Lee the American

IX
LEE’S SOCIAL AND DOMESTIC LIFE

THERE is a curious conflict of testimony about Lee’s manner in general society. Was he cold and distant? Was he genial, merry, cordial, and ready to meet others in an open, confiding spirit? Pendleton, writing of old West Point days, tries, with the ingenuity of a biographer, to reconcile the two points of view: “There was always about him a dignity which repelled improper familiarity, and yet a genial courtesy and joyous humor, often passing into and creating delightful merriment, that rendered him a charming companion. . . . The possessor of these excellences could not but be a universal favorite. No other feeling toward him was ever experienced, I believe, by any one of his several hundred fellow students from all parts of the United States.”1 On the other hand, Charles Anderson, who knew him before the war, speaks of his “grave, cold dignity of bearing and the prudent reserve of his manners which rather chilled over-early or over-much intercourse,”2 and Grant, from acquaintance in Mexico, says that he was “a large, austere man and, I judge, difficult of approach to his subordinates.”3

Lee the American IX LEE'S SOCIAL AND DOMESTIC LIFE
MRS. ROBERT E. LEE

All this evidence—in fact all the evidence—comes from decided friends or enemies, speaking in view of Lee’s later glory. I have sought in vain for an illuminating word written in the thirties. The wonderful charm which so impressed Pendleton and others, as they looked back, does not seem to have forced contemporaries to report it. In the war period Mrs. Chesnut, an admirer, but a shrewd, keen woman, gives us a glimpse which is well worth noting: “All the same, I like Smith Lee better, and I like his looks too. I know Smith Lee well. Can anybody say they know his brother? I doubt it. He looks so cold, quiet, and grand.”4 Long, in disputing Grant’s opinion of his great adversary, says that he was not austere, but that “he was clothed with a natural dignity which could either repel or invite, as occasion might require,”5 and that he had “that just degree of reserve that suited his high and responsible position.”6 Here we have an interesting clue. I imagine that Lee had the reserve before he had the responsible position, that in the early days he held a little aloof, not in the least from haughtiness, but rather from the unwillingness of a deep, strong nature to yield itself too readily. As grandeur came upon him, he did not change his manner in the least, but what had before seemed coldness, seemed now dignity, and the austerity of the lieutenant appeared only a proper self-respect in the commanding general.

In other words, he was not, in the expressive slang of to-day, “a good mixer.” He did not smoke, he did not drink, and his attitude toward smoking and drinking shows that he hardly cared for the social exhilaration they bring with them. Mrs. Davis deduces from his playful remark, “‘My cups in camp are thicker, but this is thinner than the coffee,’ the intense realization that he had of the coarse ways and uncomfortable concomitants of a camp.”7 But this is Mrs. Davis, not Lee. I think that, either by nature or by stoical self-discipline, he liked work, and cared little for the lighter pursuits of life, liked the soldier’s hardships, the soldier’s toil, even the soldier’s fare, as well as the soldier’s glory. “He rarely relaxed his energy in anything calculated to amuse him,” says one of his biographers, “but, when not riding along his lines, or among the camps, to see in person that the troops were properly cared for, generally passed his time in close attention to official duties.”8

Yet we know that he cherished to the full all the large traditions of Virginia hospitality. Whenever he mingled with his fellows in social relations, there was, at any rate in later years, a sweet, spontaneous courtesy about him, a ready tact, a kindly interest and sympathy, which won the affection of every one. “Could anybody know him?” asks Mrs. Chesnut. Perhaps not. But people could and did love him.

Women seem to have attracted him much and he had a singular charm for them. If he had love affairs in his youth, they have escaped record. He was young when he married Miss Custis, he was much younger when he fell in love with her. She made him a most worthy and devoted wife and no shade of any other affection seems ever to have interfered between them. Nevertheless, from youth to age, Lee loved a pretty girl, loved to chat with her, and jest with her, and write her gay trifles even in the midst of war. “Fond of the company of ladies,” says one of his officers, “he had a good memory for pretty girls. . . . While in Savannah and calling on my father, one of my sisters sang for him. Afterwards, in Virginia, almost as soon as he saw me, he asked after his ‘little singing bird’.”9 His letters to his daughters-in-law have a peculiar grace, vivacity, and charm. In the midwinter of 1863, with a load of care upon him that would have crushed most men, he finds time to write to a girl, of other girls, in this gay and sprightly fashion: “I caught glimpses of sweet Carrie, but she was so surrounded by her little beaux that little could be got from her. But there was one tall one with her, a signalman of that voracious family of Randolphs, whom I threatened with Castle Thunder. I did not see her look at Rob once. But you know he is to take her home on certain conditions. I hope your mother has given her consent and that the cakes are baking. I also saw happy Mrs. Ada. Her face was luminous with content and she looked as if she thought there was but one person in the world.”10

