General Lee, by Fitzhugh Lee, Chapter 16

General Lee


PERSONALLY it was a great relief to General Lee to be transferred to domestic life and the company of his wife and children. For forty years, including his cadetship, he had been a soldier whose movements and duties were directed by others; now he was independent of all war departments and military orders. He was a private citizen for the first time during his manhood, and would not be disturbed as long as he observed his parole and the laws in force wherever he might reside. He had denounced the assassination of Mr. Lincoln as a crime previously unknown to the country, and one that must be deprecated by every American; and when President Johnson proclaimed his policy of May 29th, in the restoration of peace, he applied on June 13th to be embraced within its provisions, and tendered his allegiance to the only government in existence, under whose flag he must resume the duties of citizenship. He cited to his friends the example of Washington, who fought against the French in the service of the King of Great Britain, and then with the French against the English, under the orders of the Continental Congress. “If you intend to reside in this country,” he wrote a friend in New Orleans, “and wish to do your part in the restoration of your State and in the Government of the country, which I think is the duty of every citizen to do, I know of no objection to your taking the amnesty oath.” In the same month he was indicted by the United States grand jury, with Mr. Davis and others, for treason. With a clear conscience, he made up his mind, he said, “to let the authorities take their course. I have no wish to avoid any trial the Government may order; I hope others may be unmolested.”

Reverdy Johnson, the distinguished Maryland lawyer, who did not agree with General Lee’s political views, hearing that he was to be prosecuted in court for the alleged crime of treason, placed the fifty years of his great study and profound experience at his command, because, as he states, “in saving him I would be saving the honor of my country.” General Lee wrote General Grant to withdraw his application for amnesty under the President’s proclamation, if steps were to be taken for his prosecution, as he was willing to stand the test. Grant saw the President, and protested against a procedure against General Lee, informing him that he considered his honor and the honor of the nation pledged to him, and no proceedings were taken.

General Lee’s enjoyment of the society of his family and friends in Richmond was much broken into by visitors from all sections of the country. Many persons were attracted to the city because it had been the Southern capital, whose lines had for so long kept great hosts from entering her gates, and a visit to or a sight of General Lee was always on their programme. Numbers of people stood on the street and gazed at the house, hoping to catch a glimpse of its occupant. Not desiring to make a public exhibition of himself, the paroled soldier was a prisoner in his own house; and his condition produced the desire to move to more secluded quarters. Mrs. Lee’s health, too, would be benefited by going out of town during the coming summer months. The house he lived in belonged to Mr. John Stuart, of Brook Hill, a fine specimen of the kindhearted, benevolent Scotch gentleman. He had rented it to General Lee’s son, General G. W. C. Lee, some time before the war closed.

The general felt that he should make post-war terms with his excellent landlord; but, before he could take any steps, Mrs. Lee received a note from Mr. Stuart which read: “I am not presuming on your good opinion when I feel that you will believe me—first, that you and yours are heartily welcome to the house as long as your convenience leads you to stay in Richmond; and, next, that you owe me nothing, but, if you insist on pay, that the payment must be in Confederate currency, for which alone it was rented to your son. You do not know how much gratification it is, and it will afford me and my whole family, during the remainder of our lives, to reflect that we have been brought into contact and to know and to appreciate you and all that are dear to you.”

In looking beyond Richmond for quarters, General Lee was much in favor of purchasing a farm in Orange County, in the beautiful section near the railroad crossing of the Rapidan, with which he was so familiar; but about that time Mrs. Elizabeth Randolph Cocke, of Cumberland County, Virginia, granddaughter of Edmund Randolph, offered him the use of a dwelling house situated on a portion of her estate in Powhatan County. As it was known that he had been dispossessed of his old home at Arlington, numerous offers of money, houses, and lands almost daily reached him, as well as requests to become the president of business associations and chartered corporations. Mrs. Cocke’s kind, cordial manner, for which she was proverbial, and the retired situation of the dwelling offered, induced him to put all others aside and accept her hospitable and thoughtful invitation. The spring and early summer of 1865 were spent by the great soldier in the full fruition of a well-earned and long-needed repose.

