The Life of Robert E. Lee for Boys and Girls
By J. G. De Roulhac Hamilton and Mary Thompson Hamilton


AT the time when Lee resigned from the United States Army and entered the service of Virginia, he was just fifty-four years old. He was still in his prime, still strong and active, and looked younger than his years. His face was ruddy from his life in the open and, except for a small mustache, was clean-shaven. When he entered upon active service, he let his beard grow, and his face is best known to the world as full-bearded. He aged rapidly during the war, and in 1862 thus described himself to his daughter-in-law:—

My coat is of gray, of the regulation style and pattern, and my pants of dark blue, as is also prescribed, partly hid by my long boots. I have the same handsome hat which surmounts my gray head (the latter is not prescribed in the regulations) and shields my ugly face, which is masked by a white beard as stiff and wiry as the teeth of a card. In fact an uglier person you have never seen, and so unattractive is it to our enemies that they shoot at it whenever visible to them.

When Lee first entered the service of the Confederacy, his duties kept him at headquarters in Richmond and he was thus spared any severe hardships. But with his service in western Virginia he began to share to the full the life led by his men. After he took the chief command his headquarters tent was always the scene of much work on the part of Lee and of his staff, and little form or ceremony was observed there. His own living arrangements were simple. He carried little baggage and used the same small tent through the greater part of the war. Almost always he slept in his tent rather than make his headquarters in a private house, as he was constantly urged to do. Even on his way back to Richmond after the surrender, he spent the night in his tent rather than in his brother’s home. When defending Petersburg, however, his headquarters were necessarily, and for the first time since 1862, in a house.

His camp headquarters, as described by a visitor after the battle of Fredericksburg, consisted of four or five wall tents and three or four common tents, set up on the edge of an old pine field, which cut off the wind, and near a forest, which furnished firewood. It was dismal enough looking from without, but within it was usually made bright and lively by Lee’s geniality and quiet humor. He was attended by a devoted Irishman named Bryan who was his mess steward. Throughout the war Lee used a camp set of tin dishes, plates, and cups, which he had owned before the war began, and always his fare was of the simplest. It was at first bountiful, but as times became hard, it decreased in quantity and quality. Many gifts of food and clothes of every kind were sent to him, but they generally found their way promptly to the hospitals. Lee’s letters contain constant references such as the following:—

CAMP, PETERSBURG, July 5, 1864.

My Precious Life:—

I received this morning, by your brother, your note, and am very glad to hear your mother is better. I sent out immediately to try and find some lemons, but could only procure two—sent to me by a kind lady, Mrs. Kirkland, in Petersburg. These were gathered from her own trees; there are none to be purchased. I found one in my valise, dried up, which I also send, as it may be of some value. I also put up some early apples, which you can roast for your mother, and one pear. This is all the fruit I can get.

CAMP PETERSBURG, July 24, 1864.

The ladies of Petersburg have sent me a nice set of shirts. They were given to me by Mrs. James R. Branch and her mother, Mrs. Thomas Branch. In fact they have given me everything—which I fear they cannot spare—vegetables, bread, milk, icecream. To-day one of them sent me a nice peach—the first I think I have seen for two years. I sent it to Mrs. Shippen.

December 30, 1864.

Yesterday afternoon three little girls walked into my room, each with a small basket. The eldest carried some fresh eggs laid by her own hens; the second, some pickles made by her mother; the third, some pop corn which had grown in her garden. They were accompanied by a young maid with a block of soap made by her mother. . . . The eldest of the girls, whose age did not exceed eight years, had a small wheel on which she spun for her mother, who wove all the clothes for her two brothers—boys of twelve and fourteen years. I have not had so pleasant a visit for a long time. I fortunately was able to fill their baskets with apples, which distressed poor Bryan, and begged them to bring me nothing but kisses and keep the eggs, corn, etc., for themselves.

It was while in camp after the battle of Fredericksburg that Bryan, discovering that a hen he had procured was laying, spared her life. She soon made herself so much at home in Lee’s tent that each day she laid an egg under his bed. This was kept up for weeks at a time. Her roosting- place was a baggage wagon and she was present with the wagon both at Chancellorsville and at Gettysburg. She finally grew too fat to lay, and one day, when an unexpected visitor of some importance dined with Lee, Bryan killed the hen for dinner. At another dinner when Lee had guests, a plate of cabbage was served in which there was a very small piece of bacon. Every one out of politeness declined the meat, and that night Lee asked for a piece of it. The reply was that it had only been borrowed for the occasion and had already been returned to the owner!

