Washington and Lee University keeping its name and complex history
WASHINGTON: Washington and Lee University will keep its name in the face of calls by both students and faculty to change it because of its symbolic ties to the Confederacy. The highly regarded private college has changed its name several times over its history. In 1776, it was named Liberty Hall. After George Washington gave the school a gift of stock in 1796, it was renamed for him. Washington’s gift of stock saved the school from financial ruin. Lee became president of the school after the Civil War. Lee, who was the school’s president following the Civil War, established its law school and made other major changes. Since 1870, when the faculty called for the school’s name to be changed to reflect the contributions Lee had made, the school’s name changed to Washington and Lee.
The university’s name reflects the roles played by George Washington and Robert E. Lee in maintaining and advancing its educational goals.
In 2017, after the violent Unite the Right rally in nearby Charlottesville, the university’s president created a commission on institutional history and community, charged with examining the school’s past and making recommendations. The group recommended multiple changes but did not recommend changing the name.
The university’s president, Will Dudley, said that,
“Debate regarding our communal aspirations is healthy. Undertaken constructively, it improves our understanding of who we are, sharpening our vision of who we might become, and catalyze positive change over time.”
He joined the board in condemning racism, social injustice and Confederate nostalgia. “some things are not up for debate,” he said. For many years, Washington and Lee has been racially inclusive. Once a school only for men, it has admitted women for some time.
Robert E. Lee himself is a far more complex figure than many people understand.
Clearly, he was, in many ways, a man of his time and place. But he opposed secession. He was offered by Abraham Lincoln’s advisor Francis P. Blair a role as major general to command the defense of the nation’s capital. He replied,
“Mr. Blair, I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four million slaves in the South, I would sacrifice them all to the Union, but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?”
Lee saw slavery to be an evil institution although, ironically, he believed slavery did more harm to whites than blacks. Lee believing that blacks were better off in America than in Africa. He assisted individual slaves to freedom in Liberia and provided for their emancipation in his will. His role at the end of the Civil is one that few Americans understand.
Without Lee, things would have been much worse.
This is highlighted in the book “April 1865: The Month That Saved America,” by Jay Winik, a senior scholar at the University of Maryland. This single month, April 1865, witnessed the fall of Richmond, a daring last-ditch Southern plan for guerrilla warfare, Lee’s retreat, and then, Appomattox. It saw Lincoln’s assassination just five days later and a near successful plot to decapitate the Union government, followed by chaos and coup fears in the North, collapsed negotiations and continued bloodshed in the South, and, finally, the start of national reconciliation.
For most Americans, it is at a small red brick house in Appomattox, Virginia on April 9, 1865, that the story of the Civil War stops. It is the date of Robert E. Lee’s fateful meeting with Ulysses S. Grant
This argues Winik,
“…is a mistake. For one thing, the war was still not over; it could have lasted more hard months or years. For another, no period was more harrowing or had so great an impact upon this country as the days that followed Lee’s surrender. Within six days, Abraham Lincoln was dead…”
The story of 1865 is not just about decisions made, but also of decisions rejected. Lee’s rejection of continuing the war as a guerrilla battle, the preference of Jefferson Davis, and Grant’s choice to be magnanimous at Appomattox cannot be overestimated in importance.
With the fall of Richmond, Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government were on the run.
“Davis was thinking about such things as a war of extermination…a national war that ruins the enemy. In short, guerrilla resistance…The day after Richmond fell, Davis had called on the Confederacy to shift from a conventional war to a dynamic guerrilla war of attrition, designed to wear down the North and force it to conclude that keeping the South in the Union would not be worth the interminable pain and ongoing sacrifice. ‘We have now entered upon a new phase of a struggle the memory of which is to endure for the ages,’ he declared.”
But Lee knew the war was over.
Lee disobeyed Jefferson Davis’s order to continue fighting a guerrilla war, if necessary, for years.
