Washington and Lee University

Harriotte Lee Taliaferro
Memoir, 11–21 April 1861

Note: The following is taken from the October 1949 issue of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (volume 57), pp. 416–20.

APRIL 11–21, 1861
With Introduction and Notes by LUDWELL LEE MONTAGUE*

HARRIOTTE HOPKINS LEE was the daughter of Cassius Francis Lee, of Alexandria, a first cousin, boyhood companion, and life-long confidante of Robert E. Lee. She also was intimate with the family at Arlington: Annie and Agnes Lee were her bridesmaids when, in November 1860, she married Thomas Seddon Taliaferro, of Gloucester County. The document here presented is her account of a journey from Gloucester to Alexandria coincident with the secession of Virginia. As such it affords an interestingly personal view of conditions in eastern and northern Virginia during those exciting days. Moreover, it presents new evidence regarding the movements and attitude of Robert E. Lee after church on Sunday, April 21, 1861.

Some uncertainty has existed regarding Lee's movements after parting with the three strangers who spoke with him in Christ Church yard. Dr. Freeman, after disposing of the supposition that they had offered him command of the Virginia forces, refers the reader to A. J. Wedderburn, Souvenir . . . of Historic Alexandria . . . , “for sundry other details, probably in part apocryphal.”1

Wedderburn's interest was in Alexandria antiquities and his purpose was to show that it was precisely at the old Lloyd House (not at Christ Church) that Lee first learned that he would be offered the Virginia command. Wedderburn had this on the authority of Miss Minnie Lloyd herself. Her recollection (in 1907) was that she had conducted Colonel Lee directly from church to her home, and that there her sister, Mrs. Tabb,2 newly arrived from Richmond, had told him of having traveled to Alexandria with a committee coming to offer him the command. Lee declined to say whether he would accept such an offer and left to return to Arlington.

The present document, written in 1907, was the outgrowth of Mrs. Taliaferro's comments, within the family, on the Lloyd-Wedderburn account. It was at the insistence of her daughter, Harriotte Lee Montague, that she was persuaded to record her own recollections of that time.


No storm that I have ever known has impressed my memory as did the one that swept the Atlantic coast in the spring of 1861. Even now I can recall the nights during which the rocking of the house and the rattling of the windows caused me more alarm than I have since felt during a storm on shipboard. I can see the waves as they dashed far over the tops of the bathing houses and boat houses and wharves along the river, carrying them to destruction, and the oyster schooners being driven from their anchorages and landed high and dry on shore. It strikes me how little we thought of what might be the state of things outside of our own little county that I should have planned, just after this tempest, to make a trip to my childhood home in Alexandria.

The mail came to us twice a week, brought by an overland rider from Richmond. Our chief means of travel was to take a steamboat on Yorkr iver which connected Baltimore with Richmond via the York river railway from West Point.

On Monday morning April 153 a friend4 and I waited 8 hours at the boat landing, but no boat came—why we could not think! Likely we considered that the storm had been our own private property and did not imagine that other parts of the country had been at all concerned in it. On Friday the 19th we made another effort to go to Richmond which was en route for Alexandria. On coming to Gloucester Court House we found the whole village in commotion. Virginia had seceded!

Why this sudden action no one knew. The mail that had come two days before brought no intimation that the convention then in session in Richmond was about to pass an ordinance of secession.5 All that was known was the fact that it had been done and nothing more. The only hope for news was in the steamboat from Baltimore and every man who could obtain a horse or a vehicle started for the York river in the effort to hear what had happened.

But lo! when we reached the landing it was found that the storm had made havoc of the wharf, which was three quarters of a mile long. Only the pier was left. The travellers were helped on their way by the necessity for news. A yawl boat was obtained in which we got, with every man who could find foot hold beside. The Atlantic had not yet quieted itself, and the waves that she sent up the river made our trip in the overladen boat one of peril. If we did not reach the pier ahead of the steamboat, the danger was great.6 But every man was more or less a seaman. Some piles from the wharf were still left, and some of the men getting on them and with a rope were able to keep the boat's head from drifting, and so we reached the pier, but only just before the steamboat got there.

