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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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Vol. IV
p333
Chapter XIX

The Return to Petersburg

Rooney Lee, it will be remembered, had lost his high-born wife, Charlotte Wickham, during December, 1863, while he was a prisoner of war. In 1867, when he was thirty, Rooney — Fitzhugh now in the General's correspondence — began to pay attention to another girl of fine station, Miss Mary Tabb Bolling, a daughter of G. M. Bolling of Petersburg, Va. By August of that year it was known in the Lee family that Rooney hoped to marry her. His father heard the news with interest, for he had met her during the siege of Petersburg and he liked her. After the General had returned from the springs in September, 1867, word came that the charming lady had capitulated to the cavalryman. The General promptly wrote Rooney his unqualified congratulations. "I have the most pleasant recollection of 'Miss Tabb,' " he said, "and of her kindness to me, and now that she has consented to be my daughter the measure of my gratitude is filled to overflowing. I hope she will not delay the consummation, for I want to see her very much, and I fear she will not come to see me until then. You must present her my warm love, and you both must accept my earnest prayers and most fervent wishes for your future happiness and prosperity."1

As soon as the approximate date for the wedding was set, the General was most warmly urged to attend the ceremonies. His mind was reluctant. He had not yet entirely recovered from the illness of the summer,2 and, in the second place, he told himself he would have little opportunity of seeing his son and the bride in the rush of a great affair. But his chief reason for declining, though he may not have realized it, lay very much deeper, in his most personal and most profound reactions to the outcome of the war. He had never been disturbed about his own fate and he had never pitied himself. Broken-hearted and despairing he never p334 had been. He had agonized, however, over the plight of the Southern people, so many of whom, in person or by letter, had poured out their sorrows to him. The grief that many saw in his face after the war, it may be repeated, was wholly theirs, grief for the maimed men who were losing their battle to earn a living, grief for the women who were trying to rear children without a father, and grief for a land that had lost its power and wealth and now lay shackled and prostrate. For none was that grief keener than for the people of Petersburg, that stout-hearted city of grim memory. In them he saw the suffering of the whole South. Never did he think of them otherwise than with the deepest sorrow, and he dreaded to visit again the scenes of his travail of soul during the last winter of the war.3

But what would be the wedding of a Lee if the General were not present? How, indeed, could there be fitting nuptials without him? Fitzhugh must have felt sharply the point of the question, for he journeyed to Lexington and so persuasively pleaded his case that the General consented to attend. Lee's first plan was to visit his sons on their farms and then to go on to Petersburg, but he abandoned this idea and prepared to proceed by way of Richmond only. He ordered in the old capital a new suit of broadcloth for the occasion,4 perhaps the first clothes he had bought since the war, except the trousers made near Derwent. From necessary economy he had been wearing his old gray coats.5

While the arrangements for the wedding were being matured, General Lee was served with a subpoena to appear as a witness on November 26 at the Federal circuit court in Richmond. Custis was summoned, also. It was assumed, though not certainly known, that some new step was to be taken in the trial of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.President Davis. Either by chance or else to save the cost and trouble of a second trip, the ceremonies were definitely set for November 28, during the week the General was to appear in Richmond. Consequently, when he left Lexington it was on a double mission, half joyful, half sad, half social, half legal.

p335 Accompanied by Custis, he reached Richmond on the afternoon of November 25, and went to the Exchange Hotel, where Rooney was awaiting him.6 Lee had been to the city only once since he had left for Oakland, late in June, 1865, and on that single visit, in the interest of the college, he had kept very much in retirement. Now he felt he could allow himself social pleasure without making himself conspicuous. Some activity would have been forced on him, perhaps, even if he had been unwilling. After supper, on his first evening at the hotel, when he attempted to go through the lobby, he was at once surrounded by men who knew him and had served under him. All of them greeted him with great cordiality. Strangers and Northerners joined the crowd that sought to shake his hand.7 It was the first time since the war that a promiscuous crowd in any Southern city had the opportunity of showing its affection for him, and its admiration of the course he had pursued after Appomattox. He may have been surprised and moved by this spontaneous warmth of welcome, but he was destined to discover that every other city of the South had the same feeling for him.

