. They deprecate disorder and excitement as the most serious obstacle to their prosperity. They ask a restoration of their rights under the Constitution. They desire relief from oppressive misrule. Above all, they would appeal to their countrymen for the reestablishment, in the Southern States, of that which has justly been regarded as the birthright of every American, the right of self-government. Establish these on a firm basis, and we can safely promise, on behalf of the Southern people, that they will faithfully obey the Constitution and laws of the United States, treat the negro population with kindness and humanity, and fulfill every duty incumbent on peaceful citizens, loyal to the Constitution of their country.

This deliverance of Lee on the political and social condition of the South is, as will be seen, calm and temperate, as was his testimony, given at Washington, early in 1866, when summoned thither to be interrogated by the Congressional Committee on Reconstruction. His views in regard to the latter were those of a sane, thoughtful and loyal citizen, sincerely anxious for peace and harmony in the South, as well as for the resumption of cordial relations between the two sections of the now common country. But, as we have said, Lee was averse to taking part in the public discussions of the time, and was most guarded in everything that escaped him, that might be construed as a criticism upon the Administration at Washington, and its policy in restoring peace and order in the late seceding States and in removing the disabilities under which many of its chief citizens still lay. Contention, public or private, was never his habit, and he ever eschewed the discussion of all controverted questions that might tempt him to engage in it. Besides, he was now giving almost his whole thought to his academic duties in College, actuated by a deep sense of his responsibility as President, and his desire to bring the institution to the highest possible state of efficiency. In this laudable work he was signally successful, especially when we consider from what a low ebb in its affairs he had built up the institution, which, when he took hold of it, was utterly broken in fortune and without resources and equipment, while the war had practically closed its doors. Lee’s absorbing interest in his duties throughout the five years his sadly shortened life enabled him to give to the administration of the College’s affairs, is thus appreciatively vouched for by his nephew and military biographer. General Fitzhugh Lee (See “Life of General Lee,” in the Great Commanders’ series). “Year by year,” states the narrator, “the conception of his (President Lee’s) duty grew stronger, and year by year, as its instrument, the College grew dearer. He was no figurehead, kept in position for the attraction of his name; his energy, zeal, and administrative ability surmounted all difficulties. His great labors were directed to making Washington College the seat of science, art, and literature. Far-reaching plans laid for its success were wisely conceived. . . . A scholastic monument was slowly responding to his noble influence and wise administration, which would be as illustrious as his most brilliant military achievements. He mastered all details, observing the students, becoming personally acquainted with them, their aspirations and hopes; his interest followed them everywhere; and their associations, dispositions, and habits, were well known to him. He never grew imperious, or tried to force a measure upon the faculty, but modestly said he had but one vote and wished to know the opinion of his colleagues, and leave the decision to be determined by the whole body. Sustained by the loftiest principles of virtue and religion, an exalted character, and a conscientious sense of duty. General Lee suffered no complaint to escape his lips during the eventful years, from 1865 to 1870, though troubled by much that was taking place.”

Besides this testimony to General Lee’s untiring labors on behalf of the College, we know that his wise administration of its affairs helped to improve its finances and gain for it occasional gifts and endowments, most welcome at the time to the institution. He was also himself cheered by the coming to the College of many studious youth who had served under him in the war; and whose education had been interrupted by the four years of unhappy conflict. His influence was great upon these, as well as upon all in the classes, and that not only intellectually, but morally, for he ever regarded religious training as an important feature in the functions of the College, as well as the training that would make men worthy and useful citizens and high-minded, honorable gentlemen, after his own exemplary and characteristic type. Socially, his influence also was great, as we see in the offers that were repeatedly made to him of influential and often highly-remunerated positions, which, however, he invariably refused, so that he might give his undivided time and attention to the educational and administrative affairs of the College.

Return to The Life of General Robert E. Lee