Life of Robert E. Lee as General in the Confederate Army
Henry E. Shepherd


The inner life of men famed in story rarely escapes the penetrating eye of the critic. The outward glory may dazzle by its brilliance, may pervert the judgment by its luster, but the man in his home seldom enjoys immunity from the breath of scandal, or escape the flickering tongue of the serpentine slanderer. The story of the parent and the husband, the revelation of the home life, is the final and abiding test of true greatness: from its calm and passionless judgment there is no appeal. If estimated or adjudged by this criterion, the roll of the world’s heroes would be reduced almost to a minimum, for illustrious representative types such as Marlborough, Nelson, Napoleon, Wellington would not survive the ordeal of a pure and blameless home life for a single day. Great in the field, eminent in arms, wise and discerning in council, they shrink and blanch before the fierce light that beats upon the hearth-stone of the peer or the potentate alike, and is no respecter of persons. The most impressive revelation of Lee’s greatness lies in the circumstance that when subjected to this scrutinizing and infallible mode of judgment, he stands out clearer and purer than ever, “like a finer light in light.” His personal character alone, apart from his career as a soldier, would have accorded him an assured place among the choice and elect spirits. Lee as a gentleman would have stood among that rare and congenial company of whom the world is in deplorable need, but of whose fellowship, like that of the saints and
martyrs of the apostolic age, it is not worthy. I have more than once applied to him that consummate poetic idealization of the gentleman which was so minutely realized in his walk and conversation that it seems almost an undesigned and unconscious prophecy of our hero.

The churl in spirit, up or down
Along the scale of ranks, thro’ all,
To him who grasps a golden ball,
By blood a king, at heart a clown,—

The churl in spirit, how’er he veil
His want in forms for fashion’s sake,
Will let his coltish nature break
At seasons thro’ the gilded pale;

For who can always act? but he,
To whom a thousand memories call,
Not being less but more than all
The gentleness he seemed to be,

Best seemed the thing he was, and joined
Each office of the social hour.
To noble manners as the flower
And native growth of noble mind;

Nor ever narrowness or spite,
Or villain fancy fleeting by,
Drew in the expression of an eye
Where God and Nature met in light;

And thus he bore without abuse,
The grand old name of gentleman,
Defamed by every charlatan,
And soiled with all ignoble use.

To my own mind the most striking testimony to Lee’s real greatness lies in the fact that not even his enemies ever assailed the purity of his motives, or the integrity of his character. The rancor and insatiate malice of Northern historians found no vulnerable spot even in the heel of our Confederate Achilles. The silly declamation indulged in by a school of writers as base as they are ignorant, with regard to his descent from Gen. Charles Lee, an English adventurer and soldier of fortune who proved false to the American cause during the war of the Revolution, and the transmitted or hereditary treason which asserted its power in the Confederate chief, has been exposed by the intelligent historian of New England like Fiske, and held up to the contempt that it justly and eminently deserved. Charles Lee died in 1782; Robert E. Lee was born in 1807. The malignity of Northern authors overlaps the laws of nature, as well as the facts of chronology, by setting up the traitorous Englishman as the father of the Southern general. Yet his private character escapes without spot or blemish, his enemies themselves being judges. The character of Lee as a husband and a father reveals itself in all the minutest details of his many-sided life. In the field or by the fireside, as the head of a resistless host, or as president of an obscure college in the Valley of Virginia, in far-off Mexico in the service of the Government, the same self-renunciation marked every act and suggested every utterance. “The selfless man and stainless gentleman,” portrayed in Arthur’s mythic knight, was correctly illustrated in the actual experience of the Confederate chief. In his harmoniously blended character were exhibited “all those ideal qualities of mind and heart of which the chivalric imagination but dreamed.” While Grant is pouring down his enormous masses upon his fading lines, or he is leading his army victorious over McClellan, pronounced by himself the greatest of the Federal commanders, his heart is not crushed by disaster or elated by a series of triumphs to which the records of war present few parallels. His affections were centered on some quiet Southern home, perhaps in a distant State, where wife and daughters were seeking refuge until the storm of war should pass over. Arlington, the home of Mrs. Lee, not the property of the General, had been appropriated by the Government and was converted into a cemetery for the use of the national dead. Even the sacred Mount Vernon relics, alike the property of Mrs. Lee, the step-granddaughter of George Washington, had been carried away by the agents of the Government, and were never restored to the heirs of Mrs. Lee until the era of Mr. McKinley’s accession to the Presidency. In all the long array of infamous and despicable procedures which marked the attitude of the Federal administration toward the South during the progress of the civil war, none is more atrocious and dastardly in every phase than its action in regard to the Arlington estate, the inheritance of Mary Custis, who had married Robert E. Lee. As the ancient Virginia homestead looks down from its lofty height upon the Potomac, it is a ceaseless symbol of national shame and reproach—a mute but appealing reminder of a crime unexcelled but by one in all our annals—the murder of Mrs. Surratt by the same government in 1865. That the heirs of Mrs. Lee were after a third of a century indemnified financially for the robbery of Arlington, as the result of a judicial decision, does not in the slightest degree invalidate the justice of my criticism.