When he could escape from the hotel he started on a round of visits. One was to the Caskies', at the southeast corner of Eleventh and Clay,8 which had been one Richmond home of his family before they had moved to the Stewart house on Franklin Street. Mildred was now visiting Norvell Caskie and was very happy, her father wrote, because she had a train "about two yards longer" than her young hostess's.9

During the course of the evening, General Lee went also to Judge Ould's, and there, for the first time since that black March of 1865, he saw Jefferson Davis. The former President had come to Richmond to appear before the Federal court on the treason charge. Neither of the two leaders of the Confederacy nor any one who witnessed the meeting left any record of what they said p336 or how they looked as they faced each other, both of them under indictment, there in the old capital, now a part of Military District No. 1, garrisoned by their one-time adversaries. Probably the conversation was deliberately social and casual, for a number of people were present. "[He] looks astonishingly well, "General Lee wrote Mrs. Lee, "and is quite cheerful. He inquired particularly after you all."10

The next day, November 26, obedient to the summons of the court, General Lee presented himself at the Federal building, whither he had gone so often during the war to confer with the chief executive. He found Mr. Davis there once again, ready to be tried if the government chose, and he had a long and pleasant chat with his former chief as they waited. The expectation had been that the chief justice would come down from Washington and sit with Judge Underwood, but as Chase did not appear, all that could be done was to impanel a grand jury. Though the reason for this was not announced, it was with an eye to drawing a new and fuller indictment against Mr. Davis.11

The jury was "mixed," white men and Negroes, and it was harangued at length by the judge.12 Upon its retirement, the clerk read the list of witnesses. Lee's name came first. Spectators grew silent, awaiting his answer. They were disappointed, for the General was in another room at the moment and did not hear the crier. The district attorney rose immediately and explained obligingly that Lee was in the city and would be ready at any time to go before the grand jury. Other witnesses were thereupon called. For the remainder of November 26, Lee was overwhelmed with visitors. Every one knew he was in Richmond; every one, it seemed, was anxious to call on him.13 He spent an exceedingly busy ten hours and must have been as weary as he was gratified.

The grand jury took its time and did not summon the General again until the next day. Ushered in at 2 P.M., he was subjected p337 to the jury's inquisition.14 He was, of course, an unwilling witness. Judging from the indictment returned on March 26, 1868, the evidence he was required to give the jurors had to do solely with known military movements, which the grand jury presented as proof of armed insurrection against the authority of the United States.15 Apparently there was no effort to probe into the personal relations of President Davis and General Lee, and no attempt to bring out any of the inner history of the Confederacy. The whole of the treason proceedings, in fact, dealt with facts familiar to every American of the time. After his two hours in the jury room, General Lee was excused from further attendance.16

The following afternoon, November 28, he joined the large wedding party that was to go over to Petersburg, a distance of twenty-two miles, on a special car attached to the regular train.

Perhaps the restraint of the jury room was still upon him. Doubtless memories, as bitter as brave, had been aroused by the questioning of the grand jury. All these were revived as the train made its way southward. The wedding guests were chattering and laughing, as youth has a right to do; the General sat silent and sad-faced. In spite of his rule to think of the past as little as he could, he must have been pondering all the black yesterdays brought up as he passed places of bloody contest and familiar name — Drewry's Bluff, the Howlett Line, Bermuda Hundred, and Port Walthall Junction, where Whiting had failed Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Beauregard. A little more and Lee would approach the bridges over which part of the army had passed that dreadful night of April 2, 1865. On the left, close to the river, would be Fort Stedman. To the right and westward, scarcely out of range, would be old Blandford Church, the Crater, Fort Mahone, and, farther away, the Boydton plank road, Fort Gregg, the Turnbull house and Hatcher's Run. Every one of these must have brought back a pang: Petersburg . . . Petersburg . . . how he had suffered in body and in p338 mind over its people! How he had been tortured that night when he had been compelled to turn his back on them and leave them, their women and their children, to the mercy of the Federals, whose challenging guns had followed him over the same Appomattox to which he now had come.

The brakes were grinding, the train was stopping: it was Pocahontas, a scattered settlement on the north bank of the river. The moment the wheels ceased turning there came a crash of sound — music, a band, the notes of the Marseillaise. The performers had come over to do him honor and had been waiting in the station. They played through the French anthem the Southern soldiers had loved, and then they climbed aboard the train. Slowly over the river and through the town the train was pulled to the Washington Street Station, which was crowded. The windows of Jarratt's Hotel nearby and the streets and roadway around it were jammed. People started cheering the moment General Lee appeared, and they opened their applauding, smiling ranks as he walked to the curb, where his host, General William Mahone, had a carriage with four white horses awaiting him. Around the vehicle surged the throng, acclaiming him, rejoicing to see once more the man whose thin line had so long kept their city safe. The final defeat was forgotten in the memory of the victories won against odds so commanding. Some of the men wished to take the horses from the traces and to drag the carriage themselves, but Lee insisted that if they did this, he would have to get out and help them, so they desisted. The band began to play again, tune after tune beloved of the South, but its notes were almost drowned in the applauding roar of the multitude. The crowd would not let the carriage continue on its way until the General had risen in his seat, had taken off his hat, and had bowed to his well-wishers. This first phase of his reception must have relieved him: very different were these smiling, appreciative, and confident people from the pinched victims of disaster he had been picturing to himself half an hour before. With them the war was over, and they had buried most of its sorrows.17

