General Robert E. Lee, The Christian Soldier, by Judith Brockenbrough McGuire, Chapter 20

General Robert E. Lee, The Christian Soldier


DURING the spring and summer of 1865, General Lee had kindness extended to him with unparalleled generosity. It is said that estates were offered to him in England and Ireland, which he most courteously declined. He also declined the place of commercial agent of the South in New York, which would have proved lucrative in the extreme, preferring to share the broken fortunes of his native State. In the summer of that year he accepted the invitation of a lady to take his family to her house in Powhatan County for the summer. While there, an invitation was extended to him by the Trustees of Washington College, Lexington, Virginia, to become the President of that institution. To this invitation General Lee made the following characteristic reply:

POWHATAN COUNTY, August 24th, 1865.

GENTLEMEN:— I have delayed for some days replying to your letter of the 5th instant 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 posses; for I do not fuel able to undergo the labor of conducting classes 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 I think worthy of the consideration of the Board. Being excluded from the terms of amnesty in the proclamation of the United States of the 29th of 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 object 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 police 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 by the Board, will be advantageous to the college and the country, I will yield to your judgment and accept it; otherwise I must respectfully decline the offer.

Begging you to express to the Trustees of the college my heartfelt gratitude for the honor conferred upon me, and requesting you to accept my cordial thanks for the kind manner in which you have communicated its decision,

I am, gentlemen, your most obedient servant,


The Trustees were but too much gratified to be able to overcome his scruples, so delicately expressed, and his installation into office took place on the 2d of October, 1865. The full account of the ceremonies has been thus described by a spectator:

General Robert E, Lee was to-day installed President of Washington College. There was no pomp or parade. The exercises of installation were the simplest possible; an exact compliance with the required formula of taking the oath by a new president, and nothing more. This was in accordance with the special request of General Lee. It was proposed to have the installation take place in the college chapel, to send invitations far and wide, to have a band of music to play enlivening airs, to have young girls robed in white and bearing chaplets of flowers, to sing songs of welcome, to have congratulatory speeches, to make it a holiday. That this programme was not carried out was a source of severe disappointment to many. But General Lee had expressed his wishes contrary to the choice and determination of the college Trustees and the multitude, and his wishes were complied with.

The installation took place at 9 A.M., in a recitation-room of the college. In this room were seated the Faculty and the students, the ministers of the town churches, a magistrate, and the county clerk; the last officials being necessary to the ceremonial. General Lee was ushered into the room by the Board of Trustees. Upon his entrance and introduction all in the room rose, bowed, and then resumed their seats. Prayer by the Rev. Dr. White, pastor of the Presbyterian Church, directly followed. To me it was a noticeable fact, and perhaps worthy of record, that he prayed for the President of the United States. Altogether, it was a most fitting and impressive prayer.

The prayer ended, Judge Brockenbrough, chairman of the Board of Trustees, stated the object of their coming together, to install General Lee as President of Washington College. He felt the serious dignity of the occasion, but it was a seriousness and dignity that should be mingled with heart-felt joy and gladness. Passing a brief eulogy upon General Lee, he congratulated the Board and College, and its present and future students, on having obtained one so loved, great, and worthy to preside over the college. General Lee remained standing, his arms quietly folded, calmly and steadfastly looking into the eyes of the speaker. Justice William White, at the instance of Judge Brockenbrough, now administered the oath of office to General Lee.

“For the benefit of those curious to know,” adds the eye-witness,” I will give the oath, to which General Lee subscribed, entire. It is as follows:

I do swear that I will, to the best of m y skill and judgment, faithfully and truly discharge the duties required of me by an Act entitled “An Act for incorporating the Rector and Trustees of Liberty Hall Academy,” without favor, affection, or partiality: so help me God.

“To this oath General Lee at once affixed his signature, with the accompanying usual jurat of the swearing magistrate appended. The document was handed to the county clerk for safe and perpetual custodianship, and at the same time the keys of the college were given up by the Rector into the keeping of the new President.

“A congratulatory shaking of hands followed, which wound up the day’s brief but pleasing, impressive, and memorable ceremonial. President Lee and those of the Trustees present, with the Faculty, now passed into the room set apart for the use of the President—a good-sized room, newly and very tastefully furnished.

“General Lee was dressed in a plain but elegant suit of gray. His appearance indicated the enjoyment of good health—better, I should say, than when he surrendered at Appomattox Court-House, the first and only occasion, before the present, of my having seen him.”

The institution of which he had become President was a wreck, having been robbed of its library, torn and defaced during the war; but “Ambition had no charms for him, duty alone was his guide.” It must have been a duty uncongenial to his tastes, and unsuited to the active habits of his life; but the army to him being a thing of the past, he determined that the remnant of his valuable life should not be wasted, but devoted to raising his stricken country, by training its youth in the paths of religion, literature, and honor.

When asked why he undertook this “brokendown institution,” he calmly replied, “I have a mission to fulfil.” And in fulfilling the mission he displayed the zest and ardor with which he had led his troops on the battle-field.

Though gentle and affectionate as a disciplinarian, he was very firm, being particularly careful that nothing like falsehood, dishonorable conduct, or disobedience to lawful authority should be overlooked. “The whole college,” said one of the professors, “felt his influence,” and his character was quietly yet irresistibly impressed upon it.

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