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Chapter
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
R. E. Lee: A Biography

by Douglas Southall Freeman

published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York and London, 1934

The text, and illustrations except as noted, are in the public domain.


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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. IV
p275
Chapter XVI

"My Boys"

One day that September (1866), while General Lee was riding out on the road to the Rockbridge Baths, he stopped at a roadside spring. He found some young men there who recognized him instantly, handed him a drink of water, and then told him about themselves. They were from Tennessee, they explained, and were prospective students at Washington College. Might they give him their introductions from General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ewell and others of his former officers? Lee read the letters — how often and in scenes how different had he opened messages from Ewell! — and inquired of the boys whither they were bound. To Rockbridge Baths, they said, to spend part of the time before the opening of college. Lee forthwith wrote and delivered them a line to the operator of the springs, John A. Harmon. "My dear Major," it read, "These are some of my new boys. Please take care of them."1

That note did more than win for the Tennesseeans the most cordial of welcomes at the baths; it displayed as well the spirit in which General Lee regarded the students of Washington College. He held them as his "boys" in his labor with them and in his hopes for them. His "boys" they were in the disciplinary system he had developed to such an extent by the beginning of his second session that its details may now be reviewed.2

His "boys" were not all boys. In fact he never called them "boys" to their faces. In private conversation as in official dealings, each of them was "Mister."3 Many of them were veterans of his own campaigns and wore beards.4 A few of them were reckless and violent, hardened by their experience in war and loose in their habits. College to them was a minor adventure, endurable only p276 because it offered opportunities for wassailing in the bars of the town and for hunting the defiant fox in the hills around Lexington. Other ex-soldiers, serious-minded, were typified by a young man who tramped all the way to the campus from Alabama, bringing with him his father's gold watch and three hundred dollars, all the family could raise for his schooling.5 These students worked with a zeal that set a standard for the college, and as they had obeyed General Lee's orders during the war, they cheerfully submitted themselves to his discipline now. They were indifferent to dress, had no money to waste, and were anxious to equip themselves as rapidly as possible for their careers.6 The third group consisted of boys who were just coming of the age to enter college and had not seen service in the army — "yearlings" they were styled by the veterans.7 Sons of rich men and of poor, they differed little, except in preparation, from those who crowd the registrars' offices today. Some of them had been spoiled at home and were sent to Lexington in the belief that the discipline and influence of General Lee would undo parental mistakes.8

For the well-being of a student-body so diversified and so difficult to handle, General Lee felt an obligation that sometimes weighted him down. Especially when he saw them together, in assembly, did their care hang heavily on him. Coming out of chapel one morning he was seen to be so much affected that he was asked if anything was wrong. "I was thinking," he answered simply, "of my responsibility to Almighty God for these hundreds of young men."9 He was mindful of every one of them, as will presently appear, but doubtless in his heart he was most moved by the struggles of his former soldiers, and by the persistence of those who bore the shackles of poverty. Yet he would not permit his veterans to lament the years during which they had worn the Southern uniform. A favorite and brilliant pupil he called to him one day and cautioned against overwork. The student defended himself. "I am so impatient," said he, "to make up for the time I lost in the army —." Lee flushed instantly. "Mr. Humphreys," he exclaimed in a tone but one pitch removed from p277 anger, "however long you live and whatever you accomplish, you will find that the time you spent in the Confederate army was the most profitably spent portion of your life. Never again speak of having lost time in the army!"10 So far as he could, he helped these former soldiers and the poorer students.11 To Humphreys he awarded a scholarship the donor had left to his nomination, and in Humphreys's interest he wrote a commendatory letter which that student, later a savant of distinction, cherished to the day of his death.12 Lee almost wept when the boy who had covered the long road from Alabama told him of his hopes and ambitions, and he arranged it that the stout-hearted youth should board cheaply in the country and should have employment, though it was only as a farm laborer, during the long vacation.13 He discovered that another lad from the far South, who was residing in the country to save expense, had no place to study between classes. Making a place for the boy in his office, he insisted that he work there, and when he missed him one day, he rode out to see if his young companion was sick.14

By diligent correspondence, he solicited work in summer for boys who needed money with which to complete their college course. Regarding an engineering student who sought a temporary position, he wrote the president of the James River and Kanawha Canal Company, "He is a very promising young man, of great energy & integrity of character & is willing to take any position in which he can make himself useful & earn his subsistence for the time. You may probably have known his father Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Col. Angus McDonald, who died during the war and left a widow & seven children, of whom H. is the eldest, six others are to be educated."15 Some students who could not get summer work or raise money among their friends were accepted, as already recorded, on credit, evidenced solely by their notes of hand.16

p278 General Lee initiated the honor system very soon after he came to Lexington, and made it the basis on which all students were received. Faculty visitation of dormitories and all forms of espionage were abolished. If any breach of discipline occurred or any injury was done to college property, he expected the students who were involved in it to report to him. "We have no printed rules," Lee told a new matriculate who asked for a copy. "We have but one rule here, and it is that every student must be a gentleman."17 The first and the final appeal was to the student's sense of honor.18 "As a general principle," he told a young professor, "you should not force young men to do their duty, but let them do it voluntarily and thereby develop their characters. The great mistake of my life was taking a military education."19 The code of the college, as Lee developed it, was positive though unprinted. The regulations, though few, were always enforced. "Make no needless rules," he admonished the faculty. And again, "We must never make a rule that we cannot enforce."20

Except in a few particulars, he did not attempt any compromise with the system he had inherited at West Point and had employed there. He turned away from it altogether,21 with the explanation that he was not training men for the army but for civil life. The discipline fitted to make men soldiers was not the best to qualify men for the duties of citizenship or for success in life. "For many years," said he, "I have observed the failure in business pursuits of men who have resigned from the army. It is very rare that any one of them has achieved success." He may even have gone so far as to emphasize by his own movements in the company of military men that he was no longer a soldier and was not disciplining cadets. It was noticed in Lexington that on occasions when the faculty and students of Washington College appeared with the staff and corps of the Virginia Military Institute, General Lee never marched in time with the drum-beat or kept step with the head of the other school.22 But though he put all the past behind him and administered the college as if he had never p279 exercised authority as a commanding general in the field, he drew a clear and constant distinction between military rule and self-controlled obedience to constituted authority. One of his oft-repeated maxims was, "Obedience to lawful authority is the foundation of manly character."23

