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Chaplain-in-Chief’s Article

We Could Learn Much from General Robert E. Lee

Ray L. Parker


How firm a foundation you saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in his excellent Word! What more can He say than to you He has said, to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?


"When through fiery trials your pathway shall lie, My grace all-sufficient shall be your supply; the flame shall not hurt you; I only design your dross to consume and your gold to refine.


"The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose I will not, I will not desert to its foes; that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I'll never, no, never, no never forsake!"


--General Robert E. Lee's favorite hymn


The Fiery Trials


1864-1865 were difficult months for Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Federal General Ulysses Grant pressed his advantage in men, material, and munitions. Grant sought to pin the Army of Northern Virginia against the Confederate Capital of Richmond. General Lee's expert military maneuvering stopped Grant's advances each time. Grant, however, with his advantage in numbers pushed Lee a bit farther to the southeast with each assault.

   Eventually General Grant moved his army across the James River to attack Petersburg, Virginia. Lee's army defeated this Federal attempt and entrenched itself at Petersburg. The siege of Petersburg lasted from June 1864 to March 1865. During this siege, General Lee was promoted to General-in-Chief of the Confederate forces (January 31, 1865). 

April 2, 1865 the Federal assault on Petersburg was successful. The loss of Petersburg caused Lee to abandon Richmond and move his army west. Lee's goal was to escape to the southwest and join with Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee in North Carolina and thus continue the struggle for Southern independence. However, General Grant's forces soon surrounded the Army of Northern Virginia. There was no escape for the Confederate forces.

Faced with this indefensible situation, Lee surrendered his forces to General Grant on April 9, 1865. On April 10, Lee issued General Order #9 in which he stated, "After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources ... With an unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your Country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration for myself, I bid you an affectionate farewell."

From April to June 1865 Lee and his family lived in Richmond at the Stewart-Lee House (also known as the Norman Stewart House). Lee's pre-war home in Arlington was confiscated by the Federal Government and never returned to the Lee family. Lee's future at this point was uncertain.

Much of Richmond lay in ruins. Many wandered the streets seeking food and shelter. The agony of defeat burdened each Southerner. Federal troops were much evident in the former Confederate Capital. None in the city, or in the South for that matter, had any certainty about the future. The Confederate government was gone. State governments were non-functioning and eventually would operate but under Federal Military rule. The full force of so-called Reconstruction would soon be the order of the day for the South. The hope of Southern liberty, freedom, justice, and self-determination was "gone with the wind" -- destroyed by the force of Federal bayonets. 

What would the former General-in-Chief of Confederate forces do? What kind of future would this faithful warrior have? What could he do to help the South in this her darkest hour?


God's Grace All Sufficient


Lee's life in Richmond was filled with callers. Many sought his advice and encouragement. In many ways he continued to be the voice of the South -- a voice multitudes wanted to hear. In addition there were offers of employment. Lee's name was iconic in both the North and the South and there were those who wanted to "cash in" on that good name. The Knickerbocker Life Insurance company offered him a job with a salary of $10,000 per year.  This offer as well as most of the employment opportunities did not appeal to the former Confederate General -- but eventually, with the encouragement of friends and family, one offer was accepted.

Washington College, Lexington, Virginia inaugurated Robert E. Lee as its eleventh President on October 2, 1865. In his inaugural address Lee said, "I shall devote my life to training young men to do their duty in life."

Washington College (as any college in the South following the War) would prove to be a challenge for General Lee. By the end of the War the college had only four professors, no money, no credit, and seemingly no future. With this grim reality, the college trustees sought some way to revive the school and help the South recover from the devastation of the War. Borrowing $50 dollars and a suit from a local Lexington citizen, Judge John Brockenbrough, rector of the Board of Trustees set out to Richmond to find Lee and offer him the college presidency. That historic act would have far reaching results even to this day.

Lee was not unfamiliar with higher education, nor unworthy of the position. He graduated from West Point in 1829, second in his class, and was the first to do so without a single demerit. He returned to West Point as its superintendent in 1852, and served in that office until April, 1855.

The coming of Lee to Washington College was a transformation. Historically the College taught the classics. However under Lee's leadership innovative, practical courses were offered. Lee petitioned the Virginia General Assembly for funds to establish studies in chemical, mechanical, and civil engineering, physics, modern languages, history, and literature. He planned for Schools of commerce, agriculture, medicine, law, and journalism. The New York Herald declared that Lee's emphasis on practical education was "likely to make as great an impression upon our old fogy schools and colleges as (the General) did in military tactics upon old fogy commanders in the palmy days of the rebellion."

The Lexington Gazette-Banner newspaper states that there were 359 students enrolled at Washington College by December, 1866. Not only were there students from Southern States but students also registered from the states of Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Kansas, California, and New Jersey. The newspaper also stated that the college had added $71,000 to the permanent endowment of the institution.  This is a remarkable fact considering the number of Southern schools that were unable to even function at the time.

In addition Lee changed the numerous campus rules for student life to one basic principle -- to quote the General, "Young gentlemen, we have no pointed rules here. We have but one rule and that is that every student must be a gentlemen." Lee, of course, as a Christian placed a high priority on truth, honor, courtesy, and civility. Even today the "honor system" continues as the code for the college were Lee served as President.


The Soul that on Jesus Has Leaned for Repose


It was Lee's desire that each student at the college give serious consideration to the claims of Christ. He felt it his highest duty to live his faith and give others opportunity to understand his faith and even to claim his faith. Lee said to the Rev. Dr. W. S. White of Lexington, “I shall be disappointed, sir, I shall fail in the leading object that brought me here, unless these young men become real Christians, and I wish you and others of your sacred calling to do all in your power to accomplish this.” Lee said to the Rev. Dr. Brown, one of the college trustees, "I dread the thought of any student going away from the college without becoming a sincere Christian." Lee said to the Rev. Dr. Kirkpatrick, professor of moral philosophy, "Oh! Doctor, if I could only know that all of the young men in the college were good Christians, I should have nothing more to desire."

In 1867, Lee began construction of a new college chapel. The lower level contained administrative offices, a student center, and a library. President Lee's office was also in the lower level. The upper level, of course, was the Sanctuary of Worship.

Lee was faithful to each chapel service. He sat at the front of the chapel on the left side facing the pulpit area. His was a reserved faith in the Episcopal tradition. His faith sustained him in the conflicts of war and it continued to sustain him in the challenges of an uneasy peace. His Christian faith was truly the anchor of his soul. Robert E. Lee was a devoted follower of Jesus Christ. Lee said, "My chief concern is to try to be an humble, earnest Christian."

General Lee did not believe in forcing students to attend religious services, but he did seek to influence them to do so. Lee said, "The best way that I know to induce students to attend chapel is to set them the example by always attending ourselves."  Each chapel service included singing, reading the Scripture, prayer, and preaching.


I'll Never, no, Never, no Never Forsake


General Robert E. Lee suffered a stroke on September 28, 1870. Two weeks later he died of pneumonia (October 12, 1870) at the President's House on the campus of Washington College. The college trustees almost immediately changed the name of the institution to Washington and Lee, linking Lee's name with Washington's. Lee was buried on the lower level of the chapel he built at Washington and Lee University. His body remains there to this day.


Dr. Ray L. Parker, Chaplain-in-Chief

Sons of Confederate Veterans