And it was not only the pretty girls; Lee had, in its finest form, that Old-world courtesy and chivalry, honoring a woman as a woman, which it is something the fashion to sneer at now, perhaps because so many women are bent on considering themselves as men. In the very height of the war, when the general was incontestably the most prominent man in the South, it was noted that he was the first to rise in a crowded car and offer his seat to a lady.11 During the last desperate movement to Appomattox one woman, the wife of Dr. Guild, the surgeon, accompanied the headquarters of the army. Even in that crisis Mrs. Guild says that the general “would come to my ambulance early in the morning with a cup of coffee, depriving himself for the only woman who was on that sorrowful, hopeless march.”12

The letter above quoted shows that Lee’s dignity and gravity did not prevent him from making and enjoying a jest. He had not, indeed, Lincoln’s wild inspiration of the comic spirit; but he had a twinkle of quiet fun, which made social life more gay and toil more easy. “He was not exactly witty, nor was he very humorous, though he gave a light turn to table talk, and enjoyed exceedingly any pleasantry or fun even. He often made a quaint or slightly caustic remark, but he took care that it should not be too trenchant.”13

One would not suspect him of practical jokes, yet it is recorded that in the early days he rode double down Pennsylvania Avenue past the White House and a Secretary of the Treasury gaping with astonishment.14 He loved to tease his young officers, one day assembling them all for a social treat around a most promising demijohn, from which he finally drew bumpers of his favorite stimulant—buttermilk;15 another sending an aide at a grand review to “tell a young lady that such and such a battery was coming.” “I rode up,” says the officer, “and saluted the young lady. There was great surprise shown by the entire party, as I was not known to any of them, and when I came out with my message, there was a universal shout, while the general looked on with a merry twinkle in his eye.”16

The same turn of gentle raillery was often given to much more serious matters, as when some one wrote that a stolen Bible was in possession of a Northern lady and Lee answered that if she made the use of it he hoped she would, it would before long be restored to its rightful owner.

Finally, Lee was by no means deficient in that most useful function of humor, the gift of laughing at one’s self. “You know she is like her papa,” he writes of one of his daughters,—”always wanting something.”17 And to Mrs. Chesnut he defined his wants. “He remonstrated and said his tastes ‘were of the simplest.’ He only wanted ‘a Virginia farm, no end of cream, fresh butter, and fried chicken,—not one fried chicken, or two, but unlimited fried chicken’.”18 It takes a considerable sense of the comic to laugh at those who find one’s social manner charming. “Last night,” writes Lee, “there was a cadet hop. Night before, a party at Colonel Johnston’s. The night preceding, a college conversazione at your mother’s. . . . You know how agreeable I am on such occasions, but on this, I am told, I surpassed myself.”19

The same gracious and quiet courtesy which distinguished Lee in the lighter forms of social intercourse was also unfailingly apparent in all business transactions. “General Lee had but one manner in his intercourse with men. It was the same to the peasant as to the prince, and the student was received with the same easy courtesy that would have been bestowed on the greatest imperial dignitary of Europe.”20 Note, however, that in such cases the manner almost always is a manner and that the man who has it rarely gives himself.

The substance of too much of our conversation, perhaps of the most brilliant part of it, is the faults and follies of our neighbors. Lack of this high seasoning may have made Lee less calculated to shine in general society. “It can always be said of him that he was never heard to speak disparagingly of any one, and when any one was heard so to speak in his presence, he would always recall some trait of excellence in the absent one.”21 On the other hand, what charms us most in talk is that some one older, wiser, whom we admire and respect, should defer to our opinions, as if they were really worth something. It appears that this attractive quality Lee had in the highest degree, and that in him it was not only tact, not only courtesy, but real humility by which the charm is always doubled. One of his subordinates in the college, during the years after the war, writes, “We all thought he deferred entirely too much to the expression of opinion on the part of the faculty, when we would have preferred that he should simply indicate his own views or desire.”22 This is surely an interesting trait in a great and successful general and it shows in Lee’s military as well as in his civil relations. When he crossed the Potomac in June, 1863, he said to a mere staff officer, “What do you think should be our treatment of the people in Pennsylvania?“23