I do not remember that I was interested while on the steamboat in hearing why Virginia had seceded, my thought being only on the dangers that we had escaped. But while I was on the train W. H. Fitzhugh Lee7 came into the car and took his seat beside me. He told me that he had heard rumors that his father Robert E. Lee and his brother Custis were in Washington under arrest, and that he was going to Richmond to try and hear some . . .8

. . . than I had gotten from Fitzhugh Lee, but still I felt uneasy at what he had said especially about his father and brother.9

On Saturday April 20 we started at 7 A.M. to continue our journey [from Richmond] to Alexandria. The usual route was by the Fredericksburg Ry. to Acquia Creek landing, where a steamboat took us up the Potomac. But now the steamboats were detained in Washington and not sent to the seceded State. Therefore it was necessary to go to Gordonsville by the Virginia Central. But this road was in trouble from damaged bridges and washouts and not running trains out of Richmond. Because of this difficulty we were obliged to take the Fredericksburg & Potomac as far as Hanover junction. Can I ever forget the crowded train? People from all parts of the country hastening to get home. I was provided with a seat, but all standing room was taken, even where it was possible to crowd between the seats. The unpacking and packing at Hanover junction as well as the circuitous route, must have delayed the train, for when it reached Gordonsville, we had failed to make connection with the Orange and Alexandria.

What was to happen next we could not tell! I think there was no passenger station. We sat around on a platform on boxes and trunks, without food, waiting for what might come. The depression of some was as great as the excitement of others and all sorts of rumors were afloat. A man who claimed to be Mr. Benjamin, formerly U.S. Senator from Louisiana, told many secret things that the War Department proposed to do, one of which was to bombard and destroy Alexandria. Was it the excitement, or was it that we knew less of the world in those days, that we accepted such stories? Later it was found that the man was only a drummer for a Jew clothing house in Baltimore making his way back to that city.

About 4 P.M. we were notified that there would be a train. How glad we were to get on it! At all the stations where we stopped we found crowds of people. A special train might give them some special news. We knew afterward that we were on a special mission,10 but we did not know it then.11 There was a crowd also to meet us on reaching Alexandria, and as soon as I could get an omnibus,I started for my home.

How I can recall my father's bright smile of welcome when he recognized the unexpected visitor! After our greetings, I asked, “Can you tell me anything of Cousin Robert” “Robert Lee?” he replied. “I don't know anything in particular.” I said, “Fitzhughh as heard that he is under arrest in Washington.” He said, “I don't think it can be true. I know he was at Arlington yesterday.”

The next morning on entering old Christ Church the first thing my eye rested on was Col. Lee seated in the end of his pew. He had sent me a saucy message to the effect that I was too young to be married, that my father ought to have scolded me for having the idea and told me to stay at home. But I was not remembering this now. I was thinking how his hair had become sprinkled with grey in the two years I had not seen him,12 and that he looked older than my father who was about the same age.13 I planned in my mind more than I should have done during the hour of worship what I would tell him of Fitzhugh's fears for him, but when the service was over he was nowhere to be seen.

The Arlington carriage was standing before the house of a relative,14 so there I went and found his daughter waiting. We had a long talk and I think alone, the family not having returned from church. There was so much to be heard on the street that it was not easy to stay in doors. But Col. Lee's daughter had her own distress and seemed not to care to mingle with the crowd. I told her of seeing her brother, but what she told me so filled my mind as to make me forget other things. She told me that her father had the day before sent in his resignation to the War Department. On my expressing my great pleasure she replied, “It is no gratificationto us, it is like a death in the house. Since my father went to West Point, the army had been his home and his, life, he expected to live and die belonging to it, and only his sense of duty made him leave it.”

After waiting for some time and my Cousin Robert not returning15 I went to my home, to find that my father was also missing. We were waiting dinner, but he did not come. After some time he appeared [explaining] that he had taken a long walk with Robert Lee up the canal.16 “He has been offered command of the Virginia forces17 and is much disturbed as to what he shall do.”18 My father told us that he had advised him to do nothing until the ordinance had been ratified by the people,19 and that he had replied that he preferred to do that, but he did not know that it would be possible.20 We all know what he did do.21

I stayed in Alexandria three weeks,22 but saw nothing more of the family at Arlington. The daughters were occupied with the care of their mother who was in great distress of mind, and in preparing to leave the home to which, as time proved, they were never to return. My friends in Southern Virginia were much concerned at my prolonged stay, but if destruction was coming to the town, as every one thought, I wanted to be with it as long as I could. And my father insisted that so long as the family were safe at Arlington I must be safe too in Alexandria.23