Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 29


Time Flows On

WINTER had come and Lee was bothered with a chest cold like the ones which had troubled him frequently during the latter years of his exposure on the battlefields. His family begged him to take care of himself but, as always, duty came first and each day found him busy with his letters and papers in his office. Sometimes, when he had finished his daily stint, he sat there for a time brooding over the past, thinking of the years long gone by.

On one particular day he had been sitting dreaming this way for a long hour. He had been thinking of his father, Light Horse Harry, and of his mother, his dear, gentle mother. He had been picturing once more the happy childhood days at Shirley and the good times at beautiful Stratford. What joyful hours he and the other children had spent there! One sunny summer day he remembered best of all . . . Ann and Carter and Smith, little Polly Porter. . . .

Polly’s son was here in college this year—someone had told him that, he recalled. Several days before he had sent a request that the young man come to see him. It was said he had enlisted at sixteen and had been wounded and taken prisoner in his first engagement. “I must check on the boy,” he thought, “for his mother’s sake. Pretty Polly Porter. . . .”

Lee’s musings were cut shore by a rap at his door.

“Come in!” he called, rousing himself and turning the lamp on his desk to a brighter flame.

A boy entered the room and, without an invitation, crossed and seated himself in the chair opposite Lee.

“Make yourself at home, sir,” Lee said with a wry smile, “and tell me your name. You must be one of the new midyear students, for I do not recall having seen your face before.”

“My name’s Porter Jones,” the boy said. “My mother told me to look you up.”

Lee bowed gravely. “And how do you like college, Porter? Have you found your place in the classes? I sent word that I wished to see you at your earliest convenience, thinking I might be of some help to you.”

“I can manage all right,” the boy said brusquely. “Only some of the professors have got it in for me. Professor Humphries gave me a demerit yesterday because I was late for class, They seem to think they can order me around like I am a child, I’m a grown man. I was a soldier and was wounded on the battlefield. I won’t be treated like a schoolboy!”

“Why not, Porter?” Lee asked quietly. “Some of the men on the campus are twice your age. They fought for four years but now they are back here to learn the lessons of peace. If they are willing to obey orders and be created like schoolboys. . . .”

“Let them do that if they want to. I won’t!” Porter said sulkily.

“How old are you?”

“Almost twenty.”

“I remember when I was almost twenty. I was at West Point. I thought I knew a good deal about life in general, and soldiering in particular, at that time. Later, when the Mexican War came along, there was still plenty for me to learn, That war. . . .”

“I know all about the Mexican War,” Porter interrupted. “My father fought under Zachary Taylor, It must have been a picnic!”

“At the time we didn’t realize that.” The General’s tone was amused rather than angry. “But I think we both, you and I, know now what war is. Those of us who have lived to see peace come will have an even harder struggle ahead of us.”

“That’s why I feel I’m wasting my time here. Studying Greek won’t help me get ahead in the world. I want to make lots of money before I’m too old to enjoy it. I’ve talked to some of these Yankee carpetbaggers. They could teach us Southerners some practical business tactics, if we’d only listen to them.”

“That’s not the way to be a success, my boy.” Lee’s voice was earnest and grave now. “Money is a fine thing to have, but. . . .”

“Is it true, General Lee, that you turned down an offer by an insurance company of a yearly salary of fifty thousand dollars to come here to Washington University, where there were forty students and four professors at the time? If that’s the sort of businessman you are. . . .”

“It’s perfectly true, Porter. It was just my name the insurance men wanted and not my work, I think I was a good businessman. If my name was worth that much to them, it was too valuable an asset for me to let it go so cheaply. That’s the way I looked at the proposition.”

Porter shrugged his shoulders. “I want to make money. The sooner I get to work, the sooner I’ll attain my ambition. My family used to be rich before the war. My mother had plenty of slaves and pretty dresses. . . .”

“I knew your mother,” Lee said slowly. “We were children together. Pretty Polly Porter we used to call her. When I stayed with my brother at Stratford, she visited on the next plantation. She often spent the day with us. I even remember a game we played. It was called ‘Ancestors.’ She had the loveliest yellow curls.”

“Her hair’s gray now. She’s an old woman in a black dress. My father didn’t leave her a penny. He was killed at Cold Harbor. He was a failure.”

Lee said sternly: “Never again let me hear you use that word, young man, about a soldier who sacrificed his life to his principles. . . . That is not failure—it is success!”

Overcome by anger, Porter jumped to his feet. “Answer me one thing, General Lee,” he shouted. “Do you consider that you, yourself, failed or succeeded? We Southerners believed you’d win die war for us. But you didn’t:. You lost; it! You failed, didn’t you?”

