Matthew B. Wills

Matthew B. Wills

The Removal of Robert E. Lee’s Name from the Lee Chapel at Washington & Lee University

Matthew B. Wills

Matthew Wills is an erstwhile lawyer who has turned to historical writing. His latest book was a biography of a captain in the British Royal Navy, which led to an invitation for him to write for the Naval Review magazine. He grew up in Tennessee.

On 4 June, 2021, the Board of Trustees of Washington & Lee University (W&L) by a 26 to 6 vote announced that the university would continue under its current name. What is far more difficult to understand was its simultaneous decision to remove Robert E. Lee’s name from the Chapel.

In its message to the W&L community distributed on its website, the board referred to its action concerning the Lee Chapel with the following unconvincing words:

“Lee Chapel will be renamed ‘University Chapel’ in keeping with its original 19th century name of ‘College Chapel.’ The board will oversee and approve interior changes to restore its unadorned design and will physically separate the auditorium from the Lee family crypt and Lee memorial sculpture.”

The regrettable message this sends to the W&L Community and to all future generations of students and faculty is that Robert E. Lee was an infamous Virginian who never deserved a chapel named in his memory. To drive home the point, the board in the very next paragraph announced that Founders Day, traditionally held on January 19, Lee’s birthday, would be discontinued.

The Board of Trustees’ decision is at best incomprehensible, and at worst malicious. No serious person has ever suggested that the Lee Chapel was a shrine to the Confederacy. For Lee, who was deeply involved in the design and construction of the new chapel, this beautiful building was a sanctuary for the worship of God. Any suggestion that Lee wanted the chapel as a shrine to himself is so absurd that it requires no further comment.

There are three important references to this chapel in the abridgement to Douglas Southall Freeman’s four-volume biography of Lee; each reveals Lee’s involvement in the new chapel and his strong Christian faith.

“Following Lee’s inauguration as president of Washington College on October 2nd, 1865, he quickly established a routine of duty. Rising early at the Lexington Hotel, where he resided until the arrival of his family, he proceeded afoot to the college. Before 7:45 he was at chapel for the 15-minute services, which he invited the ministers of the principal Lexington churches to hold in rotation.”[1]

These 15-minute services took place in the old chapel. In 1866, the Board of Trustees felt the need to construct a new chapel. “A new chapel was authorized at a cost not to exceed $10,000.”[2] The most revealing reference to Lee’s involvement with this new chapel reads:

“The Trustees, at General Lee’s insistence, had put first among the construction projects of the college the creation of the new chapel. General Lee devoted himself to building the structure economically and within the allowed appropriation. With Custis’s assistance, he gave to it daily supervision and the experience gained in dealing with labor when he had been an army engineer.”[3]

His son, General George Washington Custis Lee, was then an engineering professor at the Virginia Military Institute.

While Lee invariably attended Sunday worship services, compulsory chapel attendance was abolished by him at the close of his first year at the college.

“He was always anxious that the students should be present and he sought various ways of assuring this. He was always at the chapel himself, sitting in the same place, next to the wall on the north side of the new building, in the second pew from the front.”[4]

Considering Lee’s total support of the appropriation for this new chapel, his close supervision of its construction, and his worship there every Sunday, the removal of his name from the chapel was mean-spirited. Many Christians will consider the removal of Lee’s name from the chapel as heresy, for at least three reasons. Lee was a self-proclaimed Christian; his whole life reflected Christian virtues; and Lee was instrumental in the design and construction of this chapel.

In all the years since Lee’s death on October 12, 1870, countless Americans and many visitors from abroad have journeyed to Lexington just to see the Lee Chapel. In 1985, Tim Mulligan visited Lee Chapel while doing research for his forthcoming book, Virginia A History & Guide. Mulligan was a sophisticated New Yorker who was educated at Phillips Academy, Andover, Yale, and the University of Paris. He wrote this about the chapel. It was, “Surely one of the more endearing Victorian Chapels in this country. . . ”[5] George Washington had endowed the college with a gift of $50,000 in stock of the James River Canal Company. Robert E. Lee had served the college for exactly five years as president. He was greatly involved in the design and construction of the chapel. Mulligan felt that it was totally appropriate to place portraits and sculptures of these two icons within the chapel. At the far end of the chapel, there was a statue of a recumbent Lee asleep on the battlefield. Of this statue Mulligan wrote: “It is, I think, exactly the right tribute. Lee was totally devoid of pretension, and a statue of him in a heroic pose would have struck a jarring note, particularly in this place”.[6]

Mulligan described Washington’s portrait as follows:

“. . . to the left of the statue (of Lee) is a wonderful portrait — the first — of Washington, by Charles Willson Peale, painted in 1772. In it, Washington wears the uniform of a colonel in the British army”. [7]

Mulligan’s appreciation for a portrait of Lee by William Edward West speaks for itself:

“The Lee Portrait, painted in 1838 in Baltimore, shows him in full-dress uniform and clearly demonstrates why he was known not only as the handsomest man in the army, but also as ‘the model soldier and the beau-ideal of a Christian man.’ Young and vital he is indeed in this superb portrait, that also shows us eyes expressing intense intelligence, and dignity, and even a certain wry humor. A revealing and discerning depiction of one of our country’s greatest heroes.”[8]

If the Lee Chapel had contained any art that suggested a shrine to “The Lost Cause,” Mulligan would have immediately noticed. He did not because there was nothing of the sort there.

