Edward Virginius Valentine, Lee Chapel, Lee Chapel and Musuem, Lexington, Virginia

The Chapel That Washington College Had Built During General Robert Edward Lee’s Tenure As President

In 1867, construction on the Lee Chapel, began on the grounds of Washington College. The new chapel was completed in time for the spring semester in 1868. General Robert Edward Lee, who ordered construction of the chapel, began attending Christian services at the building with other students and administrators.

After General Lee’s passing, Washington College was renamed to Washington and Lee College in his honor. General Lee, his wife, his sons, and several of his other family members were buried in a crypt within the basement of the church. In 1875, five years after General Lee’s death, a statue of the “Sleeping General”, that was sculpted by Edward Virginius Valentine, was sent to Washington College.

Author’s Note:

Robert Edward Lee only lived to the age of 63, but he had a multitude of accomplishments during his lifetime, many that occurred both before and after the end of the United States Civil War. Robert Edward Lee was the son of the Revolutionary War hero Harry “Lighthorse” Lee, who was the ninth governor of Virginia, and began his military career at West Point. In 1829, after Robert Edward Lee graduated 2nd in his class at West Point, Brigadier General Charles Gratiot, Chief of Engineers, gave Lieutenant Lee orders to go to Georgia’s Cockspur Island and to report to Major Samuel Babcock of the corps of Engineers. Lieutenant Lee’s work, as assistant engineer, helped establish the foundation of Fort Pulaski.

Portrait of Virginia Governor Henry Lee III.

Robert Edward Lee spent time working as an engineer, up until the outbreak of the Mexican-American War where he was serving as a captain. Before the Battle of Buena Vista, Captain Lee conducted multiple reconnaissance missions on Santa Anna’s army, which helped the United States Army win that battle. After the occupation of Atalaya, Lee’s forces fought the Mexican army, at a mountain nearby, where he rescued a Mexican drummer boy who was trapped under the body of a dead soldier. After the battles of Contreras (Padierna) and Churubusco, Lee was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. On September 14th, 1846, Lieutenant Colonel Lee was in Mexico City as General Winfield Scott lead the occupation of Mexico’s capital.

Sketch of U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert Edward Lee.

After the Mexican-American War, General Winfield Scott led charges against General Gideon Johnson Pillow for taking other military commanders’ credit for victories at Churubusco and Contreras. Lieutenant Colonel Lee served as a witness, supporting General Scott, during the court martial case of General Pillow that was eventually dismissed. From 1852 to 1855, Lieutenant Colonel Lee served as the Superintendent of the West Point Military Academy in New York. Robert Edward Lee then moved from New York to Texas to serve on the frontier.

Robert Edward Lee’s marines seizing the U.S. Arsenal at Harpers Ferry.

In 1859, John Brown’s abolitionist supporters occupied the U.S. Arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia and prevented hundreds of individuals from leaving town. However, after John Brown let a train leave for Maryland, word of the insurrection, quickly spread to Washington, D.C. and to members of the Buchanan Administration. President James Buchanan ordered Lee to led a force of marines, whom traveled by train, to suppress the attempted slave rebellion, that John Brown began. After a brief showdown, Lee and his marines seized the U.S. Arsenal, and John Brown, who had committed several acts of violence during the events of “Bleeding Kanas”, was arrested on the charge of treason.

From October 24th to October 26th, 1859, the case Virginia v. John Brown commenced. Witnesses testified to John Browns various actions against the commonwealth of Virginia. On October 26th, 1859 John Brown was sentenced on three counts of insurrection, treason and murder. Virginia Governor Henry Wise ordered 1,500 troops to guard the execution to prevent any attempts of break John Brown from jail. On December 2nd, 1859, John Brown was executed in the presence of actor John Wilkes Booth, Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, who had Virginia Military Institute cadets with him, and many others, in Charlestown, West Virginia. Robert Edward Lee was not present at the execution and his hopes of starting a Civil War vanished with his death. However, over a year after John Brown’s execution Robert Edward Lee would have to choose between defending his state or his country after the attack on Fort Sumter.

John Brown’s execution in Charlestown, West Virginia.

After General Robert Edward Lee’s official surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at the McLean House in Appomattox, the former Confederate General stayed with his family in Richmond, Virginia, in a house that “The Family Foundation of Virginia” currently uses as their office. Many job offers were given, from New York and other states, but Lee rejected them. Washington College offered Lee the presidency of their college, but Lee rejected that offer too, because he did not feel that he should be given a position of leadership after being on the losing side of a war. However, the board members of Washington College were persistent and convinced Lee to change his mind after securing a place for him and his family to live in Lexington. On October 1865, Robert Edward Lee took an oath at the Lexington Courthouse and officially became the President of Washington College.

In conclusion, the “Lee Chapel”, which has recently been renamed to “University Chapel”, was originally named after Robert Edward Lee to honor the entirety of his life which included 22 years of service to the United States Army, 4 years with the Confederacy and 5 years working to reconcile the wounds between northerns and southerners after the end of the “War Between The States”. Despite the efforts to tarnish the legacy of Robert Edward Lee, as a racist that defended the institution of slavery, historians will remember his many contributions to his country, which included the construction of many forts, helping the United States Army defeat Santa Anna’s forces, training cadets at West Point, defending the Texan frontier, his willingness to defend the people of his state from federal invasion, after being offered command of the Union Army, and his willingness to discipline students who spoke ill of “Grant’s friends” after the United States Civil War ended.

Painting of President Robert Edward Lee at Washington College (Washington and Lee University Archives).