On the outskirts of Washington and Lee University’s intimate campus stands the Lee House, an impressive yet simple southern home. The house received its name from its first and most famous occupant, Confederate Civil War General Robert E. Lee, who led the university from 1865 to 1870.
The Lee House was built specifically for the Lee Family, who lived there for three decades. In 1868, it cost $15,000 to construct, which is about $240,000 with today’s inflation. General Lee lived in the house with his wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, and their four grown children. Due to severe arthritis, Mrs. Lee was confined to a wheelchair and resided on the first floor. Therefore, General Lee commissioned the builders to create the wrap-around porch still present today. The servant call bells were also lowered so Mrs. Lee could reach them from her wheelchair. General Lee specifically designed a Gothic-style sun porch off his wife’s room so she could enjoy the sunshine.
Mrs. Lee’s sun room overlooked the stable adjoined to the house where General Lee kept his horses: Ajax, Lucy Long, and Traveller. Traveller was Lee’s favorite horse and was given free reign of Washington and Lee’s campus so he could roam and graze as he pleased. Traveller died a year after his master in 1871 from tetanus and was eventually buried beside Lee Chapel, the location of General Lee’s crypt. Today Traveller’s barn serves as the current university president’s garage. Tradition states the stable doors must be left open all the time so Traveller’s spirit may come and go as it pleases.
Lee’s favorite spot in the house was the dining room because of its big bay windows overlooking the campus with the Blue Ridge Mountains towering in the distance. In the fall of 1870, the General suffered a stroke after attending church. Lee was too weak to retire upstairs and, in response, a makeshift bed was placed in front of the bay windows, and was the place of his final breath. It was perhaps fitting that Lee died in his favorite room of the house. Following his death, Lee’s son, George Washington Custis Lee, took over as President of the university and changed the school’s name from Washington College to Washington and Lee University to honor his father.
Today, all university presidents and their families reside in the famous Lee House. The house’s current residents are the university’s 26th president, Kenneth Ruscio, and his wife, Kimberley Ruscio. They are the 12th family to live in the home. With such a long history, the Lee House has been rumored to contain many benevolent spirits, including the most famous ghost of Robert E. Lee’s favorite horse, Traveller.
Please listen to our Ghosts of Rockbridge podcast to hear more about the Lee House and Mrs. Ruscio’s personal experiences living in the home.