p339 Upon his arrival at the Mahone residence, on the corner of Sycamore and Marshall Streets,18 the General found a note from Miss Bolling, in which she invited him to call on her that afternoon. It was not for him to refuse so gentle a request. Promptly and gallantly he went across the street to Mr. Bolling's home, Poplar Lawn, nearly opposite the park where the Federal wounded from the battle of the Crater had been brought.19 Ushered in, he saw the majestic young lady in the full flush of the excitement that preceded the wedding, and he presented her a necklace that Mrs. Lee and he had chosen. The bride-to‑be was pleased to express her delight with it.

Then, for memory's sake and old affection, Lee went to Chelsea, the Banister home, where on his Sunday visits during the siege he had eaten many a Spartan dinner. Those of the family who had survived the horrors of the war were there to greet him, among them Anne Banister, who was now sixteen and very lovely to behold. "Remember, my dear," Lee said to her, after he had chatted awhile, "I am to have the honor of taking you in to supper. Ask your escort to lend you to me. Your aunt, Mrs. Bolling, is sick and will not come down, so I want to take you in." Anne danced for joy.20

Three hours before the time set for the ceremony, the good people of Petersburg began to gather at the church, more perhaps to see General Lee than to witness the ceremony, though that was draped with all the dignity the proud city could command.21 The crowd far overflowed the edifice and thronged the street. At last the guests began to arrive — first of all, General Lee in his new broadcloth suit, escorting Mrs. Carr.22 In the doorway he stooped for a moment to kiss a little girl who smiled up at him.23 Behind General Lee were General and Mrs. Mahone. Presently came Miss Bolling and her ten bridesmaids. A like number p340 of the friends of Rooney were at hand to support him in his happy ordeal.24 It was a gathering of the Lee clan, for besides the General, the groom, and Mildred, there were in attendance Custis, Robert, and Fitz Lee, the nephew. Nearly all the notables of that part of Virginia were present, also. President Davis himself would have been a spectator, but for the death of his mother-in‑law, Mrs. Howell.

After the wedding came the supper, in the most lavish style of the old Dominion. Anne Banister was there, true to her commitment, and proudly entered the dining-room on the arm of General Lee. Doubtless her pride was heightened by the fact that she wore a long dress for the very first time.25 Dutifully the next morning, before any of the Mahones had descended to breakfast, the General penned a lengthy letter to his wife. He described the happy event to her, as fully as a man could be expected to do, though he did not essay the precious details of the apparel of the bride and her maids. All he could say to satisfy the curiosity of Mrs. Lee and the stay-at‑homes was the vague and masculine: "The bride looked lovely, and was in every way captivating. . . . Mildred was all life, in white and curls."26

The morning meal completed, Lee went on an odd mission. While he had maintained his headquarters at the Turnbull house, an old woman of the neighborhood had frequently sent him eggs and butter in a time of universal want. He had not forgotten her, and now that he was back in Petersburg he went to call on her. It must have cost him an effort, even after the welcome the city had given him, for there at Turnbulls' the heart-breaking crisis of April 2, 1865, had begun. The house itself was gone, destroyed by fire that fatal morning, but all around were the ghastly reminders of the siege, the chevaux-de‑frise scarcely rotted away, the earthworks grim and red, and not yet softened in line by crabgrass or ragweed.

Back from this visit, he lunched with the Bollings. They had passed word that their friends might call on the General that afternoon, and those who revered him came by scores. In the evening an affair was given in honor of the bride at the home of p341 Wm. R. Johnson, who resided on the corner of Washington and Davis Streets.27 The General attended — he did not absent himself from any of the entertainments — and he seemed to enjoy himself greatly. "He was delighted," his son recorded, "to find the people so prosperous, and to observe that they had it in their hearts to be gay and happy."28

Every one knew, apparently, that the General was to journey back to Richmond on Saturday, November 30. As he went to the station they crowded the highways of Petersburg once again to bid him farewell. The train conveying him to Richmond pulled out amid a roar of cheers. He was as loath to go as he had been unwilling to come. "In consequence of being told that the new couple were to leave Petersburg the morning after the wedding, I had made my arrangements to return [to Richmond] Saturday. If I had known that they would remain till Monday, as it is now their intention, I should have made my arrangements to stay" — thus he wrote Mrs. Lee after he had reached Richmond.29

