Some Personal Memories of General Robert E. Lee
W. W. Scott
Note: The following is taken from the October 1926 issue of The William and Mary Quarterly (Second Series, volume 6), pp. 278–88.
SOME PERSONAL MEMORIES OF GENERAL ROBERT E. LEE.
By W. W. SCOTT.
Beate vixisse videar quia cum Scipione vixerim. [I shall seem to have lived happily because I have lived with Scipio. Cicero, De Amicitia.]
It is a reasonably safe conjecture that I am one of the few living persons who, at the age of discretion, knew personally Gen. Robert E. Lee and Captain Matthew F. Maury; who served in Gen. A. P. Hill's old regiment, the 13th Virginia Infantry throughout Jackson's wonderful Valley Campaign, who helped to bury Jackson, and fired a farewell shot over his grave; and who later was a member of the rather famous Black Horse Troop of “Jeb” Stuart's Cavalry Corps.
I had larger opportunities for knowing Gen. Lee and Captain Maury than fell to the lot of many, for I lived in the same town with them from 1867 to 1869, and was not an infrequent visitor at their respective homes.
My visits, of course, were not to them but to the ladies of their families—their daughters who were my cotemporaries in point of age, and who became my friends.
Yet it often happened that, during these social calls, I had pleasant conversations with each of them, and the impressions then made are what I shall attempt to portray omitting the personal equation as much as possible.
There are many “Lives” of Gen. Lee; two of his nephews Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, and Mr. Edward Lee Child, and one of his sons, Capt. Robert E. Lee, have written biographies of him. Gen. Long, his military secretary and Chief of Artillery, made a complete failure in his “Memoirs,” of his chieftain, and there are biographies written by Thomas Nelson Page—a southern writer of distinction—and Dr. Henry Alexander White, professor of History in Washington and Lee University. Mr. Charles Francis Adams, and Mr. Gamaliel Bradford—a universal biographer—are apologetic and somewhat patronizing in their sketches of him. This is offensive to his old followers, who, while loyal citizens, have no apologies to make, nor desire any to be made for them.
It will not be questioned by intelligent readers that the most recent biography—which claims to be only a military biography—by Gen. Maurice of the English army—is far and away the best that has yet appeared, and will rank next to Col. Henderson's wonderful life of Stonewall Jackson. There are others, but they need not be mentioned here.
The Virginia Convention of 1861 passed the ordinance of secession the night of April 17th; passed it in secret session after months of wrangling. John Janney, of the great county of Loudoun, which lies on the Potomac just above Washington, was president of the convention. He was an earnest Quaker and a sincere lover of peace, who had been elected to the convention, and then chosen as its president, because he had publicly avowed his opposition to secession. But when President Lincoln issued his proclamation calling for troops for “coercion”—including a quota from Virginia—the convention that had resolutely defeated all ordinances that even suggested secession became practically a unit in favor of it almost in the twinkling of an eye, without even a dissenting quaker. Judge John Robertson, of Richmond, had been previously sent to Washington to interview Gen. Winfield Scott and Col. Lee, and try to induce them to link their fortunes with the Confederacy, and his official report of these interviews was long in the State Library. In recent years it has been mislaid, or has mysteriously disappeared, but not before I had become familiar with its contents. He had great difficulty in obtaining an interview with Gen. Scott and only succeeded after waiting two or three days. When finally received, he was treated with incivility—not to say discourtesy. Col. Lee had resigned before the Judge saw him, and accompanied him to Richmond, where he received his commission in open session of the convention, as “Commander in chief of the military and naval forces of the Commonwealth.”
Gen. Lee's response to Mr. Janney's announcement is so simple and direct that I quote it in full from the official journal:
Profoundly impressed with the solemnity of the occasion, for which I must say I was not prepared, I accept the position assigned me by your partiality. I would have much preferred had your choice fallen upon an abler man. Trusting to Almighty God, an approving conscience, and the aid of my fellow citizens, I devote myself to the service of my native State, in whose behalf alone will I ever again draw my sword.
It was while on his way to this meeting with the convention that I—a lad barely turned of sixteen—first saw him—the 22nd of April, 1861. The only all rail connection between Washington and Richmond at that time ran through my home county. It was a fourth Monday—the county “courtday”—and in the excitement of the time a great crowd had assembled. Somehow the news got abroad that Col. Lee would pass through the county seat that day, and there was a wild rush to the station. The train arrived, the crowd surged around it, with enthusiastic calls for “Lee,” “Lee.” At first he declined to appear, but the call was so persistent that he had to yield.
