Lee Chapel

Lee Chapel

Lee Chapel, whose spired clock tower rises above the tree-shaded campus of Washington and Lee University (formerly Washington College) in Lexington, Virginia, is the final resting place of Confederate general Robert E. Lee and is popularly known as "The Shrine of the South." Lee commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War (1861–1865). During his tenure as president of Washington College from October 1865 until his death in October 1870, he recommended the construction of and helped design a new chapel for worship and assembly. His wife, Mary Custis Lee, selected the chapel as Lee's burial site, and he was interred in a vault in the chapel basement. A mausoleum addition was dedicated in June 1883 that housed sculptor Edward Valentine's evocative memorial statue of the recumbent Lee. The nondenominational chapel was named a National Historic Landmark in 1961, and continues to accommodate large gatherings and special events. A museum on the basement level and tours of the chapel are available to the public. MORE...

 

In his first "Report of the President" dated June 1866, Lee requested that the Washington College board of trustees appropriate funds to build a larger chapel. Lee pointed out that the college needed a space large enough to accommodate the growing student body and suggested that the trustees convert the old chapel room into much-needed classrooms. The board assigned a committee to investigate the matter. One month later, the committee recommended approving Lee's request and submitted "a plan prepared by President Lee." Other evidence, however, including an 1866 letter from Colonel Thomas Williamson, the Virginia Military Institute's professor of civil and military engineering, indicates that Williamson was the architect, while Lee and his son Custis Lee served as consultants. Illustrations of John Renwick's 1847 Smithsonian Institution building, also known as "The Castle," strongly influenced Williamson's delicate Romanesque design of Lee Chapel. Its gracefully flared tower and tall latticed windows stood in stark contrast to the rest of classical Washington College, whose distinctive colonnade it faces, and the gothic VMI campus.

The chapel, which Lee described as "a pleasing as well as useful addition to the College buildings," was dedicated on the morning of June 14, 1868. Later that afternoon, inaugurating a Washington College tradition, commencement exercises were held inside the chapel. With the start of the September term, the new chapel was used for daily religious services and as an auditorium. Lee attended the chapel service each morning and then walked downstairs to work in his office in the basement.

After Lee's death, his widow selected the chapel as his burial location. A funeral procession carried his remains to the chapel on October 14, 1870, and cadets from VMI provided the honor guard through the night. Lee's funeral was held the next morning, followed by his burial in a cement-lined brick vault in the chapel basement. A ceremony at the chapel on January 19, 1872—Lee's birthday—featured an address by Jubal A. Early in which the former Confederate general argued for Lee's "marvelous ability and boldness as a military commander." The speech was delivered in the context of arguments among former Confederates over who was to blame for Confederate defeat in the Civil War (and especially the defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863) and was a landmark event in the creation of the so-called Lost Cause view of the war.

Just one year after his death, in 1871, the Lee Memorial Association commissioned a life-sized marble statue from Edward Valentine. No suitable home was found for it until June 28, 1883, when the Lee Mausoleum and a memorial room were dedicated at the back of the chapel.

Lee's tomb and statue were venerated from the moment of their creation—in line with Lee's status as the ultimate hero in the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War—but the chapel only gained recognition as a sacred shrine after the turn of the twentieth century. Discussion of enlarging the chapel in the 1920s helped solidify its status as a memorial to the life and character of Lee, but the chapel was fireproofed instead. Restoration work in the 1960s updated the structure but resulted in the loss of much original material. More conservative renovations in the 1990s provided modern wiring and amenities while protecting the chapel's architectural integrity. Although it is no longer large enough to accommodate the entire student body, the chapel and its grounds continue to serve as a site for important collegiate and civic events, and to honor the legacy of its namesake.

Time Line

  • June 1866 - Washington College president and former Confederate general Robert E. Lee recommends that the college's board of trustees construct a larger chapel on campus.
  • October 12, 1870 - Robert E. Lee dies of a probable stroke at Lexington.
  • October 14–15, 1870 - Following the death of former Confederate general and Washington College president Robert E. Lee on October 12, his remains are carried to Lee Chapel where they would lie in state before his burial in the basement vault.
  • 1871 - The Lee Memorial Association commissions Richmond-based sculptor Edward Valentine to create a marble statue of former Confederate general and Washington College president Robert E. Lee.
  • January 19, 1872 - Jubal A. Early, a former Confederate general who led a division at the Battle of Gettysburg, gives a speech at Washington and Lee University in Lexington criticizing James Longstreet's conduct at the 1863 battle. Early's campaign against Longstreet's reputation helps to formulate the Lost Cause view of the Civil War.
  • April 17, 1875 - "Recumbent Lee," a statue of Robert E. Lee by Edward Valentine commissioned by the Lee Memorial Association, arrives in Lexington. It will be housed at Washington and Lee University in the still-under-construction Lee Mausoleum.
  • June 28, 1883 - "Recumbent Lee," a statue of Robert E. Lee by Edward Valentine, is dedicated at Washington and Lee University in Lexington.
  • 1924 - Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University in Lexington is fireproofed, using funds originally raised to remodel it. Lee Chapel contains the final resting place of former Confederate general and Washington College president Robert E. Lee.
  • 1928 - The United Daughters of the Confederacy, in conjunction with Washington and Lee University, open a museum in the Lee Chapel basement.
  • 1961 - Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University in Lexington is designated a National Historic Landmark. Lee Chapel contains the final resting place of former Confederate general and Washington College president Robert E. Lee.
  • June 1962–October 1963 - Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, which contains the final resting place of former Confederate general and Washington College president Robert E. Lee, is refurbished. The work includes new structural elements, rebuilt walls, air conditioning, fire suppression, and updated electrical wiring.
  • 1997–1998 - Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, which contains the final resting place of former Confederate general and Washington College president Robert E. Lee, is restored and updated.
Further Reading
Bostick, Douglas W. Memorializing Robert E. Lee: The Story of Lee Chapel. Charleston, South Carolina: Joggling Board Press, 2005.
Connelly, Thomas Lawrence. The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: LSU Press, 1978.
Flood, Charles Bracelen. Lee: The Last Years. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.
Foster, Gaines M. Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865 to 1913. New York, New York: Oxford University Press US, 1988.
Lyle, Royster, Jr. and Pamela Hemenway Simpson. The Architecture of Historic Lexington. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977.
Wilson, Charles Reagan. Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.
External Links
Cite This Entry
APA Citation:
Wright, C. M. Lee Chapel. (2011, April 7). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Lee_Chapel.

MLA Citation:
Wright, C. M. "Lee Chapel." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 7 Apr. 2011. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: April 14, 2009 | Last modified: April 7, 2011


Contributed by Catherine M. Wright, the collections manager at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. She is the editor of Lee's Last Casualty: The Life and Letters of Sgt. Robert W. Parker, Second Virginia Cavalry (2008).