Lee came back to his headquarters at Orange Courthouse to find other reason for distress than the escape of Meade unpunished from Mine Run. The public prints were full of alarming news from Tennessee. All that had been achieved at Chickamauga had been undone. Instead of flanking the position at Chattanooga, as Lee had recommended, Bragg had waited in front of the town until he had been driven off by the incredible Federal assaults on Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, November 23‑25, 1863. Bragg, the papers reported, had retreated to Dalton, where he had been relieved of command.1
So fraught with possible disaster was this sudden turn of events that Lee put aside his habitual reserve and wrote the President on December 3 a serious letter of direct advice. Prefacing his proposals with the statement that his information was based solely on newspaper reports, he pointed out that the enemy might penetrate into Georgia "and get possession of our depots of provisions and important manufactories." As tactfully as he could, he suggested that Beauregard be put at the head of the Army of Tennessee, and that troops be drawn from Mobile, from Mississippi, and from Charleston to strengthen the threatened line of Federal advance. Then he laid down this general strategic policy: "I think that every effort should be made to concentrate as large a force as possible, under the best commander, to insure the discomfiture of Grant's army. To do this and gain the great advantage that would accrue from it, the safety of points practically less important than those endangered by his army must be hazarded. Upon the defence of the country threatened by General Grant depends the safety of the points now held by us on the Atlantic, p207 and they are in as great danger from his successful advance as by the attacks to which they are at present directly subjected."2 This was a clear forecast of the strategy the Federal Government was to employ in the Southern campaign of 1864, when Sherman's march to the sea sounded the final doom of the Confederacy. Lee plainly saw in December, 1863, the probability of what was to happen in December, 1864, and as far as he could he sought to prevent it by an immediate concentration.
The answer to this letter came in a brief telegram two days later: "Could you consistently go to Dalton, as heretofore explained?" Davis asked. Lee did not want to make the exchange of commands. He did not feel that he had the physical strength to undertake an active campaign with a demoralized army in an unfamiliar country. Something deep within him shrank from facing the bickerings and jealousies that had been inflamed in the Army of Tennessee. He doubted if he would have the co-operation of the corps and division commanders, and he did not believe that his temporary presence with them would yield any substantial result. What was needed was an able, permanent commander who knew the officers and had the vigor to suppress their rivalries. Besides, if he left the Army of Northern Virginia, a new leader would have to be assigned to it, for Ewell was too feeble to direct it. All this Lee set forth frankly on December 7, in a reply to the President. "I hope," he concluded, "your Excellency will not suppose that I am offering any obstacles to any measure you may think necessary. I only seek to give you the opportunity to form your opinion after a full consideration of the subject. I have not that confidence either in my strength or ability as would lead me of my own option to undertake the command in question."3
It seemed as if the President were determined to act, for on December 9 Lee received a summons to Richmond. Lee assumed that Mr. Davis would permit him to return to the Rapidan long enough to put his official business in order, but he interpreted the brief message to mean that he was to be ordered to the far South. At that prospect, the affection Lee had formed for the Army of p208 Northern Virginia asserted itself with the pang a man feels when he is forced to tear up his life by the very roots. In a hurried note to Stuart, he bade him seek positions for the cavalry where they could be foraged and would not be too far from the enemy. "My heart and thoughts will always be with this army," he said, but there he stopped. His was not a nature to sentimentalize.4
By way of the worn and creaking Virginia Central Railroad, Lee departed that same day, December 9. Arriving in Richmond, he left the train under the shadow of the hill where the Confederate Congress was then sitting, and went up town, through troubled streets, to quarters Mrs. Lee had rented on Leigh Street between Second and Third.5 They were in a two‑story wooden house, a humble place compared with Arlington, but the first home of their own in which the members of the family had been able to gather since the outbreak of the war. As Lee sat down for the first time in this new abode, he must have heard many stories of the wanderings of the family during the exciting months when he could only keep in touch with them by hurried letters that often were delayed and sometimes went astray.
