Robert E. Lee and His Family, by John W. Wayland, Chapter 6

Robert E. Lee and His Family

Chapter VI
FROM DERWENT TO LEXINGTON

Soon after the surrender in the spring of 1865 General Lee wrote to a friend: “I am looking for some little, quiet home in the woods, where I can procure shelter and my daily bread, if I am permitted by the victor. I wish to get Mrs. Lee out of the city [Richmond] as soon as possible.”

Such a home was soon placed at his disposal. Mrs. Elizabeth Randolph Cocke, a granddaughter of Edmund Randolph, and the gracious hostess of Oakland, invited General Lee and his family to be her guests and provided them with just the kind of quiet and retired domicile they desired. After a week at Oakland, they were comfortably established at Derwent. Oakland is in the eastern edge of Cumberland County, Va. Derwent, on the Oakland estate, is a mile or two to the east, across the line in Powhatan County. Both places are only four or five miles south of the James River. Oakland is fittingly named—among the splendid trees surrounding the house is a giant oak that is probably unmatched anywhere in the country. Under its shade General Lee and Traveler often found a pleasant resting place. At Derwent, too, were magnificent oaks and other trees.

Writing many years later, Captain Robert E. Lee said: “The latter part of June, my father, mother, brother Custis, and sisters went to ‘Derwent,’ the name of the little place which was to be his home for that summer. They went by canal-boat from Richmond to Cartersville, and then had a drive of about six miles.” (See “Recollections and Letters of General Robert E, Lee,” by his son, Captain Robert E. Lee, 1924, page 174.)

Derwent, in Powhatan County, Va.
Home of General Lee and his family in the summer and fall
of 1865. Phot from the southeast, made in 1936.

The house at Derwent though not large was of sufficient size for the family of five, and it was a restful place, with quiet and attractive surroundings. Not far away, by the side of the road in the edge of a natural grove, is a little church which General Lee occasionally attended. Traditions of his presence among the worshipers still linger in the neighborhood. He paid a visit to his brother, Charles Carter Lee, whose home was in Powhatan County, an easy ride from Derwent. In August he rode up to Fluvanna County and on into Albemarle as far as the Green Mountain neighborhood, stopping here and there with friends, taking several days for the trip. Upon his return he wrote to his son Robert: “I am glad to hear that your corn is so fine, and that you are making preparations to put in a good crop of wheat. I wish I had a little farm somewhere, to be at work too.” His second son, Gen. Roony Lee, was also on a farm. To him the General wrote: “Our neighbors are very kind, and do everything in the world to promote our comfort.”

On August 4, up at Lexington, the board of trustees of Washington College decided to ask General Lee to take the presidency of that institution, and a letter apprising him of their action was presented by Judge John W. Brockenbrough, rector of the college. The offer was unexpected and it was not until August 24 that General Lee wrote from Derwent indicating that he would accept the position. The salary to be paid was only $1500 a year,1 but evidently Generaly Lee was thinking not so much about the salary as about the service he might render to the young men of the country, many of whom had followed him in battle—he now wished to lead them in rebuilding their faith and fortunes. He had other offers, some at large salaries—for the influence of his name, as was frankly admitted: but he let it be known that his name was not for sale.

[Map: The Ride to Lexington]

On September 15 the General mounted Traveler at Derwent and started for Lexington. Three days and the greater part of the fourth were occupied in the trip. The first night he stopped at Bremo, the home of Gen. John Hartwell Cocke, in Fluvanna County; the second night he was the guest of Rev. Joseph P. B. Wilmer at Plain Dealing, about five miles north of Scottsville, in Albemarle; at three o’clock in the afternoon of the third day he reached the top of the Blue Ridge in Rockfish Gap where he spent the remainder of the afternoon and the night in the historic old inn, known as the Mountain House. Many years later Dr. J. L. Minor of Cordova, Tenn., related interesting particulars. In 1865 he was a boy eight or ten years old and was living at the Mountain House with his parents. His account follows:

One afternoon . . . a gentleman rode up to the front gate on a handsome horse and asked Uncle Mose, with whom I was, if he could spend the night. Uncle Mose said, “Yes—yes sir,” with much gusto, and proceeded to unsaddle the horse and throw the saddle on the palings near the front gate, and taking the halter started for the stable. The gentleman said he wished to go himself, as he desired to inspect the stabling and the stall, and taking the halter in his hand, we all—the gentleman, Uncle Mose, and Jimmie (as Uncle Mose always called me)—went to the stable and the stall, which were satisfactory.

