Robert E. Lee and the Southern Confederacy
By Henry Alexander White



THE disbanding of the Army of Northern Virginia marked the virtual downfall of the Southern Confederacy. The surrender of the remaining Confederate troops in the South and Southwest in the month of May, 1865, inevitably followed the capitulation of Lee at Appomattox. The soldiers of the Confederacy laid aside their arms, and turned from the bivouac to find desolate homes in a land laid waste. They uttered not a regret for the past nor a murmur concerning the present. They retained their former dauntless courage. They set themselves to work to restore their broken country. It was well that they were not broken in spirit, for the multiplied humiliations imposed upon the people of the South by the successful political party in the process called Reconstruction, were far more galling than the burdens laid upon them by a state of public warfare. When Lee returned from Appomattox he found Richmond partially in ashes. He sought privacy and rest in a rented house. He denounced the assassination of President Lincoln as a grievous crime, and deplored the intensified animosity toward the South on the part of the dominant political faction at Washington. On April 25, Lee wrote to Grant asking for the liberation from prison of all Confederate captives, at the same time remonstrating against the Federal practice of “requiring oaths of paroled soldiers before permitting them to proceed on their journey. Officers and men on parole are bound in honour to conform to the obligations they have assumed. This obligation cannot be strengthened by any additional form or oath, nor is it customary to exact them.”

On May 29, President Andrew Johnson issued a proclamation, offering amnesty and pardon to all participants in “the rebellion,” with the exception of certain classes who had obtained prominence as leaders. It was announced, however, that special application for pardon might be made to the President by any person belonging to the excepted classes. General Lee, therefore, on June 13, sent the following letter to President Johnson:

Being excluded from the provisions of amnesty and pardon con-
tained in the proclamation of the 29th ult., I hereby apply for the
benefits, and full restoration of all rights and privileges, extended to
those included in its terms.

I [was] graduated at the Military Academy at West Point in June, 1829; resigned from the U.S. Army, April, 1861; was a General in the Confederate Army, and included in the surrender of the Army of N. Va., April 9, 1865.

It was the sense of duty toward his comrades in arms that led Lee thus to ask a pardon that was never granted. At that time President Davis was held as a prisoner in a damp, stone casemate in Fortress Monroe. This man of noble mould, this upright Christian, was accused of complicity in the murder of President Lincoln, and was subjected to treatment of the most severe type. Lee said to his eldest son, in connection with the letter to Johnson, “that it was right for him to set an example of making formal submission to the civil authorities, and that he thought, by so doing, he might possibly be in a better position to be of use to the Confederates who were not protected by military paroles, especially Mr. Davis.” After Lee’s indictment for treason, in accordance with the orders of a Federal judge, he withdrew this application for amnesty. Grant himself urged the sacredness of Lee’s military parolfe, and the indictment was not pressed to a trial.

Arlington, the home of Lee, was held by the Federal officials. The White House on the Pamunkey River was in ashes. Lee’s desire for privacy was thus expressed to General A. L. Long: “I am looking for some little quiet house in the woods where I can procure shelter and my daily bread if permitted by the victor. I wish to get Mrs. Lee out of the city as soon as practicable.” In the latter part of the month of June, 1865, he led his family to a quiet country-home in Powhatan County, on the James River, in Virginia. There he busied himself in vain efforts to collect material for a history of his military campaigns.

I am desirous, [he wrote,] that the bravery and devotion of the Army of Northern Virginia be correctly transmitted to posterity. This is the only tribute that can be paid to the worth of its noble officers and soldiers. And I am anxious to collect the necessary information for the history of its campaigns, including the operations in the Valley of Western Virginia, from its organisation to its final surrender.

To Colonel R. L. Maury he sent this message concerning a scheme for the emigration of Southern planters to Mexico:

. . . I do not know how far their emigration to another land will conduce to their prosperity. Although prospects may not now be cheering, I have entertained the opinion that, unless prevented by circumstances or necessity, it would be better for them and the country to remain at their homes and share the fate of their respective States. . . .

To his second son, General W, H. F. Lee, then dwelling on the White House plantation, the father wrote thus, on July 29:

. . . It is very cheering to me to hear of your good prospects for corn, and your cheerful prospects for the future. God grant that they may be realised, which I am sure they will be, if you will unite sound judgment to your usual energy in your operations.

As to the indictments: I hope you, at least, may not be prosecuted. I see no more reason for it than for prosecuting all who ever engaged in the war. I think, however, we may expect procrastination in measures of relief, denunciatory threats, etc. We must be patient and let them take their course. As soon as I can ascertain their intention toward me, if not prevented, I shall endeavour to procure some humble but quiet abode for your mother and sisters, where I hope they can be happy. As I before said, I want to get in some grass country, where the natural product of the land will do much for my subsistence. . . .

On August 4, 1865, General Lee was elected President of the Washington College in Virginia, His letter of acceptance runs as follows:

POWHATAN COUNTY, 24th August, 1865.

Gentlmen:—I have delayed for some days replying to your letter of the 5th inst., informing me of my election by the Board of Trustees to the Presidency of Washington College, from a desire to give the subject due consideration. Fully impressed with the responsibilities of the office, I have feared that I should be unable to discharge its duties to the satisfaction of the Trustees or to the benefit of the country. The proper education of youth requires not. only great ability, but I fear more strength than I now possess, for I do not feel able to undergo the labour of conducting classes in regular courses of instruction. I could not, therefore, undertake more than the general administration and supervision of the institution. There is another subject which has caused me serious reflection, and is, I think, worthy of the consideration of the Board. Being excluded from the terms of amnesty in the proclamation of the President of the United States of the 29th of May last, and an object of censure to a portion of the country, I have thought it probable that my occupation of the position of President might draw upon the College a feeling of hostility, and I should therefore cause injury to an institution which it would be my highest desire to advance. I think it the duly of every citizen, in the present condition of the country, to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony, and in no way to oppose the policy of the State or General Governments directed to that object. It is particularly incumbent upon those charged with the nstruction of the young to set them an example of submission to authority, and I could not consent to be the cause of animadversion upon the College.