In the meantime the trustees of Washington College, at Lexington, Va., determined to reorganize the institution, pledging their personal credit to provide means to repair the ravages of war. A member of the board had accidentally heard that a daughter of General Lee had said she thought her father would like to be connected with an institution of learning, and this casual remark first directed the attention of the trustees to General Lee in connection with the presidency of their college; but, as one of them said, it was unmingled impudence to tender to General Lee the head of an institution which had nothing then, and must start at the bottom round of the collegiate educational ladder. The temerarious trustees were equal to the emergency, and boldly grappled with the-subject, doubtless encouraged and inspired by the strong advice of ex-Governor John Letcher, who suggested that if the college had nothing then, its condition would instantaneously change at the moment General Lee accepted the presidency. The name of Robert E. Lee was duly proposed for the office, and the letter informing him of his unanimous election, signed by the rector, Judge John W. Brockenbrough, and the committee, was consigned to the rector, to be delivered in person rather than by mail, because its contents could be strengthened by the well-known persuasive powers of the learned judge. At this point the trustees were confronted with a fresh and apparently insurmountable obstruction. Neither the rector nor any one of them, owing to the disasters of cruel war, had raiment of sufficient texture, shape, and freshness to wear in making a trip from home, more especially when it comprised a personal interview with the great soldier upon which so much depended. After laborious search, the best-dressed citizen of that section since the war was found, whose clothes fortunately came near enough to fitting the rector to encourage him to make his appearance in them as ambassador to the county of Powhatan, where the general was then residing. The sigh of relief that this obstacle had been so successfully overcome was scarcely audible before the trustees encountered still greater trials. Neither the rector nor any one else had any finances, or possibly even financial standing. Money was as absolutely necessary, when rectors traveled so soon after the war, as it is now, and Confederate money for some time before the surrender had not been worth ten cents per yard. Finally, however, by the supreme exertion of one of the trustees, fifty dollars of “good money” was secured, and the representative of Washington College was safely started. The public and private monetary stringency was not confined at that period to Lexington.

In the letter dated August 5, 1865, carried by Judge Brockenbrough, General Lee was told that Washington College, though a great sufferer from havoc and devastation, “is still blessed with a vigorous vitality, and needs only the aid of your illustrious character and transcendent scientific attainments to reanimate her drooping fortunes and restore her to more than her pristine usefulness and prosperity.” General Lee had already declined the presidency of the Suwanee University of Tennessee, and shrank from any connection with the University of Virginia, on the ground that one was a denominational and the other a State university. He considered this matter nineteen days, and then wrote that he feared he would be unable to “discharge the duties to the satisfaction of the trustees or to the benefit of the country.” Then, too, he was excluded from the terms of amnesty in the proclamation of the President of the United States, he said, and “an object of censure to a portion of the country,” and he was afraid he might draw upon the college a feeling of hostility, and therefore cause injury to an institution which it would be his highest desire to advance, and concluded by saying, “I think it is the duty of every citizen, in the present condition of the country, to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony, and in no way to oppose the policy of the State or General Government directed to that object”; and that, after what had been written, if the board should still think his services would be advantageous to the college and country, he would yield to their judgment and accept.

The trustees on August 31st adopted and transmitted to General Lee resolutions that, in spite of his objections, in their opinion, “his connection with the institution will greatly promote its prosperity and advance the general interest of education,” and solicited him to enter upon the duties of the presidency of the college at his earliest convenience. The “happy audacity,” as one of the professors of the Virginia Military Institute termed it, of the trustees gave to them the victory. That General Lee should put aside the many large and lucrative offers and accept this position at the salary then offered—fifteen hundred dollars per annum—was but in keeping with his great character. Washington College had descended from a classical school taught in the Valley of Virginia as early as the year 1749, known as the Augusta Academy. On May 13, 1776, nearly two months before the Declaration of Independence, in response to the patriotic sentiment of the times, the name was changed to “Liberty Hall Academy.” The institution was removed successively to different places, and was finally established in Lexington, Va., a town founded in 1778 as the county seat of Rockbridge County and called after Lexington, Mass., where the “embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard round the world.”