The sweetness and light of Lee’s nature are reflected in every line of his social and domestic correspondence. The inner soul reveals its charm as it does in no other phase of his life, as it is exhibited to us not even by the most scrupulous or the most fastidious of biographers. In his letter to wife and child the inner soul breathes out, for the reserve of conventional form is thrown aside, official decorum and precisianism cast to the winds. His son, Robert E. Lee, has rendered an invaluable service to history, and, above all, to the youthful generation of the South, by rescuing these letters from the touch of time, and revealing the inner life of his illustrious father. The letters in question embrace every period of Lee’s active career from the close of the war with Mexico, 1848, until the end of September, 1870, or about two weeks preceding his death at Lexington, October 12, 1870. Their range is complex, varied, far-reaching, including almost every topic, from the movements of our armies in the field to the knitting of socks for our destitute soldiers.


It is fortunate for the world, and especially for the people of the South, that Lee was born at a time when the art of epistolary correspondence had not become extinct, or nothing survived of it, save the curt and elliptical brevity of the modern telegram. His letters have two distinctive characteristics—they are the work of a man who had something to say and who knew how to say it. The gentleman is reflected in every line that he pens, even if it have reference to a matter of detail or some passing incident of the current day. The style is pervaded by that simple dignity, that lack of straining after rhetorical effect which marked the correspondence of gentlemen in the days that have vanished. We purpose, however, to let the letters proclaim their own excellence, speak for themselves, and illustrate Lee as he appeared in his own home, as the father of a Southern family, as a perfect embodiment of the ideal gentleman of the South, as the husband of Mary Custis, the lineal descendant of the wife of George Washington. In all these aspects, his private correspondence proclaims the man as no other expression or indication of character can proclaim him, for his letters to those of his own household were the out-breathing of his inmost soul, and in their utterances the real Lee is speaking to us as he does not and cannot speak in any other relation or agency. Written not with the eye fixed upon posterity, not in dread of critical condemnation at the hands of irresponsible and indolent reviewers, they carry with them charm and spontaneity that time cannot wither; they hold the mirror up to nature as no biography, however subtly wrought, can aspire to accomplish; for in these modest and graceful letters to those of his own fireside the ideal man, father, and husband is portraying without consciousness his own likeness, writing his own history. The final estimate of the discerning world in regard to the greatness of Lee will be largely determined by the revealing power of his private correspondence. Let us turn now to the letters themselves. We select them without reference to a consistent mechanical or chronological order, but as they illustrate most effectively the specific aim and purpose contemplated in this work.

The following incident comes to the very heart of General Lee’s life. During the month of October, 1862, his daughter, Miss Annie Lee, died at the Warren White Sulphur Springs, North Carolina. The General was then absorbed in the critical movements which succeeded the first Maryland campaign. Sharpsburg had been fought, and his most skilful antagonist, McClellan, was to be superseded at an early day. In the midst of these engrossing cares the blow fell on him who was already bearing the burden of a nation and was the pillar of a people’s hope. On the 26th of October he writes to Mrs. Lee: “I cannot express the anguish I feel at the death of our sweet Annie. To know that I shall never see her again on earth, that her place in our circle, which I always hoped one day to enjoy, is forever vacant, is agonizing in the extreme. But God in this, as in all things, has mingled mercy with the blow, in selecting that one best prepared to leave us. May you be able to join me in saying, ‘His will be done!’ * * * I wish I could give you any comfort, but beyond our hope in the great mercy of God, and the belief that He takes her at the time and place when it is best for her to go, there is none. May that same mercy be extended to us all, and may we be prepared for His summons.” At a later date he writes from Fredericksburg to one of his family in regard to this same sad dispensation of Providence: “The death of my dear Annie was, indeed, to me a bitter pang, but the Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away: blessed be the name of the Lord. In the quiet hours of the night, when there is nothing to lighten the full weight of my grief, I feel as if I should be overwhelmed.”

Like the psalmist of Israel, the strong religious spirit of Lee in the night watches, and as the army lay lapt in dreams of home, in his waking hours brooded over the memory of her who had “never given him aught but pleasure.” The touch of pathos reflected in this incident rises to the height of the sublime. At the close of the war the people of Warren County, N.C, blasted in fortune and crushed in hope, erected at the grave of Miss Lee a chaste and graceful marble monument, which was formally unveiled on a calm and lovely day late in the summer of 1866. The writer was present, having driven some twenty-five miles across the country to attend the solemn and appealing ceremony and show such honor as lay in his power to the fair and cherished daughter of Robert Edward Lee. To the regret of all, the General was unable to be present, but was represented by one of his own family circle, Gen. W. H. F. Lee. The late James Barron Hope of Norfolk, Va., read an ode written for the occasion, marked by his wonted felicity of style and purity of diction. I have attended in my life many pompous and stately dedications and ceremonials, in which rank, wealth, art, all blended to show honor to the illustrious dead, but none of these august pageants went so directly to the heart as the spectacle of a desolate and stricken people honoring the child of the hero who during the long agony of years had formed their only refuge against despair. The best life of the South was represented. The incomparable women of our own land were the inspiration of the movement. From the abyss of disaster and defeat, their first impulse was to guard the resting-places of our dead, so many of whom, but for the outstretched hands and consecrated energies of Southern women, would long since have relapsed to the primeval earth or mingled beyond recovery with the unknown and unrecorded, whose names are written alone in heaven. The South has its recreant spirits, its apostate angels, yet how rare is the role of a traitress in our great Southern story! The Southern women have kept the faith. With them the poet’s dictum has no place, for “the jingling of the guinea” does not repair the sense of shame, or “help the hurt that honor feels” in the annals of Southern womanhood.

