If there had been anything in •auguries, the summer of 1868 should have been the happiest of seasons for the Lees, for it began with the suggestion of a high honor — nothing less than that General Lee be made the Democratic nominee for the presidency of the United States. It was a qualified proposal, to be sure, for it was postulated on the assumption that the Democrats had to name a soldier to defeat General Grant, the Republican choice. The New York Herald put Lee's name forward in an editorial that read in part as follows:
"But if the Democratic Committee must nominate a soldier — if it must have a name identified with the glories of the war — we will recommend a candidate for its favors. Let it nominate General R. E. Lee. Let it boldly take over the best of all its soldiers, making no palaver or apology. He is a better soldier than any of those they have thought upon and a greater man. He is one in whom the only genius of this nation finds its fullest development. Here the inequality will be in favor of the Democrats for this soldier, with a handful of men whom he had moulded into an army, baffled our greater Northern armies for four years; and when opposed by Grant was only worn down by that solid strategy of stupidity that accomplishes its strategy by mere weight. With one quarter the men Grant had this soldier fought magnificently across the territory of his native State, and fought his army to a stump. There never was such an army or such a campaign, or such a General for illustrating the military genius and possibilities of our people; and this General is the best of all for a Democratic candidate. It is certain that with half as many men as Grant he would have beaten him from the field in Virginia, and he affords the best promise of any soldier for beating him again."1
Lee must have smiled at this article, if, indeed, he saw it, but the auguries were not fulfilled. He had little time and perhaps little heart for smiling that summer. Sickness dogged the family. Mrs. Lee had become nervous and had been brooding so much over the plight of the South over military rule that her husband had feared she would aggravate her physical condition. Agnes had been sick while in Maryland, and though she had not yet come home, was said to be looking very unwell. The General planned to take all of them away, and after he had comfortably established them at the springs Mrs. Lee preferred, he intended to go on with Mildred to the White Sulphur and to drink its waters for his rheumatism.2
It was July 14 before the first stage of this journey be undertaken and the family moved to the Warm Springs.3 There it was assigned to the Brockenbrough Cottage, with Mrs. Lee on the first floor and her daughters in the rooms above. All might have gone well had not Mildred contracted a low, debilitating fever which the doctor diagnosed as typhoid. Her mother, of course, could not nurse her. The burden fell on the General and on Agnes. In her sickness, Mildred developed whimsies, and insisted that she could not sleep unless her father sat by her and held her hand. He did not try to argue her out of this or to substitute some one else for the vigils. Night after night he stayed there, in the little upstairs chamber of the cottage, until the dance was over and the chatter ceased on the lawn and the lamps went out. What was he thinking about through those long hours, he who had commanded tens of thousands of men in the bloodiest battles of the continent, and yet had spent so many of his days as nurse to mother, to invalid wife, and to children?
It was August 14 before Mildred was pronounced convalescent, and even then she was so weak she could not speak.4 When she recovered sufficiently to travel, the General took her and the rest of the family from the Warm to the Hot Springs, and, after a few days, went on with Mildred to the White Sulphur.
He found a large gathering of former Confederates there, including many of his old generals and not a few of the civil p373 officials of the dead government. Nearly all of them were talking politics. Grant and Schuyler Colfax had been nominated by the Republicans. Against them the Democrats had entered Governor Horatio Seymour and Francis P. Blair. Recent as was the war, some of the Democrats believed that they had a chance of electing their candidates, and certain of those at the springs were busily devising ways and means to that end. Already the alarmed Republicans were warning the North that the South was unreconciled, and that the Negroes were being unfairly treated, and that the election of Seymour and Blair would undo the victory won at the cost of so much blood. General Lee, of course, had little part in these discussions. In fact, he avoided politics so sedulously that more than one of his comrades complained privately that he was distinctly cool to them.5
Unexpectedly, however, he found himself involved in the controversy. General W. S. Rosecrans, one of the managers of the Democratic campaign, knew that some of the leading Southerners visited "The White" every summer, and he came down from New York to see if he could procure from them a statement of their acceptance of the results of the war, and of their willingness to deal justly with the Negroes. This, in General Rosecrans's opinion, might offset the Republican propaganda and help the Democratic thicket.6
Naturally, Rosecrans consulted Lee first of all upon his arrival, and explained that Lee was a representative Southerner, his assurance of the South's loyalty to the Union would carry weight in the North. Lee demurred. He could not assume to speak for the South, he said; if Rosecrans wished to know the feeling of the former Confederacy, he could inquire of the public men who were at the springs.
Being willing to ask in the name of politics what he would not have sought for himself personally, Rosecrans requested Lee to bring these gentlemen together that he might meet them. Lee's politeness and his desire to help in the restoration of good feeling prompted him to accede and to invite a number of former soldiers and publicists to his cottage. There, while Lee was noticeably quiet, General Rosecrans exchanged opinions with p374 Beauregard, Alexander H. Stephens, and others. Nearly all of them assured him of the willingness of the people to support the Union and to deal justly with the Negro. Only the last man to be asked for his views, ex-Governor F. W. Stockdale of Texas, spoke out bluntly and said that the South would keep the peace but was not a dog to lick the hand of the man that kicked it. Lee then rose and brought the conference to an end.7
Rosecrans was not through. On August 26 he addressed Lee a formal letter asking that the Southerners with whom he had conferred at the cottage unite in a formal statement of their views.8 Anxious as Lee was to allay ill-feeling and to heal the wounds of war, such a request was embarrassing. He had never written a line on politics for publication since the war, and he hesitated to break his rule, especially as he was unfamiliar with the language of political discussion.