The gentleman observed a small raw surface on the shoulder of the horse and said it was of no importance, as it was only a galled place from the saddle and would soon pass away. I told him that I knew what would heal it (Uncle Mose’s lore), and that was the moss from a nearby chalybeate spring. The gentleman said that the moss was an astringent, and something of an antiseptic was useful; and leading the horse by the halter we all went to the spring. I bared my arm and plunging my hand and arm into the water soon had a small mass of the moss which I handed to him, and he put it carefully on the sore, and taking the halter started again for the stable. Probably lie noticed the longing expression on my face, for he said, “Jimmie, don’t you want to ride back to the stable?” Grabbing the clothing about the back of my neck with one hand he took hold of the seat of my trousers with the other and threw me on the horse’s back, and we took the horse to the stable and returned to the Inn. There was no one around, and we seated ourselves on the steps which led to a porch the length of the house, and talked of anything that came to my mind, for I was allowed to do as I pleased.

One of the subjects discussed was my hound dog “Donder,” who was trailing some small animal—a rabbit or fox. I explained that I could not tell the difference in the cry of the hound, as between the two. He said, when the hound is after a fox it is continuous, depending as it does upon the speed and strength of the animal, whereas with the wily beer rabbit, it was interrupted.

Next, my brother returned from [Dinwiddie’s] school, coming in the front gate and passing my friend and myself went to the dining-room for his second lunch. It seems that he had observed the silver letters “R.E.L.” on the back of the saddle. He told this to two elderly maiden ladies. It excited general curiosity, and I observed peeping and whispering going on, and that excited my curiosity.

It seems that the two ladies had met Colonel Lee at White Sulphur Springs years before, and the subject of their peeping and whispering was as to the identity of their former White Sulphur Springs friend and the present guest. They evidently decided that they were the same, for they came down the steps where the guest and myself were chatting and said, “We once met Colonel Lee at the White Sulphur Springs and I believe that our friend of the White Sulphur is none other than General Lee.” He said quietly, “Yes, I am General Lee, but am sorry to have been recognized as such, for I am now simply a citizen of the United States, on my way to Lexington to arrange with the authorities of Washington College as to my becoming associated with that institution.”

We all know that he assumed the presidency of the instituition which later became Washington and Lee University.

We had supper, and the General was told that it was in the same room in which the famous meeting was held by Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, years ago, which was evidently interesting, as it had to do with establishment of the University of Virginia, the idol of the sage of Monticello.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

I had met General Lee as a companionable man, and 1 had ridden on Traveler!2

The Mountain House, in Rockfish Gap, Blue Ridge
Here General Lee spent the night of September 17, 1865, on his
way from Derwent to Lexington.

Early the next morning General Lee left Mountain Top, continuing his journey by way of Waynesboro and Greenville, and reached Lexington about one o’clock in the afternoon. This was September 18, 1865.

Mrs. Lee and her daughters remained at Derwent and Oakland until the first week in November, being joined there by Capt. Robert E. Lee. Then they traveled by canal boat up the James River to Bremo, where they were the guests of the Cockes until the first of December, when they continued on to Lexington, via river and canal. About the time General Lee went to Lexington to enter upon his duties as president of Washington College his son, Gen. Custis Lee, went to the same town to teach in Virginia Military Institute.

[Notes]

1 In addition he was provided with a house and garden and received one-fifth of the tuition fees paid try students. This arrangement corresponded with that of earlier years, hut prior to the war the base salary of the president of the college had never exceeded $1200 a year.

2 See the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, July, 1934 (Vol. XLII, No. 3), gages 241–243.

Return to Robert E. Lee and His Family