Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee, Jr.
AN INCIDENT ABOUT "TRAVELLER"—THE GENERAL'S LOVE FOR CHILDREN—HIS FRIENDSHIP FOR EX-PRESIDENT DAVIS—A RIDE WITH HIS DAUGHTER TO THE PEAKS OF OTTER—MILDRED LEE'S NARRATIVE—MRS. LEE AT THE WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS—THE GREAT ATTENTION PAID HER HUSBAND THERE—HIS IDEA OF LIFE
SINCE the arrival of "Lucy Long" my father was generally accompanied by one of my sisters in his rides, whenever the weather and the condition of the roads admitted of their going. It took very severe weather to keep him in, though often he could not spare the time, for during the winter months the days were very short. Every Monday afternoon there was a faculty meeting, and the vestry meetings of his church were held two or three times a month. Whenever I was in Lexington I rode with him, and when he was prevented by any of the above-mentioned causes he would ask me to take Traveller out and give him a gallop, which I was delighted to do, and I think I had my revenge for his treatment of me on that ride from Orange to Fredericksburg in the winter of 1862. My father's affection for his horses was very deep and strong. In a letter written from the Springs one summer, to his clerk in Lexington, he says:
How is Traveller? Tell him I miss him dreadfully, and have repented of our separation but once—and that is the whole time since we parted.
I think Traveller appreciated his love and sympathy, and returned it as much as was in a horse's nature to do. As illustrative of this bond between them, a very pretty story was told me by Mrs. S. P. Lee:[note 67]
One afternoon in July of this year, the General rode down to the canal-boat landing to put on board a young lady who had been visiting his daughters and was returning home. He dismounted, tied Traveller to a post, and was standing on the boat making his adieux, when some one called out that Traveller was loose. Sure enough, the gallant gray was making his way up the road, increasing his speed as a number of boys and men tried to stop him. My father immediately stepped ashore, called to the crowd to stand still, and advancing a few steps gave a peculiar low whistle. At the first sound, Traveller stopped and pricked up his ears. The General whistled a second time, and the horse with a glad whinny turned and trotted quietly back to his master, who patted and coaxed him before tying him up again. To a bystander expressing surprise at the creature's docility the General observed that he did not see how any man could ride a horse for any length of time without a perfect understanding being established between them. My sister Mildred, who rode with him constantly this summer, tells me of his enjoyment of their long rides out into the beautiful, restful country. Nothing seemed to delight him so much.
I have often known him to give rein to Traveller and go at full speed to the top of some long hill, then turn and wait for me jogging along on Lucy, calling out with merry voice, "Come along, Miss Lucy, Miss Lucy, Lucy Long!" He would question the country people about the roads, where they came from, where they led to, and soon knew every farmer's name and every homestead in the country. He often said:
I wish I had a little farm of my own, where we could live in peace to the end of our days. You girls could attend to the dairy and the cows and the sheep and wait on your mother and me, for it is time now for us old people to rest and for the young people to work."
All the children in the country around were devoted to him, and felt no hesitation in approaching him, after they once knew him. He used to meet his favourites among the little ones on the street, and would sometimes lift them up in front of him to give them a ride on Traveller. That was the greatest treat he could provide. There is a very pretty story told of Virginia Lee Letcher, his god-daughter, and her baby sister, Fannie, which is yet remembered among the Lexington people. Jennie had been followed by her persistent sister, and all the coaxing and the commanding of the six-year-old failed to make the younger return home. Fannie had sat down by the roadside to pout, when General Lee came riding by. Jeannie at once appealed to him:
General Lee, won't you please make this child go home to her mother?
The General immediately rode over to where Fannie sat, leaned over from his saddle and drew her up into his lap. There she sat in royal contentment, and was thus grandly escorted home. When Mrs. Letcher inquired of Jennie why she had given General Lee so much trouble, she received the naive reply:
I couldn't make Fan go home, and I thought he could do anything.[note 68]
There was a little boy living with his mother, who had come from New York. His father had been killed in our army. The little fellow, now Colonel Grier Monroe, of New York city, was much teased at his playmates calling him "Yankee" when he knew he was not one. One day he marched into my father's office in the college, stated his case, and asked for redress.
"The next boy that calls you ‘Yankee’ send him to me," said the General, which, when reported, struck such terror into the hearts of his small comrades that the offense was never repeated.
