The Life and Campaigns of General Lee, by Edward Lee Childe, Chapter 17

The Life and Campaigns of General Lee, by Edward Lee Childe

CHAPTER XVII.
LEE’S LAST YEARS AT LEXIGNTON.—HIS DEATH, OCTOBER 12, 1870.

IN the latter years of Lee’s life, the greatness and sweetness of his character, two qualities rarely combined, contributed to form an extraordinary and charming whole. The misfortune and humiliation of defeat never succeeded in drawing from him a single word of anger or impatience when speaking of the North. When, in his presence, sentiments of hatred were heard, he unhesitatingly condemned them, thus setting an example of moderation and charity which, let us hope, found many imitators. He wished, by the manner in which he bore his private misfortunes, to reconcile the Southern populations to the harshness of their lot. If he learnt of young people contemplating emigration from their country to settle with the foreigner, he reminded them that the true way of displaying their love for the South was to remain there, and assist in healing her bleeding wounds. The constant aim proposed to himself was to calm and heal ulcerated hearts. It was on the rising generation that he especially founded his hopes; it was to this he devoted the remainder of his life, refusing all the generous offers and splendid situations proposed to him, as well in various cities of the United States as in England and Ireland. “I am deeply grateful,” said he, “but I cannot consent to desert my native State in the hour of her adversity. I must abide her fortunes and share her fate.”

Some months after the end of the war, General Lee accepted the presidency of the State College of Virginia at Lexington. This college—and, for that matter, all the district—found great difficulty in recovering from its disasters. The directors of Washington College (such was its name) thought of offering the presidency to General Lee, hoping thus to attract a greater number of students to it, and likewise to give the general a substantial testimony of their own admiration and of the affection borne to him by the State.

The war had engulfed all Lee’s fortune, and it was absolutely necessary, since he refused all offers of aid, that he should find some occupation to earn his living at.

At first he had some scruples about accepting, as is proved by a fine letter he wrote the directors in August, 1865. He did not consider himself in a position to instruct youth, or to do anything except exercise a general surveillance and discipline. But the most serious objection in his opinion was, that, being excluded from the amnesty of the preceding 29th of May, the choice of him to superintend might cause the feelings of hostility of which he was the object to be reflected on the college.

“It is particularly incumbent on those charged with the instruction of the young,” said he, “to set them an example of submission to authority. I could not consent to be the cause of animadversion upon the college.” He finished by declaring that he was at the disposal of the directors if his scruples appeared to them unfounded or exaggerated.

On the 1st of October he entered on his duties. His new post was not a sinecure; it was not there he could find the repose of which his mind and body stood in so much need. The war had ruined the college. With library pillaged, building destroyed, all its professors dispersed, its allotted funds reduced to nothing; everything had to be restored. Lee devoted himself heart and soul to this new task. The celebrity of his name attracted sympathy from all parts of the world, and students flowed in in great numbers, so that in 1870 there were upwards of 500.

In spite of the most seductive offers made to him (for instance, that of 250,000 francs a-year from a manufacturing company at New York, fixed salary, if he would become the chairman), his invariable answer was: “My duties at the college take up all my time, and I cannot consent to receive a salary for which I should do nothing.” At Washington College he had 25,000 francs and house-rent.

He had found a mission, that of retrieving the fortunes of the college, giving to the young people about him lessons in religion, morality, and obedience, and, through the medium of his youthful pupils, effecting a reaction against the demoralizing tendencies of the age. This mission he nobly fulfilled. He became adored by all these young men, and ended by insensibly giving to all the establishment the impress of his own personal character.

It was very rare that he officially addressed the students. On such occasions appeared what they called “one of his orders of the day,” and the appeal of their much loved president was always listened to. We offer here a specimen:

Washington College, November 26th 1866.

The Faculty desire to call the attention of the students to the disturbances which occurred in the streets of Lexington on the nights of Friday and Saturday last. They believe that none can contemplate them with pleasure, or can find any reasonable grounds for their justification. These acts are said to have been committed by students of the college, with the apparent object of disturbing the peace and quiet of a town whose inhabitants have opened their doors for their reception and accommodation, and who are always ready to administer to their comfort and pleasure.

