“Monsters Who Call Themselves Men”:
A Look at Sexual Misconduct During Reconstruction in Lexington
Over the past year, as the debate heated up about the presence of Confederate statues across the United States, The Atlantic’s The Myth of the Kindly General Lee frequently appeared on my Facebook newsfeed. The first couple of times I just scrolled past, disengaged. Then I saw a post by a friend where she copied and pasted the two paragraphs that specifically addressed Lee’s tenure at Washington College, and I decided to read it. The article claimed that Washington College students were involved in two attempted lynchings and Robert E. Lee “turned a blind eye to it” (Serwer 7). The author also alleges “students at Washington formed their own chapter of the KKK, and were known by the local Freedmen’s Bureau to attempt to abduct and rape black schoolgirls from the nearby black schools” (Serwer 7). I became most interested in learning whether the allegations of the rape and abduction of black schoolgirls was true.
In John McClure’s thesis on the Freedman’s Bureau in Lexington, a sense of the extreme tension following the Civil War emerges. The presence of Robert E. Lee, along with students and townspeople who previously fought in the war, contributed to a tense climate where people were expected to maintain an “antebellum racial etiquette” (McClure 98). Just like in other regions of the nation, Lexington struggled with establishing a new social structure that matched the growing legal equality of citizens across race. Along with this, as a college town, the average age was younger than most places of a similar size, and weapons often were used to establish one’s honor or status. Historian David Coffey mentions that a Lexington saloon owner believed “at least two-thirds of the students at Washington College were armed” (Coffey 277). As one third of the town’s population consisted of free blacks, this contributed to a hostile environment. In September 1865, the Lexington Freedman’s Bureau first opened its doors. They received twenty-eight complaints in the first month, often detailing instances of violence (McClure 99). The Freedman’s Bureau, through the establishment of fines, often would be able to carry out some semblance of retribution for crimes committed by whites against blacks as the civil courts maintained racial bias.
Both the cadets and the Washington College students remained continuously hostile toward anyone involved in the American Missionary Association’s school that educated the local black girls (McClure 104). In 1868, a Northern schoolteacher named Julia Anne Shearman taught at the school for African-American children. She received insults both for teaching African Americans and not supporting the Southern war effort (Crenshaw 572). Women in the town would force her off the sidewalk and into the mud while other townsfolk would curse her in the streets. On top of this, people walked by and called her a “damned Yankee bitch of a nigger teacher” and told her to live in “infernal regions” (Crenshaw 572). McClure confirms these instances as well, mentioning the racial slurs, college students forcing her off the sidewalk, and young men “brushing elbows” against her, which went against sexual mores of the time (McClure 106). Shearman knew Lee and informed him of the insults made against her by Washington College students and he “made no reply” (Crenshaw 572).
The sexual assault and misconduct allegations made in The Atlantic against Washington College students are likely completely true. The Freedman’s Bureau agent, Captain Sharp, reported that Washington College students and VMI cadets “frequently attempted to abduct willing and nonwilling colored girls for readily divined purposes” (McClure 107). The rape of African-American women in the South was common during Reconstruction. This sexually abusive culture attempted to reinforce the sexual mores of white men and black women during the antebellum period where female slaves possessed no rights to their bodies. McClure writes,
“In Lexington, some Washington College students and VMI cadets sexually abused black girls and young women, many of them students at the freedman’s school” (McClure 106). McClure goes on to detail two different attempted rapes committed by VMI cadets that were spaced two years apart. One cadet never had a warrant brought against him due to town pressure, while the Lexington mayor aided the other cadet in leaving town and escaping prosecution (McClure 107).
Beyond this, there existed a wide variety of other sexual relationships between the college students and the young black women of Lexington. From romance to prostitution to rape, it appears that black girls felt pressured to enter into any kind of sexual relationship with the older, white college students as social mores dictated their compliance. Often the missionaries dismissed students due to out of wedlock pregnancies because of concerns regarding the moral example that they would set (McClure 109). This completely disregards the circumstances or morals of an inherently powered relationship based on age, race, and gender regardless of consent. Erastus Johnson, another teacher at the school, wrote:
It is a lamentable fact that there is scarcely a virtuous girl here over 16 years of age. It seems to be the chief amusement of many of the Students at Washington College and the Military Institute here to seduce young colored girls, and they (the girls) never having known a will of their own submit to the brutal desires of these monsters who call themselves men (McClure 109).