The Board of Trustees has done Robert E. Lee a grave injustice. Its decision to remove his name from the chapel was done apparently to appease groups like Black Lives Matter, whose hatred for Lee, his family, and his admirers has no end. Their hatred undoubtedly extends to two of Virginia’s greatest Civil War historians, Douglas Southall Freeman (1886 - 1953) and James I. Robertson, Jr. (1930 - 2019). Freeman’s classic biography of Lee in four volumes, entitled R. E. Lee, won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. He also wrote Lee’s Lieutenants, in three volumes. It too is considered a classic. While Lee’s life has always been surrounded by mystique, Freeman’s assessment of him was based on solid, exhaustive research. He had completed R. E. Lee in 1934. Five years later, he commenced research on Lee’s Lieutenants. This gave him the opportunity to reassess Lee through the eyes of his lieutenants. Freeman’s final conclusion is found in the introduction to volume three of Lee’s Lieutenants, which reads as follows:

“When seen through the eyes of his subordinates as certainly as when one looked at him across the table in his tent, he is a great soldier and a great man. Twenty year’s study of him confirms and deepens every conviction of that.”[9]

Robertson taught history at Virginia Tech for 44 years. In addition to other Civil War books, he wrote three books about Jackson. Their titles are Stonewall Jackson The Man, The Soldier, The Legend; Standing Like a Stonewall, the Life of General Thomas J. Jackson; and Jackson & Lee: Legends in Gray. The first of the aforesaid books is the definitive biography of Jackson.

These historians would disdain the efforts of Black Lives Matter and Antifa to demonize Lee. They would find the action of the Board of Trustees in removing Lee’s name from the chapel egregious. Freeman and Robertson were highly respected throughout Virginia and far beyond. At Virginia Tech, Robertson was cherished by his colleagues in the history department. Robertson reciprocated their affection, writing:

“To William C. Davis, Gary W. Gallagher, Joseph T. Glatthaar, Grady McWhiney, and Emory M. Thomas — colleagues who annually gather on the New River to dissect history and one another — I express deepest thanks most of all for their friendship.”[10]

While Robertson is best known as an authority on Jackson, he had a profound interest in Robert E. Lee. Robertson wrote of the two of them as follows:

“In the pantheon of American soldiers, none stands taller than Generals Robert Edward Lee and Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. They now seem larger than life. When considering Lee and Jackson, eyes seem to lift. So does the mind. The very words these men used — Gentleman, Duty, Valor, Honor — have a quaint sound in these times because they have become unfamiliar terms. People who say that Lee and Jackson did not really exist make that statement because no one like them exists now.”[11]

How will Freeman and Robertson be treated in the years ahead by Washington & Lee? Will they be denounced as racists? Will their books be banished from W&L’s library? Will W&L students be instructed not to read their greatest books? These are hard questions, but in the vitriolic America of today, they are not irrelevant.

Regardless of any further actions by the trustees of Washington & Lee University to downgrade their revered former president, in the long reach of history, Lee will always be a great soldier, and a great man. Military historians of the future will treat Stonewall Jackson with the respect that he deserves. Douglas Southall Freeman and James I. Robertson Jr. will remain the definitive biographers of Lee and Jackson for the foreseeable future.



[1] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee: An Abridgment in One Volume (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961) P. 523.

[2] Ibid, P. 528.

[3] Ibid, P. 532

[4] Ibid, P. 530

[5] Mulligan, Tim, Virginia: A History and Guide, (New York: Random House, 1986) P. 101

[6] Ibid, P. 102

[7] Ibid, P. 103

[8] Ibid

[9] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command, volume 3, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944) P. XXV.

[10] Robertson, James, I. Jr., Stonewall Jackson The Man, The Soldier, The Legend (New York, London, Mexico City, New Delhi, Singapore, Sydney, Toronto: MacMillan Publishing USA, 1997) P. XX.

[11] Robertson, James I. Jr. (paintings by Mort Kunstler) Jackson & Lee: Legends in Gray (Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1995) P. 9.     *

General T. J. Jackson — Better Known as “Stonewall”


Matthew B. Wills

Matthew Wills is an erstwhile lawyer who has turned to historical writing. His latest book was a biography of a captain in the British Royal Navy, which led to an invitation for him to write for the Naval Review magazine. He grew up in Tennessee.