He appeared on the rear platform of the coach, dressed in citizen's apparel, a silk hat held in the bend of his elbow, dark hair with eyes to match, a short mustache without a single strand of grey; the finest presentment of a noble looking man I have seen before or since. He simply bowed to the crowd, said no word, re-entered the car, and the train passed on. But the next day in the exuberance of youth I ran away from home, and joined the army assembling at Harper's Ferry.
In the early part of 1862 the Confederate Congress enacted a conscription law enrolling all male citizens between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five.
Not yet eighteen by more than a year, I was discharged, and saw little of Gen. Lee until I re-entered the army in the Fall of 1863. His winter quarters in that year were in my native county and not far from my home. He regularly attended the services at the Parish Church, where the pew that he occupied has been duly labelled, and the tree in the church yard to which his horse was (alleged to be) hitched has been locally consecrated.
It may be suggested, however, that a General in command of an army is commonly attended by an orderly, who takes charge of his horse. Yet such was Gen. Lee's reverence for sacred things that he probably gave his orderly permission to participate in the worship. This would vindicate the tradition and the tree.
There are some local anecdotes well attested, during that period, which I have at first hand.
Several lady members of his family were with him, and some young kinswomen wished to visit them. There was no room for them in his scant Headquarters. Seeking accommodations for them at my aunt's, who lived near by, he was received by her husband who said he would have to consult his wife. Returning, he told him she would be glad to entertain them. “I am so sorry to give poor Mrs. H. so much trouble.” “No trouble to speak of sir, if the young ladies will only get ready for breakfast.” “Get ready for breakfast! They will be sure to do that, sir. They have been well raised.”
He was invited by a great nephew of President Madison, who was the husband of a great niece—notable entertainers—to dine at their handsome home; invited on the spur of
the moment, and without notice to the mistress of the mansion. It was “dinner time” when he arrived, to her great dismay. The dinner was a Confederate dinner, middling and turnip greens, corn bread and a few winter vegetables. She and General Lee were cousins, though distantly related. Overwhelmed with mortification that she had not a feast for him, her confusion was increased when he said, “Ah, my dear cousin, you have so many good things to eat that I hardly know where to begin.”
Such was a Confederate banquet to its chieftain in 1863!
I do not remember having seen him but once during the terrible Wilderness Campaign of 1864. It was near Spotsylvania C. H.—the strategic point that both armies sought to occupy after the bloody but indecisive battles in the “Wilderness.” The Cavalry had been holding our right flank for several days, and doing desperate fighting from before dawn till after dark. We held the enemy cavalry in check, but finally Warren's Corps of infantry came up and we were being pushed back rapidly. At the crucial—and the very critical—moment, Gen. Jeb Stuart arrived with Anderson's infantry division, placed it in our rear, and directed that when we next fell back we should run on over it without making any sign. Flushed with success, the enemy came whooping in pursuit of us. Our infantry withheld their fire until they were at close range. Then a volley all along the line, and terrible recoil, with many killed, wounded and captured. As I returned after the infantry had repulsed the attack, I saw General Lee on “Traveller” coming down the road; grey headed, grey bearded now; riding in a walk, without staff, without even a courier in attendance. Covered with the dust of the grey soil, silent, impassive, though the fate of his army was in the balance, he appeared to me to be dignity personified. Indeed, nobody but themselves can ever realize how the army of Northern Virginia loved and reverenced him.
The next day Gen. Sheridan began his raid on Richmond, which our cavalry had to follow, and I saw Gen. Lee no more till after the war, when my personal acquaintance with him really began.
Many offers of position, with munificent salaries, were made to Gen. Lee in the years immediately succeeding the war. He declined them all, being unwilling to make an asset of his name. Arlington, his home, had been confiscated by the government, and his outlook upon the world seemed rather void of hope. He was staying at his brother Charles Carter Lee's home in Powhatan County—about thirty miles above Richmond.
