After the War Between the States, Gen. Robert E. Lee accepted the presidency of a struggling college in the remote Shenandoah Valley village of Lexington, Va.
The war had crippled Virginia’s economy and, along with it, the prospects of Washington College. The school’s buildings and library had suffered extensive damage and pillaging during Union Gen. David Hunter’s raid in June 1864. Only four of the school’s professors remained, and the student body had dwindled to 40 young men. Though the school’s rich history included an endowment of stock by George Washington, its outlook seemed rather dismal.
But Lee was accustomed to lost causes. He already had rejected an offer to be vice chancellor of the University of the South at Sewanee, Tenn., and had also spurned suggestions that he consider a position at the University of Virginia.
In a letter to Washington College’s board of trustees, accepting their offer, Lee wrote: “I pray I may be spared to accomplish something for the benefit of mankind and the honor of God.” It seemed as though Lee felt a kindred spirit to the broken-down college in the sleepy little village. They had much in common.
After Lee accepted the position in Lexington, an English nobleman offered him a job with an annual salary of $50,000 — substantially more than the $1,500 Lee was to be paid by Washington College. Lee rejected the offer and, with his ever-present spirit of self-denial, humbly replied: “I cannot leave my present position. I have a self-imposed task. I have led the young men of the South in battle. I must now teach their sons to discharge their duty in life.”
This self-denial had already led Lee to make one of the most famous self-sacrificing decisions in history. After President Lincoln offered Lee the command of the Union forces on the eve of the war, Lee spent much of the night of April 19, 1861, in prayer. The fruit of Lee’s prayers was his rejection of Lincoln’s offer. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Douglas Southall Freeman would write, “It was the decision Lee was born to make.”
But now, the war was over and Lee’s desire to teach the Southern sons of his day “to discharge their duty in life” consumed the final years of the South’s best-known icon. Lee’s commitment to the young men under his charge was so intense that he was, at times, visibly moved.
On one occasion, upon leaving a chapel prayer service, a friend noticed that something was troubling Lee. The friend inquired if there was anything wrong. Lee replied, “I was thinking of my responsibility to Almighty God for these hundreds of young men.”
On another occasion, the Rev. Dr. James L. Kirkpatrick, professor of moral philosophy at the college, told of a similar incident regarding Lee’s concern for his young men:
“We had been conversing for some time respecting the religious welfare of the students. General Lee’s feelings soon became so intense that for a time his utterance was choked; but, recovering himself, with his eyes overflowed with tears, his lips quivering with emotion and both hands raised, he exclaimed: ‘Oh Doctor! If I could only know that all the young men in the college were good Christians, I should have nothing more to desire.”
Lee’s efforts had a dramatic impact upon the student body of Washington College, and his influence has echoed through subsequent generations. One of Lee’s former students, C.W. Hedger, wrote:
“Of all men I have ever known, I think General R.E. Lee by far the greatest example as a soldier, a citizen … and a Christian gentleman. As President, he displayed distinguished ability, showing his greatness of soul not only by refusing many far more lucrative positions that he might be of more benefit to the rising generation, but also by his interest in all the students, financing some of them through college, and looking after the physical, mental, moral, and spiritual welfare.”
Lee’s word among his students was law. Rarely did a young man summoned to his office find occasion to return. One student wrote that Lee’s “personal and professional sublimity drew them unanimously and grappled their souls with hooks of steel.”
So respected and revered was his character and influence that many spoke of Lee as they would their own father and said they would rather have died than disappoint him. Lee’s influence was so profound that it once enabled him to quell a vengeful mob and prevent a lynching.
A popular young student had gotten into an argument with a black man in Lexington, and the student was shot. As the news spread, a brother of the wounded youth rounded up 400 students and captured the black man. The mob dragged the accused with a rope around his neck to the courthouse square for a public hanging. Local authorities tried in vain to reason with the would-be executioners.
As the scene spiraled out of control, Lee suddenly appeared. An immediate hush fell over the assembled crowd. Stepping into the midst of the impassioned body of students, Lee calmly but authoritatively said, “Young gentlemen, let the law take its course.” The situation was instantly defused, and the life of the man was saved.
Even after Lee’s death in 1870, his influence on the lives he had touched continued. The Rev. C.C. Brown, also a former student of Lee’s, would write:
“I went often to his grave beneath the chapel to look upon it and reflect upon his greatness; and to this day, after fifty years have passed, I can say from a grateful heart, I am glad I was able to look upon the form of Robert E. Lee and to hear the sound of his living voice.”
Lee’s impact reached far beyond Washington College — even earning praise from U.S. presidents.
“It is a notable thing that we see when we look back to men of this sort. … In the midst of that crimson field stands this gentle figure, — a man whom you remember not as a man who loved war, but as a man moved by all the high impulses of gentle kindness, a man whom men did not fear, but loved; a man in whom everybody who approached him marked singular gentleness, singular sweetness, singular modesty, — none of the pomp of the soldier, but all the simplicity of the gentleman,” President Wilson wrote.
Due to the sheer force and strength of Lee’s Christian character, he was able to attain that most elusive of life’s accomplishments — the respect and admiration of even his enemies. Upon receipt of Lee’s desire to surrender, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant would write:
“My own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on receipt of Lee’s letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and so valiantly and had suffered so much for a cause.”
And, as he was retreating from Gettysburg, Lee and his staff rode past a wounded Union soldier. As they passed, the man raised a defiant fist in the air and shouted, “Hurrah for the Union.” Lee reined in his horse and slowly dismounted. The soldier was sure Lee meant to kill him. But as the defeated warrior approached, the wounded man noted “a sad expression upon his face.” Lee knelt down, grasped his enemy’s hand firmly, looked him in the eye and said, “My son, I hope you will soon be well.”
Speechless and overcome with the power of such a gesture of humility and compassion, the humbled soldier would later write, “As soon as the General had left me, I cried myself to sleep there upon the bloody ground.”
Despite politically correct efforts to rob our nation’s young men of Lee’s influence, his inspiration continues to this day. Each year, thousands of tourists visit Lee Chapel on the campus of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, and Lee remains one of the most respected and honored figures in American history. Judge John Brockenbrough’s words announcing Lee’s appointment as president of Washington College remain relevant today:
“Let the young men of this country, North as well as South, be wise, and profit not less by his precepts than by his great example.”
Richard G. Williams Jr. is a businessman and writer living in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. He is author of “The Maxims of Robert E. Lee for Young Gentlemen” and “Christian Business Legends.”