Lee actually set a precedent of American military officers rejecting illegal orders. For his part, Grant writes Winik,
“…was acutely aware that on this day, what had occurred was the surrender of one army to another—-not of one government to another. The war was very much on. There were a number of potentially troubling rebel commanders in the field. And there were still some 175,000 other Confederates under arms elsewhere; one-half in scattered garrisons and the rest in three remaining rebel armies. What mattered now was laying the groundwork for persuading Lee’s fellow armies to join in his surrender—-and also for reunion, the urgent matter of making the nation whole again. Thus, it should be no great surprise that there was a curious restraint in Grant’s tepid victory message passed on to Washington.”
In Winik’s view,
“Appomattox was not preordained. If anything…retribution had been the larger and longer precedent. So, if these moments teemed with hope—-and they did—-it was largely due to two men who rose to the occasion, to Grant’s and Lee’s respective actions: one general, magnanimous in victory, the other gracious and equally dignified in defeat, the two of them, for their own reasons and in their own ways, fervently interested in beginning the process to bind up the wounds of the last four years…Above all, this surrender defied millenniums of tradition in which rebellions typically ended in yet a greater shedding of blood…One need only recall the harsh suppression of the peasants’ revolt in Germany in the 16th century, or the ravages of Alva during the Dutch rebellion, or the terrible punishments inflicted on the Irish by Cromwell and then on the Scots after Culloden, or the bloodstained vengeance executed during the Napoleanic restoration, or the horrible retaliation imposed during the futile Chinese rebellion in the mid-19th century…”
The Civil War obliterated any serious thought of future secession. Before the war, Americans often spoke of the United States in the plural——“the United States are.” In his classic work on the history of America, noted historian John H. Hinton wrote in 1834:
“For some, the United States are highly eulogized; by others, they are eagerly depreciated.”
Sometime after the Civil War, however, so changed was America that this was now modified to a singular noun. Thus, Hinton’s words would become “The United States is.”
It is Winik’s conclusion that,
“April 1865 was unquestionably one of America’s finest hours: for it was not the deranged spirit of an assassin that defined the country at year’s end, but the conciliatory spirit of leaders who led as much in peace as in war…who, by their example, …overcame their personal rancor, their heartache, and spoke as citizens of not two lands, but one, thereby bringing the country together. True, much hard work remained. But much, too, had already been accomplished.”
After the Civil War, Robert E. Lee opposed the construction of monuments to the Confederacy. He wanted to move on and to unite the country. In his years as president of Washington College, he did his best to advance this goal.
The Board of Trustees of Washington and Lee University took all of this into consideration in deciding not to change the name of their university.
Perhaps if those who sought the name change studied this history more carefully they would come to a different conclusion. If we only name universities for perfect people, many names would have to be changed. We are, after all, , imperfect human beings. But some flawed men and women achieve great things. We honor them for their achievements, not their flaws. Robert E. Lee’s decision to surrender and bring the nation together—-rather than follow Jefferson Davis’s order to fight on—-may be such an instance.
I have for many years been interested in the complexity of Robert E. Lee. Why a man who opposed secession and thought slavery an evil would fight in behalf of them remains difficult to understand. But his role in ending the war when Jefferson Davis wanted to fight on and helping to bring the country together was an important one and one which is little known.
I live a few blocks from Lee’s boyhood home in Alexandria, Virginia. As a high school senior, I applied to Washington and Lee University and was accepted. Instead, I decided to go to the College of William and Mary.
Over the years, I have visited the campus often and have spoken there. It would have been a turning away from its history to have changed the name. I think the Board of Trustees made the right choice, even in these difficult times when such a choice is not easy, and there are legitimate arguments to be made on both sides.
About the Author:
Allan Brownfeld is a veteran writer who has spent decades working in and around Washington, D.C. Brownfeld earned his B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary. His M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia, and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonwealth, and The Christian Century. Visit his Writers Page to learn more.