The first application of the great fundamental — "be a gentleman" — was to the students' habits of study. The General countenanced no idleness. Even under the elective system, all students had to take at least fifteen hours of classroom work each week, and every man was required to belong to one or the other of the two literary societies.24 Although he was himself believed to prefer mathematics,25 Lee urged no particular courses on the boys, but he insisted that they attend regularly the classes in which they were registered.26 General holidays were few.27 At Christmas the men got only one day's intermission, or at most two. When the students threatened to "cut" classes because Lee would not allow them a long Christmas recess, he calmly warned them he would close the college if they did so.28 In partial compensation, the length of the session was reduced to a flat nine months. All requests for leaves of absence, even for a day, had to be passed upon personally by the president.29 He knew that the presence of most of the students represented some one's sacrifice in those difficult times, and he was determined that students should not waste what others had sweated to provide. A Georgia student absented himself from classes in order to share in the fine skating that a long and heavy freeze on North River afforded. Very soon there came a summons to the president's office. "Mr. [image ALT: an underscored blank]," said Lee in kindly tones, "I notice you have been absent for a number of recitations."

"Yes, sir," the boy answered truthfully, "I was skating on North River."

"Mr. [image ALT: an underscored blank], if you had asked for permission to go skating, your work is very good, and I would have given you permission with p280 pleasure. And now, Mr. [image ALT: an underscored blank], you know our Southern people are very poor, and to send you to college, your parents must be forced to economize, and deprive themselves of many things."

The boy choked up. "Stop, General Lee," he said, "you will never see me in your office again." And thereafter, to the end of General's life, that student gave no cause for complaint. One reminder of his parents' sacrifices was enough.30

A new matriculate from Confederate disdained both books and class attendance for his first month in college. When the reports came in, Lee sent for the boy and went over all his grades, asking if a mistake had been made in recording them. The student admitted that his marks were as good as he deserved. He had no excuse to make for his absences from class. Lee happened to be acquainted with the boy's parents and explained that he knew so poor a report would cause them great sorrow. If, again, the report was printed in the catalogue, it would humiliate them. "I do not know what to do," he said, and sat for a moment. Then, without another word, he quietly tore up the paper. The boy broke down and wept and, after a few words from Lee, promised to do his utmost. He redeemed his pledge in every particular.31

As with these two young men, so with many. In their awe of him, and in their affection of him, students rarely neglected the study they knew he valued so greatly. The standard of attainment at the college went higher and higher. Both from faculty and from students, the best was elicited.32

Lee's second application of the code of a gentleman was to the general deportment of the students. Unostentatiously and with few preachments, but hourly and earnestly, Lee sought the elevation of the boys' morals rather than the mere repression of vice, in the words of one of the members of his faculty.33 At the same time he waged active war on liquor. One day, while he was walking in Lexington, he saw a young man stagger from a bar-room, and he fired up instantly. "I wish," he said to his companion, p281 "that these military gentlemen, while they are doing so many things which they have no right to do, would close up all of these grog-shops, which are luring our young men to destruction."34 He had seen too much of the ill-effects of alcohol in the army not to make him regard it as a dangerous enemy. "My experience through life," he wrote a temperance society among the students, "has convinced me that, while moderation and temperance in all things are commendable and beneficial, abstinence from spirituous liquors is the best safeguard of morals and health."35 There was little hard drinking among the majority of the students,36 but those who fell deeply into their cups were expelled from the college. Lee was meticulous, however, in his insistence that guilt be beyond doubt.37 In one case, all the faculty were for sending a student home for frequenting bar-rooms and getting drunk. "Have any of you seen this young man intoxicated?" Lee asked. Nobody had. "Have any of you seen him entering bar-rooms?" None of them could affirm it. "We must be very careful how we are influenced by hearsay," the General concluded, in substance. "During the war at a time when my physical and mental strain was intense, I was reported to the executive as being habitually intoxicated and unfit for the discharge of my duties."38

More than one boy who slipped into imprudent drinking probably had much the same experience as the lad who was summoned to the president's office after the General had seen him a bit uncertain on his legs in the street.

"Mr. [image ALT: an underscored blank]," said Lee, when the student appeared, "I had occasion to write to your mother some time ago and it gave me great pleasure to tell her how well you were getting along in college."

The young man, thrown off his guard, could only answer p282 rhetorically, "I trust I may ever live worthy of your commendation."

Looking squarely at him, Lee went on, "Mr. [image ALT: an underscored blank], did it ever occur to you that when you reach middle life, you may need a stimulant, and if you have accustomed yourself to taking stimulants in your early life it will require so much more to have the desired effect at a time when you may need it?" How much better it would be, the General concluded, if the young man would leave intoxicants in his student days. The boy did.39

Good habits of worship Lee ranked with those of study and of general deportment. Compulsory chapel attendance he abolished at the close of his first year at the college, but he was always anxious that the students should be present and he sought various ways of assuring this.40 He was always at chapel himself, sitting in the same place, next the wall on the north side of the new building, in the second pew from the front.41 The college Y. M. C. A., which he did much to organize, always had his encouragement, his contribution, and his praise in his annual report.42 He invited the ministers of the town to act in turn as chaplain, and jointly to meet the students at the opening of the session. Painstakingly he prepared and sent each Lexington pastor a list of the matriculates of his faith, and he encouraged the clergymen to keep in touch with them.43

The General understood the ways of boys in church-going, however, and he was not mystified when his old chief of artillery, General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pendleton, the Episcopal rector, complained that many of the collegians of that denomination were attending the Presbyterian church, drawn no doubt, the old gunner gamely admitted, by the eloquence of the minister, Doctor Pratt. As Lee well knew, p283 Doctor Pratt had a very charming daughter, Grace, whom the young men of the dormitories much admired. So, when General Pendleton voiced his distress that Episcopal boys were flocking to the church of the Presbyterian orator, General Lee had the answer. "I rather think," said he, "that the attraction is not so much Doctor Pratt's eloquence as it is Doctor Pratt's Grace."44

