James Henry Lane (1833-1907) was a Virginia native and Confederate general during the Civil War, and he was also a noted educator. Lane was largely responsible for the creation of the engineering programs and Cadet Corps at what is now Auburn University. During his 25-year tenure at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College (as Auburn was known at the time), the Engineering Department won national and international awards and honors, which helped turn the new land-grant college into a leading educational institution. He also served as the Alabama State Statistical Agent for the Alabama State Department of Agriculture. By the time of his arrival in Auburn in 1882, Lane was already a military hero. During the Civil War, Lane led troops in a number of important battles with the Army of Northern Virginia and was present when Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered on behalf of the Confederacy at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865.
Lane was born July 28, 1833, at Mathews Courthouse, Virginia, to Walter Gardner and Mary Ann Henry Barkwell Lane. Both sides of Lane's family were long-time and distinguished residents of Tidewater Virginia. His great-grandfather Ezekiel Lane was instrumental in the establishment of Mathews County in 1790. Lane's grandfather William Lane served in the Virginia militia in America's first two military conflicts, the American Revolution and the War of 1812. His father, Walter Gardner Lane, was a merchant, justice of the peace, member of the Virginia Legislature, and colonel in the Virginia militia. Walter Lane was well respected in his community as honest and hard-working, traits that marked James Henry Lane's character throughout his life.
Lane's education began in a small school with a basic curriculum. Teachers practiced corporal punishment, and Lane quickly learned to maintain a disciplined demeanor there and at home. Later, a tutor prepared him for entrance into the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) at Lexington, Virginia. There, Lane studied under Maj. Thomas Jonathan Jackson, later known as "Stonewall," one of the most highly regarded generals of the Confederate Army. Lane graduated second in his class in 1854.
In 1856, Lane enrolled in the University of Virginia, where he studied natural science and mathematics, leaving in 1857 to pursue a career in education. He returned to VMI as a professor of mathematics, then in 1858 moved to Virginia's Upperville Academy, where he served as principal. In 1859, he became chair of the Department of Mathematics and Military Tactics at the State Seminary west of the Suwannee River in Tallahassee, Florida (present-day Florida State University). In 1860, at the recommendation of Jackson, Lane was appointed as professor of natural philosophy and instructor in military tactics at the North Carolina Military Institute in Charlotte.
Lane was not a supporter of secession, but when news of the war reached the North Carolina Military Institute in 1861, professors Lane, Daniel H. Hill, and Charles C. Lee, as well as most of the cadets, volunteered for service to the Confederate States of America. During the war, Lane was involved in almost every major battle fought by the Army of Northern Virginia and rose to the rank of brigadier general. He was wounded three times and had a number of horses shot out from under him, but perhaps his worst experience was at the Battle of Chancellorsville, where both his brother and now-Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson were killed. In a tragedy that would haunt Lane for the remainder of his life, Jackson was shot and wounded accidently by Lane's own troops. On April 9, 1865, Lane was with General Robert E. Lee when he surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. After his parole, Lane traveled back to his parents' home in Mathews Courthouse. In the years that followed, Lane attempted to re-establish his education career and founded schools in Concord, North Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia. On September 13, 1869, Lane married Charlotte (Lotte) Randolph Meade, with whom he would have four daughters.
In 1872, Lane resumed his college teaching career, accepting a position as professor of natural philosophy, chemistry, and military tactics at the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) in Blacksburg. During his eight-year tenure there, Lane wrote a handbook on military tactics and imposed strict discipline on the Corps of Cadets. In 1880, Lane and the college president were involved in an argument that turned violent, and both men were forced to resign. Despite this, the Cadet Barracks was later named in Lane's honor, and Lane's Handbook of Military Tactics continued to be used by the cadets.
In June 1882, Lane was elected commandant of the Corps of Cadets and professor of engineering at the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College in Auburn. He immediately requested additional instructional material and equipment, which were severely lacking, and acquired support from several of the leading engineering schools in the nation. Lane taught six classes a day, then moved on to his duties as commandant, which included drilling the cadets and instructing them in military tactics. He found his workload unmanageable, however, and asked to be relieved of his position as commandant. Lane did not want the Corps of Cadets disbanded, however, because he saw it as a legal requirement of the school's land-grant status and a great source of discipline for the student body. Lane's handbook on military tactics continued to be used by Alabama A&M's cadets, and he observed the cadets as they drilled whenever his schedule permitted.
In 1883, Lane was appointed chair of Civil Engineering and Mining Engineering, a position he would hold until his retirement. Given his meager salary at Alabama A&M, in 1890, Lane applied for the position of Alabama state statistical agent within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He received the appointment in 1891, with a salary of $600 per year. Between 1895 and 1898, he also served in this position for the states of Louisiana and Mississippi.
In the last decade of the nineteenth century, Lane's home on the corner of Thach and College Streets (where the Ralph Brown Draughon Library stands today) was the headquarters for dignitaries visiting campus. According to legend, he sat on his front porch under the live oak trees in the evening and shot cats with his Confederate Army pistol. Lane was also the father-in-law of George Petrie, who served as the first football coach at Auburn, wrote the Auburn Creed, and taught in the school's History Department. Lane retired on June 3, 1907, and was elected Emeritus Professor of Civil Engineering, the first time the title had been bestowed on a professor at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (the name Alabama A&M adopted in 1899).
Although he had spent most of his life as an educator, Lane was always in his heart a soldier. A favorite prank of upperclassmen was to send a young freshman to ask a question of "Professor Lane." Lane's response was always the same: "Young man, I'll have you know I followed General Lee, and I'll have no upstart freshman calling me Professor. I am General Lane and don't you forget it."
Lane suffered a stroke on the morning of September 21, 1907, and died that afternoon. He was buried on September 24 with full
military rites in the Pine Hill Cemetery in Auburn beside his wife, Charlotte. His gravesite marks the final resting place
of a man who gained fame as one of Lee's lieutenants during the Civil War and one of the Confederate soldiers who helped to
rebuild the educational and cultural landscape in the South after the war.
Phillips, Kenneth Edward. "James Henry Lane and the War for Southern Independence." Master's thesis, Auburn University, 1982
Kenneth E. Phillips
Wallace Community College
Published July 29, 2008
Last updated November 29, 2011