In 1784 Virginia, desiring to testify her appreciation of the services and character of her great son Washington, directed the Treasurer of the State to subscribe to one hundred shares of the par value of two hundred dollars in the stock of a company organized for the improvement of the navigation of James River, and vested the same in General Washington. The Legislature agreed to the condition upon which alone he would receive the gift—viz., that he would be permitted to present it to objects of a public nature, such as “the education of the poor, particularly the children of such as have fallen in the defense of the country.” He gave this stock in 1796 to “Liberty Hall Academy” in Rockbridge County, first presided over by William Graham, an old Princeton classmate and friend of General Lee’s father. “Liberty Hall” was now Washington College, that name having been adopted in 1812.

Perhaps past associations had something to do with General Lee’s accepting the presidency of the college, as well as a desire to contribute his part toward laying the only true foundation upon which a republic can rest—the Christian education of its youth. His object now, as in 1861, was to render the best service he could to his native State, and to that purpose he had never been unfaithful. By the intelligent and judicious management of sums donated, principally by the patriots of the Revolution, the endowment fund, in 1861, had nearly reached one hundred thousand dollars, and the college had secured ample buildings, apparatus, and libraries, while its alumni had already richly adorned pulpit, bench, bar, medical profession, halls of legislation, seats of learning, and all the walks of life. It might have escaped war’s devastation had any other Federal officer than General David Hunter marched upon its campus. This officer had no respect for colleges, or the peaceful pursuits of professors and students, or the private dwellings of citizens, though occupied by women and children only, and during his three days’ occupancy of Lexington in. June, 1864, the college buildings were dismantled, apparatus destroyed, and the books mutilated.

At the end of the fiscal year 1865 there was a balance in the hands of the college treasurer of two thousand four hundred and fifty-eight dollars and twenty cents in Confederate money. The assets of the college were not available, nor could the interest upon its bonds or State securities be collected. There was a balance due professors and others of nearly two thousand dollars, and the Finance Committee of the Board of Trustees recommended that the college borrow at once, to meet pressing demands, four thousand six hundred dollars. The trustees proved equal to the encounter with these discouraging difficulties, and with “happy audacity” promptly sent their rector to offer General Lee the presidency at a salary at that time not in sight of the college’s treasury! General Lee’s favorite war horse, Traveler, the famous gray which had borne him so faithfully amid the flying bolts of battle, now carried him to peaceful pursuits. Unheralded and unattended, having ridden from Powhatan County in four days, his simple entrée was made into the little mountain town of Lexington. As he drew rein in front of the village hotel, an old soldier recognized him, gave the military salute, placed one hand upon the bridle, the other upon the stirrup, and stood, waiting for him to dismount.

The general’s wish for a quiet, informal inauguration was gratified, and on October 2, 1865, in the presence of the faculty, students, and board of trustees, subscribed before William White, Esq., justice of the peace, the oath[1] prescribed by law. During the ceremony the general, dressed in a plain but elegant suit of gray, remained standing, his arms folded, calmly and steadfastly looking into the eyes of the speaker, Judge Brockenbrough. The warrior had been transformed into a college president, who was to discharge his duties there as conscientiously as when his simple mandate sent thousands of men into fierce battle. “I have,” said he, “a self-imposed task, which I can not forsake.” The college to which he was called was broken in fortune; “the war had practically closed its doors; its buildings had been pillaged and defaced and its library scattered.” He had the profoundest convictions of the importance of educational influence and the deepest sense of personal responsibility. Year by year the conception of his duty grew stronger, and year by year, as its instrument, the college grew dearer. He was no figurehead, kept in position for the attraction of his name; his energy, zeal, and administrative ability surmounted all difficulties. His great labors were directed to making Washington College the seat of science, art, and literature. Far-reaching plans laid for its success were wisely conceived.

A scholastic monument was slowly responding to his noble influence and wise administration, which would be as illustrious as his most brilliant military achievements. He mastered all details, observing the students, becoming personally acquainted with them, their aspirations and hopes; his interest followed them everywhere, and their associations, dispositions, and habits were well known to him. He never grew imperious, or tried to force a measure upon the faculty, but modestly said he had but one vote and wished to know the opinion of his colleagues, and leave the decision to be determined by the whole body. Sustained by the loftiest principles of virtue and religion, an exalted character, and a conscientious sense of duty, General Lee suffered no complaint to escape his lips during the eventful years from 1865 to 1870, though troubled by much that was taking place.