Although he jested about this with Doctor Pendleton and took care never to preach to the boys, General Lee was in nothing more serious than in his concern for their spiritual well-being. "If I could only know that all the young men in the college were good Christians," he said on one occasion, "I should have nothing more to desire. I dread the thought of any student going away from the college without becoming a sincere Christian."45 He was careful to place in Christian homes the boys who boarded in town, and he frowned on anything, excursions in particular, that interfered with their Sabbath-day worship.46

To keep the peace was the last of the four simple requirements General Lee made of "his boys" in obedience to the first law of being a gentleman. Respect for good order meant something in the late sixties. For Lexington presented a field of more serious contention than the customary clashes between town and gown, or between the college boys and the "tooth picks," as the students for some obscure reason styled the local youths.47 The town had a Federal garrison part of the time, and was not always fortunate in the commander of the troops. To assist the Negroes, the freedmen's bureau was active. Agitators appeared frequently. Several times it seemed that issues were made by the military authorities simply to embarrass Lee.48 The students flashed with wrath whenever they thought that this was happening or that the General was being assailed. To protect him, they would balk at nothing. Lee, therefore, had constantly to keep the students in hand. In two instances, as will appear in course, matters grew serious. On all other occasions, Lee was able to forestall trouble. Sometimes he made formal written appeals to the students,49 as p284 on a rather exciting day when word got around that a radical who was to address a political meeting that night intended to abuse General Lee. Students averred they would break up the gathering, and made plans to do so. Hearing of this, the General summoned about a dozen of the student-leaders to his office and told them he desired the college people to stay away from the meeting. Although it was then after 3 o'clock, his wishes were communicated quickly to all the boys, and none of them went.50

Occasionally the students organized what they styled "callithumps," which consisted of a march into the town, and a tin-pan serenade. If there was no particular reason why they should not do so, the General occasionally let the boys satisfy in this fashion the primal urge to make a noise. But when there was danger of a clash with the military, or when the sick were likely to be disturbed, or when the "callithumps" were designed to annoy some "carpet-bagger" or "scallywag," the General exercised a veto, mild but firm. Sometimes he posted a formal request, which the young men dubbed "general orders."51 As often, he communicated with them through their own representatives. In every instance it was sufficient for him to say that he did not want them to make a disturbance. His wish was their law.52 A "monster callithumps," planned with enthusiasm, was unprotestingly abandoned when the president of one of the literary societies arose and announced, "Gentlemen, nothing doing tonight, Marse Robert says not."53 At his request, "callithumps" were completely abandoned in 1868.54

In administering this code of honor, General Lee was cognizant of the importance of what is now termed "college spirit." It was the academic equivalent of the esprit de corps that had made the Army of Northern Virginia terrible in battle. The only approach he ever made to a speech at the college, except when he conducted the closing exercises of the session, had to do with this quality. It was one night at a joint meeting of the literary societies, when he was standing on the floor, thronged by members. He told p285 them then, briefly, that it was "the duty of the students to do all in their power to add éclat to the exercises of the approaching commencement."55

These, then, were the things he required of "his boys" — that they be gentlemen in all things, that they study faithfully, that they hold to high moral standards, that they "remember their Creator," and that they keep the peace.

What he required of himself in his dealings with them was not so simple. He put his emphasis, first of all, on the individual. "We must not respect persons," a professor once contended in the course of a faculty argument. Lee answered quickly, "I always respect persons, and care little for precedent."56 The weak or the inexperienced boy who was making an effort was always sure of his understanding sympathy. "May I give you one piece of advice, sir?" he said to one of his younger teachers. . . . "Well, sir, always observe the stage-driver's rule. . . . Always take care of the poor horses."57

When a boy came to college for the first time, and entered his office to report, the General always rose to welcome him and greeted him with a graciousness that made the strange lad comfortable. He usually asked the newcomer what course of study he intended to follow, and though he never interfered with a matriculate's free election of his course, he sometimes would commend those who he thought had chosen wisely. In a few moments the student had been bowed out. If he was young, he was usually sent to board at a selected private home in the town.58 The older boys lived in the dormitory. In either case, for months, the boy might not see General Lee again, except at chapel or on p286 the walks. But he was not forgotten, and when he met the president, he was always addressed by name. For Lee always made it a point to identify every student. One boy came to the college from Baltimore, where he had been presented to the General at a reception, along with a host of others. As soon as he entered the General's office in Lexington, he was recognized by Lee and was greeted by name, with a recountal of the circumstances of their previous meeting.59 At a faculty meeting, when the roster was being read to see that all the students were taking sufficient work, General Lee repeated a name, emphasizing each syllable as if he were trying to recall the individual. Then, half-reproachfully, he exclaimed: "I have no recollection of a student of the name, it is very strange that I have forgotten him. I thought I knew every one in the college. How long has he been here?" He pursued the question until he was convinced that he had never seen the boy, who was a newcomer and had entered the college during his absence.60

General Lee knew the men's standing, too. "He is a very quiet, orderly young man," he said one day to caller who inquired about a student's progress, "but seems very careful not to injure the health of his father's son. He got last month" — he spoke without consulting the records — "only forty on his Greek, thirty-five on his Mathematics, forty-seven on his Latin, and fifty on his English, which is a very low stand, as 100 is our maximum. Now, I do not want our young men to really injure their health; but I wish them to come as near it as possible."61 In another instance, he expressed regret, when a student's name was mentioned at a faculty meeting, "that he has fallen back so far in his mathematics." The professor assured him he was mistaken: the p287 boy was one of the best in his class. "He got only fifty-four last month," Lee insisted. An appeal to the report proved him right. An error had been made in copying the student's standing.62 In both these cases, no doubt, Lee spoke with precision because he had the students on his mental list of those who needed special attention, but he always kept in mind the general level of a boy's performance. When the old-fashioned, all-day examinations were held, he would sit for an hour or two as the pupils wrestled with their questions.63 He judged results not by the number of new matriculates but by the number of old students who returned. "That," he said," is the measure of the success with which we have performed our duty."64 Even the more personal affairs of students were of concern to him. If they were extravagant in money matters he knew it.65 If their health was impaired, he investigated and counselled.66

