General Robert E. Lee, The Christian Soldier, by Judith Brockenbrough McGuire, Chapter

General Robert E. Lee, The Christian Soldier

CHAPTER XXI.
LEE’S MODE OF LIFE AT LEXINGTON, AND DEATH.

SOON after entering on the duties of the President of the college, he was offered, by the agent of an insurance company, its presidency, with a salary of ten thousand dollars. He told the agent that he could not give up his position in the college, and that he could not properly attend to both.

“But, General,” said the agent, “we do not want you to discharge any duties. We simply wish the use of your name.”

“Excuse me, sir,” was his decided reply. “I cannot consent to receive pay for services I do not render.”

But a short time before his death, a large manufacturing company in New York offered him a salary of fifty thousand dollars if he would become their president. He answered that his duty to the college fully occupied his time, and he could not receive pay where he did not render service. When the college wished to raise his salary, he would not allow it; and when the Trustees deeded to Mrs. Lee a house and an annuity of three thousand dollars, in Mrs. Lee’s name, he respectfully declined it. “He declined all gratuities,” says the Christian Observer; and though a loving people, for whom he had toiled so heroically, would most joyously have settled on him a handsome property, he preferred to earn his daily bread by his personal exertion, and to set to his people an example of honest industry.”

As soon as Washington College was blessed by such a head, it became (except the University of Virginia) the most popular place in the South for the education of young men, who were attracted thither by his great name. Many of them doubtless had been led by him on the field of battle, and were proud to be led by him in the paths of literature. He entered upon his duties most heartily, and became deeply interested in each and every one of the students. To an old comrade in arms he wrote: “I am charmed with the duties of civil life.”

“He found the college,” wrote one of the professors, after his death, “practically bankrupt, disorganized, deserted; he left it rich, strong, and crowded with students.” “Had this been the profession of his life,” says the same professor, “General Lee would have been as famous among college presidents as he is now among soldiers.”

He was personally very popular among the students. He labored for their advancement in all that was good and great in mind and character, day after day and year after year, and it is scarcely necessary to add how much they loved him. His “General Orders,” as the boys called them, were always respected and obeyed. They were couched in the most courteous and gentle terms, which came to the hearts of the students with a persuasiveness that they could not resist. The one quoted below is a specimen.

WASHINGTON COLLEGE, Nov. 26, 1866.

The Faculty desire to call the attention of the students to the disturbances which occurred in the streets of Lexington on the nights of Friday and Saturday last. They believe that none can contemplate them with pleasure, or can find any reasonable grounds for their justification. These acts are said to have been committed by students of the College, with the apparent object of disturbing the peace and quiet of a town whose inhabitants have opened their doors for their reception and accommodation, and who are always ready to administer to their comfort and pleasure.

It requires but little consideration to see the error of such conduct, which could only have proceeded from thought1essness and a want of reflection. The Faculty therefore appeal to the honor and self-respect of the students to prevent any similar occurrence, trusting that their sense of what is due to themselves, their parents, and the institution to which they belong, will be move effectual in teaching them what is right and manly, than anything they can say.

There is one consideration connected with these disorderly proceedings, which the Faculty wish to bring to your particular notice; the example of your conduct, and the advantage taken of it by others, to commit outrages for which you have to bear the blame. They therefore exhort you to adopt the only course capable of shielding you from such charges—the effectual prevention of all such occurrences in future.

R. E. LEE,
President of Washington College.

Nothing could have been more kind and parental than such communications to students who felt that they deserved severe censure; and is it wonderful that they should have looked on him with a veneration little short of idolatry? With what satisfaction must the students who had the privilege of being under his Christian influence during those five years, look back to the time of their sojourn at Washington College. How blessed may have been his teaching and example to those who were willing to profit by them; their children may rise up to call him blessed, and the effect of his pure and undefiled religion be handed down from generation to generation.

The Rev. J. Wm. Jones, though not of the same denomination of Christians, had many opportunities, while a chaplain in the army, to observe and admire General Lee’s deep and unaffected piety. After the war he resided in Lexington, and being frequently thrown with him, he seemed still more deeply impressed with his simple earnestness and devotion to the cause of religion.

After the death of General Lee, he published in the newspapers an interesting sketch of his religious life, in which he says, “With the close of the war, and the afflictions which came upon the country, the piety of this great man seems to have mellowed and deepened. The wiser could fill pages about his life at Lexington, and the bright evidence he gave of vital, active godliness. His place in the chapel and in his own church was never vacant, unless he was kept away by sickness. He was a constant reader and diligent student of the Bible. He was a most liberal contributor to his church and to other objects of benevolence. And then his manner of giving was so modest and unostentatious. In handing the writer a very handsome contribution to the ‘Lexington Baptist Church Building Fund,’ he quietly said, ‘Will you do me the kindness to hand this to your treasurer, and save me the trouble of hunting him up? I am getting old now, and you young men must help me.’ And his whole manner was that of one receiving, not bestowing a favor.

