Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 27


Whatever the Future May Be . . .

HUMAN virtue ought to be equal to human calamity.” The words are Lee’s and they bespeak the philosophy of his lifetime. In his farewell address to his army on April 10, 1865, he said in part; “You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed; and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you his blessing and protection. With an unceasing admiration for your constancy and devotion to your country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration of myself, I bid you an affectionate farewell.”

Returning to Richmond, he joined his devoted family and, after four years of fighting, accustomed himself, calm as ever, to the ways of peace, saying, “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.”

The remainder of the Confederacy had, by this time, surrendered, Jefferson Davis had been confined to Fortress Monroe and Lincoln had been assassinated. Andrew Johnson was now President and he declared that although the rank and file of the late Confederate Army might, upon taking the oath of allegiance, be pardoned, the high-ranking officers and those who had left the service of the United States Army to join the Rebels could not receive their pardons, unless special applications were made by them.

A grand jury in Norfolk indicted both Lee and Jefferson Davis for treason. Lee wrote at once to General Grant, asking what was proper for him to do and stating that it was his understanding of the terms of surrender that all of those obeying the law would be protected, and enclosing his application for pardon.

Grant wrote back at once, telling Lee that he was perfectly correct in his interpretation of the terms and also took a strong stand to this effect in further communications to President Johnson and the Secretary of War, saying: ”. . . My terms of surrender were according to military law, and so long as General Lee observes his military 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.” It was a handsome and a gallant gesture from this plain man who here, as well as at Appomattox, showed himself to be a generous and a noble gentleman.

The indictment was dropped, but although Lee wrote directly to President Johnson and again requested his pardon, his letter went unanswered, and un ti1 his death he was a prisoner on parole.

All of the property Mary and Robert owned had been swept away by the fortunes of war and the financial outlook for their immediate future was black indeed—or seemed so, at least, until several opportunities presented themselves.

The first of these occurred shortly after Robert Lee’s return to Richmond. He had spent the morning reading to his wife, who sat, as usual, in her invalid’s chair near the sunny window in their rented house on Franklin Street.

“Your eyes are tired. You must rest them now, dear. I insist that you take a little walk. Do go twice around the square, for my sake,” Mary urged.

Robert went with reluctance, hurrying a little, anxious to get back to her side. There were so many things they had to say to one another, so many things they had missed saying in the years they had been separated.

As he neared the house, he was accosted by two shabby soldiers, on whom the pallor of prison life was still plainly visible. “Beg pardon, Marse Robert!” One of them laid a detaining hand on his arm.

Marse Robert smiled at them. There was little he could give the poor man beside a welcoming word and a cordial greeting, he thought sadly. “What can I do for you, friends?” he asked warmly.

“It’s us as is hopin’ to do somethin’ for you, sir,” the other man said shyly. “We got sixty friends round the corner. They’d like to have come with us but they was too ragged to face you. Lent us their best pants an’ jackets, they did, so we’d look good enough to delegate you. . . .”

Lee looked puzzled, as the man paused with embarrassment in his carefully prepared speech. “Yes?” he prompted.

“We come from the mountains,” the man went on with more confidence. “We ain’t what; you might call rich but ‘tween us we’ve calkilated we got enough money an’ promise-notes to buy you a farm. We aim to work for you, turn an’ turn about, an’ see you git enough ‘taters an’ hawg-meat so you an’ your missis won’t never haf to go hongry.”

Tears came into Lee’s eyes as he declined the offer and assured the men that he would remember their generosity always.

Lee had various other invitations and offers extended to him in the weeks which followed, but declined them all. In answer to an Englishman who wanted to give him a castle and an annuity of three thousand pounds a year, he said, “I must abide by the fortunes and share the fate of my own people.”

One letter which he received at this time touched him deeply. In it the writer said that he and a group of his friends who had been fighting hard for four years were now locked up in Libby Prison, where the Yankees were treating them “awful bad.”

The letter continued: “Us boys want you to get us out if you can, but if you can’t just ride by Libby and let us see you and give you a cheer. We will all feel better for it.”

Lee’s deepest sympathy went out to these men, just as it went out to his old Chief, President Jefferson Davis, who, less fortunate than himself, was still a prisoner in Fortress Monroe.

Lee was advised to flee the country but declined to do this, saving he had no desire to avoid any trial the Government might order. Whatever the future might be, Robert E. Lee was prepared to face it.

Fittingly enough, it was a remark made by one of his daughters which directed the course of events for him. In speaking to a friend, she said, “They are offering my father everything except the only thing he will accept—aplace to earn honest bread while engaged in some useful work.”

This frank statement of Mary Lee’s encouraged a small and poverty-stricken Virginia college, then known as Washington University, to offer him the presidency of the institution.

It was decided chat one of the board members should make the offer in person. The judge selected for the honor said that his only suit of clothes was too shabby for him to undertake the mission. An offer of a suit was made by one of the other gentlemen present at the meeting, but the matter of the expenses of the trip then had to be faced. No one in the group had any money, but one of the men knew a lady who had recently sold her tobacco crop and he was sure that if the matter were explained to her, she would feel it an honor to lend them the required money.

The matter was thus arranged. General Lee was persuaded to take the offer under consideration and, finally, to accept the position, with the provision that he would not be required to do any teaching, since he did not feel he knew enough to be a schoolmaster.

The college was situated at Lexington and had been started in 1749, as the first classical school in the Valley of Virginia. Originally it had been called Liberty Hall Academy, but when George Washington gave it an endowment the name was changed to Washington College. (After Lee’s death it was changed again, to Washington and Lee University.)

The school had struggled through the war years and now it possessed four teachers and forty students. The salary which it offered its president was fifteen hundred dollars a year and some of the board members were fearful that this would seem a very small sum to a man whose fame was world-wide.

Lee, however, did not hesitate for a single minute over the amount offered him. He said quickly that he and his family could live in comfort on that sum and that his only reluctance in accepting the position was the fear that, because he had not received his pardon, his presence at the college might be injurious to its reputation. He stated frankly that his heart lay in the work of educating the youth of the country and in making them push forward with eager courage, leaving all animosity behind.

He wrote: “I think it the duty of every citizen, in the present condition of the country, 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.”

And so the matter was settled, and on a bright fall day in the year 1865 President Robert E. Lee left Derwent, the tenant-farmer cottage where the family had spent the summer, and turned his face toward Lexington.

Traveler was eight years old by this time and his coat was almost as white as his master’s hair, yet his step was still springy and his spirit proud as he passed from Powhatan County into the open countryside, where the scarlet and golden leaves rained down from the forest trees to make a royal carpet for his progress. For three happy, solitary days, the two old friends and devoted companions were together on the one hundred-and-eight mile trip.

When they reached Lexington, the new home was set up and in a few weeks Mary and the girls arrived. Here the simple but gracious living which had been characteristic of many generations of Lees was resumed and hospitality was extended to the college students.

The girls and boys gathered around the shabby old piano and sang together, or played familiar games, as the General sat by with a book on his knee and Mrs. Lee smiled with patient friendliness from her wheelchair, Always her devoted husband watched to see that she did not tire and had every comfort he could give her.

The General not only had great love for his own children, but all young people appealed to him and he felt at ease in their company. One young girl visiting the family wrote home, “We had heard of God, but here was General Lee!”

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