The faculty met every week and reported those who were derelict. The General summoned them soon thereafter, through notes circulated by the college janitor, Lewis.67 At the end of each month, when fuller records of standing were filed by the professors, Lee put on the bulletin board a list of those whom he wished to see.68 In his office, alone, he received these delinquents, who usually were loath to discuss afterwards what happened between them and the General. The treatment probably was fitted to the patient, and usually it was administered in a few sentences, with a gentleness that impressed the student more than sternness would have done. Boys frequently came out in tears. Seldom did they have to go a second time into that drab room under the new chapel.69 Some of the things told them there p288 might be maxims for the guidance of youth in every age. For a youngster who was in rebellion against authority, he put a life-rule in a single sentence: "You cannot be a true man until you learn to obey."70 Occasionally, very occasionally, some boy would carry his defiance with him into the president's office. Then an explosion might occur, as in the case of a Kentuckian who kept chewing tobacco during a disciplinary interview. "Mr. [image ALT: an underscored blank]," said Lee, "chewing is particularly obnoxious to me. Go out and remove that quid, and never appear before me again chewing tobacco." Shortly afterwards the young man was before the president once more — and was chewing as vigorously as ever. Lee stopped for a moment and wrote a line or two on a sheet of paper. Then he turned quietly to the boy: "Mr. [image ALT: an underscored blank], here is a note for you. It will be posted on the college bulletin in ten minutes." The youngster, between chews, took the paper and read: "Mr. [image ALT: an underscored blank] is dismissed from Washington College for disrespect to the President." That was all. One who was in the school at the time observes: "Within three or four days the man went home, and during the interim of his remaining in Lexington, not a student would speak to him, and he left without a man of them going to see him off."71


[image ALT: zzz]
GENERAL LEE'S OFFICE IN THE BASEMENT OF THE CHAPEL AT WASHINGTON COLLEGE
The room remains today precisely as it was when he left it on the afternoon before his last illness began, September 28, 1870.º

Serious or persistent breaches were referred to General Lee by the faculty, or were brought up by him at the weekly meeting in order to get the professors' advice.72 The offender was interviewed and, if need be, his parent was notified. Here is a typical letter:

Lexington, Va., December 12, 1867.

My dear Sir:—

I am glad to inform you that [image ALT: an underscored blank] has made more progress in his studies during the month of November than he did in October, and, as far as I can judge from the reports of his professors, he is fully capable of acquiring a sound education, provided he will faithfully apply himself. I am sorry, however, to state that he has been absent several times from his lectures in p289 the month of November. Thirteen times he tells me he was prevented from attending by sickness, but five times, he says, he intentionally absented himself. He absented himself in the same way several times in October; and I then explained to him the necessity of punctual and regular attendance in his classes, which he promised to observe.

I have again impressed upon him this necessity, and again he promises amendment; but I have thought it proper to write to you on the subject, that you might use your authority with him; for I have been obliged to give him to understand that, if this conduct is repeated, I shall be obliged to return him to you.

Hoping I may be spared this necessity, I remain,

       With great respect, your obedient servant,
R. E. Lee.73

All other expedients failing, the General would direct a student to "withdraw." When this happened, reconsideration seldom followed, for a rule that Lee commended to his faculty was, "Never raise an issue which you are not prepared to maintainº at all hazards."74 This form of "withdrawal" was accounted far less discreditable than expulsion, and was almost always accompanied by as sympathetic a letter to parent or guardian as General Lee felt the facts warranted. "Under the circumstances," he wrote the father of one boy, "the Faculty deemed his longer connection with the College disadvantageous to him, and not beneficial to the Institution, and therefore required his withdrawal from college. I hope he may have reached home before you receive this, and that his experience here may be so far beneficial to him, as to teach him the necessity of steady application and untiring industry in whatever he undertakes."75

To a parent who asked that his son be readmitted after he had been ordered to leave the school, he wrote: "Notwithstanding their sympathies for him, his youth and sense of error, [the faculty] came to the resolution that they could not with propriety reverse their first decision, without the risk of encouraging the p290 other students to do the same thing under the expectation of like immunity, by which not only the lives of others, but of themselves, might be involved."76

He addressed this to a man in public life: "It is with extreme regret that I inform you that it had become necessary for your son, Mr. [image ALT: an underscored blank], to leave College. In consequence of his frank acknowledgment and written promise of future good behavior, his misconduct on a former occasion was overlooked by the Faculty, and he was restored to his classes; but he has been unable to keep the pledge then given; and even if he could be permitted, he is unwilling to remain under the circumstances. I have therefore authorized him to return home and his connection with the College is dissolved. I hope this severe lesson will teach him the self-command he so much needs, and enable him to refrain from a vice, which, if it becomes a habit, may prove his ruin. He is a youth of good capacity, candor and truth. These qualities have endeared him to the members of the Faculty, and I trust his future course will reinstate him in their good opinion, and in the confidence of his comrades."77

In February, 1869, a lad got into some scrape and left college. His mother wrote to the General asking about the affair. He replied painstakingly and concluded: "On the first arrival of your son at College I was agreeably impressed by his appearance and manners and was anxious that he should be favorably located. Until the occurrence which caused him to leave College, I had remarked nothing objectionable in his conduct, but what might be attributed to youthful indiscretion and thoughtlessness and as one of these instances was calculated to teach him to what such conduct might reasonably lead, I was in hopes his own good sense would correct it. I however hope that this last occurrence will teach him a lesson that he will never forget, and save him and you from any future distress. I hope that he has safely reached you before this and that his contrition and conduct will relieve you from further anxiety."78

Still again, in January, 1870, he had to write a minister that three protégés of his had decided to leave college. The rest of p291 his letter so well illustrates his methods of dealing with the eternal problem of youth that it is worth quoting in extenso:

"Impressed by their appearance and manners and the high character they brought with them, I caused them to be introduced into the family of one of the most worthy gentlemen of the city, Mr. David E. Moore, where I hoped they would find many of the comforts of home, with the social and family influences to which they were accustomed. For the first two months of the session their progress was good, and attention to their lectures and studies regular, but during the latter part of December their attendance has been irregular and their studies have been neglected. I have from week to week during this time called their attention to the impropriety of this course, as far as the Messrs.[image ALT: an underscored blank] were concerned, and urged upon them the necessity of strict and regular attendance upon their classes. Mr. [image ALT: an underscored blank] always gave indisposition as the reason for his absences which of course I gave credit to. From facts that have come to the knowledge of the Faculty, it is their opinion that the neglect of their studies by these young gentlemen, especially the Messrs. [image ALT: an underscored blank] has been caused by frequenting the public billiard room in Lexington where they have wasted much of their time and money the past month. The cause whatever it may be is much to be regretted for I had hoped that they would have derived all the benefits of the instruction of the College and have laid the foundation for a solid education. As I know the great interest you take in these young gentlemen and as you did me the kindness to give them a letter to me I have thought I ought to make you the foregoing statement, lest you attribute their leaving College to graver causes."79