After the sojourn in North Carolina, Mildred Lee remained at school in Raleigh during the winter of 1862‑63, and Mary Lee, the eldest daughter, spent most of her time at Cedar Grove, the plantation of Doctor and Mrs. Richard Stuart, in King George County.6 Mrs. Lee and Agnes went to Richmond that same winter and were the guests of Mr. and Mrs. James Caskie at the southeast corner of Eleventh and Clay. Here General Lee visited them, when he came to the capital, and here he formed the acquaintance of the charming Norvell Caskie, the young daughter of the house, who was one of Agnes's most intimate friends and soon became one of the General's most admired circle.7 For p209 Christmas, 1862, most of the family went from Richmond to Hickory Hill. Although Mrs. Lee's arthritis was then severe, she insisted on making the deserts and went into the basement kitchen for that pursue, but without complete success, for Grandfather Williams Wickham, accustomed to bountiful living, privately confided that she had been too sparing with the sugar.8 From Hickory Hill the family returned to the Caskies in Richmond and remained there until some time after June 9, 1863, when the mother, Agnes, and Mildred went again to Hickory Hill.9 They were on that fine old estate when the Federal raiders captured Rooney Lee and carried him off to Fort Monroe. The shock of this gloomy affair and the spread of her infection so crippled Mrs. Lee that she could only move about on crutches. In the belief that a visit to the mineral baths would help in restoring her health, plans were made to carry her to one of the Virginia spas. Agnes and Mildred were to accompany their mother; and as Charlotte Wickham Lee was also in bad health, through excessive grief over her wounded husband, it was decided to take her, also, and to let her choose the resort. She selected the Hot Springs in Alleghany County. About July 15, Mrs. Lee journeyed to Ashland, spent two days in the company of her old neighbor, Mrs. John P. McGuire, and then started for the resort in a box car fitted up as a bedroom.10 The vacation was not successful. Charlotte's condition grew worse and Mrs. Lee's was not bettered. The food was so poor at the springs that the guest entered a formal protest, especially against the bread.11 After Mrs. Lee came back to Richmond, she took the house on Leigh Street late in October. There was room for Agnes and for Mildred, but space was so limited that Charlotte had to find quarters on Fifth Street, near Cary, •half a mile from her mother-in‑law. The city council of Richmond took cognizance of the family's embarrassment in the crowded capital and proposed to buy a home and present it to the General, but as soon as he heard of the resolution, he wrote a grateful letter asking that the project p210 be dropped and that the city devote to the families of soldiers whatever surplus funds it might have available.12 Prompt as Lee was to decline this offer, he was nonetheless grateful for it and for the multitude of courtesies shown his family. "The kindness exhibited toward you as well as myself by our people," he wrote Mrs. Lee, "causes me to reflect how little I have done to merit it, and humbles me in my own eyes to a painful degree."13 In the little house on Leigh Street there was satisfaction over the small comforts the family could enjoy from its own resources, and much pride, at least on Agnes's part, that when company came to dine, there were enough glasses to go around.14
WHAT THE WAR DID TO Mrs. Lee
This photograph of Mrs. Lee bears a United States revenue stamp of 1865 and probably was taken in Richmond during the winter of 1864‑65 when the strain on her was at its worst. She was fifty-six in October, 1864.
There was a third sorrow to the family, one of which few outsiders had more than vague hints. Agnes Lee had a handsome second cousin, named William Orton Williams, son of a West Point graduate, Captain William G. Williams, who had been killed in the battle of Monterey during the Mexican War. Orton, as he was known to the family, had been in the United States army as a lieutenant of the Second Cavalry on the outbreak of hostilities in 1861 and had joined the South. He had been an aide to General Leonidas Polk, and then had served as assistant chief of artillery to General Bragg. At Shiloh he had much distinguished himself.27 He had come to Virginia at Christmas time, 1862, and had visited Agnes at Hickory Hill. His Christmas presents, a riding whip and a pair of gauntlets, had been among her treasured gifts.28 They had ridden together, and he had made his addresses to her, but had been rejected. Orton was much too fond of drink, and his failure to win Agnes's hand, coupled with p212 other disappointments and entanglements, made him reckless. He procured assignment to a secret mission, probably in Canada or in Europe,29 and to conceal his identity was commissioned colonel of cavalry under the name of Lawrence W. Orton.30 On June 8, 1863, attended by his cousin, Captain Walter G. Peter, and clad in Federal uniform, he rode into the Union lines at Franklin, Tenn. With forged appears he introduced himself as Colonel Orton and his companion as Major Dunlap. They had come, he said, with special instructions to examine all posts.31 Although they seemed little interested in the matters that spies would usually study, their actions aroused suspicion.32 They were detained for the verification of their passes, and when these were declared spurious, they were arrested, tried by drumhead court-martial, and executed early on the morning of June 9, 1863. Before they were hanged, the men confessed their identity,33 but maintained they were not spies — a statement in which the commandant at Franklin joined. They were, at