Robert E. Lee rose and stood at complete ease. His tone was grave but there was a warm friendliness in the hand which he laced on the boy’s trembling arm.

“Yes, Porter,” he said very seriously, “I failed. And that failure makes me all the more anxious for your success. Your true success!”

In the complete silence that filled the room, the boy, for the first time, looked directly into the face of the man before him. Something in what he saw brought sudden tears to his eyes. Drawing a long breath and squaring his shoulders, he seemed to grow taller and more mature in that one moment.

“I hope you will forgive me, sir,” he said slowly. “I know now that to fail, as you did, is to find final success, I promise you, General Lee, that I, and thousands of other men, will succeed because you tailed-so magnificently.”

Silently Lee held out his hand and young Porter Jones clasped it gratefully.

Throughout that winter and the following ones, Robert’s colds and his rheumatism continued to bother him, in spite of the good care which his daughters gave him.

On several occasions Agnes accompanied him to healing springs for brief visits in the hope that these might benefit his health.

While he was staying at one of these resorts, a friend of his pointed to a near-by gentleman and said, “That is General S. of the Union Army. He and his daughters are having a dull time, for none of us Southerners care to associate with them.”

“I’m glad you pointed him out to me,” Lee said immediately. “I shall introduce myself to him and his daughters and see that they meet other people and join in the gaiety.”

This small act of courtesy and many others which Lee performed all of his life proved that he was a true Christian—the kind of Christian who practiced his faith every day, instead of keeping it for Sunday use.

His Bible was his constant companion and daily joy. He prayed long and earnestly before every battle and every personal decision but was observed to nap during over-long sermons in church.

After he became president of Washington College, Lee once said to a friend, “Do you think it would hurt his feelings if I hinted to the chaplain that we should be glad if he shortened his morning prayers? He prays for the Indians and the Turks and the Chinamen and all the heathen and it runs into the hour for our college recitations. Would it; be wrong for me to ask him to confine his morning prayers to us poor sinners here at college and pray for the heathen some other time?”

The months passed and one year turned into another. The first set of students had finished their courses and had gone out into the world as examples of the good will and hard work which their master advocated.

Lee was less well and growing perceptibly older and feebler. He was persuaded by his physician to make several Southern trips, on which he was met with great ovations, but none of the attention or adulation seemed to make him better.

He wrote to Mary, telling her how much he longed to return to her and said, “Give my love to Traveler and tell him I miss him dreadfully!”

During the summer of 1869 and the following one, Lee seemed a little stronger and more like his old self, and when school opened in September of 1870 he made a great effort during the month to follow out the program of work he had set himself, finishing, in his spare time, the new edition of his father’s book and memoirs. But often during these days he grew tired—so tired.

On the twenty-eighth of September he performed his usual morning duties in his office, having attended chapel, as was his invariable custom. In the late afternoon he went to a vestry-meeting of Grace Episcopal Church, where he was a faithful communicant, and during a lengthy discussion as to ways and means of raising the rector’s salary he quietly volunteered to make up the needed amount out of his own purse.

All afternoon a heavy rain had been falling and the room where the meeting was held was damp and cold. On the way home, at seven o’clock, Lee was drenched and chilled. His family were waiting supper for him and he stood at the head of the table to say grace. No words came from his lips and his anxious daughters flew to his assistance, as Mary held out a loving hand and placed it on his arm in complete understanding and companionship.

Doctors were summoned immediately and applied what remedies they could. During the next twelve days he lingered, smiling at the dearly-loved family which surrounded him, speaking occasionally, saying at the end, “Strike the tent” and “Tell Hill he must come up.”

Often, during these days of waiting, his eyes seemed to note the hourglass on the table beside his bed, watching the sands run low, seeing the thin trickle of time flow on.

Once, during the hours before the end, a look of calm happiness was noted on his face, Perhaps a certain memory had come back to him, the memory of that student who had changed from a brash and immature boy into a proud and purposeful young man in one short moment.

Death came to Robert E, Lee on the morning of October twelfth, 1870. Around him were his devoted family and in his heart was peace.

His beautiful marble effigy lies today in Washington and Lee College but his soul, like that of “the good old man, John Brown,” the symbol of the enemy for whom he felt no rancor, goes marching on—forever.

No more shall the war cry sever,
Or the winding rivers be red;
They banish our anger forever
When they laurel the graves of our dead!
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment day;
Love and tears for the Blue,
Tears and love for the Gray.
Francis Miles Finch

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