Tuesday, 05 October 2021 12:59

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

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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.     *

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