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

CHAPTER XIX
LEE’S LETTERS TO HIS SONS

THE BUILDING OF ROBERT’S HOUSE—THE GENERAL AS A RAILROAD DELEGATE—LIONISED IN BALTIMORE—CALLS ON PRESIDENT GRANT—VISITS ALEXANDRIA—DECLINES TO BE INTERVIEWED—INTERESTED IN HIS GRANDSON—THE WASHINGTON PORTRAITS

MY father, being very anxious that I should build a good house on my farm, had agreed to supply the necessary means, and was interested in my plans and estimates. In a letter of February 18th, after a long and full explanation of the arrangements for the purchase of Smith’s Island by Fitzhugh and myself, he writes:

. . . I am glad that you are considering the construction of your house
and taking steps in the matter. Let me know how you advance, the
amount of its cost, etc., and when I can help you. . . . The fine
weather we have had this winter must have enabled you to advance in
your farm work and put you ahead in that, so you will come out square,
I hope. We are as usual, your poor mother about the same, the girls
well, and I tolerable. All unite in much love. Truly and affectionately,

R. E. LEE.

A week later he writes to me on the same subject:

LEXINGTON, Virginia, February 27, 1869.

My Dear Son: I am glad you have obtained a good pair of oxen. Try to get another pair to work with them. I will make good the deficit in my contribution. Your fences will be a great advantage to you, and I am delighted at the good appearance of your wheat. I hope it will continue to maturity. It is very probable, as you say, however, that it may fail in the grain. Should you find it so, would it not be well next year to experiment with phosphates? That must be the quality the land lacks. Have you yet heard from Mr. West about your house? What are the estimates? Let me know. The difficulty I fear now will be that the burning of the bricks may draw you away from your crops. You must try not to neglect them. What would the bricks cost if purchased? Ask F— to cut the lumber for you. I will furnish the funds to pay for it. I hope the break in the mill may not prove serious, and that you may be able to make up your delay in plowing occasioned by the necessary hauling. I am very glad to hear that you and F— can visit each other so easily. It will be advantageous to communicate with each other, as well as a pleasure. I suppose Tabb has not returned to the White House yet. I am delighted to hear that she and her boy are so well. They will make everything on the Pamunkey shine. We are all as usual.

General Breckenridge[note 75] is on a visit to his sons and has been with us to-day. He will return to Baltimore Monday. He looks well, seems cheerful, and talks hopefully. All unite in love to you, and your acquaintances inquire regularly after you. I think of you very often, and wish I were nearer and could assist you. Custis is in better health this winter than he has been, and seems content, though his sisters look after him very closely. I have no news and never have. General B— saw Fitzhugh Lee in Alexandria. He told him he was a great farmer now, and when he was away, his father, who had now taken to the land, showed uncommon signs of management. Good-bye, my dear son. May you enjoy every happiness prays your affectionate father,

R. E. LEE.

ROBERT E. LEE, JR.

The completion of the railroad from the “White House” to “West Point” made communication between Fitzhugh and myself very easy. On February 11th, my father had become the proud and happy possessor of a grandson, which event gave him great joy. Mr. West, an architect of Richmond, had drawn me up plans and estimates for a house. My father had also sent me a plan drawn by himself. These plans I had submitted to several builders and sent their bids to him to examine and consider. In the following letter, he gives me his opinion:

LEXINGTON, Virginia, March 21, 1869.

My Dear Rob: I have received your two letters of the 3d and 9th insts., and would have answered the former before, but had written a few days before its date, and as our letters had been crossing each other, I determined to let them get right.

First, as to Smith’s Island, I merely want to fulfil the conditions
of the sale as prescribed in the published notice. I should have
required them of any other purchasers, and must require them of you. . . .

Now as for the house: The estimates of your bidders are higherthan I anticipated, and I think too high by at least $1,000. You see, there is about $1,000 difference between the highest and lowest of their offers you sent me. What does F— say about it? I am confident that the could build that house here for but little over $2,000, including materials, and I could to it there, if I could get two good workmen. But you are unaccustomed to building, and I would not advise you to undertake it, unless you could engage a proper foreman. If, therefore, I were in your place, I should reject all the offers, unless the one you had not received when you wrote suited better. I would not, however, give up my house, but procure the bricks either by purchase or by making them on the ground, as was most advantageous, and the shingles in the same way, and get all the lumber and flooring prepared. While preparing the necessary materials, I would see the builder that made the lowest offer, or any other that I preferred, and get him to revise his estimate and cut it down, leaving him a margin for profit; and when satisfied with his offer, accept it and set him to work.

