Robert E. Lee President, Washington College, 1865-1870
Robert Edward Lee was born on Jan. 19, 1807, to Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee III, a hero of the Revolutionary War, and Ann Hill Carter Lee, a member of a prominent Virginia family. He grew up at his birthplace, Stratford Hall, in Westmoreland County, Va., and in Alexandria, Va. He attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., graduating second in his class in 1829. He served in the U.S. Army from 1829 until 1861. As a member of the Army Corps of Engineers, he lived and worked in or near Savannah, Ga., Fort Monroe, Va., Arlington, Va., Washington, D.C., the Ohio and Michigan territories, St. Louis, Mo., Fort Hamilton, N.Y., and Baltimore.
From 1846 to 1848, he earned acclaim for his service in the Mexican War. He had his first taste of administering an educational institution from 1852 to 1855, when he was the superintendent of West Point. He spent 1855-1857 with the 2nd Cavalry in Texas and returned there as acting head of the U.S. Army's Department of Texas from 1860 to 1861. In October 1859, Lee, then a colonel, commanded the U.S. Marines at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., who captured John Brown and his followers.
On April 20, 1861, after Virginia seceded from the Union, Lee resigned from the U.S. Army. Two days later, he accepted command of the Virginia forces that later became part of the Confederate Army. As a Confederate general during the Civil War, Lee advised Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, and then commanded the Army of Northern Virginia. He finally served as general-in-chief of all Confederate forces. He surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865.
Later that year, Lee cautiously accepted the presidency of Washington College. Because of his leadership of the Confederate army, Lee worried he "might draw upon the College a feeling of hostility," but also added that "I think it 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 incorporated the Lexington Law School into the college, encouraged the development of the sciences, and instituted programs in business instruction that led to the founding of the School of Commerce in 1906. He also inaugurated courses in journalism, which developed by 1925 into the School of Journalism (now the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications.) These courses in business and journalism were the first offered in colleges in the U.S. He also established an informal code of conduct that led to today's Honor System. "We have but one rule here," he wrote, "and it is that every student be a gentleman." He oversaw the construction of a chapel that also housed his office, and a new home for him and his family. The former became Lee Chapel, which the University still uses for events and ceremonies and which has a museum. The latter became the Lee House, and the president and his or her family still live there.
Lee died on Oct. 12, 1870, in his home in Lexington. He and his wife, Mary Custis Lee (a great-granddaughter of Martha Washington), parents and children are buried in a mausoleum underneath Lee Chapel. The trustees added his name to the institution soon after his death.