Robert E. Lee and His Family, by John W. Wayland, Chapter 7

Robert E. Lee and His Family

Chapter VII
THE COLLEGE PRESIDENT

General Lee was not without experience and skill in education. His four years as Superintendent at West Point contributed to the success of his five years at Lexington. His quiet dignity, his unfailing courtesy, and his broad human sympathy enforced and enriched his scholarship. In a time when many others were broken and depressed, he looked ahead with courage and optimism. Some of the young men that saluted him on the campus and listened to him as he stood before them in the college chapel were veterans of the war. Some of them had left an arm or a leg on the field of battle, but they were ready to follow him again in the ways of peace, for home and native land. His example was an inspiration and they perceived the wisdom of his words:

All good citizens must unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war, and to restore the blessings of peace. They must not abandon their country, but go to work and build up its prosperity.

The young men especially must stay at home, bearing themselves in such a manner as to gain the esteem of every one, at the same time that they maintain their own respect.

It should be the object of all to avoid controversy, to allay passion, and to give scope to every kindly feeling.

The old school was given new life. General Lee repaired the buildings, improved the grounds, planted trees, added new courses of study, and secured additional teachers. With the students he was kind but firm. When one of them asked him for a copy of the college rules he replied, “We have no printed rules here, we have but one rule and that is that every student be a gentleman.”

Many years later one of the students wrote:

One impression that I retain of General Lee was his sobriety. Lexington was a wide-open town in those days. He never touched ardent spirits, nor did he use tobacco. His breath was as immaculate as the clothes he wore; yet, he had a way of reaching the boy who happened to drift into dissipation. It is said that he went through the Mexican and the Civil Wars without touching a drop of ardent spirits.[1]

For the first two months or more that General Lee lived at Lexington he had a room or an apartment in the Lexington Hotel, on the third floor. I am informed that the old Lexington Hotel stood on the site now occupied by the Robert E. Lee Hotel. In the meantime he was having repaired and fitted up the house on the college campus that he and his family were to occupy, and into which they moved about December 1, 1865. Already it had been the home of Margaret Junkin Preston, the brilliant writer, and of Stonewall Jackson and his first wife. After it had been occupied for three years or more by General Lee and his family, including Gen. Custis Lee, it could well be termed the most historic home on the campus.

About the beginning of 1868 the trustees decided to build a new house for, the president. The number of faculty members was increasing—with a new home for the president the house he was occupying could be assigned to one of the professors. Accordingly money was appropriated and General Lee was authorized to draw plans and supervise the construction of the new house. This he did. It was completed in the summer of 1869. The Lees moved in and it has been the “President’s House” ever since. Near by was built also a new home for Traveler.

General Robert E. Lee on Traveler, probably in 1865.

Many rides the General took on Traveler, out from Lexington in all directions. If one road became more familiar than another, it was probably the eleven-mile winding trail out towards the northeast, leading to Rockbridge Baths. Mrs. Lee, a rheumatic, spent much time there in the summers, and General Lee rode out frequently. In June, 1867, he and his daughter Mildred rode to the Peaks of Otter and Bedford City, he on Traveler, she on Lucy Long. In time, by means of his cross-country rides and otherwise, General Lee came to know almost every family in Rockbridge County. He took no part in politics, but kept well abreast of the times and exerted himself in behalf of various constructive and progressive movements that promised better roads, more railroads, better farms and homes and schools. His life and work contributed strongly to morality and religion. His counsel was sought in personal interviews and many persons wrote him letters to which he gave courteous replies fraught with good will, wisdom, and high principle. His affection for his children was notable and his devotion to his invalid wife was unfailing.

House on the campus of Washington and Lee University
Occupied by the Lees from December 1865 until June 1869.
Here Stonewall Jackson married his first wife, Elinor Junkin,
and lived until 1857 or 1858. Photo made in 1837.

