Washington and Lee University

Robert E. Lee and His Children
Virginia Louise Lee


En la sua volontate è nostra pace.

Dante, Divine Comedy, “Il Paradiso: Canto III.”

It had always been the desire of Robert E. Lee's heart to retire to some quiet place in the country and there live out his days in peace, surrounded by his children.1

After the war offers came flocking in but none of them was what he needed. He was not looking for a life of ease such as one Englishman offered him, a castle and an income and nothing to do.2 Nor did he wish to become the head of a business he knew nothing about, receiving a handsome gratuity merely for the prestige his name would give the company.3 His oldest daughter Mary said they were offering her father everything but a chance to make his own living.4

A few weeks in Richmond to rest and recuperate were not of much benefit to him as the curious, the sincere, the old comrades, the hero worshippers, all gave the family no respite from calls. And with his native courtesy and kindliness, at the expense of his health and convenience, General Lee seldom turned anyone away from his door.

In the first days of June he went on a visit to his Carter relations at Pampatike where he had a vew (sic) happy days of quiet reunion with his kinfolk, brightened by the presence of two little girls of five and three years old. He was always happiest with little children and the relief these two afforded by their lack of demands on him gave him such pleasure as he had not experienced for some time.

He then visited another home nearby where he received the same unobtrusive attention. His purpose in visiting these places was to see if he could locate a house there to which he could remove his family and raise enough crops and stock to afford him a livelihood.

Just then Mrs. Elizabeth Randolph Cocke offered him the use of a small cottage on her estate. It was in a remote location and was offered so graciously that he accepted. The last of June 1865, Mrs. Lee, Custis and the daughters, Agnes and Mildred, moved into the cottage, called “Derwent,” in Cumberland County, for a few months of rest and quiet. Callers still found their way to him but not in such numbers and constancy as in the city. The general took long trips on Traveller, renewing his friendships in the countryside, and daily took a short ride alone. He attended the neighborhood church whenever there was a service.

In August a delegation from Washington College in Lexington visited him tendering him the position of president of the college. He considered the matter for several weeks before accepting.5

General Lee's whole was now directed toward healing the breach between the north and the south and he thought in educating the young men of the south to rebuild their shattered land he would likewise educate them in the spirit of tolerance and unity. “Virginia,” he said, “wants all the aid, all the support and the presence of all her sons to sustain and recuperate her.”6 If his name was to be given to any cause, it was this one.

To the end that his example might effect a quicker reconciliation he applied for a pardon from the United States government and restoration of his rights of citizenship.7

September, 1865 saw the late leader of the Confederacy mounted on his old war horse, unostentatiously riding down the little main street of backwater Lexington. With his usual consideration he was planning to stay at the hotel as it was now late in the afternoon, and he did not want to intrude on the household where he had been invited to stay and perhaps disrupt their day. And with his usual promptness he wrote Mrs. Lee what had transpired since he left her, promising to look up quarters so the family could move there.8 A trip to the waters, a few journeys meeting old friends, a pleasant, serene interlude was the routine until on October 2, 1865, Robert E. Lee was sworn in as President of Washington College.

In a week or two Custis was to begin his duties as professor of Civil and Military Engineering at the next-door Virginia Military Institute, which would enable him to live at home with the family.9

There was no house available until a professor moved out of one and then it had to be done over from top to bottom. With his lifetime habit of attention to even the smallest detail General Lee saw that everything was done right and wrote the family almost daily of the progress he was making. That he was lonesome for them is revealed in one letter he wrote Mary as the winter approached: “Life is indeed gliding by and I have nothing of good to show for mine that is past. I pray I may be spared to accomplish something for the benefit of mankind and the honor of God. . . .”10

The house went slowly and everything connected with it seemed to be delayed for lack of materials. At length it was in a habitable if not luxurious state and Mrs. Lee, Mary, Mildred and Rob came on to Lexington.