He manifested much interest in the case of Captain Wirtz, on trial for his life, accused of cruelty to the Federal prisoners of war committed to him. He knew the captain had done all that was possible with the resources at his disposal; subsistence for them had been most difficult to procure, their exchange for an equal number of Southerners had been refused, while the Federal blockade kept out medical supplies. A portion of the Northern press charged Lee with being responsible for the alleged suffering of the Union prisoners. He declined to make a public reply unless the accusation came from a responsible source, but said that he was in no way responsible for the condition of prisoners after they had been sent from his army. When the commissary general said to him, upon one occasion, that it would be necessary to reduce either the rations of the Federal prisoners or those of his men in the field, he replied, “While I have no authority in the case, my desire is that the prisoners shall have equal rations with my men.” He was summoned to Washington in March, 1866, as a witness before a congressional committee which was inquiring into the condition of things in the South. His testimony was simple, direct, dignified, and elicited the admiration of all who heard or read it. It was his first appearance in any of the cities since the war, and, being at a time of public political excitement, his visit was an occasion of absorbing interest. The day after his return he proposed a walk with one of his daughters, who playfully objected to a new hat he was about to put on. “You do not like my hat?” said he; “why, there were a thousand people on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington the other day admiring this hat!” It was his only reference to the crowds of persons who gathered around him wherever he went in the city.

General Lee was still receiving numerous letters, filled with offers of remunerative positions, to which he always replied that he preferred to continue the educational work he had undertaken; but still they came, coupled often with the condition that he should not relinquish his self-imposed task, and should not resign the college presidency. On one occasion the general said to a particular friend in his office: “My friend Mr. —— has been to see me, and offers me twenty thousand dollars per annum to take the presidency of —— Company. I would like to make some money for Mrs. Lee, as she has not much left, and he does not require me to leave the college; what do you think of my accepting it?” The irony of the question was appreciated, but his friend took him at his word, and expressed his opinion adversely, saying, as modestly as possible, that if he “allowed himself to be influenced by filthy lucre he would begin to gravitate.” With the winsome way so characteristic of him the general replied: “I am glad to find that you agree with me. I told Mr. —— yesterday that I must decline his offer.”

About this time the subject of the removal of the remains of the Southern dead from the field of Gettysburg was being considered. General Lee replied to a letter calling his attention to it:

LEXINGTON, VA., December 15, 1868.

MY DEAR FITZ: I have considered the subject of your letter, which has been unaccountably delayed on the journey; and though I have no desire that my views should govern in the decision of a question in which others are equally interested, I will give them for your consideration. In the first place, I have no fears that our dead will receive disrespectful treatment at the hands of the Gettysburg association. If they do so, it will then be time, as it will also furnish the occasion, for us to apply for their transfer to our care. I am not in favor of disturbing the ashes of the dead unless for a worthy object, and I know of no fitter resting-place for a soldier than the field on which he has nobly laid down his life. If our State governments could reflect the wishes of their citizens, and each State could receive its own dead, I think it would be very appropriate to return them to their native soil for final interment, if possible; and I know it would be soothing to the feelings of their friends to have their sacred dead committed to their affectionate keeping.

The General was only induced to take the presidency of the Valley Railroad because it did not require him to leave Lexington, and because he was so interested in obtaining railroad facilities for his college. He really loved his work, in which his interest increased rather than diminished. Occasionally he would administer admonition to the students or make public his directions by circulars, which were called by them “General Orders”; for example:

WASHINGTON COLLEGE, VA., December 24, 1869.

Academic exercises will be suspended from the 25th to the 27th inclusive, to enable the students to join in the rites and services appropriate to the occasion; and while enjoying these privileges with grateful hearts, all are urged to do or countenance nothing which may disturb the peace, harmony, and happiness that should pervade a Christian community.

R. E. LEE, President.

The labors, exposure, and responsibilities of his campaigns laid the foundation for bodily distress. Rheumatism of the heart sac and of other portions of his body was creeping by gradual approach to assault the vitals. He was reluctantly persuaded to go south in March, 1870, to look upon other scenes and enjoy the fragrant breezes in the “land of sun and flowers.” In Richmond, en route, in response to an invitation tendering the privileges of the legislative floor, he wrote:

RICHMOND, VA., March 26, 1870.

Hon. J. S. MARYE, President of the Senate of Virginia.

