On the Fringe of Fame, by Elizabeth Fleming Rhodes, Chapter 11

On the Fringe of Fame


The Last Decade

THE WAR WAS OVER and the peace terms brought to an end an era and a way of life for the defeated South. Richard, old, broken in health and nearly penniless, felt an affinity with the South. The future looked dark indeed. To tide him over until the arrival of a “draft from California,” he had been forced to borrow $1500 from his son-in-law, Dr. Fleming, writing in November 1865, “Trusting that the reverses of the holy cause will not place me in the position of again seeking the aid of my friends of whom I rank you the first.”1

After fifty-one years of military service he found himself an impoverished civilian without a vote, ineligible for a pension and unable to find employment. This was the world the Lees and their fellow non-citizens had to endure until Virginia was readmitted into the Union in 1870.

Framing seemed to be the only possible means of support; the old explorer could not bear the thought of cooped-up retirement in the city. Sharing with Dick a farm near Ellicott City, Maryland, which he named Sully, after his birthplace, he found it to be an excellent place for large family reunions, and welcomed his married daughters and their families for long summer visits. Here on the farm he sought peace, tending his fruit trees and vegetables, complaining about the shortage of labor:

[Lee Family Genealogical Chart]

The greatest difficulty to contend with is the employment of labour, as the recent acts of Congress and Stephens proposition to confiscate the southern lands and divide them amongst the negroes has in a great measure demoralized that doomed and unfortunate race—The bounty bill especially, which pays at once three hundred dollars to each negro who bore arms against the Confederate States.2

It was difficult for him to be dispassionate, to follow the example of his cousin, Robert E. Lee, who had stated that it was “the duty of every man to unite in the restoration of the country and the re-establishment of peace and harmony.”

The First Reconstruction Act had divided the South into military territories ruled by Northern military commanders; carpetbaggers, and untrained Negroes soon replaced many of the officials. The carpetbaggers and scallawags were active sowing the dragon’s teeth of hatred and distrust between the Southern White and Negro, a hatred which would smoulder for well over a century more. The South had become a land of devastation: cities destroyed, buildings in ruins, a wasteland without courts of justice, public transportation or even fences.

When Virginia was reinstated into the Union, the Lees returned to Alexandria where they were near old friends and relatives. However, they felt that the capital across the river held few friends. The government in Washington had been deteriorating: the struggles of President Andrew Johnson after Lincoln’s assassination and his near impeachment had been followed by great corruption under President Ulysses S. Grant. Richard remembered when Grant had been threatened with a Court Martial years ago at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, and he had had him excused, feeling he was a “likely young man.” Recently, President Grant had invited Richard’s daughters, Mary and Julia, to the White House, but they had refused the invitation.3 The bitterness of the war years could not be forgotten so soon. Memories of Shiloh were too poignant.

Fortunately for Lee’s health, the Lee family had proved to be an Aescupalian magnet. Richard’s daughters, Mary Elizabeth and Anna Cornelia, were both married to doctors. Free medical advice had been easily procured from the sons-in-law as well as from Gus, who had graduated from the Medical College of Virginia in 1870, where Anna Cornelia’s husband, Dr. Richard Stockton Johnston Peebles, was teaching,

Inside the house, on the corner of Prince and Patrick Streets, Richard put on the mantle of patriarch. It seemed as though every year had brought another grandchild or greatniece or cousin. By 1875, he had welcomed twenty grandchildren and had sorrowed over the early deaths of three. How ironic is old age, when a man outlives his children and grandchildren. His daughter Evelina and the two doctor sons-in-laws had also died, as well as his brilliant cousin Robert Edward Lee, late president of Washington College (renamed Washington and Lee University).

In spite of the business panic, things were booming in the west, this year 1875. A web of railroads was binding the Atlantic to the Pacific; mountains, deserts, plains, and vast rich virgin farmlands were accessible to everyone. Richard longed to take the railroad to San Francisco; his only trip during the past decade had been a visit to St. Louis in 1868. What incredible changes in transportation and communication had taken place during his lifetime. The natural propellants of wind and muscle, which at his birth had been almost the same as in Biblical times, had been suddenly replaced with machines, steam boats, locomotives and the Morse telegraph. Richard was sure that none of his descendants would see such revolutionary changes during their lifetimes.