Should you, however, take a dififerent view, and think that my services in the position tendered me by the Board will be advantageous to the College and country, I will yield to your judgment and accept it. Otherwise I must most respectfully decline the office.

Begging you to express to the Trustees of the College my heartfelt gratitude for the honour conferred upon me, and requesting you to accept my cordial thanks for the kind manner in which you have communicated its decision, I am, gentlemen, with great respect, Your most obedient servant,

R. E. Lee.

August 28 found him writing these words to Governor Letcher:

. . . The questions which for years were indispute between the State and General Government, and which unhappily were not decided by the dictates of reason, but referred to the decision of war, having been decided against us, it is the part of wisdom to acquiesce in the result, and of candour to recognise the fact.

The interests of the State are, therefore, the same as those of the United States. Its prosperity will rise or fall with the welfare of the country. The duty of its citizens, then, appears to me too plain to admit of doubt. All should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war, and to restore the blessings of peace. They should remain, if possible, in the country; promote harmony and good feeling; qualify themselves to vote, and elect to the State and General Legislatures wise and patriotic men who will devote their abilities to the interests of the country, and the healing of all dissensions. I have invariably recommended this course since the cessation of hostilities, and have endeavoured to practise it myself. I am much obliged to you for the interest you have expressed in my acceptance of the presidency of Washington College. If I believed I could be of advantage to the youth of the country, I should not hesitate. . . .

September 4 marked his refusal to take part in the management of a public journal. In connection with this he said:

It should be the object of all to avoid controversy, toallay passion, [and] give full scope to reason and every kindly feeling. By doing this, and encouraging our citizens to engage in the duties of life with all their heart and mind, with a determination not to be turned aside by thoughts of the past and fears of the future, our country will not only be restored in material prosperity, but will be advanced in science, in virtue, and in religion.

On the same day he wrote thus to the Count Joannes:

In your letter to me you do the people of the South but simple justice in believing that they heartily concur with you in opinion in regard to the assassination of the late President Lincoln. It is a crime previously unknown to this country, and one that must be deprecated by every American.

On September 7 he expressed himself in these terms:

. . . I believe it to be the duty of everyone to unite in the restoration of the country, and the re-establishment of peace and harmony. . . . It appears to me that the allayment of passion, the dissipation of prejudice, and the restoration of reason, will alone enable the people of the country to acquire a true knowledge and form a correct judgment of the events of the past four years. It will, I think, be admitted that Mr. Davis has done nothing more than all the citizens of the Southern States, and should not be held accountable for acts performed by them in the exercise of what had been considered by them unquestionable right.

With reference to the plan of migration beyond the Rio Grande, Lee wrote thus to Matthew F. Maury, on September 8:

. . . As long as virtue was dominant in the republic, so long was the happiness of the people secure. I cannot, however, despair of it yet. I look forward to better days, and trust that time and experience, the great teachers of men, under the guidance of an ever-merciful God, may save us from destruction, and restore to us the bright hopes and prospects of the past. The thought of abandoning the country and all that must be left in it is abhorrent to my feelings, and I prefer to struggle for its restoration and share its fate, rather than to give up all as lost. I have a great admiration for Mexico; the salubrity of its climate, the fertility of its soil, and the magnificence of its scenery possess for me great charms; but I still look with delight upon the mountains of my native State. . . .

In the closing days of September, General Lee was borne by his war-horse Traveller through the country to Lexington, Virginia. On October 2, 1865, the Confederate chieftain was inaugurated as President of the Washington College.

This school was the outgrowth of a “log-college” erected under the shadow of the Blue Ridge, in the valley of Virginia, in the year 1749. The founder of the colonial seat of learning was Robert Alexander, whose nephew, Archibald Alexander, afterwards became the first teacher in the Princeton Theological Seminary. Robert Alexander was an Ulsterman who had received mathematical and classical training in Edinburgh. His school, called the Augusta Academy, stood in the midst of a portion of those immigrants of Scotch descent who came immediately from the province of Ulster, Ireland, to take possession of the Appalachian Country, and to form the basis of the Revolutionary party that led the way to the separation of the colonies from England.

In 1776, the new baptismal name of Liberty Hall Academy was bestowed upon the young seminary, as it passed under the ecclesiastical control of the Hanover Presbytery. In 1782 Liberty Hall received the earliest charter granted to a school of learning by the Commonwealth of Virginia. This charter bestowed upon the trustees all the powers and privileges usually conferred upon the directors of a completely equipped college. In 1865, General Lee’s oath of office bound him to the performance of duties required in accordance with “an act for incorporating the Rector and Trustees of Liberty Hall Academy.”

The head master of Liberty Hall during a term of twenty years was the Rev. William Graham, a classmate of “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, in Princeton College. Many theologians, statesmen, lawyers, and teachers were trained at the feet of Graham for large service in the rising commonwealths of the trans-Alleghany regions. In the last decade of the eighteenth century, the endowment of the academy reached the sum of ten thousand dollars. In the year 1796 a larger fund was bestowed through the generosity of General George Washington.