Respect for the opinions of one’s friends and sympathy with all of them naturally breed the desire to reconcile them when they jar. Here lay one of the greatest secrets of Lee’s value to his country. Even in the early days in Mexico it was said of him: “I remember nothing special in those visits except his desire to heal the differences between General Scott and some of his subordinate officers and the efforts he was making in that direction, about which he conversed with me. He was a peacemaker by nature.”24 Could there be a nobler eulogy for a mighty man of war?

So much for Lee’s relations with the world at large. Had he near and intimate friends? To return to Mrs. Chesnut. “Could anybody say they knew him?” With her I am inclined to answer, “I doubt it” It is true that Davis said, “He was my friend”; but Davis was a master of figures of speech. That Lee loved many men, I know, that he gave them kindness and sympathy in unstinted measure, sometimes speaking in terms of glowing warmth and tenderness, as when he wrote to Beauregard, after Bull Run, “I cannot express the joy I feel at the brilliant victory of the 21st. The skill, courage, and endurance displayed by yourself and others excite my highest admiration;”25 and to Joseph E. Johnston on the same occasion, “I almost wept with joy at the glorious victory achieved by our brave troops. The feelings of my heart could hardly be repressed on learning the brilliant share you had in the achievement.”26 Nevertheless, I find no word to indicate that he ever gave himself.

Of all the friendships that he had, that with J. E. Johnston is undoubtedly the most interesting. They were the two foremost generals of the Confederacy, rivals in position, rivals in power, rivals in the affection of their soldiers, far unequal only in the support and favor of their government. But in spite of all that tended to estrange them, they seem to have cherished to the end an affection which, if we are to believe one who knew them well, made them “meet after separation with the demonstrativeness of two schoolboys.”27 A knowledge of the character of each lends a double charm to the beautiful words written by Johnston after his friend’s death: “We had the same associates, who thought, as I did, that no other youth or man so united the qualities that win warm friendship and command respect. For he was full of sympathy and kindness, genial, and fond of gay conversation and even of fun, that made him the most agreeable of companions, while his correctness of demeanor and language and attention to all duties, both personal and official, and a dignity as much a part of himself as the elegance of his person, gave him a superiority that every one acknowledged in his heart.”28

Johnston follows this eulogy with a curious comment: “He was the only one of all the men I have known who could laugh at the faults and follies of his friends in such a manner as to make them ashamed without touching their affection.” Surely this is a rare tribute, rarely deserved, still more rarely bestowed. Is it ever deserved? Can any man laugh at our faults and follies and not touch our affection a little? Without accepting entirely the cynical French saying, “Ce sont nos faiblesses qui nous font des amis, et non pas nos vertus,” it is permitted to doubt whether friendship in all its comfortable ease, its large, unbuttoned relaxation, would be quite possible with one who was too ready to play the mentor, felt bound to play it, even under a smile.