SIR: It would afford me great pleasure to be able to avail myself of the privileges of the floor of the Senate extended to me by the resolution of that body to day, but the condition of my health is such as to require me to reach a milder climate as soon as practicable. With a due sense 01 the honor conferred on me by the resolution of the Senate,

I have the honor to be your most obedient servant,
R. E. LEE.

His sweet daughter Agnes, who did not long survive her father, accompanied him. On the trip he embraced the opportunity to see once more his father’s grave, on an island off the coast of Georgia. General Henry Lee (or “Light-Horse Harry”), in returning from the West Indies, where he had been, hoping to restore his health, was, it may be remembered, taken ill, and begged to he put ashore at General Greene’s mansion, then occupied by his daughter, where he died, and where his remains now lie. From Savannah, Ga., April 18, 1870, the general wrote Mrs. Lee: “We visited Cumberland Island, and Agnes decorated my father’s grave with beautiful fresh flowers. I presume it is the last time I shall be able to pay it my tribute of respect. The cemetery is unharmed and the graves are in good order, though the house of ‘Dungeness’ has been burned and the island devastated. I hope I am better. I know that I am stronger, but I still have the pain in my chest whenever I walk. I have felt it, too, occasionally recently, when quiescent.”

He returned benefited by the trip, but the steady progress of his disease had not been checked. While absent, the college trustees appropriated money to present him with a house and settle an annuity of three thousand dollars per annum on his family, all of which he firmly declined. “I am unwilling that my family should become a tax to the college,” he wrote to the board, “but desire that all its funds should be devoted to the purposes of education. I feel assured that, in case a competency should not be left to my wife, her children would never suffer her to want.”

When the fall session of 1870 of the college opened, General Lee was at his post of duty, but “his step had lost something of its elasticity, the shoulders began to stoop as if under a growing burden, and the ruddy glow of health upon his countenance changed to a feverish flush.” A noble life was drawing to a close. The morning of September 28, 1870, found him faithfully performing the duties of his office; the afternoon, engaged with his brother members of the vestry of Grace Episcopal Church in work congenial to the true Christian, and the autumn evening shadows fell upon a couch over which the heavenly angels were bending. The important question of rebuilding the church and increasing his faithful friend and pastor’s compensation had interested him so deeply at the vestry meeting, that the cold church and the outside storm were forgotten, and it was only after a protracted session of over three hours, as he proceeded to his house, a short distance off, that weariness and weakness overtook him, and his wavering steps indicated increasing feebleness. Entering his private office as usual, he took off his hat, military cloak, and overshoes, and then proceeded to join his family, who had been waiting tea for him. Quietly he stood in his accustomed place in the dining-room, while his family with bowed heads waited to hear the well-known grace, but no sound came from his lips. Speechless the great soldier stood; an expression of despair spread over his face; and from his eyes came a dreamy, far-away look which denoted the approaching summons from his Creator.

“My husband came in,” wrote Mrs. Lee,”and I asked where he had been, remarking that he had kept us waiting a long time. He did not reply, but stood up as if to say grace. No word proceeded from his lips, but with a sublime look of resignation he sat down in his chair.” With intense anxiety the family went to his assistance. A bed was brought to the dining-room, in which he was placed, and Dr. B. L. Madison and Dr. H. T. Barton were quickly summoned. For two weeks,

’Twixt night and morn upon the horizon’s verge,
Between two worlds life hovered like a star.

Mrs. Lee tells us that his whole demeanor during his sickness was that of one who had taken leave of earth. He never smiled and rarely attempted to speak except in his dreams, and then, she says, “he wandered to those dreadful battlefields.” “You must get out and ride your faithful gray,” the doctor said. He shook his head and looked upward; and once when his daughter Agnes urged him to take medicine, he looked at her and said, “It is no use.” Human love was powerful, human aid powerless. Hope and Despair were twin watchers by his bedside. At first, as his disease seemed to yield to treatment, Hope brightened, but soon Despair alone kept watch. During the afternoon and night of October 10th shadowy clouds of approaching dissolution began to gather, a creeping lethargy captured the faculties, and the massive grandeur of form and face began to contract. During the succeeding day he rapidly grew worse; his thoughts wandered to the fields where he had so often led his gray battalions to victory; and like the greatest of his captains, Stonewall Jackson, whose expiring utterance told “A. P. Hill to prepare for action,” he too, in death’s delirium, said, “Tell Hill he must come up!” “For the last forty-eight hours he seemed quite insensible of our presence,” Mrs. Lee states; “he breathed more heavily, and at last gently sank to rest with one deep-drawn sigh, and oh, what a glorious rest was in store for him!”

