Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee

Chapter X: President of Washington College: Condition of college

The Document

Washington College had started as an academy in 1749. It was the first classical school opened in the Valley of Virginia. After a struggle of many years, under a succession of principals and with several changes of site, it at length acquired such a reputation as to attract the attention of General Washington. He gave it a handsome endowment, and the institution changed its name from "Liberty Hall Academy" to Washington College. In the summer of 1865, the college, through the calamities of civil war, had reached the lowest point of depression it had ever known. Its buildings, library, and apparatus had suffered from the sack and plunder of hostile soldiery. Its invested funds, owing to the general impoverishment throughout the land, were for the time being rendered unproductive and their ultimate value was most uncertain. Four professors still remained on duty, and there were about forty students, mainly from the country around Lexington. It was not a State institution, nor confined to any one religious denomination, so two objections which might have been made by my father were removed. But the college in later years had only a local reputation. It was very poor, indifferently equipped with buildings, and with no means in sight to improve its condition.

"There was a general expectation that he would decline the position as not sufficiently lucrative, if his purpose was to repair the ruins of his private fortune resulting from the war; as not lifting him conspicuously enough in the public gaze, if he was ambitious of office or further distinction; or as involving too great labour and anxiety, if he coveted repose after the terrible contest from which he had just emerged." [Professor E. S. Joynes]

He was very reluctant to accept this appointment, but for none of the above reasons, as the average man might have been. Why he was doubtful of undertaking the responsibilities of such a position his letter of acceptance clearly shows. He considered the matter carefully and then wrote the following letter to the committee:

"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 in regular courses of instruction. I could not, therefore, undertake more than the general administration and supervision of the institution. I could not, therefore, undertake more than the general administration and supervision of the institution. There is another subject which has caused me some 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 United States, of the 29th of 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 t 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 judgement 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 obedient servant, R. E. Lee"

To present a clearer view of some of the motives influencing my father in accepting this trust--for such he considered it--I give an extract from an address on the occasion of his death, by Bishop Wilmer, of Louisiana, delivered at the University of the South, at Sewanee, Tennessee:

"I was seated," says Bishop Wilmer, "at the close of the day, in my Virginia home, when I beheld, through the thickening shades of evening, a horseman entering the yard, whom I soon recognised as General Lee. The next morning he placed in my hands the correspondence with the authorities of Washington College at Lexington. He had been invited to become president of that institution. I confess to a momentary feeling of chagrin at the proposed change (shall I say revulsion?) in his history. The institution was one of local interest, and comparatively unknown to our people. I named others more conspicuous which would welcome him with ardour at the presiding head. I soon discovered that his mind towered above these earthly distinctions; that, in his judgement, the CAUSE gave dignity to the institution, and not the wealth of its endowment or the renown of its scholars; that this door and not another was opened to him by Providence, and he only wished to be assured of his competency to fulfil his trust and this to make his few remaining years a comfort and blessing to his suffering country. I had spoken to his human feelings; he had now revealed himself to me as one 'whose life was hid with Christ in God.' My speech was no longer restrained. I congratulated him that his heart was inclined to this great cause, and that he was prepared to give to the world this august testimony to the importance of Christian education. How he listened to my feeble words; how he beckoned me to his side, as the fulness of heart found utterance; how his whole countenance glowed with animation as I spoke of the Holy Ghost as the great Teacher, whose presence was required to make education a blessing, which otherwise might be the curse of mankind; how feelingly he responded, how ELOQUENTLY, as I never heard him speak before--can never be effaced from memory; and nothing more sacred mingles with my reminiscences of the dead."

The board of trustees, on August 31st, adopted and sent to General Lee resolutions saying that, in spite of his objections, "his connection with the institution would greatly promote its prosperity and advance the general interest of education, and urged him to enter upon his duties as president at his earliest convenience."

My father had had nearly four years' experience in the charge of young men at West Point. The conditions at that place, to be sure, were very different from those at the one to which he was now going, but the work in the main was the same--to train, improve and elevate. I think he was influenced, in making up his mind to accept this position, by the great need of education in his State and in the South, and by the opportunity that he saw at Washington College for starting almost from the beginning, and for helping, by his experience and example, the youth of his country to become good and useful citizens.

The General's arrival at Lexington

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Lee, Robert E. jr., The Recollections & Letters of Robert E. Lee,, webpage created by Rickard, J (8 June 2006),

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