As a testimonial to his character and public services, the General Assembly of Virginia, in 1785, tendered to General Washington certain shares in two canal companies. He accepted the gift only on the condition of being permitted, as he himself stated, “to turn the destination of the fund vested in me from my private emoluments to objects of a public nature.” The claims of Liberty Hall were presented to him. He saw the school standing in the very centre of that colony of Ulstermen whose riflemen under Daniel Morgan and William Campbell had turned the tide of battle at Saratoga and at King’s Mountain. Washington at once transferred to the academy the stock in one of the canal companies. In gratitude to him the school was given the name of Washington Academy. To an address by the board of trustees, he made the following response:

MOUNT VERNON, 17th June, 1798.

Gentlemen:—Unaccountable as it may seem, it is nevertheless true that the address with which you were pleased to honour me, dated the 12th of April, never came into my hands until the 14th instant.

To promote literature in this rising empire and to encourage the arts have ever been amongst the warmest wishes of my heart, and if the donation which the generosity of the Legislature of the Commonwealth of Virginia has enabled me to bestow on Liberty Hall—now by your politeness called Washington Academy—is likely to prove a means to accomplishing these ends, it will contribute to the gratification of my desires.

Sentiments like those which have flowed from your pen excite my gratitude, whilst I ofifer my best vows for the prosperity of the Academy and for the honour and happiness of those under whose auspices it is conducted.

Go. Washington.

Trustees of Washington Academy.

Through this gift of Washington, the treasury of the academy was enriched by the sum of fifty thousand dollars. In the year 1802 the Virginian branch of the Society of the Cincinnati donated their funds to the Washington Academy as a mark of deference to their “late illustrious leader and hero.” The year 181 3 marked the change in title to “The College of Washington in Virginia,” but the governmental powers conferred upon the trustees remained the same as under the former academic administration. In 1826, John Robinson, a soldier of the Revolution, added his handsome estate as an offering upon the shrine made sacred by the gift of his venerated leader.

Prior to the year 1861, the Washington College was, for the most part, under the direction of three Presbyterian clergymen, George A. Baxter, Henry Ruffner, and George Junkin. There were two brief administrations under the presidency of laymen, Louis Marshall and Henry Vethake. During this ante-bellum period the influence of the Washington College was spread abroad into the regions of the West, South, and Southwest. Her sons were foremost among those engaged in the work of carving new commonwealths for the Federal Union. Twelve presidents of colleges she equipped for the work of education. Some States received their Governors and United States Senators from her halls; among these were Crittenden, Breckinridge, and the Browns of Kentucky, McDowell and Letcher of Virginia, Ellis, McNutt, and Foote of Mississippi, and Preston of South Carolina. As founders of theological schools and teachers therein, she sent Archibald Alexander to the Princeton Seminary, John Holt Rice and George A. Baxter to the Union Seminary in Virginia, and William S. Plumer to the Alleghany and Columbia seminaries. Judges and lawyers and State legislators not a few were trained in her halls. For the armies of the Southern Confederacy the College of Washington made ready a gallant band of officers and private soldiers.

From 1861 until 1865 the actual banner of the college was in the field of war. The academic class of 1861 went forth to battle under the captaincy of their instructor in the Greek language, James J. White. They stylqd the organisation “Liberty Hall Volunteers” and upon their flag was the motto, Pro aris et focis. These beardless youths formed a part of the 4th Virginia regiment; they stood in the central part of that line of five regiments under Thomas J. Jackson at Manassas, July 21, 1861, which received in baptism of fire the immortal name of the “Stonewall Brigade.” That dauntless brigade itself was drawn almost entirely from the constituency of the Washington College.

The storm of war left the old college a wreck. General Hunter, in 1864, permitted his soldiery to destroy her apparatus and to scatter her library. The endowment fund, invested in Virginia State securities, was temporarily unproductive. But individual trustees pledged their private credit to secure a loan, and in the autumn of 1865 the school resumed work under the direction of her soldier-president.

General Lee brought his wife and three daughters to the new home in Lexington. His eldest son was invited to a chair in the Virginia Military Institute, located in the same town. Lee entered with zeal into the laborious routine of his executive functions. The wearisome task of examining the detailed reports of instructors, and of looking after the individual deportment of the body of students, he performed with unstinted faithfulness. He began his labours with this declaration:

I have a self-imposed task which I must accomplish. I have led the young men of the South in battle; I have seen many of them fall under my standard. I shall devote my life now to training young men to do their duty in life.

As the ideal hero of his people, General Lee at once drew about him the young men of the South and Southwest. Many of his former soldiers came to complete under his eye the intellectual training interrupted by four years of warfare. Strong was the reverence manifested toward him by the growing band of students. The force of his own perscwial character was the most potent agency in the system of discipline maintained by General Lee. His ability in organisation secured enlarged courses of instruction, and his name and fame brought increasing patronage and financial donations to the college. In 1871 a new charter changed the name of the college to the Washington and Lee University, under the presidency of his eldest son, General G. W. Custis Lee.

Robert E. Lee and the Southern Confederacy By Henry Alexander White CHAPTER XV.


Upon a wider field, however. General Lee continued to play a noble part during the performance of these humble academic duties. The day of dire misfortune came upon the South to find Lee’s great heart bleeding on account of her woes; but he showed himself the noble leader still, and from his place of retirement taught his countrymen how to practise the sublime duties of patience and submission under oppression.

On October 3, he wrote thus to Beauregard:

I hope both you and Johnston will write the history of your campaigns. Everyone should do all in his power to collect and disseminate the truth, in the hope that it may find a place in history, and descend to posterity. I am glad to see no indication in your letter of an intention to leave the country. I think the South requires the aid of her sons now more than at any period of her history. As you ask my purpose, I will state that I have no thought of abandoning her unless compelled to do so. . . .

