Derwent in Powhatan County
Byrd Pendleton Jervey
Note: The following is taken from the January 1950 issue of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (volume 58), pp. 84–97.
DERWENT IN POWHATAN COUNTRY
And General Robert E. Lee's Sojourn There in the Summer of 1865
Descriptive Notes by BYRD PENDLETON JERVEY*
With Illustrations from Contemporary Photographs and from Sketches
of the Interior of the House by R. M. Allyn
THESE THESE notes descriptive of “Derwent” in Powhatan County, Virginia, where
General Lee found such rest for his war-wearied spirit and body could find no more fitting introduction than the words of Doctor Douglas Southall Freeman describing the General's acceptance of Mrs. Elizabeth Randolph Preston Cocke's invitation that he and Mrs. Lee should take possession of that property which formed part of the Cocke family estate in Cumberland and Powhatan Counties. In his editorial—“Derwent Must be Saved”—appearing in The Richmond News Leader, June 17th, 1947, Doctor Freeman wrote:
After Appomattox, General R. E. Lee came back to Richmond and did not leave the city between April 15 and the last week in June except for a visit to Colonel Thomas H. Carter at Pampatike, King William County. John Stewart was more than willing that General Lee should remain in the familiar Franklin Street home the family had occupied in 1864–65. Characteristically, Mr. Stewart proposed that if General Lee pay rent at all, it be in Confederate money, as provided by the wartime lease. General Lee, though deeply grateful, could not consent to this. He felt that he must get to work and earn a living for his wife and unmarried daughters. It was his wish, also, to get away from the endless file of visitors who climbed the same steps that now admit to the Lee House. Some of these visitors were importunate; some were emotionally disturbed. It was not easy for a tired paroled prisoner of war to receive all of them. Lee was not an escapist, as the word now is used, but he was in need of a season of quiet.
An invitation extended by Mrs. Elizabeth Randolph Cocke, of Oakland, Cumberland County, came at that time. Mrs. Cocke sensed the situation that had arisen and with beautiful delicacy of feeling she offered Mrs. Lee and the family the use of a vacant “cottage,” as she termed it, on her Powhatan property. The cottage was furnished, Mrs. Cocke explained; adjacent ground could be cultivated. Mrs. Cocke followed her written invitation with a visit to Mrs. Lee, to whom she described the property and the neighborhood.
The Lees accepted the invitation and, between June 26 and 30, went to Oakland by way of the James River and Kanawha Canal.1 After a week at the Cocke mansion,
the family moved to Derwent. It was there that General Lee projected the history
he never was to write of the Army of Northern Virginia. Under the simple roof of
Derwent he penned some of the letters in which he urged Southerners to take such
work as they could find, to participate in elections and to labor without needless repining
for the rebuilding of their wasted land. These letters, written in the quiet of
the country, are among the noblest of the monuments of the great Southern demigod.
Derwent above all is historic in the life of Lee and of the South because Judge Brockenbrough
rode up the lane one day in August and brought the news that Lee had
been elected president of Washington College. Lee listened to the judge, promised
to consider the offer and at Derwent, on the 24th ot August, wrote the letter of
acceptance that opened the rich years at Lexington and gave a new example to the
At Trenholm in Powhatan County on the old Cartersville road (now distinguished as Route 629 in the Virginia State Highway System) is the inconspicuous entrance to a well worn private road winding westward through woods and fields, at some two miles distance bringing to view a simple frame structure embowered by mighty white oak and hickory trees. Set against the western sky the traveler on this old road sees the house of “Derwent” which in the summer of 1865 afforded gracious shelter to General Robert E. Lee and his wife, their daughters and son, Custis Lee. As the traveler looks upon this house his spirit is filled with the reverence of a pilgrim who beholds a sacred shrine. In this house, far from the madding strife of war's aftermath, a place of wondrous quiet beyond the city streets where tumult reigned, the spirit of the leader of the armies of the Confederate States of America won the victory of peace. Gaunt and dilapidated is the house today; fragile frame after so many years of exposure to the natural elements, having had only a necessary minimum of repair to keep it standing. This is the house made with hands—a perishable thing—in which General Lee wrought, by prayer and thought, an indestructible spiritual heritage for his beloved land that no adverse circumstance of succeeding years has ever been able to impair. Beneath the shelter of this roof was perfected in suffering the spirit of power in this man—power which went forth throughout the Southland enabling the people to rise from the ashes of war and advance triumphantly in the life of the new era.