As the time drew closer for their arrival General Lee's spirits had risen correspondingly. The prospect of having his family with him and in his own home cheered him immensely. He playfully wrote Mildred that he and Custis were so spoiled they needed her to take them in hand. He thanked Agnes for a letter which would be to him intellectually what his morning's feast was to him corporeally, he said.11

With his wife and children settled in the new home, Lee set to his task joyfully. The war was behind him, he felt he had a contribution to make to the South and to the country as a whole, his wife and children were with him at last, and his health was such that it could not have stood much more of the crowds and confusion of the city. At times even Lexington seemed too crowded.

But the surrounding countryside, as well as the whole world, continually showed their love for General Lee. Kind neighbors had filled the shelves of his home with jars of pickles and preserves, and when word got around that he was going to live there, supplies came pouring in, even poor mountaineers bringing in bags of walnuts, potatoes, game, butter, home-made cheeses, and fresh eggs.12

He became bright, almost gay. He worked out in the garden he loved so much, planting vegetables, flowers, fruit and yard trees. He made new walks and repaired the stables.13 His garden afforded a beautiful view of the mountains and he would stand on his back porch gazing off into the distance as though praying, which he probably was.

General Lee took the same care with the property of the college. The grounds and buildings soon began to show his influence.14 Many new buildings were needed and the old ones that were serviceable needed repair, but when it was suggested that the first new building be a home for him, he demurred, advocating a chapel instead. He and Custis spent many pleasant hours together planning it.

With all these projects he kept a full working schedule at the college and was in his office every morning at eight o'clock after chapel. He personally knew each student and under his administration the enrollment increased.15 The college was put on the honor system and an elective system inaugurated that up to that time had been in operation at only one college in America.16 General Lee instituted a summer school and preparatory courses and insisted that some practical courses be added to the curriculum, suggesting a school of commerce twelve years before the first one was formally set up in America.17 He also established the first school of journalism in the United States and probably in the world.18 A new school of medicine was another contemplated project but one he could not complete. He was determined that there should be no semblance of things military at the school and often was heard to say that he had made the greatest mistake of his life by receiving a military education.19

At the beginning of each school year the Lees held open house so the president might get to know the students. Another open house was held during Christmas holidays. Mary, Mildred and Agnes Lee served refreshments from a long table in the center hall which was loaded with nuts, meats, breads and cakes. Coffee and fine wines were served for while General Lee never drank spirits, he adhered to the Southern custom of serving light wines with refreshments at entertainments.20

The arrival of the Lee girls caused no little consternation in staid, Calvinistic Lexington. They had been used to the friendly, easy living of Tidewater Virginia and social customs the Presbyterian founders of Washington College thought sinful. But they changed all that. They went to dances,and (sic) parties, took walks alone, rode horseback very often; they went skating, and sleighing, and on hay rides, and boating in the summer. A Wednesday Night Reading Club was started whose members General Lee thought were more interested in conversation than literature.

The social life immeasurably enlivened by the presence of the Lee daughters, Lexington was rebuilding itself out of the ruins into which the war had thrown it. The very fact that General Lee lived there made it a mecca for everyone. Those who did not come, wrote. John Esten Cooke, Confederate officer and author, wrote to him asking for some information about General Jackson, whose biography he was writing. General Lee replied but added that he thought all topics or questions calculated to excite angry discussion or hostile feelings should be avoided.21 He never discussed political affairs and constantly advocated a policy of forgiveness and unity.

Deeply religious, the sorrow of the suffering South he took as his own and this burden drew him, as Bradford says, “even closer to his best friend, God.”22 He established a Young Men's Christian Association at the college and was as anxious for the students' spiritual welfare as for their physical and mental well-being. Compulsory chapel was discontinued even though he attended every day before going to his office. He confided to friends, “I shall be disappointed—I shall fail in the leading object that brought me here, unless these young men all become consistent Christians.”23

His character drew to the struggling little institution donations and gifts from everywhere. George Peabody, the philanthropist, W. W. Corcoran, the wealthy banker of Washington, Cyrus McCormick, a wealthy Virginian who had been born and reared near Lexington, all made substantial contributions in the form of stocks, bonds, cash and scholarships.24 Mr. Corcoran knew Lee personally; they met often at the Hot Springs which both visited in the summer. He admired Lee so much he contributed to the building of the Episcopal Church in Lexington in which the Lees were very active.25