Now as for the means: I understood when you were here that you could manage the materials—that is, make arrangements for procuring the bricks, lumber, shingles, and flooring. Indeed, you might also get the lime and sand cheaper, perhaps, than the builder, and make a deduction on his bill. I can let you have funds to pay your contractor. If I did not understand you rightly—that is, if you cannot procure the materials, I can help you in them too. In fact, if you desire so much, I can let you have the whole amount, $3,500. You can have the use of it without interest, and return it to me when I require it, or sooner if you are able, as I take it from the fund I was saving for a homestead for your mother. At present, I cannot use it, and it is of no advantage to me, except its possession. Will that suit you? If it does not, let me know what will, and you shall have that, too. You must feel that it gives me pleasure to do anything I can for you, and if I had only myself to consider, you should have it unconditionally, but I must consider one person above all. I want you to do, therefore just as you prefer. I want you to have the comfort of a house, but I do not wish to force one upon you, against your will or against your judgement. I merely wish you to feel that you can procure one without inconveniencing me. The only hesitation I have on the subject is that I think you ought to get a better house for $3,500 than I fear you will get. The house according to the first plan, in my opinion, ought not to cost more than that sum. But if you think the estimate is a fair one, and are satisfied, accept it and set to work. But consult Fitzhugh, and let me know when you want the money, and in what sums. Now that is plain, I hope, so keep this letter for reference, as I have not time to take a copy.

We are all pretty well. Your mother has been troubled by a cold, but is over it I hope. The girls are well, and have as many opinions with as few acts as ever; and Custis is so-so. We have had accounts of Lawrence Butler’s wedding, and all were as gay as a flock of snow-birds. They regretted your absence. I will ask your mother to send you reports. I am tolerable and wish I could get down to see you. I had hoped to go down this spring, but I fear the dilatoriness of the workmen in finishing the house, and the necessity of my attending to it, getting the ground inclosed and preparing the garden, will prevent me. I shall also have to superintend the moving. In fact, it never seems convenient for me to go away. Give much love to F—, my daughter Tabb, and grandson. I wonder what he will think of his grandpa. All unite in love, and I am, as always, Your affectionate father,

R. E. LEE.

ROBERT E. LEE, JR.

In April, there are two letters written on the same day, to each of his sons, Fitzhugh and myself. I had determined for many reasons to postpone building my house for the present, which decision my father regrets. In the matter of Smith’s Island, the arrangement proposed by my brother and myself for its purchase was agreed to by him:

LEXINGTON, Virginia, April 17, 1869.

My Dear Rob: I have written to Fitzhugh, informing him of my agreement to all the propositions in your joint letter, which I hope will be satisfactory to you. You can read my letter to him, so I will not repeat. I am sorry that you have concluded not to build, but if, in your judgment, that is the best course, I must be content. I do not wish you to hamper yourself with obligations, but to my mind building in the way proposed would not be onerous to you and would have given you the use of a house some years prior to the time that you may be able to erect one, and thus have added to your comfort, health, and probable ability to increase your resources from your farm. But I hope you have decided wisely, and should circumstances occur to cause you to change your views, you must not fail to let me know; for I shall at all times stand ready to help you to the extent of my ability, which I am now obliged to husband, lest I may become a burden to others. I am very glad to learn that your farm is promising better in the second cultivation of the fields, and feel assured that if treated judiciously it will recover its fertility and be remunerative. If you can perceive that you are progressing, though with a slow and regular step, you have cause for congratulation and encouragement; for there are many, I am sorry to say, that are worse off now than when they commenced at the end of the war, and have to begin again. Industry with economy must prevail in the end. There seems to be a necessity for my going to Baltimore next Tuesday, but I feel so poorly now that I do not know that I shall be able. If I do go, it will interfere materially with my proposed visit to you and Fitzhugh this spring, and I fear will put an end to it. I shall be obliged to spend some days in Alexandria on my return, and could not then delay my return here. I hope to see you both some time this summer, and, if I cannot get to you, you must come to me. I have been confined to this house for more than a week with a bad cold, the effects of which still cling to me, and thought I am better this morning, I am suffering. Your mother, too, I am sorry to say, has been suffering from the same cause, and has had to resort to medicine, as well as myself. You know that is bad for old people. Agnes has not been well, but Mildred is herself, and surrounded by her two fresh broods of kittens she would not call the king her uncle . . . God bless you, my dear son, prays Your affectionate father,