Some of Lee’s younger officers were very fond of a drink, and on one occasion, soon after he had seen a jug brought to their tents, a demijohn was brought into his tent. A little later he invited the younger men to come and share with him a demijohn of “the best.” Surprised, yet delighted, they accepted; the demijohn was brought out, and from it Lee filled the glasses with buttermilk! His quiet enjoyment of the trick was great enough to be contagious, and everybody laughed heartily. This sense of humor, like Lincoln’s, must have been a great safety-valve when care became almost too heavy for human endurance. Once, when irritated as he was at times by the newspapers, he said to Benjamin H. Hill: “Why, sir, in the beginning we made a great mistake. We appointed all our worst generals to command the armies and all our best generals to edit the newspapers.” Even on the morning before the surrender, when General Wise, after washing his face in a mudhole, wrapped himself in a blanket and walked up to Lee, Lee was able to smile and say: “Good-morning, General Wise. I perceive that you, at any rate, have not given up the contest, as you are in your war paint this morning.” Lee kept up the most friendly relations with his officers, but on the rather rare occasions when his temper got the best of him, his staff suffered. At one of these times he noticed that one of them had grown somewhat restive under his outburst, and he exclaimed, “Colonel Taylor, when I lose my temper, don’t let it make you angry.”

In spite of his high temper, Lee never spoke in harsh terms of his opponents. Perhaps his nearest approach to bitter words was contained in his letter home when he heard that his beloved Arlington had been converted into a cemetery for his enemies. Most of the soldiers of the North and South could not find enough harsh things to say of the enemy, but Lee called them nothing worse than “these people,” “our friends across the river,” “General McClellan’s people,” “General Grant’s people,” or “our friends, the enemy.” One day one of his officers, as he looked at the Federal army, said bitterly, “I wish all those people were dead.” Lee’s reply was, “How can you say so, General? Now I wish they were all at home attending to their own business.” At Gettysburg a wounded Federal soldier shouted, just as Lee passed him, “Hurrah for the Union.” Lee bent toward him, and in a voice full of sympathy said, “My son, I hope you will soon be well.” The soldier said afterwards: “If I live to a thousand years I shall never forget the expression on General Lee’s face. There he was defeated, retiring from a field that had cost him and his cause almost their last hope, and yet he stopped to say words like those to a wounded soldier of the opposition who had taunted him as he passed by! As soon as the General had left me, I cried myself to sleep there upon the bloody ground.”

Lee with his whole heart longed for peace. He had no thirst for glory and no love of battle to deceive him as to the real nature of war. He wrote his son in 1864, “I have only one mighty want, that God in His infinite mercy will send our enemies back home.” And as the war stretched out its dreary length, and hope of success grew less and less, he desired the more that victory and peace might come quickly. He was surrounded by want and misery, but he felt that he must keep up his spirit and that of those about him. Sorrow also touched him heavily. In 1862 word came to him of the desperate illness of his most loved daughter, but he could not go to her, and, a little later, the news of her death came. This found him attending to important business which he could not leave, and he was obliged to control his grief until the work was finished. In the year following this, his son, General W. H. F. Lee, “Rooney,” was seriously wounded, then captured, and, while in prison, his wife was taken seriously ill. Her only hope of recovery lay in the release of her husband, and General Custis Lee offered to take his brother’s place in prison that he might be released, but the request was not granted by the Federal authorities. Soon afterwards Mrs. Lee and both of her children died. This loss was to Lee as if he had lost another daughter, for he had deeply loved his son’s wife and children, and the thought of the grief his son would have to bear distressed him greatly.

As food and clothes for the army grew scarce, Lee became deeply concerned at the sufferings of the men, and tried in every way to get supplies. It was a trying duty to endeavor to persuade the inefficient commissary department of the Confederacy to furnish the army with the necessaries of life. He even had to beg for soap. In addition to inefficiency, it must be added that the natural difficulty of securing supplies was very great on account of poor and broken-down railroads and the destitution in the South. His men knew of his efforts, for Lee was always kind and sympathetic and the soldiers found it easy to approach him. They idolized “Uncle Robert,” or “Marse Robert,” as they called him, and, ragged and barefoot as they were, they never lost hope and were willing to go anywhere or do anything at Lee’s command. Lee, knowing this, said: “There never were such men in an army before. They will go anywhere and do anything, if properly led.”

Some military critics have said that Lee’s greatest fault as a commander was his eagerness and audacity in battle. He had absolutely no sense of fear. At the Wilderness and again at Gettysburg, he tried to lead a charge in person, but his men cried, “Lee to the rear!” “General Lee, go back!” and he was forced to give way. But in almost every battle he was under fire with his men. Once, while reconnoitering in an exposed position, he ordered his staff back and started with them. He suddenly turned back a few steps and, stooping, picked up a sparrow which had fallen out of its nest and replaced it. Only once was he near capture. That was in 1862, when with his staff he rode suddenly upon a squadron of Federal cavalry. Before Lee had been seen by them, his staff begged him to retire rapidly while they drew in line across the road. This fortunately led the Federal soldiers to suppose it the head of a column and they retreated. Lee was thus saved from what had seemed almost certain capture.

He was often visited in camp by foreigners who were all anxious to see him. Among those who came was Colonel Garnet Wolseley of the British army, who later became Field Marshal Viscount Wolseley. He says of his visit to Lee:—

He was the ablest general, and to me, seemed the greatest man I ever conversed with; and yet I have had the privilege of meeting Von Moltke and Prince Bismarck, and at least upon one occasion had a very long and intensely interesting conversation with the latter. General Lee was one of the few men who ever seriously impressed and awed me with their natural inherent greatness. Forty years have come and gone since our meeting, yet the majesty of his manly bearing, the genial winning grace, the sweetness of his smile and the impressive dignity of his old-fashioned style of address, come back to me amongst the most cherished of my recollections. . . . His was indeed a beautiful character, and of him it might be written: “In righteousness he did judge and make war.”

