Reminiscences of General Lee, by Edward V. Valentine

100 Years Ago

Robert E. Lee Centennial Celebration, 1907

Note: The following reminiscences, originally published about a month before the centennial of Robert E. Lee’s birth, is taken from General Robert E. Lee After Appomattox, edited by Franklin L. Riley (New York, 1922), pp. 146–56.


By EDWARD V. VALENTINE, Richmond, Virginia

This interesting contribution was written by the honored sculptor, still living, who made the celebrated “Recumbent Statue” of General Lee. The greater part of the article was published in The Outlook of Dec. 22, 1906, though Mr. Valentine has kindly added a few concluding paragraphs for this publication.—Editor.

IT was Thorwaldsen’s good fortune (he may have thought it at the time his ill fortune) to model a bust of Lord Byron. Be that as it may, the sculptor had no little difficulty in the prosecution of his work, for before the sittings had fairly begun trouble had already developed. The genial artist himself tells the story of the morbid poet’s posings for him. He says: “When this nobleman came to sit for me in my atelier, he took a seat opposite me and put on directly a strange expression entirely different from his natural one. ‘My lord,’ I said to him, ‘plese keep perfectly still, and I beg of you do not look so disconsolate.’ ‘It is my natural expression,’ replied Byron. ‘Really,’ I said, and without paying attention to this affectation, I began to work in my own way. When the bust was finished, everybody thought it a striking likeness, but my lord was dissatisfied. ‘This face is not mine,’ he said. ‘I look far more unhappy than that’—for he was positively bent on looking miserable!”

Possibly, if I were asked to name the most characteristic feature of General Robert E. Lee, who sat for me for a bust in 1870, my answer would be, “A complete absence of the melodramatic in all that he said and id.” And I may add that an artist, above all other men, is quick to observe the faintest suggestion of posing; the slightest indication of a movement or expression which smacks of vanity he is sure to detect. Such weaknesses (which, as far as I know, are shared by many who are called the “great ones” of the world) were totally lacking in General Lee.

In my diary (which, with the omission of a single entry, I have kept since 1857) I have endeavored to note down the very words of my sitters at times; and only on one occasion did General Lee make the slightest remark in regard to the likeness which would lead me to believe that he had critically been watching the progress of the work, and this was when the bust was in an unfinished condition.

On the 25th of may, 1870, General Lee was at my studio in Richmond, and it was my great privilege to make accurate measurements of his face for the bust. His stay in the city was a short one. I was able to take only this important preliminary step, yet it was on that occasion that I experienced for the first time his quiet sense of humor. During the conversation I had with him on that day I spoke of how my fortunes had changed since the war, possibly with the expectation of hearing some very sympathetic words from him; but to my surprise he simply remarked that “an artist ought not to have too much money.” I am sure that he had at the moment no conception of the condition of my purse, for in less than ten days after this conversation I had to borrow from a relative the necessary funds to go to Lexington to model the bust which I have mentioned. Maybe, however, it was for my consolation that later in the conversation he said, “Misfortune nobly borne is good fortune.” At the moment I thought the sentiment was original with him, but some time after his death while my wife was reading aloud the “Meditations of Marcus Aurelius,” I discovered that it was a quotation from that author. At any rate, no more appropriate epitaph could be carved on the tomb of the great Virginian.

Just before parting with the General I remarked that I would go to Lexington then or in the fall, and he replied that he would have more time at the latter season, but that I had better go then. The fact of his appointing an early date for the sittings made the impression on my mind that he was at the moment thinking of the uncertainty of life. Had I waited until the fall, possibly I should never had him pose for me. He died October 12.

