Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee, Jr.

CHAPTER XIV
AN IDEAL FATHER

LETTERS TO MILDRED LEE—TO ROBERT—TO FITZHUGH—INTERVIEWED BY SWINTON, HISTORIAN OF THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC—IMPROVEMENT IN GROUNDS AND BUILDINGS OF WASHINGTON COLLEGE—PUNCTUALITY A PROMINENT TRAIT OF ITS PRESIDENT—A STRONG SUPPORTER OF THE Y.M.C.A.

MY sister, after the Christmas holidays, went from “Ashby” to Baltimore, Cousins George and Eleanor Goldsborough taking her with them to their town house. I think my father always wanted his daughters with him. When they were away he missed them, their love, care, and attention. The next letter I find is to Mildred in Baltimore:

LEXINGTON, Virginia, January 27, 1867.

My Precious Daughter: Your letter to your mother gave us the satisfactory information of your continued good health, for I feared that your long silence had been caused by indisposition of body, rather than that due to writing. I hope you will not let so long an interval between your letters occur again, for you know I am always longing to hear from you, when I cannot see you, and a few lines, if only to say you are well, will prevent unpleasant apprehensions. I am delighted at your increased bodily dimensions, and your diminished drapery. One hundred and twenty-eight avoirdupois is approximately a proper standard. Seven more pounds will make you all right. But I fear before I see you the unnatural life, which I fear you will lead in Baltimore, will reduce you to skin and bone. Do not go out to many parties, preserve your simple tastes and manners, and you will enjoy more pleasure. Plainness and simplicity of dress, early hours, and rational amusements, I wish you to practise. You must thank Cousins Eleanor and George for all their kindness to you, and remember me to all friends. If you see your uncle Marshall, present my kind regards to him, and my best wishes for his health and happiness. I hope you will see Robert. I heard that he stayed at Mr. Edward Dallam’s when in Baltimore, but do not know whether he will return there from Lynwood. I was sorry to hear that you lost your purse. Perhaps the finder was more in want than you are, and it may be of service to him, and you can do without it. A little money is sometimes useful. You must bear in mind that it will not be becoming in a Virginia girl now to be fine or fashionable, and that gentility as well as self-respect requires moderation in dress and gaiety. While her people are suffering, she should practise self-denial and show her sympathy in their affliction. We are all pretty well. Your poor mother suffers more pain than usual during this inclement weather. Your sister is devoted to the snow and ice, and Agnes is becoming a very good housekeeper. She has received a letter from a gentleman, whose judgement she respects, recommending her to acquire that useful knowledge, and assuring her that it will not only promote domestic happiness, but will add greatly to connubial bliss. This is a great encouragement to her. Our young friends, the law students and cadets, all inquire after you and wish for your return. Mrs. McElwee and Mrs. White also send their particular regards, and Colonel Reid, who seems to be failing fast, sends his love, and hopes that you will soon return. You know that is my wish and hope, so whenever you are ready to return you will know that I am waiting to receive you. I will leave your mother and sisters to give you all domestic news. Tell Annette I have been looking for her in every stage since her letter last fall, and that I hope for her arrival daily. Nipper is well, and endeavors, by stern gravity, to repress the frivolity of Baxter. All unite in much love, and I am, as ever, Your father,

R. E. LEE.

MISS MILDRED LEE.

Just after the intermediate examinations, he writes to Mildred again:

LEXINGTON, Virginia, February 16, 1867.