There was another little boy who was accustomed to clamber up by the side of my father at the morning chapel exercises, and was so kindly treated that, whenever he saw his distinguished friend, he straightway assumed a position beside him. At the college commencement, which was held in the chapel, the little fellow glided from his mother's side and quietly stole up to the platform. Soon he was nestled at the feet of the dignified president, and, resting his head upon his knees, dropped asleep. General Lee tenderly remained without moving, preferring to suffer from the constrained position rather than disturb the innocent slumberer. This boy is now the Reverend Carter Jones of he Baptist Church.
About this time Ex-President Davis was freed from the confinement of his prison at Fortress Monroe, where he had been for about two years. There was a warm personal friendship between these two men, dating from the time they were cadets at West Point together, and as his unjust and unnecessary imprisonment had pained and distressed none more than my father, so his release gave him corresponding joy. He at once wrote to him the following letter, full of feeling and sympathy:
LEXINGTON, Virginia, June 1, 1867.
HONOURABLE JEFFERSON DAVIS.
My Dear Mr. Davis: 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 no one has this been more painful than to me, and the impossibility of affording relief has added to my distress. Your release has lifted a load from my heart which I have not words to tell. 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,
R. E. LEE.
Though my father would take no part in the politics of the country, and rarely expressed his views on questions of that nature then occupying the minds of all, nevertheless, when he deemed it necessary, and to the proper person, he very plainly said what he thought. The following letter to General Longstreet, in answer to one from him written about this time, illustrates what I have said in this connection, and explains itself:
LEXINGTON, Virginia, October 29, 1867.
GENERAL J. LONGSTREET,
21 Carondelet Street, New Orleans, La.
My Dear General: When I received your letter of the 8th of June, I had just returned from a short trip to Bedford County, and was preparing for a more extended visit to the White Sulphur Springs for the benefit of Mrs. Lee's health. As I could not write such a letter as you desired, and as you stated that you would leave New Orleans for Mexico in a week from the time you wrote, to be absent some months, I determined to delay my reply till my return. Although I have been here more than a month, I have been so occupied by necessary business, and so incommoded by the effects of an attack of illness, from which I have not yet recovered, that this is the first day that I have been able to write to you. I have avoided all discussion of political questions since the cessation of hostilities, and have, in my own conduct, and in my recommendations to others, endeavoured to conform to existing circumstances. I consider this the part of wisdom, as well as of duty; but, 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 it my approval. This is the reason why I could not comply with the request in your letter. I am of the opinion that all who can should vote for the most intelligent, honest, and conscientious men eligible to office, irrespective of former party opinions, who will endeavour to make the new constitutions and the laws passed under them as beneficial as possible to the true interests, prosperity, and liberty of all classes and conditions of the people. With my best wishes for your health and happiness, and my kindest regards to Mrs. Longstreet and your children, I am, with great regard, and very truly and sincerely yours,
R. E. LEE.
This summer my father paid a visit to the Peaks of Otter, a famous group of mountains in the Blue Ridge range, situated in Bedford County, Virginia. He rode Traveller, and my sister Mildred accompanied him on "Lucy Long." After visiting the Peaks and ascending the summit, which is 4,000 feet in height, he rode on to Liberty, now Bedford City, ten miles distant, and spent the night at "Avenel," the home of the Burwells, who were friends and connections of his.
From there the riding party went to Captain Bufurd's, about twelve miles distant, where they spent the night and the next day. The Captain was a farmer, a great admirer and a staunch upholder of his native State, Virginia, in her fight for constitutional liberty, from '61 to '65. He had sent his sons into the army, and had given of his substance freely to support the troops, as well as the poor and needy, the widow and orphan, who had been left in want by the death in battle of their natural protectors and by the ravages of war. In the early years of the struggle, my mother and sisters, when "refugeeing," had boarded, as they thought and intended at the time, at his home. But when they tried to induce him to accept pay for the shelter and food he had given them for a month or more, he sternly refused. His was a patriotism that hesitated at no sacrifice, and was of a kind and character that admitted of no self-consideration. This trait, so strongly developed in him, attracted the admiration and respect of my father. The visit he paid him was to thank him in person for the kindness extended to his wife and daughters, and also for a very large and handsome horse which he had sent my father the last year, I think, of the war. My sister Mildred tells me what she can recollect of this ride. It is a source of endless regret to us that we cannot recall more. His championship was at all times delightful to his children, and on an occasion of this kind, invigorated by the exercise, inspired by the bright skies and relieved of all harassing cares, he became almost a boy again.
