Robert Edward Lee was sixty-three years old when he died on October 12, 1870, in Lexington, Virginia, just one hundred and fifty years ago. He had once been a strikingly handsome man, “a model of all that was noble, honorable, and manly” in the eye of a British visitor to his headquarters in 1862. Eight years later, Lee had aged dramatically. Photographs taken of him that summer capture a tired, stooped posture, deep, exhausted facial lines, and an utter absence of light in his eyes. And no wonder. Lee had begun suffering the first evidences of heart disease as early as June 1860, when he began complaining of pain from “rheumatism.” His health was not improved by the stress of leadership during the Civil War, especially since Lee was fifty-five when he assumed command of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, significantly older than almost all the great campaigners of the nineteenth century (Wellington at Waterloo was forty-six, Ulysses S. Grant at Vicksburg was forty-one, George McClellan was thirty-seven at Antietam). Not surprisingly, Lee suffered a major heart attack in March 1863. Although he recovered to direct an invasion of Pennsylvania that summer, he probably suffered at least one more episode of heart trouble in September of 1863.

For Lee, the war ended on April 9, 1865, when he surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant. There was no prospect of returning to his pre-war home at Arlington, overlooking Washington, D.C., since the Arlington property had been sold for taxes to the United States government, and was in the process of being converted into a national cemetery for the Union war dead. He lived briefly in rented quarters in Richmond, but after he was indicted for treason by a federal jury in Norfolk, he was anxious to put as much distance as possible between himself and any possible legal pursuit, and in August, he accepted the invitation of the trustees of Washington College in far-off Lexington to become the college’s president. He arrived in Lexington in September, and on October 2 he was officially sworn into the presidential office. He was no longer wearing his uniform, only “a military coat divested of all marks of rank; even the military buttons had been removed.”

Lee was an unlikely choice for a college president. He had served for three years as superintendent of his alma mater, the United States Military Academy at West Point, but that position had involved little more than implementing micro-managerial directives from the Army’s Chief Engineer in Washington and writing unsympathetic letters to the parents of cadets who had been dismissed. The glamour of his name, however, sufficed for the Lexington trustees. They did not expect much more. “ ’Tis his name we want,” wrote one of Lee’s former generals to the trustees, “Let the course of studies be determined by a board of professors—not by him.”

“Let the course of studies be determined by a board of professors—not by him.” But Lee had no intention of playing figurehead.

But Lee had no intention of playing figurehead. He undertook a major overhaul of the college’s classical curriculum, insisting Cicero and Ovid would have to share space with practical and vocational subjects. “The fundamental principle of the Collegiate System should be to give to the Commercial, Agricultural & Mechanical Classes the advantages of an education but adapted to their wants,” he explained, and no one in Lexington was prepared to quarrel with General Lee. Above all, Lee was a recruitment magnet. Southerners too young to have enlisted under Marse Robert now had the chance to enroll under him. The student body accordingly swelled from a minuscule seventeen in 1865 to 411 three years later, almost the equal of the University of Virginia. Lee, declared the Richmond Times, had become the college’s “second founder.”

All this came at a cost to Lee’s precarious health. He suffered a third heart attack in the summer of 1867, admitting that “it seems to me if all the sickness I ever had in all my life was put together, it would not equal the attack I experienced.” When he was finally able to return to work, he was so weakened that “the affection in my chest under which I labour, adhesion of the lungs & pleura or whatever it is, incapacitates me from exertion & as yet I cannot walk farther than from my house to the College without pain, & I have to proceed carefully at that.”

Robert E. Lee in 187o, shortly before his death. Photo: Michael Miley.

By the spring of 1870, Lee’s physical decline was becoming noticeable to the faculty, the trustees, and even to the students of the college. “I don’t think I ever saw a man break down more rapidly than he has in the last year,” one student wrote. In March, a faculty committee took matters into its own hands and proposed that he “take at once a journey and a couple of months’ relaxation,” and allow “a professor to attend to his duties during his absence.” The vacation appeared at first to restore him. At the opening faculty meeting in September, he looked so much better that one professor was elated “at the increased prospect that long years of usefulness and honor would yet be added to his glorious life.” But the photographs taken by Michael Miley during the summer told a different tale. On September 28, Lee suffered a stroke, and though he showed signs of improvement, his weakened heart could not support a recovery. He died on the morning of October 12.

