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07.03.08 General Robert E. Lee after Appomattox, by Franklin Riley, published in 1922

Oral History Collection

This work is a book containing a collection of oral histories originally published in 1922.

Notes Concerning the Editor

Edited by Franklin L. Riley, Professor of History at Washington and Lee University, this memorial volume was first assembled “…fifty years after the termination of the incomparable services of General Robert Edward Lee as President of Washington College, and affectionately dedicated to the ‘Lee Alumni’ by their Alma Mater.”

Professor Riley notes in his preface how the preparation of a “Lee Memorial Volume” was delayed and eventually suspended after the General’s 1870 passing due in part to collected manuscripts and other documents which were turned over to Dr. J. William Jones, and subsequently incorporated in his Personal Reminiscences of General R. E. Lee, published in 1874.  Among these faculty contributions were valuable insights provided by Dr. J. L. Kirkpatrick, Professor of Moral Science, by Dr. Edward S. Joynes, Professor of English, and by Colonel William Preston Johnston, Professor of History.  

In June, 1917, Professor Riley notes the trustees of the university decided to collect all facts then available on General Lee’s connection with the institution, and commissioned the professor of history to undertake this work.  Sending out appeals to all living “Lee Alumni” whose addresses could be located, Professor Riley sought to obtain every item of information pertaining to their college days, along with a suggested list of topics to aid the elderly alumni in determining the scope and nature of the information desired.  Hence, the bulk of the contents in this volume are those personal recollections from the last remaining living alumni gathered, organized and preserved for generations to come.  Professor Riley adds, “Unfortunately, many alumni of this unique period had passed away before a systematic effort was made to gather and preserve their reminiscences for the benefit of future generations.  At least two of the contributors to this volume, Mr. F. A. Berlin and Rev. Robert H. Fleming, have died since the inauguration of this work.  In the course of a few more years the last of this honored group, who heard the voice and observed the daily movements of our great President, will cease to bear their living testimony to his memory, and the record will be closed.”  The editor also states the contents of this volume have been enriched by inclusion of other key accounts among General Lee’s students and faculty who came into contact with him after the war; including two brief extracts that were taken from standard biographies of General Lee which were no longer in print.   In closing the preface, Professor Riley observes the incidents and impressions contained in the book will afford something more than corroborative testimony on the subject of Lee’s character.  “They will explain, in part at least, the methods by which this great college executive in the brief period of five years achieved results that would have been highly creditable to the full life-effort of a successful educator.”

Our Review

It was Mr. Lincoln’s War to Prevent Southern Independence- and arguably the bloodiest conflict of the 19th Century- that resulted in tiny Washington College in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia to be laid to ruin by the Federal Army.  Union soldiers under command of General David Hunter desecrated the historic institution, then over a century old, and toppled the statue of its historic benefactor, George Washington.  From this wreckage, the Washington College board of trustees emerged determined in the summer of 1865 to resuscitate the institution from a near-certain demise.

In the months following the close of the War Between the States, many substantial riches were offered to Lee for use of his name or for his product endorsements and for his memoirs.  Instead, Lee turned down countless commercial offers of fortune and fame to accept the humble position offered by the Washington College trustees.

As soon Lee was convinced his disenfranchised, prisoner-at-large status would not be an encumbrance, he gladly accepted the position as President of Washington College for this stated reason:  “I have a self-imposed task which I must accomplish.  I have led the men of the South in battle, I have seen many of them die on the field; I shall devote my remaining energies to training young men to do their duty in life.”

On October 2, 1865, Lee was inducted into the Presidency of Washington College and immediately directed his energies into rebuilding and transforming the burned-out ruins of this historically significant institution.  What Lee accomplished in the remaining five years of his life, few educators or university presidents today could dream of accomplishing across the span of their entire careers.  It is against this backdrop that the first-hand accounts of this book vividly document the enduring character and legacy of Robert E. Lee.

