Robert E. Lee, George Peabody, and Sectional Reunion
Franklin Parker

Note: The following is taken from the January 1960 issue of the Peabody Journal of Education (volume 37), pp. 195–202.

Robert E. Lee, George Peabody,
and Sectional Reunion

University of Texas

In the Reconstruction years some of the few centers of Southern culture were the Springs of Virginia. At White Sulphur Springs in August, 1869, occurred the earliest gesture of friendliness the South made toward the North after the Civil War.

Robert E. Lee and George Peabody were the chief actors in this drama. Lee, Virginian and West-Pointer, had chosen to lead the Confederate Army in War. Peabody, Northern-born banker with many Southern friends, had supported the Union financially. Now, after the war and in their old age, both men had turned to the reviving power of education. Spurning many lucrative business offers, Lee had preferred to become president in 1865 of impoverished Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. Disdaining a life of extravagance his wealth made possible, Peabody had climaxed his career by creating a multimillion dollar education fund for the defeated Southern and Southwestern states. For Lee at sixty-two this was next to the last summer of life; for Peabody at seventy-four it was the very last summer of life.

It was by pure coincidence that Peabody, Lee, and eight other former Confederate generals and several prominent educators gathered at the Old White Sulphur Springs that summer. Peabody had arrived from Massachusetts by way of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore on July 23, about two weeks before Lee. Peabody was very feeble, crippled with rheumatism so that he could hardly walk, and suffering badly from a cough. He was described as “the Dives who is going to Abraham’s bosom and I fear before a great while.”1 His condition forced him to be confined to his cottage on Baltimore row near his friends, William W. Corcoran and Johns Hopkins, both bankers and philanthropists, Corcoran from Washington, D.C., and Hopkins from Baltimore.

What made Peabody a particularly distinguished figure in this Southern setting was the fact that on June 27, 1869, a month before his arrival at the Springs, he had publicly announced the addition of a second million dollars to his education fund for the South. The facts of his life, given vast publicity, were known to all at the Springs: his humble birth in Massachusetts; his few years of schooling; his long residence in the South, first as storekeeper for an uncle in Georgetown, D.C., and then as the partner of Elisha Riggs of Baltimore in a wholesale merchandising firm.

As the traveling partner of the firm, Peabody had made many buying trips to Europe, had succeeded to the head of the firm, and had remained in London after 1837 for almost the rest of his life. Merchandising had led him to banking and his firm of George Peabody & Co. had become highly respected on both sides of the Atlantic.2

Having promised himself early in life that if God favored his commercial efforts with success, he would give his money for good purposes to each city where he had labored, Peabody founded his first library, lecture hall, and fund in his hometown.3 He had endowed the Peabody Institute of Baltimore in 1857 and the education fund for the Southerna nd Southwestern states in 1867. For the last gift Congress had voted him a gold medal and resolutions of praise. He had won the public thanks of Queen Victoria in 1862 by endowing large-scale low-rent housing projects for the poor of London. By the time of his arrival at White Sulphur Springs, he had given away an estimated eight million dollars to endow seven libraries, three museums of science, several colleges, and other institutions.

Peabody’s generosity to the South and his infirmity had made many Southerners at the Springs want to do him public honor. A meeting was called for this purpose on July 27 by Major Sutherlin of Virginia in the parlor of the Old White. A committee was formed the next day to draft resolutions, and these were read before Peabody who was seated in the crowded parlor at 5:00 p.m., Wednesday, July 28. James Lyons, chairman for the occasion, said:

Mr. Peabody—The Southern men assembled at this fountain of health and pleasure have, for a time, forgotten their pains as well as pleasures, to perform a holy duty in rendering grateful homage to the most distinguished philanthropist of this or any other age. . . .4

James Lyons then read the resolutions:

Resolved, That we contemplate with unbounded respect the character and conduct of GEORGE PEABODY. By a long life of assiduous toil, marked by unswerving honor and integrity, he amassed a fortune, which few men have been permitted to acquire, in the acquisition of which he appears to have been actuated by no sordid feelings, and now moved by no selfish or ambitious motives, neither expecting nor hoping for any reward here, he has with lavish munificence, in the execution of a long cherished purpose, appropriated at least $8,000,000 to the benefit of his fellow-men, in the manner best calculated, in his opinion, to make them happier and better subjects and citizens. Such an example of generous benevolence has never been seen before, and all good men invoke blessings upon the great “philanthropist.”

