One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 15, Number 4
April 2007

One of the most popular songs back in the late 1940s (and still one of my all time favorites) was Sentimental Journey played by the big band of Les Brown and his “Band of Renown,” and sung by a young vocalist named Doris Day. The opening verses went like this: “’Gonna take a sentimental journey, ’gonna set my heart at ease. ’Gonna take a sentimental journey to renew old memories.”

In many ways Robert E. Lee set out on March 24, 1870, on his final “sentimental journey.” he had been president of Washington College in Lexington for almost five years, and during that time had been a remarkably successful educator and administrator. But his health had declined measurably, and he was in almost constant pain. At the urging of the college faculty and his doctors, he reluctantly agreed to take a leave of absence and make a trip south to a warmer climate. It was hoped that a quiet and restful trip might help restore both his physical and spiritual well-being.

Accompanied by his daughter Eleanor Agnes, he left Lexington and went to Richmond where they unexpectedly and fortunately met Colonel James L. Corley who had been on Lee’s staff as quartermaster for most of the war. Corley learned that Lee and Agnes had naively assumed that they could handle their trip by themselves. Knowing that they could not, he graciously insisted on going ahead and to act as their “travel agent,” and make the necessary arrangements for their journey. After a short stopover in Richmond for a few days, the couple left by train on the afternoon of March 28 for Warrenton, North Carolina, arriving there that evening.

Lee’s daughter Anne Carter had died at Warrenton at age 23 of typhoid fever in 1862 and he had never seen her burial site. The next day they went to see the monument that the local people had erected at her grave at nearby Jones Spring Cemetery. It must have been an emotional moment for the old general because he had called Annie “the purest and best” of his children.

That night they again boarded the train to continue their pilgrimage south. It was a “sleeping train” and they had berths in the first Pullman car that either of them had ever seen as they proceeded through Raleigh, Salisbury, and numerous small towns on the way to Charlotte where they arrived on March 30th. Unknown to the two travelers the Warrenton telegrapher had wired ahead to all stations on the Charlotte, Columbia, and Augusta Railroad four legendary words that guaranteed the nature of the “sentimental journey” would be dramatically different from that Lee had planned or anticipated: “General Lee is aboard.”

As the word spread ahead of the train men, women, children, planters, servants, tenants, Confederate veterans, carpetbaggers, scalawags, the robust, the ailing, maimed and crippled assembled along the track and at every depot. They either cheered or stood in reverent silence when his train appeared. Bands played. “Why should they care to see me?” Lee asked as crowds gathered and clamored for him. “I am only a poor old Confederate.” His very reticence and humility only attracted people all the more. Food, flowers, and gifts were put on the train for him, and the crowds shouted “Lee! Lee!”

On to Charlotte, North Carolina, and a larger crowd and a bigger band. The train soon crossed into South Carolina and reached the capital city Columbia that had been nearly destroyed at war’s end. Even though it was pouring rain, another tumultuous welcome awaited them. Among the crowd were two of Lee’s former officers—Brigadier General E. Porter Alexander and Colonel Alexander Haskell. Lee had tried to avoid making appearances and giving speeches, but at Columbia he relented just a bit and put on his hat and coat and stepped out into the rain. Everyone wanted a speech but he simply acknowledged the crowd by lifting his hat and bowing to the thunderous ovation.

The party reached Augusta, Georgia, late in the day on March 30. Weary from traveling and the adulation that he had received, Lee spent two nights in a hotel hoping for some rest. But even Colonel Corley was unable to save him from a formal reception and other crowded events. it was in Augusta that a young boy of thirteen named Woodrow Wilson wormed his way through the crowd to stand silently by the side of the general and look up to him admiringly. It was a moment that the future president never forgot.

Two days later on April 1st Agnes and her father arrived in Savannah. Waiting for the train was the largest crowd that had ever gathered in that city. The throng was so thick that it took over a half-hour for the two of them and their escorts to get from the train to the carriage waiting to take them to the home of General Alexander R. Lawton where they were to stay.