Thomas J. Jackson was born at Clarksburg, Virginia, on January 21, 1824. Early in his life, young Jackson experienced the greatest tragedies any child can face, the loss of both parents. While Jackson’s young years were unbearably lonely, he made the most of his opportunities. He was always diligent in performing the tasks with which he was entrusted. This trait undoubtedly was a factor in his appointment to West Point.

Following graduation from West Point, Jackson joined his regiment shortly before it was sent to Mexico, where the United States was at war. During this conflict, he first met Robert E. Lee. His record in that war is well summarized in the 1975 New Encyclopaedia Britannica as follows: “. . . it was here that Jackson first exhibited the qualities for which he later became famous: resourcefulness, the ability to keep his head, bravery in the face of enemy fire.”

After the Mexican War ended, Jackson found that the peacetime army failed to give him sufficient challenges. When the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington, Virginia, offered him a position on its faculty, he accepted with alacrity. For 10 years he taught VMI cadets natural and experimental philosophy (now called physics) and artillery tactics.

During his first year, Jackson, who cadets called “Tom Fool,” “Hickory,” and “Old Jack,” was not overly popular. Many of his charges felt he was too strict and too eccentric. Furthermore, his accent was like that of an Allegheny mountain man. Their reservations about him would change for the better. Just before graduation, Cadet Leigh W. Reid composed poems about four of his professors. Three of them were decidedly derogatory. His poem about Major Jackson reads:

Like some rough brute that ranged the forest wild

So rude — uncouth, so purely Nature’s child

Is Hickory, and yet methinks I see

The stamp of genius on his brow and he

With his wild glance and keen but quiet eye

Can draw forth from the secret sources where they lie

Those thoughts of feelings of the human heart

Most virtuous, good and free from guilty art

There is something in his very mode of life

So accurate, steady, void of care or strife

That fills my heart with love of him who bears

His honors meekly and who wears

The laurels of a hero — This is fact

So here’s a heart & hand of mine for Jack.

After a few years at VMI, Jackson married Eleanor Junkin, the daughter of Rev. George Junkin, president of Washington College. Eleanor’s death in childbirth ended their very happy marriage. Jackson sought solace in his faith in God. Every Sunday, without fail, he worshipped at the Lexington Presbyterian church. For the rest of his life Jackson looked to God for guidance in every aspect of his life. Among his Christian endeavours was a Sunday school founded for slaves of all ages.

On the outbreak of the Civil War, Jackson did not hesitate to offer his services to the State of Virginia. April 21, 1861, remains a dramatic date in VMI history. On that day, major Thomas J. Jackson and his faculty colleague, Raleigh E. Colston, led the Corps of Cadets to war. Jackson and Colston were on horseback. The cadets marched in a column of two. One of them proudly carried the VMI flag.

Jackson was then 37 years of age. He was just short of 6 feet tall. He was of medium build. His hands were large. His feet were huge. His eyes were dark blue. He looked at everyone with a piercing gaze. On occasion, his glance could be fierce.

Jackson’s military campaigns have been thoroughly covered by historians. One of those was Bruce Catton, a Northern historian, who described the moment in the Battle of First Manassas where Jackson earned the nickname “Stonewall”:

“Then came a dramatic moment to live in legend, giving the American story one of its unforgettable names. Of the 6,000 Confederate soldiers on this broad hilltop, at least half had lost their organization and were out of the fight, only Jackson’s brigade and Wade Hampton’s South Carolinians remained in line. Waiting for the final onslaught General Bee was trying desperately to reorganize his men, all of his field officers were down, and he seemed to command no more than a fragment, and he rode to Jackson and said despairingly, ‘General they are beating us back.’ Wholly unperturbed, Jackson replied: ‘Sir, we will give them the bayonet.’ Bee rode off through the smoke to an unwieldy tangle of stragglers, stood erect in his stirrups and gestured with his sword at the solidity of Jackson’s brigade, ‘Look’ he shouted. ‘There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Rally behind the Virginians!’”

Later in the war, after he had become very famous, Jackson insisted that the nickname really belonged to his brigade, rather than to himself; it was the firmness of the men in the ranks, he said, that saved the day on the Henry House Hill.

In the spring of 1862, Jackson was assigned the task of defending the lower Shenandoah Valley and diverting Union forces from McClellan’s campaign to capture Richmond. It was a difficult, almost impossible, assignment. The North had four armies seeking Jackson’s destruction. General Banks was advancing up the valley from his main supply base at Winchester. General Frémont was endeavouring to create an army in Franklin, from whence he could advance on a circuitous route over Bull Pasture Mountain to attack Jackson from the west.

Just to the east of The Blue Ridge, two other Northern armies under General Shields and General McDowell were in position to move through Manassas Gap and Rockfish Gap as needed.

In late May, Jackson first struck part of Frémont’s force and drove them. The other wing of Jackson’s small army grappled furiously with the advance guard of Shield’s force at Port Republic. Stonewall and his foot cavalry then disappeared behind Massanutten Mountain. On May 23, Jackson reappeared. He first overran the garrison at Front Royal, capturing 1,000 prisoners and valuable supplies. He then headed toward Winchester with the object of cutting Banks off from his supply base and destroying Bank’s entire force. Banks was able to reach Winchester ahead of Jackson, but then lost the ensuing battle. His disorganized army rapidly fled north of the Potomac.