These were not easy letters to write or pleasant letters to receive. Answers to them were not always indited in a considerate spirit. The father of one boy who had been guilty of a serious violation of the college code provoked the General greatly by a long apology. "Now it is evident to my mind," said Lee to a member of the faculty, "that this is a disingenuous letter. He does not p292 fairly represent the facts, and will completely ruin his son, as well as seriously interfere with our discipline. Now, sir, I will show you what I have written him in reply." It was a very keen, flawlessly polite rebuke, but the professor, who was acquainted with the man to whom the letter was addressed, knew that its point would be entirely lost on its recipient. He told General Lee so. The General was perplexed. "Well, sir," he said at length, "I cannot help it; if a gentleman can't understand the language of a gentleman, he must remain in ignorance, for a gentleman cannot write in any other way."80

When students' shortcomings were not serious enough to justify expulsion, Lee occasionally suspended them. In such case it was his custom to exact a written pledge that the offensive conduct would not be repeated. In at least one instance it seems that the giving of such a pledge and the lifting of the suspension were made a matter of collegiate record and probably were announced on the bulletin board.81

Further down the list were cases of indolence, of mistakes in courses, of discouragement, and of restlessness. All these General Lee handled personally. He conferred with every man who wanted to attend another school82 or quit college,83 with all those who desired to make changes in their classes,84 and even with those who sought temporary leaves of absence.85 The lazy lad he sometimes prodded with a spur of humor. "How is your mother?" he asked one boy. "I am sure you must be devoted to her; you are so careful of the health of her son."86 The overconfident he took down quickly. "This young man is going to graduate in one p293 session," he said as he introduced a cocksure youngster to one of the professors. The boy expostulated: he had been misunderstood. He meant two years, not one. "Ah," said the General, "he has concluded to postpone it for a session. Well, sir, I wish you the full realization of your hopes; but I must tell you that you will have no time to play baseball."87 The student who failed in a final examination, he sometimes allowed another trial.88

Those who got in trouble because of a prank that had no hurtful intent were sure of a merciful hearing. In the winter of 1866‑67, John M. Graham, a matriculate from Tennessee, found his supply of wood diminishing with rapidity. Suspecting that one of the Negro janitors was helping himself to the hickory, Graham loaded a stick with gunpowder and left it temptingly on the pile in his room. Next morning the stove in Professor Joyne's classroom blew up, and the place was set afire. The flames were quickly put out and small damage was done, but there was a first-class sensation, for Joynes insisted that the act was malicious. General Lee brought up the matter at chapel the following day and asked that any student who knew anything about the affair would report at his office that morning. Reasoning that the janitor had stolen his wood to feed Professor Joynes's fire, rather than go through the snow to the college woodpile, Graham took a companion with him, to bear him witness, and went to see the General. He related his story and explained how he had set a trap for the thief. "But, General," he had the wit to conclude, "I didn't know it was Professor Joynes." Lee laughed. "Well, Mr. Graham, your plan to find out who was taking your wood was a good one, but your powder charge was too heavy. Next time use less powder."89 There the matter ended.

Another youngster, who absented himself too frequently from class, was called to give account of his wasted hours. Terror-stricken in the presence of the old chieftain, the boy stammered out something about an illness and then, realizing that he looked perfectly healthy, he started to tell about having left his boots at the shoemaker's. "Stop, Mr. [image ALT: an underscored blank], stop, sir! One good reason is enough," said Lee. The student added, years later, in telling the p294 story: "I could not be mistaken about the twinkle in the old hero's eyes."90 Such calls to the General's office, whatever the outcome, were not relished. When a student emerged from the ordeal, his fellow-collegians often asked, "Who said 'Good-morning' first," or, in other words, did the victim know when the General was through with him?91

Lee did not wait until a boy was in trouble to counsel him. When a lad needed encouragement, he called him in.92 If a student had made a mistake of taste in a public speech and had abused the "Yankees," Lee counselled him in moderation.93 Once a year he wrote to the parents of every boy who had done well a letter in which the student was commended;94 and at the end of the session he often added an autographed line of approbation to the student's final report.95 In addition, during the later years of his administration, he kept a list of "distinguished undergraduates,"96 one of the few echoes of West Point.

The General did not mingle with the students, as a rule,97 but he made them feel that he had a personal interest in them. Meeting a small group of his "boys" in the street, he would omit none of them in his greeting.98 Whether in public or in private, his tone of voice in speaking to them was low, but his enunciation was so clear that every word was distinct.99 When students came to ask him to autograph pictures he did so cheerfully and without protest.100 Those who had bereavement at home were excused from classes without red tape. Many were received by his daughters in his home, though he firmly manoeuvred to see that they respected the law of the parlor by leaving at 10 o'clock.101 When students' parents came to Lexington, he always called on them, much to their satisfaction and vastly to the enlargement of the students' pride.102 The timid boy he never overlooked. At commencement, in 1869, a stage carrying a group of students to the railroad stopped in front of the president's residence for one p295 of the Misses Lee. While the vehicle was waiting, all except a retiring youngster piled out and went into the house to say good-bye to the General. He chatted with them awhile, and then, learning there was one boy still on the stage, he went out and talked to him until the vehicle started.103

They felt his influence, did those boys of his, from the first time they went into his office to register. Although not actually afraid of him, they were most anxious not to offend him. Standing in awe of him, they yet had an exalted affection for him. Some of them thought they saw in his face the whole tragedy of the war, but the discerning knew he had kindness and humor of a kind. One student's sharpest recollection of the General was of the manner in which he "laughed inwardly" at a lecturer's jokes.104

Few as were the evidences of Lee's discipline, it was effective with the students.105 He "had the power to bring out," wrote one of his boys, years after, "and did bring out, the very best that there was in every student."106 "No college in the land," asserted one of the ministers who served at the chapel, "had a harder-working Faculty or a better-behaved, more orderly set of students."107 Said one of his professors: "We doubt . . . whether at any other college in the world so many young men could have been found as free from misconduct, or marked by as high a tone of feeling and opinion, as were the students of Washington College during these latter years of General Lee's life."108

