General Lee at Lexington

100 Years Ago

Robert E. Lee Centennial Celebration, 1907

Note: The following is taken from General Robert E. Lee After Appomattox, edited by Franklin L. Riley (New York, 1922), pp. 22–31.



This interesting address was delivered at the centennial celebration of General Lee’s birth, held at the University of Virginia, January 19, 1907. It was published in the University of Virginia Bulletin of April, 1907.—Editor

ON August 4th, 1865, the trustees of Washington College, Lexington, Va., elected General Robert E. Lee president of the institution. On August 24, from his temporary home in Powhatan county, General Lee accepted the office, and on September 18 he rode into Lexington on his famous war horse “Traveller.”

On October 30th, 1865, General Lee wrote: “I accepted the presidency of the college in the hope that I might be of some service to the country and to the rising generation; and not from any preference of my own. I should have selected a more quiet life and a more retired abode than Lexington, and should have preferred a small farm where I could have earned my daily bread.”

The town of Lexington during General Lee’s presidency of Washington College was a congenial home for the great chieftain of the “Lost Cause,” and was not inaptly called the “Headquarters of the Southern Confederacy.” Here had been the home of Stonewall Jackson, and here was his tomb; here resided, when General Lee arrived, Hon. John Letcher, the strong and resolute war governor of Virginia; General Francis H. Smith, the founder and superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute, the “West Point of the South”; General William N. Pendleton, chief of artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia; and Judge John W. Brockenbrough, one of the five commissioners whom Virginia sent to the peace conference which met in Washington in February, 1861. And to Lexington there came later during General Lee’s life Colonel William Preston Johnston, son of General Albert Sydney Johnston; Colonel William Allan, chief ordnance officer of Jackson’s corps; Commodore Matthew F. Maury, the geographer of the sea, who, next, perhaps, to General Lee, sacrificed most in order to share the fate of his people; Colonel John M. Brooke, of “deep sea sounding” and “Merrimac” fame; and shortly before General Lee’s death, there came the profound lawyer and statesman, Hon. John Randolph Tucker, who had been attorney-general of Virginia throughout the war.

The faculty of Washington College before General Lee’s accession to the presidency, had consisted of five men, the president, who taught moral philosophy, and four professors, teaching Latin, Greek, mathematics, and chemistry and natural philosophy. The number of students had been less than one hundred. During the five years of General Lee’s presidency the number of professors was more than trebled; the number of students was quadrupled, and the endowment of the institution was increased many fold. He found it a college, and left it a university, worthy of the proud title which links the names of Washington and Lee.

It is an interesting fact that General Lee’s first home in Lexington had once been the home of Stonewall Jackson. This was the “Old President’s House, ” in which General Lee lived for several years until the present “President’s House,” was erected. In the “Old President’s House” had resided before the war the then president, Dr. George Junkin, whose daughter was General Jackson’s first wife. And in his house General Jackson, both before and after the death of his wife, had resided as an inmate of his father-in-law’s family.


The building to the right was occupied by the Lee family until the completion of the President’s home, which is the large building in the foreground.


The furnishings, papers and books still remain as he left them.

But whether in the old or new house, the home of General Lee was always open to the students; and whatever awe “the President” may have inspired, Mrs. Lee and her accomplished daughters were able to make even the most diffident forget their embarrassment. General G. W. Custis Lee, at that time professor in the Virginia Military Institute, was also an inmate of his father’s family. He had the reputation among the students of the college (whose president he was destined to become) of being the most courteous of gentlemen, and the most brilliant of mathematicians.

And now it may be proper to describe briefly some characteristics of General Lee as a college president, especially in relation to the students.

1. Religion.—There was one place where General Lee could always be seen and that was at the daily prayer service in the college chapel. Compulsory attendance, however, was abolished by him after the first year of his presidency. He took a deep interest in the Young Men’s Christian Association and an account of its work, as a matter of great importance, always came first in his annual report to the board of trustees. On one occasion he said: “If I could only know that all the young men in the college were good Christians I should have nothing more to desire. I dread the thought of any student going away from the college without becoming a sincere Christian.”

2. Work.—General Lee could not tolerate idleness. He believed that a student who did not work did harm both to himself and to others. He though the place for drones was at home, and he did not excuse them on the plea that they were “good fellows.” His views with reference to a student of this class were once expressed as follows: “He is a very quiet, orderly young man, but seems very careful not to injure the health of his father’s son. Now, I do not want our young men really to injure their health, but I wish them to come as near to it as possible.”

3. Total abstinence.—On this subject extracts from two letters will suffice. To an organization among the students called “Friends of Temperance,” General Lee wrote: “My experience through life has convinced me that, while moderation and temperance in all things are commendable and beneficial, abstinence from spirituous liquor is the best safeguard of morals and health” And from Arlington, on May 30, 1858, he wrote to his son: “I think it better to avoid it (spirituous liquor) altogether, as its temperate use is so difficult.”

4. Literary Societies.—In these days, when so many neglect the opportunity afforded by the debating society, these words of General Lee are timely: “There is scarcely a feature in the organization of the college more improving and beneficial to the students than the exercises and influence of the literary societies; and the good they do renders them worthy of encouragement by the friends of education.”

I may add that the only address I ever heard General Lee make (aside from informal remarks while he was presiding at commencement) was at a joint meeting of the literary societies of Washington College. He spoke standing on the floor, surrounded by the students. He was very brief. All that I now remember is that he declared it “the duty of the students to do all in their power to give éclat to the exercises of the approaching commencement.”