Jackson wrote his wife the following day: “The people seemed nearly frantic with joy. . . . Our entrance into Winchester was one of the most stirring scenes of my life.” He did not mention that his army of no more than 17,000 poorly equipped soldiers still faced combined Union armies of 65,000. Beginning June 17, Jackson extricated his army from the valley by crossing The Blue Ridge at Rock Fish Gap. They would then reinforce Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia south of Richmond.

Douglas Southall Freeman’s biography of R. E. Lee received a Pulitzer Prize. He also wrote Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command, published in 1942. It contains insights into Jackson’s character that are little known. Jackson respected the loyalty and bravery of slaves who went to war with their masters. Freeman reveals an incident toward the end of the Valley campaign, best told in Freeman’s own words:

“It probably was this evening, June 5, by (General) Taylor’s fireside that Jackson showed a side of his nature seldom observed in the Army. As the two officers talked, Tom Struthers, the black manservant of Taylor, came up to the fire to bring his master some coffee. Tom never spoke unless addressed and consequently did not greet the guest by Taylor’s side. No sooner did Jackson see Tom then he got up, shook the Negro’s hand and without a word sat down again.

“Taylor, of course, asked why Jackson paid this special honor to Tom, whom he has seen many times previously. The General explained. On June 1, he said, when Taylor was fighting west of Strasburg he had come upon Tom in an exposed position and had told the Negro he should go to a place of safety. Tom had thanked him but had said that General Taylor had directed him to stay there and, if the General pleased, he would do so. Jackson did not intend that this act of fidelity should go unnoticed.”

The story of Jackson’s death following the Battle of Chancellorsville has been told often, but it bears repeating. On May 2nd, 1863, at the moment of victory, Jackson had ridden forward to organize the pursuit of the retreating Union Army. In the darkness, he was mistaken for the enemy and shot by a soldier from a North Carolina regiment. His wound was serious, but not mortal; however, after his left arm was amputated he developed pneumonia. His dying words were, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” He was 39 years of age.

Jackson would have been proud of the VMI cadets at the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864. The Confederate forces were heavily outnumbered by Union troops led by General Franz Sigel, a German immigrant, but the Southern forces had the much better general, John C. Breckinridge, a former Vice President of the United States. His command included the Cadet Corps of VMI, some as young as 15. These cadets made the last charge at Sigel’s Center — “They fought brilliantly, captured prisoners and a cannon, and helped ensure the final victory. They lost 10 of their fellows that day.”

One of those cadets, Moses Ezekiel, became an acclaimed sculptor. He created the eight-foot bronze statue of Jackson that for decades held a place of honor across from the Jackson Arch, the entrance into the VMI Cadet barracks.

In 2020 this statue and all of Jackson’s other statues in Virginia became the subject of bitter controversy. Virginia’s Democrat governor, Ralph Northam, ordered the removal of the statues of Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet on Monument Avenue in Richmond to appease radical groups including Black Lives Matter and Antifa.

At the beginning of 2020, VMI had extraordinary leadership. Superintendent, General J. H. B. Peay III, Class of 1962, was starting his 17th year as superintendent. Before his appointment as superintendent, he had a highly distinguished Army career. In 1991 he had commanded the 101st Airborne in Desert Storm. On March 26, 1993 he was promoted to a four-star general. His awards included the Silver Star, the Bronze Star medal with three oak leaf clusters and the Purple Heart. He loved VMI and a large part of the VMI family reciprocated his feelings. General Peay was beholden to no one, including Governor Northam; however, the governor decided to use his position to force General Peay to resign. Northam informed the general that he had lost confidence in him and held him responsible for alleged racism at VMI. It is virtually certain that Governor Northam had previously demanded that Jackson’s statue be removed from its location on the main VMI campus. General Peay resigned as superintendent on October 26, 2020. It is probable he did so to protect VMI’s name.

Even though the governor lacked the power to remove Jackson’s statue or to eradicate his name from Jackson Memorial Hall or from The Jackson Arch, VMI’s Board of Visitors felt compelled to act swiftly to deescalate the crisis. They decided to relocate Jackson’s statue to the grounds of the Virginia Museum of the Civil War at the site of The Battle of New Market. The museum and the entire battlefield are part of VMI. Their decision may not have pleased all of VMI’s alumni; however, there is reason to believe that Jackson’s statue is now safe from destruction and that his place in history will continue to be honored by VMI.