Naturally General Lee and his family were the recipients of many generous attentions. The people of the town and county brought in numerous gifts for the house and table. Gifts and honors came from more distant places in this country and abroad. In the autumn of 1865, shortly before Mrs. Lee and her daughters came to Lexington, the General received from Baltimore a handsome Stieff piano, a present from the makers and the ladies of Baltimore. Early in 1866 the Hon. A. W. Beresford Hope of Bedgebury Park, England, sent him a handsome copy of the Bible. Among other notable gifts was a copy of the translation into English of Homer’s “Iliad,” by Philip Stanhope Worsley of Oxford, presented to him by the translator, on the fly-leaf of which was this inscription:

TO GENERAL LEE,
THE MOST STAINLESS OF LIVING COMMANDERS
AND, EXCEPT IN FORTUNE, TILE GREATEST,
THIS VOLUME IS PRESENTED
WITH THE WRITER’S EARNEST SYMPATHY
AND RESPECTFUL ADMIRATION.

After this inscription, also in Worsley’s hand, were the following verses:

The grand old bard that never dies,
   Receive him in our English tongue!
If send thee, but with weeping eyes,
   The story that he sung.

Thy Troy is fallen,—thy dear land
   Is marred beneath the spoiler’s heel—
I cannot trust my trembling hand
   To write the things I feel.

Ah, realm of tears!—but let her bear
   This blazon to the end of time:
No nation rose so white and fair,
   None fell so pure of crime.

The widow’s moan, the orphan’s wail,
   Come round thee; but in truth be strong!
Eternal Right, though all else fail,
   Can never be made Wrong.

An angel’s heart, an angel’s mouth,
   Not Homer’s, could alone for me
Hymn well the great Confederate South—
   Virginia first, and Lee.

It is probable that fulsome praise was really embarrassing to General Lee, but he was so considerate of the feelings of other persons that usually he did not show any lack of appreciation, but with the college boys, it is said, he was more outspoken. Says Henry Boley: “Student orators often indulged in compliments to General Lee and the ladies, and just the reverse towards the Yankees. General Lee sent them his criticism: ‘You young men speak too long and you make three other mistakes. What you say about me is distasteful to me, and what you say about the North tends to promote ill feeling, and your compliments to the ladies would be more appreciated if paid in private’.”[2]

General Lee in the latter part of November, 1867, was summoned to Richmond to appear as a witness in the trial of Jefferson Davis. After some delay a nolle prosequi was filed. On November 26 the General wrote Mrs. Lee from the Exchange Hotel in Richmond. The night of the 28th, in Petersburg, he attended the marriage of his son, Gen. Roony Lee, and Miss Mary Tabb Bolling. In Petersburg he was the guest of General Mahone. He wrote Mrs. Lee from Petersburg on November 29, giving particulars about the wedding and naming some of those who were present. His letters were always interesting, filled with personal items and other details.

In April and May, 1870, General Lee and his daughter Agnes made an extended trip through several of the southern states, spending most of the time, apparently, in Savannah, Ga. On this tour they visited Cumberland Island—General Lee’s second visit to his father’s grave—and the burial place of his daughter Annie (Anne Carter Lee) in Warren County, N.C. General Lee’s health at this time was not good. For several years he had been troubled with rheumatism and occasionally with other ailments. From Savannah on April 11 he wrote Mrs. Lee:

My general health is pretty good. I feel stronger than when I came. The warm weather has also dispelled some of the rheumatic pains in my back but I perceive no change in the stricture in my chest. If I attempt to walk beyond a very slow gait, the pairs is always there.”[3]

The President’s House at Washington and Lee University
Built in 1868–69 under General Lee’s direction. The Lees
moved into it in June 1869.

Most of August, 1870, was spent at Hot Springs, Va. He returned by way of Staunton. The college session opened at Lexington on September 15. His last letter was written on September 28, to Mr. S. H. Tagart of Baltimore. At four o’clock that afternoon he attended a vestry meeting of Grace Episcopal Church. In a room that was rather cold and damp the meeting continued until after seven o’clock. Finding supper waiting when he got home, he took his place at the table, standing, to say grace, but he was unable to speak. He died the morning of October 12. His death was believed to have resulted from agencies dating back to the trying campaigns of 1864 when he contracted a severe sore throat which led to a rheumatic inflammation of the sac enclosing the heart.