Once, however, Lee met with defeat in his dealings with the students; once they rebelled successfully. That was toward the end of the session of 1865‑66, when General Pendleton undertook on Friday afternoons to give a course in declamation. The students either resented having to take what they considered a class better suited to the preparatory school than to the college, or else they disliked the oratorical style of the old artillerist. In their first protest, they adroitly pinned papers to the tail of Pendleton's coat as he went up the aisle, applauded him noisily before he said anything, and then bombarded him with wads of paper. The p296 General indignantly lectured them on bad manners and managed to finish the hour, but he complained to General Lee. At the next recitation, when Lee himself sat in the classroom, all, of course, was peaceful. But the following week, when Pendleton again essayed to face the boys alone, the members of the class enlisted some confederates who stood outside the windows and yelled and blew horns. Then, when the minister refused to capitulate, some one threw into the room a dog with a tin can tied to his tail. The mad flight of the animal completed the chaos. General Pendleton denounced such rudeness and quit — to come no more.109 For that one time, Lee was powerless, and all the influence he had built up did not avail to force the students to listen to Pendleton's discourses on how to recite Rienzi to the Romans, or Mark Anthony's oration, or Patrick Henry's cry, "Give me Liberty or give me death!"

It was never so in anything else, either while the boys were in college or thereafter. For Lee's influence over his students did not end when he handed them their degrees and declared them graduates of Washington College. It followed them and helped to shape their lives through the difficult years of poverty that preceded the South's recovery. To this day there remains a thinning company whose proudest boast is that its members were General Lee's "boys" at Lexington. They have not forgotten that he said of them: "My only object is to endeavor to make them see their true interest, to teach them to labor diligently for their improvement, and to prepare themselves for the great work of life."110 And again: "I have a self-imposed task, which I must accomplish. I have led the young men of the South in battle; I have seen many of them fall under my standard. I shall devote all my life now to training young men to do their duty in life."111

It was not easy to watch the welfare of nearly 400 boys, and it was not always pleasant to keep in hand all the small details and close economies of a poor, overcrowded college. The weight of his people's sorrow lay on his heart, all the while, and in his mind he sometimes had to do battle with many memories. He was p297 sustained in it all by the self-mastery that was, in large sense, one expression of his religion. Belief in God's mercy and submission to His will, in a faith that never seemed to be troubled by doubt, were stronger after Appomattox, if that were possible, than before. There was little of the personal evangelist in his make-up. "I find it so hard," said he, "to keep one poor sinner's heart in the right way that it seems presumptuous to try to keep others," but he did speak of religion when he thought he could help,112 and he was deeply interested in religious revivals, such as that which swept the V. M. I. in May, 1869.113 He was not an ascetic. Discussing Lent, he said: "The best way for most of us is to fast from our sins and to eat what is good for us."114a His sense of the practical showed itself in his religion, as in everything else. When a minister at chapel fell into the habit of praying so long that classes were delayed, Lee asked a member of the faculty, "Would it be wrong for me to suggest that he confine his morning prayers to us poor sinners at the college, and pray for the Turks, the Jews, the Chinese, and the other heathen some other time?"115 He believed in regular church attendance, and usually when his own church was open for service he was to be seen in his pew, the second from the pulpit and directly in front of the chancel. Always he knelt during the prayers, and loyally he listened to Doctor Pendleton's sermon.116 Sometimes attention was bought at a price. Under the gallery, perpendicular to the other seats, ran a long bench on which sat some of the McDonald boys, who were too numerous to get into the family pew that adjoined General Lee's. Often, during the rector's discourse, which was not among the briefest of human utterances, one or another of the McDonald lads would go to sleep and would fall to the floor with a thud. It must have been very diverting to most of the congregation, which doubtless looked forward to it, but it never caused the General even to change expression.117

The General had family prayers every morning before breakfast,118 but his own spiritual life was bound up with the daily Bible reading and with special seasons of private devotions. The Bible p298 was to him the book of books — "a book," he wrote, "which supplies the place of all others, and . . . cannot be replaced by any other."119 He received various copies of the Bible, both for himself and for the college,120 but the one he used was a pocket edition he had carried with him in all his campaigning since he had been a lieutenant colonel in the United States army.121 He was interested deeply in the work of Bible societies and served as president of the Rockbridge organization.122 Even for the circulation of small religious newspapers he was willing to make a personal effort.123

Thus far it is easy to proceed in analyzing Lee's religion in after-war days. Beyond this it is not possible to go. Simple as was his soul, he had "meat to eat that ye know not of."


The Author's Notes:

1 J. W. Ewing in Riley, 70.

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2 It will be understood, of course, that in this topical chapter the illustrative incidents did not all occur in the first two years of General Lee's administration.

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3 S. M. Yonge's MS. Recollections of Washington College under General Lee (cited hereafter as S. M. Yonge MS.).

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4 McDonald, 10.

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5 Riley, 131.

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6 Riley, 55.

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7 McDonald, 10.

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8 For conditions generally in the student-body, see Jones, 123, quoting J. L. Kirkpatrick.

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9 Riley, 107.

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10 Riley, 39.

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11 Cf. R. E. Lee to M. D. Hoge, MSS., Jan. 23 and Feb. 27, 1869; Lee's MS. Letter Book.

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12 R. E. Lee to W. L. Ewing, Feb. 13, 1867; Lee's MS. Letter Book.

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13 Riley, 131, quoting J. J. Allen.

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14 62 Harpers Weekly, 412.

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15 R. E. Lee to Major Chas. S. Carrington, MS., July 2, 1867; Freeman MSS. This letter was given the writer by R. M. Lynn of Washington, D. C.

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16 Trustees' Minutes, Aug. 4, 1865; R. E. Lee to Rudolph Kliberg, MS., Feb. 19, 1870, Lee's MS. Letter Book. Cf. also Committee on Loan Fund, MS. Faculty Minutes, Sept. 29, 1870. In one instance, the college received a student in return for a portrait of Chief Justice Marshall (R. E. Lee to Mrs. A. L. J.; MS., March 24, 1870, Lee's MS. Letter Book.

