Robert E. Lee and Washington College, by Thomas J. Kernan

100 Years Ago

Robert E. Lee Centennial Celebration, 1907

Note: Thomas J. Kernan of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is best remembered for his article comparing American jurisprudence with English common law, “The Jurisprudence of Lawlessness: A Paper Read Before the American Bar Association, at St. Paul August 30, 1906,” in Report of the Twenty-Ninth Annual Meeting of the American Bar Association (Philadelphia, 1906; vol. 30, pp. 450–67). The following is taken from American Oratory of To-Day, edited by Edwin DuBois Shurter (Austin, Texas, and San Francisco: South-West Publishing Company, 1910, pp. 165–67).


Of the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Bar

(Extract from an address on the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of General Lee, at New Orleans, Louisiana, January 19, 1907.)

I COUNT myself thrice happy to have been one of those who sat at the feet of General Lee in the grand old halls of Washington College, hallowed by so many precious memories. Those were the heroic days of that historic institution. A nursling of the Revolution, it had been endowed by Washington; but it was left for Lee to breathe into it the deathless life of his immortal spirit. In April, 1865, he surrendered the rear-guard, as it were, of one generation of Southern youth at Appomattox; in October, 1865, he assumed command of the advance guard of the next generation of Southern youth at Lexington. Napoleon grandiosely said to his Old Guard at Fontainebleau, “If I have consented to survive, my comrades, it is but to write the story of the great things that you and I have done together.” He died miserably at St. Helena, without redeeming this pledge, or accomplishing aught else of good. Lee, by his conduct, said in effect, ̴It has pleased God to let me survive my comrades, whom I have taught to die grandly; I will consecrate my declining years to teaching their sons to live nobly.” And the fulfilment of that promise is writ large in the history of the last five years of his life, consecrated to the cause of education. I doubt if mere human annals furnish an instance of devotion to duty so simply grand, so purely noble.

And so, the great chieftain, who had just laid down the supreme command of all the Southern armies, and still a prisoner on parole, rode unattended into Lexington on Traveler and assumed command of Washington College, with its staff of four professors and its corps of fifty students. Instantly, almost, the power of his mighty genius and the magic of his great name wrought a revolution. He at once rallied around him the South’s greatest educators and the flower of Southern youth. And hope was born again in the hearts of Southern people, there upon that sacred spot, where the ideals of the Old South, so beautifully realized in him, were cherished and preserved, and the spirit of the New South, inspired by him, was born and nurtured into strength and beauty.

Priceless, indeed, is the heritage left us by our gallant fathers and gracious mothers of the Old South. Graceful manners and noble deeds were the very staple of their daily lives, from which the Old South wove her wondrous story. There was the home of honor, the citadel of chivalry. Her men were the bravest and the tenderest; her women the truest and fairest. Sweet glimpses of those halcyon days are indissolubly blended with the earliest recollections of my childhood; but it were too long to tell o’er the tale of all the beauties of the sunny, happy life of the Old South of long ago. It is all enshrined in history and hallowed in song and story. The sun ne’er smiled upon a land more fair, nor on a people more worthy of so fair a land. But the greatest and most precious of all the legacies of all the ages is the ideal realized in the life and character of Robert E. Lee, the kindly gentleman, the peerless soldier, the great educator, the human exemplar—Godlike in his grandeur, Christlike in his simplicity.

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