It is a significant and auspicious fact that one of the first monuments in the South erected by combined or organized effort, and associated with the memories of the struggle, was designed to mark the grave of a daughter of Robert E. Lee, and had its probable origin and inspiration in the zeal and devotion of Southern women. The monument to Miss Lee must have been designed and executed at a very early period subsequent to the close of hostilities. An intense solicitude for the happiness, comfort, moral and material welfare of his own loved ones, rendered Lee an ideal husband and father. This tender care and consideration marked every detail of his daily life—it was the outflow of a noble nature, and as spontaneous in its action as the grace which shone through every motion and revealed its charm in every deed of love and courtesy, whether proffered to the man of low degree, or tendered without compromise of dignity to him of high estate. An admirable illustration of this distinctive trait is suggested by the following incident: When General Lee accepted the presidency of Washington College and made Lexington his home, in September, 1865, his family did not accompany him but sojourned with friends until their residence was prepared for their proper reception. The utmost care and love was expended in contributing to this result. At last all things were ready, and late in the autumn of 1865 the family began their journey toward their home in the Valley. Lexington was then difficult of access from almost every point. It was said by some that the Lexington people rather exulted in their isolation and looked upon the advent of a railway as a means by which they should lose their primitive charm, and become contaminated by contact with the external world. Mrs. Lee was to go to Lexington by canal boat from Lynchburg, at that time probably the most agreeable, if not the most direct mode of transit. We find the General laying down the most minute instructions in regard to the route—not a point that could contribute to her pleasure or facilitate her trip was ignored or overlooked. Through all these “little deeds of kindness and of love,” the true greatness of the husband shone; for in no feature of character does real nobility reveal itself more effectively than in scrupulous regard to the comfort, the welfare, the safety of woman. Yet this solicitude for the comfort of wife and child did not exhaust itself in the arrangement of details for their safety and comfort while journeying from place to place. It marked every phase of his life.

Stranger than all, is the complete renunciation of self which is impressed upon every word that he writes. If ever the poet’s dream of “sublime repression” of “one’s self” is illustrated in concrete human experience, the model must be derived from the experience of Robert E. Lee as revealed in his correspondence with those he loved and those who called him friend. We find him during the campaign in West Virginia, before his star had risen, indeed, while he was bearing the burden of popular distrust, writing to Mrs. Lee and referring in tenderest terms to his youngest son, who was still a student at the University of Virginia. “My poor little Rob,” he writes, “I never hear from, scarcely. He is busy, I suppose, and knows not where to direct.” In another letter to Mrs. Lee, date of Sept. 17, 1861, he alludes to the death of Colonel Washington, the last heir of Mount Vernon, who had been killed in a reconnoitering expedition, and from excess of zeal had been betrayed into imprudence by venturing within the enemy’s line of pickets. General Lee seems to have been deeply affected by this deplorable tragedy. The feature of Colonel Washington’s character which impressed him most profoundly was his strong and abiding Christian faith. “Since I had been thrown into such intimate relations with him,” he writes, “I have learned to appreciate him very highly. Morning and evening have I seen him on his knees praying to his Maker.” He then introduces a most appropriate quotation from the fifty-seventh chapter, first verse, of the prophecy of Isaiah.

That Lee was a devout and systematic student of Holy Scripture is revealed in his correspondence. The phraseology of inspiration seems to rise spontaneously to his recollection. This forgetfulness of himself in the most ordinary transaction of daily life is strikingly brought home to us in the following incident: During the campaign of 1864, our army in front of Petersburg was at times reduced to extremities for want of food. The women of Petersburg, despite their own privations, supplied General Lee’s “mess” with all they could obtain. Among the luxuries provided for the General’s table was an especially attractive peach, “the first, I think, I have seen for two years.” Yet the power of appetite did not prevail over the characteristic sense of consideration for the pleasure and the well-being of others. The peach was sent with his compliments to an invalid lady upon whose premises his headquarters were located. Most of the delicacies furnished by the ladies of Petersburg for the comfort of the commanding general found their way to the hospital. What the kindness, gentleness, tact of the ladies of Petersburg implied, can never be imagined save by those who have put them to the test of actual experiment. The writer, when a mere lad, was rescued from the grasp of death, July, 1862, by the care, skill, and devotion of a Petersburg family upon whose faces he had never looked until he was brought into their home at “Poplar Lawn,” a Confederate soldier stricken by typhoid fever, remote from his family in North Carolina.