There are one or two anecdotes of Lee, many in fact, but one or two especially, full of the most fascinating significance, when read in connection with this remark of Johnston’s. In his very early youth Lee went to visit an old friend who lived in the ample, careless style of Virginia hospitality, hunting by day and drinking by night, with an idle dissipation which the earnest boy could not approve. “The old man shrunk before the unspoken rebuke of the youthful hero. Coming to his bedside the night before his departure, he lamented the idle and useless life into which he had fallen, excusing himself upon the score of loneliness, and the sorrow which weighed upon him in the loss of those most dear. In the most impressive manner he besought his young guest to be warned by his example; prayed him to cherish the good habits he had already acquired, and promised to listen to his entreaties that he would change his own life, and thereby secure more entirely his respect and affection” (italics mine).29 I read this, and even allowing for the biographer’s embroidery, I say to myself that Lee was remarkable in other ways besides being commander of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Let us take another incident showing not the biographer’s point of view, but the friend’s who got the rebuke. It bears very closely on my doubts as to the intimacy of Lee’s friendships. General Wise had damned an intruding civilian out of camp. A few days after, Lee visited Wise, made himself delightfully agreeable at dinner to Mrs. Wise and other ladies who happened to be there, and then suggested to his subordinate that. they should take a walk together: “I knew what was coming-,” said Wise, narrating the story. “After telling me of the complaint made of my treatment of the Richmond man, and hearing my account of the affair, not omitting the apology and broadside, he laid his hand upon my arm, and with that graceful cordiality, which, at such times, tempered his stately dignity, he said, ‘Wise, you know as well as I do what the army regulations say about profanity. As an old friend, let me ask you if that dreadful habit cannot be broken—and remind you that we have both passed the meridian of life, etc.’ Seeing that he was in for a sermon, and one that I could not answer, I replied, ‘General Lee, you certainly play the part of Washington to perfection, and your whole life is a constant reproach to me. Now, I am perfectly willing that Jackson and yourself shall do the praying for the whole Army of Northern Virginia, but, in Heaven’s name, let me do the cussin’ for one small brigade.’ Lee laughed and said, ‘Wise, you are incorrigible,’ and then rejoined the ladies.”30 “The only man,” writes Johnston, “the only man.” And again I say to myself, “Ce sont nos faiblesses qui nous font des amis, et non pas nos vertus.”

But let us get still closer to Lee in his home. As to his dealings with those who were subordinate to him here, what record there is is favorable. The few slaves whom he himself inherited, he disposed of long before the war. Those who came into his charge by Mr. Custis’s will, under stipulation of manumission at a fixed date, he took the most watchful care of till the appointed time arrived and then set free. In the thickest of his military duties he writes to his son with deep concern as to their welfare: “As regards Leanthe and Jim, I presume they had better remain with Mrs. D. this year, and at the end of it devote their earnings to their own benefit But what can be done with poor little Jim? It would be cruel to turn him out on the world. He could not take care of himself.”31

At the same time, it is curious to observe how the general curse of slavery could involve even a man like Lee in slander and reproach. A correspondent writes to the “New York Tribune,” on June 24, 1859, saying that three slaves, two men and a woman, escaped from Lee’s plantation, had been captured and brought back. “Colonel Lee ordered them whipped. The officer whipped the men and said he would not whip the woman, and Colonel Lee stripped her and whipped her himself. These are facts, as I learn from near relatives of the men whipped.” We who know Lee’s character know that they are not facts, and hardly require the indignant repudiation of another correspondent (June 28), who writes as an opponent of slavery, but with a thorough knowledge of the Lees, and shows not only the injustice of the attack, but its probable motive. But such things cannot have been agreeable.

Lee’s own reference to this affair, in a letter to his son, is, “I do not know that you have been told that George Wesley and Mary Norris absconded some months ago, were captured in Maryland, making their way to Pennsylvania, brought back, and are now hired out in lower Virginia. . . . The ‘New York Tribune&38217; has attacked me for my treatment of your grandfather’s slaves, but I shall not reply. He has left me an unpleasant legacy.”32

Writing to a Western correspondent, after the war, Lee makes a still more explicit statement, doubtless in this same connection: “I am very much obliged to you for your bold defense of me in the New York papers, at a time when many were willing to believe any enormity charged against me. This same slander, which you at the time denounced as false, was nevertheless circulated at the North, and since the termination of hostilities has been renewed in Europe. Yet there is not a word of truth in it, or any ground for its origin. No servant, soldier, or citizen, that was ever employed by me, can with truth charge me with bad treatment.”33

In the more personal domestic relations also Lee appears to advantage. Of his father he saw little; but his devotion to his mother is as attractive in its delicacy and tact as in its completeness. Even in his early years she was a great invalid and he tended her as a woman might have done, “carrying her in his arms to the carriage, and arranging her cushions with the gentleness of an experienced nurse.”34 As he drove with her, he would make every effort to entertain her, “assuring her with the gravity of an old man that unless she was cheerful, the drive would not benefit her. When she complained of cold or drafts, he would pull from his pocket a great jack-knife and newspaper and make her laugh with his efforts to improvise curtains, and shut out the intrusive wind which whistled through the crevices of the old family coach.”35 On his departure for West Point, his mother said, “How can I live without Robert? He is both son and daughter to me.”36