On June 3, 1870, I left Richmond for Lexington by way of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, going via Goshen Pass, made ever memorable by the words of another great Virginian, Commodore Matthew Fontaine Maury, who on his death-bed asked that his remains be taken through this beautiful defile “when the laurels are in bloom.” I arrived in Lexington by stage early the next morning, and called on General Lee at his residence. He was very kind in his manner; showed me the portraits hanging on the wall; and then I started to seek a room where I might model the bust. After an unsuccessful search for this temporary studio, I reported to the General, who possibly from my manner saw that I was disappointed in not finding one. At any rate, he said, “You can work in here,” speaking of the room on the left of the front hall. I at once remarked that there was a carpet on the floor. “I will have that taken up,” he said. But I preferred not to accept his kind offer, and in a further hunt I found a vacant store under the hotel on the main street. Unfortunately, it had been closed I know not how long, and I feared the dampness. Although it was in June, I had a fire lighted, for I had noticed that the General would put his hand on his breast from time to time, probably suffering with a heart trouble that followed an attack of pneumonia after the battle of Fredericksburg.

The day of my arrival the General walked with me up into the town. Stopping at a store he espied an acquaintance (Mr. Archibald Alexander), he said, “Mr. Archie, here is a young gentleman from Richmond who has come to make a bust of me. I wish you would sit for him.”

All such jokes could but be reassuring to me, and I began to feel less dread at being closeted for days with this great man.

After the sittings began we were in reality closeted. I had been requested by him not to allow any one to come into the room—“no one but Professor White and my son Custis,” he said. That suited me exactly. Seeing the earnest manner in which I went to the work, he gave me every advantage. I carefully studied the face, and told him I would like to see his mouth. He knew what that meant, and I raised his mustache and took measurements of his lips. While the work was progressing he would from time to time entertain me with reminiscences and anecdotes. He seemed to be fond of speaking of his boyhood, swimming in the Potomac—of his teacher, Weir, at West Point, and of the Mexican War. I was also much interested in hearing his comments on persons and things of a more recent date.

I think from the beginning that the General must have seen that I was fond of humor. So I am, but it is very doubtful whether there was much levity about me when I approached for the first time this grand idol of the South. I had been told of his noble simplicity, of his gentle and kindly bearing, but I confess that I could never appreciate how these qualities could ever neutralize the inquietude which I felt until I was once in his company. He who poses for a bust or a portrait may be expected to look his best, or what at least may appear to him his best. I could observe no difference in General Lee’s manner when he was sitting for me from that which was his ordinary bearing. After I had made some progress with the work, he very quietly remarked, “They say Custis is like me. Let him come now and sit for you.”

One day during the sittings he asked me if I knew a certain sculptress, and then began repeating, or trying to repeat, some syllables of the name. I knew whom he meant as soon as he asked me the question, but I let him shoot at the name two or three times before I called it, and on doing so he said: “Oh, that is the name! Well, the lady wrote me a very polite letter in which she asked if I would give her sittings for a bust, at the same time inclosing photographs of some of her works which were not too profusely draped. In her letter she also asked when she could come to make the bust, and a friend, who had been looking at the pictures, suggested July or August, as the most of her works seemed to have been done in the summer-time.”

Every artists of experience in portraiture appreciates the advantage of being able to work from a costume which he knows has been worn by the subject whom he has to represent. I could not expect to get a whole costume, but I did desire to be the possessor of a pair of the General’s military boots. The question was how to get them. I at last thought of the expedient of approaching the subject by telling my sitter an anecdote of an office-seeker who begged that President Andrew Jackson would consider his claim as a Minister to England. In reply the man was told that there was already a Minister at the Court of St. James. Then the applicant desired to be sent as Secretary of Legation, but was told that that office was also filled. Then he wished to be sent as Consul, but there was no vacancy. “Well, then,” said the importunate man, “will you give me the place of Vice-Consul?” “And there is no vacancy there either,” said “Old Hickory,” sharply. “Well, then, Mr. President, would you give me a pair of old boots?”

“That is what I would like to have you do for me, General,” said I.

“I think there is a pair at the house that you can have,” said he. And the next morning the General brought them under his arm to my working-room, and they are now safely stored in a bank in Richmond. While I prize them most highly, they were not exactly what I wanted. I was in hopes that he would give me a pair of military boots similar to those which I have often worked from, though I have found difficulty in getting a man of any size who could pose in them for me. They were too large for the General. The size of the pair he gave me is Number 4½ C, and they are dress boots. Written on the lining is the following: “R. E. Lee, U.S.A.”

