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


AFTER a short stay in Richmond with his family, Lee began to think of the future. His chief desire was to go from the noisy city to the peace and quiet of the country. He loved the country and was never really content away from it. He said, “I am looking for some little quiet home in the woods, where I can procure shelter and my daily bread, if permitted by the victor.” Crowds of people flocked to see him, and the burden became too great for his good. Accordingly, some time after the surrender he moved into a rented house in Powhatan County and there stayed for the rest of the spring and summer.

In the meantime, of course, the Confederacy had collapsed. Johnston had surrendered to Sherman in North Carolina the week after Appomattox, and Kirby Smith had soon after surrendered the Confederate forces in the West. President Davis had been captured and was confined at Fortress Monroe. Lincoln had been assassinated, and the country was thus deprived of the softening influence of his great soul and tender heart. He, like Lee, had no hatred or bitterness in his make-up, and above all things he wished for a genuine reconciliation of the two sections. For this reason he had determined that there should be no punishment of Confederates if he could prevent it. The South lost the one friend that could help it in its distress, and the Nation lost a guiding hand that would have prevented many disastrous mistakes during the next few years.

He was succeeded as President by Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. On May 29, 1865, President Johnson issued a proclamation offering pardon to the late Confederates if they would take the oath of allegiance to the United States; but he provided that those who held high rank or who had left the service of the United States to join the Confederacy could receive pardon only after a special application for it.

In June a grand jury at Norfolk, composed of both negroes and white people, indicted Lee for treason along with Jefferson Davis. Of this Lee said: “I have heard of the indictment by the grand jury at Norfolk, and have made up my mind to let the authorities take their course. I have no wish to avoid any trial the Government may order, and I cannot flee.” But fearless as he was as to the result of any trial, there was another thing to be considered. By the terms of the surrender Lee and his army were not liable to trial, but if Lee consented to standing trial, it would mean much trouble, expense, and possibly danger to his men. So he at once wrote Grant the following letter:—

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA, June 13, 1865.

Commanding the Armies of the United States.

General:—Upon reading the President’s proclamation of the 29th ult., I came to Richmond to ascertain what was proper or required of me to do, when I learned that, with others, I was to be indicted for treason by the grand jury at Norfolk. I had supposed that the officers and men of the Army of Northern Virginia were, by the terms of their surrender, protected by the United States Government from molestation so long as they conformed to its conditions. I am ready to meet any charges that may be preferred against me, and do not wish to avoid trial; but, if I am correct as to the protection granted by my parole, and am not to be prosecuted, I desire to comply with the President’s proclamation, and therefore enclose the required application, which I request, in that event, may be acted on. I am, with great respect, Your obedient servant,

R. E. LEE.


RICHMOND, VIRGINIA, June 13, 1865.

President of the United States.

Sir:—Being excluded from the provisions of amnesty and pardon contained in the proclamation of the 29th ult., I hereby apply for the benefits and full restoration of all rights and privileges extended to those included in its terms. I graduated at the Military Academy at West Point in June, 1829; resigned from the United States Army, April, 1861; was a general in the Confederate Army, and included in the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, April 9, 1865. I have the honor to be, very respectfully, Your obedient servant,

R. E. LEE.

Grant replied at once that Lee’s opinion of the case was correct and told him that he had forwarded the letter to the Secretary of War with the following communication:—

In my opinion the officers and men paroled at Appomattox Court House, and since, upon the same terms given to Lee, cannot be tried for treason so long as they observe their parole. This is my understanding. Good faith, as well as true policy, dictates that we should observe the conditions of the convention. Bad faith on the part of the government, or a construction of that convention subjecting the officers to trial for treason, would produce a feeling of insecurity in the minds of all paroled officers and men. If so disposed they might even regard such an infraction of terms by the Government as an entire release from all obligations on their part. I will state further that the terms granted by me met with the hearty approval of the President at the time, and of the country generally. The action of Judge Underwood, in Norfolk, has already had an injurious effect, and I would ask that he be ordered to quash all indictments found against paroled prisoners of war, and to desist from the further prosecution of them.