To his son, on October 30, he wrote thus:

. . . I accepted the presidency of the College in the hope that I might be of some service to the country and the rising generation, and not from any preference of my own. I should have selected a more quiet life, and a more retired abode than Lexington, and should have preferred a small farm where I could have earned my daily bread. If I find I can accomplish no good here, I will then endeavour to pursue the course to which my inclinations point.

After the assembling of the Federal Congress in December, 1865, Lee wrote these words to General Wilcox:

I fear the South has yet to suffer many evils, arid it will require time, patience, and fortitude to heal her afflictions.

Lee’s fears were more than realised. The Congress of 1865 soon made flotsam and jetsam of the already shattered Federal Constitution. Its actions were based upon the assumption that the dominant political organisation was exactly synonymous with the Federal Union itself. The war of aggression against the Southern States had been prosecuted upon Lincoln’s theory that these States were still in the Union, and could not possibly get out. Congress dealt with them upon the theory that the war had left them out of the Union and they could not enter within, except through the mercy of the conquerors, who held them as subjugated provinces!* The Southern States were not regarded as a part of the Union that had been “saved” by the war-party. Under the guise of guaranteeing to each of these States “a republican form of government,“ Congress placed them under a strict military rule. Military commanders under orders from Washington could depose from office the highest judicial or executive functionaries in any of these commonwealths. The legislation of Congress was a virtual bill of attainder against millions of people, and the despotism inaugurated in the South was the most severe that the nineteenth century has witnessed. At the point of the bayonet these commonwealths, the founders of the Federal Union, were compelled to acquiesce in the bestowal of unlimited voting privileges upon the emancipated race of Africans. Universal suffrage, not even yet attained in England after more than a thousand years of training in self-government, was thrust upon many individuals actually born as African savages, and upon thousands who were the sons and grandsons of the denizens of the dark continent.

[Note] * Howe of Wisconsin declared that “A State is a manufacture as much as a waggon is,” and then added that the States of the Southern Confederacy had all committed suicide! Stevens of Pennsylvania extended the theory by alleging that the Southern States were “only dead carcasses lying within the Union”! Howe’s reason for regarding the States as dead, and for desiring them to remain dead, was the argument called ab inconvenienti, thus expressed: “Do Senators comprehend what consequences result necessarily from restoring the functions of those States? It will add fifty-eight members to the House of Representatives, more than one-fourth of its present number. It will add twenty-two members to the Senate, nearly one-half its present number.” No assertion was necessary to express the conviction that these Southern votes would all be cast in the wrong way!

Stevens fell back upon this same argument when he declared that the old-time quota of Southern representatives “with the Democrats that will in the best times be elected from the North, will always give them a majority in Congress and in the Electoral College. They will at the very first election take possession of the White House and the Halls of Congress. I need not depict the ruin that would

The theory of these two advocates of a government by the people was adopted as the ground-principle of our republic in 1865–70. Before a committee of this Congress General Lee was summoned to appear in March, 1866, to answer certain questions concerning the condition of the Southern States. Among the questions, all of them answered with quiet dignity, were these:

Q. Is there not a general dislike of Northern men among secessionists?

A. I suppose they would prefer not to associate with them; I do not know that they would select them as associates.

Q. Suppose a jury was impannelled in your own neighbourhood, taken by lot, would it be possible to convict, for instance, Jefferson Davis, for having levied war upon the United States, and thus having committed the crime of treason?

A. I think it is very probable that they would not consider he had
committed treason.

In answer to the question as to whether he considered himself guilty of treason, Lee expressed the view “that the act of Virginia in withdrawing herself from the United States carried me along as a citizen of Virginia, and that her laws and her acts were binding on me.” He said further that he and his people considered “the act of the State as legitimate” and that the seceding States “were merely using the reserved rights which they had a right to do.”

The Southern people had then the same anxious desire which they have always manifested to advance the welfare of the coloured race. The latter were, and are still, incapable of self-government, and emancipation simply left them as sheep wandering without a shepherd. The “carpet baggers” who came from the North in search of the spoils of office only incited the new generation of negroes into groundless animosity against the white race in the South. The fearful race-problem, thus made more difficult, was set before the South while she was yet in the grasp of an irresponsible faction. It may be said, in brief, that while no other people were ever yet called upon to pass beneath greater governmental humiliation, no other people have ever manifested a superior racial dignity and strength of endurance. The great-hearted Lee must receive praise for setting before his countrymen a personal demeanour that remains unsurpassed in quiet dignity and forbearance. He suffered with his people and taught them how to suffer and be strong. Not a murmur escaped his lips. Not a word of recrimination against the North did he utter. By reason of the example which he set before them, his countrymen likewise laboured in silence to restore prosperity to their beloved land.

All that the South has ever desired [wrote Lee on January 5, 1866] was that the Union, as established by our forefathers should be preserved; and that the Government, as originally organised, should be administered in purity and truth. If such is the desire of the North, there can be no contention between the two sections; and all true patriots will unite in advocating that policy which will soonest restore the country to tranquility and order, and serve to perpetuate true republicanism.

I am not in a position [he wrote on January 23] to make it proper for me to take a public part in the affairs of the country. I have done and continue to do, in my private capacity, all in my power to encourage our people to set manfully to work to restore the country, to rebuild their homes and churches, to educate their children, and to remain with their States, their friends, and countrymen. But, as a prisoner on parole, I cannot with propriety do more.