Robert Edward Lee died at half-past nine, on the morning of October 12, 1870,in the sixty-fourth year of his age. His physicians stated as the cause, “mental and physical fatigue inducing venous congestion of the brain, which, however, never proceeded as apoplexy or paralysis, but gradually caused cerebral exhaustion and death.” On the 14th the casket containing the body of the dead warrior was removed to the college chapel, and on the 15th buried in the area of the chapel in a brick vault prepared for it. Upon the marble capping on the top of the vault, and on a level with the library floor is this simple inscription:

DIED OCTOBER 12, 1870.

Tolling bells first proclaimed the sad intelligence to the citizens of Lexington, electric wires to the world. Throughout the South business was suspended, schools closed. societies and associations of all sorts assembled, where eulogistic speeches were made, and resolutions passed laudatory of General Lee’s life and lamenting his death. In those adopted by the faculty of the college it was declared that “his executive ability, his enlarged views of liberal culture, his extraordinary powers in the government of men, his wonderful influence over the minds of the young, and his steady and earnest devotion to duty, made the college spring, as if by the touch of magic, from its depressions after the war to its present firm condition of permanent and widespread usefulness”; that it was “a deep satisfaction to receive his remains beneath the chapel he had built”; and that the “memory of his noble life will remain as an abiding inspiration to the young of the country as they gather at the last scene of his labors, to emulate his virtues and to follow his great example.”

The board of college trustees by resolution extolled General Lee for his great military services, and for the victories won by him in the classic shades of Washington College, saying that the two most renowned names in their respective centuries were Washington and Lee, and that they “be hereafter associated indissolubly as founder and restorer of our beloved college”; that the charter be so amended as to hereafter express in fit conjunction the immortal names of Washington and Lee; that the anniversary of his birth should always be celebrated in the college; and that, with the co-operation of the faculty, measures should be taken and plans prepared for the erection within the college grounds of a suitable monument to his memory. The sorrowing students met and resolved: “We deeply mourn the loss of one who in his public career had endeared himself to us by all the virtues that adorn the character of the patriot and Christian, and who in his official and private relations with ourselves has also won our peculiar affection and confidence by his paternal sympathy and his tender regard for our interest as students.” The academic board of the Virginia Military Institute, at Lexington, put on record that his life is a part of the history of the world, and that his moral excellences inspired love and admiration in the hearts of all the good.

At 12.30 P.M., October 15th, 1870, one of the most solemn, imposing, and impressive funeral processions ever assembled moved with slow tread from the late president’s home, through the streets of Lexington, and thence to the college chapel. At its head, as the escort of honor, marched the old Confederate soldiers who had gathered from many quarters to pay a last tribute to their commander. In its ranks were the representatives of the Virginia Legislature, State officials, distinguished visitors, members of numerous organizations, trustees[,] faculty, students, alumni, cadets of the Virginia Military Institute, and citizens. At the chapel the beautiful service of the Episcopal Church was read with great solemnity by the Rev. Dr. W. N. Pendleton, the distinguished officer who had for forty-five years been the comrade and fellow-soldier of the dead chieftain. The mournful ceremonies were concluded outside the chapel in the presence of a vast throng who were unable to enter. The coffin was then removed to the vault. The large assemblage sang one of the general’s favorite hymns, “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,” and all that was mortal of the Christian soldier was consigned to the grave.