A very real part of Lee’s life in the army had to do with his horses. He had a number during the course of the war and loved them all. His mare, Grace Darling, that he had ridden in the Mexican War, was too old for service and was sent to the White House when Lee left Arlington, and was later captured by a Federal soldier. One of his horses was Richmond, a big bay given him by the citizens of Richmond. He broke down under the hard service of the campaign against Pope and died. Lee thought him the most beautiful of his horses. Brown Roan also died. Ajax, a large sorrel, was too tall, and Lee rode him very seldom. In 1862 General Stuart gave Lee a quiet little sorrel mare named Lucy Long. She was stolen, but was later recovered. She survived the war and was living as late as 1891.

The best known of Lee’s chargers was Traveler, and one writer has said that he was almost as well known as his master. Sheridan called Traveler a “chunky gray horse.” Lee himself described him in the following interesting letter:—

If I was an artist like you, I would draw a true picture of Traveler, representing his fine proportions, muscular figure, deep chest and short back, strong haunches, flat legs, small head, broad forehead, delicate ears, quick eye, small feet, and black mane and tail. Such a picture would inspire a poet, whose genius could then depict his worth and describe his endurance of toil, hunger, thirst, heat, cold, and the dangers and suffering through which he has passed. He could dilate upon his sagacity, affection, and his invariable response to every wish of his rider. He might even imagine his thoughts through the long night marches and days of battle through which he has passed. But I am no artist, and could only say that he is a Confederate gray. I purchased him in the mountains of Virginia in the autumn of 1861, and he has been my patient follower ever since, to Georgia, the Carolinas, and back to Virginia. He carried me through the seven days’ battles around Richmond, the second Manassas, at Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, the last day at Chancellorsville, to Pennsylvania, at Gettysburg, and back to the Rappahannock. From the commencement of the campaign in 1864 at Orange till its close around Petersburg the saddle was scarcely off his back, as he passed through the fire of the Wilderness, Spottsylvania, Cold Harbor, and across the James River. He was in almost daily requisition in the winter of 1864–65 on the long line of defenses from the Chickahominy, north of Richmond and Hatcher’s Run south of the Appomattox. In the campaign of 1865 he bore me from Petersburg to the final days at Appomattox Court House.

You must know what a comfort he is to me in my present retirement. He is well supplied with equipments. Two sets have been sent to him from England, one from the ladies of Baltimore, and one was made for him in Richmond; but I think his favorite is the American saddle from St. Louis.

Traveler was of Gray Eagle stock and was born near the Blue Sulphur Springs, now in West Virginia, in April, 1857. As a colt he won, in 1859 and 1860, under the name Jeff Davis, the first prize at the Greenbrier Fair, a high honor in that land of good horses. He was sixteen hands high, weighed eleven hundred and fifty pounds, and was unusually strong. His walk was springy and he had a bold carriage, holding his head well up. He was very gentle, but was also very brave and spirited. He loved a battle, and at the Second Manassas he grew so spirited that, jumping suddenly, he hurt both of Lee’s hands, breaking a bone in one. Lee was in an ambulance for a time and never again held the reins in the usual way. Traveler and Lee were devoted to each other and were separated only by death. Lee, mounted on him, was a familiar figure in Virginia from 1862 to 1870, and the picture of them is familiar to the world to-day. Lee sat erect in his saddle with his weight on the stirrups, and the movements of his body were in perfect unison with those of the horse under him. Captain Gordon McCabe, the famous Virginia teacher, said that Traveler, when Lee was riding him, “always stepped as if conscious that he bore a king upon his back.”


During these years Lee’s letters and reports show how hard was his task of taking care of the army and how little time was left for him to rest. For three years the whole burden of the army rested upon him. To the army he became in a sense the cause for which they fought. With him they dared anything; without him they were lost. With the years Lee aged rapidly; illness came to him and a loss of strength of which he was fully conscious. The war was an experience to test the soul and the heart of a man, and a fine light is thrown upon Lee’s character by the fact that he came out of it all with the essential sweetness of his spirit untouched. Of him in the struggle, President Wilson says:—

It is a notable thing that we see when we look back to men of this sort. The Civil War is something which we cannot even yet uncover in memory without stirring embers which may spring into a blaze. There was deep color and the ardor of blood in the contest. The field is lurid with the light of passion, and yet in the midst of that crimson field stands this gentle figure,—a man whom you remember, not as a man who loved war, but as a man moved by all the high impulses of gentle kindness, a man whom men did not fear, but loved; a man in whom everybody who approached him marked singular gentleness, singular sweetness, singular modesty,—none of the pomp of the soldier, but all the simplicity of the gentleman. This man is in the center of that field, is the central figure of a great tragedy. A singular tragedy it seems which centers in a gentleman who loved his fellow men and sought to serve them by the power of love, and who yet, in serving them with the power of love, won the imperishable fame of a great soldier.

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