With reference to the test-oath, he thus wrote to Reverdy Johnson, on January 27:

. . . I have hoped that Congress would have thought proper to have repealed the acts imposing it and all similar tests. To pursue a policy which will continue the prostration of one-half the country, alienate the afifections of its inhabitants from the Government, and which must eventually result in injury to the country and the American people, appears to me so manifestly injudicious that I do not see how those responsible can tolerate it.* I sincerely thank you for the repetition of your kind offer to aid me in any way in your power. I have been awaiting the action of President Johnson upon my application to be embraced in his proclamation of May 29, and for my restoration to civil rights, before attempting to close the estate of Mr. G. W. P. Custis, of which I am sole administrator. His servants were all liberated [in 1862], agreeably to the terms of his will; but I have been unable to place his grandchildren in possession of the property bequeathed them. A portion of his landed property has been sold by the Government, in the belief, I presume, that it belonged to me; whereas I owned no part of it, nor had any other charge than as administrator. His will, in his own handwriting, is on file in the court of Alexandria county. Arlington, and the tract on “Four-Mile Run,” given him by General Washington, he left to his only child, Mrs. Lee, during her life, and at her death, to his eldest grandson. Both of these tracts have been sold by Government. It has also sold Smith’s Island (off Cape Charles), which Mr. Custis directed to be sold to aid in paying certain legacies to his granddaughters. . . .

[Note] * The Supreme Court of the United States (Ex parte Garland 4 Wall, 333) has decided that the test-oath which forbade a Confederate to appear as barrister in the courts of the United States, came within the comstitutional inhibition against bills of attainder.

[Note] ** On June 7, 1862, the Federal Congress passed an “Act for the collection of direct taxes in insurrectionary districts within the United States.” The Commissioners assessed on Arlington in the name of Mrs. Lee, a tax of $207.17, and on the Custis Mill Tract, a tax of $46.77. It was afterwards shown by sworn testimony that these Commissioners refused to receive the taxes from anyone but “the owner in person, or a party in interest in person.” On January 11, 1863, these lands were sold for the taxes. Arlington was bought by the United States upon the order of President Lincoln, at two-thirds of its assessed value, and turned over to the War Department. The latter hastened to make its title permanent by immediately converting the Arlington lawn, up to the very walls of the house, into a burial-ground for Federal soldiers. Lee’s only reference to the assessment of the tax was this: “I should have thought that the use of the grounds, the large amount of wood on the place, the teams, etc., and the sale of the furniture of the house, would have been sufficient to have paid the taxes.”

Several years after the death of General Lee and his wife, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed the statute of attainder against the estate by ordering payment of its full value to the lawful owner, G. W. Custis Lee.

To P. S. Worsley he sent this word of thanks for a copy of his translation of the Iliad:

. . . Its perusal has been my evening’s recreation, and I have never enjoyed the beauty and grandeur of the poem more than as recited by you. The translation is as truthful as powerful, and faithfully reproduces the imagery and rhythm of the bold original.

The undeserved compliment to myself in prose and verse on the first leaves of the volume, I receive as your tribute to the merit of my countrymen who struggled for constitutional government.

To Mrs. Jefferson Davis he wrote the following words, on February 23:

. . . I have thought, from the time of the cessation of hostilities, that silence and patience on the part of the South was the true course, and I think so still. Controversy of all kinds will, in my opinion, only serve to continue excitement and passion, and will prevent the public inind from the acknowledgment and acceptance of the truth. These considerations have kept me from replying to accusations made against myself, and induced me to recommend the same to others.

As regards the treatment of the Andersonville prisoners, to which you allude, I know nothing and could say nothing of my own knowledge. I never had anything to do with any prisoners, except to send those taken on the fields where I was engaged, to the provost-master-general at Richmond.*

I have felt most keenly the sufferings and imprisonment of your husband, and have earnestly consulted with friends as to any possible mode of affording him relief and consolation. He enjoys the sympathy and respect of all good men; and if, as you state, his trial is now near, the exhibition of the whole truth in his case will, I trust, prove his defence and justification. With sincere prayers for his health and speedy restoration to liberty, and earnest supplication to God that He may take you and yours under His guidance and protection. . . .

[Note] * On April 17 Lee wrote further concerning this matter: “. . . Sufficient information has been officially published, I think, to show that whatever sufferings the Federal prisoners at the South underwent, were incident to their position as prisoners and produced by the destitute condition of the country, arising from the operations of war. . . . It was the desire of the Confederate authorities to
effect a continuous and speedy exchange of prisoners of war. . . .
[Judge Ould] offered, when all hopes of effecting the exchange had ceased, to deliver all the Federal sick and wounded, to the amount of fifteen thousand, without an equivalent, provided transportation was furnished. Previously to this, I think, I offered to General Grant to send into his lines all the prisoners within my department . . . provided he would return me man for man; and when I informed the Confederate authorities of my proposition, I was told that, if it was accepted, they would place all the prisoners at the South at my disposal. . . . But my proposition was not accepted.”

On March 15, he wrote to General Early, then in Mexico, as follows:

. . . I have been much pained to see the attempts made to cast odium upon Mr. Davis [in connection with the Andersonville prison], but do not think they will be successful with the reflecting or informed portion of the country. The accusations against myself I have not thought proper to notice, or even to correct misrepresentations of my words and acts. We shall have to be patient and suffer, for a while at least; and all controversy, I think, will only serve to prolong angry and bitter feelings, and postpone the period when reason and charity may resume their sway. At present, the public mind is not prepared to receive the truth. . . .

