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

CHAPTER XXI

THE GENERAL DECLINES LUCRATIVE POSITIONS IN NEW YORK AND ATLANTA—HE SUFFERS FROM AN OBSTINATE COLD—LOCAL GOSSIP—HE IS ADVISED TO GO SOUTH IN THE SPRING OF 1870—DESIRES TO VISIT HIS DAUGHTER ANNIE’S GRAVE

AFTER General Lee had accepted the presidency of Washington College, he determined to devote himself entirely to the interest and improvement of that institution. From this resolution he never wavered. An offer that he should be at the head of a large house to represent southern commerce, that he should reside in New York, and have placed at his disposal an immense sum of money, he declined, saying:

I am grateful, but I have a self-imposed task which I must accomplish. I have led the young men of the South in battle; I have seen many of them die on the field; I shall devote my remaining energies to training young men to do their duty in life.

To a request from some of his old officers that he should associate himself with a business enterprise in the South, as its president, he replied with the following letter:

LEXINGTON, Virginia, December 14, 1869.

GENERAL J. B. GORDON, President,
Southern Life Insurance Company, Atlanta, Georgia.

My Dear General: I have received your letter of the 3d inst., and am duly sensible of the kind feelings which prompted your proposal. It would be a great pleasure to me to be associated with you, Hampton, B. H. Hill, and the other good men whose names I see on your list of directors, but I feel that I ought not to abandon the position I hold at Washington College at this time, or as long as I can be of service to it. Thanking you for your kind consideration, for which I know I am alone indebted for your proposition to become president of the Southern Life Insurance Company, and with kindest regards to Mrs. Gordon and my best wishes for yourself, I am, Very truly yours,

R. E. LEE.

His correspondence shows that many like positions were made to him.

The Christmas of ’69, neither my brother nor myself was with him. Knowing of our plans in that respect, he wrote before the holidays to Fitzhugh, wishing us both the compliments of the season and a pleasant time in the visits we were going to make:

LEXINGTON, Virginia, December 18, 1869.

My Dear Fitzhugh: I must begin by wishing you a pleasant Christmas and many, many Happy New Years, and may each succeeding year bring to you and yours increasing happiness. I shall think of you and my daughter and my grandson very often during the season when families are generally united, and though absent from you in person, you will always be present in mind, and my poor prayers and best wishes will accompany you all wherever you are. Bertus will also be remembered, and I hope that the festivities of “Brandon” will not drive from his memory the homely board at Lexington. I trust that he will enjoy himself and find some one to fill that void in his heart as completely as he will the one in his—system. Tell Tabb that no one in Petersburg wants to see her half as much as her papa, and now that her little boy has his mouth full of teeth, he would not appear so lonesome as he did in the summer. If she should find in the “Burg” a “Duckie” to take his place, I beg that she will send him up to me.

I duly received your letter previous to the 12th inst., and requested some of the family who were writing about that time to inform you. When I last wrote, I could not find it on my table and did not refer to it. “The Mim” says you excel her in counting, if you do not in writing, but she does not think she is in your debt. I agree with you in your views about Smith’s Island, and see no advantage in leasing it, but wish you could sell it to advantage. I hope the prospects may be better in the spring. Political affairs will be better, I think, and people will be more sanguine and hopeful. You must be on the alert. I wish I could go down to see you, but think it better for me to remain here. To leave home now and return during the winter would be worse for me. It is too cold for your mother to travel now. She says she will go down in the spring, but you know what an exertion it is for her to leave home, and the inconvenience, if not the suffering, is great. The anticipation, however, is pleasing to her and encourages hope, and I like her to enjoy it, though am not sanguine that she will realise it. Mildred is probably with you, and can tell you all about us. I am somewhat reconciled to her absence by the knowledge of the benefit that she will be to Tabb. Tell the latter that she [Mildred] is modest and backward in giving advice, but that she has mines of wealth on that subject, and that she [Tabb] must endeavour to extract from her her views on the management of a household, children, etc., and the proper conduct to be observed toward husbands and the world in general. I am sure my little son will receive many wise admonitions which he will take open-mouthed. I have received a letter from your Uncle Carter telling me of his pleasant visit to you and of his agreeable impressions of his nephew and new niece. He was taken very sick in Richmond and delayed there so long that he could not be present at Wm. Kennon’s wedding, and missed the festivities at his neighbour Gilliam’s and at Norwood. Indeed, he had not recovered his strength when Lucy wrote a few days ago, and her account makes me very uneasy about him. I am glad Rob has so agreeable a neighbour as General Cooke, and I presume it is the North Carolina brigadier.[note 82] When you go to Petersburg, present my kind regards to Mr. and Mrs. Bolling, “Miss Melville,” and all friends. All here unite with me in love to you, Tabb, and the boy, in which Mildred is included. Your affectionate father,

R. E. LEE.

GENERAL WILLIAM H. F. LEE.

