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Lee as an educator.

His zeal for Washington College's welfare. [Richmond times, June 15, 1890.]

Interesting Reminiscences of his career as President—His letter to the Hon. D. S. G. Cabell—Unselfish devotion to duty.

That General Robert E. Lee was more distinguished than all others in the late war, in a military point of view, is held by most of competent judges. It is not, however, in that respect that I propose to consider him, but only, and that briefly, of his connection with education. He graduated as the second-honor man at West Point in a large class, and thereafter deepened and enlarged his acquired knowledge by a practical application of it. Before and during the late war his life was purely military; at its close he found his property and that of his family confiscated by the Federal Government and himself without employment. In defeat and poverty he still preserved his stainless honor and native dignity of character. Such a man could not remain long in our Southern country without numerous offers of positions. Liberal pay for duties merely nominal were offered him. His nice sense of honor and delicacy of feeling caused him to decline all such. He was not willing to take any situation in which he could not render a quid pro quo. He did not desire a sinecure. Some of the high Federal officers about the same period did not manifest the same delicacy of feeling with respect to gratuities. In his nice sense of honor, which would have felt a stain like a wound, in unselfish patriotism, in moral elevation, he was unlike many of the world's great conquerors, and finds his parallel in Washington, and in him alone. The late Colonel John B. Baldwin, highly distinguished as a lawyer and a legislator, gave me the following narrative which shows how Lee became an [358] educator: He said Colonel Bolivar Christian, himself, and several others were talking together some time in the summer of 1865 in Staunton, Va. The subject of their conversation was what business would suit a certain ex-Confederate officer, when one of the group said, and what shall we do for General Lee? and Baldwin answered, make him president of Washington College. Colonel Christian, who was a trustee of Washington College, approved the suggestion and at the next meeting of the board of trustees, August, 1865, nominated Lee as such. He was unanimously elected, and was inaugurated as president October 2, 1865. I have it on credible authority that at first he hesitated, modestly distrusting his qualifications as an instructor, but when he ascertained that a general superintendence of the studies and discipline would only be required of him he accepted. The wisdom of his selection was soon manifested. When he entered upon the duties of the presidency of the institution there were but four professors and forty students. The latter rapidly increased. I know the fact that a number of ex-Confederate soldiers came even from distant States to Washington College because General Lee was its president. He gave over five years of his life to education, his presidency extending from October 2, 1865, to the time of his death, October 10, 1870. In that period his college took giant strides, increasing ten-fold in the number of its students. In 1869 and 1870 there were about four hundred students. Through General Lee's influence mainly three new chairs were established, viz., Physics, Mathematics, and Modern Languages, which included astronomy, engineering and English philology. Before his death instruction in Law was added to the curriculum of his college.

His zeal for education and his College.

The writer of this represented Rockbridge and Nelson in the Virginia State Senate in the years 1865, 1866 and 1867. In the former county was situated the college of which General Lee was president. His desire to subserve its interests caused him to seek my acquaintance. In the early part of December, 1865, I took my seat in the Senate, and soon after was informed that General Lee was in Richmond, and desired to see me with regard to getting some legislative assistance for Washington College. Having served under him as a soldier, and having for him that intense admiration which all of his soldiers had, I needed no stimulus to call promptly on him. He desired me to aid in procuring the passage of a law by the Legislature by which the interest, or a portion of it, on the debt of the [359] State to his college should be paid. At that time our State was pecuniarily much embarrassed and had stopped paying interest upon its debts, and fearing if I asked for too much I might get nothing, I inquired of General Lee if he would be satisfied then with the payment of three or four years interest. He responded in the affirmative, and asked me to make a speech in the Senate setting forth the wants and claims of his college; he said its furniture, books, inclosures, &c., had been damaged by the Federal soldiers under General Hunter, and money was needed to make necessary repairs. Subsequently to this he wrote me a letter, which so well presented the claims of Washington College, that I read the whole of it while advocating them before the body of which I was a member. The origin of the claim of the college was this. General Washington, in consideration of his public services was presented with a number of shares of the valuable stock of the ‘Old James River Company.’ He declined to receive them except upon the condition that they should be applied to education purposes. Accordingly he transferred 100 shares of this to ‘Liberty Academy’ in Lexington, Va., from which grew Washington College. The law, by which Washington College was greatly relieved, became such February 27, 1866, and was entitled ‘An act for the relief of colleges and other seminaries of learning.’ By it the arrearages of interest or dividends due from the State were to be paid in two installments. Soon after the passage of the bill, which I championed in the Senate, General Lee, with that courtesy which was characteristic of him, wrote me a letter thanking me for my services. As further evidence of his zeal for the educational interests of his college I will state that, representing his county and college in the Legislature, he wrote me as many as three letters urging me to get a portion for it of the land fund which the United States had donated to the States for educational purposes. I give a copy below of the original of one of them now in my possession:

