Much rich history has been sown in the fertile soil of Virginia’s famed Shenandoah Valley. While many towns of this valley have laid claim to immortality, many people consider the tiny, Blue Ridge mountain town of Lexington a small piece of heaven. This town is the home of two great universities – Washington and Lee University and the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). It also neighbors Natural Bridge, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, which was surveyed by George Washington and once owned by Thomas Jefferson. Lexington was a college town even before the United States became a country. Founded in 1749, Augusta Academy would become Liberty Hall Academy in 1776. The school was renamed Washington College in George Washington’s honor after he contributed $50,000 worth of stock to the school in 1796. After the death of Robert E. Lee in 1870, the school’s president, the college became known as Washington and Lee University.
In 1865, at the end of the bloodiest war our nation has ever seen, the two institutions were but shadows of their former selves. VMI had been burned nearly to the ground, and Washington College was severely damaged when it was used as Union barracks. With no money and no president, Washington College had somehow remained open throughout the war. During this time it served primarily as a preparatory school, with four professors teaching about forty boys who were too young to serve in the Civil War.
However, the school’s trustees were determined to save their desperate college. On August 4, 1865, they met to discuss applying for a loan and the prospects for the college’s presidency. At that meeting, a board member rose and said that he had heard that Lee was looking for a position that would allow him to earn a living for his family. The trustees immediately elected Lee as president – contingent on his acceptance, of course. They offered him an annual salary of $1,500, and the use of a house and garden and a small percentage of the tuition. Everyone in the country knew that Lee could lead soldiers, but few remembered that he also had served as superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point. For Lee, the position in tiny Lexington was an opportunity to lead his people, not into battle, but into recovery. On August 31, 1865, Lee became the president of a school named for his mentor and his wife’s grandfather, George Washington.
“I think it is the duty of every citizen, in the present condition of the country, to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony,” he wrote to the trustees in his letter of acceptance. “It is particularly incumbent of those charged with the instruction of the young to set them an example of submission to authority.” Beset by the war’s legacy of poverty, only 50 students were enrolled at the time of Lee’s inauguration. As word of his presence spread, others arrived, until finally, 146 young men had registered for the college’s first post-war session. Among those first students were three of KA’s four founders, James Ward Wood, William Nelson Scott, and William Archibald Walsh. Founder Stanhope McClelland Scott, brother of William Nelson Scott, entered the college’s second postwar session in the spring semester of 1866.