While General Lee was engaged in superintending the construction of sea-coast defenses in Georgia and South Carolina in the fall and winter of 1861–62, he paid a visit to the grave of his father, “Light Horse Harry” of Revolutionary fame, the friend of Washington, and the author of that tribute to his memory which has passed like some proverbial utterance into the consciousness of our race and language.[7] Gen. Henry Lee had died in 1818, at the home of his old commander, Gen. Nathaniel Greene, Dungeness, Cumberland Island, Ga., and was buried upon his estate. In regard to his visit to the grave of his father, the General writes to Mrs. Lee, January 18, 1862: “While at Fernandina, Florida, I went over to Cumberland Island, and walked up to Dungeness, the former residence of General Greene. It was my first visit to the house and I had the gratification at length of visiting my father’s grave. He died there, you may recollect, on his way from the West Indies, and was interred in one corner
of the family cemetery. The spot is marked by a plain marble slab, with his name, age, and date of his death. The garden was beautiful, inclosed by the finest hedge I have ever seen. It was of the wild olive. The garden was filled with roses and beautiful vines, the names of which I do not know. A magnificent grove of live-oaks envelops the road from the landing to the house. Love to everybody and God bless you all.” This letter is one of the most suggestive and revealing in the rich collection which has been given to the world by the son of Robert E. Lee. There is a touch of pathos in the incident recorded, which the subtle discernment and fine artistic instinct of a master like Thackeray would have been quick to recognize, and turn to the highest purpose. What lover of fiction does not recall the visit of Henry Esmond to the grave of his mother? Yet how much more appealing is the plain, unvarnished truth of biography than all the idealization of the novelist! Of his father, young Lee had seen little. He was but eleven years of age at the time of his death, and the latter days of Light Horse Harry’s life had been passed remote from home. He died among comparative strangers and was cared for during his final illness by the daughter of that brilliant general, Nathaniel Greene. It is at least a coincidence that Lee and Washington each lost his father when the lads were eleven years old. From early days the wish to visit his father’s grave had been present to his mind, and at last, by the strange vicissitudes of war, the opportunity is afforded. The son of Light Horse Harry stands by the modest slab which marks his place of rest. His fame had been obscured by a discriminating and adverse comment, and the shadow of the campaign in West Virginia still rested over him. There may have been an ineffable solace in this hour’s communion with the dead, a solace too sacred to reveal its trace even in the sanctity of domestic correspondence. In any event it is a revealing touch of Lee in the relation of a son, all the more precious from the very rarity of such revelations in the history of one who had hardly known his father and whose mother had passed from him just as he was entering early manhood.

General Lee’s comments upon those campaigns and engagements with which he was not connected are not rich in suggestion alone to technical critics of the science of war, but are full of light in portraying the inward nobility and grandeur of the man. In writing to Mrs. Lee in reference to the first battle of Bull Run he says: “That indeed was a glorious victory and has lightened the pressure upon our front amazingly. Do not grieve for the brave dead. Sorrow for those they left behind—friends, relatives, families. The former are at rest. The latter must suffer.” Then follows this remarkable prophecy: “The battle will be repeated there in greater force. I hope God will again smile on us and strengthen our hearts and arms. I wished to partake in the former struggle, but the President thought it more important I should be here. I could not have done as well as has been clone, but I could have helped and taken part in the struggle for my home and neighborhood. So the work is done I care not by whom it is done.” The prophecy was fulfilled in August, 1862, with the crushing overthrow of Pope.

The most casual reader must be impressed with the utter absence of malevolence, as well as the faintest suggestion of those ignoble passions, envy and jealousy, in the soul of the man as reflected through his letters. How intense the instinct of local attachment breathing through his current utterances. How characteristic of the South which passed into history with Lee at Appomattox! How impressively it rises in the simple but heroic words, “the struggle for my home and neighborhood.” The same distinctive Southern trait shines out in every phase of the life and career of Washington. After all, he is “the best cosmopolite who loves his native country best.” Heaven forefend that the process of centralization, with its complex and unresting motive powers, should ever efface the love of “home and neighborhood” from the consciousness of the South.

The spirit of tenderness and gentleness was conspicuous in Lee’s whole varied and multiform life. The man whose day had been passed from boyhood to the close of our civil war, from his admission to West Point in 1825 till the 9th of April, 1865, in scenes and amid associations all connected more or less intimately with the profession of a soldier, was in his attitude toward those of his own household, in his relation to wife and child, most considerate, delicate, kindly and devoted. There are a few names in the world record which fiction nor halo of the ages cannot idealize, and foremost in that goodly company stands the model husband and father, Robert E. Lee. Let us continue the process of self-revelation, all the more valuable and suggestive because so thoroughly undesigned and unconscious. We see him in the field near Fredericksburg as Burnside was preparing for the attack of December 13, 1862, which resulted in such marked disaster to the Union arms. Here, as in every exigency, Lee took no thought for self. His care and solicitude was for others. In writing to one of his daughters he says: “I am sorry the enemy is in position to oppress our friends and citizens of the Northern Neck. He threatens to bombard Fredericksburg, and the noble spirit displayed by its citizens, especially the women, has elicited my highest admiration. They have been abandoning their homes, night and day, during all this inclement weather, cheerfully and uncomplainingly, with only such assistance as our wagons and ambulances could afford—women, girls, children trudging through the mud and bivouacking in the open fields.” It is well known that during the bombardment the spires of the churches in Fredericksburg were the special mark for the Federal artillery. Burnside met his retribution, and the Union dead lay three deep on the hills and slopes that rise above this ancient Virginia town.

Yet even in the sacredness of domestic correspondence, no shadow of vindictiveness flits across his page, only an occasional flash of humor, as in writing on Christmas Day, 1862, to his daughter, then at school in North Carolina, he is “happy in the knowledge that General Burnside and army will not eat their promised Christmas dinner in Richmond to-day.” In writing to another daughter from Fredericksburg, December 26, 1862, the same all-pervading characteristic reveals its power. “I wish you were with me,” he says, “for always solitary, I am sometimes weary, and long for the reunion of my family once more. But I will not speak of myself, but of you. I have seen the ladies in this vicinity only when flying from the enemy, and it caused me acute grief to witness their exposure and suffering. But a more noble spirit was never displayed anywhere. The faces of old and young were wreathed with smiles, and glowed with happiness at their sacrifices for the good of their country. Many have lost everything. What the fire and shells of the enemy spared, their pillagers destroyed. But God will shelter them, I know. So much heroism will not be unregarded.”