Mrs. Lee was president of the church sewing circle which met in her home. The girls were active in the Sunday School and supervised the holiday programs. Mary Custis Lee was an ardent missionary and frequently brought in those who had been given up. She was a person of strong, almost eccentric character, wholly devoid of fear, as were all the Lees. One day she came upon a man beating his horse trying to extricate him from a mudhole. She demanded he stop and showed him how to free the animal. Then she persuaded him to attend a mission her church was holding in his neighborhood and from that time on he and his family were regular attendants at church and learned how to read and write. As he had been something of a neighborhood problem this was quite an achievement. But along with her masterful character, for which she became rather widely known, she had a kind, pious heart. She was described by a visitor to a meeting of the Reading Club as “bright, wilful, intelligent and cultivated.”26 Mary was the most serious of the Lee girls and her mother depended on her a great deal. The girls took turns at keeping house since Mrs. Lee was an invalid and satisfactory servants were hard to obtain so things in that department were usually in a state of flux.

Agnes also had poor health and was often away at the springs. But when home she was amiable and gracious and enjoyed and participated in the social life. Outsiders thought her a trifle haughty but it was the dignity of a natural reserve. She was the beauty of the family although the Lee boys were more favored in that respect than their sisters and their father never jested about their looks as he did with his sons.27 From his mother Robert E. Lee had learned to enjoy the companionship of women and when his daughters were grown he never mentioned them marrying. Perhaps he selfishly wanted them to stay with him and after all their separations he was lonely for them even when they took short trips. His wife's complete invalidism prevented her from sharing his activities and their daughters took her place. They accompanied him to socials, to church, on walks, and on rides, and at home they waited on him and served as his hostesses. Rob says of his attitude toward his daughters: “I think my father always wanted his daughters with him. When they were away he missed them, their love, care,and (sic) attention. . . .”28

The autumn of 1866 it was Agnes's turn to be housekeeper. Mildred was away on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Her father wrote to his “Precious Life,”—“Agnes takes good care of us and is very thoughtful and attentive. She has not great velocity but is systematic and quiet.”29 Agnes was active in the Sunday School, the Reading Club, all the bazaars and suppers the churches were forever giving to raise funds, and was a shining star in the social life of Lexington. All the Lee girls were fond of sports in season and when their health permitted. Agnes was an excellent housekeeper, having a neat and orderly mind, like her father, so much so that he entrusted her with the responsibility of safeguarding his private papers and taking care of his room and clothes. Like him she was a competent nurse. She was the devoted daughter who went with him on the trip South in 1870 to regain his health and it was she who gave him his medicine the few short months later when he was stricken.

Lee missed his daughter Mildred very much when she was away as she was his pet. She had a lively, sparkling personality and he called her his “light-bearer” for, as he said, the house is (sic) never dark when she is in it. When the time came for her to be housekeeper, there were seven people in the house for whom she had to prepare meals three times a day. Her father wrote his son's wife that now that Mildred had her hands so full, she considers (sic) herself quite a character.30 She was an autocrat in managing the household and this amused her father. He writes, “Life has it all her own way now. She rules her brother and my nephews with an iron rod and scatters her advice broadcast among the young men of the college.”

Mildred loved children, like her Pa, and enjoyed being with them. She, too, was an earnest church worker and devoted much time to worthy projects. Of the very sociable Lee children, she was the most sociable. She would often attend three commencements in one June, which ought to satisfy her, her father said. Long visits were another one of her indulgences and she was sometimes away from home for months at a time. Her father once called her his runaway daughter, saying one day she was going to leave and never come back! Talented musically and with a good mind, in later life she travelled widely and made many warm and devoted personal friendships in every walk of life with her charm and character.