As a father, Lee is better known to us than in any other aspect; for a very large number of his letters to his sons and daughters has been printed. In one of these Lee himself remarks: “It has been said that our letters are good representations of our minds. They certainly present a good criterion for judgment of the character of the individual. You must be careful that yours make as favorable an impression of you as I hope you will deserve.”37 It is not fair, however, to judge Lee’s own character too much by the tone of these paternal letters. A man may tell his near friends, with a smile, what Lee once told of his boy’s following him in the snow, imitating his every movement and stepping exactly in his footprints. “‘When I saw this,’ said the general, ‘I said to myself, “It behooves me to walk very straight, when this fellow is already following in my tracks”.’”38 But such a thing in cold print sounds priggish. We know the stiltedness of Chesterfield’s letters to his son. Flaubert, too, wrote pages of inspiration to Mademoiselle X, pages of limitation to his beloved niece. It is well to turn occasionally from some of Lee’s letters to his family to his more sprightly correspondence with outside friends or more distant relatives.

These reserves as to the paternal epistolary relation once accepted, no father’s attitude could be finer. His discipline was always steady. There was no injudicious relaxation, no spoiling. “My mother I could sometimes circumvent, and at times took liberties with her orders, construing them to suit myself,” writes his youngest son; “but exact obedience to every mandate of my father was a part of my life and being at that time.”39 In public and military matters Lee was absolutely stoical in his avoidance of all family favoritism. Foreign visitors could not conceal their astonishment at finding the son of the commander-in-chief serving in the ranks as a dirty and begrimed artilleryman. Another son lay wounded in a Union prison; his wife was dying at home. A Union officer imprisoned in Richmond begged that a letter might be written to Lee asking him to bring about an exchange. Lee wrote back that he would not ask any favor for his own son that could not be asked for the humblest soldier in the army.40

Lee’s letters to his children are full of advice and admonition, sometimes more or less conventional, but often expressed with touching sweetness and simplicity. Good evidence of this is the fact that they were counterfeited at a very early date. One expects forged documents after a great man’s death. But in the middle of the war a letter was widely circulated, purporting to be from Lee to one of his sons, but in reality manufactured by a clever newspaper man on a basis of fragments of real correspondence. There is enough authentic material, however, without resorting to forgery, and in this material there is a passionate sincerity of interest which it would be difficult to forge: “You see I am following my old habit of giving advice, which I dare say you neither need nor require. But you must pardon a fault which proceeds from my great love and burning desire for your welfare and happiness. When I think of your youth, impulsiveness, and many temptations, your distance from me, and the ease (and even innocence) with which you might commence an erroneous course, my heart quails within me, and my whole frame and being trembles at the possible result. May Almighty God have you in his holy keeping.”41

We see here what there was back of discipline and advice; a devoted tenderness, a watchful care founded not only on parental duty, but on deep and abiding affection. “Oh, what pleasure I lose in being separated from my children. Nothing can compensate me for that.”42 “I wish I could see you,” he writes to his daughter, “be with you, and never again part from you. God only can give me that happiness. I pray for it night and day.”43 And elsewhere, “I long to see you through the dilatory nights. At dawn when I rise, and all day, my thoughts revert to you in expressions that you cannot hear or I repeat. I hope you will always appear to me as you are now painted on my heart.”44

Nor was the affection a matter of feeling only; it was constantly taking practical forms of care and sacrifice. Lee was a good manager, exact in every detail of domestic economy, frugal and thrifty in the little affairs of daily life. I like to think of the rival of Frederick and Napoleon writing to his son, four months before Gettysburg, “If my pants are done, will you give them to Mr. Thomas, the bearer, who will bring them up to-morrow? If they are not, keep them. I am on my last pair, and very sensitive, fearful of an accident.”45 He cautions his family repeatedly as to care in money matters: “I wish you to save all your money, and invest it in some safe and lucrative way, that you may have the means to build up old Arlington, and make it all we would wish to see it. The necessity I daily have for money has, I fear, made me parsimonious.”46 But it was that noble parsimony, which pinches self to comfort others; and page after page of Lee’s life records his readiness in giving. All his care for Arlington was not for his own possession, for the place was his son’s, left him by his mother’s father; and when the son begged the father to accept it, Lee refused, “not from any unwillingness to receive from you a gift you may think proper to bestow, or to be indebted to you for any benefit great or small. But simply because it would not be right to do so.”47 After the war he showed himself in every way most anxious to aid his sons in establishing themselves, and he had that crowning grace of giving, the abstinence from all dictation as to the use of the gift. “Will that suit you? If it does not, let me know what will, and you shall have that too.”48 Also, he was as indulgent in trifles as in farms and barns. One Christmas season his youngest, pet daughter “enumerated, just in fun, all the presents she wished—a long list. To her great surprise, when Christmas morning came she found each article at her place at the breakfast table—not one omitted.”49 One hardly knows which to admire most, the father’s generosity or the daughter’s simple desires. This was she of whom her father said, “She is always wanting something.” Apparently, with Lee-like moderation, she did not want much.