“It requires but little consideration to see the error of such conduct, which could only have proceeded from thoughtlessness and a want of reflection. The Faculty, therefore, appeal to the honour and self-respect of the students to prevent any similar occurrence, trusting that their sense of what is due to themselves, their parents, and the institution to which they belong, will be more effectual in teaching them what is right and manly, than anything they can say. . . .

R. E. LEE,
President of Washington College.

He gave himself up to this work of reorganization as if he had never had any other ambition. “I am delighted with my civil duties,” he wrote. This new life was at least a relief and alleviation of the cruel remembrances of the past. This college, which he had found poor, disorganized, forsaken, ruined, he left rich, prosperous, and overflowing with students.

Lee appeared in public only twice or thrice during this later portion of his life. The Congress at Washington had appointed a “Committee of reconstruction” to inquire into the state of affairs in the South. The Confederate ex-commander was summoned as a witness. The astonishment which the number and nature of the questions addressed to him must excite, can only yield to the truly extraordinary patience of which he gave proof. Not only did the Committee want to know the opinions of the Southern populations on all possible points, social and political, but it sought to make the general set forth his ideas on the actual state, the intellectual capacity, and probable future of the negro race.

The calm dignity, good sense, and frankness of his replies, formed a striking set-off to the want of tact and the unsuitableness of some of the interrogations.

He did not try in any way to extenuate his share in the responsibility of the war, or to hide his true sentiments, although he maintained a very natural reserve.

When asked by the President of the Committee whether he thought that in case of a war between the United States and a foreign power, Virginia would profit by the opportunity for a new rising, Lee replied: “I cannot answer with any certainty on that point; I do not know how far they might be actuated by thei feelings; I have nothing whatever to base an opinion upon; so far as I know, they contemplate nothing of the kind now; what may happen in the future I cannot say.”

“Do you not frequently hear,” continued the President, “in your intercourse with secessionists in Virginia, expressions of a hope that such a war may break out?”

“I cannot say that I have heard it; on the contrary, I have heard persons,—I do not know whether you call them secessionists or not, I mean those people in Virginia with whom I associate,—express the hope that the country may not be led into a war.”

Then, on being asked, whether, in case of war, he would join the foreigner against the United States Government, his reply was: “I have no disposition now to do it, and I never had.”

“Suppose,” to cite another question addressed to him by the President, “suppose a jury was impanelled in your own neighbourhood, in Virginia, would it be possible to convict, for instance, Jefferson Davis, for having levied war upon the United States, and thus having committed the crime of treason?”

“I think it is very probable that they would not consider he had committed treason.”

“In what light would the jury view Davis’s conduct? What would be their excuse or justification ? How would they escape in their own mind?”

“So far as I know, they look upon the action of the State in withdrawing itself from the Government of the United States as carrying the individuals along with it,—that the State was responsible for the act, not the individuals; and that the ordinance of secession, so called, or those acts of the State which recognized a condition of war between the State and the general Government, stood as their justification for their bearing arms against the Government of the United States. I think they would consider the act of the State as legitimate; that they were merely using the reserved rights which they were entitled to do.”

“State, if you please,—and if you are disinclined to answer the question you need not do so—what your own personal views on that question are.”

“That was my view; that the act of Virginia, in withdrawing herself from the United States, carried me along as a citizen of Virginia, and that her laws and her acts were binding on me.”

In consequence of an allusion made by the President, Lee observed: “I may have said, and may have believed, that the position which the two sections held to each other was brought about by the politicians of the country; that the great masses of the people, if they understood the real question, would have avoided it. . . . But I did believe at the time that it was an unnecessary condition of affairs, and might have been avoided if forbearance and wisdom had been practised on both sides.”

The President continued: “You say that you do not recollect having sworn allegiance and fidelity to the Confederate goverment?”

Lee replied without hesitation: “I do not recollect it, nor do I know it was ever required. I was regularly commissioned in the army of the Confederate States, but I really do not recollect that that oath was required. If it was required, I have no doubt I took it; or, if it had been required, I would have taken it.”

