Chapel Office of a Protestant Saint
As a college president after the war, General Robert E. Lee gave no indication of being a scholar, did not begin any research of his own, and showed no interest in collecting material for wartime memoirs. Lee informed Scotch visitor David MacRae that he had not read any accounts of the war or biographies. He said: “My own life has been written, but I have not looked into it. I do not want to awaken memories of the past.”
Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org
Chapel Office of a Protestant Saint
“Offices are silent biographers of those who spend much of their lives in them. Beginning as inanimate rooms, offices become organic spaces, with personalities and meaning of their own. Robert E. Lee is gone, but his office is intact. After his death, college officials decided to preserve it exactly as it was when he walked out on a soggy fall day in 1870. No major item has been added or removed. Time has been blocked out and history boxed in.
Lee’s office is in the basement of [the chapel he insisted be built for Washington College, and authorized by the Trustees on 18 July 1866]. One naked electric light bulb shines at night, placed where an oil lamp hung in Lee’s day. The brick floor at the foot of the stairs has been worn and cracked by the feet of many pilgrims.
To the modern eye, the fifteen by eighteen foot room seems plain to the point of austerity. There is no rug on the pine floor of random-width boards, no curtains on the two windows, no paintings or prints on the plain white walls. The furnishings reflect the ear and the man.
The largest object in the room is a bookcase . . . [with only] Webster’s dictionary [being] the largest [book in it]. Most of the others were nineteenth century texts: DeVere’s Grammar in French, Brown’s English Grammar with Analysis, Morris’ Greek Grammar and Downes’ Algebra, for example. All are frayed and worn from frequent use.
On the mantle stand three faded pictures: George Peabody, a Northern benefactor, an unidentified Confederate family, and George Washington. Underneath the central table is a large wicker waste basket, given General Lee by a Negro woman. This is all one finds in the office of the American who is regarded by many as a sort of Protestant saints.
Across the hall, a few feet from the office, the earthly remains of Lee are sealed in a family mausoleum. Above him rests his wife. To his right is his father, “Light Horse Harry”; to his left his oldest son, Custis. The General is entombed not far from the place where he worked and where he led in peace a whole region which he could not free in war.
This was the focus and nerve center of his administration. Here we wrote, planned, conferred and meted out justice. Duty, like marrow, was in his bones. Precisely here the college was transformed into a university. Like his clothes, speech, manners and campaigns, the office, too, was fastidious. A passion for order dominated Lee’s whole life.
Rising early, he held private prayers, after which he went promptly to breakfast whish was usually delayed by his tardy wife. There were family prayers at this morning meal as well. Lee ate heartily and left promptly for the seven forty-five chapel service. Lectures began at eight o’clock. By then, he would have slipped downstairs to his office.
Faculty members had to report every week on every student. Lee tabulated and remembered the comments and grades. Soon after the grades were known, Lee arranged to see those who were doing poorly, sending Lewis, the college janitor, to their rooms with notes.
He attended many daily recitations. “I recited in the presence of General Lee many times. It was a severe ordeal,” C.A. Graves, an ex-student, remembered. “I have often wondered how he found the patience to endure the many hours of attendance on the many classes.”
(Lee After the War, The Greatest Period in the Life of a Great American, Marshall W. Fishwick, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1963, excerpts, pp. 128-132)