In a note, written the day after, acknowledging a paper sent to him to sign, he says:

. . . I wrote to you yesterday, Saturday, in reply to your former letter, and stated the reasons why I could not visit you. Your mother has received Mildred’s letter announcing her arrival in Richmond and will write to her there. I can only repeat my love and prayers that every blessing may attend you and yours. We are as usual. Truly and affectionately,

R. E. LEE.

GENERAL WILLIAM H. F. LEE.

The attack of cold from which my father suffered in October had been very severe. Rapid exercise on horseback or on foot produced pain and difficulty in breathing. After he was considered by most of his friends to have gotten well over it, it was very evident to his doctors and himself that there was a serious trouble about the heart, and he often had great weariness and depression. He complained but little, was often very bright and cheerful, and still kept up his old-time fun and humour in his conversation and letters, but his letters written during this year to his immediate family show that he was constantly in pain and had begun to look upon himself as an invalid. To Mildred, who was in Richmond on a visit to friends, he writes jokingly about the difficulty experienced by the family in finding out what she meant in a letter to him:

LEXINGTON, Virginia, January 8, 1870.

My Precious Life: I received you letter of the 4th. We held a family council over it. It was passed from eager hand to hand and attracted wondering eyes and mysterious looks. It produced few words but a deal of thinking, and the conclusion arrived at, I believe unanimously, was that there was a great fund of amusement and information in it if it could be extracted. I have therefore determined to put it carefully away till your return, seize a leisure day, and get you to interpret it. Your mother’s commentary, in a suppressed soliloquy, was that you had succeeded in writing a wretched hand. Agnes thought that it would keep this cold weather—her thoughts running on jellies and oysters in the storeroom; but I, indignant at such aspersions upon your accomplishments, retained your epistle and read in an elevated tone an interesting narrative of travels in sundry countries, describing gorgeous scenery, hairbreadth escapes, and a series of remarkable events by flood and field, not a word of which they declared was in your letter. Your return, I hope, will prove the correctness of my version of your annals. . . . I have little to tell. Gaiety continues. Last night there was a cadet hop. Night before, a party at Colonel Johnston’s. The night preceding, a college conversazione at your mother’s. It was given in honour of Miss Maggie Johnston’s visit of a few days to us. You know how agreeable I am on such occasions, but on this, I am told, I surpassed myself.

On New year’s Day the usual receptions. Many of our friends called. Many of my ancients as well as juniors were present, and all enjoyed some good Norfolk oysters. I refer you to Agnes for details. We are pretty well. I think I am better. Your mother and sisters as usual. Custis busy with the examination of the cadets, the students preparing for theirs. Cadet Cook, who was so dangerously injured by a fall from his window on the 1st, it is hoped now will recover. The Misses Pendleton were to have arrived this morning, and Miss Ella Heninberger is on a visit to Miss Campbell. Miss Lizzie Letcher still absent. Messrs. Anderson, Baker, W. Graves, Moorman, Strickler, and Webb have all been on visits to their sweethearts, and have left without them. “Mrs. Smith” is as usual. “Gus” is as wild as ever.[note 83] We catch our own rats and mice now, and are independent of cats. All unite in love to you. Your affectionate father,

R. E. LEE.

MISS MILDRED LEE.

A month later he writes again to this daughter in the same playful
strain, and sends his remembrances to many friends in Richmond:

LEXINGTON, Virginia, February 2, 1870.

My Precious Life: Your letter of the 29th ultimo, which has been four days on the road, reached me this morning, and my reply, unless our mails whip up, will not get to you before Sunday or Monday. There is no danger, therefore, of our correspondence becoming too brisk. What do the young girls do whose lovers are at Washington College or the Institute? Their tender hearts must always be in a lacerated and bleeding condition! I hope you are not now in that category, for I see no pining swains among them, whose thoughts and wishes are stretching eagerly toward Richmond. I am glad you have had so pleasant a visit to the Andersons. You must present my regards to them all, and I hope that Misses Ellen and Mary will come to see you in the summer. I am sure you will have an agreeable time at Brook Hill. Remember me to all the family, and tell Miss Belle to spare my friend Wilkins. He is not in a condition to enjoy the sufferings which she imposes on her Richmond beaux. Besides, his position entitles him to tender treatment.

