Two Interviews with Robert E. Lee
By W. W. Page
Note: The following is taken from the November 1890 to April 1891 issue of the Illustrated Monthly Magazine (vol. 61; new ser. vol. 19, pp. 797Ó98). W. W. Page was in the Confederate service, serving as captain of Company D, 39th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry (ranking from 26 January 1864). His company of scouts was stationed at Camp Lee.
Two Interviews with Robert E. Lee.
I MET General Lee first at his residence in Franklin street, Richmond, in 1861. His face was cleanly shaven except a very full black mustache. He was tall and slender and erect, and reminded me of a French officer of the highest type. I thought him then the most imposing man I had ever seen. Before giving the interview I would like to give a little of my own history which led up to it.
I was on the college campus at Hampden Sidney, Virginia, in May, 1861, with a number of the students at play, when President Atkinson, who had just returned from Farmville, rode up and said, “Young gentlemen, Northern troops have crossed the Potomac into Virginia at Alexandria. Ellsworth's Zouaves tore down the Virginia flag on Jackson's Hotel. Jackson shot Ellsworth and the Zouaves have killed Jackson—the war has begun.” The hoys raised, and I heard for the first time, the “Rebel yell.” It was arranged that afternoon that the students of the college and theological seminary should form a company with Dr. Atkinson as captain.
No one who was there can ever forget the fiery enthusiasm of those boys and of the girls on College Hill, for the girls were worse than the boys. Woe to the boy who did not thirst to die on the bloody field! Little chance would he have stood with one of those girls.
The company was ordered first to Richmond, and soon after, with Colonel John Pegram, to Rich Mountain in the wilds of West Virginia. At Rich Mountain we were attacked by General McClellan in front and by General Rosecrans in the rear, and after a severe engagement the Hampden Sidney boys were surrendered by Colonel Pegram to General McClellan, who treated them very kindly, paroled them, and told them to go back to college and finish their studies.
I, however, made my escape without being paroled. I was sick when the surrender took place. The next day typhoid fever set in and I was sent to a private house. Here I met a Federal sergeant who engaged for fifty dollars in gold, in advance, to take me out of the lines. Before day the next morning he was at the house, and, taking me in his arms, laid me in the bottom of his wagon and covered me with hay. He then drove to the outer picket post, where there was great excitement and anger, owing to the fact that two of their men had just been shot by “bushwhackers.” As we drove up they were breathing out threatenings and slaughter against Rebels. One of them jumped up on the front seat and asked the sergeant where he was going. He. said, “Foraging.” What he had in his wagon. He said, “Nothing.” After a few pleasant words the sergeant said he must go on. He then drove over into the woods, and, taking me in his arms, laid me down, expressing the greatest regret at leaving me there in the woods “to die.” Cutting off one of my buttons as a memento, and kissing me on the cheek, he drove away. The thought of escape and freedom was far superior to disease. I sat up—stood—walked—leaped for joy—came up with a Confederate wagon, took the cars at Staunton, and reached Manassas in time to witness the close of the first battle of Bull Run.<.p>
After I had served for some time in Mosby's independent command, known to the Federals as “guerrillas,” I was offered the adjutancy of a regularly organized regiment. The question then arose whether, as my company was paroled, I had a right to go into service before it was exchanged. This question was referred to General R. E. Lee, whom I sought in Richmond. It was on Sunday morning. General Lee was alone in his parlor. When I was stating my case he interrupted me by saying that this seemed to be a matter of business: “It is my rule never to transact matters of business on the Lord's day, except in cases of necessity or mercy.” I told him that I had to leave the city next morning at six o'clock, and he then allowed me to proceed. Though I had been received in a kindly and courteous manner, yet I felt all the time that General Lee was preoccupied. Now and then he seemed engaged in deep thought. When I had stated my case he directed me to repeat it, saying that he had not been listening to me. This I refused to do, expressing regret that I had intruded upon him in a matter that was largely personal, and rose to leave.
As I reached the door General Lee asked me my name, saying that he had not heard it when I was introduced. I told him, and he said he knew my family very well. He then insisted that I should dine with him, saying that he would like very much to have me. I was nothing but a boy, and declined; but I was very much ashamed of myself afterward for being annoyed at his inattention, when he told me that he had just received the intelligence that the enemy had landed in force under General McClellan on the Peninsula.
He then said that I could not be held technically—that the enemy did not have my name as a prisoner of war on parole of honor; “but they were kind to you in sending you to a private house on account of your sickness, and if I were in your place I should consider myself in honor bound to observe the parole until the company is exchanged.”
The last two years of the war I spent at General Lee's headquarters as captain of a company of scouts, guides, and couriers in his body-guard, and in all that I had the privilege of seeing of him during those years the two things that impressed me most in this first interview—his high sense of honor, and his deep, though intelligent Christian sentiment—shone conspicuous.
The last time I saw General Lee was in 1865. The curtain had fallen, forever shutting out from our view, I trust, the bloody tragedy of fratricidal war. Satisfied that a surrender was inevitable, I had taken my command out and was on the James River, near Cartersville, in Cumberland County. Here was held a council of war—over which, I think, General Rosser presided.
General Lee had surrendered, but a very large portion of General Lee's army had escaped. What course should we pursue? One proposition before the council was to reorganize as far as possible and form a junction with Johnston in North Carolina, or, failing in this, to join E. Kirby Smith in the Trans-Mississippi department. A larger number advocated our retiring to the mountains and woods, and carrying on a guerrilla warfare all over the country until we could again bring our armies into the field. The first proposition was objected to as under the circumstances impracticable, if not impossible; the second on the ground that although it would necessitate a large standing army on the part of the North, yet it would inflict untold horrors and suffering upon the South. Still it was the favored plan of operations. The discussion was long, earnest, and stormy, and the council, failing to agree, adjourned in the hope of obtaining more light, and especially that it might get some word from General Lee, who, it was reported, had not been required to take the parole.
The next day I learned that General Lee was being escorted out of the Federal lines by about seventy-five cavalrymen. I skirted them for some distance until at length the escort returned, leaving General Lee and his personal staff, with General “Rooney” Lee, his son, and several others to pursue their way to Richmond unattended. The general was riding upon his famous old war-horse “Traveler.” No one would ever have known from his looks that General Lee was not returning from one of his great victories. In physique he seemed much larger than in 1861. He now wore a full beard, which, with his hair, had turned gray. Yet there was not a wrinkle in his face and his form was as erect as when I first saw him, and in every respect he still looked the superb soldier. At this time General Lee was fifty-eight years old.
As I approached him and told him of the council and the propositions, and that we were as sheep not having a shepherd, in unapproachable dignity be answered, “I am on parole of honor; but I do not believe that I would be violating the spirit of that parole if I should say, ‘Go to your homes, take off your uniforms, and return to the peaceful vocations of life.’”
These words were at once taken down and reported. With many fiery and disappointed and desperate spirits they were the occasion of General Lee's being denounced as a traitor to the South. But in the sober second thought his advice became omnipotent.
Thus both his peaceful words and his example after the surrender gained as great a victory over the heart of the South as had his sword many a time over the enemy on the field of battle. And it is little known to-day at the North how much of blood and treasure was saved to the whole country, after he had laid down his arms, by the influence of General R. E. Lee.
W. W. Page.