Resolved, that on behalf of the Southern people we tender thanks to Mr. PEABODY for his aid to the cause of education among them, and hail him “benefactor.”

Resolved, that we will, in a body, wait on Mr. PEABODY, at such time and place as may be agreeable to him and present to him this assurance of our respect and regard for him, and our reverence for his virtues.5

Peabody, visibly affected, made the effort to rise and replied:

Mr. Lyons and Gentlemen of the Committee: I beg to thank you most kindly for the sentiments you have expressed toward me. They have affected me most deeply and are such, followed as they are by the resolutions you have presented, that it is impossible for me to reply to them as I would. I can only answer briefly, and feel that even then I must claim your indulgence. I can but say, as regards the kind and flattering remarks of your Chairman, that I trust the remainder of the time I have to live may not do otherwise than justify your good opinion. I should be glad, if my strength would permit, to speak of my own cordial esteem and regard for the high honor, integrity and heroism of the Southern people. But that, too, I must leave for the present. But I must not omit to say that of all the kind words you have spoken, those referring to the Southern Education Fund have been sweetest to my ears. Coming as they do from such a distinguished and intelligent body, they corroborate the opinions already expressed by other eminent men of the South. The fibres of my heart are interwoven with its success as I am sure are yours and those of all good men everywhere. The enterprise is still very young—only three years old; but it is growing with every year, and under the superintendence of the trustees’ eminent agent, and under the guidance of the distinguished gentlemen of the trust, and with the warm cooperation experienced throughout the South, it cannot do otherwise than prove a success, and I am confident will serve as auxiliary in restoring the South to a state of higher prosperity and happiness than ever before. God grant it may do so.6

Robert E. Lee was also in ill-health and it was on his doctor’s orders that he had gone to the Springs. He had taken Mrs. Lee to the Rockbridge Baths for treatment in mid-July and there had learned of the sudden death of his brother. He arrived at Alexandria the evening of July 24, too late to attend his brother’s funeral. He passed a few melancholy days at his parent’s home at Ravensworth, “where,” he wrote, “forty years ago, I stood in this room by my mother’s bed.“7 On Sunday, August 1, he attended St. Peter’s Church in New Kent County, and on Monday, August 2, stayed at the Exchange Hotel, Richmond, where he was compelled to hold an informal reception for the many visitors who called upon him. On Tuesday, August 3, he was back with Mrs. Lee at Rockbridge Baths, and a few days later, accompanied by his two daughters, reached the White Sulphur Springs, where a gay season was in progress.8

Friends who knew of the poor state of repair of General Lee’s church in Lexington arranged for a grand concert for its benefit at the Old White on Tuesday night, August 10. To the amount of $605 netted by the concert, Peabody and Corcoran added $100 each, making a total of $805, for which Lee wrote to his wife he was “extremely grateful.”9

The highlight of the season was the grand ball held on Wednesday evening, August 11, in Peabody’s honor. He was too ill to attend but doubtless heard some of the merrymaking. Perceval Reniers, an authority on the history of the Virginia Springs, writes: “The affair that did most to revive [the Southerners’] esteem was the Peabody Ball.”10 E. Merton Coulter adds: Not only was Southern society reborn in the Virginia Springs but “the greatest gesture of friendship the South ever made toward the North at the Springs was the Peabody Ball in 1869 to honor George Peabody who had recently set up the Peabody Foundation to aid Southern education.”11

Through the influence of Corcoran, Peabody had decided to aid Lee’s Washington College. Corcoran had been with Lee at the Old White two summers before and had corresponded since about securing aid for the college.12 The news which appeared in August about the donation listed Peabody’s gift as $60,000. Corcoran and Peabody quickly reported that the correct sum was about $55,000 given under the following circumstances. Some years before, a Washington, D.C. firm had sold to Peabody’s firm in England Virginia state bonds then worth $35,000. Peabody had sent these bonds by a courier to America for collection. The ship on which the courier sailed had collided with another vessel in a dense fog and had sunk off Newfoundland on September 27, 1854, with the loss of all passengers and the bonds. Two years later Peabody had petitioned the Virginia legislature to redeem the lost bonds but his claim had not yet been met. It was this claim, estimated in 1869 to be worth $55,000, which Peabody turned over to Washington College.13