I think it time that you should be thinking of returning home. I want to see you very much, and as you have been receiving instruction from the learned pig, I shall expect to see you much improved. We are not reduced to apply to such instructors at Lexington. Here we have learned professors to teach us what we wish to know, and the Franklin Institute to furnish us lectures on science and literature. You had better come back, if you are in search of information on any subject. I am glad that Miss “Nannie” Wise found one occasion on which her ready tongue failed her. She will have to hold it in subjection now. I should like to see Miss Belle under such similar circumstances, provided she did not die from suppressed ideas. What an awful feeling she must experience, if the occasion should ever come for her to restrain that active member! Although my friend Wilkins would be very indulgent, I think he would want her to listen sometimes. Miss Pendleton has just been over to give us some pleasing news. Her niece, Miss Susan Meade, Philip’s daughter, is to be married next month to a Mr. Brown, of Kentucky, who visited her two years ago upon the recommendation of the Reverend Charles Page, found her a school-girl, and has waited until she became a woman. He is rich, forty-nine, and has six children. There is a fair start in the world for a young woman! I recommend her example to you. We are all as usual, and “Mrs. Smith” is just the same. Miss Maggie Johnston, who has been staying with us occasionally for a few days at a time, is now on a visit to us. There is to be an anniversary celebration of the societies of the Institute on Friday, and a student’s party on Monday night, and a dance at the College Hotel. To-morrow night your mother has an evening for some young students. Gaiety will never cease in Lexington so long as the ladies are so attractive and the men so agreeable. Surprise parties are the fashion now. Miss Lucy Campbell has her cousin, Miss Ella Heninberger, staying with her, who assists her to surprise and capture too unwary youths. I am sorry to hear of Mrs. Ould’s illness. If you see her, present me most kindly to her; also to Mrs. George Randolph. Do beware of vanilla cream. Recollect how far you are from home, and do not tamper with yourself. Our semi-annual examination has been in progress for a fortnight. We shall conclude on Saturday, which will be a great relief to me, for, in addition to other things, I have to be six hours daily in the examination rooms. I was sorry that I could not attend Mr. Peabody’s funeral, but I did not feel able to undertake the journey, especially at this season. I am getting better, I hope, and feel stronger than I did, but I cannot walk much farther than to the college, though when I get on my horse I can ride with comfort. Agnes accompanies me very often. I must refer you to her and your mother for all local news. Give my love to Fitzhugh, and Tabb, and Robert when you see them, and for yourself keep an abundance. I have received letters from Edward and Blanche. They are very anxious about the condition of political affairs in France. Blanche sent you some receipts for creams, etc. You had better come and try them. Your affectionate father,

R. E. LEE.

MISS MILDRED LEE.

The following letter to his son, Fitzhugh, further shows his tender interest in his children and grandson:

LEXINGTON, Virginia, February 14, 1870.

My Dear Fitzhugh: . . . I hope that you are all well and that you will not let any one spoil my grandson. Your mother has written all the family and Lexington news. She gathers much more than I do. I go nowhere but to the college, and when the weather permits I ride in the mountains. I am better, I think, but still troubled. Mildred, I hope, is with you. When she gets away from her papa, she does not know what she wants to do, tell her. You have had a fine winter for work, and later you will have a profitable season. Custis is well and very retired; I see no alarming exhibition of attention to the ladies. I have great hopes of Robert. Give much love to my daughter Tabb and to poor little “Life.” I wish I could see you all; it would do my pains good. Poor little Agnes is not at all well, and I am urging her to go away for a while. Mary as usual. Affectionately your father,

R. E. Lee.

GENERAL W. H. F. LEE.

After waiting all winter for the improvement in his health, my father, yielding at last to the wishes of his family, physician, and friends, determined to try the effect of a southern climate. It was thought it might do him good, at any rate, to escape the rigours of a Lexington March, and could do no harm. In the following letters to his children he outlines his plans and touchingly alludes to the memory of his daughter Annie, who died in 1862 and was buried at Warrenton Springs, North Carolina:

LEXINGTON, Virginia, March 21, 1870.