It was generally believed in college that General Lee was acquainted with the standing of each student in all of his classes. Certain it is that his knowledge of the students and of their work was wonderful. He kept up with the absences and was quick to mark a change in a student’s grades, whether by way of improvement or the reverse. His signature was on all the monthly reports sent to parents; and he frequently wrote them personal letters concerning their sons, sometimes of praise, and sometimes of censure. The catalogue of those days declared: “The President attends all examinations.” In performance of this duty General Lee never failed to be present during the “oral,” which at that time formed a part of all examinations. i have recited in the presence of General Lee many times, and (especially in mathematics at the blackboard) it was a severe ordeal. I have often wondered how he found the patience to endure the many hours of attendance on the many classes. The last year of his presidency I conducted the “oral” in certain classes in the presence of General Lee, and I do not know whether the embarrassment was greater to the student or to the teacher.

But it was not only the students with whom General Lee kept in touch, and whom he expected to do their duty. He required the professors to be at their posts and was displeased if they were absent from their classes without his knowledge. Nor did he hesitate to rebuke such a breach of discipline, as the following instance will show, which illustrates also his usual indirect method of conveying censure. Meeting Captain——, an assistant professor, who had been absent without leave for several days, he thus addressed him: “Good morning, Captain. I am glad to see you back again. It was by accident, Sir, that I learned that you were away.” It may safely be presumed that Captain —— (a gallant Confederate soldier, by the way), obtained permission from the president the next time he desired to leave town.

I may relate here a conversation with General Lee, which shows how much he had the success of all the students at heart. He met me one morning, the winter before his death, when I had been teaching only a few months, and inquired how I was getting on with my work. I replied hat I hoped I was doing fairly well. “May I give you one piece of advice, sir?” Of course, I said I should be delighted to receive it. “Well, sir, always observe the stage driver’s rule.” “What is that, General?” “Always take care of the poor horses.” Since this interview with General Lee I have been a teacher many years, and I have tried to remember that it is the poor students who most require care, and that for the success of even the poorest, loving hearts are hoping and praying; and I have not dared to despair.

A word may be said of General Lee’s interest in the community in which he lived. No one was ever more punctilious in the performance of social duties, and all strangers visiting Lexington who had the least claim on his attention, were sure of a visit from him. His public spirit led him to accept the presidency of the Valley Railroad, which he held at the time of his death, and he made a visit to Baltimore in its interest. He was also president of the Rockbridge Bible Society and took an active part in its affairs.

It is not generally known that General Lee once prevented a lynching in Lexington. In the spring of 1866, while I was a student at Washington College, a report reached the campus that an attempt was being made to force the jail in order to lynch a horse thief named Jonathan Hughes, who, in the troublous times after the war, had been plying his vocation in the neighborhood of Lexington. Horse-stealing had become common, and by a then recent statute (enacted February 12, 1866) “to provide more effectually for the punishment of horse-stealing,” the punishment had been fixed at death, or, in the discretion of the jury, confinement in the penitentiary for a period of not less than five nor more than eighteen years. The discretion of the jury to inflict the death penalty for the crime was repealed in a short time, the occasion for it passing away.

When I reached the courthouse yard, within which stood the jail where Hughes was confined, it was filled with a crowd of men who had ridden in from the country to take the law into their own hands. At the top of the jail steps, in front of the locked door, stood the old jailor, Thomas L. Perry, holding the jail keys high above his head, and facing, with grim and resolute aspect, the would-be lynchers who surrounded him. For some reason, perhaps respect for the old man’s gray hairs, the men next to him had forborne to seize him and snatch from him the jail keys, as they could easily have done.

What I have described above, the eye took in with a glance, and I was not at first aware of the presence of General Lee. But there he was (having evidently preceded me), moving quietly about among the crowd, addressing a few words to each group as he passed, begging them to let the law take its course. This scene continued for some time and is indelibly impressed on my memory. The end was there. Those stern Scotch-Irishmen, whose tenacity of purpose is proverbial, abandoned their enterprise, remounted their horses and rode out of town. They could not do a deed of lawless violence in the presence of “Marse Robert,” whose standard they had followed on many a battlefield. It may be of interest to record that Hughes was duly brought to trial for horse-stealing, and on April 20, 1866, was convicted and sentenced to the penitentiary for eighteen years.

And now it only remains to speak briefly of General Lee’s last illness and death. On March 18th, 1870, he wrote: “My health has been so feeble this winter that I am only waiting to see the effect of the opening spring before relinquishing my present position. I am admonished by my feelings that my years of labor are nearly over.” His condition caused great anxiety to all connected with the college, and later in the spring he was persuaded by the authorities to try the effect of a visit to the South. On his return his health seemed improved and he was able to preside at commencement.

The session of 1870–71 began on September 15th, the sixth year of General Lee’s presidency, and he entered as usual upon the duties of his office. We fondly hoped that the danger was past and that his life would be prolonged. But in less than two weeks the summons came. On Wednesday, September 28th, he had presided over a protracted vestry meeting and reached home late for tea. As he was about to ask the blessing his lips refused their office and he sank down in his chair. From the first he seemed conscious that the stroke was fatal and to desire to withdraw his attention from earthly affairs. Though for the most part rational and able to speak, he lay for fourteen days in almost unbroken silence; and then “This mortal put on immortality,” and he passed “to where beyond these voices there is peace.”

General Lee died October 12, 1870, at 9:15 A.M. I shall never forget the knock at the door of the lecture room and the notice handed in:

“General Lee died this morning. Academic exercises are suspended.” I read these words to the class and dismissed them. Already the church bells were beginning to toll.

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