Leaving Richmond by the Packet Boat of the James River and Kanawha Canal late in the afternoon of Wednesday, June 28, 1865, the Lees traveling all night reached Pemberton as the rising sun sent shafts of light over the land and a new day came to the Virginia country side. Captain Edmund Randolph Cocke (a son of Mrs. Cocke, of Oakland), some thirty years later vividly recalled memories of the days that the Lees spent at “Derwent.” In 1896 Captain Cocke wrote from “Oakland” to Captain Robert E. Lee, Jr.3
. . . The General came up with your mother and sisters about the last of June , General Custis Lee having preceded them a day or two on Traveller. At that time our mode of travel was on the canal by horse-packet; leaving Richmond at a little before sunset, the boat reached Pemberton, our landing, about sunrise. General Custis and I went down to meet them, and we all reached home [Oakland] in time for breakfast. That night on the boat the Captain had had the most comfortable bed put up that he could command, which was offered to your father. But he preferred to sleep on deck, which he did, with his military cloak thrown over him. No doubt that was the last night he ever spent under the open sky. After a week spent here, General Lee removed, with his family to “Derwent.” There he spent several months of quiet and rest, only interrupted by the calls of those who came in all honesty and sincerity to pay their respects to him. Old soldiers, citizens, men and women, all came without parade or ceremony. During this time he rode Traveller daily, taking sometimes long trips—once I recall, going to his brother's, Mr. Carter Lee's, about twenty miles, and at another to Bremo, about thirty miles. During the month of August he was visited by Judge Brockenbrough of Lexington, who as Rector of the Board of Trustees of Washington College, tendered him, on behalf of the Board, the presidency of the college. After considering the matter for several weeks, he decided to accept this position. . . . During that summer he was a regular attendant at the various churches in our neighborhood, whenever there was service . . .
Thus it was that General Lee lived during the summer of the year 1865 in Powhatan County, entering quietly into the life of the community, becoming one with the people who so truly loved and revered him.
Then, in the month of August came the call to the presidency of Washington College, Lexington, a call which General Lee considered “a . . . door opened to him by Providence . . .”; a door that he could pass through and “thus make his few remaining years a comfort and a blessing to his suffering country.”4 Accepting this call, in the latter part of September 1865, General Lee, riding Traveller, made the journey from Derwent to Lexington, soon to be followed by his family.
As one thinks of the days that General Lee spent at Derwent and the momentous things of the spirit that came to him there he feels the sacredness of the place. This is holy ground and here its house is as the tabernacle of conquering faith that set a people free.
A Description of the House at “Derwent”
In design and construction the house is of the style so popular in the tobacco growing section of Virginia. From a foundation of brick (exposed some thirty inches at the front of the house and some forty inches at the back) the frame house rises two full stories to a gabled roof between handsome outside chimneys. Four windows, 24 x 40 inchesin size, each with eight lights, open through the fourteen-inch thick foundation wall into the basement rooms. The blinds on the numerous windows of the original home have stationary slats and are swung on “hook and eye” hinges. The pegs in both blinds and rounded frames have mitered covers and are plainly visible. Back of the west chimney is a pent closet, a treasured possession in houses of like construction where closet space was at such great premium. The weather boarding extending over this closet indicates that it was part of the original structure. The seven-inch beaded yellow poplar weather boarding, secured to the house with square shop-made nails, has in places been so damaged by the elements that the beading is hardly visible, while some of the most seriously damaged boards have been replaced with plain pine ones of the same width.