Dreary was the outlook as painted by our chief. Yet the climax of horrors was to come, for two years of war finished their desolating course before Sherman and Sheridan descended upon the Carolinas and the Valley of Virginia. A young girl in the last stages of typhoid fever was lifted from her death-bed by Sherman’s hirelings, who had broken into the room in which she lay, despite the agonizing appeals of family and friends. Their pretext was to search for treasure which they alleged had been concealed under bedding upon which the dying child lay. She passed to her rest as the Northern soldiers were engaged in their wrangle over her couch. This incident occurred in the home of a well known and excellent family, not far from my native town, Fayetteville, N.C. Such was the chivalry of Sherman! Is not one such example worth a thousand definitions?

General Lee’s estimate of the heroism of Southern women is in no sense an exaggeration, but is borne out in all points by their wonderful record. A thousand illustrations might be cited: let one for the present suffice. A sister of the writer was a girl of twelve when Sherman’s hordes took possession of Fayetteville, and swept down upon the defenseless townspeople. A gang of vandals, while plundering and desolating our home, seized upon a Chinese work-box, an exquisite and subtly wrought fabric, which a near kinsman had brought from the orient when China was almost as slightly revealed to the American world as the Cathay of the medieval explorers. The box was an heirloom and held in special regard for the associations that were linked with it, as well as the fantastic grace and beauty of its construction. Immediately the child rushed to the rescue, beat off by her unaided courage attack after attack of Sherman’s brutal soldiery, and saved the treasure from their desecrating hands. The box was torn asunder in the struggle; the curiously wrought interior is a mass of fragments. It has never been restored to its original form, but is preserved just as it came from the hands of the hirelings who were not a match for the courage and daring of a young Southern girl. As I write there looks upon me from a painted canvas the dreaming and ethereal face of a young lady. It is pierced through by the bayonets of Sherman’s followers in two places, and stands as it came from their mailed hands in March, 1865. The original of the portrait was betrothed to the kinsman who brought the work-box from the far-off eastern land. Such was the typical woman of the South whom Lee eulogized, as well as championed; whose record, he declares, has never been excelled in all annals. Such was the typical soldier of the Union who warred upon the mother and the child, as well as the man in arms, in whose eye no spot was sacred. Such was Lee, such was Sherman: “Look here upon this picture, and on this.”

But let us turn once more to the letters. The General writes to Mrs. Lee on Christmas Day, 1862: “My heart is filled with gratitude to Almighty God for the unspeakable mercies with which He has blessed us in this day, for those He has granted us from the beginning of life, and particularly for those He had vouchsafed us during the past year. What should have become of us without His crowning help and protection? Oh, if our people would only recognize it and cease from vain self-boasting and adulation, how strong would be my belief in final success and happiness to our country. * * * I pray that on this day when only peace and good-will are preached to mankind, better thoughts may fill the hearts of our enemies and turn them to peace.” It will be seen from the tenor of these extracts that the General was scrupulously exact in his remembrance of wife and child during the sacred season of our Lord’s nativity. With most of the loved ones far away, just emerging, as he was, from the shadow of the great conflict, December 13, his heart seemed inspired by the gracious and hallowed spirit of the time. His religion is marked by that manliness of tone which is reflected in every phase of his life. Every attempt to involve him in theological controversy or disputation was met with characteristic courtesy and good humor, but resulted in failure. He accepted with invincible faith the essential and abiding truths of Christianity, and rested on them for salvation.

On God and godlike men he built his trust.

Lee’s forgetfulness of his own wants, even the most urgent necessities, is perhaps the noblest, as well as the most notable trait in his nature. If absolute self-renunciation has ever been illustrated in human history, the concrete example must be sought and found in the record of his life. The private in the ranks had a claim to his regard, and the material well-being of the army ranged far above any dream of personal comfort. We find him writing to Mrs. Lee, October, 1863, from Camp Rappahannock: “I am glad you have some socks for the army. Send them to me. Tell the girls [his daughters] to send all they can. I wish they could make some shoes too. We have thousands of bare-footed men.” As I read these lines of the peerless Confederate chief, there rises from the deeps of youthful memory a vision of lovely and heroic women, all ages and types, from “grandma” in the chimney corner to the dawning maiden in her flower and the prattling child that could hardly hold the needle, all alike “knitting socks for the soldiers” as if the heart’s blood flowed through the fingers alone, and the whole energy of the soul was concentrated there. Yet with all Lee’s devotion to his family, the shadow of nepotism never rested upon his name. None of his own sons was upon his staff, or advanced in rank or emolument by his agency or suggestion. His son and namesake, Robert E. Lee, during his first period of military experience served as a private in the Rockbridge Artillery, and never rose to command or obtained preferment through the influence or the intercession of his father. Lee was a military reformer in the truest acceptation of the term, for his reforms embraced those of his own household. “I am opposed,” he writes to Mrs. Lee, “to officers surrounding themselves with their sons and relatives. It is wrong in principle, and in that case selections would be made from private and social relations rather than for the public good. I should prefer Rob’s [the son referred to] being in the line in an independent position, where he could rise by his own merit and not through the recommendation of his relatives.”

