Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee

Chapter XVI: An Advisor of Young Men: His personal interest in the students under his care

The Document

The Christmas of 1867 I spent, as usual, in Lexington with my father. He had been president of the college now a little more than two years. The number of professors and students had largely increased. The chapel had been build, many improvements made to the lecture-rooms and halls, the grounds improved by the laying out of new roads and walks, the inclosures renewed, the grass restored to the campus, and new shade trees set out over the college grounds. The increase in the number of professors demanded more houses for them. As a move in this direction, the trustees decided to build a new house for the president, so that the one he now occupied could be used for one of the faculty. Accordingly, the appropriations of a sum was made, and my father was authorised to build according to a plan of his own selection. He took a keen interest in this matter, and at once commenced designing a new "President's House" on the lot which had previously been occupied by an old building devoted to the same purpose. This was completed in the summer of 1869.

The endowment fund of the college had been increased by liberal contributions from several philanthropic persons, and also by a better investment of the resources already belonging to the institution. The fees from the greater number of students also added much to its prosperity. his interest in the student individually and collectively was untiring. By the system of reports made weekly to the president, and monthly to the parent or guardian, he knew well how each one of his charges was getting on, whether or not he was progressing, or even holding his own. If the report was unsatisfactory, the student was sent for and remonstrated with. If that had no effect, the parents were advised, and requested to urge the son to try to do better. If the student still persisted in wasting his time and money, his parents were asked to call him home.

As illustrating how well the president was acquainted with the student, and how accurate was his remembrance of their individuality, it is related that on one occasion a name was read out in faculty meeting which was unfamiliar to him. He asked that it be read out again, and repeated the name to himself, adding in a tone of self-reproach:

"I have no recollection of a student of that name. It is very strange that I have forgotten him. I thought I knew every one in college. How long has he been here?"

An investigation proved that the student had recently entered during his absence, and that he had never seen him. He won the confidence of the students, and very soon their affections. He regarded a mass of petty regulations as being only vexatious, and yet by his tact and firmness his discipline became most effective. Very seldom was there any breaking of the laws. He was so honoured and loved that they tried to please him in all things. Of course, there were exceptions. I give here some letters written to parents and guardians which will show how he tried to induce these triflers to become men:

"Lexington, Virginia, March 25, 1866.

"My Dear Sir: I am very glad to learn from your letter of the 13th inst. that you have written your son in reference to his neglect of his studies. I am sure your letter and the kind admonition of his mother will have a beneficial effect upon him. I have myself told him as plainly but as kindly as I could that it was necessary for him to change his course, or that he would be obliged to return home. He had promised me that he would henceforth be diligent and attentive, and endeavour in all things to perform his duty. I hope that he may succeed, for I think he is able to do well if he really makes the effort. Will you be so kind as to inform Mrs. W. that I have received her letter of the 19th? It will give me great pleasure at all times to aid her son in every way I can, but if he desires no benefit from his connection with the college it will be to his interest to return home.

"Very truly your obedient servant, R. E. Lee."

Here is another letter showing the patience and forbearance of the president and his earnest desire to help on in life the young men committed to his charge:

"Washington College, Lexington Virginia, April 20, 1868.

"My Dear Sir: I regret to see, from your letter of the 29th ult., to the clerk of the faculty, that you have misunderstood their action in reference to your son. He was not dismissed, as you suppose, from the college, but every means having been tried by the faculty to induce him to attend faithfully and regularly to his studies without effect, and great forbearance having been practised, it was thought best for him, and just to you, that he should return home. The action of the faculty was purposely designed, not to prevent his being received into any other college, or to return to this, should you so desire. The monthly reports are intended to advise parents of the progress of their sons, and it was supposed you would have seen the little advancement made by yours in his studies, and that no further notice was required. The action of the faculty was caused by no immorality on his part, but by a systematic neglect of his duties, which no counsel on the part of his professors, or my own, could correct. In compliance, however, with your wishes, and on the positive promise of amendment on the part of your son, he has been received into college, and I sincerely hope that he will apply himself diligently to his studies, and make an earnest effort to retrieve the time he has lost. With great respect,

"Your obedient servant, R. E. Lee."

This letter, too, shows his fatherly interest:

"Washington College, Lexington, Virginia, March 19, 1868.

"My Dear Sir: Before this you have learned the affecting death of your son. I can say nothing to mitigate your grief or to relieve your sorrow; but if the sincere sympathy of his comrades and friends and of the entire community can bring you any consolation, I can assure you that you possess it in its fullest extent. When one, in the pureness and freshness of youth, before having been contaminated by sin or afflicted by misery, is called to the presence of his Merciful Creator, it must be solely for his good. As difficult as this may be for you now to recognise, I hope you will keep it constantly in your memory and take it to your comfort; and I pray that He who in His wise Providence has permitted this crushing sorrow may sanctify it to the happiness of all. Your son and his friend, Mr. Birely, often passed their leisure hours in rowing on the river, and, on last Saturday afternoon, the 4th inst., attempted what they had more than once been cautioned against--to approach the foot of the dam, at the public bridge. Unfortunately, their boat was caught by the return-current, struck by the falling water, and was immediately upset. Their perilous position was at once seen from the shore, and aid was hurried to their relief, but before it could reach them both had perished. Efforts to restore your son's life, though long continued, were unavailing. Mr. Birely's body was not found until the next morning. Their remains were, yesterday, Sunday, conveyed to the Episcopal church in this city, where the sacred ceremony for the dead were performed, by the Reverend Dr. Pendleton, who nineteen years ago, at the far-off home of their infancy, placed upon them their baptismal vows. After the service a long procession of the professors and students of the college, the officers and cadets of the Virginia Military Academy, and the citizens of Lexington accompanied their bodies to the packet-boat for Lynchburg, where they were place in charge of Messrs. Wheeler & Baker to convey them to Frederick City.

"With great regard and sincere sympathy, I am,

"Most respectfully, R. E. Lee."

Next: Chapter XVII: The Reconstruction Period

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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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