Robert E. Lee
Philip Alexander Bruce


DURING forty years, General Lee had been a soldier subject, more or less, even when highest in command, to the control of superior authority. Now, for the first time after reaching manhood, he was to become a private citizen, and to assume absolute direction of his own actions. Never during his whole career were the grander features of his character more conspicuous than in these closing years passed far from the heroic influences of the battle-field; the serene patience, sublime resignation, august dignity, ripe wisdom, and calm magnanimity that marked this last period were unsurpassed even in his own previous lofty and well-poised life. He set for his unfortunate Southern countrymen an example of unrepining submission to the inevitable, manly recognition of the practical duties confronting them in their changed circumstanccs, and firm hopefulness for the future, which exercised a profound influence in aiding them to pass safely through the first decade following the war, that social, political and economic Valley of the Shadow of Death.

The loyalty to his own people, state, and kindred which led him to support the South when the war began, now made him insensible to every inducement to remove to a foreign land. “I look forward to better days,” he wrote in September, 1865, “and trust that time and experience, the great teachers of men under the guidance of an ever-merciful God, may save us from destruction, and restore to us the bright hopes and prosperity of the past. The thought of abandoning the country and all that must be left in it is abhorrent to my feelings, and I prefer to struggle for its restoration, and share its fate rather than give up all as lost.” In the same spirit, he answered an English nobleman who had in vain urged him to accept a mansion and an estate in England “commensurate with his individual merits and the greatness of an historic family.” Similarly also he replied to some of his old comrades in arms who, thinking of entering Maximilian’s service in Mexico, had sought his counsel. “Unless prevented by circumstance or necessity,” said he to them, “it would be better for Southerners to remain at their homes and share the fate of their respective states.”

Not only was he firmly resolved to stay and to share all the sorrows and afflictions of the Southern people, but he also refused to increase their distress, by becoming an applicant for office, appearing in public ceremonies, or participating in public discussions, to inflame the suspicious temper of the party now controlling the country. When urged in 1867 to allow his name to be used as a candidate for the governorship of Virginia, he declined on the ground that his consent would be perverted into a means of fanning Northern animosities against the state, and thus make more difficult the position of those “whose prosperity and happiness were so dear to him.” “If my disfranchisement and privation of civil rights would secure to the citizens of Virginia the enjoyment of civil liberty and equal rights under the Constitution, I would willingly accept them in their stead.”

To General Hampton, after the close of the war, he declared that, in offering his sword to the South, he was pursuing the only course that for him would have been devoid of dishonor. “If all were to be done over again,” he added, “I would act in precisely the same manner.” But this dear recognition of the duty of the past hour did not for one moment blind him to the duty of the present; namely, the acceptance of the result of the armed conflict as the final settlement of the controversies that had precipitated it. “The questions which for years were in dispute between the states and general government and which unhappily were not decided by the dictates of reason, but referred to the decision of war, having been decided against us,” said he, “it is the part of wisdom to acquiesce in the result and of candor to recognize the fact.”

“The interests of the state,” he declared on the same occasion, “are the same as those of the United States. Its prosperity will rise or fall with the welfare of the country. The duty of its citizens then appears to me to be too plain to admit of a doubt. All should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war and restore the blessings of peace. They should remain, if possible, in the country; promote harmony and good feeling; qualify themselves to vote and elect to the state and general legislature wise and patriotic men, who will devote their abilities to the interests of the country and the healing of all dissension. I have invariably recommended this course since the cessation of hostilities, and have endeavored to practice it myself.”