They originally planned on staying a week in Savannah, but Agnes became sick and they ended up staying almost two weeks. Lee had particularly fond memories of the old city. His first assignment after graduating from West Point was at nearby Cockspur Island, and he had spent time there early in the war organizing its seaward defenses. Although he enjoyed Savannah, seeing old friends, and appreciated the hospitality, his letters home to his wife expressed regret that he had undertaken the long journey: “I wish I were back,” he wrote. Although the warm weather had apparently relieved some of his arthritic discomfort, the pain in his chest remained and he found it difficult to walk.

Amidst all the attention in Savannah, Lee had a chance to meet his old West point classmate and Confederate comrade General Joseph E. Johnston for the first time since the war. Their meeting was recorded in two classic photographs showing the proud, but aged old warriors seated on opposite sides of a small table.

Finally on the 12th of April the two boarded the steamer Nick King which sailed between Savannah and Palatka, Florida, by way of Jacksonville. The coastal route took them by Cumberland Island and a visit to his father’s grave at “Dungenes,” the place he had died in 1818. After Agnes decorated “Light-Horse Harry’s” grave with flowers, the party steamed on south to Jacksonville where a huge crowd gathered at dockside to greet them. From there they continued on up the St. John’s River about fifty miles or so to near the little town of Palatka to spend the night of April 13th at the home of Colonel Robert G. Cole, the former chief commissary on Lee’s staff.

After only one night in Palatka, they turned around and retraced their journey by boat to Savannah on April 16 where they remained for another nine days. On April 25 they traveled by train to Charleston, South Carolina, for yet another tumultuous welcome and a stay of three nights. After repeatedly declining invitations to make public speeches on the tour, Lee finally relented a bit in Charleston and thanked the crowd with a few sentences to the cheers of his audience.

From Charleston the train took them to Wilmington, North Carolina, for a two-night stopover, then at last back on Virginia soil at Portsmouth and Norfolk on April 30th where they were met by his former aide Lieutenant Colonel Walter H. Taylor. More crowds and pageantry greeted the couple during their five-day residence. The Lee’s public journey finally ended on May 5th when they took a steamer from Norfolk and away from the crowds to visit some old friends and family up the James River and in the adjacent Tidewater area. Their only companions for the next few weeks would be kinsfolk and friends.

The old general arrived back in Richmond on May 22nd where he remained for four days. During that time Lee consulted with some physicians, did some shopping, and consented to a youthful artist named Edward Valentine taking measurements for a bust that was to be made of him. A few weeks later Valentine made a trip to Lexington to complete his measurements and model a bust of Lee from life.

On May 26, Lee left Richmond for the last time and he and Agnes arrived back in Lexington on may 28 after an arduous trip of a little over two months. His health was no better if anything worse, but gives the itinerary of the farewell tour, the receptions, meetings, dinners, and other social obligations he had endured, he was lucky to be alive. But he did not rest, and continued to be active. During the summer of 1870 he visited Baltimore, Alexandria, and Hot Springs and in late August went to Staunton where he surprisingly, but reluctantly, accepted the task of being president of the yet-to-be-built Valley Railroad.

When Washington College resumed classes on September 15, he again assumed an active role. But in late September he collapsed at his home, and after two weeks of illness and suffering died on October 12, 1870—probably as a result of a cerebral thrombosis, combined with a heart condition and hardening arteries. Sadly, Agnes only survived his father by three years and died in 1873 at age thirty-two of a debilitating intestinal disorder—perhaps related to cholera.

By any measure Robert Edward Lee had an extraordinary life, and his legacy has endured through many generations. If you’re not a Virginian or a Southerner, it is perhaps difficult to understand the love and respect for lee that the people of the South showed him on his farewell “sentimental journey.” Others just don’t appreciate what Lee meant to us. We live today in a culture of anti-heroes, but as one historian put it: “All people need and crave heroes but none such as those who have lost a war and most of their possessions. In 1865, the North had the victory. But the South had Robert E. Lee. Nothing could alter that.” He had been a hero to the old Confederacy in war and in peace, but in the end, he became an American hero.