Both the former Confederate capital in Richmond and Lee’s own hometown of Alexandria claimed the body for burial. But neither Lexington nor Lee’s wife, Mary Custis Lee, had any intention of allowing Lee’s burial to occur far afield, and Lee’s oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, firmly informed the legislature that “the remains have been committed to the authorities of Washington College.” Lee’s body was dressed in a “simple suit of black,” and since furious rains through the weeks before had made shipment of a coffin from Richmond impossible, a slightly undersized one had to be retrieved for use. The coffined body was carried to the college chapel (which Lee had designed and where he kept his office) by an “escort of honor, consisting of officers and soldiers of the late Confederate army,” followed by Traveller (Lee’s “old gray war horse . . . with saddle and bridle covered with crepe”) and by the trustees, faculty, and students of both Washington College and the nearby Virginia Military Institute. There, the body was watched over by “a students’ guard of honor,” with the coffin “open, allowing mourners to gaze upon the face of their friend, general, and president one last time.”

The trustees met on the day of Lee’s funeral to retitle the college as “Washington and Lee University.”

Lee was buried on October 15 “in a brick vault” in the basement of the chapel, after a public procession that wound from the chapel through the streets of Lexington, “down Washington street and up Jefferson street to Franklin Hall, thence to Main street,” and finally back to the chapel. “Every class, young and old, rich and poor, white and black, turned out to do him honor, for he was the friend of all.” Throughout the town, “the buildings were all appropriately draped, and crowds gathered on corners and in the balconies to see the procession pass.” In a quiet nod to the political realities of Reconstruction, no Confederate flags were in view, and “the old soldiers” in the procession “wore their ordinary citizens’ dress, with a simple black ribbon in the lapel of their coats.” At the chapel, Pendleton read the Episcopal burial service, but “No sermon was preached, it having been the desire of General Lee that there should be none.” As a hymn was sung, the coffin, “literally strewed with flowers, which had to be removed separately,” was interred in the center of the chapel’s basement, under a slab which bore only the inscription, “Gen. Robert Edward Lee, Born Jan 11, 1807 Died Oct 12, 1870.” William Preston Johnston, a member of the College faculty, recalled at the burial the singing of “the 124th hymn of the Episcopal collection,” which, in the 1859 edition of the Episcopal hymnal, was “Lift your glad voices in triumph on high.” But Johnston added that after the interment, “the congregation sang the grand old hymn, ‘How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,’ ” which Johnston claimed “was always a favorite hymn of General Lee’s.” Oddly, “How Firm a Foundation” nowhere appears in that hymnal, or in the supplement published in 1870, nor did Lee in his letters ever refer to any particular preference in hymns.

The trustees were aware of how much the college stood to lose by Lee’s death, and in order to keep Lee’s association with the college as prominent as possible, they met on the day of Lee’s funeral to retitle the college as “Washington and Lee University,” and began deliberating on a “suitable monument” to act as a visible marker for Lee’s remains. Even before Lee was buried, a Lee Memorial Association had been formed in Lexington to obtain such a monument, and within days, Mary Lee had given her approval to a plan to rebuild the apse of the college chapel (which would also be retitled as the “Lee Chapel”) as a mausoleum for her husband’s coffin, with a new crypt on the basement level and an honorific space for the monument on the level above, opening out into the chapel itself. (All of the members of Lee’s immediate family, including his father, the Revolutionary War general “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, would eventually be buried there, too).

Mary Lee’s preference ran to the recumbent sculpture that adorns the tomb of the nineteenth-century King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm III.