R. E. LEE.

R. E. LEE, JR.

The letter to his son Fitzhugh is mostly upon business, but some of it relates to more interesting matters:

LEXINGTON, Virginia, April 17, 1869.

My Dear Fitzhugh: I expect to go to Baltimore next Tuesday, if well enough. The Valley Railroad Company are very anxious for me to accompany their delegation to that city with a view of obtaining from the mayor or council a subscription for their road, and, though I believe I can be of no service to them, they have made such a point of it that it would look ill-mannered and unkind to refuse. I wish I could promise myself the pleasure of returning by the “White House,” but I cannot. If I go to Baltimore, I must take time to pay certain visits and must stop a while in Alexandria. I shall, therefore, from there be obliged to return here. If I could stop there on my way to Baltimore, which I cannot for want of time, I would then return by the “White House.” I shall hope, however, to see you and Rob during the summer, if I have to go down immediately after commencement. But it is so inconvenient for me to leave home now that I cannot say. . . . Poor little Agnes also has been visited by Doctor Barton of late, but she is on the mend. “Life” holds her own. Both of her cats have fresh broods of kittens, and the world wags cheerily with her. Custis is well, and Mary is still in New York, and all unite with me in much love to you and my daughter Tabb and my grandson. I hope the latter has not formed the acquaintance of his father in the same manner as Warrington Carter’s child. Your affectionate father,

R. E. LEE.

GENERAL WM. H. FITZHUGH LEE.

In order to induce the city of Baltimore to aid them in building their railroad from Staunton to Salem, the Valley Railroad Company got together a large delegation from the counties through which it was proposed the line should pass, and sent it to that city to lay the plans before the mayor and council and request assistance. Among those selected from Rockbridge County was General Lee. Lexington at this time was one of the most inaccessible points in Virginia. Fifty miles of canal, or twenty-three of staging over a rough mountain road, were the only routes in existence. The one from Lynchburg consumed twelve hours, the other, from Goshen (a station on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad), from seven to eleven. On one occasion, a gentleman during his first visit to Lexington called on General Lee and on bidding him good-bye asked him the best way to get back to Washington.

“It makes but little difference,” replied the General, “for whichever route you select, you will wish you had taken the other.”

It was, therefore, the desire of all interested in the welfare of the two institutions of learning located in Lexington that this road should be built. My father’s previous habits of life, his nature and his tastes made him averse to engaging in affairs of this character; but because of the great advantage tot he college, should it be carried through, and a the earnest request of many friends of his and of the road, he consented to act. General John Echols, from Staunton, Colonel Pendleton, from Buchanan, Judge McLaughlin, from Lexington, were amongst those who went with him. While in Baltimore he stayed at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Tagart, whom he had met several summers at the White Sulphur Springs.

The delegation was invited to the floor of the Corn and Flour Exchange, to meet the business men of the city. My father, for the same reasons given above, earnestly desired to be excused from this part of the programme, and asked some of his friends to see Mr. John W. Garrett, the president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, who had the delegation in charge, and try to have it so arranged. Mr. Garrett, however, was very positive.

“General Lee is a most interesting man; I think he had better come,” was the message brought back to him.

As he appeared on the floor, which was filled with a great crowd, he was greeted with deafening cheers, and was soon surrounded by the thousands who had assembled there to see him. Everywhere that he appeared in the city he received an ovation. Sunday intervening, he attended service in the morning at St. Paul’s church on Charles Street. When it became known that General Lee was there, large numbers collected to see him come out, waiting patiently and quietly until the congregation was dismissed. As he appeared at the door, all heads were uncovered and kept so until he had passed through the long lines extending down the street.