Grant did not stop with this. He recommended Lee’s pardon to the President and went to see him about the indictment. He threatened to resign his command of the army unless the proceedings were stopped. He said:—

I have made certain terms with Lee—the best and only terms. If I had told him and his army that their liberty would be invaded, that they would be open to arrest, trial, and execution for treason, Lee would never have surrendered and we should have lost many lives in destroying him. Now, my terms of surrender were according to military law, and so long as General Lee observes his parole I will never consent to his arrest. I will resign the command of the army rather than execute any order directing me to arrest Lee or any of his commanders, so long as they obey the laws.

Senator Reverdy Johnson, of Maryland, one of the most eminent lawyers in the United States, when he heard of Lee’s indictment, wrote at once offering to defend him. But the indictment was dropped, though President Johnson paid no attention to Lee’s application for pardon. However, on Christmas Day, 1868, just before the close of his term of office, he issued a proclamation, pardoning all the Confederates who were still unpardoned, including not only Lee, but Jefferson Davis.

To Lee the question of the way he should support his family was, of course, of the greatest importance. Most of his personal property, never large, had been swept away, and there remained to him and his wife only their plantations, not of great value in the confused years following the war. Lee was too old, also, to undertake the hard work required to make them profitable. There were many offers made him, during the next few years, of houses, estates, money, and positions. One English admirer offered him a valuable estate in England and an annuity of three thousand pounds, but he replied, “I must abide the fortunes and share the fate of my people.” He was urged to become the president of a New York company for Southern trade, with a salary of fifty thousand dollars, but he again replied: “I cannot leave my present position. I have a self-imposed task. I have led the young men of the South in battle. I must teach their sons to discharge their duties in life.” An insurance company offered him a salary of ten thousand dollars. He declined on the ground that his knowledge of the business was not sufficient to enable him to discharge the duties of the position. The answer was that there were no duties; his name alone was worth that salary. Lee’s eyes flashed, and he replied that his name was not for sale. One of his daughters said, “They are offering my father everything except the only thing he will accept?a place to earn honest bread while engaged in some useful work.”

Finally, in August, 1865, Lee was offered the presidency of Washington College, in Lexington, Virginia, with a salary of fifteen hundred dollars. This college had been started as “Liberty Hall Academy” in 1749, and was the first classical school in the Valley of Virginia. Washington endowed it, and its name was changed in his honor to Washington College. In 1870, after Lee’s death and in his memory, its name was again changed, this time to Washington and Lee University. When Lee was offered the presidency the college had been almost ruined by the war. Its buildings, books, and apparatus had all suffered at the hands of the invading armies, and its endowment was, for the time being at least, practically worthless. There were but four professors left, and only forty students were present. The trustees felt much hesitation over Lee’s election, feeling that he might think the position too unimportant and the salary too small for him to accept. But the member of the board of trustees appointed to see Lee on the subject, having, in honor of his distinguished mission, borrowed a suit of clothes that was not ragged, set out boldly and laid the case before Lee. Lee, on his part, hesitated for other reasons than those which the trustees had feared. He did not feel strong enough to teach and he did not know whether the college could afford to employ a president simply for the duties of that office. Since he was unpardoned, he thought his connection with the college might injure it. On the other hand, he longed to help in the cause of education in the South, a cause which he felt was of vital importance to the people of the section. He set these facts before the trustees, and, when they still urged him to accept, he did so.

Lee’s four years at West Point as superintendent had given him some preparation for work of the kind that now lay before him. In the latter part of September he mounted Traveler and rode to Lexington to make preparations for moving his family there. On October 2 he was inaugurated as president with the utmost simplicity and at once took up his duties. As he saw it, his position must be something more than a name, and for the rest of his life he gave the best of himself to the upbuilding of Washington College. He was at his office regularly, carefully examined all the many letters, answered most of them personally, and constantly visited the classrooms both for recitations and examinations. He planned a great educational extension within the college to be brought about by the development of the scientific courses. Under him the institution grew until the number of students was greater than in any other Southern college, and the number of professors was steadily increased. Large gifts of money came to it because of Lee’s connection with it, and there is no doubt that its later prosperity began in this way. Lee did not confine himself to office work. He personally supervised the repairing of the buildings and the beautifying of the grounds. As this example was quickly followed by the Virginia Military Institute and by the residents of the town, the results of Lee’s activities along this line were soon apparent.