Traveler, who had borne in so many battles the great Confederate leader, led by two old soldiers, slowly walking, riderless, behind the hearse, covered with the sable traps of mourning, was a tender and touching sight. He survived his master but two years.[2]

The college pledge was sacredly kept, and a sleeping marble recumbent statue of exquisite workmanship, the production of Valentine, a Virginia sculptor, after “Rauch’s figure of Louise of Prussia,” is a superb monument to the memory of its president. The Washington and Lee, a great university, under the wise management of General Lee’s eldest son, has linked two names which spring spontaneously to every mind. Of these two men, exemplars of a country’s character, born almost a century apart, but similar in the history of their boyhood, earnest, grave, studious, alike in noble carriage and commanding dignity, it has been said that in the remarkable combination and symmetry of their intellectual qualities—all so equal, so well developed, no faculty of the mind overlapping any other—you a r e almost persuaded to deny them greatness, because no single attribute of the mind was projected upon itself. Well may Virginia be proud of sons who shine upon the pages of the world’s history “like binary stars which open their glory and Shed their splendor on the darkness of the world.”

In Virginia’s capital city now stand two splendid equestrian statues to George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Riding side by side in calm majesty, they are henceforth contemporaries in all the ages to come. The mother State mourned for the departed soldier, and her General Assembly passed a bill making January 19th, the birthday of General Robert E. Lee, a legal holiday in Virginia. In the universal mourning for him the sympathies of the world first flew to the smitten family. The final parting from her husband after a most happy married life was a great shock to Mrs. Lee. She had been a sufferer for years from rheumatism, unable to move without assistance, and was described at that time as having “a sad but noble countenance, hen features much resembling those of her great-grandmother Martha, the wife of Washington, her expression firm, her eyes beautiful and sparkling with the uncommon intelligence which marks her conversation, her almost snowy-white, fine, soft hair, in waves and curls framing her full forehead. She sits in her widow’s cap a grand and lovely picture, combining in itself much of the history and glory of the immortal past with the modern events of our history.” When the South sent her sons to fight under her husband’s command, she devoted every energy to the cause in which he had enlisted.

A very few extracts from communications which reached her from all sections in great numbers can be given: A cousin of the general’s, Mr. Edmund I. Lee, from Shepherdstown, October 31, 1870, writes Mrs. Lee: “I can not find language to convey the distress I felt when I first read the announcement of Robert’s death in the papers. The most pleasant recollections of my youth are connected with him and his mother’s family. How often have I called to mind the evening’s and the mornings spent in their company—our English rabbits fed together, and our daily visits to the markets in Alexandria to procure meat and vegetables for our mothers, each carrying his own basket; his rescuing me on one occasion from the fangs of his father’s mastiff, Killbuck, and the grief of his mother and sisters when your aunt—Mrs. Lewis—having procured from President Jackson a cadet warrant (which was given upon her application, as a personal favor to her), it became necessary to send him to West Point; and my proffering my own services to attend in Robert’s place to his mother’s business—for his gentle, affectionate manners had attached all his relations to him in early life.”

From Savannah, Ga., October 15, 1870, General Joseph E. Johnston wrote her:

MY DEAR MADAM: Although you are receiving the strongest proofs that a whole people are sharing in your great sorrow, I venture to write, not merely to say how I, General Lee’s earliest and most devoted friend, lament his death and how sadly the event will visit my memory while I stay on earth, but, still more, to assure you of my deep sympathy in this greatest bereavement a human being can know, and of my fervent prayers to our merciful God that he may grant his help to you and your children.

Most sincerely and truly your friend,
(Signed)     J. E. JOHNSTON.

A dear little girl wrote:

I have heard of General Lee, your husband, and of all his great and noble deeds during the war. I have also heard lately of his death. I have read in the papers that collections are being made for the Lee monument. I have asked my mother to let me send some money—not money that she gave me, but money that I earned myself. I made some of my money by keeping the door shut last winter, and the rest I made by digging up grass in the garden. I send you all I have. I wish it was more. I am nine now.


Rev. R. S. Stewart wrote to Mrs. Lee from Baltimore, December 29,1872: “Accident a few weeks ago led me to read over again after fifty years the Scottish Chiefs, and I have been so struck with the identity of character between Sir William Wallace and General Lee that I can not help mentioning it to you and asking you to read this book again, if you have not done so, since the late struggle for Southern liberty commenced. In reading it myself, I find every noble sentiment of religion, of patriotism, and of humanity expressed that we all heard from the lips or pen of your noble husband, and so similar are the natures of the two men that I could almost believe in the transmigration of souls. As a descendant of an old Scottish family I have always felt proud of Wallace and cherished his memory.”