My Precious Daughter: I have wished to answer your letter of the 2d for some days, but have not been able. The intermediate examinations which were in progress when it arrived continued ten entire days, and since their termination the necessary arrangements for the resumption of studies, and the reorganisation of the classes, have occupied my time not devoted to other pressing matters. The students generally passed very creditable examinations. Many of your friends were distinguished. The ordeal through which the higher classes passed was as severe as any I ever witnessed. Colonel Johnston[note 66] has arrived and entered upon his duties. He is living at the hotel with his wife and six sweet little children, being unable to procure a house, and the college being too poor to build one for him. We have other professors also houseless. Robert has returned to his “broken-back cottage,” though he confesses to having enjoyed great pleasure during his visit to Baltimore. He dwells with delight upon his intercourse with the Misses ——, whom he considers angels upon earth, without wings. His account of them increases my desire to get them to Virginia. Miss — once promised me to have Fitzhugh. Tell her I will release her from her engagement if she will take Rob. He was also much gratified at being able to spend a week with you, and I am getting very anxious for your return. The winter has passed, the snow and ice have disappeared, and the birds have returned to their favourite resorts in the yard. We have, however, a sea of mud around us, through which we have to plunge, but I hope the pleasant air and sun now visiting us will soon dissipate it. I am glad you are enjoying yourself among such kind friends, but do not remain too long, as you may detain Cousins Eleanor and George from the Eastern Shore. Markie has sent me a likeness of you on porcelain, from the negative taken by the celebrated Plecker, which she carried with her to Philadelphia. It is very good, but I prefer the original. . . . Everybody seems anxious for your return, and is surprised you can stay so long from your papa. May God bless and keep you, my dear child, is the constant prayer of Your devoted father,

R. E. LEE.

Before Mildred returned to Lexington she received one more letter from my father, in which he advises her of the two routes to Lexington, and tells her some college news:

LEXINGTON, Virginia, February 23, 1867.

My Precious Daughter: Agnes wishes you to purchase some articles for her, and your mother and sister may have some commissions, which I fear will reduce your purse to an inconvenient collapse. I therefore send a check for — dollars, which I hope will enable you to gratify their wishes and serve as a reserve for your own wants. I hope you are well and passing your time profitably as well as pleasantly. The cadets are under the impression that you are at the Patapsco Institute, and will expect to find you, on your return, more agreeable than ever. They are labouring so industriously in mental culture that they believe every one is similarly engaged. I went last evening to the celebration of the anniversary of the Washington Society, and was much pleased with the speeches. It was held in the Methodist church, which was filled to overflowing. The institute and Ann Smith [Female Academy] were represented. Your sisters were present, and as they were both absent from breakfast this morning I fear so much learning made them sleepy. They were also at a cadet hop on the 21st, and did not get home till between two and three A.M. on the 22d. I suppose, therefore, they had “splendid times” and very fresh society. We were somewhat surprised the other morning at Mrs. Grady’s committing matrimony. I missed, at our chapel exercises, Captain Grady and our acting chaplain, but did not know at the time what prevented their attendance. I heard afterwards that they had put the happy pair in the stage and sent them on their way rejoicing. She is now Mrs. Richard Norris, and has gone to Baltimore. It will be but fair now that Captain Grady should go to Baltimore and bring us a young lady from there in return for his mother. If you see Miss Armistead, ask her to be ready on short notice, as we are a people of few words in this region, and proceed in all matters in a businesslike way. Agnes, I suppose, has told you of all matters of gaiety and fashion. She has, no doubt, too, kept you advised of the progress of young Baxter and of the deeds of “Thomas the Nipper.” They are both flourishing, and are much admired. . . . The roads are so muddy that my evening rides have been suspended, and I see nobody. . . . You must write me when to expect you. The stage from Staunton now crosses during the night, and, when the roads are favourable, arrives about two A.M. When the roads are unfavourable, it gets in generally in time for an early breakfast. The canal-boats have resumed their trips now, so you will have a choice of routes from Richmond, if you conclude to go there. All unite with me in much love, and I am, always, Your father,

R. E. LEE.

From Lexington I had gone to Baltimore for a short visit, and had spent a week with Mildred at the home of our cousin, Mr. George Washington Peter, near Ellicott City. Soon after getting back to my farm, I received the following letter from my father, still trying to help me along in my work:

LEXINGTON, Virginia, February 8, 1867.

My Dear Son: I was very glad to learn from your letter of the 31st ult. that you had enjoyed your visit to Baltimore, for I feared when you left us that you might have a visit from your shaking enemy. I trust, however, that he has now left you never to return. Still be prudent and watch his approach closely. I hope you may be able to procure some good mules in Richmond, as it is a matter of importance to your operations. If you can get the lime delivered at ten cents, I do not know a more economical application to your land. I believe you will be repaid by the first crop, provided it acts as I think it will. Of this you must judge, and I can only say that if you can accomplish it, and wish to try, I can send you $300, and will send it by draft to you, or to any one in Baltimore that you will designate, as soon as I hear from you. I commend you for not wishing to go in debt, or to proceed faster in your operations than prudence dictates. I think it economy to improve your land, and to begin upon the system you prefer as soon as possible. It is your only chance of success, so let me know. I have to write in haste, as the examination is in progress, and I have to be present. George and Robert both came up to-day in the subjects in which they are respectively weakest, so give them your good wishes. I received yesterday a letter from Mildred regretting your departure from Baltimore, and expressing the pleasure she derived from having been with you even a short week. I hope she will continue well and return to us soon. We are all about as you left us. The weather has moderated and the ice disappeared from the river, though the boats have not yet resumed their trips. Mud predominates now instead of snow. . . . Wishing you all happiness, I am, Your affectionate father,