My Dear Daughter: The doctors and others think I had better go to the South in the hope of relieving the effects of the cold, under which I have been labouring all the winter. I think I should do better here, and am very reluctant to leave home in my present condition; but they seem so interested in my recovery and so persuasive in their uneasiness that I should appear obstinate, if not perverse, if I resisted longer. I therefore consented to go, and will take Agnes to Savannah, as she seems anxious to visit that city, or, perhaps, she will take me. I wish also to visit my dear Annie’s grave before I die. I have always desired to do so since the cessation of active hostilities, but have never been able. I wish to see how calmly she sleeps away from us all, with her dear hands folded over her breast as if in mute prayer, while her pure spirit is traversing the land of the blessed. I shall diverge from the main route of travel for this purpose, and it will depend somewhat upon my feelings and somewhat upon my procuring an escort for Agnes, whether I go further south.

I am sorry not to be able to see you before I go, but if I return, I hope to find you here well and happy. You must take good care of your mother and do everything she wants. You must not shorten your trip on account of our departure. Custis will be with her every day, and Mary is with her still. The servants seem attractive. Good-bye, my dear child. Remember me to all friends, and believe me, Your affectionate father,

R. E. LEE.

MISS MILDRED LEE.

LEXINGTON, Virginia, March 22, 1870.

My Dear Fitzhugh: Your letter of the 17th inst. has been received. Lest I should appear obstinate, if not perverse, I have yielded to the kind importunities of my physicians and of the faculty to take a trip toward the South. In pursuance of my resolution, I shall leave here Thursday next in the packet-boat, and hope to arrive in Richmond on Friday afternoon. I shall take with me, as my companion, Agnes, who has been my kind and uncomplaining nurse, and if we could only get down to you that evening we would do so, for I want to see you, my sweet daughter, and dear grandson. But as the doctors think it important that I should reach a southern climate as soon as practicable, I fear I shall have to leave my visit to you till my return. I shall go first to Warrenton Springs, North Carolina, to visit the grave of my dear Annie, where I have always promised myself to go, and I think, if I accomplish it, I have no time to lose. I wish to witness her quiet sleep, with her dear hands crossed over her breast, as if it were in mute prayer, undisturbed by her distance from us, and to feel that her pure spirit is waiting in bliss in the land of the blessed. From there, according to my feelings, I shall either go down to Norfolk or to Savannah, and take you if practicable on my return. I would ask you to come up to Richmond, but my movements are unknown to myself, as I cannot know the routes, schedules, etc., till I arrive there, but I have promised not to linger there longer than necessary; so I must avoid temptation. We are all as usual. Your mother still talks of visiting you, and when I urge her to make preparations for the journey, she replies rather disdainfully she has none to make; they have been made years ago. Custis and Mary are well, and Mildred writes that she will be back by April 1st. We are having beautiful weather now, which I hope may continue. From Your affectionate father,

R. E. Lee.

To his daughter Mildred he writes again, giving her the minutest details as to the routes home. This is very characteristic of him. We were always fully instructed as to the best way to get to Lexington and, all the roads of life were carefully marked out for us by him:

LEXINGTON, Virginia, March 23, 1870.

My Dear Daughter: I wrote to you the other day, telling you of my intention of going South and of my general plan as far as formed. This morning your letter of the 21st arrived. . . . I hope you will get back comfortably and safely, and if you can fall in with no escort, you had better go as far as Alexandria, the first stage of your journey. Aunt Maria, Cassius Lee, the Smiths, etc., would receive you. If you wish to come by Goshen, you must take the train from Alexandria on Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday, so as to reach us on any of those evenings, when you will arrive here about twelve o’clock at night. By taking the train from Alexandria on the alternate days, Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, you will reach Staunton that evening by four P.M., remain all night, and come over by daylight the following day in the stage. By taking the train from Alexandria to Lynchburg, Mondays, Wednesdays, or Fridays, you will reach there the same afternoon, about four P.M., then go immediately to the packet-boat, and you will arrive here next morning. This last is the easiest route, and the best if you find no escort. Tell all the conductors and captains that you are my runaway daughter, and they will take care of you. I leave to-morrow evening on the packet-boat. I told you that Agnes would accompany me. Tell my cousins Washington, Jane, and Mary that I wish I were going to see them. I should then anticipate some pleasure. But the doctors say I must turn my face the other way. I know they do not know everything, and yet I have often had to do what I was told, without benefit to myself, and I shall have to do it again. Good-bye, my dear daughter. All unite in love. Your affectionate father,

R. E. LEE.

MISS MILDRED LEE.

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