General of the Army George C. Marshall was among VMI’s greatest graduates. His three-volume biography by Forrest C. Pogue is unsurpassed. Over a period of more than eight months in 1956 and 1957, Pogue had 25 sessions with Marshall. Forty hours of these sessions were taped. Pogue understood better than any other scholar Marshall’s views on Lee and Jackson. Pogue wrote as follows:

“The Lee Chapel, a few hundred yards from the limits of VMI, held his remains and was at least as much a shrine for the cadets as the university students (Washington and Lee students). For Marshall, both Jackson and Lee were inspiring figures — both great and austere generals, the one an infantry commander of fanatic drive, the other a soldier-statesman whose brilliance in war was capped by his demonstration in peace of how a general could live honourably and constructively in defeat.”

In 1987 the Department of History at the United States military academy at West Point, New York, published a book entitled The Civil War. Its text had been available to cadets 10 years earlier. Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson had been authentic heroes for generations of Southerners. The four co-authors in the Department of History treated Lee and Jackson not as heroes, but as authentically great commanders who won major battles against Union armies that were much larger and far better equipped.

      Their introduction of General Lee reads:

“Perhaps the most significant outcome of the battle (of Fair Oaks) occurred as a result of the two wounds that Joseph E. Johnston suffered near the end of the day. He was sufficiently immobilized to cause Jefferson Davis to appoint a new commander for the army: his own military adviser, Robert E. Lee. The quiet unpretentious Virginian took command of Johnston’s forces on June 1, the first step in the beginning of a career that was to become a legend in the history of the Civil War.”

The West Point historians’ introduction of General Jackson also informs the reader of his famous Valley Campaign in the Shenandoah Valley. It reads:

“When Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson was promoted to Major General after the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) and assigned to command the Valley District in November 1861, he took over a small body of militia that would form the nucleus of what would become the most effective secondary efforts in the history of the war. The activity of ‘Stonewall’ Jackson in his famous Valley campaign had a profound effect on the major struggle between McClellan and Johnston’s armies on the peninsula, and also serves as an instructive model of the superb use of manoeuvre and economy of force.”

Jackson was a corps commander under Lee in four major victories for the Army of Northern Virginia: The Seven Days Campaign, June 25 through July 1, 1862; 2nd Manassas, August 29-30, 1862; Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862; and Chancellorsville, May 1-4, 1863. Their relationship was extremely close. Lee implicitly trusted Jackson’s judgment. Most historians agree that Chancellorsville represented Lee’s and Jackson’s greatest victory. In that battle, Lee divided his army twice in the face of a larger Union army under the command of Major General Joseph Hooker. Before Jackson’s unexpected attack from behind Hooker’s right flank, the Union general had already lost the initiative to Lee. The West Point historians give their readers a foretaste of the battle to come with their accurate description of Jackson:

“When Jackson awoke on April 30, he watched the Federal troops on Stafford Heights and to his immediate front. He was all soldier now, an aggressive, fierce, belligerent corps commander, eager to fight.”

These West Point historians give generous credit to Lee for this victory, writing:

“Lee’s battlefield brilliance was never more in evidence than during the Chancellorsville campaign. He was truly at his best.”

What was written in this volume of The West Point Military History Series about Lee and Jackson was for the benefit of cadets of the United States Military Academy, but because of its fairness and objectivity, this Civil War history could well have been written for the cadets of the Virginia Military Institute.

As previously mentioned, the greatest World War II general, George C. Marshall, was inspired by Jackson. There is little doubt that generations of VMI graduates have been inspired by Jackson. It is impossible to quantify the number of West Point graduates who have been inspired by Jackson, but it is clear that its history department considered him a great commander.

Freeman’s two-volume work, Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command, remains a classic. It will never be replaced, but it has been complemented by another Virginia historian. James I. Robertson, Jr., was an alumnus and a distinguished Professor of History of Virginia Tech. Freeman and Robertson seemed destined to write the finest biographies of Lee and Jackson.

Robertson was a native of Danville, Virginia. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Randolph-Macon College in 1955 and his master’s degree and Ph.D. at Emory University in 1956 and 1959. Robertson taught at the University of Iowa, George Washington University, and the University of Montana before commencing a 44-year career in the history department of Virginia Tech. At Virginia Tech, he taught the only full-year course in Civil War history in the nation. In all, more than 22,000 students took his Civil War classes.

Robertson, wrote or edited more than 40 books. His works included three about General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson: Jackson and Lee Legends in Gray (1995); Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend (1997); Standing Like a Stone Wall: The Life of General Thomas J. Jackson (2001). His 1997 biography of Jackson was the basis for the 2003 feature film “Gods and Generals,” for which Robertson served as historical adviser. Among academic historians, he was considered the preeminent scholar on Jackson.

Robertson died in Richmond, Virginia on November 2, 2019. He left a legacy as a great teacher at Virginia Tech and as a great Civil War historian. Perhaps his finest book was Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend.

One of Robertson’s many memorable passages can be found in his introduction to Jackson and Lee: Legends in Gray.

“In the Pantheon of American soldiers, none stand taller than Generals Robert Edward Lee and Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. They now seem larger than life. When considering Lee and Jackson, eyes seem to lift. So does the mind. The very words those men used — “gentleman,” “duty,” “valor,” “honor” — have a quaint sound in these times because they have become unfamiliar terms. People who say that Lee and Jackson did not really exist make that statement because no one like them exists now.”