A reception was given by Mr. Tagart in his honour. There his friends crowded to see him, and the greatest affection and deference were shown him. He had lived in Baltimore about twenty years before this time, and many of his old friends were still there; besides, Baltimore had sent to the Army of Northern Virginia a large body of her noble sons, who were only too glad to greet once more their former commander. That he was still “a prisoner on parole,” disfranchised from all civil rights, made their love for him stronger and their welcome the more hearty. On his return to Lexington, he was asked how he enjoyed his visit. With a sad smile, he said:

Very much; but they would make too much fuss over the old rebel.

A few days after he came home, when one of his daughters remonstrated with him about the hat he was wearing, he replied:

You don’t like this hat? Why, I have seen a whole cityful come out to admire it!

There is only a short note to my mother that I can find written during this trip:

BALTIMORE, April 27, 1869.

My Dear Mary: I am still at Mr. Tagart’s, but propose going to-morrow to Ella’s, and thence to Washington’s, which will consume Wednesday and Thursday. If not obliged to return here, which I cannot tell till this evening or to-morrow morning, I will then go to Washington, where I shall be obliged to spend a day or two, and thence to Alexandria, so I shall not be able to return to Lexington till the last of next week. What has become of little Agnes? I have seen many of our old friends, of whom I will tell you on my return. I have bought you a little carriage, the best I could find, which I hope will enable you to take some pleasant rides. All send love. Give mine to Mildred, and Custis, and all friends. I am just about starting to Mrs. Baker’s. Truly and affectionately,

R. E. LEE.

MRS. M. C. LEE.

The “Ella” mentioned was Mrs. Sam George, of Baltimore, who as a girl had always been a pet and favourite of my father. She was a daughter of his first cousin, Mr. Charles Henry Carter, of “Goodwood,” Prince George County, Maryland, and a schoolmate of my sister Mary. Their country place was near Ellicott City. He went there to see her, and from there to “Lynwood,” near by, the seat of Washington Peter, my mother’s first cousin and an intimate friend of us all.

On Saturday, my father, accompanied by Mr. and Mrs. Tagart, went to Washington on an early train. They drove immediately to the Executive Mansion and called on the President. This meeting was of no political significance whatever, but simply a call of courtesy. It had been intimated to General Lee that it would be most agreeable to General Grant to receive him. Mr. and Mrs. Tagart went with him, and they met there Mr. Motley, the newly appointed Minister to England. The interview lasted about fifteen minutes, and neither General Lee nor the President spoke a word on political matters. While in Washington my father was the guest of Mrs. Kennon, of Tudor Place, Georgetown Heights. On Sunday he dined with Mrs. Podestad and her husband, the Secretary of the Spanish Legation, who were old friends and relatives.

After leaving Washington, he stopped in Alexandria for several days, as the guest of Mrs. A. M. Fitzhugh. It was at her country place, “Ravensworth,” about ten miles from town, that his mother had died, and there, in the old ivy-covered graveyard, she was buried. Mrs. Fitzhugh was the wife of my mother’s uncle, Mr. William Henry Fitzhugh, who, having no children, had made my mother his heir. The intimacy between “Arlington” and “Ravensworth” was very close. Since Mr. Fitzhugh’s death, which occurred some thirty years prior to this time, my father and mother and their children had been thrown a great deal with his widow, and “Aunt Maria,” as we called her, became almost a member of the family. She had the greatest love and admiration for “Robert,” sought his advice in the management of her estate, and trusted him implicitly. His brother, Admiral Sidney Smith Lee, came up from “Richland,” his home on the Potomac near Acquia Creek, to meet him, and he found at Mrs. Fitzhugh’s “Aunt Nannie”[note 76] and her son Fitz. Lee. This was the first time they had met each other since their parting in Richmond just after the war.

