Visiting Graves Of Robert E. Lee, Gen. Jackson

Published 9:19 am Thursday, February 4, 2016

LEXINGTON, Va. — Tiny Washington Academy had shrunk to 40 students. The future looked terminal until the trustees hired a rock star in 1865 as the new college president: Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Who among today’s national leaders could command the same respect and devotion?

Lee launched a dramatic reversal for the college, now Washington & Lee. Enrollment soared. Money flowed in, and everyone wanted to be close to the revered Confederate general, respected on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line for his dignity, character and military cunning. He personally interviewed every new applicant and told them the college had no written rules. There was only one guiding principle: In all things, the young men would be gentlemen. A gentleman, of course, neither cheats nor steals. A gentleman is kind and sober. A gentleman is diligent and true.

Elizabeth and I stopped here to visit the grave of Robert E. Lee last week, just back from handing off three granddaughters to their parents who had dug out of 36 inches of snow in northern Virginia, Lee’s old war zone.

The old soldier is buried at Lee Chapel, which he built during his five-year administration before his death by stroke in 1870. His last hand-written letter is on display in his preserved office. About a dozen members of his family, including his father, Revolutionary War Gen. “Light Horse” Harry Lee, are buried in the family crypt. His horse, Traveller, is buried just outside the building. Having survived the Civil War unscathed, Traveller, a tall American Saddlebred, stepped on a nail which led to his death a year after his master died.

Lee devoted his full energy to the college, expanding its curriculum and working to produce educated gentlemen to lead Virginia’s recovery.

We also drove through Virginia Military Institute, immediately next door to stately Washington & Lee. Then we drove to the hilltop in Lexington to the grave of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson.

Sitting behind me in church last summer, Linda Sechrist of Mocksville poked me after I wrote about visiting the grave of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois. A member of both the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the American Confederacy, she suggested the trip to Lexington for equal time. She was right. The Lexington trip was well worth it. Jackson was mistakenly shot in the left arm by North Carolina soldiers in the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville. He died of pneumonia a week later. His amputated left arm is buried near the battlefield, complete with a tombstone marked, “Arm of Stonewall Jackson.” The main part of him is here beneath a towering statue.

Upon learning his trusted general’s amputation, Lee said, “He has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right.”

Jackson had been a professor at VMI before the war.

His dying words, “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.”

— Dwight Sparks