General Robert E. Lee was offered a major command in the Union Army and had no desire to see the United States divided. Lee was the son of Revolutionary War officer Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee III and a top graduate of the United States Military Academy. General Lee was an exceptional officer and combat engineer in the United States Army for 32 years. During this time, he served throughout the United States, distinguished himself during the Mexican–American War and served as Superintendent of the United States Military Academy.
Lee’s decision was based on the decision made by his state of Virginia. When Virginia declared its secession from the Union in April 1861, Lee remained loyal to his home state. In the end, Lee surrendered to U.S. Grant at the MacLean House by Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. By this time, Lee had assumed supreme command of the remaining Southern armies; other Confederate forces swiftly capitulated after his surrender. Lee rejected the proposal of a sustained insurgency against the North and called for reconciliation between the two sides.
I considered it a great privilege when I stood in this very room where Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant met to conclude the surrender.
On October 2, 1865, the same day that Lee was inaugurated as president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, he signed an Amnesty Oath but Lee was not pardoned, nor was his citizenship restored.
Three years later, on December 25, 1868, President Johnson proclaimed a second amnesty which removed previous exceptions, such as the one that affected Lee.
General Robert E. Lee turned down several financially tantalizing offers of employment that would merely have traded on his name and instead accepted the post of college president for three reasons. First, he had been superintendent of the United States Military Academy, so supervising higher education was in his background. Second, and more important, he believed that it was a position in which he could actually make a contribution to the reconciliation of the nation. Third, the Washington family was his in-laws: his wife was the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, and Lee had long looked on George Washington as a hero and role model.
Arguably Lee’s finest achievement was transforming a small, not particularly distinguished Latin academy into a forward-looking institution of higher education. He established the first journalism courses and he added both engineering courses and a business school and a law school to the college curriculum. That was a radical idea since engineering, journalism, and law had always been considered technical crafts, not intellectual endeavors, and the study of business was viewed with skepticism.
Lee was also the father of an Honor System and a speaking tradition at Washington College that continues to the present time. And, ardent about restoring national unity, he successfully recruited students from throughout the reunited nation, North and South.
Lee died on October 12, 1870, after just five years as Washington College president. The college’s name was almost immediately changed to Washington and Lee University, linking Lee’s name with Washington’s. The university’s motto, Nōn Incautus Futūrī’, meaning “Not unmindful of the future”, is an adaptation of the Lee family motto. Lee’s son, George Washington Custis Lee, followed his father as the university’s president. General Lee and much of his family—including his wife, his seven children, and his father, the Revolutionary War hero “Light Horse Harry” Lee—are buried in the Lee Chapel on campus, which faces the main row of antebellum college buildings. Robert E. Lee’s beloved horse Traveller is buried outside, near the wall of the chapel.