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Gentleman General of Long Ago is Still Revered


This past Friday marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Lee. His name is legend to every student of U.S. history, and this courtly son of a Revolutionary War patriot is adored to this day by many Americans who live in the states of the Old South. White Americans, to be sure, since Lee was a slaveholder who commanded southern forces fighting the American Civil War of the 1860s in large measure to preserve the region's commerce in human chattel.

Stories are well and often told of Robert E. Lee's wrenching decision to forgo command of the Union Army to serve his native Virginia, and of his humble spirit in the face of victories and defeats alike. After the Confederate surrender he told his heartsick soldiers, "Abandon your animosities and make your sons Americans."

Less well known are Lee's achievements in his twilight years. He accepted the presidency of a threadbare college on the brink of bankruptcy. At Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, he abandoned the traditional emphasis on the classics in favor of teaching practical skills that would help rebuild the South. The nation's first college journalism program was one example. Business and science and agriculture courses were others. Appropriately renamed "Washington and Lee University," the little private college survived and now thrives.

At what was then an all-male college, Robert E. Lee instituted a no-nonsense code of student conduct that stands to this day. "We have but one rule," he said, "and that is that every student is a gentleman."

Lee is interred beneath the campus chapel, and his faithful horse is buried outside. Naturally, the Washington and Lee campus bus system is named for Lee's handsome, iron-gray mount as well. It's called the "Traveller."

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