The Life of General Robert E. Lee
G. Mercer Adam


AS the years passed over him, General Lee, unhappily, found himself in indifferent health, in consequence of the return of an old ailment to which his long and arduous military life had exposed him, and now left him often a great sufferer. This was an aggravated form of rheumatism, which threatened the vitals and gave him almost constant pain in his chest. Early in the year of 1870, the General’s distress from this affliction increased, and at length became so great that he was reluctantly necessitated to rest from his labors and undertake a trip to Georgia and other parts of the South. In this expedition in search of health, he was accompanied by his most dutiful and ever-watchful daughter, Agnes, who, with her mother, also an invalid, were at this time very solicitous about him. While in the South, Lee’s general health improved, and he seemed to be benefited by the change of scene and air, so that he returned to his college duties in the autumn session; though, to the close observer, his appearance showed traces of the onward progress of disease. His step, at this time, we are told, began to lose its elasticity; while the shoulders began to droop and the ruddy glow disappeared from his face. There were signs soon also of cerebral exhaustion and congestion of the brain, which showed that the end was now not far off. His nephew-biographer, Fitzhugh Lee, gives us the incidents that befell the great soldier, premonitory of the approaching end. “A noble life,” he tells us, “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” (at Lexington) “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 doctors were quickly suni-
moned. 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 bed-side. 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!”

Death occurred on the morning of the 12th of October, 1870, when the great Southern leader had reached his sixty-fourth year. Two days later, the College chapel received all that was mortal of the deceased warrior, and on the 15th the casket enclosing his remains was, after a brief but impressive service, lowered into a vault in rear of the College chapel, where, later on, his wife and daughter Agnes also found burial.

“Tolling bells,” relates the sympathetic biographer, from whose work we have already made quotation, “first proclaimed the sad intelligence” (of the death of the warrior) to the citizens of Lexington, electric wires flashed it to the world. Throughout the South business was suspended, schools were 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 depression after the war to its present firm condition of permanent and wide-spread 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 Life of General Robert E. Lee G. Mercer Adam CHAPTER XXI
Statue of General Robert E. Lee at Richmond, Virginia.

Equally sincere and hearty were other laudatory comments on the man and his career expressed by prominent people and influential public bodies throughout the South. At a Lee Memorial meeting, held at Richmond on Nov 3rd, one of Lee’s old colleagues in the war, Major-General Gordon, thus admiringly spoke of the hero: “Of no man whom it has ever been my fortune to meet can it be so truthfully said as of Lee, that, grand as might be your conception of the man before, he rose in incomparable majesty on more familiar acquaintance. This can be affirmed of few men who have ever lived or died, and of no other man whom it has been my fortune to approach. Like Niagara, the more you gazed, the more its grandeur grew upon you, the more its majesty expanded and filled your spirit with a full satisfaction, that left a perfect delight without the slightest feeling of oppression. Grandly majestic and dignified in his deportment, he was as genial as the sun-light of May, and not a ray of that cordial social intercourse but brought warmth to the heart, as it brought light to the understanding.” At the same meeting, the ex-President of the Confederate States, the Hon. Jefferson Davis, remarked that “this day we unite our words of sorrow with those of the good and great throughout Christendom, for General Lee’s fame has gone far over the water; and, when the monument we shall build to his memory shall have crumbled into dust, his virtues will still live—a high model for the imitation of generations yet unborn.” Another prominent figure and fellow actor in the war, Lee’s close friend. General J. E. Johnston, wrote thus to the lamenting widow, three days after her great loss:


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,


Commenting on Lee’s military reputation, General Fitzhugh Lee truly and admiringly observes, that: “In strategy, it is certain Lee stands in the front rank of the great warriors of the world. He was a greater soldier than Sir Henry Havelock, and equally devout as a Christian. . . . He had the swift intuition to discern the purpose of his opponent, and the power of rapid combination to oppose to it prompt resistance. . . . The world places Lee by the side of its greatest captains, because, surrounded on all sides by conflicting anxieties, interests, and the gravity of issues involved, he only surrendered his battle-stained, bullet-riddled banners after demonstrating that all had been done that mortal could accomplish. The profession of the soldier has been honored by his renown, the cause of education by his virtues, religion by his piety.”

One more comment we must permit ourselves, and that on the subject of the great soldier’s personal appearance and power of impressing all who came in contact with him. The extract is from the narrative of a visit to General Lee, in the Spring of 1870, by a Canadian cavalry officer and writer on military tactics, Lt.-Col. Geo. T. Denison, who was, moreover, a great admirer of the General. Colonel Denison writes: “General Lee impressed one exceedingly. I have seen some men whom the world esteems great men, but I have no hesitation in saying that no man ever impressed me as did General Robert E. Lee. In stature he was about five feet ten inches, but from his splendid figure and magnificent carriage, as well as from the massive appearance of his head, he seemed much taller. He looked the very personification of high and pure intelligence. No one could fail to be at once impressed, nay, awed, by the calm majesty of his intellect; while there was an almost childlike simplicity and kindness of manner that irresistibly won upon you at once. He was one of those men that made the ancients believe in demi-gods. His defeat served but to add to his greatness; for nothing could shake his equanimity. In all his reverses not a complaint escaped him, not a murmur did he utter, although he must have felt keenly the wrongs and sufferings of those for whom he had fought so well.”

The calm dignity with which Lee met adversity, here referred to by Colonel Denison, has been the subject of many approving remarks, and, with his quiet reticence in submitting finally to the inevitable, won for him Northern sympathy as well as elicited Southern pride. In his long, brilliant, but unequal struggle, when in command of the Army of Northern Virginia, he was never known to repine or manifest the slightest resentment or bitterness. Such even was his command of temper that, as has often been said, he was never seen angry, and rarely had a disapproving or condemnatory word to say of any one. In this respect, his self-restraint was as remarkable as was his self-possession and uniform moderation. In short, rarely in the annals of war is there a nobler record to be met with of an army leader who combined in his person the highest qualities of a soldier-hero and a Christian. Nothing in his resplendent career dims the luster of his character in the latter respect, or qualifies the example he ever set before him of a humble and trustful soldier of Jesus Christ. As a constant and consistent follower of his divine Master, General Lee’s example had a beneficent influence upon all who came in contact with him; while his trustfulness in a Guiding Power marked the man in all his dealings, and in every difficulty or emergency he had to confront. Very beautiful in this aspect was his life, while most winning was his bearing and manner, and grandly inspiring his influence and example.



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