Custis, Robert, and Fitz Lee journeyed back with him to his old capital. After they had their supper at the hotel, the General started out to make some calls on old friends. He took Robert with him and made a wide circuit — Mrs. Caskie's, where both the elders were sick abed, Mrs. Triplett's, Mrs. Peebles', Mrs. Brander's, Mrs. J. R. Anderson's. "There were many others he went to see," Robert wrote, "for I remember going with him. He sat only a few minutes at each place — 'called just to shake hands,' he would say. All were delighted to see him. From some places where he was well known he could hardly get away. He had a kind word for all, and his excuse for hurrying on was that he must try to see so and so, as Mrs. Lee had told him to be sure to do so. He was bright and cheerful, and was pleased with the great affection shown him on all sides."30

He spent Sunday quietly in Richmond — it was a cold day with much ice in evidence — and on the morning of December 2, with Custis and Robert he went down James River to Brandon, home p342 of his cousins, the Harrisons. In all his years he had never been to that gracious mansion, and as he had promised at the Rockbridge Baths in 1865 to visit the place the next time he came to Richmond, he took this opportunity. The brief voyage carried him down the channel between Drewry's and Chaffin's Bluff and past City Point, where Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant had headquarters for nearly ten months. But Lee did not talk of war and apparently he made an effort to avoid thinking of it. He did not converse much, and what he had to say to his sons dealt with the old river plantations, places dear to him from many associations. "I passed Shirley twice . . . with a heavy heart," he subsequently wrote Hill Carter, ". . . I took a long look each time at the House, the grounds and the farm from the hurricane deck of the Steamer, hoping to see some of the family to no purpose. I thought if I could only see your 'white eyebrows' as our Uncle Randolph described them, I would have been content."31

An all-too‑brief night and part of a day were pleasantly passed at Brandon. Then he came back to Richmond by steamer, spent Thursday, December 5, at Hickory Hill, the Wickham home in Hanover County,32 and on December 6 started for home, which he reached on December 7. He had missed two faculty meetings in succession,33 but he was at his post again on December 9.

It was the longest absence from college Lee thus far had allowed himself during the session, and it marked a definite transition in his state of mind. He was far happier after this visit and more willing to travel and to mingle with his people again. Prior to the journey to Petersburg he had been oppressed by the poverty, losses, and misery of the Southern people. He had travelled little after he had come to Lexington and he did not know how the South was reviving, or in what spirit it was adjusting itself to the reconstruction. To the Marquess of Lorne he had said that it would be many years before the South could recover, and he had daily carried its sorrows on his heart. Then, almost overnight, p343 he found himself in a new atmosphere. Instead of distress, idleness, and vain regret, he found good cheer, industry, and a courageous acceptance of the outcome of the war, along with a pride in the old cause and affection for those who had led it. The people were not sitting in the ashes, lamenting their losses and bewailing their subjection to military rule. Rather were they rebuilding the wastes, accepting the inevitable with patient courage, and exhibiting the very quality that Lee had praised in writing to A. M. Keiley, a Petersburg man — the "determination not to be turned aside by thoughts of the past and fears of the future.34 Lee saw all this and in a self-revealing passage of a letter to Rooney gave expression to a sense of relief that was reflected in all his correspondence and counsel thereafter:

"My visit to Petersburg was extremely pleasant. Besides the pleasure of seeing my daughter and being with you, which was very great, I was gratified in seeing many friends. In addition, when our armies were in front of Petersburg, I suffered so much in body and mind on account of the good townspeople, especially on that gloomy night when I was forced to abandon them, that I have always reverted to them in sadness and sorrow. My old feelings returned to me, as I passed well-remembered spots and recalled the ravages of the hostile shells. But when I saw the cheerfulness with which the people were working to restore their condition, and witnessed the comforts with which they were surrounded, a load of sorrow which had been pressing upon me for years was lifted from my heart."35


The Author's Notes:

1 R. E. Lee to W. H. F. Lee, Sept. 20, 1867; R. E. Lee, Jr., 283‑84.

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2 R. E. Lee to James Longstreet, Oct. 29, 1867; Jones, 227.

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3 R. E. Lee to Mrs. [image ALT: an underscored blank], May 21, 1867; Jones, 225; R. E. Lee to W. H. F. Lee, Dec. 21, 1867; R. E. Lee, Jr., 293.

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4 R. E. Lee to Mrs. Lee, Nov. 26, 1867; R. E. Lee, Jr., 287.