With reference to the erection of a monument to one of his soldiers, he thus wrote on March 31:

I yield to no one in admiration of the noble qualities, or in appreciation of the Christian virtues, of him whom you propose to commemorate. He will live in my affections when my eyes become too dim to distinguish the monument raised by the esteem of his comrades.

June 8 found him sending this message to an absent friend:

I am sorry you have felt called on to reside in Europe; though you will have the satisfaction of being removed from the vexations which those here have to endure.

To James May, of Illinois, Lee wrote thus on July 9:

. . . I must give you my special thanks for doing me the justice to believe that my conduct during the last five eventful years has been governed by my sense of duty. I had no other guide, nor had I any other object than the defence of those principles of American liberty upon which the constitutions of the several States were originally founded; and unless they are strictly observed, I fear there will be an end to Republican government in this country. . . .

December 15, 1866, saw the following letter on its way to Sir John Dalberg-Acton, in Rome:

While I have considered the preservation of the constitutional power of the General Government to be the foundation of our peace and safety at home and abroad, I yet believe that the maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the States, and to the people, not only essential to the adjustment and balance of the general system, but the safeguard of the continuance of a free government. I consider it as the chief source of stability to our political system; whereas the consolidation of the States into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of that ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it.

The letter continues with references to New England’s early advocacy of the principle of secession, pauses to say that “the judgment of reason has been displaced by the arbitrament of war,” and then declares that

The South has contended only for the supremacy of the Constitution and the just administration of the laws made in pursuance of it.

He charges the Republican party with originating the war and concludes:

Although the South would have preferred any honourable compromise to the fratricidal war which has taken place, she now accepts in good faith its constitutional results, and agrees without reserve to the amendment which has already been made to the Constitution for the extinction of slavery. That is an event which has been long sought, though in a different way, and by none has it been more earnestly desired than by citizens of Virginia.

On February 4, 1867, he wrote as follows to Judge Ould, declining to run for the governorship of Virginia:

. . . You will agree with me, I am sure, in the opinion that this is no time for the indulgence of personal or political considerations in selecting a person to fill that office; nor should it be regarded as a means of rewarding individuals for supposed former services. The welfare of the State, and the interests of her citizens should be the only principle of selection. Believing that there are many men in the State more capable than I am to fill the position, and who could do more to promote the interests of the people, I most respectfully decline to be considered a candidate for the office.

He said further that his governorship would be injurious to the State by exciting the hostility of the dominant party, and added these words:

If my disfranchisement and privation of civil rights would secure to the citizens of the State the enjoyment of civil liberty and equal rights under the Constitution, I would willingly accept them in their stead. . . .

On January 17, he wrote as follows concerning education:

In its broad and comprehensive sense, education embraces the physical, moral and intellectual instruction of a child from infancy to manhood.

He affirms that system to be the best which

abases the coarse animal emotions of human nature and exalts the higher faculties and feelings.

He laid stress upon obedience, the love of truth, and the development of “sentiments, of religion.” He urged the value of self-control and self-denial united with diligence and integrity. In May, 1867, he declared that the matter of first importance in any system of education was the selection of proper teachers. The instruction imparted by the latter should

embrace morals and religion as well as the intellect. The teacher should be the example to the pupil. He should aim at the highest attainable proficiency, and not at a pleasing mediocrity.

On April 3 he thus referred to public affairs: “I think therecan be no doubt in the minds of those who reflect, that conventions must be held in the Southern States under the Sherman bill, that the people are placed in a position where no choice in the matter is left them, and that it is the duty of all who may be entitled to vote to attend the polls and endeavour to elect the best available men to represent them and to act for the interest of their States.”

He urged “good faith and kind feeling” toward the existing government, at the same time expressing “great reluctance to obtrude my opinions on the public.”

Robert E. Lee and the Southern Confederacy By Henry Alexander White CHAPTER XV.


April 11 found him sending this message to Mrs. George W. Randolph concerning the death of her husband:

For what purpose can a righteous man be summoned to the presence of a merciful God [other] than to receive his reward. . . . His worth and truth, his unselfish devotion to right, and exalted patriotism, will cause all good men to mourn the country’s loss in his death, while his gentle, manly courtesy, dignified conduct, and Christian charity must intensely endear him to those who knew him.

He wrote as follows on May 21: “I know that in pursuing the path dictated by prudence and wisdom, and in endeavouring honestly to accomplish only what is right, the darkness which overshadows our political horizon will be dissipated, and the true course to pursue will, as we advance, become visible and clear.

He therefore advised all who were not disfranchised to cast their votes and wait and pray for better things.

The following letter was written to General D. H. Maury, on May 23:

. . . A Convention will be called and aState Constitution formed. The question then is, shall the members of the Convention be selected from the best available men in the State, or from the worst; and shall the machinery of the State government be arranged and set in motion by the former or by the latter?

He urged the duty of all good men to take part in the election and thus concluded:

Judge Underwood, Messrs. Bolts, Hunnicutt, etc., would be well pleased, I presume, if the business were left to them and the negroes. . . .

. . . I look upon the Southern people as acting under compulsion, not of their free choice, and that it is their duty to consult the best interests of their States as far as it may be in their power to do so. . . . Every man must now look to his own affairs and depend upon his good sense and judgment to push them onward. We have but little to do with general politics. We cannot control them; but by united efforts, harmony, prudence and wisdom, we may shape and regulate our domestic policy.

In the early part of 1867, the dominant party discovered that they had no legal ground upon which to prosecute Jefferson Davis for the alleged crime of treason. Mr. Davis was therefore released from imprisonment. On June 1, Lee wrote him the following letter:

You can conceive better than I can express the misery which your friends have suffered from your long imprisonment and the other afflictions incident thereto. To none has this been more painful than to me; and the impossibility of affording relief has added to ray distress. Your release has lifted a load from my heart which I have not words to tell, and my daily prayer to the great Ruler of the world is that He may shield you from all future harm, guard you from all evil, and give you that peace which the world cannot take away.