R. E. LEE.

ROBERT E. LEE, JR.

The Robert and George mentioned here were two of his nephews whom he was educating at the college, the sons, respectively, of his brothers, Sydney Smith Lee and Charles Carter Lee. They were members of his household and were treated as his own family.

To my brother Fitzhugh he writes at this time the following, chiding him for his extravagance in a Christmas gift, and asking for some data of the movements of his command. It is full of good advice, encouragement, and affection:

LEXINGTON, Virginia, February 26, 1867.

My Dear Fitzhugh: You must not think because I write so seldom that you are absent from my thoughts. I think of you constantly, and am every revolving in my mind all that concerns you. I have an ardent desire to see you re-established at your home and enjoying the pleasure of prosperity around you. I know this cannot be accomplished at once, but must come from continuous labour, economy, and industry, and be the result of years of good management. We have now nothing to do but to attend to our material interest which collectively will advance the interests of the State, and to await events. The dominant party cannot reign forever, and truth and justice will at last prevail. I hope I shall be able to get down to see you and Rob during the next vacation. I shall then have a more correct apprehension of existing circumstances, and can follow your progress more satisfactorily. I was very much obliged to you for the nice eye-glasses you sent me Xmas, and asked your mother and the girls to thank you for them, which I hope they did. I fear they are too nice for my present circumstances, and do not think you ought to spend anything, except on your farm, until you get that in a prosperous condition. We have all, now, to confine ourselves strictly to our necessities. . . . While you are your own manager you can carry on cultivation on a large scale with comparatively less expense than on a small scale, and your profits will of course be greater. I would commence a system of progressive improvement which would improve your land and add steadily to your income. I have received, lately, from Fitz Lee a narrative of the operations of his division of cavalry. I requested Custis to write to you for a report of your operations during the winter of 1863–4 down to April 18, 1865. How are you progressing with it? I know the difficulties of making such a narrative at this time; still, by correspondence with your officers, and by exerting your own memory, much can be done, and it will help me greatly in my undertaking. Make it as full as you can, embracing all circumstances bearing on the campaigns affecting your operations and illustrating the conduct of your division. I hope you will be able to get up to see us this spring or summer. Select the time when you can best absent yourself, that you may feel the freer and enjoy yourself the more. . . . I wish I were nearer to you all. . . . Your mother is about the same, busy with her needle and her pen, and as cheerful as ever. . . . Affectionately your father,

R. E. LEE.

GENERAL WM. H. F. LEE.

His desire for accounts from his officers of the movements of their commands shows he still intended to attempt to write his campaigns with the Army of Northern Virginia. Some months later he writes again to my brother, and in it he alludes to the dark cloud of the “reconstruction” days, hanging then over the South:

LEXINGTON, Virginia, June 8, 1867.