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5 When the Marquess of Lorne was in Virginia, the previous year, he noted that virtually all the men still wore gray. A black coat, he said, was most unusual.

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6 Richmond Dispatch, Nov. 26, 1867.

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7 Richmond Whig, Nov. 26, 1867.

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8 There is some confusion regarding the Caskie homes. This one, the home of James Kerr Caskie, is on the site noted in the text and is the house associated with Lee. Directly across from it, at the northeast corner of Eleventh and Clay, was the mansion of John Caskie, father of James K. Caskie. This was subsequently the Virginia Hospital. So far as is known, General Lee never stayed there. For this information the writer is indebted to Miss Nannie H. Jones, daughter of Mrs. Seddon Jones, née Norvell Caskie.

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9 R. E. Lee to Mrs. Lee, Nov. 26, 1867; R. E. Lee, Jr., 286‑87.

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10 R. E. Lee to Mrs. Lee, Nov. 26, 1867; R. E. Lee, Jr., 287.

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11 Southern Opinion, Nov. 30, 1867.

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12 Lee rarely referred to the antics of Judge Underwood, but Mrs. Lee had an opinion she did not hesitate to express: "Have you read Underwood's charge to his grand jury 5 of whom are negroes? It is the most remarkable piece of composition I ever read, the most false & vindictive & that such a creature should be allowed to dispense justice is a perfect farce. I think his meanness and wickedness have affected his brain" (Mrs. R. E. Lee to Mrs. R. H. Chilton, MS., May 6, 1867, Chilton Papers).

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13 Richmond Dispatch, Nov. 27, 1867.

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14 If any minutes of his testimony were preserved, they have never come to light, despite the writer's search for them, with the experienced aid of the late Jos. P. Brady.

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15 7 Rowland, 179.

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16 Richmond Enquirer and Examiner, Nov. 29, 1867; Richmond Dispatch, Nov. 29, 1867. Some passages in these references would indicate that General Lee appeared before the grand jury on Nov. 28, but the 27th seems to be the correct date. It is of record that General Lee was with the jurors from 2 to 4 P. M. As he told Mrs. Lee in his letter of Nov. 29 (R. E. Lee, Jr., 288) that he arrived in Petersburg at 3 P. M. on the afternoon of Nov. 28, he obviously could not have been in court at the hour mentioned.

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17 The Negroes of the town chanced to have a parade on the day of General Lee's arrival. A stranger inquired what it was all about, as if the Negroes waited, in those days, for a reason to march the streets. A wag of the town answered that the Negroes were the former slaves of General Lee and had turned out to welcome him to Petersburg (Richmond Enquirer and Examiner, Dec. 2, 1867, quoting The Petersburg Express).

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18 Now the site of the Wm. R. McKenney Free Library.

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19 This was later the home of Samuel W. Zimmer, former mayor of Petersburg.

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20 Mrs. Campbell Pryor's MS. Memoirs.

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21 Cf. The Richmond Whig of December 2, 1867: "We are not invidious when we say that no matrimonial pair in this or any other Commonwealth have fathers purer, better, or representing a higher degree of Virginia gentility than the twain to whose union we have alluded."

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22 The author has not been able positively to identify Mrs. Carr. She probably was a lady from northern Virginia, an old-time friend of the Lees, who had married a Petersburg druggist.

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23 MS. Note of Miss Virginia Mason.

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24 Richmond Enquirer and Examiner, Dec. 2, 1867, quoting The Petersburg Express.

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25 Mrs. Campbell Pryor's MS. Memoirs.

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26 R. E. Lee to Mrs. Lee, Nov. 29, 1867; R. E. Lee, Jr., 287‑88.

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27 Mr. Johnson was a son of the noted turfman. Davis Street at that time was known as Folly Street. For the identification of Petersburg names and sites the writer is indebted to Doctor W. F. Drewry and to Captain Carter Bishop.

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28 R. E. Lee, Jr., 289.

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29 R. E. Lee to Mrs. Lee, Dec. 1, 1867; R. E. Lee, Jr., 290.

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30 R. E. Lee, Jr., 291.

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31 R. E. Lee to Hill Carter, MS., April 17, 1868, Shirley MSS.

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32 "I am so glad now that I stopped at Hickory Hill on my return to Lexington. It has given me pleasant thoughts for the rest of my life, and the last look at one the like of whom I shall never see again." Ibid. The reference is to the venerable William F. Wickham, one of the noblest men of his generation in Virginia.

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33 Those of Nov. 25 and Dec. 2.

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34 See supra, p220.

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35 R. E. Lee to W. H. F. Lee, Dec. 21, 1867; R. E. Lee, Jr., 293.


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