“’My Chief Desire Is To Be Useful And Do Something For My Native State:’

The Reconstruction of George Washington Custis Lee”


J. Tracy Power, South Carolina Department of Archives and History



The wrenching shock of Confederate defeat and grim realities of immediate postwar adjustment, in personal and individual terms as well as in more obvious ones, needs a closer examination and more penetrating explication than it has received from most Civil War and Southern historians.  All too often the end of the war is seen as anticlimactic, as if it were something white Southerners had been consciously or unconsciously preparing themselves for since the twin disasters of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and as if the spring of 1865 was marked by relief, resignation, and acceptance more than by shock, despair, and bitterness.  The war was over, and that was that—or so many scholarly and popular studies would have us believe.  The reconstruction of the immediate postwar South, furthermore, is so often viewed through the lenses of politics, economics, race, or some combination of the three that its devastating impact on countless white Southern families and individuals is minimized or ignored altogether. 


The young men who have been called "the last generation" of antebellum Virginia were among those most psychologically affected by the disruption of the war and its aftermath.  Those sons of the white elite born in the 1830s and educated in the decade immediately before secession were the leaders on whom the future of their native state, and perhaps by extension the South as well, would depend.  As the sectional crisis intensified throughout the mid-to-late 1850s they prepared themselves for the very real possibility that they might have to do literally what they had offered to do rhetorically: fight to preserve the society their fathers were entrusting to them.  Once the war came, they fought enthusiastically, bravely, and at a tremendous cost.  This generation lost so much—whether physically, professionally, financially, or most of all, psychologically—that their lives were shaped and fractured as a result.


One member of that generation, who had in many ways more to live up to than any of his peers, fell so far short of expectations—of observers, friends, family, and most of all, himself—during the war and after it that his disappointments have defined him. George Washington Custis Lee (1832-1913), the eldest son of Robert E. and Mary Custis Lee, carried the combined burdens of the Washington and Lee family names and his record as a soldier, through little or no fault of his own, appeared in stark contrast to those of his grandfather "Light-Horse-Harry" and, of course, his father. Custis Lee seemed, in the words of his friend W. Gordon McCabe—to have “tasted but bitterly of the meagre ‘chance’ given him by fate, or fortune, or call it what you will.” This paper will examine the ways in which Lee attempted to reconstruct himself in the new world of the immediate postwar South.


After graduating first in his class at West Point in 1854, serving as an engineer in the antebellum United States Army, and then casting his lot with the Confederacy, Lee was assigned as an aide to Jefferson Davis, a position he held until the last few months of the war, in spite of his often-expressed desire to command combat troops. His disappointment at not being allowed to shine as a soldier, in a profession at which his grandfather, father, and even younger brothers all won their share of glory, remained with him for the rest of his life and was compounded by the frustrations of the immediate postwar years.


Lee was soon offered a post teaching at the Virginia Military Institute and would have probably remained a professor there had the board of trustees at Washington College not renamed the school Washington and Lee University and appointed him president at his father's death in 1870.  This position, one for which he had the necessary intellect but not the necessary energy and enthusiasm, was one which he did not seek and accepted only out of a sense of duty to his father, the college, and the young men of Virginia.  One of his first acts was to propose a comprehensive plan for the growth and development of  Washington and Lee.  When his plan, an ambitious one modeled on his father's plans for the school, was tabled by the trustees out of concerns over financial constraints, Lee became discouraged and confined himself to purely administrative matters rather than more substantive ones.  He was often ill, just as often depressed, and tried for more than 25 years thereafter to resign the presidency, each time only to be refused by the trustees, desperate to cling to the Lee name to keep the institution going.  He finally succeeded in resigning in 1897 and lived out the rest of his life in relative seclusion. 


As his friend McCabe observed, “In the contemplation of his career, one cannot, indeed, excape the constant suggestion of the touch of tragedy.”  The tragedy of Custis Lee might have been more pronounced–given his family heritage—than that of most of his contemporaries, but it was not an unusual fate among his generation, many of them young men who figuratively lost their lives in a war in which so many had literally done so.