THE LAST GENTLE KNIGHT


Former Knight Commander John Temple Graves, a famous orator of his time, took the floor of the 1923 Convention to make one of his highly romanticized banquet toasts. In a few moments, his eloquence had not only raised the glass of every man in the room, but also captured the attention of the entire Order.

Graves' Convention toast heralded Robert E. Lee, and first designated him "spiritual founder" of Kappa Alpha Order. Since then, KAs have referred to Lee as such.

The designation Graves coined in 1923 expressed the feeling KAs had held for Lee for almost six decades. The four students who founded KA, and a fifth who wrote the Ritual, were profoundly influenced by Lee. He exemplified for them the highest standards, the most chivalrous conduct and the finest traits of manliness. Today, portraits of Lee are proudly displayed in KA chapter houses, and annually, on the anniversary of Lee's birthday, active and alumni chapters gather for Convivium, a celebration commemorating the founding of KA and Lee's spiritual ties to the Order.

Robert Edward Lee, born January 19, 1807, at his family's plantation (Stratford) in Westmoreland County, Virginia, was destined for greatness. Through his father, General Henry Lee, the celebrated "Light Horse Harry" of Revolutionary War fame, and his mother, Ann Hill Carter, he was a member of two of the most distinguished families of early America. The Lees and Carters belonged to the politically and socially influential planter aristocracy of the South. Lee counted among his ancestors members of Virginia's colonial House of Burgesses, two signers of the Declaration of Independence, members of Congress, a Cabinet official, several governors of Virginia, diplomats and military officers. Lee's family background presented him a tradition of patriotism, service and duty.

While he was still a child, the Lees moved from Stratford to Alexandria, Virginia, on the Potomac River near Washington, D.C. There, Lee matured quickly. He was forced to accept, at an early age, obligations brought on by his mother's chronic poor health, his father's involvement in political controversy and ruinous land speculations, and his father's frequent absences from home and subsequent death in 1818.

Lee entered West Point in 1825. From the beginning, he demonstrated the qualities of leadership and command that would characterize his long service as a soldier. When he graduated four years later, he was cadet corp adjutant, head of his class in tactics and artillery and second in general standing. He also graduated without receiving a single demerit.

By the time of his commissioning, Lee had developed traits of character which would distinguish him from his contemporaries and make him a legend after death. Of these traits, moderation, self control, duty, sincerity, consideration of others, courage, special regard for ladies, courtesy, honor, and deep religious conviction, he believed duty and honor to be especially important. Lee once stated, "There is true glory and true honor, the glory of duty done and the honor of integrity and principles." He also wrote, "Duty is the sublimest word in the language. You cannot do more than your duty; you should never wish to do less."

Lee's career as a U.S. Army officer began with assignments in Georgia and Virginia. In 1831, he married Mary Custis, great granddaughter of Martha Washington. Mary, heiress to extensive properties, owned Arlington, a massive white columned home dominating a hill overlooking Washington from the Virginia side of the Potomac. For the next 30 years, Arlington was Lee's beloved home-- where he and Mary raised three sons and four daughters and to where he always returned from military assignments.

After an appointment as assistant to the chief of engineers in Washington, Lee supervised projects near St. Louis, Missouri, in New York Harbor, and on the Atlantic coastal defenses. Lee's first combat experience, during the Mexican War (1846-48), earned him meritorious mention and a promotion to colonel. Afterward, he was Superintendent of West Point for three years and held commands in Missouri and Texas. In 1859, he attracted national attention when he successfully suppressed John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia.

As the 1850s drew to a close, Lee was deeply concerned about the dangerous sectional antagonisms gathering momentum and threatening to disrupt the nation. Dreading the thought of civil war, he fervently hoped solutions could be found to the issues that troubled the country. However, when the secession crisis developed in 1860-61, and war between the North and South seemed imminent, Lee, compelled by his great sense of duty, resigned his commission and followed his native Virginia out of the Union. In making this decision, he declined President Abraham Lincoln's offer to command the federal armies.

As a full general in the Confederate Army, Lee contributed his considerable talent as a military leader. His skill as a strategist and capacity to rapidly analyze a combat situation, combined with his ability to arouse intense devotion in troops, furthered the Confederate cause. But, Lee and the South faced overwhelming numerical superiority, production capability and unlimited supply sources.

The struggle of the War Between the States was a tragic American epic with heroism, sacrifice and anguish on both sides. Through four years of war, Lee moved down the long, bloody road that led from the Seven Days' Battle and Second Manassas, past Antietam and Fredericksburg, to Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Petersburg and Richmond, and ended at the Appomattox Courthouse.

The end of the War brought dramatic change to Lee's life. The Custis-Lee fortune was greatly reduced and Arlington was lost. His military career terminated, he was barred from public office, for which he was eminently qualified. Although he was among the first to accept the result of the War and to apply for amnesty, his petition was not acted upon until more than a century after his death. l However, Lee held no bitterness, nor did he indulge in self-pity. Determined to set an example for fellow Southerners, he hoped the emotions of war years would be forgotten and the work of rebuilding the South and creating a great, unified America could be accomplished. His superb dignity, courage, and noble character in the difficult post-war years intensified admiration for him, earning him the respect of even his former enemies. In defeat, Lee achieved his highest level of greatness.

In the summer of 1865, the Board of Trustees of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, voted unanimously to offer the college presidency to Lee. The College was in a precarious position with a very small enrollment and its buildings and facilities were seriously damaged from a war-time raid. Although he could have filled any of a number of honorable and lucrative positions available to him, the college presidency most appealed to Lee. The offer combined the opportunity to serve others, to guide young men in rebuilding the shattered South, and to educate them for the purpose, as he said, of being "good Americans." Accepting the trustees' offer, Lee moved to Lexington in October. Thus, the final phase of his career began--that of a gifted and innovative educator and inspirational leader of youth.

Lee's acceptance of the presidency was the salvation of the College. The mere word that Lee was heading the institution caused enrollment to triple, from almost 50 to 146 in the first year. Enrollment more than doubled the following year. His name attracted funds to rebuild the College and expand programs and curriculum.

Lee preserved traditional education, but added technical subjects such as agriculture, commerce and mechanical and civil engineering. But. most important of all was Lee's ability to inspire his faculty and students to excel. "Excellence" applied not only to academics, but also to general conduct, as illustrated by Lee's statement, "We have but one rule here and that is that every student must be a gentleman." One of the hallmarks of his administration was his personal interest in every student, and students returned his interest with the same affection, devotion, and respect.

Among the students at Washington College in 1865 were James Ward Wood, William Nelson Scott, Stanhope McClelland Scott, and William Archibald Walsh--all attracted by the presence of Robert E. Lee. These four united to found Kappa Alpha Order, which was originally called Phi Kappa Chi. In 1866, Samuel Zenas Ammen joined the chapter and transformed KA into an Order of Knights by rewriting the Constitution and Ritual. To Ammen and other brothers, Lee was the ultimate inspiration, and they wished to perpetuate his values. He personified the heroic knights of the past, representing their noblest ideals and traditions of chivalrous behavior. Indeed, even before his death, Lee was referred to as the "Knight of America "and "The Last Gentle Knight." It is this legacy which was adopted as the moving force of Kappa Alpha Order.

Lee died in the President's House at Washington College on October 12, 1870, and his body was entombed in the campus chapel building. Later, the grave was covered by a magnificent marble recumbent statue of Lee, lying as if asleep, carved larger than life.

"The Varlet" Copyright 1992
Kappa Alpha Order


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