The Hon. Beresford Hope, A.B.,[3] wrote from Bedgebery Park, Cranbrook, England, November 25, 1872, to Mrs. Lee, thanking her for photographs of General Lee, and added, “They embody to us heroic virtue and purest patriotism, the most exalted military genius, the highest and purest domestic excellence, while the impress of your pencil and your autograph doubles their value.”

From Aldenham Bridge, North Shropshire, England, a lady sent Mrs. Lee a copy of a lecture delivered by her husband, and wrote, January 24, 1866, that she did it “in order to add one to the many testimonies which you must have received of the sympathy and veneration which have been inspired in Europe by the illustrious career of General Lee. I have less difficulty in presuming to do so, because the passages in which those feelings were most strongly expressed are omitted in this report. They were received with enthusiasm by a Shropshire audience who believed (I know not with what justice, though we should be proud if it were true) that the family of the general once belonged to this country.” The Southland—plowed with graves and reddened with blood, that can look the proudest nation fearlessly in the face, and whose sons he led to battle—joined in the lamentation over her distinguished son.

The Hon. Jefferson Davis, eloquently speaking at the memorial meeting in Richmond, said that “this day we unite our words of sorrow with those of the good and great throughout Christendom, for his fame has gone over the water; and when the monument we build shall have crumbled into dust, his virtues will still live—a high model for the imitations of generations yet unborn.” And Benjamin Hill, of Georgia, in beautiful phrase declaimed: “He was a foe without hate, a friend without treachery, a soldier without cruelty, and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices, a private citizen without wrong, a neighbor without reproach, a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guilt. He was Cæsar without his ambition, Frederick without his tyranny, Napoleon without his selfishness, and Washington without his reward. He was as obedient to authority as a servant and royal in authority as a king. He was as gentle as a woman in life, pure and modest as a virgin in thought, watchful as a Roman vestal, submissive to law as Socrates, and grand in battle as Achilles.”

The Southern leader had no ambition except the consciousness of duty faithfully performed. Far removed from political or civic ambition, he would have declined the presidency of the Confederate States if his sword had carved their independence as readily as he did positions carrying great salaries. He once said that the only public office he ever might be inclined to accept would be the chief magistracy of his beloved native State; and yet when Judge Robert Ould, of Richmond, wrote him that there was a universal demand that he should become Governor of Virginia, he replied, after expressing his high appreciation of the position and the desires of the people: “I candidly confess, however, that my feelings induce me to prefer private life, which I think more suitable to my condition and age, and where I believe I can better subserve the interests of my State than in that you propose. This is no time for the indulgence of personal or political considerations in selecting individuals for supposed former services. Believing that there are many men in the State more capable than I of filling the position, and who could do more to promote the interests of the people, I most respectfully decline to be considered a candidate for the office.” He thought that his election would excite hostility toward the State and injure its inhabitants in the eyes of the country, and he therefore refused to consent to become an instrument of bringing distress upon those whose prosperity and happiness were so dear to him. He adds: “If my disfranchisement and prohibition of civil rights would secure to the citizens of the State the enjoyment of civil liberty and equal rights under the Constitution, I would willingly accept them in their stead.” It is perhaps well that he was not launched into public life, where all his actions would have passed in review before a hostile political party. After his sword was sheathed, the serene patience and quiet self-consecration of his latest years have filled the world with admiration.


[1] I do swear that I will, to the best of my skill and judgment, faithfully and truly discharge the duties required of me by an act for incorporating the Rector and Trustees of Liberty Hall Academy, without favor, affection, or partiality.

[2] He died in Lexington, in the summer of 1872, of lockjaw caused by a nail in one of his fore feet. He was fifteen years old.

[3] Mr. Hope will be remembered as the English gentleman who principally contributed to the Jackson statue which now stands in Capitol Square, Richmond, and who had more to do with its presentation to the State of Virginia than any one else. General Lee was also presented with a magnificently illustrated Bible from Mr. Hope and his wife, Lady Mildred, a sister of the present Lord Salisbury, together with other members of the family and friends. The dedication reads thus: “General Robert E. Lee, Commanding the Confederate Army, from the Undersigned Englishmen and Englishwomen, recognizing the Genius of the General, admiring the Humanity of the Man, respecting the Virtues of the Christian. October 18, 1864.”

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