Archived Story

Robert E. Lee was prominent figure in war

Published 12:00am Sunday, April 29, 2012

“Teaching is hard, hours are long, pay is in the form of self-rewards of satisfaction. Teaching has never been easy.”

Robert E. Lee

September 1865

Said To the Board of Trustees of Washington College

 

The Regimen of A College President:

7 a.m. Prayers with the family before breakfast, Chapel service at the College

2 p.m. Home for mid-day dinner, rest after dinner

4 p.m. Ride “Traveller” about the countryside

7:30 p.m. Supper

8:15 p.m. Friends may call at President’s home

10 p.m. Closing of shutters and time for visitors to leave

 

The above-named college president was born on Jan. 19, 1807, in Stratford Hall, near Montross, Va., (in Westmoreland County).

He was the fourth child of Henry Lee, better known for his nickname “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, a Revolutionary War cavalry hero.

His father was put in prison for debt and later died of wounds suffered in assisting a friend involved in a riot in Baltimore. Robert E. Lee was 11 when his father died.

His widowed mother, Ann Hill Carter, raised him in Alexandria and sent him to private schools where he became quickly known for his intellect and character.

Robert E. Lee was appointed to West Point in 1825 and was named “corps adjutant,” the highest post of honor for a cadet. He graduated second in his class there and never received a demerit — not one — while at West Point. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers.

Lee was stationed at Fort Monroe, Virginia, and in 1831, he married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter.

Their union would produce seven children, three boys and four girls. George Washington Custis Lee and William H. Fitzhugh Lee became Confederate officers and served under their father in the Civil War.

During the summer of 1835, Lee helped bring a conclusion to the “Toledo War” by assisting in defining the correct boundary line between the states of Ohio and Michigan. As of yet, Robert E. Lee had not been a participant in an American war.

This engineer would be assigned to General Winfield Scott’s staff in the Mexican War.

He gained distinction for the American victory at Cerro Gordo and was wounded at Chapultepec. Winfield Scott could not have captured Mexico City and would not have become a war hero had it not been for Lee’s planning the march from Veracruz to Mexico City.

In 1852, Lee became Superintendent of West Point. As superintendent, he widened the curriculum and formed friendships with the cadets. During the mid-1850’s, Mrs. Lee was becoming an invalid and would spend her later years in a “rolling chair” (wheelchair).

Mary had contracted a severe pelvic infection and would become lame. While on leave at “Arlington,” he was sent to recapture Harpers Ferry during “John Brown’s Raid” in 1859.

While on cavalry duty in Texas in February of 1861, Lee returned to “Arlington” when Texas seceded. Robert E. Lee did not approve of secession and he had freed his slaves long before the Civil War.

Winfield Scott, his former commander in the Mexican War, offered him command of the Union armies. After much thought, he declined Lincoln’s offer and on Aug. 31, 1861, became military advisor to President Jefferson Davis.

Scott said: “Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life.”

He had held a commission in the United States Army for 32 years, but could not draw his sword against Virginia.

After Joseph E. Johnston was severely wounded on May 31, 1862, at the Battle of Fair Oaks, Lee was sent into the field to take command of the army and save Richmond. From this point in time, Robert E. Lee became “the marble man in gray.”

Miss Mary Lee, Robert’s daughter, said the people of the South had been very kind to the Lee family, but after his surrender at Appomattox, Lee needed a job badly!

He thought about writing a book about his Civil War military campaigns. The Trustees of Washington College asked Judge John Brockenbrough to go see Robert E. Lee.

A friend of the Judge loaned him a suit and the Board borrowed $50 in U. S. “greenbacks” to fund the trip. Judge Brockenbrough offered the job of “President of Washington College” to Lee with the following enticements: use of a house and garden, plot of land to raise vegetables, a percentage of student tuition fees, and $1,500. a year salary which the College did not have.

Due to his heart problems, which had begun in late 1862, Lee did not want to teach. After three weeks of seeking advice, Lee would accept the job if the College did not prefer a specific religious denomination and if he would only be asked to administer and supervise —not teach.

Washington College in Lexington, Va., wanted to open its doors again in September of 1865.

It had 4 professors and 40 students, but sorely needed a President. It had begun its academic life in 1749 as “Liberty Hall Academy.” On Oct. 2, 1865, the Board of Trustees installed Lee as its President at 9 a.m. in a physics classroom of South Hall.

Lee had no civilian clothes, so he participated in the ceremony in one of his gray uniforms stripped of military insignias. On this same day (Oct. 2, 1865), he signed and mailed his “Oath of Allegiance of the United States” to Washington, D.C.

The “Oath” and request for citizenship were sent to President Andrew Johnson. The documents were placed upon Secretary of State Seward’s desk. Seward thought Lee’s documents had already been processed and so, Seward gave the documents to a friend as a souvenir.

The friend put the documents in a desk and they were not found until 105 years later. President Gerald Ford restored Robert E. Lee’s full citizenship on July 22, 1975.

Lee worked very hard as President of Washington College. He introduced one of the first elective systems in the United States, instituted the nation’s first departments of journalism and commerce, expanded the graduate program, provided a course in photography, and began a Spanish curriculum.

“General Lee’s School” received over $100,000 in ten months and the faculty grew to 15 members. In Sept. of 1866, Lee would ride “Traveller” to the edge of the baseball field where Washington College played its games to watch “his boys.”

It pained him to see them lose 66-22, but none of them had gloves at that time.

On Sept. 28, 1870, Lee went to an evening meeting at Grace Church in Lexington. The agenda primarily centered upon building a new church and increasing Reverend Pendleton’s salary.

The meeting place was cold, damp, and unheated. At the end of the meeting, the group found the budget $55 short of what was needed for the minister. Lee, of course, increased his pledge and went home to supper.

As he stood to pray, no words would come forth. Doctors were summoned and Lee died at 9 a.m. on Oct. 12, 1870. He was buried at “The Shrine of the South” and still represents Virginia in Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C.

Robert E. Lee loved his horse “Traveller” and children. Lee acquired “Traveller” in the spring of 1862.

The horse was named “Jeff Davis” then. Lee bought him for $175 in gold and named him “Traveller.” The horse outlived Lee by one year and died of lockjaw in 1871.

“Traveller” and his master are together now at Washington and Lee. Children and adults would pluck hairs from “Traveller’s” mane and tail. He was a gray man’s gray horse!

At Commencement Exercises for the Class of 1867, a five-year-old boy, Carter Jones, left his parents and sat at Lee’s feet. The boy fell asleep against Lee’s legs.

Lee had to issue the diplomas sitting in a chair. Lee would not disturb the boy because Carter always sat with Lee during weekly chapel services!

 

Bob Leith is a history professor at Ohio University Southern.

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