My sister Mildred says:
We started at daybreak one perfect June day, papa on Traveller, I on Lucy Long, our saddle-bags being our only luggage. He was in the gayest humour, laughing and joking with me as I paced along by his side on quiet "Miss Lucy." Traveller seemed to sympathise with his master, his springy step, high head, and bright eye clearly showing how happy he was and how much interest he took in this journey. He had to be constantly chided for his restlessness, and was told that it would be well for him to reserve some of his too abundant energy for the latter part of his trip. At midday we dismounted, and, tying our horses while resting on the soft grass under a wild-plum hedge by the roadside, ate our lunch. We then rode on, and soon came to the James River, which was crossed by a ferry-boat. The ferry-man was an old soldier, who of course recognised papa, and refused payment; nor could he be induced to take any. Further on the road, as our horses were climbing a steep rocky ascent, we met some little children, with very dirty faces, playing on the roadside. He spoke to them in his gentle, playful way, alluding to their faces and the desirability of using a little water. They stared at us with open-eyed astonishment, and then scampered off up the hill; a few minutes later, in rounding this hill, we passed a little cabin, when out they all ran with clean faces, fresh aprons, and their hair nicely brushed, one little girl exclaiming, "We know you are General Lee! we have got your picture!"
That night about nine o'clock we reached the little mountain inn at the foot of the Peaks, ate a hearty supper, and soon went to bed, tired out by our thirty-mile ride. Our bedrooms seemed to be a loft, and the beds were of feathers, but I, at least, slept without turning. Next morning, at dawn of day, we set out, accompanied by the master of the house, and rode for a long time up the mountain-side, Lucy following closely behind Traveller. Finally it became impossible to proceed further on horseback, so the horses were fastened to some trees and we climbed the rest of the way to the summit on foot. When the top was reached, we sat for a long time on a great rock, gazing down on the glorious prospect beneath. Papa spoke but a few words, and seemed very sad. I have heard there is now a mark on the rock showing where we sat. The inn-keeper, who accompanied us all the way, told us that we had ridden nearer the top than any other persons up to that time. Regaining our horses, we proceeded on our second day's journey, which was to end at Liberty, some ten miles distant.
We had not ridden far, when suddenly a black thunder-cloud arose and in a few minutes a heavy shower broke over us. We galloped back to a log cabin we had just passed. Papa lifted me off of Lucy and, dripping with water, I rushed in, while he led the horse under an adjacent shed. The woman of the house looked dark and glum on seeing the pools of water forming from my dress on her freshly scoured floor, and when papa came in with his muddy boots her expression was more forbidding and gloomy. He asked her permission to wait there until the shower was over, and praised her nice white floor, regretting that we had marred its beauty. At this praise, so becomingly bestowed, she was slightly appeased, and asked us into the best room, which was adorned with colored prints of Lee, Jackson, Davis, and Johnston. When the shower ceased and papa went out for the horses I told her who he was. Poor woman! She seemed stunned and kept on saying: "What will Joe say? What will Joe say!" Joe was her husband, and had been, like every other man in the country, a soldier in the "Army of Northern Virginia."
The shower over and the sun shining brightly, we rode along joyously through the refreshed hills and dust-laid roads arriving at Liberty in good time, and went to "Avenel," the pretty home of the Burwells. The comforts of this sweet old place seemed very delicious to me after my short experience of roughing it. Papa was much amused when I appeared in crinoline, my "hoops" having been squeezed into the saddle-bags and brought with me. We remained here the next day, Sunday, and the day after rode on some twelve miles to Captain Buford's. The Captain, in his shirt-sleeves, received us with open arms, seemed much surprised at my full growth, and said, "Why, General, you called her your ‘little girl,’ and she is a real chuck of a gal!" He showed us his fine Jersey cattle, his rich fields and well-filled barns, and delighted in talking of the time during the war when mama, Mary, and Agnes paid him a visit. He overflowed with kindness and hospitality, and his table fairly groaned with the good things. Papa afterwards constantly quoted his original sayings, especially one on early rising, which was made on the eve of our arrival, when he told us good-night. Papa asked him what time he must be ready for breakfast next morning.
"Well, General," said the Captain, "as you have been riding hard, and as you are company, we will not have breakfast to-morrow until sun-up," which meant in those June days somewhere before five o'clock.