It was asserted at the time, and with truth, that General Lee did more to incline the scale of Southern public opinion in favor of a frank and manly acceptance of the situation than all the Federal garrisons then stationed in that section, and no one acknowledged this more candidly than his great and generous antagonist, Grant, in his report of 1864–5. It was no hollow or temporizing truce on General Lee’s part, but like all the other acts of his life, was characterized by the clearest good faith and by the most unswerving honor. In order to promote an object touching so closely the safety and happiness of the Southern people, he was prepared to sacrifice even his own most sacred feelings where no question of principle was involved. Personally, General Lee was indifferent as to whether he was pardoned by the Federal Administration or not; to appear in the attitude of a suppliant to the men then in control at Washington must have been singularly painful and revolting to one who had been governed by a profound sense of duty in all his conduct and who was assured of the essential

justice of his cause. But he refused to allow the violent protest of his natural emotions to stand in the way. His petition for the benefit of the Amnesty Proclamation, from which not the slightest advantage could accrue to him personally, which in his heart he must have regarded with disdain, and which he was aware would expose him to the censure of many Southerners, was one of the noblest, most disinterested, and most unselfish acts of his life. Knowing that tens of thousands of his old soldiers, besides civilians, were compelled to apply for pardon, so as to obtain the civil rights necessary for the retrievement of their own and their states’ fortunes, he thought that his own example would diminish their mortification in seeking relief from their disabilities. He had shared their dangers and glory; he once more conquered his own spirit in order to share their humiliation.

That the Southern people have risen from the ruin that followed the war is due to the fact that they had the good sense and strength of character to learn those lessons of self-discipline, of devotion to the duties and tasks of the hour, and of confidence in the future, which General Lee inculcated to the last year of his life.

Nor was he content simply to strengthen their determination to restore their own and their states’ fortunes; his whole influence was also untiringly directed toward the cultivation among them of a kindly feeling for the Northern people in spite of the exasperating policy of the then dominant party. “True patriotism,” he urged, “sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary at one period to that which it does at another, and the motive which impels them, the desire to do right, is precisely the same. The circumstances which govern their action change, and their conduct most conform to the new order of things. History is full of illustrations of this. Washington himself is an example of this. At one time, he fought against the French, under Braddock, in the service of the King of Great Britain; at another, he fought with the French at Yorktown under the orders of the Continental Congress of America against them [the British]. He has not been branded by the world with reproach for this, but his course has been applauded.”

Now, the writer of these words had special reasons for harboring rancor against the Northern people. His beautiful home at Arlington, associated with the most sacred recollections of his life, had been seized, its relics of the Lee, Custis and Washington families dispersed, and its lawns converted, as though in a spirit of calculated vindictiveness, into a soldiers’ cemetery. When informed that the entire estate had been appropriated by the local authorities, on the ground that $207 of taxes had not been paid “by the owner in person,” and then turned over to the possession of the War Department, General Lee quietly remarked: “I should have thought that the use of the grounds, the large amount of wood on the place, the teams and wagons, and the sale of the furniture of the house would have been sufficient to pay the taxes.” And his only comment on the transfer of the Washington relics to the National Museum was: “I hope their presence at the capital will keep in the remembrance of all Americans the principles and virtues of Washington.” It was the man who had these personal deprivations to inflame his mind and harden his heart against the North, that wrote: “I have too exalted an opinion of the American people to believe that they would consent to injustice.”

“All controversy,” he said as early as August, 1865, “will only serve to prolong angry and bitter feeling and postpone the period when reason and charity may resume their sway.” “I know of no surer way to exact the truth,” he declared, “than by burying contention with the war.” When General Early thought of drawing up a memoir of his own career, Lee urged him to omit “all epithets or remarks calculated to excite bitterness or animosity between different sections of the country.” And in the same spirit he wrote to Mrs. Davis: “I have thought from the time of the cessation of hostilities that silence and patience on the part of the South were the true course, and I think so still. Controversy of all kinds will, in my opinion, only serve to continue excitement and passion, and will prevent the public mind from the acknowledgment and acceptance of truth. These considerations have kept me from replying to accusations made against myself, and induced me to recommend the same to others.” “All true patriots, North and South,” be said later on, “will unite in advocating that policy which will soonest restore the country to tranquillity and order, and serve to perpetuate true republicanism.”

