Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 28


Peace at Long Last

VIRGINIA in the springtime of 1866. Golden sunshine, blue sky and green grass that was even now covering the scars of war.

Here, indeed, was peace at long last, Robert Lee thought happily as he looked up from his work-table and let his glance wander through the open window.

Under the trees which bordered the grass plots, groups of young men were gathered, Most of them were dressed in homemade suits of shoddy cloth but here and there a well-worn gray uniform marked its wearer as a veteran of the late Confederate Army. On these figures the gaze of the older man rested with particular affection.

There, in the shade of a big maple, a half dozen reclined at ease during this fifteen-minute break after the early morning class. A boy started a tune on a mouth-organ. The others picked it up and sang with youthful joyousness. One of them had a really fine bass voice. He should be in the choir, the college president reflected, as he listened to the familiar chorus:

I wish I was in Dixie, Hooray, Hooray,
In Dixie lan’ I’ll take my stan’
To lib an’ die in Dixie, away, away,
Away down South in Dixie,
Away, away, away down South in Dixie.

This time last year that very lad had held a bloody bayonet in his hand—had been fighting alongside the boys in blue. Today his arm was about the shoulder of a gray-clad comrade.

An enemy had become a friend.

The man at the table smiled happily, returned to his correspondence and re-read the next; letter to be answered. It was from a lady who asked that he send her immediately a Confederate orphan girl, She was to be a beautiful blonde, of gentle birth, intelligent and mannerly, with no vices or oddities, and never to be molested by her relatives.

General Robert E. Lee’s dark eyes twinkled as he wrote that he was unacquainted with any such paragon and that if one like that existed, he would most certainly ask her to join his own family circle, or, at the very least, invite her to grace the halls at Washington University as an example to his young men in their choice of future brides.

The letter which he wrote next gave him a very special pleasure. It was to a group of ladies who had written to inquire if his horse, Traveler, had need of any gear. They wished to embroider a saddlecloth for him and to order a fine, specially-made saddle. . . . Was Traveler well and happy? they inquired.

After writing the salutation, Robert Lee rose from his chair and crossed to the window, letting his glance rest on his well-loved steed for reassurance.

All was well with Traveler. He stood there patiently at ease in the shade of the big cedar tree which centered the campus. From time to time he moved a few steps, nibbling a taste of sweet clover.

Robert Lee’s pen moved swiftly over the paper now. He wrote fluently and with a warm glow in his heart, thanking the ladies but declining their offer. Traveler, he assured them, was well outfitted. He already had five saddles, which was more than he could use. Two of these had been sent by English admirers from across the ocean, one had been a gift from the ladies of Baltimore and one had been made for him in Richmond. The fifth, which was Traveler’s favorite, had seen use all through the war. It had been made in St. Louis, to replace a Mexican saddle which had been lost when Lee’s baggage was shipped back from the border at the start of the late conflict.

The words flowed quickly from Robert Lee’s pen. . . . “Traveler was as gallant a soldier as any in my ranks. He bore me to Georgia, the Carolinas and back to Virginia . . . Manassas . . . the Battle of the Wilderness . . . the final days at Appomattox Court House. . . . You must know the comfort he is to me in my present retirement.”

Traveler raised his head and whinnied softly. Lee again crossed to the window and stood there, looking out. His face was smiling as he said, “You know I’m singing your praises, don’t you, Old Boy?” He laughed softly, pulled open a drawer in Ins desk and took out a sugar lump.

In a moment he had joined the boys on the campus and was stroking his pet’s nose, talking to him in his quiet, tender voice, saying that they two were a couple of old soldiers, that life was pretty nice now, wasn’t it, and that this spring sunshine would take the kinks out of their ancient bones.

As he stood there a little girl, Sally White, the daughter of one of the professors, ran over from her play, to stand admiringly beside them.

“Want me to lift you up on Traveler?” Lee asked indulgently.

“Oh, yes, sir! Oh, please, Marse Robert!” Her face was beaming and her tone was eager.

“I’ll do it, sir. She’s quite a bouncer.” One of the boys in the group stretched out on the grass near by jumped up and came forward.

“Why, she’s light as thistledown!” The General leaned down and swung the child into the saddle.

“Let me lead her around the circle at least,” the boy proffered, but Lee shook his head. “It will give me a bit of exercise,” Lee said, “and then I’ll go back to my work. Those examination papers lie ahead of me, you know!”

“Can’t you just forget them, sir?” the boy asked with a hopeful air, and then the two laughed together.

Sally clucked enthusiastically and Traveler started off at a staid walk. Around the circle and around again, the walk quickening at last to a trot, while Sally thumped her heels joyfully against Traveler’s sides.

Lee quickened his steps and then made a motion to the boy.

“You may take my place now, if you like,” he said as he handed over the bridle-reins. “The young lady is too fast a jockey for an old fellow like me. And I must get back to my desk. If the Board of Trustees should catch me playing hooky!”

“Oh, sir, they couldn’t do that. You’re stricter on yourself than you are on us. And that’s plenty strict enough!” the boy said with a twinkle in his eyes as he set out at a quick pace beside young Miss Sally.

There was truth in what the boy said, because Lee, as always, was a stern taskmaster for himself, taking his duties with great seriousness and following the same precepts which had guided him as a soldier.

When one of the newly-entered boys came to him in his office and inquired as to the rules of the college, Lee said, “We have only one rule here and that is that every student comport himself as a gentleman.”

He made it a point to knew every student personally and to watch over his welfare, even as the college expanded and grew to be a sizeable institution, with about 800 students and 20 teachers. Several amusing stories are told of his diplomacy in dealing with the young men who, since many of them were veterans, were often over-age and difficult to handle with direct discipline. One of these had been absent from his classes for several days. He was sent to the office and “Marse Robert” spoke to him kindly. “I am glad to see you are better.”

“But, sir, I haven’t been ill,” the puzzled young man answered.

“Well, then, I’m glad to see you’ve had better news from home.”

“But, General, I’ve had no bad news.”

“Ah,” Lee said, “I took it for granted that nothing less than sickness or distressing news from home could have kept you from your duty.”

Meeting another student on the street; a few minutes after the morning class had started, the General stopped him and said, “Thomas, I would appreciate it if you would ask the lady with whom you board to have your breakfast ready a few minutes earlier.”

This type of gentle rebuke administered during the five years which Lee presided over the college earned the cooperation and stirred the admiration of the boys. If they planned a noisy fracas for the evening, Lee’s remark that there were a number of ill people in town who would be disturbed by any unusual noise was enough to cancel the proposed rumpus.

Lee kept in close touch not only with the students, but also with the old soldiers who came to visit him. The following incident shows his attitude toward them. A friend saw a shabby-looking man leaving the Lee house with a suit of clothes over his arm. Lee commented that the man was a veteran in distress and his friend asked what regiment he had served in, “I believe,” the General remarked casually, “that he fought on the other side.”

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