Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 19


Sunlight and Shadow

ROBERT E. LEE was always a man to whom possessions meant little, unless there was some touch of family sentiment behind them to add to the value. And yet, during the fall of 1861, he acquired one possession which, until his death, meant more to him than anything he ever owned, It was one which became, indeed, more like a human being, a member of his on-n family group, than a mere chattel.

This was his horse. His beloved horse Traveler.

Months before, Lee had seen this four-legged beauty and lost his heart, to him. As a four-year-old colt at the time, he was a dark iron gray with a fine, full tail that swept the ground. He stood sixteen hands high and had the intelligence and spirit of a true “aristocrat.” There were no papers on him but Lee was sure that he was part, if not all, thoroughbred. The owner, who at last consented to sell him, said it was his understanding that the blood of imported Messenger, who had sired so many famous runners and trotters, coursed through this horse’s veins.

And that might easily be true, Lee thought, for he had already won two prizes at the Greenbrier County Fair.

In describing him to a cousin who wanted to paint his portrait, Lee drew a good picture of his mount. “Be sure to delineate his fine proportions,” he counseled, “his muscular figure, deep chest and short back, strong haunches, flat legs, small head, broad forehead, delicate ears, quick eyes, small feet and black mane and tail, and coat of Confederate gray.”

But it was the gallant and patient spirit of the horse, more than his fine appearance, which endeared Traveler to his master. He never needed the touch of whip or spur, and Lee’s low, quiet tone of command exacted perfect obedience, even in the heat of battle.

All day long, through the mist and rain of the autumn weeks, when the clammy dampness seemed to descend like a cloying veil from the heavy mountains, the two plodded through the red clay mud. When darkness fell, they were chilled and weary but never too weary for Traveler to poke an affectionate nose into his master’s pocket in search of the sweet-bit which he knew he would find there. And never too weary for the master to pause for a final word before he handed the reins over to the waiting Meredith.

“Good night, Traveler. Have a good feed, boy, and a comfortable night’s sleep!” The square, strong hand, with its finely-tapering fingers, stroked the wet coat and tweaked the pricking ears playfully, while Meredith stood by, smiling at Marse Robert’s fond “foolishments,” wishing he would hurry into the tent and change into the dry clothes Perry had laid out for him before he “cotched his death.”

Lee’s uniforms were already beginning to show the marks of hard wear and rough usage. He was what Perry called a “finnicky-fine man” when it came to cleanliness and neatness but was nothing of a dandy or a stickler for form, He rarely sported his full insignia, ordinarily contenting himself with the markings of a colonel.

In the matter of food, too, his tastes were equally simple, for a couple of sweet potatoes, roasted in the glowing embers of the campfire, and a pitcher of buttermilk provided the usual dinner menu. This unpretentious fare was served with some formality, for a clean white cloth was spread over the trestle and Lee presided at the head of the board, always saying grace and conversing with friendly humor with whatever officers chanced to be with him. Many of these commented afterward that though other headquarters messes displayed silver and fine china, Lee’s plates were of tin and his knives and forks the plain iron tableware used by the men in the ranks.

Robert Lee considered himself a host at his own dinner table and took part in the conversation, lightening it with humorous comments and encouraging the younger officers to talk naturally and informally.

The lieutenants and captains were all devoted to the General, though sometimes, as he well knew, they called him “Granny” behind his back. They loved to make his brown eyes twinkle and to see his tired mouth quirk into a grin above his gray beard. There was competition among them as to which could bring the first smile each night at mess.

“Have you heard the latest Yankee conundrum, sir? It’s been going the rounds since the last seizure of a manufacturer’s batch of our new uniforms. Why are Johnny Rebs like cows?”

Lee and the other men shook their heads.

“What’s the answer?” one of them demanded.

“They run to graze and we hope they will soon go to grass!” The questioner responded with a laugh.

“I’ve got; a better one than that,” one of the other boys announced. “Why should all the Southern tobacco planters be hung?”

When no one knew the answer, the boy gave it proudly, “Because it’s treason to give comfort to the enemy and yet their quids have pacified those Union babies!”

Lee and his companions smiled at the more-or-less witty sally, and then Lee said, “I heard a very good joke on my friend Joe Johnston and myself the other day. It was that he and I both were considered by some to be strong men but that the Northerners hope that Toombs would soon be put over us!”

There was hearty laughter at this quip, for General Robert; Toombs was one of the least popular generals in the Army.

And so that evening passed, and many another like it. The days were growing colder now and the sharp north wind whistled down from the mountains as the last of the red and yellow leaves drifted from the trees to add a patch of flaming color to the woodland carpet.

General Lee was recalled then to Richmond by President Davis, His reception by the citizens of the capital was as chilly as the weather he had left behind him in western Virginia. None of these Virginians understood the insurmountable difficulties he had faced. The assignment itself had been an impossible one, for the people in that section of the country were fundamentally in sympathy with the North and within the year they had formed the new state of West Virginia and had been admitted to the Union.

General Lee refused to shift any of the blame for the failure of the campaign onto other shoulders. To Jefferson Davis alone he confided the details of the lack of co-operation he had met on every side.

And to his credit be it said that the President’s confidence in Lee remained unshaken. This was shown when he appointed him to strengthen the Southern coastal defenses.

