Robert Saunders was born on January 25, 1805 in Williamsburg, Virginia. The Saunders family had settled in Virginia in the 17th century and accumulated properties along the York River and in, and near, the town of Williamsburg.
Saunders attended the College of William and Mary and received a A.B. degree in 1823. He also attended the University of Virginia, during its first year of operation, taking classes in law. In 1833, he was offered and accepted a position as professor of Mathematics at the College of William and Mary. In 1835, Saunders inherited a house and surrounding lots on the Palace Green, and a farm along the York River from his father. The Saunders properties were maintained by slave labor.
Saunders lived in Williamsburg all his life with the exception of a period during the Civil War. At various times during the decades of the 1840’s and 1850’s he was mayor of Williamsburg and served as a vestryman at Bruton Parish. His public service also included periods serving as President and on the Board of Directors of the Eastern Lunatic Asylum located in Williamsburg. In 1846, he served as the second president of the newly formed William and Mary Alumni Association.
Saunders remained as Professor of Mathematics at William and Mary until 1848. In June of 1846, Thomas Roderick Dew, the president of the College, chose Saunders, as senior member of the faculty, to act on his behalf as president pro tem while he traveled through Europe on an extended honeymoon trip. After Dew’s untimely death Paris in August of 1846, the Board of Visitors asked Saunders to remain as president pro tem while they searched for a new president. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to hire a president, Saunders was narrowly elected president of the College. His tenure, though short, was filled with controversy and dissent. To the dismay of the Board of Visitors and the townspeople of Williamsburg, and prompted by falling enrollment and deteriorating conditions of the college buildings, members of the faculty, John Millington and Charles Minnegerode; organized an effort intent on moving the College to Richmond. Saunders was in sympathy with the plan. When the Board of Visitors chose alumnus Archibald Peachy to fill the chair of Moral Philosophy vacated by Dew over George F. Holmes, considered by most, including Saunders, to be more qualified for the position, Saunders protested the selection as being based on nepotism. Peachy’s father, Dr. Thomas G. Peachy, sat on the Board of Visitors. The Board’s reaction to the continuing controversies was to request the resignation of Saunders and the entire faculty with the exception of N. Beverley Tucker of the Law School and to close the College, with the exception of the law school for the 1848-1849 term while renovation, reorganization and the hiring of new faculty took place. After his forced resignation, Saunders never returned to the College.
In the year following his removal, Saunders traveled to Europe with the daughter of General Nathanael F. Greene. General Greene was the commanding officer of Saunders’ father during the Revolutionary War. There, they visited the family of the Marquis de Lafayette.
Robert Saunders married Lucy Burwell Page, the youngest daughter of former Governor John Page, on June 19, 1828 in Williamsburg. Lucy’s family was prominent in Virginia. The long and distinguished line included Colonel John Page in addition to the former Governor Page. Robert and Lucy had five surviving children; Mariana Barbara (b.1829 who was to marry Reverend George T. Wilmer), Lelia Page (b. 1839 who died unmarried). Roberta (b. 1844), Robert Page (b. 1845 who served in the Civil War), and Margaret (called Peggy who married William Botts, member of a Whig political family).
Saunders was elected to the Virginia State Senate as a Whig in 1852. He was to serve three, two-year terms representing Williamsburg and the surrounding area. He participated in the secession debate upholding the states’ rights argument for slavery, but opposing Virginia secession and the establishment of the Confederate States. After leaving the State Senate, he was President of the York River Railroad, a line that had terminals at Richmond and West Point, until November of 1861.
In May, 1862, Saunders abandoned his post as President of the asylum and the family deserted their Williamsburg properties as General McClellan marched on the city. Robert went to Richmond, while Lucy and the children sought safety at Pittsylvania Court House. Struggling to find work to support his family, Saunders took a menial position as clerk in the Confederate Treasury Department. From this, he was eventually promoted to Captain in the Quartermaster Corps and charged with the collection of the tax-in-kind in several southeastern Virginia counties