Lee’s relations to the students were especially fine. He had no wish to introduce military training, but rather inclined against that discipline. He urged the professors to make few rules and only those they were able to enforce. To the boys, many of whom were no longer young in experience, since many of them had fought through the war and were seasoned veterans, he said, “We have but one rule here, that every student be a gentleman.” When a member of the faculty pointed to a precedent and urged that persons must not be respected, Lee answered, “I always respect persons and care little for precedent.” He knew the record of every student and worked always toward personal relations with each one, and for the encouragement of the greatest effort from them. Lee’s character and personality, together with the power of his name, made him a great leader of students just as he had been a great leader of soldiers.

During the years at Lexington Lee rode a great deal. Mounted on Traveler, and usually with one of his daughters beside him rid ing on gen tie little “Lucy Long,” he explored all that beautiful country which surrounds Lexington. A letter written one summer, while he was away from home, shows his affection for the horse he had ridden both in war and in peace. He says: “How is Traveler? Tell him I miss him dreadfully, and have repented of our separation but once—and that is the whole time since we parted.” A story which gives a glimpse of Lee’s love for his faithful companion has been told by an eye-witness of the incident. Lee was about to mount his horse when one of the ladies of whom he was taking leave put out her hand to pull a hair from Traveler’s mane. Many people had taken souvenirs of the kind and his master could not bear to see him even so slightly hurt. So, holding his hat in his hand, he bowed low before the lady and said, “Please, madam, take one of mine instead.”

Everywhere Lee went there were public manifestations of the deep affection in which he was held. Even in the heart of the Virginia mountains the people recognized him and greeted him with joy. One day, while riding alone along a lonely forest road, he met an old soldier who stopped him and said, ” General Lee, I am powerful glad to see you and I feel like cheering you.” Lee told him that as they were just two and alone, there was no need of cheering. But the old soldier began to wave his hat about his head, and rode off shouting, “Hurrah for General Lee!” and the cheers kept up as long as the general was within hearing.

Early in 1866 Lee was called to Washington to appear before the Reconstruction Committee of Congress. He testified with perfect frankness and with a manifestation of the finest feeling. In 1869, being again in Washington, he called upon General Grant who had just become President. During all this period he was firm in his determination to take no part in politics or in any political controversy. He was urged to become a candidate for Governor of Virginia, the only civil office he had ever had any desire to hold, but he refused to consider it. While he believed with truth that Reconstruction was a grievous wrong, he did not feel that he could right it by anything he might do or say, and he never discussed it except with his closest friends.

In 1869, while at White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, in answer to an inquiry of General Rosecrans as to the feeling in the South at the time as to secession and as to the negroes, Lee wrote a simple, candid statement to the effect that the South had for all time abandoned any thought of secession, but had, on the contrary, accepted the result of the war in perfect good faith; that there was every disposition to treat the negroes justly in every respect, although there was a firm belief in the South that the granting of suffrage to them had been a terrible mistake. This statement was signed by himself and thirty-one other prominent Southern men who were present at the time. This was his nearest approach to political discussion.

The years through which Lee was now passing were years of service and peace. They well deserve the comment of Charles Francis Adams:—

From the beginning to the end these parting years of his will bear the closest scrutiny. There was about them nothing venial, nothing querulous, nothing in any way sordid or disappointing. In his case there was no anti-climax, for those closing years were dignified, patient, useful, sweet in domesticity, they in all things commanded respect.

As the years passed, Lee’s strength visibly failed. A sore throat, contracted during the war, had led to frequent colds and rheumatism which finally weakened his heart. He failed rapidly, and his physicians finally ordered him to the South. He spent the spring of 1870 in Florida and Georgia. Passing through North Carolina, he stopped at Warrenton to visit for the first time the grave of his daughter Annie who had died while at school there during the war. He wrote before going:—

I wish also to visit my dear Annie’s grave before I die. I have always desired to do so since the cessation of active hostilities, but have never been able. I wish to see how calmly she sleeps away from us all, with her dear hands folded over her breast as if in mute prayer, while her pure spirit is traversing the land of the blessed.