Washington died when he was not quite 68; Lee lacked three months and a few days of being 64.

Nearly a quarter of a century before he died, that is, about the time he entered the war with Mexico, General Lee wrote his will, and he never changed it. At Lexington, in the old record book of the Rockbridge County court, is a copy neatly written, as follows:

I, Robert E. Lee of the U.S. Army, do make, ordain & declare this instrument to be my last will & testament revoking all others.

1. All my debts, whatsoever they may be, & of which there are but few, are to be punctually & speedily paid.

2. To my dearly beloved wife Mary Custis Lee I give & bequeath the use profit & benefit of my whole Estate real & personal, for the term of her natural life, in full confidence that she will use it to the best advantage in the education & care of my children.

3. Upon the decease of my wife it is my will & desire that my Estate be divided along my children, in such proportions to each, as their situations & necessities in life may require; and as may be designated by her; & I particularly request that my second daughter Anne Carter, who from an accident she has real in one of her eyes, may be more in want of aid than the rest, may if necessary be particularly provided for.

Lastly I constitute & appoint my dearly beloved wife Mary Custis Lee & my eldest son George Washington Custis Lee (when he shall have arrived at the age of twenty one years) executrix & executor of this my last will & Testament, in the construction of which I hope & trust no dispute will arise.

In witness of which 1 have set my hand & seal this thirty first day of August in the year one thousand eight hundred & forty six.

R E. Lee (Seal)

Witness
Fred A. Smith Capt. Engrs
R. Cruikshank

Following the will the testator made a list of his property and signed it.

The will of General Lee and the property schedule, in his own handwriting, were produced in the Rockbridge County court on November 7, 1870, and proved by the oaths of Gov. John Letcher and Col. William Allan to be the genuine writing of the testator and ordered to he recorded.

Gen. Custis Lee qualified as executor, with Mrs. Mary C. Lee, Gen. W. H. F. Lee, and Capt. Robert E. Lee as his securities in a bond of $100,000; the estate passing by the will was estimated not to exceed $50,000 in value. Mrs. Lee did not qualify as executrix, but reserved the right to join in the probate and qualify later. The clerk attesting the foregoing was Jno. F. Greenlee, D.C.[4]

Gen. W. H. F. (Roony) Lee at the time was living in New Kent County, Va.; Capt. Robert E. Lee, in King William County, Va.

Photo by Miley of Lexington.

General R. E. Lee on Traveler.

It has been noted in Chapter IV that General Lee received a slight wound in the battle of Chapultepec, in Mexico, in 1847. The only injury by violence that he suffered, so far as I have found, in the War Between the States, was inflicted by his famous horse Traveler. In one of the first days of September, 1862, just before the invasion of Maryland, the General had dismounted and was sitting on a log, with the bridle rein over his arm. Something frightened Traveler and he dashed away throwing his master violently to the ground, spraining both hands and breaking a small bone in one of them. His right hand suffered most—was carried in a sling—and it was six weeks before he was able to sign his name. Within this period was fought the bloody battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam). He was on foot much of the time; occasionally rode in an ambulance; when on horseback a courier led his horse.

In 1864, while he was confronting Grant on the North Anna, General Lee was seriously ill. He kept his tent for only a day or two, but for a longer period he moved about only with difficulty and suffering. It was then, no doubt, that the disease which finally resulted in his death had its beginnings.

[Notes]

[1] See “Lexington in Old Virginia,” by Henry Boley, 1936, page 122. published by Garrett & Massie, Richmond, Va.

[2] Boley’s “Lexington,” page 121.

[3] “Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee,” by Captain Robert E. Lee, 1924, page 397.

[4] See Rockbridge County Will Book 19, pages 361–363.

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