“General Lee was not accustomed to talk of his religious feelings; yet he would, when occasion offered, speak most decidedly of his reliance for salvation upon the merits of his Redeemer, and none who heard him could doubt for a moment that his faith was built on the ‘Rock of Ages.’ He manifested the deepest concern for the spiritual welfare of the young men under his care. Soon after becoming President of the College, he said, with deep feeling, to the Rev. Dr. White, the venerable pastor of the Presbyterian Church, ‘I shall be disappointed, sir, and I shall fail in the leading object that brought me here, unless these young men become real Christians; and I wish you, and others of your sacred profession, to do all that you can to accomplish it.’

“At the beginning of each session he was accustomed to address a letter to the pastors of the town, inviting them to conduct the chapel service, and urging them to do all in their power for the spiritual good of the students. At the ‘Concert of Prayer for Colleges,’ in Lexington, last year, the writer made an address, in which he urged that the great need of our colleges was a genuine revival—that this could only come from God; and that inasmuch as He had promised His Holy Spirit to those who ask it, we should mike special prayer for a revival in the colleges of the country, and particularly in Washington College and the Virginia Military Institute. At the close of the meeting, General Lee came to me and said, with more than his usual warmth, ‘I wish, sir, to thank you for that address. It was just what we needed. Our great want is a revival which shall bring these young men to Christ.’

“During the great revival in the Military Institute two years ago, he said to his pastor, ‘This is the best news I have heard since I have been in Lexington. Would that we could have such a revival in all of our colleges.’

“Rev. Dr. Kirkpatrick, Professor of Moral Philosophy in Washington College, relates the following conversation that he had with Gen. Lee a short time previous to his death. We had been conversing for some time respecting the religious welfare of the students. Gen. Lee’s feelings soon became so intense that for a time his utterance was choked; but recovering himself, with his eyes overflowing with tears, his lips quivering with emotion, and both hands raised, he exclaimed, ‘Oh, Doctor! if I could only know that all these young men in the college were good Christians, I should have nothing more to desire.’

“Although General Lee was sincerely attached to the church of his choice, yet his large heart took in Christians of every name. He treated the ministers of all denominations with the most marked courtesy and respect, and not a few will cordially echo the remark of the venerable Dr. White, who said with deep feeling, during the memorial, ‘He belonged to one branch of the church and I to another; yet in my intercourse with him,—an intercourse rendered far more frequent and intimate by the tender sympathy he felt in my ill health, the thought never occurred to me that we belonged to different churches. His love for the truth, and for all that is good and useful, was such as to render his brotherly kindness and charity as boundless as were the wants and sorrows of the race.’ We could,” continues Mr. Jones, “easily multiply incidents, and write more on the religious character of our beloved and honored chieftain, but the above must suffice.”

Thus he seems to have impressed all good men, of every denomination, with feelings of admiration and love for his deep piety and genuine love for all Christians of every name. He was a devoted Episcopalian, but, with the truly catholic spirit of the large-hearted follower of Christ, he did not love other churches less for loving his own more.

The Rev. J. W. Jones tells another characteristic anecdote of his venerated friend:

Not long before the evacuation of Petersburg, Mr. J. was distributing tracts along the trenches, when General Lee, accompanied by General J. B. Gordon, General A. P. Hill, and other general officers, with their staffs, approached. They were inspecting our lines and reconnoitring those of the enemy. The keen eye of General Gordon recognized, and his cordial grasp detained, the humble tract distributor, as he warmly inquired about his work. General Lee at once reined in his horse and joined in the conversation; the rest of them gathered around, and the colporteur thus became the centre of a group of whose notice the highest princes of the earth might be proud. General Lee asked if we ever had calls for prayer-books, and said that if we would come to his headquarters, he would give us some for distribution. That a friend in Richmond had given him a new prayer-book, and upon his saying that he would give his old one, that he had used ever since the Mexican War, to some soldier, the friend had offered him a dozen new books for his old one; and he had, of course, accepted so good an offer, and now had twelve instead of one to give away, We called at the appointed hour. The General had gone out oil some important business, but (even amid his pressing duties) he had left the prayer-books with a member of his staff, with instructions concerning them. He had written on the fly-leaf, ‘Presented by R. E. Lee;’ and we are sure that the gallant men who received them, and who have survived the war, will cherish them as precious legacies, and hand them down as heirlooms in their families.

The Rev, T. U. Dudley, in his “Memorial Address” in Baltimore, speaks of an incident which occurred during a general review, which, like everything which is told of him, shows his veneration for sacred things, and his tender consideration for the feelings of others. It was near Winchester, in the bleak winter of 1862. The review had been ordered by General Lee. “One of those sad reviews,” says Mr. Dudley, “which we all so well remember—so sad, and yet so necessary to the discipline of the army. There were no bright trappings, nor glitter of gold; the only glitter was the fire of determination in brave men’s eyes. But all would appear in their best. There was a chaplain who, in obedience, as he believed, to this order, put on the pure white robe of his office and went to the review. Doubtless he heard the derisive laugh, the sneering remarks of those about him; but when the command he marched with passed the great chief, lifting his hat, he sad, ‘I salute the Church of God.’ The eye that was busy inspecting the accoutrements, the arms, the troops in which he trusted to do the work he had to do, could see the chaplain’s robe. The commander, who sat in the immovable majesty we can remember so well, bent his uncovered head to salute the Church of the God he served.”