As this incident shows, Lee not only loved his children, but enjoyed them. The two do not always go together by any means. In fact, just before the war he wrote, “I have no enjoyment in life but what I derive from my children.”50 And he enjoyed them in their childishness, their sports, their gayety. It is true that he did not quite approve of too much festivity in the midst of national disaster. “There are too many Lees on the ball committee. I like them all to be present at battles, but can excuse them at balls.”51 Into all the harmless home laughter, however, he was ready to enter at any time. He was full of pleasant jests and kindly teasing. “We all enjoyed that attention from him. He never teased any one whom he did not especially like.”52 “Kiss your sisters for me. Tell them they must keep well, not talk too much, and go to bed early.”53 “The girls are well and have as many opinions with as few acts as ever.”54 “We are all as usual—the women of the family very fierce and the men very mild.”55

In Captain R. E. Lee’s charming volume, from which these natural touches are mainly drawn, we get many pictures of the great soldier with his children about him, and nothing shows him in a simpler, more attractive, more gen[u]inely human aspect. “He was very fond of having his hands tickled, and, what was still more curious, it pleased and delighted him to take off his slippers and place his feet in our laps in order to have them tickled. . . . He would often tell us the most delightful stories, and then there was no nodding. Sometimes, however, our interest in his wonderful tales became so engrossing that we would forget to do our duty, when he would declare, ‘No tickling, no story’.”56 Some persons may perhaps think the hero of Chancellorsville too dignified for such unslippered ease. But it strikes me that this matter of tickling reduces Lee more sweetly than almost anything else to the common level of mortality. Was there ever a more charming picture of Jove unparadised than this drawn by a Virginia girl after the war (italics mine)? “I can only remember the great dignity and kindness of General Lee’s bearing, how lovely he was to all of us girls, that he gave us his photographs and wrote his name on them. He liked to have us tickle his hands, but when Cousin Agnes sat by him, that seemed to be her privilege. We regarded him with the greatest veneration. We had heard of God, but here was General Lee.57 That last touch a great poet might envy.

In the most intimate of all human relations we naturally see Lee but very dimly. We know that Mrs. Lee was a charming wife and mother, always careful of the welfare of her family and always beloved by them, and that her husband’s devotion was unfailing. Brief glimpses come to us of those little rubs which should always properly occur in the best adjusted wedlock between differing characters, and we see that they were taken in the light, sweet spirit in which they should be taken. “My father, as I remember, always in full uniform, always ready and waiting for my mother, who was generally late. He would chide her gently, in a playful way and with a bright smile.”58 “The Mim, the dear Mim, considers herself a great financier; consult her about the expenditure of money, but do not let her take it shopping, or you will have to furnish her with an equal amount to complete her purchases. She has such a fine eye for a bargain.”59 But none of these rubs interfered with the husband’s constant affection and devotion, as tender in the long years of sickness and confinement as in the early glow of young love and perfect health. “To my mother, who was a great invalid from rheumatism for more than ten years, he was the most faithful attendant and tender nurse. Every want of hers that he could supply he anticipated. . . . During the war he constantly wrote to her, even when on the march and amidst the most pressing duties.”60

Yet as I turn to the limited number of these letters that have been printed, I find in them positive traces of the same limitations I have before noted. Lee lectures,—oh, so sweetly, and so kindly, and so gently,—but lectures. On his children: “You must not let him run wild in my absence, and will have to exercise firm authority over all of them. . . . Mildness and forbearance, tempered by firmness and judgment, will strengthen their affection for you, while it will maintain your control over them.”61 On the care of her own health: “Systematically pursue the best course to recover your lost health. . . . Do not worry yourself about things you cannot help, but be content to do what you can for the well-being of what properly belongs to you. . . . Lay nothing too much to heart. Desire nothing too eagerly, nor think that all things can be perfectly accomplished according to our own notions.”62 This is playing the rôle of Marcus Aurelius, or, as General Wise would say, of Washington, to perfection. But#&8212;but—More than ever, I am forced to return to Mrs. Chesnut’s comment, “Can anybody say they know him?”63