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17 Collyar in Riley, 66. As a matter of fact, the college had an ancient set of rules that covered, in some respects, the conduct of students, but not in the sense this inquirer and General Lee meant.

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18 Ewing, in Riley, 71.

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19 Humphreys, in Riley, 38.

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20 Joynes, in Cent. U. S. C., 33; cf. infra, p289.

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21 Gordon, in Riley, 84.

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22 Humphreys, in Riley, 35.

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23 Riley, 18, 20; Kirkpatrick in Jones, 94.

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24 Riley 26, 61; cf. ibid., 136.

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25 Riley, 134.

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26 Joynes, Cent. U. S. C., 23; Riley, 136.

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27 Cf. Jones, 107; Riley, 143; Cf. also Lexington Gazette, Dec. 16, 1868: "Last Monday the students of Washington College asked General Lee for a holiday, that they might enjoy the skating on the River. The General let them slide."

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28 Gordon in Riley, 84.

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29 Cf. MS. Faculty Minutes, Dec. 14, 1869.

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30 MS. Memoir of J. F. Minis, Savannah, Ga., kindly supplied the author.

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31 16 Confederate Veteran, 455‑6. Sometimes he would tell indifferent students, "I have a way of estimating young men which does not often fail me. I cannot note the conduct of any one, for even a brief period, without finding out what sort of a mother he had. You all honor your mothers: need I tell you that I know you will have that honor in reverent keeping?" (Mrs. Preston, 274).

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32 Joynes, in Jones, 126.

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33 Jones, 122, quoting Joynes.

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34 Jones, 169‑70.

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35 R. E. Lee to S. G. M. Miller et al.,º Dec. 9, 1869; Jones, 170. It was in talking with some of his students that Lee told how he had been able to dispense with spirits. He said: "When I went into the field, at the beginning of the war, a good lady friend of mine gave me two sealed bottles of very superb French brandy. I carried them with me through the entire campaign; and when I met my friend again, I gave her back both her bottles of brandy, with the seals unbroken. It may have been some comfort to me to know that I had them in case of sudden emergency, but the moment never came when I needed to use them." He prefaced this story by saying: "Men need no stimulant; it is something, I am persuaded, that they can do without" (Mrs. Preston, 273‑74).

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36 S. M. Yonge MS.

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37 E.g., MS. Faculty Minutes, Jan. 28, 1869.

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38 Riley, 36, quoting Humphreys.

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39 Riley, 114‑15.

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40 The late Professor C. A. Graves, who was in the college at the time, was authority for the statement that compulsory attendance was abolished after Lee's first year in Lexington. The collateral evidence is to the same effect. The catalogues continued, through inadvertence on the part of some one, to carry a notice that attendance on chapel and on one church service on Sunday was obligatory (Riley, 24‑25; MS. Faculty Minutes, Sept. 16, 1868; Sept. 8, 1867; Sept. 12, 1870. Cf. Jones, 111, 441. MS. note of C. A. Graves to the writer, Dec. 9, 1927).

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41 Riley, 99 n.

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42 Riley, 25; Jones, 441. He gave it $50 per annum during the first part of his administration (Riley, 194), and during the last year $100 (Jones, 432).

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43 Riley, 66; see also C. A. Graves in ibid., 22‑31; Jones, 121‑22, 123, 286, 440, Trustees' Minutes, July 17, 1866.

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44 Riley, 62.

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45 Riley, 25. See Jones, 440, for a somewhat similar statement so rhetorical as not to sound like General Lee.

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46 Riley, 133.

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47 McDonald, 10.

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48 Jones, L. and L., 428.

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49 Jones, 104‑5.

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50 Riley, 85.

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51 Joynes, in Cent. U. S. C., 25. For a detailed description of the callithumps, see 14 Confederate Veteran, 177.

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52 Riley, 61, 122, 137.

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53 Riley, 111.

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54 S. M. Yonge MS.

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55 Riley, 26, quoting C. A. Graves.

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56 Joynes, in Cent. U. S. C., 33.

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57 Riley, 28, quoting C. A. Graves.

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58 Cf. Lee to Captain A. P. Pfifer, MS., June 15, 1869: "The regulation of Washington College, which allows and encourages young men to reside in the town of Lexington is considered by us to be very advantageous to the students themselves. It separates them into small groups, where they are removed from the temptations that may be incident to the residence of large bodies of young men in the same building, and it brings [them] under the influence of family life and associations, which we regard as very useful both to their morals and their manners. The policy of the Faculty is rather to encourage students, especially the younger ones, to board in this way, and the result we think has been very favorable. Board and lodging can be had for students in the most respectable families of Lexington, where they will receive the best influences. On the other hand, also, the opportunity is afforded of rooming in the College, and boarding at the College Hotel, at a lower rate, so far as the accommodations of the College will permit" (Lee's MS. Letter Book).

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59 Riley, 106.

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60 Jones, 99; Mrs. Preston, 273. Only once in Lexington was it recorded of Lee that he did not recognize a man he had previously met. In that case, after Lee had found out the visitor's name, he was much ashamed that he had not recalled him. "I ought to have recognized him at once," the General said. "He spent at least an hour in my quarters in the city of Mexico just after its occupation by the American army, and although I have never seen him since" — there had been but one interview — "he made a very agreeable impression upon me, and I ought not to have forgotten him" (Jones, 237). H. M. Field (Bright Skies and Dark Shadows, 301) stated that Professor White told him that when the two were walking together and approached students, Lee would ask White the boys' names so that he might call them; not if this was so, it was because the General could not identify their features at a distance. It is certain, from a great variety of evidence, that he knew all the student-body.

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61 Jones, 129.

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62 Jones, 130.

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63 Riley, 27. Occasionally the students' struggle with their examinations provoked Lee's secret mirth instead of his sympathy. Observing one boy who gazed and gazed at his examiner without uttering a word, Lee laughed and whispered, "He is trying to absorb it from Mr. Humphreys," the teacher (M. W. Humphreys in Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jan. 20, 1907).

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64 Humphreys, loc. cit.

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65 Riley, 32; R. E. Lee to W. A. Patrick, MS., Feb. 10, 1870; Lee's MS. Letter Book.

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66 R. E. Lee to A. Lessums, MS., May 16, 1867; Lee's MS. Letter Book; H. M. Field: Bright Skies and Dark Shadows, 300; Humphreys, loc. cit. Lee gave Humphreys some flannel undershirts that Mrs. Lee had made for the General from goods that had run the blockade.