A clergyman having in his presence spoken with great bitterness of the North, General Lee followed him to the door as he was leaving the room. “Doctor,” said he in his most earnest tones, “there is a good old Book which I read and you preach from, which says, ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you.’ Do you think your remarks this evening were quite in the spirit of that teaching?” And he added, “I have fought against the people of the North because I believed they were seeking to wrest from the people of the South their dearest rights, but I have never cherished toward them bitter or vindictive feelings, and have never seen the day that I did not pray for them.” And on another occasion, when several of his friends, exasperated by the unrelenting spirit which seemed to be reflected in the Reconstruction Acts, then recently passed, burst out in his hearing into a heated invective against the authors, Lee quietly took up from the table before him a copy of a Persian poet and read aloud the following lines:—

Learn from yon Orient shell to lore thy foe,
And stud with pearls the hand that brings thee woe;
Free, like yon rock, from base vindictive pride,
Emblaze with gems the wrist that rends thy side;
Mark where yon tree rewards the stony shower
With fruit nectarious or the balmy flower;
All nature cries aloud, shall men do less
Than love the smiter or the railer bless?

“May not we,” he asked, in putting down the book, “who profess to be governed by the principles of Christianity, rise at least to the standard of the Mohammedan poet, and learn to forgive our enemies?”

Nor was this large and tolerant spirit confined to mere words. Once, he was seen standing at his gate conversing with a man very plainly clad, who appeared highly gratified by the courtesy of his reception, and who turned away evidently delighted. “After exchanging salutations,” the narrator of the story records, “General Lee said, pointing to the retreating form, ‘That is one of our old soldiers, who is in necessitous circumstances.’ I took it for granted that it was some veteran Confederate, when the noble-hearted chieftain quietly added, ‘He fought on the other side, but we must not think of that.’ I afterward ascertained (not from General Lee, for he never alluded to his charities) that he had not only spoken kindly to this old soldier, who had fought on the other side, but had sent him on his way rejoicing in a liberal contribution to his necessities.”

As General Lee’s private means had been dissipated by the war, and Mrs. Lee had been deprived of the Arlington estate by Federal appropriation without compensation, it became imperative for him to adopt some calling that would assure a support for those members of his family still dependent on him. Agriculture having always had a singular charm for him, although, from his military preoccupations, he was without practical experience in it, his first inclination was to secure a small farm and devote his energies to its cultivation. “I am looking for some quiet little home in the woods,” he wrote General Long, “where I can procure shelter and my daily bread, if permitted by the victor.” “I want to get into some grass country,” said he, “where the natural product of the land will do much for my subsistence.”

Leaving Richmond, where he could enjoy no seclusion, owing to the constant attentions paid him, General Lee retired to a country house near Cartersville, in Cumberland County, placed at his disposal by a friend. Offers of assistance continued to pursue him even here; money, land, corporation stock,—all were pressed upon him in proposed return for the mere endorsement of his name in setting different enterprises on foot. But not for a moment would he consent to receive remuneration, except for services actually performed; and none of the schemes submitted to his consideration appealed to his inclinations. It was not until the presidency of Washington College at Lexington, Va., was offered him, that he showed any disposition to accept. The institution at this time possessed only a local reputation, and its financial prospects were unpromising. Its faculty consisted of but four professors, while the number of its students did not exceed forty. Lee was, perhaps, influenced favorably to entertain the proposal that he should become its official head by its association with the name of Washington, and its remoteness from the lines of ordinary travel; doubtless, too, it was an advantage in his eyes that, in building up the institution, he would build practically from the foundation.

The obscurity and poverty of the college were not weighed by him in reaching a decision. “I soon discovered,” says Bishop Wilmer, who spoke to him about the acceptance of the presidency, “that his mind towered above these earthly distinctions; that in his judgment, the cause gave dignity to the institution, and not the wealth of its endowment, or the renown of its scholars; that this door, and not another, was opened to him by Providence, and he only wished to be assured of his competency to fulfil this trust, and then make his few remaining years a comfort and blessing to his suffering country.”

It was to general education that General Lee looked most hopefully for the rehabilitation of the Southern states. “I consider,” he said, “the proper education of the Southern youth one of the most important objects now to be attained, and one from which the greatest benefits may be expected. Nothing will compensate us for the depression of the standard of our moral and intellectual culture, and each state should take the most energetic measures to revive the schools and colleges, and, if possible, to increase the facilities for instruction.”

