Washington and Lee University takes its name from two important Americans, George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Although the mission of the Lee Family Digital Archive is to document the Lees of Virginia, it would be remiss not to give serious attention to W&L’s first namesake because of Washington’s long association with members of the Lee Family of Virginia.

The origins of W&L date back to 1749, when Scotch-Irish settlers in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia founded Augusta Academy, a small classical school situated about twenty miles north of present-day Lexington. The little school went through some important changes during the Revolutionary War, first in 1776 when its trustees changed its name to Liberty Hall, and then in 1780, when it was relocated near Lexington, and finally in 1782, when the state government Virginia empowered Liberty Hall Academy to begin granting degrees.

George Washington’s connection to W&L dates to 1796, when Rector William Graham learned of President Washington’s desire to donate his one hundred shares of stock in the James River Canal Company to a school located on the waters of the James River. Graham had been a classmate of Robert E. Lee’s father, Light-Horse Harry Lee, at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). Graham, on behalf of the Hanover Presbytery, petitioned Washington to consider donating the shares to Liberty Hall Academy, and Washington consented. The stock was worth about twenty thousand dollars and became the school’s first major endowment, at the time the single largest gift to a private educational institution in the country. In appreciation of Washington’s generosity the trustees changed the name of the institution to Washington Academy. Washington was gratified when he learned of the name change, and wrote the trustees from Mount Vernon on 17 June 1798:

Gentlemen: Unaccountable as it may seem, it is nevertheless true, that the Address with which you were pleased to honor me, dated the 12th. of April, never came to my hands until the 14th. Instant.

To promote Literature in this rising Empire, and to encourage the Arts, have ever been amongst the warmest wishes of my heart. And if the donation which the generosity of the Legislature of the Commonwealth of Virginia has enabled me to bestow on Liberty-Hall, now by your politeness called, Washington Academy, is likely to prove a mean to accomplish these ends, it will contribute to the gratification of my desires.

Sentiments like those which flowed from your Pen, excite my gratitude, whilst I offer my best vows for the prosperity of the Academy, and for the honor and happiness of those under whose auspices it is conducted.

Washington confirmed “in perpetuity” his bequest to the school when making his Last Will and Testament in 1799. In 1813, the name of the academy was changed to Washington College. By that time the college was established on its present grounds. In 1844 a statue of Washington (“old George”), carved by Matthew Kahle from a log found floating in the nearby Maury River, stood on the pinnacle of Main Hall, now known as Washington Hall.

Robert E. Lee’s well-known association with Washington College began a few months after his surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, in 1865. At the war’s end Lee found himself a paroled prisoner of war and without any way to support his family. His professed desire to find a “country home” and support himself off the land was not realistic, and he turned down offers of employment that would have traded on his name but not really provided him with genuine work, as well as invitations to enter into politics. When the trustees of Washington College asked him to become the school’s president, he thought it over and decided it was a door opened to him by Providence.

Powhatan County, August 24, 1865.

Gentlemen: I have delayed for some days replying to your letter of the 5th inst. 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 possess, for I do not feel able to undergo the labour of conducting classes p218 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 has caused me serious reflection, and is, I think, worthy of the consideration of the Board. Being excluded from the terms of amnesty in the proclamation of the President of the U. S., of the 29th 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 desire 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 policy 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 to me by the Board will be advantageous to the College and Country, I will yield to your judgment and accept it; otherwise, I must most respectfully decline the office.

Begging you to express to the trustees of the College my heartfelt gratitude for the honour conferred upon me, and requesting you to accept my cordial thanks for the kind manner in which you have communicated their decision, I am, gentlemen, with great respect, Your most obt servt.,


R. E. Lee.

The role of college president came easily to Lee. At West Point he had been an excellent student and later served as its superintenent. He always kept a keen interest in education, and thought that as president of Washington College he could contribute to the rebuilding of Southern society. Moreover, Lee must have felt an affinity with an institution that had been endowed by the great-grandfather of his wife, Mary Anna Custis Lee. George Washington had long served as his role model and Lee surely felt pleased to be able to linger in his hero’s shadow now that he had failed to win victory for the South. At Washington College, Lee and his family, now permanently barred from returning to Arlington, was able to continue their association with Washington. Valuable family heirlooms and precious memories of a by-gone era accompanied the Lees to Lexington.

Lee’s tenure at Washington College lasted only until October 1870, when he suddenly took ill and died. In those few years he managed to set the school on a solid footing and transform it into a respectable and forward-looking institution. Immediately upon Lee’s death the trustees honored him by changing the school’s name to Washington and Lee College. Linking the name of Robert E. Lee to that of George Washington was a fitting memorial to Lee and insured that Lee and his family would have perpetual ties to the school that Washington had been pleased to assist. Lee’s own son, George Washington Custis Lee, the namesake of both George Washington and Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, became Washington College’s next president. General Lee, his wife and seven children, and his father, Light-Horse Harry, are buried in the Lee Family crypt at Lee Chapel.

The historical legacy of George Washington and Robert E. Lee, connected by military pursuits, family ties, and educational interests, continues at Washington and Lee University in the twenty-first century.