least, "not ordinary spies," he reported, "and had some mission more important than finding out my situation. . . . Said they were going to Canada and something about Europe; not clear. We found on them memorandum of commanding officers and assistant adjutant generals in Northern states. Though they admitted the justice of the sentence and died like soldiers, they would not disclose their true object. Their conduct was very singular indeed; I can make nothing of it."34 In the few hours allowed him before he was executed, Williams wrote a brief note to his sister, Martha, known in the family as "Markie." He said: "Do not believe that I am a spy. With my dying breath I deny the charge. Do not grieve too much for me. . . . Altho I die a horrid death I will meet my death with the fortitude becoming the son of a man whose last words to his children were, 'Tell them I died at the head of my column.' . . ." A copy of this message was sent by "Markie" to Agnes. Little was said of the affair in the family, but there was grief at this tragic end of a friend and a kinsman.35 General Lee had always p213 been interested in Orton and, at "Markie's" request, in 1853 he had given much thought to the choice of a school for the boy.36 He was outraged now at the execution of the young man. Although he did not write to "Markie" for fear his letter might raise suspicion against her in Georgetown, where she still resided, he kept her grief in his heart. Three years later he was to say ". . . my blood boils at the thought of the atrocious outrage, against every manly and Christian sentiment which the Great God alone is able to forgive."37
Custis Lee was unhappy, too. His brothers and his kinsmen had been in nearly all the great battles of the Army of Northern Virginia; he had occupied a sheltered position as one of the President's aides, a post of honor, yet not to his liking. His great desire was to see field service, but his keen conscience made him feel that he should not undertake it without experience, nor did either he or his father consider that they should ask for a transfer from the President's staff.38 Custis lived at the time with a group of other staff officers in a large house on Franklin Street, and his constant duties gave him little opportunity of seeing his family, but his state of mind was of course familiar to them and his discontent with his position was a family distress.
Still another shadow hung over the household. Under a law passed by Congress in June, 1862 (as amended February 6, 1863), direct taxes had been levied on real estate "in the insurrectionary districts within the United States" and commissioners had been named to assess and collect these taxes. The commissioners had been empowered, in case of default, to sell the property, and as the aim of the act was, in effect, to expropriate the holdings of Southern men in occupied territory, the officials held to the rule that they would only accept payment from the owners in person. On behalf of the Lees, their cousin, Philip R. Fendall, tendered the taxes imposed on Arlington, $92.07 with a penalty of 50 per cent. The commissioners refused to receive the money and were preparing to issue a tax title to the United States. The old home, the p214 centre of life of the family, was about to be lost — for delinquent taxes in theory, by confiscation in fact.39
Thus, when Lee came home that evening of December 9 he realized how heavily the war had smitten his family — their home had been lost, Mrs. Lee was almost helpless in her invalidism, one son was in prison, the General's brilliant first-born was unhappy because of his assignment, one daughter was dead in a far-off cemetery, another had been touched by tragedy, and his only daughter-in‑law was not far from death. Lee himself, who had entered the struggle in the full vigor of robust manhood, was aging hourly, his hair and beard white, and that sharp, paroxysmal pain intermittently wrenching his left side.
But there was little time to dwell on family woes, even had Lee been of a nature to yield to them. The question that had brought him to Richmond, the question of whether he should undertake a new campaign on strange terrain, had to be discussed in long conferences with the President, and a multitude of details concerning the army had to be handled with railroad officials and with the chiefs of the bureaus of the War Department.40 Lee remained willing to assume the difficult task in Georgia, if the President thought it proper to send him there. In talking with Senator B. H. Hill, he said simply: "I have no ambition but to serve the Confederacy and do all I can to win our independence. I am willing to serve in any capacity to which the authorities may assign me."41 But he held to his belief that others could accomplish more with the Army of Tennessee than he could hope to do, and when he found the President indisposed to name Beauregard to succeed Bragg, as he had originally advised, it seems probable that he urged the appointment of General Johnston to the command.42 There was some delay in a decision, while Mr. p215 Davis waited for information from the Southwest,43 but by about the 15th it was settled that Lee would not be ordered to Dalton.44 On December 16, Johnston was assigned to the post,45 with instructions to reorganize the army and to prepare for an offensive as soon as practicable.46 Lee is not known to have said anything publicly of this appointment, but it undoubtedly was not only a relief to him, but a satisfaction also, for his faith in the ability of Joseph E. Johnston had not been impaired by that officer's failure to relieve Vicksburg. Lee could go back to his beloved army, and Johnston, he trusted, could keep the Federals from invading Georgia.
