by Robert Morrison
February 1, 2013
Whenever we hear that term—Washington & Lee—we probably think of the distinguished Virginia university. Dubyanell it’s often called by those who love it. And the term brings to mind two of the Old Dominion’s famous sons—George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Lee modeled his life and his career on the man his father had eulogized as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
After he surrendered to Gen. Grant at Appomattox in 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee received many offers of employment. One of these was from an insurance company that promised to pay him $50,000 a year if he would be their president. When Gen. Lee demurred, saying he knew nothing about insurance, the company’s recruiters tried to reassure him that they only wanted his name, that he would be a figurehead president. The former commander of Confederate armies smilingly declined, saying if his name was worth $50,000 a year, he would take good care of it. Instead, Gen. Lee accepted the presidency of Washington College at $5,000 a year. And his inspired leadership transformed the sleepy little school into a pioneer in education. That’s why it’s known today as Washington & Lee University.
My Washington & Lee today is another partnership, a lifelong relationship between Gen. George Washington and his slave, William Lee. Historian David Hackett Fischer’s excellent book, Washington’s Crossing, relates many amazing facts of that near-disastrous year of 1776.
One of the stories that has greatest appeal to me is how the Continental Army nearly broke apart in a huge riot. It was in the Cambridge camp, outside Boston. Virginia backwoodsmen arrived to join the army. Their fringed buckskin jackets suggested frontier roughness. But their frilled white shirts announced that these Virginians considered themselves gentlemen and they expected the deference due them as gentlemen. Some of these Virginians were, like His Excellency, Gen. Washington, the owners of slaves.
They soon collided with Col. John Glover’s Marblehead regiment. Many of Glover’s men were hardy New England sailors. Among their number were free men of color. Seafaring Massachusetts had long included black sailors among its sons. This made Massachusetts more “democratical” from the start.
Fischer’s account is chilling: “Insults gave way to blows, and blows to ‘a fierce struggle’ with ‘biting and gouging.’ One spectator wrote that in less than five minutes more than a thousand combatants were on the field. Americans from one region began to fight Americans from another part of the country, on a larger scale than the battles at Lexington and Concord [emphasis added].”