Robertson’s words are profound. College students of today, many of whom know little of their own country’s history, would do well to ponder them.

The politicians in Virginia can remove Jackson and Lee’s statues and mobs like Black Lives Matter and Antifa can spray-paint obscenities on them. Neither the politicians nor the mobs can erase history. Lee and Jackson will always be remembered as great commanders. They will inspire countless future cadets at VMI. They may well inspire future military leaders who have read Douglas Southall Freeman and James I. Roberson Jr.     *

Wednesday, 09 December 2020 11:06

Robert E. Lee, Virginian

Robert E. Lee, Virginian

Matthew B. Wills

Mathew Wills is an erstwhile lawyer who has turned to historical writing. His latest book was a biography of a captain in the British Royal Navy, which led to an invitation for him to write for the Naval Review magazine. He grew up on a farm in Tennessee.

For well over 100 years, Robert E. Lee’s reputation as a great general of noble character has stood the test of time. Douglas Southall Freeman wrote R. E. Lee: A Biography in four volumes. It was widely acclaimed upon its publication in 1934. Freeman’s work won a Pulitzer Prize. Freeman would go on to win a second Pulitzer Prize for his biography of George Washington. His biography of Lee was, perhaps, the greater work. Washington was somewhat of a remote historical figure. Lee was more real. Freeman was born on May 16, 1886, in Lynchburg, Virginia, a city not far from Appomattox. He was the son of Walter Burford Freeman, who had fought in the Army of Northern Virginia, and who would have seen Lee many times.

It was essential for Freeman to give an enormous amount of thought and study to understanding Lee’s character. Clearly, he did so. In his foreword, he reveals his unquestionable admiration for Lee as a man:

“Prolonged as my investigation has been and puzzling as some of its problems have appeared to be, I have been fully repaid by being privileged to live, as it were, for more than a decade in the company of a great gentleman. A biographer can ask no richer compensation.”

In 1958, Sir Winston Churchill published the fourth and final volume of his A History of The English Speaking Peoples, entitled The Great Democracies. He had studied the American Civil War in minute detail and had visited some of the most important battlefields. His book describes the course of that conflict in vintage Churchillian prose. Of Robert E. Lee, he wrote, “(Lee) was one of the noblest Americans who ever lived and one of the greatest captains known to the annals of war.”

The Encyclopedia Britannica was founded in 1768. Its 15th edition was published in 1975. In its Macropaedia component, it devoted two full pages to Robert E. Lee. The concluding paragraph reads:

“Although history knows him mostly as ‘The Rebel General,’ Lee was a disbeliever in slavery and succession and was devoutly attached to the republic that his father and his kinsmen had helped bring into being. He was, moreover, very advanced in his rejection of war as a resolution of political conflicts — a fact that has been almost entirely ignored by posterity. As a U.S. Army Colonel in Texas during the secession crisis of late 1860, he wrote, ‘(If) strife and Civil War are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, I will mourn for my country and for the welfare and progress of mankind.’”

In its bibliography to the Lee article, the Encyclopedia states that Freeman’s work is the definitive biography of Lee.

In the first decade of this century, Lee was still treated as a great man. Chambers Biographical Dictionary was first published in 1897 in London. Its 8th edition was published in 2007. Chamber’s biographical summary of Lee’s life is entirely favorable. In the subtitle, the writer for Chambers calls Lee “one of the greatest of the Confederate generals,” and in the body of the summary states “Lee’s achievements are central to the history of the American Civil War.”

Regrettably, in recent years there are those who want to destroy Lee’s heretofore stellar reputation for their own political agenda. The most visible sign of this revisionism has been the actions of some city councils to remove or destroy monuments honoring Lee. Virginia’s democrat governor, Ralph Northam, a Democrat, plans to remove perhaps the most famous statue of Lee ever cast. More than 100,000 spectators attended the 1890 dedication of this equestrian statue of Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond. The governor is supported by two radical groups, Black Lives Matter and Antifa. Both of these groups want all future historians to denounce Lee for his adherence to the Southern cause and for leading the Army of Northern Virginia in its greatest battles. It is worth noting that these same radicals are responsible for destroying statues of such disparate historical figures as Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Theodore Roosevelt.

There are those who want to teach schoolchildren that Lee was an evil person. They are defaming an honorable man. It is hard to find anyone in our history whose life reflected more rectitude and grace than his. Because his parents lacked the funds to send him to a university, Lee applied for and received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He would graduate from West Point second in his class. The most coveted of West Point honors was the office of corps adjutant. The adjutant of the corps for 1828 - 29 was Robert E. Lee of Virginia.