The upper level of the new apse was to feature a monument to Lee, a recumbent statue not unlike the tomb effigies of European monarchs. The model for Lee’s face would be a bust of Lee made by a Richmond sculptor, Edward Virginius Valentine, back in the spring of 1870, and Valentine himself was summoned to Lexington as the most logical sculptor for the tomb effigy. Valentine met with the Association in November 1870, armed with a variety of photographs and drawings of historic European funeral statuary. Of them all, Mary Lee’s preference ran to the recumbent sculpture that adorns the tomb of the nineteenth-century King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm III, in Charlottenburg Castle. (This posed no problem for Valentine, since the Charlottenburg tomb effigy had been sculpted by Christian Daniel Rauch, and Valentine had studied under Rauch’s star pupil, August Kiss, in Berlin). Like Lee, Friedrich Wilhelm had resisted a powerful invader; hence, the king’s tomb sculpture shows him in battle dress, dozing under a light blanket, as if ready at any moment for the trumpet’s blast. Valentine proposed to follow this model, down to the exposed boots of both king and general, so that Lee would appear (like the Prussian king) as if “lying asleep on his field cot during the campaigns of the war,” in full Confederate uniform, resting his left hand on a half-hidden sword. The Association wanted no obelisks, no tablets; they wanted an Arthurian figure, ready to awake and lead his people to renewed warfare, and Valentine gave it to them.

The Chapel, ca. 1920, with donated portraits. Photo: W&L Special Collections Archives, Franklin L. Riley Papers 0060.

The Reconstruction South, however, was not flowing with cash, and it took another four-and-a-half years before Valentine completed the commission, in marble. It took eight years more for sufficient funds to be raised by the Association to have J. Crawford Nielson make the alterations needed in the chapel, and not until 1883 could Lee be reburied in the new crypt, and Valentine’s memorial be appropriately installed on the level above, flanked by portraits (of Lee, Washington, Jefferson, and other Southern worthies) rescued from Arlington. Despite Lee’s refusal, in the post-war years, to encourage displays of Southern military nostalgia, in 1930 twelve Confederate battleflags (reminiscent of the flags displayed at Napoleon’s tomb in Les Invalides) were ranged around Valentine’s sculpture.

The dedication ceremonies, in June 1883, were a paean of praise for Lee as the knight-errant of the Lost Cause. In the principal oration, the Confederate veteran and historian John Warwick Daniel declared that, even though an unforgiving Northern government had made Reconstruction into an intolerable burden, Lee had benignly and “thoroughly understood and accepted the situation.” Resigned to defeat, Lee had “realized fully that the war had settled . . . the peculiar issues which had embroiled it.” Nevertheless, the general was nobly determined to share the South’s “humiliation,” and even though he was “indicted for treason . . . never a word of bitterness escaped from him; but, on the contrary, only counsels of forebearance, patience and diligent attention to works of restoration.” Lee became the South’s Christ figure, bearing the South’s cross (for whose “issues” he had done nothing himself to acquire guilt) and urging nothing afterwards but forgiveness for the madmen who had inflicted his, and the South’s, pain.

After all, Lee had committed treason, or at least as close to the Constitutional definition of treason as one could get.

Although the Lee Memorial Association hoped that the Lee Chapel would remake Lexington into a “Mecca, visited by caravans of Summer wanderers, who come to do honor” to Lee, the authority of Lexington’s Lee was quickly usurped by a far more dramatic equestrian Lee statue, designed by Antonin Mercié (a professor of sculpture at the École des Beaux-Arts and the creator of massive statues of Lafayette and Francis Scott Key) and erected in 1890 in Richmond by the rival Lee Monument Association. For more than a century thereafter, controversy over Lee monuments (and other Confederate statuary) foamed around the Richmond statue, leaving Valentine’s Lee and the Lee Chapel mostly untouched. But on August 12, 2017, fanatical factions of Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi thugs clashed in the streets of nearby Charlottesville with black-clad partisans of the “Antifa” Left, leaving one woman dead and the entire nation stunned into silence. Much of the violence in Charlottesville swirled around a twenty-six-foot-high equestrian statue of Lee in one of the city’s parks, and, almost as if the general had become the symbol of a re-energized white supremacy movement, Lee statues in Dallas, Baltimore, and New Orleans—and at the University of Texas and Duke University—were toppled, removed, or defaced. And Lee, at Washington and Lee, would enjoy no exemption.