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67 Riley, 126.

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68 Riley, 61.

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69 Jones, 100‑101, 284; Riley, 44, 47, 51, 57, 110.

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70 Joynes, in Cent. U. S. C., 35.

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71 MS. Memoir of J. F. Minis.

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72 "On motion of Prof. Allan it was resolved that Messrs. [five students] be sent for by the President and admonished because of their conduct in the public streets of Lexington on Saturday Feb. 22nd, which consisted in riding at full speed up and down the streets and was so disorderly as to attract general attention" (MS. Faculty Minutes, Feb. 24, 1868).

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73 Jones, 102; cf. ibid., 253.

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74 Joynes, in Cent. U. S. C., 33. Cf. supra, p278.

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75 Lee's MS. Letter Book, Jan. 28, 1867, to unnamed gentleman.

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76 R. E. Lee to H. S. M. [image ALT: an underscored blank], MS., Jan. 31, 1867; Lee's MS. Letter Book.

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77 R. E. Lee to [image ALT: an underscored blank]; MS., March 8, 1867; Lee's MS. Letter Book.

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78 R. E. Lee to Mrs. [image ALT: an underscored blank]; MS., Feb. 12, 1869; Lee's MS. Letter Book.

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79 R. E. Lee to Reverend B. B. Blair, MS., Jan. 17, 1870; Lee's MS. Letter Book.

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80 Jones, 285‑86.

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81 MS. Faculty Minutes, Feb. 26 and March 1, 1870.

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82 Cf. Lee to Reverend B. T. Lacy (MS., Oct. 9, 1865), who had been one of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jackson's chaplains and most useful in the Chancellorsville campaign: "Mr. Henson seemed to prefer attending a classical school. . . . I did not attempt to influence him as the great object for him is to receive the best education. I need not tell you the advantages of a college course over all academies. The benefits of instruction from specific Professors in each branch of learning, and the emulation and encouragement derived from intercourse with a number of young men engaged in the same pursuit, and all striving for pre-eminence. The future of our country depends upon our youth. Whatever we may lost, I hope our moral and intellectual culture may be preserved. It is therefore of primary importance that all should use to the best advantage the means at their disposal" (Original in New York Historical Society). For Lacy, see supra, vol. II, pp521 ff.

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83 MS. Faculty Minutes, Jan. 6, Jan. 13, Feb. 10, March 2, June 1, Nov. 3, 1868; Jan. 5, 1869; Feb. 1, 1870.

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84 Riley, 33, 117; MS. Faculty Minutes, Jan. 6, Jan. 13, March 30, Nov. 24, 1868.

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85 MS. Faculty Minutes, March 2, May 18, 1868.

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86 Joynes in Cent. U. S. C., 35.

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87 Jones, 244.

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88 MS. Faculty Minutes, June 15, 1870.

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89 Riley, 71‑72.

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90 R. E. Lee,º 332.

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91 Mrs. Preston, 300.

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92 Riley, 124.

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93 Riley, 82.

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94 Cf. R. E. Lee to Boaz Ford, Cartersville, Va., MS., June 28, 1870, for a copy of which the writer is indebted to Jackson Davis, LL.D.

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95 Riley, 60, 116, 117.

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96 Riley, 127.

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97 Riley, 142.

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98 Riley, 140.

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99 13 Confederate Veteran, 359‑60.

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100 Riley, 46, 57, 110.

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101 Riley, 72, 92, 109, 118; R. E. Lee, Jr., 245.

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102 Joynes in Cent. U. S. C., 31.

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103 Riley, 63.

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104 Riley, 50.

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105 Riley, 51, 61, 122; Joynes in Cent. U. S. C., 25.

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106 Judge Robert Ewing, in Riley, 58.

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107 Jones, 284. Cf. ibid., 122. During the session of 1869‑70, only 6 students in a body of nearly 350 had to be disciplined (Trustees' Minutes, June 22, 1870).

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108 Joynes, in Jones, 123.

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109 M. W. Humphreys in Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jan. 20, 1907; 14 Confederate Veteran, 177‑78.

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110 R. E. Lee to C. F. Deems, Aug. 4, 1866; Jones, 247.

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111 H. W. Hilliard at the Augusta, Ga., Memorial Meeting, Jones, 120‑21, 476.

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112 Jones, 433.

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113 R. E. Lee, Jr., 352.

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114 Riley, 100.

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115 Jones, 426.

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116 Jones, 425.

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117 McDonald, 9.

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118 Cf. Jones, 480.

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119 R. E. Lee to F. R. Farrar, Sept. 19, 1867, Jones, 114‑15. He told J. William Jones: "There are many things in the old Book which I may never be able to explain, but I accept it as the infallible word of God, and receive its teachings as inspired by the Holy Ghost (Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jan. 20, 1907). Cf. to Markie Williams, Dec. 20, 1865: "I prefer the Bible to any other book. There is enough in that, to satisfy the most ardent thirst for knowledge; to open the way to true wisdom; and to teach the only road to salvation and eternal happiness. It is not above human comprehension, and is sufficient to satisfy all its desires" (Markie Letters, 65).

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120 Cf. R. E. Lee to A. W. Beresford Hope, April 16, 1866; Jones, 431; and R. E. Lee to A. B. Grosart, April 30, 1866; Jones, 250.

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121 Jones, 427; Riley, 189.

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122 Jones, 427; cf. R. E. Lee to Reverend George Woodbridge, April 5, 1866; Jones, 431. Cf. ibid., 256, for a letter regarding a Bible alleged to have belonged to him that had been stolen from Arlington. "If the lady who has it will use it as I hope she will, she will herself seek to restore it to its rightful owner. I will, therefore, leave the decision of the question to her and her conscience."

[decorative delimiter]

123 R. E. Lee to Miss Fauntleroy, MS., Jan. 19, 1869, Lee's MS. Letter Book, apropos of the distribution of The Little Gleaner.


Thayer's Note:

a The best way for most of us is to fast from our sins and to eat what is good for us: This is extraordinarily reminiscent of the sayings of the Desert Fathers, which, however, it is unlikely Lee had read; I suspect it worked its way into his psyche from a sermon by someone who had.


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