The truth is, there are three motives which lead us to seek the society of others. First, we grow weary of ourselves. We wish to share our joys and sorrows, we wish others to help and strengthen us, above all, we wish others to fill the great void which is neither joy nor sorrow, but just the blank monotony of every day. With most of us the motive of social life is not that you are so charming, but that I am so dull. “Why,” said the wife of the Harvard professor, “when there is no one else about, I go into the kitchen and talk to the cook.” Lee did not prefer the cook’s society to Robert E. Lee’s. He could fill his own void, desired no help or strength from others, or, at least, none that others could give him. It is only at the rarest moments that he expresses any sense of solitude or loneliness. “I wish you were with me, for always solitary, I am sometimes lonely, and long for the reunion of my family once again. But I will not speak of myself but of you.”64 Note even here the characteristic touch by which he turns instantly from discussion of his own affairs to discussion of others’.

The second motive that leads us to go out among men is but a modification of the first, a desire to lead, to guide and manage and regulate the affairs of others. This makes the soldier and the statesman. It also makes the petty village official and the woman who advises the neighborhood, often most kindly and usefully. As it happened, few men have had wider cure of souls and bodies than fell to Lee and no one can say he shunned what came to him. Yet I do not think he sought it or loved it. I do not think he desired either public or private responsibility. Certainly he had no wish to dictate or control. And few can have been moved less than he to seek the society of others for the pleasure that comes from asserting our own power over them.

There remains a third social motive, kindness, tenderness, sympathy, the sense of human kinship. And surely in no one was this element at least ever more present than in Lee. Perhaps its sweetest manifestation was his love of children. In one sense children ask everything and give nothing. In another sense they ask nothing and give all. They ask all your time and effort and attention. They do not ask yourself. This suited Lee exactly. Hence he loved children—and children loved him, which is surely the most flattering and conclusive evidence as to character. I cannot quote the multitude of charming anecdotes which support me here. “On one occasion [after the war], calling at Colonel Preston’s he missed two little boys in the family circle, who were great favorites of his, and on asking for them he was told that they were confined to the nursery by croup. The next day, though the weather was of the worst description, he went trudging back to their house, carrying in one hand a basket of pecan nuts, and in the other a toy, which he left for his sick friends.”65 At another time a small girl, who had charge of her baby sister, saw the general come riding by. “‘General Lee, won’t you please make this child come home to her mother?’ The general immediately rode over to where Fannie sat, leaned over from his saddle, and drew her up into his lap. There she sat in royal contentment, and was thus grandly escorted home. When Mrs. Letcher inquired of Jennie why she had given General Lee so much trouble, she received the naïve reply: ‘I could n’t make Fan go home, and I thought he could do anything’.”66

With animals it was something as with children. Lee loved them and they him. “Everybody and everything—his family, his friends, his horse, and his dog—loves Colonel Lee,” was said of him before the war.”67 His letters are full of tender and humorous allusions to his cats and his horses. In his last years the old war-horse, Traveler, seemed to be almost as near to him as any living thing. “General Lee was more demonstrative toward that old companion in battle than seemed to be in his nature in his intercourse with men. I have often seen him, as he would enter his front gate, leave the walk, approach the old horse and caress him for a minute or two before entering his front door, as though they bore a common grief in their memory of the past.”68 And Lee himself admits the same thing. “Traveler is my only companion; I may also say my only pleasure. He and I, whenever practicable, wander out in the mountains and enjoy sweet confidence.”69

What was the nature of that confidence? Among the vast regrets for a lost cause and a nation ruined, did Lee also wish at moments that there was some human soul to which he could really unburden himself? “All are gay, and only I solitary. I am all alone.”70 “You must make friends while you are young, that you may enjoy them when old. You will find when you become old, it will then be too late. I see my own delinquencies now when too late to mend, and point them out to you, that you may avoid them.”71 Were these only the slight expressions of a temporary lack, or were they the true outcry of a longing for something never attained, perhaps impossible? We do not know. Lee had, however, one intimate friend,—God. But that requires a separate chapter.