That the rest of your days may be triumphantly happy, is the sincere and earnest wish of your most obedient faithful friend and servant.

October 29 found him giving expression to this view in a letter to Longstreet:

While I think we should act under the law, and according to the law imposed upon us, I cannot think the course pursued by the dominant political party the best for the interests of the country, and therefore cannot say so, or give them my approval.

At the White Sulphur Springs in West Virginia, in the summer of 1868, General W. S. Rosecrans sought the opinion of Lee and others with reference to existing social and political conditions in the South. On August 26, Lee wrote out for Rosecrans the following expression of his views:

. . . Whatever opinions may have prevailed in thepast with regard to African slavery or the right of a State to secede from the Union, we believe we express the almost unanimous judgment of the Southern people when we declare that they consider that these questions were decided by the war, and that it is their intention, in good faith, to abide by that decision. At the close of the war, the Southern people laid down their arms and sought to resume their former relations to the government of the United States. Through their State conventions they abolished slavery and annulled their ordinances of secession; and they returned to their peaceful pursuits with a sincere purpose to fulfil all their duties, under the Constitution of the United States which they had sworn to support. If their action in these particulars had been met in a spirit of frankness and cordiality, we believe that, ere this, old irritations would have passed away, and the wounds inflicted by the war would have been, in a great measure, healed. As far as we are advised, the people of the South entertain no unfriendly feeling towards the government of the United States, but they complain that their rights under the Constitution are withheld from them in the administration thereof. The idea that the Southern people are hostile to the negroes, and would oppress them, if it were in their power to do so, is entirely unfounded. They have grown up in our midst, and we have been accustomed from childhood to look upon them with kindness. The change in the relations of the two races has wrought no change in our feelings towards them. They still constitute an important part of our labouring population. Without their labour, the lands of the South would be comparatively unproductive; without the employment which Southern agriculture affords, they would be destitute of the means of subsistence, and become paupers dependent upon public bounty. Self-interest, if there were no higher motive, would therefore prompt the whites of the South to extend to the negroes care and protection.

The important fact that the two races are, under existing circumstances, necessary to each other, is gradually becoming apparent to both, and we believe that but for influences exerted to stir up the passions of the negroes, the relations of the two races would soon adjust themselves on a basis of mutual kindness and advantage.

It is true that the people of the South, in common with a large majority of the people of the North and West, are, for obvious reasons, inflexibly opposed to any system of laws which would place the political power of the country in the hands of the negro race. But this opposition springs from no feeling of enmity, but from a deep-seated conviction that, at present, the negroes have neither the intelligence nor the other qualifications which are necessary to make them safe depositories of political power. They would inevitably become the victims of demagogues who, for selfish purposes, would mislead them to the serious injury of the public.

The great want of the South is peace. The people earnestly desire tranquillity and a restoration of the Union. They deprecate disorder and excitement as the most serious obstacle to their prosperity. They ask a restoration of their rights under the Constitution, They desire relief from oppressive misrule. Above all, they would appeal to their countrymen for the re-establishment, in the Southern States, of that which has justly been regarded as the birthright of every American, the right of self-government. Establish these on a firm basis, and we can safely promise, on behalf of the Southern people, that they will faithfully obey the Constitution and laws of the United States, treat the negro population with kindness and humanity, and fulfil every duty incumbent on peaceful citizens, loyal to the Constitution of their country.

This paper was signed by General Lee and thirty-one other representative men from nine of the Southern States.

When Mrs. Lee fled from Ariington in 1861, she left in the house, with her furniture, nearly all the heirlooms in silver-plate, china, and ornaments brought from Mount Vernon. The Federal administration sold the furniture for direct taxes, and confiscated the Washington relics. The latter were deposited in the Patent Office in the Capital. President Johnson gave an order for their return, but Congress vetoed this order. When Mrs. Lee petitioned Congress for the restoration of her property, her request was termed by the Committee on Public Buildings “an insult to the loyal people of the United States.” They still remain in the possession of the United States, under the sanction of a virtual bill of attainder! The following letters were written by General Lee with reference to this matter:

I am sorry [he wrote to James May, on March 12, 1869] to learn from your letters, the trouble you have incurred by your kind endeavours to have restored to Mrs. Lee certain articles taken from Arlington, and I particularly regret the inconvenience occasioned to yourself and Mr. Browning in having been summoned before the investigating committee of Congress. I had not supposed that the subject would have been considered of such importance, and had I conceived the view taken of it by Congress, I should have dissuaded Mrs. Lee from making the application. But I thought that there would not only have been no objection to restoring to her family relics bequeathed her by her father, now that the occasion for their seizure had passed, but that the government would thus be relieved of their disposition. As Congress has, however, forbidden their restoration, she must submit, and I beg that you will give yourself no further concern about the matter. . . .

. . . I do not see what my character had to do with their restoration, for whatever fault may l)e attributed to me, Mrs. Lee is in no way to blame for it; and if by your indorsation of me, you meant that I am not antagonistic to the government, or hostile to the Union, you were certainly correct.

In reference [letter to Geo. W. Jones, March 22] to certain articles which were taken from Arlington, Mrs. Lee is indebted to our old friend, Capt. James May for the order from the late administration for their restoration to her. Congress, however, passed a resolution forbidding their return. They were valuable to her as having belonged to her great-grandmother [Mrs. George Washington] and having been bequeathed to her by her father. But as the country desires them she must give them up. I hope their presence at the Capital will keep in the remembrance of all Americans the principles and virtues of Washington.