There is no record of Lee’s earliest meeting with Peabody at the Springs nor a record of their conversations, but on August 16 when Peabody’s health improved he is described as passing through the drawing room of the Old White leaning on General Lee’s arm while “a throng of promenaders spontaneously gathered around the pair and congratulated Mr. Peabody on his convalescence.”14 Barnas Sears, first agent of the Peabody Education Fund, described another of Peabody’s appearances at the dining hall as follows:

Yesterday he went to the public dinner table (about 1500 persons are here and dine in a long hall), and then sat an hour in the parlor, giving the ladies an opportunityt o take him by the hand, and he is the better for it today.15

Peabody and Lee became the central figures in the most remarkable photograph of the Reconstruction era. It was taken on the grounds outside the Old White about the middle of August, 1869. There were thirteen persons in the photograph. Seated on cane-bottom chairs were (from left to right) Blacque Bey, Turkish Minister to the United States, Robert E. Lee, George Peabody, William W. Corcoran, and James Lyons. Standing behind them (from left to right) were eight former Confederate generals: James Conner of South Carolina, Martin W. Garry of South Carolina, J. Bankhead Magruder of Virginia, Robert D. Lilley of Virginia, P. G. T. Beauregard of Louisiana, Alexander R. Lawton of Georgia, Henry A. Wise of Virginia, and Joseph L. Brent of Maryland. The photographer slipped in a plate, uncovered the lense and fixed a bit of photographic history. There is also extant a photograph, probably taken that same day, of Lee, Peabody, and Corcoran seated together, and one of Peabody seated alone which must have been his very last photograph.16

The presence of Lee and Peabody focused public attention on the educational needs of the South and on the work of the Peabody Education Fund in that area. This topic of conversation engaged the attention of prominent educators present at the Springs. There was Barnas Sears, first agent of the fund and former president of Brown University in Rhode Island; J. L. M. Curry, former president of Howard College, Alabama, and later second agent of the Peabody Education Fund; James Lyons, lawyer of Richmond, Virginia, who for years had been an advocate of the public schools; and John Eaton, Superintendent of Public Instruction in Tennessee and later United States Commissioner of Education, who made reference to the meeting in his annual report.17 These informal meetings at the Old White Sulphur Springs in 1869, centering as they did upon Lee and Peabody and focusing attention on the educational needs of the South, established a precedent. A series of conferences on education in the South followed at the turn of the century. The first in the summer of 1898 at Capon Springs, West Virginia, while of independent origin, included John Eaton, then United States Commissioner of Education, and J. L. M. Curry, second agent of the Peabody Education Fund, both of whom had attended the Lee-Peabody talks in 1869. There were three conferences on education in the South at Capon Springs and a fourth at Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1901. As a result of these conferences the Southern Education Board was founded. Abraham Flexner praised this Board by writing that it “did more to re-establish friendship and good fellowship between the North and the South in the twelve years of its active existence than any other organization in the same period of time.”18 The work of the Peabody Education Fund and of the Southern Education Board engaged the interest of John D. Rockefeller who founded the General Education Board. Thus, a large measure of the later educational efforts in the South can be traced directly to the informal meetings centered around Lee and Peabody at the Old White Sulphur Springs in August, 1869.

Lee’s cordiality to Peabody and the Southerner’s warm response to Peabody’s presence among them was not reciprocated in the North. William Lloyd Garrison, abolitionist, was vehement in his attack upon Peabody:

Now Mr. Peabody is very sick. He doesn’t go to a Northern mineral Spring, but to White Sulphur Springs in Virginia where the elite of rebeldom welcome him with congratulatory resolutions. In reply Mr. Peabody tells them of his own cordial esteem and regard for the high honor, integrity, and heroism of the Southern people!19

As the end of August approached the distinguished guests prepared to depart. A flattering ovation was given to Peabody as he left by train on Monday, August 30, accompanied for a short distance by General Lee.20 Thus, they parted after their first and only meeting. Peabody sailed from New York on September 29 and died in London on November 4; Lee returned to Lexington for his last year of labor as president of Washington College. Behind them remained the memory of an incident of reconciliation between North and South.