After the war Rob and Fitzhugh had started to farm at the White House, east of Richmond, on property left to Rooney by his grandfather Custis. The house had been burned by Federal troops and only a shack or two was left standing. But the boys, with their cousin John Lee, and their army horses and mules, set about raising a crop and rehabilitating Rooney's inheritance. Their father gave them practical advice in the usual loving letters and was very proud of them.31

After a year or so, Rob had moved to his own nearby farm, Romancoke, and planted a crop. He lived in what the family called Rob's “broken-back cottage” but no one realized just how primitive it was until his father visited him some years later and was amazed at the scarcity of everything. So much so that he ordered a set of dishes from Richmond so that Rob could at least eat from something other than tin.

Rooney had married again in 1867 and in due time there had been another Robert E. Lee to replace the little son lost during the war. The occasion of his marriage was a pleasant interval in General Lee's round of duties. He had dreaded returning to Petersburg, the scene of the wedding, and the scene of the last dreadful days of privation and shelling before Appomattox. But the reception he received from the populace and their evident returning prosperity encouraged him immensely and soon restored his spirits. Crowds of men had to be restrained from unhitching his carriage and drawing it themselves to where he was staying.32 His daughters went with him to the very fashionable wedding. He refreshed himself in the presence of old friends and acquaintances and enjoyed the respite from his daily routine. He had gone to Richmond a day or two before the wedding to be a witness at the trial of Jefferson Davis, but he was not called and the trial was postponed,33 so he had a pleasant three days.

The daily routine at home was a peaceful, ordered one. Always an early riser, the entire family kept the general company at breakfast. He would first take a walk in his garden and in the summer was in the habit of bringing a rose to the current lady guest in the house. Breakfast was promptly at seven, after prayers. The general would then leave for chapel before entering his office at eight o'clock. The morning would be given over to the business of the college, and he would return home for lunch. After dinner he would rest in a large arm-chair, and perhaps Mildred would rub his head. Mrs. Lee painted miniatures of Washington and his wife which she sold for the benefit of the chapel.

Sometimes he would read aloud to her, usually about Washington, their idol. Both undertook some literary work, she edited the letters of her father on the subject of Washington, and he edited the Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States that his father had written.

There were always visitors, relatives or friends, or the college boys come to call on the Lee daughters until ten o'clock, when the father courteously began to circulate letting them know the hour had come for departure.34

The years passed uneventfully. The peace and family life that Robert E. Lee had always longed for had become a reality. Rob was doing well, Fitzhugh was happily married and a proud father, at least one of the beloved daughters was usually near at hand, and Custis and his father shared a quiet companionship.

The college built them a large new house with a verandah where Mrs. Lee could be rolled about in her wheelchair. Enrollment was up. The even tenor of their ways was pleasantly interrupted by trips to the springs, by visits from Rooney and the baby, or by their visits to them, although these were very rare. The social life of Lexington swirled around them as their daughters entertained and taught and prepared for bazaars and strawberry festivals and boating trips. Once, Mildred and her father took a journey of several days by horse to the Peaks of Otter, a pleasant, peaceful, leisurely ride.35

But the shadows were lengthening. Already the icy hand of death had touched the white hair and beard with rime.36 And so we leave him where he had always most wanted to be, at home with his children around him, happy as perhaps never before.

He said to Valentine one day when sitting for some sculpture, just before the end, “Misfortune nobly borne is good fortune.” Valentine thought it was original with him but it had been a favorite maxim of his father, “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, who was fond of quoting Marcus Aurelius, that jewel of the Antonines. And who knows but what it had solaced that poor exile, more truly defeated than his son had ever been. Among others, Robert E. Lee had taken the misfortune of being bereft of his own father at a very young age to become himself almost the perfect example of an ideal father. In the many roles that he occupies in history, commander, Christian, husband, dutiful son, educator, engineer, Virginian, personification of the Confederacy, gallant knight, perhaps the one most universally revered, next to that of Christian, is Robert E. Lee, the father.

For the faith that his mother had imparted to her son was not merely the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius. He had borne misfortune nobly, so nobly that many consider the last five years of his life the most noble of them all. But to that fortitude he had added the Christian ideal of love and service and the example of a loving father on earth that was his own reflection of his Father in heaven. He had always known how to humbly do his duty, and with calm satisfaction, to trust that heavenly Father and leave results with Him.

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