Lee’s last years: What you didn’t learn from PBS

Ray Hartwell Contributor
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Yesterday, January 19th, was Robert E. Lee’s birthday. As we approach the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, we’ll hear a great deal about Lee the commander of the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia. Sadly, I suspect that we’ll not hear enough about Lee the educator, the rebuilder, the advocate for reconciliation in a broken nation.

This suspicion was confirmed recently when PBS aired a piece on Lee’s life as a part of its “American Experience” series. As PBS tells it, following the War a defeated Lee “hid himself away at the presidency of a small college in the mountains of western Virginia.” There, Lee paid public lip service to “reunion and reconciliation” but remained privately unrepentant and resentful. “In death, as in life,” we’re instructed, Lee “divided the nation.”

This portrayal of Lee by PBS is both inaccurate and incomplete, although consistent with a media narrative that will never give more than the most grudging respect to either military leaders or Southerners. Indeed, the inaccuracies in the presentation were hardly limited to Lee’s last years, although that is the focus of this article.

Especially today, when our media elites profess to be concerned about civility and reconciliation, it’s unfortunate PBS did not consider suitable for public consumption information about Lee’s actions and accomplishments at that “small college in the mountains.” For, in fact, far from hiding himself away after Appomattox, in his final years Lee left a remarkable, lasting legacy for Washington and Lee University and for the nation.

In the spring of 1865, higher education throughout the South was — like much else — in complete disarray. Many schools had closed during the war. Washington College, in Lexington, Virginia, remained open but was hanging by a thread. A raid in 1864 by General David Hunter wrought havoc in the town, and occupation of the college by federal troops had damaged buildings, scattered the library, and destroyed equipment.

In August 1865, the Trustees of the College met to determine how to restore the school to health. They resolved to ask federal forces to vacate their buildings. And, in an even bolder move and unbeknownst to him, they unanimously elected Robert E. Lee president of the college. Lee was offered a salary of $1,500 per year, plus the use of a house and a small plot on which to grow vegetables. Rejecting offers originating in New York and London, and many times more lucrative, Lee accepted and moved to the small town of Lexington.

In the history of American higher education, retired military officers have not been notably successful as college presidents. Lee proved an exception to this rule. And one of his several major contributions was in the design of an innovative curriculum, far more practical in its content than the classical course of study then prevalent at colleges and universities across the land.

As one commentator on Lee’s presidency of Washington College put it, Lee presided over “a remarkable and unprecedented transformation of the institution’s educational program.” Just three weeks after his installation, the Board of the College approved Lee’s recommendations for a new curriculum, introducing new course offerings in a range of subjects, including mechanical and civil engineering, metallurgy and the chemical aspects of mining, architecture and building materials, and even modern languages.

In addition, and of particular interest today, Lee’s experience in the Mexican War and in Texas had persuaded him that Americans should understand the Spanish language and the culture of Latin America. Thus, under his leadership, Washington College became among the first of the nation’s institutions of higher learning to offer not only an engineering curriculum, but also Spanish as a foreign language.

Lee also brought schools of journalism (with a course in photography) and law into Washington College, and founded an undergraduate school of business. These courses, like the engineering offerings, were variations on Lee’s central theme: that colleges and universities should provide young citizens with an education that will enable them to have productive careers. This was all of a piece with Lee’s focus on rebuilding — and reunifying — our war-torn nation.

The curricular changes that emerged under Lee’s leadership were impressive, and attracted national attention. By the time of his death, as historian Charles Bracelen Flood put it, Lee “was entitled to a position in the first rank of American educators, without reference to his military past.”

Lee’s innovative achievements as an educator were complemented by the moral leadership he provided, both for students and for his admirers and former soldiers. His curricular reforms aimed at producing graduates prepared to play productive roles in society. Yet he embraced as well the mission of conveying to the campus community a commitment to honesty, civility, and integrity, to a code of honorable conduct that, for him, formed an integral part of liberal learning, and of living.

In the wake of a terrible war, both publicly and in private, Lee urged his students and all fellow Southerners to abandon their animosities and make their children Americans. Had he been a lesser man, more possessed of vanity than of humility and dedication to the country he again called his own, Lee could have chosen a different path that would have prolonged the nation’s agony.

In sum, Lee’s prior experiences, including his less-celebrated roles as an army engineer and as superintendent of the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, laid a foundation for his truly visionary work as an educator. Moreover, contrary to what PBS would have us believe, in the final years of his life, Lee was an active advocate for reconciliation and rebuilding.

Today, at what is now Washington and Lee University, one finds the country’s only liberal arts college that boasts schools of commerce, journalism, and law, along with other pre-professional offerings embedded in the liberal arts curriculum. A strong campus culture, mindful that character matters, emphasizes civility, integrity, and honesty as core values not to be compromised.

PBS notwithstanding, these virtues of a fine school all trace their origins to the very productive college presidency of Robert E. Lee.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in The Richmond Times-Dispatch on January 19, 2011.)

Ray Hartwell is a Navy veteran and a Washington lawyer, as well as a Trustee Emeritus of Washington and Lee University. He can be reached at rayhartwell@rocketmail.com.

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Ray Hartwell