When a petition stating that Lee was incapable of this job was offered by his detractors, Davis remained firm, knowing that his aide was an ideal man for the place, since he had, in the past, accomplished fine engineering feats in St. Louis and along the northeastern shore.

“Lee,” he said, “I believe in your ability. I believe in you! I shall personally write a letter to the Governor of South Carolina.”

Robert Lee looked at the man before him—earnest face, high cheekbones, that unbecoming little tuft of whiskers under the chin—it was a face that was almost ascetic in its gauntness, a plain face many called it, but it was eager now, eager and anxious.

The two men had never been intimate friends, even in their West Point days. Their temperaments were not particularly sympathetic, but each respected and admired the other.

“Mr. President,” Lee said slowly, “I am yours to command,” and there was, behind the old-fashioned formality of his words, a very sincere and profound appreciation of the trust that had been reposed in him.

Jeff Davis’s smile was unaccustomedly warm as he held out his hand to Lee.

Mrs. Davis—the young and handsome Varina—came into the room then and Robert spoke to her cordially as he prepared to leave. She was a fine woman, he thought, a friendly woman. Clever, too. . . .

Because of his great affection for Mary and his own girls, Lee admired all women. He admired all women, but he loved all children and, a few minutes later, when he had left the Davis office and was walking along the street, he came upon a group of little girls. They were jumping rope together, their small hoops tilting this way and that and their curls tossing about in the crisp November air, which had turned their pretty cheeks pink.

How sweet they were! He watched them with happy absorption for a few minutes and then, on a sudden impulse, he leaned down and kissed each of them. “I used to have some little girls like you,” he said, “Mary and Agnes and Milly and Annie. You must let me pretend you are those little girls. Here, give me a hug1 I love you all!”

Laughingly they flung their arms about him.

“We love you, too, General Lee,” one of them said gaily.

“How did you know my name?” He laid a hand on her dark hair.

“Because my daddy has a picture of you he carries around in the pocket over his heart. He loves you, too. Look,” she cried, “here he comes now!”

Lee glanced up as a handsome young junior officer approached. The man saluted smartly and stood aside, a little shy and embarrassed.

“I envy you this pretty young lass,” Robert said without any self-consciousness, “You and 1 should be friends. I hear you have my picture. It must be one of the new ones I haven’t seen. I heard they’d been distributing all the generals, Cooper and Albert Sidney Johnston and Joe Johnston and Beauregard and myself, to the recruiting officers. May I have a look at the one you carry?”

The young man nodded and fell into step beside Lee as, waving a fond farewell to the children, he resumed his walk.

“Here it is, sir!” He smiled, introducing himself as Captain Black, as lie produced a small carte-de-visite from his wallet and handed it over for inspection.

“Yes, that’s the new one, snapped in the field last month by a traveling photographer.” Lee studied it for a moment and then said ruefully, “My wife and daughters won’t like it because the bow-tie is a little crooked. I was wearing a heavy winter coat that day, I remember, and the first one the man took he thought would be stiff and bulky-looking, so he suggested I undo my collar and turn back the lapels for a more relaxed pose. I did this but the lapels were so stiff they wouldn’t stay down and I had to tuck them under the top button on each side to keep them in place. It doesn’t look too neat, does it?”

“I think it looks fine!” Captain Black said with enthusiasm as he took the small picture back and replaced it in his wallet. This walk and talk with his hero would be something to tell the other fellows, he thought proudly.

“By the way, General Lee,” he continued as he pulled a clipping from his purse, “you might be interested in seeing this. It’s an anonymous poem that came out a short time ago in one of the Boston papers. One of the Yank prisoners let me have it.” He held it out to Lee, who took it and read it aloud without slowing his steps.


We watch, we wait! October’s sun
Has draped the woods with yellow leaves;
They told us Victory would be won
Ere autumn bound her harvest sheaves.

Yet trail, disgraced, our Stripes and Stars,
In vain our heroes fight and die,
Exultant wave the odious Bars,
And traitors shout the victor’s cry.

Our struggling nation groans and strives,
Brave hearts who never knew retreat,
Upon her altars lay their lives
And still our record stands: Defeat!

“That looks like we’ve got the Union pretty well licked, doesn’t it, sir?” he demanded exultantly, as Lee’s voice died away and he stopped for a moment on the deserted street, gazing off into the distance.

“No,” the General said quietly, “It doesn’t seem that way to me. I feel this poem, with a few word changes, might just as well have been written by a Southerner.”

The younger man stared at him in amazement. “You mean we have reason to be discouraged, sir? You can’t mean that! Why, after our glorious victory at Manassas. . . .”

“It took place several months ago.” Lee’s voice was slow and thoughtful. “The spirit in which many of our people accepted that victory was not a proper one. There has been over-confidence and boasting, rather than prayerful thanksgiving. This city of Richmond has been gay and thoughtless. I have discovered profiteering and wild speculation. The value of Confederate money is declining alarmingly. The Union blockade is settling down. . . . But then all of this is my worry and not yours. You will do your best and I shall do mine, and God will grant us victory, if He sees fit to do so in His great wisdom. . . . Good-bye, Captain Black, I enjoyed my talk with you!”

Black took the proffered hand and turned back toward the center of town. Once he swung about and stood for a moment, gazing at the erect figure in the gray uniform moving ahead into the grayer shadows of the trees which lay ahead.

“God bless the Cause,” he whispered softly, “and God bless Robert E. Lee!”

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