It will be observed by the critical reader that Lee’s letters never suggest an atmosphere of hopelessness. They are never inspired by despair. Energy, resolution, resourcefulness animate them to the last. Above all, they are untainted by the cringing attitude of the apologist or the sycophant. Faith, manliness, an abiding consciousness of right as illustrated in the cause to which he was consecrated, form their distinctive and dominant note. It seems to the writer that the fact of Lee’s own son serving as a common soldier, and never receiving the slightest advancement or promotion on account of his relationship to the commanding general, is one of the most notable incidents in his life and one of the most striking illustrations of his ideal purity of character. The General fitted out his youngest son for active field service in the spring of 1862, bestowing the utmost care upon the arrangement of every detail. He enlisted in the Rockbridge Artillery, composed of the flower of Virginia youth, and destined to a brilliant career. Some of them I knew in my college days, and I bear testimony to their character as students. Their record as soldiers is part of our common heritage of glory. Yet of rank or position young Robert E. Lee heard not a word. Strangest of all, the lowly place of the chief’s own son created no surprise and elicited no comment. It was so perfectly in accord with the whole attitude of Lee—seeking nothing, soliciting nothing for himself or those of his own house, that it was accepted as a manifestation or expression of a noble nature, not as an outburst of eccentric humor or a device to win the ephemeral acclaim of the moment. To use the current phrase, “it was just like Lee.” and hence caused no astonishment.

This intense solicitude which Lee displayed for the moral and intellectual development of his children embraced every sphere of life and shrunk from no duty however irksome, or drudgery however severe. There are some who know how even parents of culture avoid “the sad mechanic exercise” of supervising the school tasks for the day. Such was not the type of Lee. The tasks of the little ones were looked after with the unvarying care and system that ran through all his actions. His military exactness stood him in excellent stead, punctual compliance with the minutest requirements of daily routine entered into the essence of his character, and no one was more eminently qualified for this delicate task. He was never late at church, always prompt at meals, a marvel of precision in the performance of every professional duty, in the camp, at post, or in the administration of Washington College. From a purely literary point of view, General Lee’s tastes and affinities were those of a cultured gentleman, one who blends the unbought grace of life with the instinct of appreciation of all that is pure, lovely and of good report in the ranges of art. His acquaintance with the English Scriptures was minute and exact, a knowledge which in itself forms a liberal education. This familiarity with biblical phraseology is reflected in almost every letter to his loved ones, and is discernible even in the style of his general orders. Especially discernible is this tendency in the general order issued August 13, 1863. The shadow of disaster had fallen upon the land—Gettysburg, Vicksburg in immediate succession. Our reverses had come not as “single spies,” but “in battallias.” The 21st of August was set aside as a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer. All military duties, except such as were absolutely necessary, were dispensed with. Divine service, appropriate to the occasion, was performed in the respective commands, and the observance of the day was strictly enjoined upon officers and soldiers. Extracts from the order will illustrate its prevailing tone and spirit. “Soldiers, we have sinned against Almighty God. We have forgotten His signal mercies, and have cultivated a revengeful, haughty, and boastful spirit. * * * God is our only refuge and our strength. Let us humble ourselves before Him. Let us confess our many sins, and beseech Him to give us a higher courage, a purer patriotism, and more determined will; that He will convert the hearts of our enemies; that He will hasten the time when war, with its sorrows and sufferings, shall cease, and that He will give us a name and place among the nations of the earth.” Such was the piety of Lee. Such was the attitude of our chief toward his God. The scene rises in the retrospect of years, for I was at the time a mere lad, still prostrate from the wounds I had received at Gettysburg, lying in the army hospital at Frederick, Md. Two weeks later, before I had regained my vigor, my wound not healed, I was driven with my comrades through the streets of Baltimore under the withering August sun, without food or water, and herded with others in a warehouse which had been improvised into a hospital for the sick and disabled of both armies. In such circumstances the echo of Lee’s order fell upon my ears as I lay helpless and desolate in my bunk in the gloomy tenement near Union Dock, breathing the exhalations from the Basin, tormented with insatiable thirst, subsisting upon coarse and repulsive diet, remote from all I loved, or all who called me friend. In one instance a party of Baltimore ladies that strove to minister to our sick and wounded in the West Building were driven from the gate by a volley of rotten eggs hurled at them by the attendants in charge. The introduction of Baltimore into our story recalls the fact that for some years it was the home of our hero—1849–1852. Captain Lee, of the Engineers, his rank at that time, was in charge of the construction of Fort Carroll, several miles from Baltimore, and designed to form one of the defenses that guard the approach to the city. His residence was on Madison avenue, three doors west of Biddle street, the present number being 908 Madison avenue. The Daughters of the Confederacy have placed an appropriate tablet upon the wall fronting the avenue, so that the house may be recognized without difficulty even by the casual passer.