While on the subject of costume, I may mention that the General wore a colonel’s uniform in the army. There was scarcely any possibility of his ever being mistaken for an under officer, however, but on one occasion a subordinate seemed not to recognize him. It was a little captain, and I have the story from an old soldier who witnessed the incident. A road had been very badly blocked by wagons, and General Lee, seeing that it was impassable, rode up and ordered the said captain to have it cleared. With an oath, the little fellow refused to obey the command. The order was repeated, and again disobeyed. “General Lee orders you to remove those wagons!” said the Commander. And no sooner had the name fallen upon the ears of the refractory captain than his shoulders fell upon the wheels of the wagons with all the strength he had. My informant, who had been highly amused at this scene between the Southern leader and his subaltern, stated that after the General had disappeared he approached the captain and asked him in a whisper, “Who’s that old gem’man you was talkin’ to jest now?”

The experience of an acquaintance of mine is another illustration of the humor of the General. When hostilities were about to begin, this gentleman, in great despondence, reported to the General that it would require some time for the old flint-lock “shooting-irons” of his company to be changed into percussion locks. He was in a dilemma, and the only way that the General could suggest to get him out of his difficulty was to “Telegraph to Mr. Lincoln to have the war put off for three weeks.”

As far as I could judge, with the exception of the General’s family, my friend the late Professor J. J. White, of Washington and Lee University, was the closest person in Lexington to him. The two were accustomed to take long rides on horseback together. On one of these rides they were overtaken by darkness, and had to stop overnight at a farmhouse by the road. It so happened that there was only one vacant room in the house and one bed in that, which, to his horror, the professor found that he had to share with his old commander. It had to be done, but he said that he “would as soon have thought of sleeping with the Archangel Gabriel as with General Lee.” He lay for the night on he very edge of the bed, and did not sleep a wink.

While General Lee never posed himself, I thought it would be to my advantage to secure pictures of him in different positions. He kindly consented to go to a photograph gallery, and I had several taken of him.

On one other occasion during my visit to Lexington he passed through another ordeal. Mrs. Lee, being an invalid, could not go to the room where the bust was modeled. It had to be removed to her parlor, where were assembled a number of visitors. There he was by the good wife turned in different positions and the bust compared with the original, all of which he submitted to without a murmur.

The last time I ever saw General Lee was on a summer’s afternoon when I called to take leave of him at his house. A gentleman and two ladies were in the parlor at the time. During the conversation the General made a remark which was calculated to startle the company. “I feel that I have an incurable disease coming on me,” he said—“old age. I would like to go to some quiet place in the country and rest.”

In my profession I meet many intelligent strangers from all sections of this country and from abroad, all of whom I find genuinely interested in everything connected with General Lee. Those who had the privilege of his personal acquaintance at once recognize a character in which were blended the noblest qualities of mind and heart.

A few expressions of his which are so far probably unknown tell the story of his life, and I cannot close without adding them:


The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is the test of a true gentleman.

The power which the strong have over the weak, the magistrate over the citizen, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly—the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total absence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in plain light. The gentleman does not needlessly or unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He can not only forgive, he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be the past.

A true gentleman of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.

To conclude, the whole is summed up in one single remark which I shall never forget. To those who have read that most entertaining book, Four Years with Marse Robert, by the late Major Robert Stiles, the following sentence will be of interest. It forcibly indicates what General Lee thought “the best thing in the world.” During the sittings I spoke of Major Stiles, of his cleverness, his culture, his bravery and other attractive qualities, and the General added: “and, better than all, he is a Christian gentleman.”

I have been asked whether the “Recumbent Figure” represents “Sleep or death.” The lines written by my sister, the late Miss Sarah B. Valentine, express the idea which I wished to convey, and you can use them in your volume if you desire to do so. They are as follows:



I came to weep at a sculptured tomb,
     But, lo! no death was there;
For I saw Life’s mystical touch illume
Each shadow of deep, sepulchral gloom
     With light celestial fair:
With light celestal fair, in whose gleam
     My troubled soul grew blest,
As its glory fell on the marble dream,
     Of that sleeper who lay at rest.

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