In the same letter he spoke of other affairs in the following terms:

I was not in favour of secession and was opposed to war. In fact I was for thie Constitution and the Union established by our forefathers. No one now is more in favour of that Union and that Constitution, and as far as I know, it is that for which the South has all along contended; and if restored, as I trust they will be, I am sure there will be no truer supporters of that Union and that Constitution than the Southern people. . . . Present my kindest regards to your brave sons who aided in our struggle for State rights and Constitutional government. We failed, but in the good providence of God, apparent failure often proves a blessing. I trust it may eventuate so in this instance.

General Lee’s modest salary of three thousand dollars was sufficient for a man with habits of such simplicity. When an effort was made to increase his remuneration, his refusal to accept was thus expressed: “I already receive a larger amount from the college than my services are worth.” When the trustees settled upon him and his family the president’s house and a liberal annuity, he declined them; after his death, his wife ratified for herself this action of her husband. Several times the offer was made him of large remuneration to serve as president of different commercial organisations, but all these offers he declined. When certain eulogistic verses were pressed upon him, he answered thus:

I feel that I have no claim to such oblation, and have a general disinclination to be brought before the public without good and sufficient reason.

To an ambitious female author he sent this message:

I am sensible of the implied compliment in your proposal to write a history of my life. I should be happy to see you in Lexington, but not on the errand you propose, for I know of nothing good I could tell of myself, and I fear I should not like to say any evil.

Now and then General Lee’s quiet humour would manifest itself, and his love for children seemed to grow more intense. The following letter to his daughter gives us a glimpse of him in the winter of 1867:

. . . We are getting on in the usual way. Agnes takes good care of us, and is always thoughtful and attentive. It is very cold. The ground is covered with six inches of snow, and the mountains, as far as. the eye can reach, elevate their white crests as monuments of winter. I must leave to your sisters a description of all the gayeties, and also an account of the “Reading Club.” As far as I can judge, it is a great institution for the discussion of apples and chestnuts, but is quite innocent of the pleasures of literature.

Our feline companions are flourishing. Young Baxter is growing in gracefulness and favour, and gives cat-like evidences of future worth. He indulges in the fashionable colour of “moonlight on the lake”—apparently a dingy hue of the kitchen—and is strictly aristocratic in appearance and conduct. Tom, surnamed the “Nipper,” from the manner in which he slaughters our enemies the rats and mice, is admired for his gravity and sobriety, as well as his strict attention to the pursuits of his race. They both feel your absence sorely. Traveller and Custis are both well, and pursue their usual dignified gait and habits. . . .

Lee gave much anxious thought to the moral and religious training of the students in the college. His devout personal piety increased with his years, and his prayers were continually offered in behalf of those committed to his charge. He said with much emotion:

I shall be disappointed,—I shall fail in the leading object that brought me here, unless these young men all become consistent Christians.

At length the end drew nigh. Since the campaign of 1863, Lee had been troubled with rheumatism in the region of the heart. In September, 1868, he wrote to his son, “My life is very uncertain.” In October, 1869, the rheumatic trouble became more acute, and in March, 1870, he wrote as follows:

My health has been so feeble this winter that I am only waiting to see the effect of the opening spring before relinquishing my present position. I am admonished by my feelings that my years of labour are nearly over and my inclinations point to private life.

In this same month, accompanied by his daughter Agnes, he sought the mild climate of Georgia. On the trip southward he paid a visit to the grave of his daughter Annie, at Warrenton, in North Carolina. Of this visit he wrote:

I have always promised myself to go, and I think if I am to accomplish it I have no time to lose. I wish to witness her quiet sleep, with her dear hands crossed over her breast, as it were, in mute prayer, undisturbed by her distance from us, and to feel that her pure spirit is roaming in bliss in the land of the blessed.

From the city of Savannah he wrote as follows, on April 18:

We visited Cumberland Island, and Agnes decorated my father’s grave with beautiful fresh flowers. I presume it is the last time I shall be able to pay it my tribute of respect. The cemetery is unharmed and the graves are in good order, though the house of “Dungeness” has been burned and the island devastated. I hope I am better. I know that I am stronger, but I still have the pain in my chest whenever I walk. I have felt it, too, occasionally recently when quiescent.

Robert E. Lee and the Southern Confederacy By Henry Alexander White CHAPTER XV.


September 28, 1870, after a day of arduous labours, he stood at his table to ask God’s blessing upon the evening meal. Not a syllable fell from his lips and he sank into a chair. The pain in the chest had wellnigh completed its fatal work. The family continued to watch at his bedside with tender ministrations; from day to day they indulged the hope that the beloved husband and father would yet be spared. The heart of the entire people of the South ascended to Heaven with the petition that his days might be prolonged. But he knew that the end was at hand. His mind was clear and the look of peace was upon his face. In the closing hours the great spirit, like that of the dying Jackson, seemed to visit again the field of battle. His last words were these: “Tell Hill he must come up!” At half-past nine o’clock on the morning of October 12, 1870, Robert E. Lee entered into glory everlasting. His body lies in the mausoleum erected at the rear of the college chapel, and beside him are laid his wife and his daughter Agnes. Above the tomb, and visible from the chapel hall, is Valentine’s recumbent marble figure of Lee the soldier taking his rest, with his sword sheathed at his side and his martial cloak around him. Beneath the creeping ivy in this quiet abode reposes all that is mortal of him who abides in the hearts of his countrymen as ideal soldier and as perfect man.


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