During his sojourn in Baltimore, Captain Lee attended Mt. Calvary Protestant Episcopal Church, Madison avenue and Eutaw street, not then, as now, under the control of the Anglo-Catholic element in the communion to which it belongs. Lee was forty-two years old at the time his life in Baltimore began—1849. His magnetic charm asserted its sway from the first, and more than a decade before the rise of the great conflict he was loved and revered by all sorts and conditions of men in the city which was his home for the time only, in his capacity as an officer of the Regular Army. He went to Baltimore in the spring of 1869, his final visit. The enthusiasm which marked his reception exceeds all power of language. His mission was to advocate the construction of the Valley Railroad, and he came, in accordance with an earnest request, as one of a delegation of enlightened and progressive citizens from the valley which was to reap the benefits from the carrying into effect of the proposed scheme. Lexington must be brought into the stream of the world even if the movement involved the sacrifice of its cherished isolation and its primitive charm. The well-being of the two institutions of learning situate there demanded it, and so General Lee visited Baltimore, his home of long gone years, for the last time. I looked upon his face at the Western Female High School, then on West Fayette street, a special meeting being held in the interest of the railway. The business of the occasion seemed to vanish in the overwhelming rapture which marked the entrance of Lee. The spacious hall was filled to the utmost with men who had followed his standard, and for once the claims of the material world passed out of memory in the ecstatic homage bestowed upon the man whom all adored, then, though undreamed of, not far from the “twilight of eternal day.” There was the same nameless and resistless grace in every action, the all-pervading consideration for others, the subordination of self that marked the Lee of earlier days. If it were possible to imagine the expansion of the perfect and the ideal as incarnate in our likeness, we might be tempted to say that he grew in sweetness, as well as light, as he moved toward the unseen and the invisible. The same enthusiasm, mingled with reverence, was displayed during his entire visit. Had he been the “vanquisher of the vanquisher of the earth,” instead of a paroled prisoner and a “rebel” in the sight of the law, he could not have been accorded a more brilliant reception. We readily understand the filial pride with which his biographer, Robert E. Lee, refers to his own childhood in Baltimore. “I was very proud of him,” he writes, “and of the evident respect for and trust in him every one showed. These impressions, obtained at that time, have never left me. He was a great favorite in Baltimore, as he was everywhere, especially with ladies and little children.” “Especially with ladies and little children.” In this one phrase we have the key to Lee’s character, the source of his power, the secret of his charm.

There was only one point in the character of Lee which his son found it difficult to reconcile with his ideal of perfection as illustrated in the life and actions of his father. Wisely, perhaps, he refrains from any attempt to explain the seeming touch of human frailty. During services in church the General became very drowsy, and even, at times, to the extreme horror of his loving biographer, would indulge in a “little nap” during the sermon. This same weakness was characteristic of General Jackson in a pronounced degree. Imperfect ventilation is the most plausible solution, for the world has not yet outgrown the superstition that during religious worship pure air is not essential to wakefulness or to concentration of mind, to alertness of intellect or devoutness of spirit. We have not advanced very far in this regard since the days of Eutychus. It would be invidious to ascribe the drowsy tendency to the character of the sermon, for Eutychus fell into his deep and almost fatal sleep under the preaching of Saint Paul. Lee’s punctual attendance upon all religious services, left its abiding impression on the children of his household. Whether at family prayers, or in some post chapel remote from home, the same strong trait never failed to assert itself. Never on any of the sons of men did the sense of moral and religious accountability rest more acutely and pervasively than upon Robert E. Lee.

A most touching illustration of our hero’s knightliness of soul is afforded in his letter to Mrs. Lee upon the thirty-third anniversary of their marriage, June 30, 1864. The circumstances in which it was written add a special charm to the innate grace and beauty of the letter. The campaign of 1864 was then at its climax. Grant had crossed the James. The fate of the South rested on the army of Lee. With the destiny of a newborn nation in his hands, in the heart of persistent and absorbing struggle with an overwhelming power, the memory of early days, and the vision of the wife of his youth, rose before him like an inspiration. Years and the wrestlings with the world that marked his soldierly fortunes had not abated the fervor of his early affection, or withered the freshness of his youthful heaven. The young officer of twenty-four, who carried the heart of Mrs. Washington’s great-granddaughter, won by his all-prevailing grace and knightliness, was now the constant and devoted husband, in command of an army of a people newly born, looking to him alone to assure their infant life, and win for them by his single word a recognized place among the federations of the earth. From the front of war he writes to Mrs. Lee: “Do you recollect what a happy day this was thirty-three years ago? How many hopes and pleasures it gave birth to! God has been very merciful and kind to us, and how thankless and sinful I have been. I pray that He may continue His mercies and blessings to us, and give us a little peace and rest together in this world, and finally gather us and all He has given us around His throne in the world to come.” Mrs. Lee had suffered much from illness during the memorable summer of 1864. Only those who can recall the experiences of the struggle can have an adequate appreciation of the privations of the Southern people, especially during the closing periods—1864–65. The vital necessities were ofttimes unobtainable, even in cases of disease or illness. Salt, for example, was an impossibility at many points, rye coffee and sorghum were luxuries to the impoverished homes of those critical days. Medicines, above all quinine, were oft-times not to be secured upon any terms, and the numbers who died not so much from maladies or from wounds, as the lack of appropriate remedies, will never be revealed by any process of research or investigation. Ice was not at that time produced by manufacture, and the suffering endured on that account alone can hardly be overestimated. In accordance with the medical standards then prevailing, cold water was rigidly interdicted in all cases of fever. A young comrade of mine, desperately ill with fever and crazed by thirst, was denied a single drop to cool his parched lips. When the attending physician had left the hospital, my friend, in his consuming agony of thirst, crawled down the steps to the well in the yard, exhausted the contents of an entire bucket, and still lives in vigorous health.