My Dear Son: Your letter written on your birthday has been welcomed by the whole family, and I assure you that we reciprocate your regrets at the distance which separates us. Although the future is still dark, and the prospects gloomy, I am confident that, if we all unite in doing our duty, and earnestly work to extract what good we can out of the evil that now hangs over our dear land, the time is not distant when the angry cloud will be lifted from our horizon and the sun in his pristine brightness again shine forth. I, therefore, can anticipate for you many years of happiness and prosperity, and in my daily prayers to the God of mercy and truth I invoke His choicest blessings upon you. May He gather you under the shadow of His almighty wing, direct you in all your ways, and give you peace and everlasting life. It would be most pleasant to my feelings could I again, as you propose, gather you all around me, but I fear that will not be in this world. Let us all so live that we may be united in that world where there is no more separation, and where sorrow and pain never come. I think after next year I will have done all the good I can for the college, and I should then like, if peace is restored to the country, to retire to some quiet spot, east of the mountains, where I might prepare a home for your mother and sisters after my death, and where I could earn my daily bread. We will talk of it when we meet. This summer I wish to carry your mother to some of the mineral springs where she might obtain some relief, but it is hard to know where that can be found. She seems now to prefer White Sulphur, merely on the ground, I believe, that she has never tried those waters, and, therefore, they might be of service to her. If she makes up her mind to go, I will endeavour to get her there with one of the girls, at least. Mildred has returned to us, looking very well, and says she has had a very pleasant tour among her friends, and has received a great deal of kindness wherever she has been. She seems to be very contented now at home. I think you did right to defer your visit to us until you had more leisure. I am glad your prospects for a harvest are so good. Every one must look to his material interests now, as labour is our only resource. The completion of the railroad to the Pamunkey will be a great advantage to you in getting to market what you make, and I hope you will put everything to account. I hope Robert is doing well. Mary is in Staunton, where she went a week since to attend Miss Stribling’s wedding. . . . Miss Mary Stewart is staying with us, and I believe is to remain until July, when her sister Belle is to join her. The examination of the students has been progressing a week and will continue until the 20th. The young men have, so far, done very well on the whole. . . . Mr. Swinton has paid his visit. He seemed to be gentlemanly, but I derive no pleasure from my interviews with book-makers. I have either to appear uncivil, or run the risk of being dragged before the public. . . . I am, Always as ever, your father,

R. E. LEE.

GENERAL WM. H. FITZHUGH LEE.

The Pamunkey was the name of the river on which the White House, my brother’s estate, was situated. The railroad from Richmond, torn up during the war, had just been rebuilt to that point. Swinton was the historian of the Federal Amy of the Potomac. He spent some days in Lexington, and, I suppose, sought from my father information on points connected with his history of the movements of General Grant’s army.

My father, as I have said before, commenced almost as soon as he became the president of the college to improve the grounds, roads, walks, fences, etc., and systematically kept up this work up to the time of his death. The walks about the college grounds were in very bad condition, and, in wet weather, often ankle-deep in mud. As a first step toward improving them the president had a quantity of limestone broken up and spread upon the roads and walks. The rough, jagged surface was most uninviting, and horsemen and footmen naturally took to the grass. Seeing Colonel T. L. Preston riding one day across the campus on his way to his classes at the Virginia Military Institute, my father remarked:

Ah, Colonel, I have depended upon you and your big sorrel to help smooth down my walks.

Another day, a student who was walking on the grass saw the General not far away, and immediately stepped into the middle of the rocks, upon which he manfully trudged along. A strange lady, going in the same direction, followed in the student’s footsteps, and when the youth came within speaking distance, my father, with a twinkle in his eye, thanked him for setting so good an example, and added, “The ladies do not generally take kindly to my walks.”

The buildings also were altered and renovated, so far as funds for the purpose permitted. He urged the erection as soon as possible of a chapel, which should be of dimensions suitable for the demands of the college. There were other objects calling for a far greater outlay of money than the resources of the college afforded, but he deemed this of great importance, and succeeded in getting appropriations for it first. He chose the site for this new building, and drew the plans himself. The completion of the work was much retarded owing to the want of funds, but his interest in its erection never flagged. He gave it his personal superintendence from first to last, visiting it often two or three times a day. After it was dedicated, he always attended morning prayers and all other religious exercises held there, unless prevented by sickness. Whenever I was there on a visit I always went with him every morning to chapel. He had a certain seat which he occupied, and you could have kept your watch regulated by the time he entered the doors. As he thought well of the young men who left his drawing-room by ten o’clock, so he placed in a higher estimate those who attended chapel regularly, especially if they got there in proper time. There was no regular chaplain, but the ministers of the different denominations who had churches in the village undertook, by turns, to perform a month’s service. The hour was forty-five minutes past seven o’clock every morning, except Sunday, during the session, save in the three winter months, December, January, and February, when it was one hour later. He was the earnest friend and strong supporter of the Young Men’s Christian Association, and an annual contributor to its funds. Upon one occasion, at least, he placed in its library a collection of suitable books, which he had purchased with that intention. In his annual reports to the trustees, he always made mention of the association, giving an account of its operations and progress.

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