Washington College was initially established in 1749 as the Augusta Academy by Presbyterian Scots-Irish settlers in the Shenandoah Valley. By 1780, it had relocated to Lexington and changed its name to Liberty Hall Academy. After George Washington donated one hundred shares of James River Company stock, valued at approximately $20,000, to the financially struggling school, it changed its name again, this time to Washington Academy. Later, in 1813, it became Washington College.
Throughout the antebellum period the college experienced modest growth. In 1839, the Virginia Military Institute arrived in Lexington, and was located adjacent to Washington College. Far smaller than VMI, Washington College employed only a president and three or four full-time faculty, as well as a handful of assistant instructors. Students delighted in circumventing the school’s rigid disciplinary code, and also formed literary societies to debate the important issues of the day—from married life to the fate of slavery in the United States.
Reflecting Virginia as a whole, the students strongly supported secession leading up to and during the Virginia Convention of 1861. Also mirroring the situation in Virginia as a whole, the older faculty members proved staunchly Unionist. Chief among them was Dr. George Junkin, a Presbyterian clergyman who had been president of the college since 1848. (Junkin’s daughter had married a young VMI instructor, Thomas J. Jackson, and died in childbirth in 1854.) While students raised secession banners and agitated for a Southern nation, Junkin declared, “Union was always the master thought in the minds of American patriots; that Union was the basis of all their actions; that without Union there could be no freedom, no national government, no independence.” Beyond simply lecturing his students, Junkin also set one student-raised secession banner on fire, exclaiming as he watched it burn, “So perish all efforts to dissolve this glorious Union.” The Virginia Convention voted to secede on April 17, 1861, not long after U.S. president Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers to put down the rebellion. Junkin resigned and returned to his native Pennsylvania.
Students, meanwhile, formed an infantry company known as the Liberty Hall Volunteers. It was later incorporated into the 4th Virginia Infantry Regiment as Company I, and became part of the Stonewall Brigade, serving in the Army of Northern Virginia until Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. By that time, only eight of the company’s original seventy-six men remained. Washington College alumni also served in other Confederate units, and a handful fought for the Union.
As with most other schools in Virginia, including Emory and Henry in Washington County and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the war proved challenging to Washington College. With a lack of enrollments, and trouble securing faculty, the school struggled through the first few years of the war. Then, on June 11, 1864, the Union army arrived. During his Shenandoah Valley Campaign against the Confederate Army of the Valley under Jubal A. Early, Union general David Hunter entered Lexington on his way to Lynchburg. He razed the Virginia Military Institute and the home of former Virginia governor John Letcher. Although Hunter’s men left Washington College standing, they ransacked the campus, destroying books and laboratory equipment, defacing buildings, and carrying away property. Washington College faculty immediately set about rehabilitating the school, but by the end of the war, they had made little progress.
Seeking a way to rejuvenate the school after the war, the Board of Trustees invited General Lee to become the school’s president. Lee accepted, and under his administration the Lexington Law School joined the college. Courses in business and journalism were added to the curriculum, as well as student electives. Lee also proposed expanding the college’s engineering and agricultural programs in order to instruct students in practical skills that might prove beneficial to the South during Reconstruction (1865–1877). Lee’s presence also attracted many former Confederates, and children of former Confederates, to the institution.
All in Lexington, however, was not placid. The postwar settlement, with the emancipation of enslaved African Americans and the arrival of the Freedman’s Bureau, upset many white southerners. Washington College students were among the disgruntled, and in 1867 several of them were involved in violent incidents targeting the local African American community. Lee publicly condemned these acts, although he probably did so in order to prevent retaliation and scrutiny on the part of the federal government. Near-constant attacks in the northern press on Lee and his college bore Lee’s fears out.
Lee died in 1870 and was buried at the school in Lee Chapel. In his honor, the school changed its name once more, this time to Washington and Lee University.