His great love was still the West which was rapidly changing. He had read with interest about the settling of the plains, the introduction of barbed wire, windmills, irrigation and dry farming, which had spelled doom for the buffalo and Indians. Gold was still being discovered, and just a year before there had been another gold rush, this time in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory. Time and time again the Indian Treaties had been broken, and the Indian pushed off his land. Richard sympathized with the Indian and objected to this injustice. Even in the past, when he had been in a position of some authority and had written suggesting that the Indian uprisings had been caused by the depredations of the Whites, and had urged clemency and justice for the Indians, the government had ignored him. Now he watched the extermination from the side lines, remembering his numerous contacts with Indians, both as friend and foe, and the treaties he had made, so futilely.

No man can help looking back upon his life to wonder whether he could have taken a different course at some point along the way, or could have done a better job. Lying in bed during long painracked hours, Richard may have realized that his pride and independence had kept him from advancement in rank. Time and time again his arrogance had resulted in friction: as a young officer he had lost his temper and torn up the report of his explorations in the western wilderness, had quarrelled and faced a court martial in 1835, had bombarded the War Department with an angry correspondence about rank in 1843#&8211;1844, had disputed with Vinton in San Francisco in 1850, had wrangeled about the San Francisco storeroom and finally had induced a second court martial. He had been too intransigent for an easy rise in rank. Also, he had learned from experience that initiative and independence in the lower ranks was no asset. His impulsive jaunt into the area west of the Rockies in the fall of 1833 and his unauthorized use of the San Francisco storehouse had not endeared him to the rule-bound authorities. Nor had his unsolicited suggestions and recommendations been received with enthusiasm.

Fame and fortune had passed him by. His wounds had necessitated the change from active service in the artillery to the unglamorous commissariat. Wealth had been a will-o’-the-wisp. The investments made with his accrued Army pay had been as ill-fated as his venture in the beaver trade, and the Civil War had abrogated his pension and ruinously inflated all Southern currency.

However, his regrets must have been few and his satisfactions great. Life had been full, rich, and exciting. As we look at a photograph of Richard with three of his granddaughters, we notice that he looked amazingly young and healthy for his seventy-eight years. His bearded face seemed serene, showing no sign of the physical pain he suffered almost constantly from his old wounds. His granddaughter, Clara Fleming, was leaning against his knee, her pantalettes hanging below the scalloped hem of her white frock; Julia Fleming was looking quite grown up, with her hand laid gracefully on his shoulder, but little Marion Civalier had stamped her high-button boots and was pouting in smouldering Gallic fury. Perhaps the photographer had interrupted a story about his explorations to pose the children and their grandfather.

Col. Richard Bland Lee with granddaughters (left to right),
Marion Civalier, Clara Fleming, and Julia Fleming.

Richard loved to relive the past and the children clamored for the tales about Indian alerts on the Santa Fe trail, near starvation with his guide, Kit Carson, during the winter of 1833–1834, battles and wounds in the Florida War. He also entranced them with tales of the Gold Rush in 1849, Oregon, Hawaii, South America, near shipwreck on the S.S. California, the battles of Bull Run and Shiloh, Generals Sherman, Beauregard and Wool, Oceola and Black Hawk, the Bent brothers, Jefferson Davis, and, of course, his illustrious cousin, Robert E. Lee. He had lived through the great years of expansion; he had seen his country’s territory spread to the Pacific, and he had felt the great changes resulting from the growth of industrialism and power. The United States was now an empire and he, Richard, had had a part in its growth.

On August 2, 1875, seventy-nine-year-old Richard departed on his final journey. In the long articles of recognition, which appeared in various newspapers in Missouri, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, were the following tributes:

“Altogether free from affectations, he quietly and modestly lived the life of a soldier gentleman. In his last days he carried suffering without complaint and with a very great fearlessness . . .: (Washington Republican, Alexandria Gazette and Virginia Advertiser, August 4, 1875.)

“His activity, his cheerful disposition, his chivalrous temper, his social accomplishments and his scrupulous sense of honor endeared him to all. . . . Hail and farewell!” (St. Louis Republican, August 18, 1875.)



Lee, R. B. Letter to Dr. Robert F. Fleming, November 12, 1865 (R.B.L.F. Collection).

Lee, R. B. Letter to Dr. Robert F. Fleming, April 7, 1869 (R.B.L.F. Collection).

These anecdotes were told to me by Clarissa Fleming of The Plains, Virginia, the granddaughter of Mary Elizabeth Lee Fleming.

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