Attributed to a large amount of college-aged men and smaller pool of women in Lexington, men became aggressive in their pursuit of sexual encounters. The element of race and age all contribute to the inability of black women to maintain a choice over their bodies and sexuality. Johnson also asserted that if the missionaries dismissed every girl in the night-school class who slept with students or cadets, there would be none left (Coffey 283).
In terms of The Atlantic’s claims that Robert E. Lee turned a blind eye to the behavior and actions of Washington College students, the conclusions remain less decisive. Coffey mentions that both Lee and the president of VMI would investigate any claims brought to their attention by the Freedman’s Bureau. Both presidents would then determine the penalties, which would often be expulsion (Coffey 281). None of the other sources I looked at specifically discuss Lee’s involvement in investigations of the rape and kidnap of African-American girls. However, many young girls and their families likely felt immense social pressure not to report any instances of sexual assault. How aware Lee was of the behavior and off-campus actions of his students remains unclear. Coffey acknowledges that Lee would have an inherent interest in maintaining order amongst his students, not only because of a goodness of spirit toward black Lexingtonians but because he know that “bad publicity in the northern press would complicate their fundraising campaigns with nonsouthern supporters” (Coffey 282).
Although the black schoolgirls in Lexington were not legally enslaved, the narrative surrounding their sexual assault and abuse questions how much free will and autonomy they had following emancipation. Emancipation does not automatically bring autonomy of your body and desires. The young black girls were not physically enslaved, but they were bound to the social mores of the time and that often meant that their sexuality was not their own.
While racial equality and inclusion has improved over time at Washington and Lee, we need to address our past in order to face our future. While helpful that a course on Washington and Lee’s history allows students to learn about our school’s ownership of slaves as well as our namesakes’ involvement in slavery, a larger portion of the student body needs to think critically about these issues. All students and faculty associated with the school indirectly benefit from our institution’s decision to own and later sell slaves. Beyond slavery, however, many aspects of R.E. Lee’s tenure as University President and the racial tensions between Washington College students and African-American members of the town remain unknown to the student body. If possible, I would require all students to write a short paper on the school’s history. While not all students are inclined toward research and writing, the act of choosing a topic on their own allows people to become more invested in what they are learning. I would also require a visit to Special Collections. The ability to see and touch historical documents allows students to recognize their significance. Both these tasks allow active participation and individual growth instead of passively listening to a guest speaker that often does not understand the emotional challenges of the school’s history and the difficulty of reconciling our notions of R.E. Lee as president and creator of our honor system with R.E. Lee as a Confederate Civil War general and slave owner. The recovery of history is an active process that remains painful for all people involved. Family discussions, trips to museums, and historic civil rights sites become personal and revelatory experiences. The long history of abuse, sexual assault, and misconduct against black bodies and black women remains something that we must reconcile and acknowledge. While a plaque of names or section in Washington Hall would be important, it is critical that all students engage in a more active discussion and participation in the process of history. Displays have a kind of distancing effect where people can conveniently remove themselves from the situation and believe that the burden of slavery and its consequences does not lie with them. Slavery’s legacy continued to hold African-American’s back after Emancipation, while white institutions profited from it across time. No one can completely remove themselves from the history and the institutions they find themselves in.
Coffey, David. “Reconstruction and Redemption in Lexington.”
Crenshaw, Ollinger. General Lee’s College: The Rise and Growth of Washington and Lee. Vol. 1, Cyrus Hall McCormick Library, 1973.
Gyasi, Yaa. Homegoing. Vintage Books, 2016.
McClure, John M. “Men in the Middle: Freedman’s Bureau Agents in Lexington, Virginia, 1865-1869.” Virginia Commonwealth University, 2003.
Pryor, Elizabeth Brown., and Robert E. Lee. Reading the Man: a Portrait of Robert E. Lee through His Private Letters. Penguin Books, 2008.
Serwer, Adam. “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 4 June 2017, www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/06/the-myth-of-the-kindly-general-lee/529038/.