On his arrival in Alexandria my father had walked up from the wharf to “Aunt Maria’s.” He was recognised by a number of citizens, who showed him the greatest deference and respect. So many of his friends called upon him at Mrs. Fitzhugh’s that it was arranged to have a reception for him at the Mansion House. For three hours a constant stream of visitors poured into the parlours. The reception was the greatest ovation that any individual had received from the people of Alexandria since the days of Washington. The next day, in Bishop Johns’ carriage, he drove out to Seminary Hill to the home of Mr. Cassius F. Lee, his first cousin, where he spent the night. In the afternoon he went to see the bishop and his family—General Cooper and the Reverend Dr. Packard. The next morning, with Uncle Smith, he attended Ascension-Day services at Christ church, and was afterward entertained at a dinner-party given by Mr. John B. Daingerfield. Before he left Alexandria he called on Mr. John Janney, who was president of the Virginia Convention in 1861, when, as Colonel Lee, he appeared before it and accepted the command of the Virginia forces, organised and to be organised.

One evening a correspondent of the New York Herald paid him a visit for the purpose of securing an interview. The General was courteous and polite, but very firm. He stood during the interview, and finally dismissed the reporter, saying:

I shall be glad to see you as a friend, but request that the visit may not be made in your professional capacity.

The same correspondent had tried to interview him, for his paper, while he was in Baltimore, but had failed.

My father was much amused at an occurance that took place during this visit. Late one afternoon a visitor was announced. As the General was very tired, Uncle Smith Lee volunteered to relieve him. The visitor was found to be an Irishwoman, very stout and unprepossessing, who asked if she could see the General. The Admiral bowed, intimating that he was the desired person, when she said:

“My boy was with you in the war, honey, and I must kiss you for his sake.” And with that she gave the Admiral an embrace and a kiss. Mr. Cassius Lee, to whom he told this, suggested that he should take General Fitz. Lee along to put forward in such emergencies.

My father’s first letter after his return to Lexington was the following:

LEXINGTON, Virginia, May 11, 1869.

My Dear Fitzhugh: I reached here last Saturday, bringing Agnes and Miss Peyton with me from Staunton. Found everybody well and Custis better. I had, upon, the whole, a pleasant visit, and was particularly glad to see again our old friends and neighbours in Alexandria and vicinity; though should have preferred to enjoy their company in a more quiet way. Your Uncle Smith came up to meet me, and your Aunt Nannie and Fitz. were there. I had not seen them since I parted from them in Richmond after the war. I wish I could have visited you and Rob and have seen my daughter and grandson; but that pleasure, I trust, is preserved for a future day. How is the little fellow? I was much relieved after parting from you to hear from the doctors that it was the best time for him to have the whooping-cough, in which opinion the “Mim” concurs. I hope that he is doing well. Bishop Whittle will be here Friday next and is invited to stay with us. There are to be a great many preparatory religious exercises this week. A great feeling of religion pervades the young in the community, especially at the Virginia Military Institute. All send love. Your affectionate father,

R. E. LEE.

Since his establishment in Lexington, General Lee had been a member of the vestry of Grace (Episcopal) church. At the council of 1868, which met at Lynchburg, he had been sent as a delegate, and spent three days there. This year the council was to meet in Fredericksburg, and he was again elected to represent his church. This was a busy time with him. The examinations were commencing, his new home was about ready to move into, and the preparations for the commencement exercises had to be made; yet he accepted the trust imposed upon him by his church and took a week out of his valuable time to perform it. In his next letter to his son, after writing on some Smith’s Island business, he tells him of his proposed journey to Fredericksburg and of his regret at not being able to visit him as he had intended:

LEXINGTON, Virginia, May 22, 1869.

My Dear Fitzhugh: The weather here has been very hard on the corn-fields, and I hear of many having to be replanted. The wheat, so far, is very promising, and I am glad to hear that yours and Rob’s is equally so. I have been elected by our little church to represent it at the coming convention, and have concluded to go. I shall leave for Fredericksburg Tuesday, June 1st, and shall endeavour while there to spend a night with your Uncle Smith, the only visit I shall be able to make him. It is very inconvenient for me to be absent at this time. The examination of the senior classes is in progress, and I must hasten back to attend as many as I can. The new house is about finished. The contractors say they will deliver the keys on Monday, the 31st inst. I will make arrangements to have it cleaned out during the week, so as to be able to move in on my return. The commencement, a busy time with me, is approaching, and we must try to be prepared. I shall not, therefore, be able to pay you a visit at this time, but hope Custis and I will be able to do so after the close of the session. I met Bishop Whittle at Lynchburg last convention, and was much pleased with him. My favourable impressions were much strengthened and increased by this visit here.