After reading this frank and proud reply, some idea may be formed of the pain it cost Lee to transmit a demand for pardon to the United States Government. This application has been judged of in many different manners, and to many of his admirers in the South it still remains a subject of sore regret. Yet what grander proof could he have given of the greatness of his heart? Of what personal gain would a pardon be to him? The success or failure of the application was perfectly indifferent to him. What crueller sacrifice could there be for a soul so proud, so convinced of the justice of the cause for which he had fought, than that of presenting, so to speak, a halter for his own neck? Nevertheless he submitted to this final humiliation, supported by that sentiment of duty which, to the very end, was his master, his ruler, his guide in everything. He felt the immense importance of the example he was about to set. All his old soldiers and thousands of his fellow-citizens were, according to the new laws, compelled to demand the benefit of the amnesty, and if they did not obtain it, they lost their civil rights. Thousands of brave veterans, if they would not leave their families to die of starvation, were reduced by stern necessity to take this mournful step. Lee thought that his duty to his old comrades required that he also should drink the bitter cup to the very dregs. Having shared their glory, he ought also to share their humiliation.

This feature in the life of the Southern commander is a brilliant one. For the rest, pardon was refused to him.

His unchangeable sweetness, the absence of all rancour, of all bitterness of feeling so natural to the vanquished, raised him high above the prejudices and hatreds of the day, and exhibited him, to all who came, as a living example of Christian charity. Although he wished everybody to remain faithful to the old traditions of the South in all that appertained to honour, virtue, and hospitality, yet he set himself to work to root up those animosities, those provincial rivalries, which led only to ruin.

To a mother, who brought him her two sons, loudly expressing her hatred of the North, he said, “Madam, don’t bring up your sons to detest the United States Government. Recollect that we form but one country, now. Abandon all these local animosities, and make your sons Americans.”

Here again is a charming incident, which will well illustrate his goodness: One of his friends, on passing by Lee’s garden-gate, found him conversing with a man poorly clad, to whom he had just given something, and who appeared exceedingly happy at the general’s courteous welcome. Presently the man saluted him and withdrew. “That is one of our old soldiers in want,” explained Lee. Naturally enough the friend thought he meant some Confederate veteran, when Lee, lowering his voice, added: “He was not on our side, but that doesn’t signify.”

During the war, the religious side of his character was not so strikingly revealed as in the case of General Jackson. But in his retreat, far from the world, in the midst of his meditations on the sufferings of his country, it was very natural that this distinctive feature of his soul should strongly assert itself. Perceiving more plainly than ever the inability of man to remedy evil, is it astonishing that he should more and more concentrate his thoughts on God? Although profoundly Christian, there was no narrowness in his piety. On one occasion, when importunately questioned as to his thoughts on Apostolic succession, he replied with great simplicity: “I have never troubled myself to think about such matters, I have merely endeavoured to be a Christian.”

One day, in a review near Winchester, while passing in front of the chaplain, he lifted his hat, saying: “I salute the Church of God!” In the neighbourhood of Petersburg, he was observed humbly kneeling on his knees a short distance from the high road, on which his army was at that moment defiling. When he invaded Pennsylvania, certain influence was brought to bear upon him to use reprisals, and act as the Federals had acted in Virginia. “No,” replied he, “were I to permit it, I could not ask God to bless our arms.”

After his death, a much used Bible was found in his room. On the first page were these words: “R. E. Lee, lieutenant-colonel, army of the United States.” Thus for years, in Mexico, and in the prairies of the West, this illustrious, worthy man had sought to regulate his life according to the precepts of the Gospel.

When congratulated on the degree of prosperity which the college enjoyed under his direction: “It would be a bitter disappointment to me,” said he, “if I did not attain the principal end I proposed to myself in coming here, and if the young men of whom I have charge did not become true Christians!”

The poor and necessitous he never forgot He gave away much,—much, that is, when his very moderate resources are considered; for the vast estates he possessed before the war had been confiscated. As regards these, this is a convenient place to quote a fragment of a letter which he wrote to a friend, who had greatly interested himself to obtain a restitution to General Lee’s wife of the souvenirs and precious objects which had belonged to Washington, and which came to her from her father. These objects had been carried off by the Federals from Arlington, Lee’s residence before the war.

Lexington, February 12th, 1869.

. . . Mrs. Lee has determined to act upon your suggestion, and apply to President Johnson for such of the relics from Arlington as are in the Patent Office. From what I have learned, a great many things formerly belonging to General Washington, bequeathed to her by her father, in the shape of books, furniture, camp equipage, &c., were carried away by individuals, and are now scattered over the land. I hope the possessors appreciate them, and may imitate the example of their original owner, whose conduct must at times be brought to their recollection by these silent monitors. In this they will accomplish good to the country.