After a day spent pleasantly here, we started next morning early on our return. Halting for a short time in Buchanan, we stopped at Colonel Edmund Pendleton's who then lived there in an imposing white pillared edifice, formerly a bank. Mrs. Pendelton gave us some delicious apricots from her garden, which my father enjoyed greatly. We then proceeded on the road to Lexington, going by the Natural Bridge, where we had another short rest, and reached home the same night, about ten o'clock, after a forty-mile ride.
Shortly after this visit Captain Bufurd sent me a fine Jersey cow, on condition that I would get up early every morning and milk her, and also send him a part of the butter I made.
After my father returned from this trip, he began his arrangements for taking my mother to the Greenbriar White Sulphur Springs. He hoped that the waters and the change might be of service to her general health, even if they should not alleviated the severity of her rheumatic pains.
About the first of July, my mother, sister Agnes and Miss Mary Pendleton, with my brother Custis in charge, set out for the White Sulphur Springs. My father, with Professor J. J. White, decided to make the journey to the same place on horseback. They started a day in advance and were at Covington when the ladies, travelling by stage-coach to Goshen, thence by rail, arrived there. After spending the night at Covington, the passengers were put into as many stage-coaches as were necessary, and the long, rough drive over the mountains by "Callahan's" commenced.
General Lee on Traveller was at once recognised, and when it was found out by his fellow-travellers that Mrs. Lee was with him, attentions and services of all kinds were pressed on her party, and a most enjoyable lunch was sent to the stage reserved for her. Seeing that the other stages were much crowded, while the one reserved for his wife had vacant seats, my father insisted that some of the others should join his party, which they very gladly did. He and Professor White went ahead of the stages on their horses.
At the White Sulphur Springs the "Harrison Cottage," in "Baltimore Row," had been put at my father's disposal, and the entire party was soon most pleasantly established there. Mr. W. W. Corcoran, of Washington, Professor White, Miss Mary Pendleton, Agnes and my father and brother had a table together. Almost every day some special dainty was sent to this table. My mother, of course, had her meals served in her cottage. Her faithful and capable servant, Milly Howard, was always most eager for her to appear her best, and took great pride in dressing her up, so far as she was allowed, in becoming caps, etc., to receive her numerous visitors. My father's usual custom while there was to spend some time in the morning in the large parlour of the hotel, before taking his ride on Traveller. After dinner he went again to the parlour, and also after tea.
Among the company were many old friends and acquaintances from Baltimore, who could not sufficiently testify their pleasure in this renewal of intercourse. Whenever he appeared in the parlour or ballroom he was the centre of attraction, and in vain the young men tried to engage the attention of the young ladies when General Lee was present.
During his visit, a circus came to "Dry Creek," a neighbouring settlement, and gave an exhibition. The manager rode over to the Springs, came to my father's cottage, and insisted on leaving several tickets, begging that General Lee would permit him to send carriages for him and any friends he might like to take to his show. These offers my father courteously declined, but bought many tickets, which he presented to his little friends at the Springs.
During the morning he rode over to "Dry Creek," where the crowds of country people, many of them his old soldiers, feasted their eyes on him to the neglect of the circus. That night a special exhibition was given by the manager to General Lee's friends, who were taken to seats draped with Confederate colors, red, and white. After the return from the circus, my father invited a large party to his cottage to partake of a huge watermelon sent him by express from Mobile. It weighed about sixty pounds, and its producer thought the only fitting way he could dispose of it was to present it to General Lee.
Every possible attention that love, admiration, and respect could prompt was paid my father by the guests at the Springs, each one seeming anxious to do him homage. My mother and sisters shared it all with him, for any attention and kindness shown them went straight to his heart.
After spending three weeks at "the White," my father's party went to the Old Sweet Springs, where they were all made very comfortable, one of the parlours being turned into a bedroom for my mother, so that in her wheeled chair she could go out on the verandas and into the ballroom.
He was taken quite sick there, and, though he rode over from the White Sulphur Springs, was unable to continue his early rides for some time. His room was on the first floor, with a window opening on the end of the building. One morning, when he was very unwell and it was important that he should not be disturbed, Miss Pendleton found a countryman cautiously opening the shutters from the outside. She quickly interfered, saying:
Go away; that is General Lee's room.
The man dropped back, saying mournfully:
I only wanted to see him.
On another occasion some country people came to the Springs with plums and berries for sale. Catching sight of him on the piazza, they put down their baskets, took off their hats, and hurrahed most lustily for "Marse Bob." They were his old soldiers. When he acknowledged their loyalty by shaking hands with them, they insisted on presenting him with their fruit.
About the first week in September my father rode back to Lexington on Traveller, Custis taking my mother and Agnes back over the same tedious journey by stage and rail.