During the century and a half which followed, much has been written about quintessential American Robert Edward Lee which emphasizes his inspiring United States and Confederate States military service, campaigns and accomplishments.  Precious few volumes however (with exceptions such as Dr. Douglas Southall Freeman’s definitive four-volume biography entitled, R.E. Lee), provide a window into the immense character and soul of this great American as the documentary volume first published in 1922 by the History Department of Washington and Lee University, General Robert E. Lee after Appomattox.

This volume of first-hand recollections gathered from the surviving students and faculty of Washington and Lee University, fifty years after the passing of General Lee, vividly captures his many noble qualities as witnessed by those who heard the sound of his living voice and who came under his charge as Washington College President from 1865 to 1870.  Long since out of print until just recently, General Robert E. Lee After Appomattox is a deeply moving and powerful collection of oral histories which bring to life the extraordinary Christian character and influence of one of the greatest sons Virginia and our nation has ever produced; and which reveal the two essential elements which characterized Lee’s life as documented by Dr. Freeman:  simplicity and spirituality.
Many of the fascinating eyewitness accounts contained in this book- written by old men reflecting at the end of their lives upon their days as young students and faculty members under Lee’s charge- are humorous and lighthearted; and all are revealing and deeply moving.

The Reverend James R. Winchester of Little Rock, Arkansas, recalled:

General Lee knew each one of the students personally and watched his college career with a fatherly interest.  In those days, Lexington had open saloons, and some of the students were disposed occasionally to pass the bounds of sobriety, but General Lee knew exactly how to bring the wandering one back to himself with a high ideal erected in his mind.  May I cite an instance:  My friend ——-, indulging a little too freely, staggered on the street when he noticed the splendid horse “Traveller,” passing by, bearing the Hero of the South.  He immediately straightened himself hoping he might have escaped the glance of the eagle eye.  Nearly a week passed when he found his name on the bulletin board in the list of those asked to call at the president’s office.  He went apprehensive of a stern rebuke.  General Lee said:  “Mr. ——-, I had occasion to write to your mother some time ago and it gave me great pleasure to tell her how well you were getting along in college.”  This kindly greeting threw my friend entirely off his guard, and his reply was:  “I trust I may ever live worthy of your commendation.”  The General, kindly looking at him, said:  “Mr. ——–, did it ever occur to you that when you reach middle life or a time of sickness, that you may need a stimulant, and if you have accustomed yourself to taking stimulants in your early life it will require so much more to have the desired effect at a time when you may need it?”  And then he suggested how much better it would be if he would abstain from intoxicants during his college life.  My friend spoke of it in after years, and hanging on his wall was that letter the General had written to his mother.  He was deeply affected, and said he never forgot that interview, which was a benediction to his whole life.

On Founder’s Day in 1921, Dr. Henry Louis Smith, President of Washington and Lee University paid tribute to his predecessor in part with these words:  “With tireless devotion, he threw himself into the work of education and administration.  With an educational originality many years in advance of his time, he added to the old-fashioned classical curriculum of Washington College, schools of engineering, journalism, commerce, and law; gathered students, teachers, buildings, and endowments on Washington’s foundation; fixed for all time the institution’s ideals of character and chivalry; and then, worn out by his ceaseless and indefatigable labors, fell at his post and bequeathed to it his ever-widening influence, his sacred dust and his incomparable name.”

Editor Franklin Riley’s historic book compilation, commissioned by Washington and Lee University over 95 years ago, remains an important book which brings this Southern hero to life in a manner and sharp relief few contemporary Americans have seen.  The lessons contained therein on leading a good and noble Christian life through personal example; and the art of leadership and positive influence upon others, should be of immense benefit for anyone seeking to learn more of the essential truths of this great Virginian, Southron, and American.

Availability of this book

The 1922 and 1930 editions of this book can be found in the collectible book marketplace; and modern reprints are now available on-line in a variety of formats.