Congress was opposed to the making of this restitution.

Lee respected all forms that religious feeling could take. During the latter days of the dismal struggle under Petersburg, a Jewish soldier petitioned the general for leave to go to Richmond to keep the Passover. The man’s captain had written on the margin of the petition a sharp note, unfavourable to its prayer. Lee, indeed, did not grant the required leave, but he stated the grounds of his refusal in a few courteous lines, showing that the military situation was too critical for him to be able to accede to a desire in itself legitimate and praiseworthy. To the captain’s note he added these words: “We should always be charitable towards those whose religion differs from ours, and, as far as we can, aid every one to fulfil the duties imposed upon him by his belief.”

The last thing he did was to assist at a parochial committee, held in the church at Lexington, and this last act of his was an act of charity.

We now come to the end of this noble life,—a life spent in noble deeds, and consecrated to good actions. Death found him prepared. On the 28th of September, 1870, after a fatiguing day passed in his office, General Lee presided over the parochial committee of the Episcopal Church. He then returned home to tea. Mrs. Lee, perceiving he had a chilly appearance, told him so. “Thanks,” replied he; “I am warmly clothed!” The words were the last which he pronounced distinctly. On sitting down, he opened his lips to say grace, a habit in which he never failed, even when under canvas, but now no sound issued from them. A moment afterwards he fell back in his chair, paralyzed.

The tidings of this misfortune soon spread. During those days of anguish, all the districts of the South greedily awaited news of the illustrious invalid. Throughout he continued insensible. At intervals he was heard to mutter some indistinct words of war and combat Once he said, in a way to be understood: “Strike my tent! send for Hill!”

His health had always been so robust, and he was still so vigorous, that, at first, the physicians did not despair of him. But his family knew what the physicians were ignorant of. His heart, overwhelmed by the weight of his country’s trials, had finished by breaking. Congestion of the brain was only a symptom of the moral malady that was slowly threatening him. Every messenger who came had been in the habit of bringing the most touching appeals from his old soldiers and their families, who were dying of starvation. These sufferings, which he could not relieve, were a torture to him. Year by year the hope of seeing times of perfect peace and prosperous tranquillity return became more remote. This anguish, for a long time hidden, even from his relatives, completed its work by destroying the buoyancy of that vigorous organization.

He remained in a state of insensibility till the 12th of October, when, at nine o’clock in the morning, surrounded by his family, he gave up his magnanimous soul to his Creator. He died in the sixty-fourth year of his age.

The grief in the South was universal. Everywhere the despatch announcing the death of the great Virginian fell on thousands of hearts like a funeral knell. The dismal sound of bells, the Virginian flag half-mast high, the mournful assemblies of citizens crowding the churches to celebrate a funeral service in honour of the departed hero, the addresses to his family, all testified the profound feeling which animated the South in view of this great loss. The legislature of Virginia adjourned. It was desired to give to the illustrious deceased a public funeral, and bury him at Richmond. But his friends preferred to keep him near them. He rests in the College Chapel. In accordance with his wish, there was no funeral oration over his tomb; the ceremony was limited to the reading of the magnificent Burial Service of the Church of England.

There, in the beautiful Valley of Virginia, sleeps this great victim of the most terrible civil war of modern times.

The heart becomes a prey to profound sadness, while observing that so beautiful an existence but furnishes another example of that fatal law which, between two causes equally justifiable, gives the triumph to that which is able to dispose of the most money and to sacrifice the greatest number of lives without enfeebling itself!

But before this mystery let us bow our heads, as one more to be added to those inexplicable things which surround us. The Creator, in His impenetrable wisdom, has ordained that nothing here below shall be perfect; and, inasmuch as those great men whom He lends us for our edification accept, without a murmur, defeat and humiliation as the crown of their life, let us, in our turn, be resigned, and not seek to fathom the unfathomable.

Did not Lee himself write: “I bow with resignation before the will of Almighty God, whose omniscience cannot be deceived, whose infinite tenderness cannot desire our injury, and who knows, not only the trials that are good for us, but also the moment when it is best for us to undergo them.”?

FINIS.

LONDON: PRINTED BY WILLIAM CLOWES AND SONS, STAMFORD STREET AND CHARING CROSS.

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