In the midst of the conferences that led to this conclusion, Lee received as much of attention and of honor in Richmond as his nature would permit. The Confederate House of Representatives passed a resolution inviting him to have a seat on the floor,47 and when he went to worship at Saint Paul's Church on December 13, a silent ovation must have been given him after the service as he walked slowly down the aisle, bowing to friends and acquaintances, right and left.48 The President took advantage of his presence to get his judgment on the work recently done on the city's fortifications. With General Elzey and some members of Mr. Davis's staff, they made a tour of inspection on December 15.49
General Averell was on another of his raids at the time. Knowing their chief's dislike of unconfirmed rumors,50 the officers at Lee's headquarters were loath to forward him all the stories that came in concerning the move. Lee learned enough to make him anxious to return to the army and do what he could in trapping the troublesome Union cavalryman, but the Federal contrived to get quickly away after burning the station and the supplies at p216 Salem, Va.51 There was, consequently, no special reason why Lee should hurry back to the Rapidan, and there were numerous personal reasons why he should spend Christmas with his family — the first time it had been possible since 1859. Robert had come to Richmond;52 Charlotte was very ill; the enemy was quiet on the Rapidan. Why should he not remain?
At Lee's camp, his aides were asking the same question and were not envious of his good fortune. But they knew the man and were uncertain whether he would stay at the capital. "It will be more in accordance with his peculiar character," Major Walter Taylor confided to his sweetheart, "if he leaves for the army just before the great anniversary; he is so very apt to suppress or deny his personal desire when it conflicts with the performance of his duty."53 Taylor's judgment was not in error, for the next day, December 21, Lee appeared in camp.54 He had deliberately sacrificed his Christmas to set an example of obedience to duty.
It was a gloomy Christmas he had in his tent. Oppressed by Mrs. Lee's condition and by Charlotte's illness, he was acutely conscious, also, of the distress of the country people round about him. When some of the foreign observers came to visit him during the day, he could not forbear reference to the plight of the poor families living in the devastated area, and the one touch of feeling he ever exhibited toward the enemy — his oft-recurring resentment at the atrocities inflicted on non-combatants — showed itself as he recounted how the enemy seemed determined to burn and to harass even when the country was so barren that the Southern army could not hope to draw supplies from it.
Captain Ross, one of the attachés, remarked that Arlington had been treated in the same way.
But Lee interrupted him quickly. "That I can easily understand," he said, "and for that I don't care; but I do feel sorry for the poor creatures I see here, starved and driven from their homes for no reason whatsoever."55
The news from Charlotte had been somewhat more encouraging, and on the 26th Lee was hopeful that she might recover, but p217 that evening he received from Custis a telegram announcing her death.56 Lee's affection for Charlotte was as deep as that for his own children, yet he received the sad intelligence of her death with the spirit of resignation he always displayed. "It has pleased God," he said, "to take from us one exceedingly dear to us, and we must be resigned to His holy will. She, I trust, will enjoy peace and happiness forever, while we must patiently struggle on under all the ills that may be in store for us. What a glorious thought it is that she has joined her little cherubs and our angel Annie in heaven. Thus is link by link the strong chain broken that binds us to earth, and our passage soothed to another world. Oh, that we may be at last united in that heaven of rest, where trouble and sorrow never enter, to join in an everlasting chorus of praise to our Lord and Savior! I grieve for our lost darling as a father only can grieve for a daughter, and my sorrow is heightened by the thought of the anguish her death will cause our dear son and the poignancy it will give to the bars of his prison. May God in His mercy enable him to bear the blow He has so suddenly dealt, and sanctify it to his everlasting happiness!"57
With that prayer, he approached the end of 1863 . . . while the bones of the dead bleached on Cemetery Ridge and slow starvation crept along the coast.
1 Bragg had asked on Nov. 29 to be relieved. This had been done on Nov. 30. Lieutenant General W. J. Hardee, ranking corps commander, had been placed temporarily in charge of the defeated army, but had no ambition to succeed Bragg (O. R., 31, part 2, pp682‑83; ibid., part 3, pp764‑65).
5 Captain R. E. Lee stated (op. cit., 112), that the house was on Clay Street, but in a letter among the Johnston MSS., Agnes Lee mentioned to Fanny R. Johnston, Nov. 21‑27, 1863, that the house was at Third and Leigh. John K. Graeme, Asa Johnson, and Gibson Worsham have identified this house as later numbered 210 East Leigh. Mr. Graeme, who remembers seeing Mrs. Lee there, thinks the family boarded with the occupant, Mrs. Roy, but the reference cited in note 14, p210 indicates that the Lees were housekeeping.
6 Mrs. Richard Stuart had been a Miss Calvert of Riversdale, Md., and was a cousin of Mrs. Lee on the Custis side (R. E. Lee, Jr., 356).