John W. Brockenbrough—an eminent patronymic in Virginia—was Federal District Judge before the war. He was a resident of Lexington, and a man of distinguished talent. I have it from his own lips that he borrowed a coat and a horse, and rode down the canal tow path from Lexington to Powhatan—nearly one hundred and fifty miles—to see Gen. Lee, and urge him to become president of Washington College. The College at that time was little more than a ruin. Classes had been practically suspended while the war lasted; its halls and dormitories had been defiled, and it had become a pathetic memory, though it was the successor of a “Liberty Hall Acadamy,” which George Washington himself had endowed.
Judge Brockenbrough's mission was successful. Gen. Lee accepted the presidency, and thenceforth his residence was in Lexington, and he is buried in the chapel of the College that he brought back to life. Nearby—in the town cemetery—lie the remains of his great Lieutenant, Stonewall Jackson—two stars set in a single sphere, but fixed stars in the galaxy of fame.
His acceptance of the presidency seemed almost to work a miracle. To state it mildly, the college was, at best, moribund at that time. With Lee as president it was not only revived but revivified. Students came flocking from every southern State, and some even from the north of the Potomac, which river had become practically a new Mason and Dixon's line during the four years of civil strife.
The section of the great Valley of Virginia around Lexington was largely settled originally by Scotch-Irish, who seem to be born Presbyterians of the strictest sect. The college was a Presbyterian institution, and it went something against the grain that an Episcopalian should become its official head. It had to be, else there would have been a caput mortuum, and the Board of Trustees promptly recognized that fact, and eagerly welcomed the prestige which they knew Lee's headship would insure. Additional buildings had to be erected to accommodate the influx of students. A large Mess Hall—the plainest of plain structures—was hastily erected, and later a handsome chapel, of semi-gothic architecture. I recall a visiting Presbyterian minister, chafing that an Episcopalian was president, mocked at both buildings, and said they ought to invoke some of the Saints' names to distinguish them.
He suggested “St. Barnabas” for the Mess Hall; “St. Roofus” for the chapel. But all went well, and college and town waxed strong under the new administration.
A handsome “President's House” was soon built, with a covered way to the stable, all under one roof. Gen. Lee playfully said to me, soon after his occupancy of the new mansion, that it was a great comfort to him to know that his horse—his favorite “Traveler”—was under the same roof with himself.
One incident in connection with the Mess Hall, “St. Barnabas,” may be narrated. The occasion was an alumni dinner. Let it be remembered that the memories of the war were still fresh in the minds of all who were present, and that the memory of “Army Contracts” was as fragrant then as now. It was my good fortune to be seated nearly opposite Gen. Lee. Also, it was long before Prohibition had ever been thought of.
The toasts were redolent of the spirit of the times. One was—“To the States of the Southern Confederacy.” Col. J. W. Massie, a noted local raconteur, then professor at the Virginia Military Institute, which had been burned by Gen. Hunter on his retreat from before Lynchburg but now restored and known as “the West Point of the South,” was to respond. He began with the usual apology, saying he could respond to a toast to a single State—even if that State were Virginia—but one to thirteen or fourteen was a task to which he felt himself unequal: that he was in the position of the little negro bootblack when several of Sherman's triumphant but dismounted troops, arrayed in huge cavalry boots, arrived in Washington for the grand review, after trudging on foot through the sands of the Carolinas. Besieged by the bootblacks with “shine, sir, shine sir,” one consented to be polished up. The little bootblack spreads his bit of carpet, kneels on it, and begins his “shine.” Soon comes his frantic appeal to another of his craft: “Jim, Jim, come here and lend me a little spit! Fore Gawd, I done got an army contract!”
The audience was convulsed, and Gen. Lee laughed until his face was purple—and continued to laugh, till, though convulsed myself, I was afraid he would fall in apoplexy.
It is an old story now, but was a new one then, and what is called a “hit;” and it set the table on a roar that Yorick himself could not have occasioned.
To visit the Lee home with some frequency was my high privilege for two years. My visits were to his two daughters then at home—Miss Agnes and Miss Mildred. Miss Mary Custis, the eldest was abroad, and I had only a very slight acquaintance with her. But of Miss Agnes I can hardly speak in terms too extravagant. A more gracious lady I have never known, one quite worthy of the noble compliment of Sir Richard Steele to a lady friend that “to know her was a liberal education.”
It often happened, when the ladies were out, or slow to appear, that Gen. Lee would sit with me for a while, and talk of old, unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago, but never a word about the war I wished so much he would talk about. Knowing I had been a soldier, he once asked what command I had served with, and when I said Gen. A. P. Hill's old regiment, and afterwards in the Black Horse Troop, he kindly replied that both had excellent records in the war.