 

NOTES
CHAPTER IX

1. South Magazine, vol. XV, p. 604.

2. Quoted in Nation, vol. XLIV, p. 322.

3. Personal Memoirs, vol. II, p. 184.

4. A Diary from Dixie, p. 94.

5. Long, p. 433.

6. Ibid.

7. Mrs. Davis, vol. 11, p. 207.

8. Cooke, p. 206.

9. G. M. Sorrel, Recollections of a Confederate Staff Officer, 74.

10. Jones, Life, p. 296.

11. Charleston Courier, March 10, 1864.

12. Mrs. Guild, in Confederate Veteran, vol. VI, p. 12.

13. W. P. Johnston, in R.E.L., p. 315.

14. Long, p. 37.

15. Jones, Life, p. 205.

16. R.E.L., p. 201.

17. R.E.L., p. 395.

18. A Diary from Dixie, p. 94.

19. R.E.L., p. 380.

20. Collyar, in Confederate Veteran, vol. I, p. 265.

21. Long, p. 35.

22. W. P. Johnston, in R.E.L., p. 315.

23. Daves, in S.H.S.P., vol. XXVI, p. 119. I have already quoted in different connections remarks similar to this. The authenticity of some of them has been doubted and perhaps with reason. But there are so many instances that Lee’s rather peculiar habit of addressing himself to minor subordinates cannot be questioned. Judge Garnett (S.H.S.P., vol. XXVIII, p. 110) suggests an interesting explanation. “And here for the first time I experienced what I afterwards learned was almost a habit with General Lee—to think aloud. He murmured to himself as if addressing me; ‘Well, Captain, what shall we do?’ To which inquiry I am pleased to say I had sense enough to make no reply, and, indeed, to appear as if I had not heard it.” Again Judge Garnett says that when a message was brought to the general during the Wilderness fighting and another at Five Forks, “I heard his deep bass voice ask, ‘Well, Captain, what shall we do?’” Absence of mind may easily have played a part here; but I think it quite consonant with all we know of Lee that he should ask a subordinate’s opinion and should even take a genuine interest in it.

24. Hunt, in Long, p. 70.

25. Battles and Leaders, vol. I, p. 226.

26. Battles and Leaders, vol. I, p. 259.

27. Eveleth, in Long, p. 35.

28. In Jones, Life, p. 36.

29. Mason, p. 24.

30. Wise, quoted in Battles and Leaders, vol. II, p. 276.

31. Jones, Life, p. 287.

32. Jones, Life, p. 102.

33. Jones, Rem., p. 213.

34. Mason, p. 22.

35. Mason, p. 23.

36. Ibid.

37. F. Lee, p. 66.

38. Jones, Life, p. 42.

39. R.E.L., p. 9.

40. Jones, Life, p. 448.

41. Jones, Life, p. 94.

42. Jones, Life, p. 34.

43. Jones, Life, p. 154.

44. R.E.L., p. 15.

45. Jones, Life, p. 286.

46. Jones, Life, p. 91.

47. Jones, Life, p. 90.

48. R.E.L., p. 342.

49. R.E.L., p. 324.

50. Jones, Life, p. 99.

51. Jones, Life, p. 300.

52. R.E.L., p. 303.

53. R.E.L., p. 140.

54. R.E.L., p. 343.

55. R.E.L., p. 374.

56. R.E.L., p. 9.

57. R.E.L., p. 405

58. R.E.L., p. II.

59. Jones, Life, p. 122.

60. R.E.L., p. 325.

61. Jones, Life, p. 35.

62. Jones, Life, p. 84.

63. It seems to me that I catch a wistful sense of the element of character I am trying to suggest, without emphasizing it too much, in these words from an unpublished letter of Mrs. Lee: “I hope the Gen’l will be able to take a little rest. I think he rather prefers lonely rides among the mountains on his favourite grey.”

64. R.E.L., p. 88.

65. R.E.L., p. 325.

66. R.E.L., p. 266.

67. R.E.L., p. 6.

68. Collyar, in Confederate Veteran, vol. I, p. 265.

69. R.E.L., p. 193.

70. R.E.L., p. 324.

71. Jones, Life, p. 110.

 

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