I am so glad to learn that my little grandson is getting on so well with his whooping-cough. You must kiss him and his mother for me. We are all about the same. Your mother is becoming interested in her painting again, and is employing her brush for the benefit of our little church, which is very poor. She yet awhile confines herself to coloring photographs, and principally to those of General and Mrs. Washington, which are sold very readily. The girls are well, and have Miss Peyton with them still. Custis, I hope, is better. He is getting over some of his confinement with his classes now, which I hope will be of benefit to him. Give my love to Robert and tell my daughter Tabb I long to see her. All unite with me in affectionate love. I am, Truly your father,

R. E. LEE.

These photographs that were being coloured by my mother were from the original portraits of General Washington by Peale and of Mrs. Washington by W—. These paintings hung at Mt. Vernon until the death of Mrs. Washington, and were then inherited by my grandfather, Mr. Custis. They were at “Arlington” till ’61, when they were removed to “Ravensworth,” where they remained until the end of the war. When they were being sent to Lexington, the boat carrying them on the canal between Lynchburg and Lexington sank. These pictures, with many others belonging to my mother, were very much injured and had to be sent to a restorer in Baltimore, who made them as good as ever, and they were finally safely hung in the president’s house in Lexington, and are now in the library of the university. My mother coloured the photographs of these originals, and sold a great many, on account of their association rather than their merit.

There must have been some change of date in my father’s plans, for though he said he would start on June 1st for Fredericksburg, his first and only letter from there was written on May 28th:

FREDERICKSBURG, May 28, 1869.

My Dear Mary: I reached here Tuesday night, the night after the morning I left you, about twelve o’clock and found Major Barton at the depot, who conducted me to his house. The town seems very full of strangers, and I have met many acquaintances. I have seen no one yet from “Cedar Grove,” and cannot learn whether any of them are coming. They are no doubt in distress there, for you may have heard of the death of Charles Stuart, on his way from Arkansas. He died at Lynchburg of congestive chills. Harriott Cazenove (his sister) went on to see him, but he died before her arrival. Rosalie, I heard, was at “Cedar Grove,” Turbeville in Essex. I have delivered all your packages but Margaret’s. Cassius Lee and all from the seminary are here. Sally came up from Gloucester, and also Mrs. Taliaferro. But I must tell you of all occurrences upon my return, and of all whom I have met. All friends inquire very particularly and affectionately after you, particularly your cousin, Mrs. —, who turns up every day at all assemblies, corners, and places, with some anxious question on her mind upon which some mighty—thought to me hidden—importance depends. Fitz. Lee arrived to-day, though I have not seen him yet. If I can accomplish it, I will go to “Richland” to-morrow, Saturday, and spend Sunday, and take up my line of march Monday, in which event I hope to reach Lexington Wednesday morning, or rather Tuesday night, in the stage from Goshen. I may not be able to get away from the council before Monday. In that case, I shall not arrive before Wednesday night. Tell the girls there are quantities of young girls here and people of all kinds. I hope that you are all well, and that everything will be ready to move into our new house upon my arrival. I am obliged to stop. I am also so much interrupted and occupied that, though I have tried to write ever since my arrival, I have been unable. Love to all. Very affectionately,

R. E. LEE.

MRS. R. E. LEE.

“Cedar Grove” was the plantation of Dr. Richard Stuart, in King George County, some fifty miles from Fredericksburg. His wife, a Miss Calvert, of “Riversdale,” Maryland, was a near cousin of my mother, had been her bridesmaid, and the two families had been intimate all their lives. All the persons mentioned by my father were cousins and friends, several of them old neighbours from Alexandria and the Theological Seminary near by.

From Fredericksburg, after the completion of his duties at the council, he went to “Richlands,” on the Potomac, near Acquia Creek, where his brother Smith was then living. This meeting was a great pleasure to them both, for two brothers were never more devoted. This was the last time they saw one another alive, as Smith died two months afterward.

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