Robert E. Lee after the War

Article excerpt

After their army surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, the defeated Confederates returned to their homes to face an uncertain future. The postwar prospects of Robert E. Lee, beloved commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, were no clearer than those of his men. When he left Appomattox, he began a journey that would take him away from a soldier's life in the field and eventually to Lexington, where his talent for leadership would serve him well as president of a small college.

Lee's military career, which had started at West Point many years before, had ended, and his civilian life began when he returned to Richmond and his family on 15 April. For the next two months Lee lived in a city busily rebuilding itself. That summer, he and his family escaped the chaotic atmosphere of the capital city and took up residence at Derwent, a house owned by Elizabeth Randolph Cocke west of Richmond in Powhatan County. There, Lee enjoyed life in the country and considered buying land and living out his remaining years as a farmer. Whatever happened, he had no desire to leave Virginia. "I cannot desert my native state in the hour of her adversity," he remarked to a friend. "I must abide her fortune, and share her fate."

The solitude did not last long. The trustees of Washington College in Lexington, then looking for a new president, decided that Lee was the perfect choice. He had been superintendent of West Point earlier in his military career, and more importantly, he had a very recognizable name in 1865. The college, mired in financial difficulties, needed a prominent person to help raise funds. At first Lee hesitated, but on the advice of friends and family he eventually accepted the position. He wrote to the trustees that he believed, "it is the duty of every citizen, in the present condition of the Country, to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony."

Lee arrived in Lexington in mid-September 1865 and went to work immediately. Over the next five years, Washington College grew physically and financially: the faculty increased in size from four to twenty, enrollment grew from 50 to nearly 400 students, and financial contributions poured in from both southern and northern sources. …