After all, Lee had committed treason, or at least as close to the Constitutional definition of treason as one could get, and he had done so on behalf of the Confederacy, a cause dedicated to the perpetuation of black slavery. He had, moreover, fought with sufficiently perverse skill to prolong the contest to four years and 750,000 deaths on both sides. He had been a slaveowner, and the manager of slaves, both for the United States government (before the war) and for the Confederacy (during the war), not to mention his serving occasionally as a manager of the slaves of his father-in-law.

Lee pled against the treason charge that the Constitution (at least before the Fourteenth Amendment) left ambiguous which citizenship, that of the United States or Virginia, had the greater call on him. Likewise, the record of Lee the slavemaster is ambiguous. In the pre-war years, he condemned slavery as “a moral & political evil in any country,” even though he never lifted a finger to protest it publicly; he only actually owned one enslaved family in his lifetime (inherited from his mother) and voluntarily emancipated them in 1862; in that same year, he supervised the emancipation of his father-in-law’s slaves, in accordance with the old man’s will; and he advocated the recruitment and emancipation of slaves for service in the Confederate army. Although he made no gesture as president of Washington College to integrate the school, he also reproved white students who planned to terrorize freed blacks in Lexington.

Yet, in a fit of rage, Lee presided over the flogging of three slaves in 1859 who attempted to flee Arlington, and may even have taken the whip in hand himself. His attitude toward blacks in the post-war years was politely disdainful, and he preferred the imposition of some kind of racial segregation as a safeguard against black retaliation for the injuries of slavery. “You will never prosper with the blacks,” he warned his youngest son in 1868. “I wish them no evil in the world—on the contrary, will do them every good in my power.” But it remained “abhorrent to a reflecting mind to be supporting and cherishing those” whom Lee would always suspect of “plotting and working for your injury, and all of whose sympathies and associations are antagonistic to yours.” He was not the worst example of an unrepentant Southerner, but he was not the best, either, and was certainly never repentant.

Once Washington and Lee began to integrate in the 1960s, the abundant Lee imagery on the campus increasingly grated on the sensibilities of black students. In August 2014, students successfully pressed the university to remove the displays of Confederate battle flags from the chapel. Three years later, the echoes of the Charlottesville riot had hardly died away before Washington and Lee’s president, William C. Dudley, announced that, because of the university’s “complex history,” it would be necessary to review how Confederate symbols were displayed there. A year-long self-study made it clear that “Lee, our former president and one of our namesakes, has become a particularly polarizing figure,” and although the recommendations of a twelve-member commission pulled shy of erasing Lee’s name from the institution entirely, they did propose moving official functions away from the Chapel and converting it into a museum, changing all references to Lee from “General” to “President,” and replacing portraits of Lee in uniform with portraits in civilian dress, or else replacing Lee portraits entirely with others “who represent the university’s complete history.” But only two years later, in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the nationwide protests over it, a renewed surge of calls from the faculty demanded the removal of Lee’s name from the university, and a special faculty meeting in July 2020 voted by a resounding 79 percent in favor of the Lee removal motion.

It is unclear at this moment what the future of the Lee name will be at the University, since the final decision lies with the trustees and, ultimately, the Virginia state legislature (which is responsible for the university’s charter). The likelihood of its retention, however, is dim. What this, in turn, will mean for the Lee Chapel and for Valentine’s Lee effigy is even more unpredictable. Although the Floyd protests have involved numerous incidents of statue-toppling and statue defacement, protest gestures have not, at least to this point, involved the removal of tomb statuary or grave desecration. Yet it will be difficult to see how the Lee Chapel and the Valentine memorial can remain, given that they are nagging reminders of the Lee presence at the university. The Lee family in the crypt may also be the object of future removal. Even in their graves, the figures of the Civil War continue to stir us uneasily.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 5, on page 18
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