He earnestly declared, in accepting the presidency of Washington College, that “it was the hope of doing something for the benefit of the young men of the South that had led him to take his present office.” And after he had entered upon the performance of its duties, he refused to allow himself to be drawn away by the most seductive offers. It was proposed at one time to place him at the head of a New York firm representing Southern commerce in that city, at a salary so large that he would have been able, not only to live in comfort himself during his remaining years, but also make ample provision for his family. “I am grateful,” he replied, “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.”

When General Lee was first offered the presidency of the college, he unselfishly weighed the possibility of his acceptance bringing down upon the institution the hostility of the North, and, therefore, clouding its prospects of usefulness. “I think it the duty of every citizen in the present condition of the country,” said he, “to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony, and in no way to oppose the policy of the state or general government directed to that object. It is particularly incumbent on those charged with the instruction of the young to set them an example of submission to authority, and I could not consent to be the cause of animadversion on the college.” His apprehensions having been shown to be groundless, he entered upon the duties of his new office with that lofty conscientiousness, untiring energy, and firm devotion to the task of the hour which had distinguished him at every previous stage of his career. It has been justly said by one who knew him that “there was something grand in the spectacle of a man so famous in the world settling down at the head of an obscure college, in a remote country town, to perform the duties of a noble but arduous profession, without a shadow of discontent or gloom, and with nothing in his demeanor to show that he had not spent his life in the teaching and management of youth.”

Throughout his presidency, he never for a moment forgot the purpose which had led him irresistibly to accept so responsible a position. That purpose, to use his own words, was “to educate Southern youth into a spirit of loyalty to the new conditions, and the transformation of the social fabric which had resulted from the war, and only through a peaceful obedience to which could the future peace and harmony of the country be restored.” In one of his official reports, he referred in a tone of personal distress to the college’s urgent wants, such as, for instance, the need of a larger apparatus for the laboratories, and of a more voluminonus library, and then dwelt wistfully upon what might be accomplished by a more liberal endowment, for, said he, “we must look to the rising generation for the restoration of the country.”

It should always be remembered that these devoted labors, these far-sighted efforts of General Lee for the advancement of Southern education were begun and carried on by him during the darkest hour of the South’s history, when her people were not only sunk in the deepest poverty by their recent losses, but were further harassed and embittered by the senseless and unnatural attempt of the Republican party to place them in the complete control of their former slaves. All these humiliating and exasperating features of their lot only caused him to consecrate himself with the greater zeal and ardor to his self-imposed task of educating Southern youth in order to hasten the arrival of those happy and prosperous days which he never ceased to anticipate with confidence.

General Lee was well-fitted for his new office by the possession, not only of high moral and intellectual qualities, but also of practical experience. For a few years, as we have seen, he had filled with distinction the somewhat similar post of superintendent of the Academy at West Point. He had acquired regular and systematic habits by long military service, while his commanding reputation and impressive presence strengthened his influence in directing and controlling so large a body of young men. From the hour he assumed charge, he sought to raise the standards in the various departments until the institution could offer the ripest education to all who would take advantage of the facilities extended. His great name soon drew a crowd of students from all parts of the South, and as their number increased, the larger means thus afforded enabled him, with the coöperation of the faculty, to establish new chairs, to elect additional professors, and to widen the scope of the different courses of study. Finally, by his active encouragement, a complete system of schools was put in operation, and under his personal guidance and inspiration was carried on with entire harmony, and with extraordinary fruitfulness. The highest powers of the teachers for instruction, as well as of the young men for acquisition alike seemed stimulated by the consciousness of his appreciative and unremitting supervision of their efforts.

He was not satisfied to give a mere general superintendence to the college’s affairs; he watched with a discerning eye, not only the progress of each class as a whole, but also the standing of its individual members. The name of every man was known to him. On one occasion, a list having been read in his presence at a faculty meeting, one name struck him immediately as being unfamiliar to his ear. He asked that it should be repeated; still he did not recognize it. “I have no recollection of a student of that name,” said he in a tone of self-reproach. “It is very strange that I have forgotten him. I thought I knew every one in college. How long has he been here?” An investigation revealed that the student had only recently arrived, and had been entered on the rolls during General Lee’s temporary absence.

