Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

On Washington and Lee

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on July 8, 2014

My colleague Kevin Levin has the rundown on the official response by Washington and Lee University over the presence of Confederate flags in the Lee Chapel. It’s a positive move, I think, that the current replica flags — how many visitors understood they are modern reproductions, dating only from 1995, I wonder? — that had no identification or explanation, will be replaced with actual historic flags, displayed in rotation  in correct environmental conditions and with appropriate labeling.

The usual suspects are responding in the usual way, of course, including making a threat of arson in response to the “dark students” whose complaint started this process. (Carl liked that one, BTW.)

TraditionsOne common whinge that we’ve heard for a while now is the W&L has somehow turned its back on the legacy of Robert E. Lee. That’s funny, since anyone with the slightest knowledge of the school knows otherwise. As it happens, my household has been fairly inundated lately with university recruiting materials, including multiple mailings from W&L. One of them is a short brochure called “Traditions of Honor.” When you open it, the very first lines begin,


In 1865, a young man from Tennessee approached his school’s president, Robert E. Lee, to ask for a copy of the rules. “We have no printed rules,” Lee replied kindly. “We have but one rule here, and it is that every student must be a gentleman.” More than a century later, the essence of that simple statement still holds true.


Robert E. Lee not only figures prominently in the school’s public image, but present-day Washington and Lee considers him and his reputation to be an effective recruiting tool.

Everything I’ve read about Robert E. Lee’s five-year tenure in Lexington — a longer period, it should be noted, than he wore a Confederate gray uniform — indicates that he gave everything he had to Washington College, with the intent of making it the best possible school he could. He did not, as far as I know, intend for it to become Confederate Candyland or a reliquary to the Lost Cause, as some seem to want it to be. The focus of the present-day Washington and Lee University is exactly where it should be, on Lee’s contributions and legacy to the school. I have no doubt whatever that, were he here today, like Jefferson before him Lee would be more proud of the university he helped build than anything else he did in his public life.