A few words of explanation seem necessary. I was a sophomore at Washington College during the session of 1860-61. On the breaking out of hostilities at Charleston in the spring, or, rather, when the secession of Virginia became inevitable, the college was converted into a military school and the students, with some of the professors, formed an infantry company, the “Liberty Hall Volunteers.” I joined the company, but when it was disbanded (temporarily) by order of Governor Letcher, I went to western Virginia and some months later enlisted in an artillery company (afterwards known as Bryan’s Battery) that was being formed, and served Until the end of the war, at which time I was in my twenty-first year. I was unable to return to college until the spring of 1866, five years from the suspension of academic studies on account of the war. I was a student from this time until I received my master of arts in June, 1869, but was also tutor and assistant professor from 1867 on, and in 1870 became a member of the faculty.
When I arrived at college, before taking any steps towards matriculating, I visited several lecture rooms during recitation. The last of these was the mathematics room. At the close of the lecture Professor A. L. Nelson went to General Lee’s office, which was adjacent, to arrange for an introduction; but General Lee returned with him and I was introduced in the lecture room. The conversation lasted a good while, but nothing worth recording was said by Lee, and the incident is here mentioned because of only one fact. When a man has become famous there is usually a feeling of disappointment when we first form his acquaintance and the near approach removes much of the enchantment. We think, “Why, he is only a man.” But in this case my experience was just the reverse. Before the introduction I felt no trepidation, but as the conversation proceeded I began to feel embarrassed, and the feeling grew steadily. When the interview was over General Lee seemed farther removed, less human, I might say more superhuman, than he did before, and every subsequent interview intensified this feeling. George Washington also is said to have possessed this characteristic, and I do not know whether any one has ever offered a satisfactory explanation in either case.
It is a well-known fact that General Lee was an advocate, both in precept and in practice, of personal freedom. He believed that after the age of responsibility is reached a young man ought to be allowed to develop his own character, obviously bad influences being withheld and obviously good influences brought to bear, but no compulsion nor repression applied except as a final resort. It was this tenet alone that prevented Lee from being an ideal soldier; but an ideal soldier cannot be an ideal man.
At that time many students were mature men, including not a few who had served in the Confederate army. Lee naturally attached importance, under his theory of government, to the prevailing views of these men in regard to the administration of college affairs. By way of illustration I may state that more than once, after I became an instructor, I heard him express dissatisfaction when a glowing account was given of the number of new students that had arrived at the opening of a session. He would say: “But how many old students have returned? That is the measure of the satisfaction we are giving and hence of the efficient discharge of our duty.” Here, by the way, there was an error which his own modesty prevented him from seeing. Very many students came for the sole purpose of seeing, knowing and being under Lee, and one session accomplished all this.
General Lee, I observed, often took a humorous view of an occurrence or situation. Many instances of this are recorded, but I add still another, however trivial it may be. When I was assistant in ancient languages I was present at the examination of the senior Latin class. The professor was conducting an oral examination. His son was a member of the class, and certainly was not shown any favors. The professor questioned him long and closely, and at last asked him a very difficult question. The young man leaned forward, contracted his brows, riveted his eyes upon mine and remained in that attitude for several seconds (all unconsciously, as he afterwards told me), when General Lee burst into a hearty laugh, and then, by way of apology or explanation, said: “He is trying to absorb it from Mr. Humphreys.”
“Mr. Humphreys! However long you live and whatever you accomplish, you will find that the time you spent in the Confederate army was the most profitably spent portion of your life. Never again speak of having lost time in the army.”
Just once it was my lot to receive a severe rebuke from General Lee. While I was an undergraduate my health seemed to become impaired and he had a conversation with me about it, in which he expressed the opinion that I was working too hard. I replied: “I am so impatient to make up the time I lost in the army– “I got no farther. Lee flushed and exclaimed in an almost angry tone: “Mr. Humphreys! However long you live and whatever you accomplish, you will find that the time you spent in the Confederate army was the most profitably spent portion of your life. Never again speak of having lost time in the army.” And I never again did.
— Excerpt of address by Milton W. Humpreys during the Lee Centennial observation at the University of Virginia, 29 January 1907; Alumni Bulletin, Vol. vii., No. 2.