The accompanying letter written by the General to one of his daughters will bring home the desperate privation to which the people of the South were subjected. “Upon receiving your note [announcing Mrs. Lee’s improvement] I immediately sent out to try to find some lemons, but could only procure two, sent me by a kind lady in Petersburg. These were gathered from her own trees. There are none to be purchased. I found one in my valise, dried up, which I send, as it may prove of some value. I also put up some early apples which you can roast for your mother, and one pear. This is all the fruit I can get. You must go to market every morning and try to find some fruit for her. There are no lemons to be had. * * * Try to get some buttermilk for her. With ice it is delicious and very nutritious.” General Lee seems to have sympathized with General Jackson’s fondness for buttermilk, if we judge by his reference in this letter. The difficulty of procuring lemons appeals strongly to my own experience. A near relative in North Carolina was nigh unto death, and her physician enjoined the use of lemons. I explored Richmond and I found three, touched by decay, and utterly unfit for use. On another occasion I paid $15 in Confederate money for half a pound of molasses candy. Board was $60 per day at the hotels. The fare consisted in a measure of rice and sorghum; but even this was most grateful to those who had survived the agonies of Point Lookout, Fort Delaware, or “that chief den of horrors,” geographically known as Johnson’s Island. Yet in all this suffering we find the General writing to one of his daughters in regard to the escape of a pet squirrel. He had probably fallen into the hands of some famishing “Confed” along the lines, and his failure to return to his owner may be readily explained. Our prisoners at the North, dying by degrees of hunger, caught and eat rats to abate their prolonged and unresting agony. In the “pen” at Johnson’s Island a terrier was systematically employed. I speak of what I have seen and bear testimony to that which I know. Had it been understood that the vagrant squirrel belonged to the daughter of General Lee, hardly a man in the army would have laid violent hands upon him, despite the gnawings of hunger.

I had hardly written the closing words of the incident recorded above, in which the stray squirrel is the hero, when the tidings flashed across the land that Miss Mildred Lee, the youngest child of Robert E. Lee, had been stricken by apoplexy and had died while sojourning with friends in New Orleans. It was Miss Mildred whose pet had broken bounds and was never recovered, though the General playfully intimated in his letter that he regarded the loss as rather a piece of good fortune than a calamity. The gentle lady who has rejoined her father had inherited much of his resistless grace and charm. Nine years ago I saw Miss Mildred the central figure of an admiring circle at Charleston, S.C., a circle that retained, despite the ravages of war and the mutations of time, some traces of its ancient glory. With the old soldiers who had followed our standards, she was an especial favorite; for her frank, ingenuous manner, and that utter lack of assumption which marks the high-bred woman, drew them to her, as well as the magic of her father’s name. “The privates in the ranks are those I love best,” she said to an old soldier who requested the honor of shaking her hand, and apologized for his seeming liberty, as he was merely a private. The Lee family circle is now almost complete in the world of the redeemed. Three only still abide with us, among them the General’s namesake and biographer, the “dearest Rob” whom we meet in the father’s correspondence, Robert E. Lee of Virginia. All the others are with the parent who guarded their infancy, sympathized with a love that was more than love in the struggles of their dawning life, prayed for them as he lay in his soldier tent, the army snatching its interlude of sleep, the overwhelming foe in his front, and the fate of a newborn nation suspended on his sword. The exigencies of war dissolved the sacred unity of the family—the father and his sons in the field—the mother and daughters where fate or fortune might assign their transient place of abode.

For Lee and his family there was no sacrifice too severe, no toil too arduous, no homage too exalted. The eye of the whole Southland is to-day turned to that rare and idyllic Lexington in the Valley of Virginia, where the body of Miss Mildred Lee will lie hard by the sepulchre of her father. Not far away is the stately monument that crowns the grave of “Stonewall” Jackson, his fair daughter by his side, sharing his place of rest. The heart of our land is there—all that we loved, adored, idealized, a glory that the genius of romance cannot transcend, the transfiguring touch of poetry cannot rival. All that we dreamed or willed or hoped of greatness, moral, intellectual, political, social, is symbolized and commemorated in the quiet mountain town, with its Arcadian sweetness, and its rich associations with champions and heroes whose renown circles round the grave, whose light has passed all bounds of time or place, and charmed with its brilliance the very souls of its enemies. “When was so much glory ever buried in one grave,” was the comment of the Duke of Wellington, as the coffin of Pitt was laid by the side of his illustrious father, the Earl of Chatham, in Westminster Abbey. Yet in a remote and secluded Virginia town lie the two foremost masters of the art of war in contemporary ages, and one who was not an inspired general alone, but more than that, a selfless soul and gentleman, in whose harmonious and symmetrical nature envy, malice, nor even the last infirmity of noble mind, seems to have found no lodgment, who was the very antitype of the chivalric imagination as it strove in its Galahads and Arthurs to delineate the perfect and to portray the ideal. The daughter is with her father—he who shielded her in girlhood, studied her budding life with the rare tenderness of which the loftiest natures alone are capable, prayed for her in the gloom of the night watches, remembered her at Christmas-tide with an especial outburst of affection as he stood on fortune’s crowned neck at Fredericksburg, supervised her daily tasks and interested his broad and far-reaching heart even in the fortunes of her favorite squirrel.

Eternal form shall still divide
The eternal soul from all beside;
And she shall know him when they meet.

Return to Life of Robert E. Lee as General in the Confederate Army