• The Lees of Virginia
  • The Lees of Virginia
  • The Lees of Virginia
  • The Lees of Virginia

The Lee Family Digital Archive is the largest online source for primary source materials concerning the Lee family of Virginia. It contains published and unpublished items, some well known to historians, others that are rare or have never before been put online. We are always looking for new letters, diaries, and books to add to our website. Do you have a rare item that you would like to donate or share with us? If so, please contact our editor, Colin Woodward, at  (804) 493-1940, about how you can contribute to this historic project.


 

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Mr. Scott, the Academy Award-winning actor, is a serious Robert E. Lee scholar. Scott developed his ‘Notes on a Visit to Robert E. Lee’ in preparation for an NBC-TV Today show segment aired April 9. Most of the filming was done on the campus of Washington and Lee University, where Lee served as president from 1865 until his death in 1870. Scott’s commentary is published here by permission of the university.

—Editor

 

This is Main Street, Lexington, Virginia. On September 19, 1865, a big, sandy horse with a dark mane and tail strode effortlessly down this street. He carried a tall, stooped man with a pearl-white beard who might have been taken for a farmer – the muddy boots, the faded, literally colorless riding coat, the sweat-brown, broad-brimmed hat.

But he was not an ordinary citizen bent on some mundane domestic chore. Neither ordinary – nor a citizen.

On that pleasant fall morning, 11 years before America would celebrate her Centennial year, R. E. Lee was about to become president.

Obviously, and some say unhappily, the presidency was not that of the United States. Rather, it was as chief administrator of tiny, impoverished Washington College that Lee had come to serve.

He was a paroled prisoner of war under indictment for high treason. Reviled by many as the Prince of Rebellion, he was totally disenfranchised – unable either to vote or to hold any public office.

But he was also beloved to the point of mythology by millions of his countrymen – and among these were the trustees of Washington College. They borrowed the train fare and a suit of clothes to send Judge J. W. Brockenbrough to offer . . . the chair of president and an annual salary of $1,500.

Broken in health and fortune, looking a decade older than his 58 years, Lee was apprehensive to accept. He knew very well his years were waning. But he wanted desperately to be of use to what he always termed the “rising” generation of his country. And when Judge Brockenbrough insisted that his acceptance would “evince a mind superior to despair,” he gratefully agreed.

About the only recreation President Lee enjoyed during those last few years was taking daily rides through the surrounding countryside on that great grey horse, Traveller. One of the places he visited frequently was the hillside gravesite of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

Prior to the war, Jackson had been a professor at nearby Virginia Military Institute. Lee probably stood at that grave and spoke quietly to his eccentric, strait-laced old comrade. Jackson, even to this day internationally recognized as one of the profound tactical geniuses of all time, was known to some of his men as “School Marm.”

And Lee probably joked softly with him that they were both school marms now.

Undoubtedly, since they were religious men, Lee knelt here and prayed for both their souls. And he probably assured “Stonewall” that they would be united again before very long.

But bitterness and morbidity were foreign to Lee’s nature. And so was looking backwards. He worked diligently, even in rapidly failing health, and the college prospered – three days after his death becoming Washington and Lee University.

At breakfast with his son Robert on the morning of his murder, Abraham Lincoln looked at a portrait of Robert E. Lee and said, “It’s a good face. I am glad the war is over at last.”1

It was indeed a good face. Was it not – indeed, is it not still – the face of a good man?

Edward Valentine, who had sculpted a likeness of Lee from life, said: “An artist, above all other men, is quick to observe the faintest suggestion of posing. The slightest indication of movement or expression that smacks of vanity, he is sure to detect. Such weaknesses (which, as far as I know, are shared by many who are called great ones of the world) were totally lacking in General Lee.”

This is Bicentennial America.

This is Election-Year America.

This is 20th-Century, thermo-nuclear, porno-liberated, cokey-alky, oligarchy, in-order-to-get-mine-I gotta-grind-you-America.

What are you and I supposed to learn from or feel about the world and the character of a man like R. E. Lee?

He’s cold. We’re cool.

He’s passe. We’re avant.2

He’s out of it. We’re up to here in it.

Well, there are a few qualities this remarkable creature had which may serve us, too, if we consider them.

Patience – quiet, good humor – adoration of children – loyalty – respect for hard work – dedication to an ideal – love of animals –appreciation of duty constituted authority coupled with an abhorrence of authoritarianism – a devotion to history, for, as General Lee said, “It is history that teaches hope” – gentleness and the aspiration to achieve gentlemanliness – understanding of the state of being young – courtesy toward the conditional frailty of advanced age.

Acceptance of responsibility.

Personal integrity.

 

     

 

Source: Richmond News Leader, 1976 July 8

Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2018 May 11

 

1. This quotation comes from Elizabeth Keckley, an African American woman who worked in the White House. Don E. Fehrenbacher doubts the validity of the quotation, giving it a “D” (of a school-like scale of A-F, with an F being the least reliable) in his book, The Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 275.

2. Literally meaning “before” in French.

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