7 D. S. Freeman: "Lee and the Ladies," Scribner's Magazine, November, 1925, p467.
8 Mrs. A. C. W. Byerly to H. T. Wickham, Jan. 29, 1931, MS., copy of which Honorable H. T. Wickham has graciously placed at the writer's disposal.
10 Mrs. McGuire, 232.
11 Mrs. R. E. Lee to Mrs. Williams Wickham, MS., Aug. 7, 1863, Wickham MSS.
12 Lee to the President of the city council, Richmond, Va., Nov. 12, 1863; text in McCabe, 443‑44; Jones, 173; Long, 321. McCabe added, loc. cit., that the "city authorities . . . secured the amount appropriated for a house, to his family in such a manner as to prevent them from being placed in danger of want." No confirmation of this statement has been found.
13 Jones, L. and L., 295.
14 Mrs. A. C. W. Byerly, loc. cit.
15 Mrs. A. C. W. Byerly, loc. cit.; Jones, L. and L., 296.
16 Lee to Charlotte Lee, July 26, 1863, R. E. Lee, Jr., 100.
19 Cf. R. E. Lee to G. W. C. Lee, Aug. 7, 1863; Duke Univ. MSS., and Jones, L. and L., 278‑79; 2 R. W. C. D., 253.
20 Lee to Mrs. Lee, Oct. 25, 1863; R. E. Lee, Jr., 111.
21 R. E. Lee to G. W. C. Lee, Sept. 27, 1863; Duke Univ. MSS.
23 Ibid., p500.
24 Ibid., 516.
25 R. E. Lee, Jr., 117.
28 Mrs. A. C. W. Byerly, loc. cit.
35 W. G. Beymer, who apparently was unacquainted with Williams's connection with the Lee family, published an interesting account of the case under the title, "Williams, C. S. A.," in Harper's Magazine, vol. 119.
36 Markie Letters, 35.
37 Lee to Martha Williams, Dec. 1, 1866; Markie Letters, 71‑72.
38 Jones, 183. The rest of the incident that Jones described, as explained in note 48, p226, is apocryphal, but there is no doubt that General Lee and Custis chafed because the younger man was on staff duty, removed from the post of danger.
39 The tax title was passed, Jan. 11, 1864, on a government bid of $26,800, which the treasury simply transferred on its own books. For these and facts on the later history of Arlington, the writer is indebted to Enoch A. Chase of Washington, who has made a comprehensive study of the estate.
41 Jones, 241.
42 Neither Davis nor Johnston mentioned Lee's influence in the appointment, but Mrs. James Chesnut, who was usually well informed, noted in her diary on Dec. 21, 1863: "Joe Johnston has been made commander-in‑chief of the Army of the West. General Lee has done this, 'tis said."
43 Lee to Walter Taylor, Dec. 12, 1863, Taylor MSS.
44 Taylor MSS., Dec. 20, 1863. Taylor did not give a definite date for the decision.
47 Thomas S. Bocock to R. E. Lee, Dec. 16, 1863; Duke University MSS. The formal thanks of both branches of Congress were later extended to him, under a resolution signed by the President Jan. 8, 1864 (Journal of the Confederate Senate, 3, 521; Journal of the House, 6, 585, 586, 598; O. R., 27, part 2, p326; ibid., 29, part 2, p911; Richmond Enquirer, Jan. 8, 1864). It will be recalled that a similar resolution had been initiated in the House, Aug. 21, 1863 (Richmond Examiner, Aug. 22, 1863), but had not been passed by the Senate before adjournment. See supra, vol. II, p343.
53 Taylor MSS., Dec. 20, 1863.
54 For the date of his return, see Lee to Mrs. Lee, Dec. 22, 1863, Duke Univ. MSS.
55 Ross, 207.
56 R. E. Lee, Jr., 117‑18. Captain Lee stated that when the news reached Rooney Lee "at Fortress Monroe" that Charlotte was dying, he asked for a parole of forty-eight hours to visit her, with the assurance that Custis, his equal in rank, would stand hostage for him. "This request," said Captain Lee, "was curtly and peremptorily refused." If Captain Lee was correct in this statement, the correspondence must have been carried on with Fort Lafayette through Fort Monroe, for Rooney Lee had been transferred to the former place on Nov. 13, 1863. See supra, p211.º
57 Lee to Mrs. Lee, Dec. 27, 1863, R. E. Lee, Jr., 117‑18.
Images with borders lead to more information.
Robert E. Lee
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
Page updated: 31 Oct 13