Mrs. Lee, who was an invalid and had to be moved about in a rolling chair, would sometimes send for me when she had some newspaper clipping she wished inserted in the town paper, of which I was then local editor.
She told me an anecdote, which ought to be handed down to this generation of damsels who not only “differ with” but hold in contempt the doctrines of both St. Paul and St. Peter, in the matter of woman's apparel.
While she lived at Arlington she had as a neighbor an elderly Quakeress whom she esteemed highly, and who was uncommonly intelligent. She ventured one day, with some hesitation, to ask her how she reconciled the custom of women speaking in church with the teaching of St. Paul? Quick as a flash came the reply—“Oh, on that question I beg leave to differ with St. Paul.”
In appearance Mrs. Lee strikingly resembled the portraits of Martha Washington.
Once I was at the Lee home on the General's birthday, and was sitting with him when his son, Gen. Custis Lee, then a professor at the Virginia Military Institute, and later successor to his father as President of the college, entered the room. Memory of that meeting can never be effaced; the stately yet gracious greeting of the son and father, the familiar and fond aspiration that he might “enjoy many happy returns of the day,” brought tears to my eyes, and brings them still. But the aspiration was not to be fulfilled.
John Robinson's great circus came to Lexington during my residence there. Menagerie and circus alike had been unknown during the years of the war. It was a sensation when they appeared again. The highways of the county were emblazoned with flamboyant pictures of strange beasts and impossible exploits in the arena. Remembering that, before the war, a circus had not been considered a very high class entertainment, it was with some misgivings that I asked Miss Agnes to accompany me to the show. She said she would be glad to see it, and together we went in the best carriage I could hire. Soon after we had entered the tent, who should walk in but “Mars. Robert” himself; Mars. Robert in cavalry boots, riding costume and slouch hat! The tent was crowded to overflowing but there was a hush as soon as he was seen. He lent dignity even to a circus, and left in a few minutes after looking at the menagerie. The impression then created was that he was “one of the people”—one of the many traits that made him so much beloved by all classes.
It is a strange story, but a true one, that when he died there was not a casket to be had in the town. It was the time of the great freshet of 1870, when all the supplies of the local undertaker had been washed down the river, and communication with nearby cities and towns was impossible.
A coffin was seen floating down the river—a branch of the James—and two young men adventured their lives in the turbulent waters to secure it. Boat and coffin were stranded upon an island, and, when the flood subsided, were rescued. It was a handsome casket, of the right dimensions except fractionally short, necessitating the removal of his shoes. The whole South went into mourning for him, and even the North sympathized with our grief, and the name of the college became “Washington and Lee University.”
He was buried in the chapel which was built under his supervision, where lies, under a splendid recumbent statue of himself, a great soldier, a noble citizen, an humble Christian!
Postcript.—By way of postscript, I append what I am confident is the correct version of Gen. Lee's “Farewell Order,” about which there has been much dispute, and concerning which I have done much investigation of official sources.
There are two versions published in the “Official Records of the Rebellion,” which differ from each other. Gen. Long's version is fairly crammed with errors. Indeed, I have never seen in any biography of Gen. Lee, nor in any printed version, a correct copy. After quite a correspondence with Capt. Robt. E. Lee, Jr., I had (and have) a letter from him saying he is satisfied the version following is correct, and that he had directed his publishers to that effect if any subsequent edition of his book should be published.
The version given here is an exact copy of an original read by Major R. W. Hunter to Gen. Gordon's Division at Appomattox, of which he was Adjutant General, and of a copy owned by Mr. Briscoe B. Bouldin, which was brought from Appomattox; both autographed by Gen. Lee. There can be no doubt as to the genuiness of these versions, which are identical in every detail; which makes them all the more conclusive.
GENERAL LEE's FAREWELL ORDER.
Headquarters Army of Northern Virginia.
April 10, 1865.
General Orders No. 9.
After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.
I need not tell the brave survivors of so many hard-fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to this result from no distrust of them.
But feeling that valor and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that must have attended the continuance of the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen.
By the terms of the agreement officers and men can return to their homes and remain until exchanged.
You will take with you the consciousness of duty faithfully performed, and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you His blessing and protection.
With an unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration for myself, I bid you all an affectionate farewell.
R. E. LEE,