The small front porch with four slight columns supporting its roof has a simple balustrade at each end. The front door to the house, of “Cross and Bible” style, is 36 x 72 inches in size, its frame having a line of beading near the inner edge and an inch high moulding around the outer edge; a trim which is found on both window and door frames throughout the house. Over the front door is a transom effectively made of several lights of varying sizes. This door opens into a hall,5 some 18½ feet in length and 10½ feet in width, which extends to the back of the original house; its 4-inch chair rail finished with a pretty beaded moulding, or “nosing,” 1½ inches in width. The 6-inch baseboard is similarly finished. The flooring throughout the original part of the house is of 6-inch rift pine, while the woodwork in the four main rooms and upper hall is identical with that of the main hall. To the left of the front door is the stairway leading to the floor above; with a newel post 3 x 3 inches with plain beveled cap of 4½ x 4½ inches, and an extremely plain baluster of 1¼ x ¾-inch uprights supporting the hand rail. Just below the level of the 9-foot ceiling of the hall is a small landing from which three steps more ascend to the level of the second floor. The stairwell is guarded by a like plain baluster.
On entering the house, to the left of the front door and immediately at the foot of the stairway, a door opens into a room some 18½ x 24 feet in size, with large fire-place and mantelpiece 58 inches in height and 72 inches in width, the legs having three lines of finger fluting and supporting a panel finished with square ½-inch high moulding and three inset panels with beveled trim. To the right of the mantel is a cupboard (pent) closet having the unusual feature of ornamental doors, the double lower ones of paneled wood, the double upper ones each having four 8 x 10-inch lights bordered each side by narrower lights 4 inches in width. The framing of this cupboard is especially noticeable for its lines of fluting rising from a plain plinth block, with a bit of carving at the base between these lines[.]6
The room on the right of the hall was the parlor. The dimensions of this room, the trim and the size of the mantel are similar to those features of the room described above, though the ornamentation of the mantel is different. The fluted legs of this mantel rise from plain plinth blocks to beveled panels about 14 inches square while across the front, immediately over the fire-place opening are three sizable panels, the two on the ends being fluted while the central one is beveled. To the right of the mantel is a door of the “Cross and Bible” style that originally opened on to a side porch.
Each of these rooms has two windows, one opening to the north and one to the south, affording splendid views of the once magnificent growth of trees that surrounded the house.
Under the main stairway in the hall a flight of steps having rail and balusters leads to the basement where the dining room was. This dining room was of splendid proportions occupying a space as large as the main hall and parlor together. This room is lighted by plain casement windows which open into the room.
(From an old lithograph)
General Lee's Residence, Franklin Street, Richmond, 1865
The Lees went from this house in the afternoon of Wednesday, June 28, 1865,
to the Packet Boat on the Canal for their journey to “Derwent.”
(From an old print)
The James River and Kanawha Canal, Richmond, Virginia
Sketched by J. R. Hamilton
The fire-place in this dining room is 58 inches wide and 40 inches high, while to one side is a large closet with battened doors enclosing the lower and glass doors the upper section. Undoubtedly, glass and chinaware were kept in this closet. The ceiling in this room is made up of exposed timbers, some 8 x 10 inches, others 6 x 10 inches (all rough-hewn by adz), and the whip-sawed boards of the floor of the room and hall above it. From the dining room a door opened into the back yard from which a path led to the detached kitchen.
Opposite the dining room a battened door opens into a room which was used as a storeroom.
The second story of the house consists of a small hall, a small closet-like room, immediately opposite the stairs and to the front of the house, and two large rooms (corresponding to the two large rooms on the first floor). The small closet-like room, with one window, has a line of 3-inch moulding near the level of the top of the door frame on which a number of wooden pegs are set for the purpose of hanging garments. In this closet-like room is the well to the attic which is lighted by four small windows set in the gable ends of the house. Evidently this was the “packing room” of the house.
The two large rooms on the second floor, of like size with the two rooms immediately beneath them, have like trim but plain mantels with moulding under the mantel shelf. The side walls and ceilings of these two rooms are made of 6-inch pine boards, and each room has windows back and front.7
The two halls (the lower large hall with stairways to both the second story and the basement), the two large rooms on the first floor, the basement dining room and storeroom, the closet-like room and the two large rooms on the second floor constituted the house at "Derwent" during the time of its occupancy by General and Mrs. Lee.8
The Title to “Derwent”
A note on the title to the “Derwent” farm, from the time of General Lee's occupancy to the present day, is of interest in connection with the description of the house.
