Five months after the surrender at Appomattox, Confederate commander Gen. Robert E. Lee - the man who had said, “Then there is nothing left me but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths” - was writing, “The decision of war, having been decided against us, it is the part of wisdom to acquiesce in the result, and of candor, to recognize the fact.”
He was urging “the healing of all dissensions.”
The trustees of Rockbridge County Court.
Later that day, he signed the Oath of Allegiance to the Washington and had disappeared for 100 years.
A few days later, as a response to a letter from Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, Lee wrote: “I need not tell you that true patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another, and the motive which impels them - the desire to do right - is precisely the same. The circumstances that govern their actions change, and their conduct must conform to the new order of things.
“History is full of illustrations of this: Washington himself is an example. At one time, he fought in the service of the King of Great Britain; at another, he fought with the French at Yorktown, under the orders of the Continental Congress of America, against him. He has not been branded by the world with reproach for this, but his course has been applauded.”
Kind and gentle
Once installed as president, Lee made it his duty to speak to every student. One of the incoming scholars was so taken aback by Lee’s gentleness that he thought he was in the wrong office and that this was not the recent Confederate commander: “He was so gentle, kind, and almost motherly, that I thought there must be some mistake about it.”
Once this boy was convinced that he was, indeed, talking with Robert E. Lee, he saw something more. “It looked as if the sorrow of a whole nation had been collected in his countenance, and as if he were bearing the grief of his whole people. It never left his face, but was ever there to keep company with the kindly smile.”
Also each day, some troublemaker found himself called into the president’s office. Veterans of savage wartime fighting emerged from Lee’s office with their eyes red because Lee had spoken to them of their mothers and told them how pained their families would be by their riotous behavior and inattention to studies. Lee was acting out what he said to Gen. A.P. Hill: “You’ll have to do what I do: When a man makes a mistake, I call him to my tent, and use the authority of my position to make him do the right thing the next time.”
On one occasion, the agent of an insurance company called on Lee and told him that he was authorized to offer Lee its presidency. He mentioned a salary of $10,000, more than six times what Lee was making. Lee explained that he was unwilling to resign the college presidency he had just begun and said he could not do both jobs at once.
“But General,” the insurance salesman said, “we do not want you to discharge any duties. We simply wish the use of your name; that will abundantly compensate us.”
“Excuse me, sir,” Lee said. “I cannot consent to receive pay for services I do not render.”
As college president, Lee saw the need to give students an education that would prepare them for postwar realities. No one wished to abandon Latin or Greek, but the shattered South needed men who could design bridges, develop chemical compounds for fertilizers, restore the railroads and canals, and work up blueprints for factories.
On Oct. 24, 1865, at a meeting of trustees, five new professorships were proposed, including practical chemistry, mechanical and civil engineering, and practical mechanics. What was emerging was one of the first elective systems in the country. It was a departure from the classics-steeped prewar education of Southern gentlemen, all of whom were expected to take exactly the same courses in college, no matter what they planned to do in life.
Lee had deciphered the environment, just as he had done on the battlefields. Seeing that most of his West Point experience was not applicable in his new position, and never having been through a rigid liberal-arts curriculum, he was ready to experiment. He had created a climate in which his faculty was encouraged to suggest new things.
Of course, funds would be needed to support these new classes, so Lee wrote a letter to the most famous son of Rockbridge County, Chicago 20 years earlier, and his machines had freed up Northern farmers, thus helping defeat his native South.
Lee gave McCormick the “soft sell,” telling how the impoverished residents of the county were doing their best to support the work of the college. A follow-up letter was sent by Judge John White Brockenbrough asking McCormick for a “good round sum” to help in constructing a new building (to be named in his honor) to house the new practical departments. McCormick responded with a check for $10,000 - a princely sum for those days.
As a matter of fact, Washington College had received more than $100,000 in the first 10 months since the trustees had borrowed the $50 needed for the judge to make the trip to offer Lee the presidency.
The most important thing was not dollars or even the additional professors the college could hire. It was the high morale and sense of purpose felt by most of the students and faculty. Setting forth their sentiments concerning not only reorganization but academic standards, the faculty, in a memorandum outlining the new curriculum, spoke of the determination to bring Washington College “to a level with the best institutions in the country.”
Letter to Acton
On the political front, Lee responded to a letter from British Prime Minister William Gladstone’s advisers. Acton was seeking Lee’s views on American postwar constitutional questions and the South’s political future.
