Robert E. Lee’s Financial Impact on Washington College

Robert E. Lee’s Financial Impact on Washington College

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By Catherine Roach  

As Washington and Lee students, we see the mark that Robert E. Lee made everyday as we walk by Lee Chapel or observe the Honor System at work. The less visible legacy of Lee, however, is the great impact he had on the finances of Washington and Lee during his tenure as president. When Lee arrived in Lexington in September of 1865, Washington and Lee, then known as Washington College, was in dire straits financially. The school had a sizable endowment, yet it was not liquid. Also, the school largely held Confederate securities and currency, worthless after the war. As a result, Washington College struggled to pay professors and bills and was unable even to repair damage to the school.[1] In 1864, only 65 students were enrolled at the school,[2] and during the 1865-1866 school year, the first after the end of the war, enrollment only increased to 146 students.[3] Simply put, Washington College was not in the best shape in September 1865 when Lee first stepped foot on campus as president.

But things began turning around soon, as General Lee’s name alone attracted both students and donations. Cyrus McCormick, a native of Rockbridge County and the man who invented the reaper, gave $10,000[4] after Lee was named as president. McCormick wrote the Board to tell them of his donation and stated, “ His [Lee’s] name, fame and merits will doubtless prove a tower of strength and cause”.[5] In another instance, a group of Confederate soldiers from all over the South gave around $740 to the school. The soldiers donated small amounts, giving anywhere from $2.00 to $25 in order “to manifest our [the soldiers’] interest in the success of this great educational institution, presided over by our noble leader, the Christian soldier, and gentleman of the age.”[6] These soldiers gave to the school because they still felt an allegiance to General Lee and wanted to aid him in his new endeavor.

President Lee sent letters all across the nation asking for money during his tenure. In a letter he wrote to Townsend Wade of Philadelphia in January of 1866, Lee described the College, informing Wade that although all the buildings that were damaged during the War had been restored, there were still no books on the library shelves. Lee added, “The College is a successful operation however; and I have no apprehension as to its future propriety”.[7] Lee wrote to numerous others about raising money and receiving money from the legislature of Virginia, including Reverend C.W. Leyburn.[8] Through both Lee’s efforts and the efforts of his agents, the endowment of the school increased from $69,050.49 in 1865[9] to $216,312.09 in 1870[10], the year of Lee’s death: a 213 percent increase.

The increase in the endowment allowed Washington and Lee to invest in interest paying securities, giving the school a surplus of funds. In 1866, the College had a deficit of $1,237.37.[11] By 1870, however, it had a surplus of $2,011.[12] That is a 263 percent increase in funds during the four complete fiscal years[13] that Lee was president at the school.

Under Lee, Washington College saw an increase in the student body. This could have been for multiple reasons, including the fame of Lee and an increase in advertising. During Lee’s time as president, the College advertised in newspapers across the country, including papers in Charleston, Cincinnati, Louisville, Baltimore, New Orleans, Atlanta, and San Antonio.[14] In 1870, the year of Lee’s death, the school had 345 students,[15] and the highest enrollment was 411 students in 1868.[16]

Through Lee, Washington College’s finances improved, setting the school on a path to becoming a great university. Lee made many contributions to this school and as students we see many of them everyday, but we should also remember that Lee kept the school going after the Civil War when Washington College faced a difficult future. Without Lee’s focus on raising funds for the school, the culture he worked to instill on campus would not have been able to continue into the twenty-first century.

 

 

This paper was adapted from my spring term research in Accounting 280. Special thanks to Special Collections in Leyburn Library and Professor Fafatas.

[1] Charles Bracelen Flood, Lee: The Last Years ( Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 1981), 179.

[2] Washington College’s 1864 Annual Report. Special Collections of Leyburn Library. Trustee’s Papers, Folder 158.

[3] Lee, Robert E. 1866 Report to the Board of Trustees. Special Collections of Leyburn Library. Trustee’s Papers, Folder 163.

[4] All numbers are reported as they were in the 1860s, no adjustments have been made

[5] Cyrus McCormick, Letter to the Board of Trustees. 1866. Special Collections of Leyburn Library. Trustee’s Papers, Folder 162.

[6] List of Confederate Soldiers who gave to the Endowment of Washington College. Special Collections of Leyburn Library. Trustee’s Papers, Folder 175.

[7] Robert E. Lee to Mr. Wade, Lee’s Fundraising Letters. Special Collections of Leyburn Library. Campbell Collection Box 2, Folder 12.

[8] Robert E. Lee to Reverend Leyburn, Lee’s Fundraising Letters. Special Collections of Leyburn Library. Campbell Collection Box 2, Folder 12.

[9] Washington College’s 1865 Financial Report. Special Collections of Leyburn Library. Trustee’s Papers Folder 159.

[10] Washington College’s 1870 Financial Report. Special Collections of Leyburn Library. Trustee’s Papers Folder 183.

[11] Washington College’s 1865 Financial Report. Special Collections of Leyburn Library. Trustee’s Papers Folder 162.

[12] Washington College’s 1870 Financial Report. Special Collections of Leyburn Library. Trustee’s Papers Folder 183.

[13] The school’s financial reports were sent to the board in June after the school year was finished

[14] Newspaper Advertising Bills. Special Collections of Leyburn Library. Miscellaneous Archival Papers Box 3, Folder 33.

[15] Robert E. Lee, 1870 Report to the Board of Trustees. Special Collections of Leyburn Library. Campbell Collection Box 2, Folder 13.

[16] Robert E. Lee, 1868 Report to the Board of Trustees. Special Collections of Leyburn Library. Trustee’s Papers, Folder 172.

 

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