“Derwent” House—the Hall, Front Door and Stairway
From the Original Drawing, 1948, by R. M. Allyn
“Derwent” House—Room to Left of Hall-way, Used by General and Mrs. Lee
From the Original Drawing, 1948, by R. M. Allyn
“Derwent” House—The Parlor; Room to Right of Hall-way
From the Original Drawing, 1948, by R. M. Allyn
“Derwent” House—The Dining Room in Basement
From the Original Drawing, 1948, by R. M. Allyn
On October 5, 1859, Thomas C. Brown conveyed by deed of sale to Thomas Lewis Preston Cocke the tract of 442-9/16 acres, called “Cottage Hill,” lying on the waters of Muddy Creek, Powhatan County and bounded by the lands of the estates of Benjamin Palmore, deceased, William A. Cocke, deceased, John Powers, deceased, Julius Powers, deceased, and the land of Miletus B. Palmore (Powhatan County records, Deed Book 20, page 272). At a date, now unknown; but at some time prior to General Lee's occupancy the name of “Derwent” was given to the farm by the Cockes. In September 1880, Thomas L. P. Cocke and Mary, his wife, sold and conveyed a part of the “Derwent” farm containing 277 acres, to William H. Parrish. Mr. Parrish, at some time between September 1880 and October 22, 1896, sold ten acres from this tract of land to C. R. Sanderson; and then on October 22, 1896, William H. Parrish sold and conveyed the remaining 267 acres, with the house thereon, to F. G. Holt as trustee for his daughter, Jennie Louise Rives Holt. On November 17, 1911, Jennie Louise Rives Holt Rowe and her husband S. C. Rowe, and Haskins, Hobson, Substitute Trustee, conveyed the 267 acres, with house, to John Haw Jones who, with his wife Bessie Bagby Jones, sold and conveyed 193 acres, with house, to Lewis Trent, on March, 9 1912. This 193-acre tract with the house, still called “Derwent,” is now (1950) in the possession of the family of Lewis Trent, deceased.9
Thomas Lewis Preston Cocke, who owned “Derwent” at the time of General Lee's occupancy of the house during the summer of 1865, was a son of William Armistead Cocke, of “Oakland,” Cumberland County, and his wife, Elizabeth Randolph Preston. William Armistead Cocke was descended from Colonel Richard Cocke (circa 1600–1665), who came from England to Virginia before 1632 and established his home which he named “Bremo,” in Henrico County, near the James River, about twelve miles east of the present city of Richmond. Colonel Richard Cocke became a distinguished official in Virginia's colonial life and it was to his great grandson, Bowler Cocke I, that a tract of 2,400 acres in Goochland County, on Muddy Creek, on the south side of the James River was granted in June 1731. In 1749 this land fell within the county of Cumberland when it was organized from that part of the territory of Goochland lying south of the river. At the death of Bowler Cocke I, in 1771, this land passed to his son, Bowler Cocke II, who died in the year 1772, at which time the land passed to his son, William Cocke, who died in 1825, when the land passed to his son William Armistead Cocke, who married Elizabeth Randolph Preston. The beautiful estate of “Oakland” occupied this large tract of land which had been granted in 1731 to Bowler Cocke I, descending from father to son through four generations.10 On the death of William Armistead Cocke in 1855, his widow, Mrs. Elizabeth Randolph Preston Cocke, continued to reside at “Oakland” throughout the remainder of her life, the estate having been inherited by her four sons, William Fauntleroy Cocke, Thomas Lewis Preston Cocke, Edmund Randolph Cocke and John Preston Cocke. These four men served gallantly in the Confederate States Army.
Though the estate of “Oakland” has been owned by the Cocke family for over two centuries, it seems that it was not occupied as a home by them until 1788, when William Cocke, moving from “Bremo,” established his home there.11
The “Derwent” farm in Powhatan County with its house which General Lee and his family occupied in the summer of 1865, was immediately east of the “Oakland” estate just across the line dividing Powhatan and Cumberland Counties—both the “Oakland” and “Derwent” lands touching Muddy Creek.