Everywhere he went on this Southern trip crowds poured out to greet him and pay their tribute of affection and respect. Always modest, and now in feeble health, he tried to avoid the crowds, saying: “Why should they care to see me? I am only a poor old Confederate!” He improved slowly throughout the trip and enjoyed meeting many old friends, though he knew well that it was for the last time. On the way back home he made several visits in Virginia and went both to Shirley and to the White House.

During his absence from Lexington an appropriation was made by the college for a home for Lee and for an annuity of three thousand dollars, to pass at his death to his family. But Lee refused both.

Upon his return he again took up his duties, but when the summer vacation came, he went once more to the Hot Springs with the hope of gaining strength. He returned home in September and gave himself to the work of the opening of the session. One wet afternoon he was kept for three hours at a meeting of the vestry of the Episcopal Church of which he was a devoted member. At the close he was very tired. He went home and found that the family were waiting supper for him.

Mrs. Lee described the scene: “My husband came in, 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.” Physicians were called in at once and the patient rallied slightly. For two weeks it was hoped that he might recover, but at the end of that time he began to sink and grow rapidly worse. In these last hours his mind wandered to the past, and once more he led “the thin gray line” to victory. His last words were, “Tell A. P. Hill he must come up.” Jackson in his dying moments had said, “Tell A. P. Hill to prepare for action.” Lee died early on the morning of October 12. He was buried beneath the college chapel, not far from where Stonewall Jackson, his “strong right arm,” sleeps. Together, having crossed over the river, they rest under the shade of the trees.

The South mourned the death of its great leader, one whom it, with Benjamin H. Hill, held to be “a foe without hate, a friend without treachery, a soldier without cruelty, and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices, a private citizen without wrong, a neighbor without reproach, a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guile. He was Caesar without his ambition, Frederick without his tyranny, Napoleon without his selfishness, and Washington without his reward. He was as obedient to authority as a servant and royal in authority as a king. He was as gentle as a woman in life, pure and modest as a virgin in thought, watchful as a Roman vestal, submissive to law as Socrates, and grand in battle as Achilles.” Nor was mourning confined to the South. The North joined in paying tribute, not only to a great soldier, but to a great character. There can be found no better expression of what the North had come to see in Lee than the words of the “New York Herald” at the time of his death:—

On a quiet autumn morning, in the land he loved so well, and, as he held, served so faithfully, the spirit of Robert Edward Lee left the clay which it had so much ennobled, and traveled out of this world into the great and mysterious land. The expressions of regret which sprang from the few who surrounded the bedside of the dying soldier, on yesterday, will be swelled to-day into one mighty voice of sorrow, resounding throughout our country, and extending over all parts of the world where his great genius and his many virtues are known. For not to the Southern people alone shall be limited the tribute of a tear over the dead Virginian. Here in the North, forgetting that the time was when the sword of Robert Edward Lee was drawn against us—forgetting and forgiving all the years of bloodshed and agony—we have claimed him as one of ourselves; have cherished and felt proud of his military genius as belonging to us; have recounted and recorded his triumphs as our own; have extolled his virtue as reflecting upon us—for Robert Edward Lee was an American, and the great nation which gave him birth would be to-day unworthy of such a son if she regarded him lightly.

Never had mother nobler son. In him the military genius of America developed to a greater extent than ever before. In him all that was pure and lofty in mind and purpose found lodgment. Dignified without presumption, affable without familiarity, he united all those charms of manner which made him the idol of his friends and of his soldiers, and won for him the respect and admiration of the world. Even as, in the days of his triumph, glory did not intoxicate, so, when the dark clouds swept over him, adversity did not depress. From the hour that he surrendered his sword at Appomattox to the fatal autumn morning, he passed among men, noble in his quiet, simple dignity, displaying neither bitterness nor regret over the irrevocable past. He conquered us in misfortune by the grand manner in which he sustained himself, even as he dazzled us by his genius when the tramp of his soldiers resounded through the valleys of Virginia.

And for such a man we are all tears and sorrow to-day. Standing beside his grave, all men of the South and men of the North can mourn with all the bitterness of four years of warfare erased by this common bereavement. May this unity of grief—this unselfish manifestation over the loss of the Bayard of America—in the season of dead leaves and withered branches which this death ushers in, bloom and blossom like the distant coming spring into the flowers of a heartier accord.

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