A late writer in Blackwood’s Magazine pronounces General Lee the ”greatest soldier, with two exceptions, that any English-speaking nation ever produced.” Were Marlborough and Wellington regarded as his superiors, or was our own Washington one of the exceptions? We know not; we are not portraying General Lee as a military man, but as a soldier of Christ. In that character he has passed through a long, active life; surrounded by the snares and temptations of the camp; exposed to the most harrowing trials and disappointments, and finally he became the victim to the most cruel overthrow of his dearest hopes. And yet his conduct seemed almost blameless. With clean hands and a pure heart he trod his thorny path, giving evidence, by his daily walk and conversation, that he was led by the Spirit of God; for, in the language of President Davis, “this good citizen, this gallant soldier, this great general, this true patriot, had yet a higher praise,—he was a true Christian.”

However it may be regretted by his biographer that he was undemonstrative, and has left few incidents to record of his religious experience; yet we cannot closely contemplate his Christian character without feeling how beautiful and consistent it was in all its parts; how closely he walked with God; how in joy he found “delight in praise, and in sorrow sought relief in prayer.” His bright example remains the praise of the whole earth, and to bless his countrymen to the remotest generation. But he is not—for God took him.

On the evening of the 28th of September, 1870, after a morning of great fatigue, he presided at a vestry meeting of Grace Church, Lexington, of which he was a member. After taking part in the meeting, he returned home in his usual health. On being summoned to tea, he walked to the table, and the family waited for him to ask a blessing on the meal—which had always been his habit in his family and in the camp; but his parted lips uttered no sound. He sank back into his chair, from which he was carried to his bed. The physicians at once pronounced the disease congestion of the brain.

For many days his family and friends surrounded his bed, praying and hoping for one trace of improvement, for one ray of returning reason. The intelligence quickly spread through the whole country, filling every heart with anxiety. The alternations between hope and fear continued but a few days. There was no decided return of reason. He muttered of the battle-field. Among his last words were: “Strike my tent! Send for Hill!”*

On the 12th of October, at nine o’clock in the morning, the ransomed spirit of General Lee entered into its eternal rest. Of the grief which pervaded the South, when the sad intelligence was transmitted to every part of the country by telegraph, it is needless to speak. The tolling of bells, flags at half-mast, public meetings, mourning badges, marked in every portion of the South that a dread calamity bad come over its people. Tears flowed abundantly in thousands of Southern homes; everywhere houses were draped with mourning; and, indeed, sorrow spread her pall over the land!

The Virginia Legislature immediately passed resolutions expressive of the general distress, and requesting that the remains of General Lee might be brought to Hollywood Cemetery, near Richmond, for interment. His family, however, preferred that his remains should rest at the scene of his last labors, and beneath the chapel of Washington College they were accordingly interred.

On the 13th, his body was borne to the college chapel, escorted by a guard composed of Confederate soldiers. Next to the hearse, “Traveller,”* the faithful gray that had borne him to so many battle-fields, was led. The Trustees and Faculty of the college, the students, and cadets of the Military Institute, and the citizens, followed in procession. Above the chapel floated the flag of Virginia draped in mourning. Through this and the succeeding day, the body, covered with flowers, lay in state, visited by thousands who came to look for the last time upon his noble features.

On Friday, the 15th, the last rites were performed, amid the tolling of bells, the thundering of cannon, and the sound of martial music.

The students of the college, officers and soldiers of the Confederate army, and about a thousand persons, assembled at the chapel. A military escort, with the officers of General Lee’s staff, were in the front. The hearse followed, with “Traveller” close behind it. Next came a committee of the Virginia Legislature, with citizens from all parts of the State. Passing the Military Institute, the cadets made the military salute as the body appeared, then joined the procession, and escorted it back to the chapel. The procession was more than a mile long. After the first salute, a gun was fired every three minutes. Moving still to the sound of martial music, the procession re-entered the grounds of Washington College and was halted in front of the chapel. The coffin was removed to the rostrum. Emblems of mourning met the eye in every direction. Feminine affection had hung garlands of flowers on the pillars and walls. Thousands were present, many surrounding the chapel.

General Lee had requested that no funeral sermon should be preached over his body. The funeral service of the Episcopal Church was impressively read by his pastor, the Rev. William N. Pendleton, D.D. The coffin was then carried by the pall-bearers to the library room in the basement of the chapel, where it was lowered into the vault prepared for its reception. The funeral services were concluded in the open air by prayer, and singing General Lee’s favorite hymn:

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent word.

The sorrowful multitude then separated, and slowly returned to their own homes.

Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord: even
so saith the Spirit; for they rest from their labors.

[Notes]

* Remarkably coincident with the dying words of his “great Lieutenant,” Jackson, whose last word, were: “Let A. P. Hill prepare for action! March the infantry rapidly to the front! Let us cross the river and rest under he shade of the trees.”

* “Traveller” survived his master but a few months.

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