The illustrations used with these notes are from contemporaneous pictures of the house in Richmond in which General Lee and his family were residing at the time that the Lees accepted the invitation of the Cockes to occupy ”Derwent,” and of the Packet Boat which traveled the James River and Kanawha Canal between Richmond and Lynchburg; of a picture of the house at “Derwent” as it appeared at the time that General and Mrs. Lee went there in June 1865, and of the house as it appeared in the year 1940. The illustrations of the hall, the two rooms on the first floor and of the basement dining room of the “Derwent” house are from pen and ink drawings, made in 1948, by R. M. Allyn, of Powhatan County, who graciously acceded to our request for pictures of the hall and rooms of the house as they were at the time that the Lees lived at “Derwent.” These charming pen and ink sketches are the interesting result of Mr. Allyn's careful study of the house even in its dilapidated condition of the present time. We wish to express here our feeling of great indebtedness to Mr. Allyn for his generous contribution of his talent in assisting us to make “Derwent” a reality to those who read these descriptive notes of the memorable house.
The illustrations are, in detail, as follows:
(1) “General Lee's Residence, Franklin Street, Richmond, 1865.” This illustration is from an original colored lithograph in the collections of the Virginia State Library, Richmond, to which our attention was called by Mr. Milton Russell, of the library staff; and the lithograph used as an illustration by permission of the authorities of the Virginia State Library. The original lithograph carries the following inscription: “Genl Lee's Residence, Richmond, Va. Franklin St. Published by C. Bohn, 568 Pennsylv[ania] Av. Washington, D.C. Drawing from nature by F. Dielman. Lithographed by E. Sachse & Co. Entered according to Act of Congress, A.D. 1865 by C. Bohn in the Clerk's Office of the District of Columbia.”12
(2) “Packet Boat, James River and Kanawha Canal, Richmond, 1865.” This illustration is from an original sheet of Harper's Weekly, October 14, 1865, in the Alexander W. Weddell Collection, Virginia House, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond; the original illustration carries the caption “The James River and Kanawha Canal, Richmond, Virginia. Sketched by J. R. Hamilton,” with comment: “Our artist has represented the scene at the Packet Office on the departure of the boat which leaves on alternate days at five o'clock in the evening. It is a busy and characteristic scene, quite peculiar to the city of Richmond.” The Packet Boat illustrated, as of October 1865, we may feel confident was the one on which the Lees traveled on their journey to “Derwent,” June 28, 1865. The house on Franklin Street (now 707 East Franklin Street) was between 7th and 8th Streets and the Packet Boat landing was at 8th and Canal, only three and a half blocks distant.13
Courtesy Richmond News Leader
The House at “Derwent” House—occupied by General Lee, June–September, 1865
Courtesy Virginia Conservation Commission
(3) “The House at ‘Derwent,’ occupied by General Lee, June-September, 1865.” This illustration is from a picture of the “Derwent” house. Though the exact date of this picture is not now known, it is one that shows the exterior of the house as it appeared about the time that the Lees occupied it. This picture was used as an illustration in Douglas Southall Freeman's R. E. Lee, A Biography, Volume IV, opposite page 206; and also in the Richmond News Leader, December 11, 1947 (page 8), with an article entitled “Aid Needed to Preserve ‘Derwent.’ ” Our illustration is from the Richmond News Leader, by whose courtesy we reproduce it.
(4) “The ‘Derwent’ house, 1940.” Tlis illustration pictures the house as it appeared in 1940 and has been reproduced here by courtesy of the Virginia State Conservation Commission. The large addition to the back of the house was made in 1910 by Lewis and Bessie Trent.
(5) The illustrations of the hall, the rooms to the left and right of the hall, and of the basement dining room of the “Derwent” house are, as stated in the text, from pen and ink sketches made by R. M. Allyn, of Powhatan County, for use with these notes.
In concluding these notes we would express our appreciation of the kindness shown us by Sydney A. Stokes and William Trent. Sydney Stokes guided us over the winding trail to the house and William Trent, in the absence of his mother, assisted us in every way possible in obtaining the descriptions of the house embodied in these notes.