At West Point Lee, had shown great promise as a future regular army officer but the ultimate test for every army officer is the crucible of war. In the Mexican War, Captain Lee proved that he could lead men in battle. His leadership and valor did not go unnoticed. General Winfield Scott was commander-in-chief of all American forces in Mexico. After the war, Scott referred to Lee in an official letter as “the very best soldier that I ever saw in the field.”

On September 1, 1850, Lee became the 9th Superintendent of the United States Military Academy. Throughout his time as superintendent, Lee carefully studied each cadet. He came to know most of their frailties and all of their good points. If a cadet could not keep up with the work, he invariably gave the cadet the opportunity to resign and thus avoid the humiliation of dismissal. Lee’s son Custis graduated from West Point with the class of 1854. To Lee’s gratification, Custis graduated first in his class. Aside from his son, the graduate whom Lee had come to know best was “a stout grey-eyed lad of middle height and broad shoulders, with abundant hair and a dashing manner, a boy born to be a cavalry-man.” He was already known for his three initials as “J.E.B.” His family name was Stuart.

April 18, 19, and 20 of 1861 were decisive days for Lee, for his family, and for his native state of Virginia. Lee was fifty-four. He had spent twenty-two years advancing from the rank of Captain to that of Lieutenant Colonel. In 1858, Lee had been made brevet Colonel. In less than 3 years, this brevet Colonel would be offered command of 75,000 troops to be raised by the federal government to suppress the rebellion in the south. President Lincoln had authorized a trusted advisor, Frances P. Blair, a former editor of The Congressional Globe, to make this offer. On the morning of April 18, Lee traveled by horse from his wife’s estate, Arlington, to Blair’s son’s house on Pennsylvania Avenue for their meeting. Lee later wrote of this interview. “I declined the offer he made me to take command of the army that was to be brought into the field, stating as candidly and as courteously as I could, that though opposed to succession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern States.”

That same day before leaving Washington, Lee went to see General Scott, who had requested the meeting. He informed his old chief of what had transpired. Scott, deeply moved, said, “Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life, but I feared that it would be so.” Before leaving Scott for the last time, his mentor had told Lee that if he were going to resign his Commission in the U.S. Army, he should not delay. The next morning Lee went into Arlington and read the news that he hoped that he would never see. Virginia had seceded, subject to a referendum by the voters of Virginia. Lee’s judgment told him that the war would not wait on the outcome of the referendum. After midnight on April 19th, he wrote the following letter:

“Honorable Simon Cameron

Secretary of War


I have the honor to tender the resignation of my commission as Colonel of the 1st Regiment of Calvary.

Very Respectfully Your Obedient Servant

R.E. Lee

Colonel 1st Cavalry”

To have fought with the North was unthinkable; to have remained neutral was emotionally impossible; Lee’s only option was to offer his services to Virginia. It was a matter of conscience. It had nothing to do with slavery. It had everything to do with the threat that Northern armies posed to Virginia. Lee was sure that the largest of these armies would concentrate in the vicinity of Washington before advancing on Richmond. This is exactly what happened.

General Irvin McDowell has been described by historian Bruce Catton as “serious, well-intentioned, hard-working, and deeply unlucky.” By an ironic twist of fate, McDowell confiscated Arlington, the home of Robert E. Lee and Mary Custis Lee, for his headquarters. The Lees had been married at Arlington in 1831. The title to this estate had passed from Mary’s father, George Washington Parke Custis, to his only child, Mary, on his death. Her father was a grandson of Mrs. George Washington and the adopted son of George Washington. Lee could almost feel the presence of Washington at Arlington. He felt totally at home there as a result of his happy marriage and because Washington was his foremost hero.

McDowell, who had never commanded troops in the field, now found himself in command of an army of 34,000. It was then the largest army put in the field in U.S. history. McDowell planned to use his army to engage and destroy a smaller Confederate army defending the approach to Richmond. The first major battle of the Civil War would be fought at a place called Manassas Junction.

The most serious accusation against Lee has been the accusation of treason. This raises a constitutional question. If the southern states had had the constitutional right to secede, their citizens could not be guilty of treason. Section 2 of Article 111 of the U.S. Constitution provided “In all cases . . . in which a State shall be Party, the Supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction.” President Lincoln may have considered bringing an action in the Supreme Court against the southern states. He did not do so, perhaps, because he did not know how the Supreme Court might rule. Today, none can say with certainty what the U.S. Supreme Court would have done in 1861. Walter E. Williams has achieved distinction at George Mason University in Virginia. He is a conservative African-American who is most likely appalled at the efforts of Black Lives Matter and Antifa to vilify Lee.

On July 22, 2020 in a syndicated op-ed piece published in newspapers throughout America, Williams shared his scholarly research with his readers. His opening sentence is revealing. He wrote, "The Confederacy has been the excuse for some of today’s rioting, property destruction, and grossly uninformed statements.”

