Henry Coppee worked as a railroad engineer in Georgia, served as a lieutenant and then captain in the Army during the Mexican War, and taught at West Point and the University of Pennsylvania before becoming Lehigh's first president in 1866.
Born in 1821 to a French family, Coppee went North for school. He attended Yale University to study civil engineering and graduated from West Point in 1845. Despite his background in engineering, Coppee taught a variety of courses at West Point from 1850 to 1855 including French, English, geography, history, and ethics. He then became a professor of English literature and history at the University of Pennsylvania from 1855-1866. When Asa Packer and his founding committee asked him to become the first president of Lehigh on November 4, 1865, Coppee accepted.
When the university opened, five professional schools were offered to students: Civil Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Metallurgy and Mining, Analytical Chemistry, and General Literature. The president required that all students study the same variety of subjects for their first two years of schooling including classes in math, science, foreign languages, and English. While Coppee was hiring professors for the university, the campus was being constructed as well. New buildings included the president's house, Christmas Hall (a former Moravian church), and the foundations for Packer Hall (the University Center). Also built were the observatory in 1868 and Saucon Hall in 1873.
Coppee offered his resignation as president in 1874 in order to devote his time to teaching. He agreed to keep the office until a replacement was found, and on September 1, 1875, Reverend John McDowell Leavitt assumed the position allowing Coppee to return to full-time teaching. He spent another two years as acting president from 1893-1895 after the sudden death of President Robert Lamberton. He served in this capacity until his own passing in March of that year at which point Professor William Chandler accepted the temporary position.
When Lehigh's first gymnasium, completed in 1883, was made the home of the Department of Arts and Science in 1914, it was named Coppee Hall in honor of the President. The building retains its name in its current capacity housing the Journalism and Communications program.
Coppee published a number of text books in a variety of subjects including logic, rhetoric, and English literature. His writings were also influenced by his time in the military through works such as "Grant, a Military Biography" (1866); "General Thomas" (1893), in the Great Commanders Series; "History of the Conquest of Spain by the Arab-Moors "(1881); an 1862 translation of Marmonts Esprit des institutions militaires, and the editing of the Comte de Paris's "Civil War in America."