There have been preserved very few letters from him at this time. I find one to me, full of kindness, wholesome advice, and offers of aid, in which he sends his thanks to the President of the York River Railroad for a courtesy tendered him:
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS,
GREENBRIER COUNTY, WEST VIRGINIA,
August 5, 1867.
My Dear Son: I received to-day your letter of the 28th ult., inclosing a free ticket over the Richmond & York River Railroad, from its president, Mr. Dudley. Please present him my grateful thanks for this mark of his esteem. I am very glad to hear that the road is completed to the White House, and that a boat connects it with Norfolk. The convenience of the community and the interests of the road will be promoted thereby. It is a difficult undertaking in these times to build a road, and I hope the company will soon be able to finish it to West Point. I suppose you have received before this the letter from your mother and Agnes, announcing our arrival at this place and informing you of the company. The latter has been much increased, and among the arrivals are the Daingerfields, Haxalls, Capertons, Miss Belle Harrison, etc., etc. I told Agnes to tell you how much we wished you were with us, and as an inducement for you to join us, if you could leave home, if you would come, I would pay your expenses. I feel very sensibly, in my old age, the absence of my children, though I recognise the necessity of every one's attending to his business, and admire him the more for so doing. I am very glad that you and Fitzhugh have, so far, escaped the fever, and hope you may avoid it altogether. Be prudent. I am very sorry that your harvest promises a poor yield. It will be better next year, but you must continue systematically the improvement of the land. I know of no better method than by liming, and if you wish to prosecute it, and are in need of help, I will aid you to the extent of last year or more. So make your arrangements, and let me know your wishes. A farmer's life is one of labour, but it is also one of pleasure, and the consciousness of steady improvement, though it may be slow, is very encouraging. I think you had better also begin to make arrangements to build yourself a house. If you can do nothing more than prepare a site, lay out a garden, orchard, etc., and get a small house partly finished, so as to inhabit it, it will add to your comfort and health. I can help you in that too. Think about it. Then, too, you must get a nice wife. I do not like you being so lonely. I fear you will fall in love with celibacy. I have heard some very pleasing reports of Fitzhugh. I hope that his desires, if beneficial to his happiness, may be crowned with success. I saw the lady when I was in Petersburg, and was much pleased with her. I will get Agnes or your mother to tell you what occurs at the Springs. There are some 500 people here, very pleasant and kind, but most of my time is passed alone with Traveller in the mountains. I hope your mother may derive some benefit from the waters, but I see none now. It will, at least, afford her some variety, and give her some pleasure, of which there is a dearth with us now. Give much love to Fitzhugh. All unite in love to you. God bless you, my son, prays Your affectionate father,
R. E. LEE.
Early in September my father sent my mother and sister home to Lexington, while he mounted Traveller and rode back by way of the Hot Springs, Healing, and Rockbridge Alum. He was detained by indisposition a day or two at the Healing, and writes to my mother a little note from that place:
HEALING SPRINGS, September 12, 1867.
My Dear Mary: I arrived here on the 10th, and had expected to resume my journey this morning, but did not feel able. Should nothing prevent, I will leave here to-morrow, but I fear I shall not be able to reach the Rockbridge Alum, which I am told is twenty-nine miles distant. In that event, I will halt on the road, and arrive there on Saturday, lie over Sunday, and reach Lexington on Monday. I am very anxious to get to Lexington, and think nothing on the route will benefit me, as I feel much concerned about the resumption of the college exercises. Mr. John Stewart, Misses Mary and Marian, Mr. Price, and his daughters came over from the Hot yesterday to see me. The Stewarts are there on Miss Belle's account. Give much love to everybody. I hope you reached Lexington safely and comfortably and that all are well. I hope to see you Monday. Till then, farewell. Very truly and affectionately,
R. E. LEE.
It is to be regretted that we have no accounts of these rides, the people he met, and what he said to them, where he stayed, and who were his hosts. He was very fond of horseback journeys, enjoyed the quiet and rest, the freedom of mind and body, the close sympathy of his old warhorse, and the beauties of Nature which are to be seen at every turn in the mountains of Virginia. Ah, if we could only obtain some records of his thoughts as he rode all alone along the mountain roads, how much it would help us all in our trials and troubles! He was a man of few words, very loath to talk about himself, nor do I believe any one ever knew what that great heart suffered. His idea of life was to do his duty, at whatever cost, and to try to help others to theirs.
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