Lee assured Acton that the South accepted the de facto results of the war and “the extinction of slavery,” but he was concerned that an overly powerful federal government would prove to be a threat to “the rights and authority reserved in the states and the people” and would result in a nation that was “sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home.”
Lee believed in “the right of each state to prescribe for itself the qualification of suffrage,” and he pointed out that if the Union was “inviolable and perpetual,” and if it was wrong for a state to secede, then it was equally wrong to prevent a state from resuming its full role and having representation in Washington.
Now that slavery had been ended by the war and the 13th Amendment, Lee hoped the Constitution “may be handed down to succeeding generations in the form we received it from our forefathers.”
The significance of this letter was that the future Lord Acton asked these questions of Lee - and not one of the former political leaders of the Confederacy. Acton was specific about it: To hear the voice of the South, he wrote in his letter, he had decided to “venture at once to proceed to Headquarters.”
On March 24, 1870, Lee set off with his daughter Agnes to take his first extended vacation. He had been working since October 1865 for the betterment of Washington College, and his health was deteriorating quickly. He had had heart problems, going back to the war; now he could not go 200 yards without stopping for rest. He especially wished to visit the grave of his beloved daughter Annie, who had died during the war and was buried in N.C.
Someone should have realized that it would be impossible for him to take a quiet trip through the South. In the five years since Appomattox, he had been to parts of Baltimore and a few hot springs west of Lexington. That was all.
This would be the first time he would travel south of Virginia into other ardent former Confederate states, where millions wanted to see him. He was on his way, launching himself right at them. Lee was thinking like a tourist, carrying train schedules and wondering about the availability of hotel rooms. The South, once it knew he was coming, would receive him as an emperor, almost as a god.
At his hotel in Charlotte, N.C., after Lee would visit Annie’s grave.
Lee’s journey was quiet until a four-word message was telegraphed from Charlotte: GENERAL LEE IS ABOARD. At little depots where the train did not even slow down, Lee’s veterans were out, many holding on their shoulders children born since the war, hundreds of them named after him. The South was passing by as babies were held up to the train at red-clay crossroads, women waving handkerchiefs from buckboards and dignified men suddenly thrusting their hats into the air and howling the Rebel Yell.
When Lee and Agnes reached Woodrow Wilson.
As he returned to Virginia, taking a steamer up the James River, Lee visited relatives who lived quietly on their riverside farms. One young female cousin who had never met him before remarked on how charming he was and added, “We regarded him with the greatest veneration. We had heard of God, but here was General Lee!”
Lee was back in Lexington on May 28. On June 23, he would hand out diplomas to the graduates of Washington College. On Sept, 28, he left his office in the basement of the newly opened chapel for the last time. After a nap at home, he left for a meeting at the Episcopal church. His daughter Mildred was playing Felix Mendelssohn’s Funeral March.
He commented, “That is a doleful piece you are playing. I wish I did not have to go and listen to all that powwow.” He walked through an icy rain and sat through the meeting in the unheated church. His last act was to pledge $55 toward the Rev. William N. Pendleton’s salary.
At home, supper was waiting. Lee attempted a prayer, but no words escaped his mouth. Doctors were called. There was no paralysis, and the doctors diagnosed his condition as a “venous congestion of the brain,” a blood clot lodging in the brain. Lee also had a throat infection. These new afflictions, combined with his heart condition and hardening arteries, were producing what the doctors called “cerebral exhaustion.”
Stormy weather continued. When the weather broke, northern lights were seen in the sky on the nights of Oct. 7, 8 and 9. Some took it as an omen; in this Scots-dominated town, one woman quoted a Scottish poem that said of the aurora borealis:
Fearful lights, that never beckon
Save when kings or heroes die.
During the afternoon of Oct. 11, Lee sank into a coma. His wife, Mary, sat beside him in her wheelchair. She wrote, “He wandered to those dreadful battlefields” - at one moment he cried out, “Tell Hill he must come up!” (One of Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s last words were, “Order A.P. Hill to prepare for action! Pass the infantry to the front!”) The last distinct words anyone heard him say were, “Strike the tent!”
After Lee’s death in 1870, the trustees voted to change the name from Washington College to Washington and Lee University.
• William S. Connery is a freelance writer in Alexandria. He is available for talks on various Civil War topics and can be reached at email@example.com.