One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 11, Number 3
March 2003

Although Robert E. Lee had fought many battles throughout much of Virginia, it was not until the spring and summer of 1865 that he had the opportunity to spend much time in the central part of the state. However, in the aftermath of the Civil War, there were three episodes in the General’s life that relate to the Piedmont: his return to Richmond from Appomattox after the surrender; his escape from Richmond to the solitude of Derwent in Powhatan County; and his trip to Lexington to become President of Washington College.

On Tuesday morning April 11, 1865 (some historians say it was the 12th), Lee, accompanied by his aides Walter Taylor, Charles Marshall, and Charles Venable, Major Giles B. Cooke, who was ill, a mess steward, and Norman Bell, a nineteen-year-old clerk detailed from the Norfolk Light Artillery, dismantled Lee’s bivouac near Appomattox Court House and headed north and east towards Buckingham Court House. The headquarters of the once-proud Army of Northern Virginia had been reduced to Lee and these six men, a single baggage wagon, and an ambulance driven by Bell. Union General John Gibbon sent along a Massachusetts cavalry platoon as an escort, but Lee soon declined the courtesy and after about a dozen miles, the escort turned back.

It was Holy Week, and Lee, like his army, was riding into history. The first night was spent two miles east of Buckingham Court House where the party pitched their tents in the woods along side the road. The spot is preserved today as a small wooded park on Route 60, known as Robert E. Lee Wayside.

The painful journey continued early on Wednesday, east towards Cumberland Court House. Colonel Venable soon left the group and turned south towards his home in Prince Edward County. A few miles past the Court House, the party turned north on today’s Route 45, towards Powhatan County. However, their plans were thwarted when Traveller threw a shoe, and the search for a farrier led them to Flanagan’s Mill in Cumberland County where they spent the second night. Traveller was shod that night and was ready for the road the next morning.

On Thursday Major Cooke left the party. Accompanied now by only Taylor and Marshall and the two drivers, Lee continued on his way to the home of his brother Charles Carter Lee who lived at Fine Creek Mills in Powhatan County. They proceeded via several secondary roads but soon came onto today’s Route 711 that led south and east parallel to the James River. On reaching Carter Lee’s house, they found it filled with refugees. Instead of staying with his brother, Lee pitched his tent in the front yard of John Gilliam whose land adjoined that of Carter Lee. It was Lee’s final bivouac, the last night he ever slept under canvas.

On Good Friday his son Rooney Lee, arriving from Appomattox, caught up with the shabby little caravan, as did Lee’s nephew John Lee from Carter Lee’s nearby home. The small cavalcade continued eastward that day down the River Road on the south side of the James River through Powhatan and Chesterfield counties. Adding to the somberness of their arrival in Richmond, it started to rain. We can only imagine the thoughts that must have crossed Lee’s mind when he viewed the ruins and devastation of the city that he had fought so many years to defend.

The party stopped at 707 East Franklin Street, a three-story, red-brick residence that Custis Lee had rented for the family during the war from John Stewart. There lee found his wife, the three surviving daughters, and two sons, Custis and Rooney. Only his youngest son Rob was missing, who would soon arrive from North Carolina.

A physically and emotionally exhausted Lee closed the doors at 707 East Franklin Street as a paroled prisoner of war. In addition, he had to worry about the possibility that the government might try him for treason. But, life had to go on. He could not stay walled up in Richmond for the rest of his life, and he had to earn a living. The fishbowl life of Richmond, however, was unacceptable and he clung to the idea of purchasing and working a small farm where Mrs. Lee and his daughters might live in peace and quietness.

Fortunately, about this time Lee received an invitation from Mrs. Elizabeth Randolph Cocke offering him and his family the use of a small vacant house on her Oakland estate, about fifty-five miles west of Richmond in Cumberland and Powhatan counties. He accepted and sometime between June 26 and June 30 the family took the packet-boat for an overnight trip up the James River and Kanawha Canal to Pemberton. The ladies slept below in the boat, but Lee spread his military cloak over him and slept on deck—the last night that he ever spent under an open sky.

Soon thereafter, the Lee family moved to “Derwent,” the small house about two miles away that Mrs. Cocke had offered them. After getting settled, the General rode about the countryside on Traveller talking to farmers and storekeepers. He became a familiar though revered figure in the community. Before too long, he rode over to General Cocke’s old mansion at Bremo, visited his brother Carter Lee, and even when he hand no mission, rode his beloved horse daily for exercise.

Unknown to General Lee, his retirement was about to end. The catalyst was provided by a chance comment made by his daughter Mary to a Richmond lady: “The Southern people are willing and ready to give Father everything he needs—except the chance of earning a living for himself and his family.” Her remark soon reached the trustees of Washington College in Lexington who were in the process of electing a new college president for the nearly defunct and bankrupt little school. So it was, that one day in August a tall gentleman came up the road to Derwent, unannounced and unexpected, with another summons to service for Virginia and the South.

The visitor was Judge John W. Brockenbrough, rector of Washington College. Judge Brockenbrough had come to offer the South’s most distinguished citizen the presidency of Washington College. Earlier Lee had turned down an offer from the University of the South, and a feeler from the University of Virginia. Usually decisive, he could not decide. A letter from his old chief of artillery, Brigadier General William N. Pendleton, now Rector of Lexington’s Grace Episcopal Church, encouraged, but did not fully convince him. Lee then sought the advice of another Episcopal minister, his friend Joseph B. P. Wilmer of St. Anne’s Parish in Albemarle County. Wilmer lived at “Plain Dealing” just a few miles south of Keene. Wilmer was anything but encouraging, saying that the job wasn’t good enough for Lee. According to Wilmer, “The institution was one of local interest and comparatively unknown.”

Leaving Wilmer’s house the next day, Lee rode back to Derwent where he continued to ponder his decision. Judge Brockenbrough persisted and he and other old friends appealed to Lee’s innate sense of duty to the young people of Virginia and the South to help heal the wounds of the war—that the South’s hope lay with her young. The attitude, which lay behind this philosophy, was not one of passive acceptance, but of an optimistic future. Lee accepted Washington College’s offer.

On September 15, 1865, five months after Appomattox, Robert E. Lee set out on his epic journey riding his faithful charger, Traveller. He sent his baggage up the canal and went alone, for it was not yet certain what accommodations could be found for Mrs. Lee and his daughters in the small town of Lexington. The road from Derwent to Lexington was a little over a hundred miles long. It would lead him through Central Virginia and Albemarle County.

His first stop was again at Bremo in Fluvanna County, the home of the Cocke family. The next night was supposedly spent with his old friend the Reverend Joseph Wilmer at Plain Dealing near Keene. If he took this route, he surely must have come up today’s Route 6 through Scottsville, before turning north on route 795 and then 712. There is some question about his exact route and where he stopped in Albemarle on this last rip, but on the third afternoon after leaving Plain Dealing, he reached the crest of the Blue Ridge, beyond which lay his future home. The story is told that Lee arrived unrecognized at three o’clock in the afternoon of the third day at the Mountain House, an inn near the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains at Rockfish Gap, where he rented a room for the night.

From Rockfish Gap, Lee rode west down into the Shenandoah Valley and headed south up the valley to Lexington where he arrived about 3 P.M. Of the trip the General wrote to Mrs. Lee back at Derwent: “I had a very pleasant journey here. The first tow days were very hot, but reaching the mountain region the third day, the temperature was much cooler. I cam up in four days’ easy rides, getting to my stopping-place by 1 P.M. each day, except the third, when I slept on top of the Blue Ridge, which I reached at 3 P.M. The scenery was beautiful all the way.”