Williams goes on to inform his readers about a proposal to insert in the U.S. Constitution of 1787 a provision that would permit the federal government to suppress a seceding state. James Madison, the father of the Constitution, rejected it. The minutes from the debate have paraphrased Madison’s reasons as follows: “The use of force against a State would look more like a declaration of war than an infliction of punishment. . . .” The majority of the delegation to the Constitutional Convention agreed with Madison. That power was never delegated to the United States. This is significant because Article X of the Bill of Rights of 1791 states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Williams explains how the secessionist movement started in New England, where many New Englanders were infuriated by Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Their fury precipitated a movement toward secession. One of its leaders was Timothy Pickering, who had been quartermaster general in the Revolutionary Army and Secretary of War in President Washington’s cabinet. Williams quotes Pickering as asserting: “The eastern states must and will dissolve the Union and form a separate government.”

Williams’ final point addresses the condemnation of Lee as a traitor. Williams writes, “Confederate generals fought for independence from the Union just as George Washington fought for independence from Great Britain. Those who label Robert E. Lee and other Confederate generals as traitors might also label George Washington as a traitor.”

Washington and Lee had much in common. They were both born in Virginia. Their forebears came to Virginia from England. Each of them proved to be a great general. Neither had any responsibility for the slave trade. That trade existed to a large extent because of two colonial empires, The Portuguese Empire and the British Empire. It is estimated that approximately four million African slaves were carried on slave ships under deplorable conditions to Brazil. Brazil did not abolish slavery until some 23 years after the American Civil War.

For over 100 years prior to the American Revolution, the British Empire allowed slave ships under equally deplorable conditions to bring African slaves to its North American colonies and to its colonies in the West Indies. Many more were brought to the West Indies than to North America. Some prominent Virginians were well aware of British involvement in the slave trade. One of them was George Mason, the author of the Virginia Bill of Rights. During one of the great debates at the Constitutional Convention, Mason had this to say about Britain’s role in the slave trade: “This infernal traffic originated in the avarice of British merchants. The British government constantly checked the attempts of Virginia to put a stop to it. . . .”

A writer for the 15th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica published in 1975 has made clear British responsibility for the slave trade. “The West Indies plantations relied on a steady flow of slaves from Africa. British merchants and ships profited not only from supplying these slaves but also from the slave trade with other colonies in the Western Hemisphere. In fact, the British were the leading slave traders, controlling at least half of the transatlantic slave trade by the end of the 18th century.”

It is worth speculating what would have happened had Britain abolished slavery in all of her colonies in the middle of the 17th century. The American Civil War might never have taken place.

Lee was never tried for treason due to the magnanimity of President Abraham Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant. Lincoln realized that harsh treatment of Lee would cause a wave of bitterness to sweep across the South, imperiling reconciliation for decades. It is probable that Lincoln respected Lee’s valor and integrity, which would have inclined him to be lenient.

Grant’s magnanimity toward Lee is somewhat more surprising. They had commanded opposing armies in some of the bloodiest battles ever fought on American soil. Andrew Johnson, who became President less than a week after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox was neither a great man nor a good President. Although he was from Tennessee, he had no sympathy for the destruction and death toll that the South had experienced. He strongly favored charging Lee with treason. At a White House meeting in June 1865, Grant stood up to his commander-in-chief, telling him he would never agree to try Lee for treason because of his promise to Lee that he would not be prosecuted. Grant was fully prepared to resign from the Army should Johnson proceed with Lee’s prosecution. President Johnson soon backed down. The people of the North generally supported Grant.

After the surrender, Lee categorically rejected any suggestion that Southern soldiers engage in guerrilla warfare. In his correspondences with his erstwhile officers and men, he counseled them to become loyal citizens of the reunified country. When the war ended, Lee had no means to support himself and his family. In August 1865, to Lee’s complete surprise, he was offered the presidency of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. He accepted with gratitude. The college now bears the name Washington and Lee University. Lee always adjured his students to put “The War” behind them.

While the statue of Lee that had been so proudly displayed for more than 130 years on Monument Avenue in Richmond is in imminent danger of being removed or destroyed by those who despise him, Lee will always be remembered. He will be remembered as the courageous, bold, and decisive commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, as the hero of the South who was revered by millions, and as the Virginian whose love of his native state never dimmed.     *

Calendar of Events

Annual Dinner 2023
Thu Oct 19, 2023 @ 6:00PM - 08:00PM
Annual Seminar 2023
Thu Oct 19, 2023 @ 2:30PM - 05:00PM
Annual Dinner 2022
Thu Oct 13, 2022 @ 6:00PM - 08:00PM
Annual Seminar 2022
Thu Oct 13, 2022 @ 2:30PM - 05:00PM
Annual Dinner 2021
Thu Oct 14, 2021 @ 6:00PM - 08:00PM
Annual Seminar 2021
Thu Oct 14, 2021 @ 2:30PM - 05:00PM
Annual Dinner 2020
Thu Oct 22, 2020 @ 5:00PM - 08:00PM
St Croix Review Seminar
Thu Oct 22, 2020 @ 2:00PM - 04:30PM

Words of Wisdom