So unbounded was his influence over the minds of the young men, even beyond the collegiate limits, that an appeal from him, in the face of some indiscretion, which the heat and excitability of youth made them prone to commit, always had a restraining power. He would issue an address to them as a body,—“general orders” they laughingly termed it,—in which he would seek to dissuade them, by urging the submission of their conduct to the test of the highest principles; and so overwhelming was the effect of his words that no student was ever tolerated by his fellows who ventured to disregard so urgent a request from their beloved president.

During one of his campaigns, General Lee had contracted a severe sore throat, which gradually led to rheumatism of the heart sac; and by October, 1869, this had assumed the dangerous form of chronic inflammation in that part of the body. In the following spring, he was, with great difficulty, persuaded to spend some weeks in Florida and Georgia, in the hope that the change to a warmer climate would alleviate the disease. Being reluctant to increase, by his absence, the burden of work that was already borne by the other members of the faculty, he offered his resignation, which, however, the trustees declined to accept. During his journey through the South, he was received with every proof of affection and honor by all classes of citizens; but, with characteristic modesty, he shrank from showing himself to the crowds that assembled to greet him at every available point. “Why should they care to see me?” he replied on one occasion, when urged to appear on the platform of his car. “I am only a poor old Confederate.”

During his absence a large sum was appropriated by the trustees of the college for the erection of a residence for his use during his life, with remainder to Mrs. Lee; and an annuity of $3,000 was settled on him, to pass, after his death, to members of his family. On his return, he declined to accept the residence, save as the president’s official home, while the anunity was refused altogether,—acts which simply recalled his course, when, during the war, he was offered a handsome house in Richmond by the municipal authorities of that city.

General Lee derived no permanent benefit from his Southern visit; nor was any improvement obtained by a sojourn at the Hot Springs of Virginia during the summer of 1870. The following September he resumed his duties at the college. One rainy and chilly afternoon of that month, he attended a meeting of Grace Church vestry, of which he was an active and zealous member. He had only his military cloak as additional clothing to protect him from the cold dampness of the room. One of the questions discussed related to an increase of the rector’s salary. A deficit already due was quietly assumed by General Lee, although representing a much larger sum than could be justly expected of turn in proportion to the other members of the body. Returning home, he found that his family had been awaiting him for some time, before sitting down to tea. Approaching the table to say grace, he endeavored to articulate, but failing, silently took his seat. Removed to his bed, be lingered, with one brief rally, until October 12th, when he breathed his last.

It would be impossible to find words that would describe these closing hours more impressively than those used by Colonel William Preston Johnston, an eye-witness: “As the old hero lay in the darkened room, or with the lamp and hearth fire casting shadows upon his calm, noble front, all the massive grandeur of his form and face and brow remained, and death seemed to lose its terrors, and to borrow a grace and dignity in sublime keeping with the life that was ebbing away, His great mind sank to its last repose almost with the equal poise of health. The few broken utterances that evinced at times a wandering intellect were spoken under the influence of the remedies administered; but as long as consciousness lasted, there was evidence that all the high controlling influences still ruled; and even when stupor was laying its cold hand on the intellectual perceptions, the moral nature, with its complete orb of duties and affections, still asserted itself. A Southern poet has celebrated in song those last significant words, ‘Strike the Tent,’ and a thousand voices were raised to give meaning to the uncertain sound when the dying man said, with emphasis, ‘Tell Hill he must come up.’ These sentences serve to show most touchingly through what fields the imagination was passing; but generally his words, though few, were coherent, and for the most part, the silence was unbroken.”

General Lee’s remains were interred in the College Chapel at Lexington, and there now rests above his tomb a beautiful recumbent effigy of himself, the work of Valentine, one of the most distinguished sculptors of Virginia. In all parts of the South, the news of his death was received with the grief that accompanies a poignant personal loss. Nor was this feeling of sorrow confined to his own people; wherever throughout the world heroic achievement, self-sacrificing patriotism, loftiness of spirit, a majestic character, and a pure and disciplined life, were respected and admired, men paused to pay in silent thought a tribute to the memory of Robert Edward Lee.

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