Lexington, Va., December 16, 1865.
Sir, —I commit to your charge a petition of Washington College to the Legislature of Virginia, and request that as the Senator from this district that you will present it to the Senate at the most favorable period. Should you concur with the Board of Trustees in its object, I hope you will advocate the passage of a bill to carry it into effect. Dr. Archibald Graham, from Rockbridge, has been requested to present the petition in the House of Delegates, and concert of action among the friends of the measure in the two bodies would be advantageous. [360] I feel that I need suggest to you no argument in favor of the petition, as the accomplishment of the Board of Trustees would so clearly result in good to the State, and enable it at an early day to commence to reap the advantages of the grant of the general government. I hope you will agree with me in the opinion that a proper distribution of the fund will be the most advantageous way of applying it, and that Washington College offers opportunities at least equal to any other in the State, where the instruction desired to be taught can be made useful and profitable to the people.

With great respect, your obedient servant,

His letters, like those of Washington, are plain in diction, but clear, strong, and to the point. Each used language as a means not as an end. With regard to the land fund, to which Lee alludes, I made an endeavor to get the authorities of Washington to turn over Virginia's portion. In 1867 I was coolly told by the Commissioner of the general land that it was construed that West Virginia was in, but that Virginia was not in the Union. In the year just mentioned, I saw in my visits to Lexington a good deal of General Lee. I was told by citizens of Lexington that the order and discipline of his college was greatly improved by General Lee; that such was the respect and love for him of the students that they disliked above all things to be reported to him for misdemeanors, and when any were, he addressed their sense of honor and better nature, rather than their fears, with such effect that they rarely appeared before him again.

In a protracted conversation which I had with him in his own house, about August, 1867, he made no allusion to any of his own great achievements, but seemed rather to avoid topics relating to the late war. He said, however, in connection with the prostrated and impoverished condition of the South that ‘the best hopes of the country rest in the education of the rising generation.’ I use his precise language. The same just sentiment, though in other language, he expressed to me in a letter the previous year. Recent military campaigns in which Prussia was a successful party was a topic introduced by him in the conversation referred to. He attributed her military success to her thorough and admirable system of education, which, he said, was both civil and military and compulsory.


Lee's manners.

General Grant, in his history of his campaigns, says that General Lee's manners were austere and that his soldiers were in awe of him. I consider this statement not correct. His soldiers had a profound respect, even reverence for him, but they all loved him. Several times at critical periods in battles, when Lee proposed to lead them, they refused to charge unless he retired to their rear. I saw him in the winter of 1864-‘65, when riding along our breastworks, stop and shake hands with a plain private who was at work on them with his spade. The man told me he was remembered by Lee, who was formerly acquainted with him. I do not suppose that he looked cheerful and genial when he surrendered men who had stood by him during a four-years' war. It would have been discreditable to him if he had done so. There was no frigidness or austerity in his manners when I knew him. I had opportunity to meet him not only in his own house, but in that of others, and what specially struck me about him was the rare union of dignity and suavity. He rarely forgot any one whom he had ever known, and had the happy faculty of putting his guests at their ease. His manners were always those of a refined gentleman; in his own home they were perfectly charming, and on a number of occasions he showed that he was not destitute of humor. In Lexington, Virginia, which was his home as an educator for five years, he was beloved by all classes, even by the children, of this I had many ocular proofs.

Lee's Unselfishness.

In the early part of 1867, I wrote to General Lee, inquiring whether he would permit the use of his name as a candidate for governor of Virginia, and urging reasons for it. He replied that he would not, because he thought at that time that his candidacy would be injurious to Virginia. I showed Lee's letter to Judge Robert Ould, excommissioner of exchange, and then my associate in the Senate. He immediately took from his desk a letter, recently received from Lee, in reply to an inquiry from him identical with mine and handed it to me. From its perusal I found he based his refusal to Ould on the same ground he did to me. A gentleman—at whose house, in Powhatan county, Va., General Lee stopped while returning from the surrender in Appomattox—told me Lee said to him that many would wonder why he did not make his escape before the surrender, when [362] it was practicable, and gave as a reason why he did not that he was unwilling to separate his fate from men who had fought under him so long. When I recall my old commander, I think not in connection with him of ambitious Caesar, of avaricious Marlborough, of selfish Bonaparte, but rather of the English Hampden and the American Washington, who resembled him in his rare moderation and in exalted virtue. The recent installation of a monument to Lee in Richmond city gives him just now special prominence. I therefore hope that these details, illustrative of particular phases of his character, may not be without interest to many.

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