What, then, should he do? Among the guests at the springs was Alexander H. H. Stuart, a Virginia lawyer of much sagacity and judgment, who had been Secretary of the Interior under Fillmore. Stuart's good sense showed him that Virginia had to pay a price for a return of her rights of statehood and he was working quietly but skillfully to that end. He was the man Lee needed to help him, for he could be relied upon to show conservatism along with candor. Through General John Echols, Lee sent Rosecrans's letter to Stuart and asked him to write an p375 answer. In a short time Stuart brought a draft which Lee read over carefully and slowly in the lawyer's presence. It was to this effect:
"I have the honor to receive your letter of this date, and, in accordance with your suggestion, I have conferred with a number of gentlemen from the South, in whose judgment I have confidence, and who are well acquainted with the public sentiment of their respective States.
"They have kindly consented to unite with me in replying to your communication, and their names will be found, with my own, appended to this answer.
"With this explanation, we proceed to give you a candid statement of what we believe to be the sentiment of the Southern people in regard to the subjects to which you refer.
"Whatever opinions may have prevailed in the past with regard to African slavery or the right of a State to secede from the Union, we believe we express the almost unanimous judgment of the Southern people when we declare that they consider these questions were decided by the war, and that it is their intention in good faith to abide by that decision. At the close of the war, the Southern people laid down their arms and sought to resume their former relations to the government of the United States. Through their State conventions, they abolished slavery and annulled their ordinances of secession; and they returned to their peaceful pursuits with a sincere purpose to fulfil all their duties under the Constitution of the United States which they had sworn to support. If their action in these particulars had been met in a spirit of frankness and cordiality, we believe that, ere this, old irritations would have passed away, and the wounds inflicted by the war would have been, in a large measure, healed. As far as we are advised, the people of the South entertain no unfriendly feeling towards the government of the United States, but they complain that their rights under the Constitution are withheld from them in the administration thereof. The idea that the Southern people are hostile to the negroes and would oppress them, if it were in their power to do so, is entirely unfounded. p376 They have grown up in our midst, and we have been accustomed from childhood to look upon them with kindness. The change in the relations of the two races has brought no change in our feelings towards them. They still continue an important part of our laboring population. Without their labor, the lands of the South would be comparatively unproductive; without the employment which Southern agriculture affords, they would be destitute of the means of subsistence and become paupers, dependent upon public bounty. Self-interest, if there were no higher motive, would therefore prompt the whites of the South to extend to the negro care and protection.
"The important fact that the two races are, under existing circumstances, necessary to each other is gradually becoming apparent to both, and we believe that but for malign influences exerted to stir up the passions of the negroes, the relations of the two races would soon adjust themselves on a basis of mutual kindness and advantage.
"It is true that the people of the South, in common with a large majority of the people of the North and West, are, for obvious reasons, inflexibly opposed to any system of laws that would place the political power of the country in the hands of the negro race. But this opposition springs from no feeling of enmity, but from a deep-seated conviction that, at present, the negroes have neither the intelligence nor the other qualifications which are necessary to make them safe depositories of political power. They would inevitably become the victims of demagogues, who, for selfish purposes, would mislead them to the serious injury of the public.
"The great want of the South is peace. The people earnestly desire tranquillity and restoration of the Union. They deplore disorder and excitement as the most serious obstacle to their prosperity. They ask a restoration of their rights under the Constitution. They desire relief from oppressive misrule. Above all, they would appeal to their countrymen for the re-establishment, in the Southern States, of that which has been justly regarded as the birth-right of every American, the right of self-government. Establish these on a firm basis, and we can safely promise, on behalf of the Southern people, that they will faithfully p377 obey the Constitution and laws of the United States, treat the negro populations with kindness and humanity and fulfil every duty incumbent and peaceful citizens, loyal to the Constitution of their country."9
All this was what Lee had been thinking and saying ever since May, 1865. The language was slightly more rhetorical than he would have employed, but the sentiments were precisely his. A single change was all Lee thought necessary. Stuart, in speaking of the development of better relations between the races, had said, "but for malign influences exerted to stir up the passions of the negroes," etc. That grated on Lee. "Mr. Stuart," he said, "there is one word I would like to strike out if you have no objection. You have used the word malign. I think that is rather a harsh word, and" — he smiled as he went on, "I never did like adjectives."
Mr. Stuart immediately erased the offending word, and the letter was approved. Lee signed it, as did thirty-one other leading Southerners at the springs. It was forwarded to Rosecrans and was soon published. Its reception varied with the feelings and political opinions of those who read it.10 Lee followed it up by suggesting to Wade Hampton that, if he approved the letter, he get other Southern leaders to add their signatures and forward them to him or to General Rosecrans.11 And at Rosecrans's request Lee gave him the names of some Southern generals residing in New York.12
Whether it was that the air was too heavily surcharged with politics, or whether it was that Lee was exhausted by his long nursing of Mildred, he did not enjoy the social life of "The White" so much as he had the previous summer. He tried to be enthusiastic about the place and the company,13 but he left early in September for the Hot Springs, and by September 14 was back home.14
p378 He found at Lexington at least two more letters from Rosecrans, in which the Northerner urged Lee to call public meetings throughout the South to ratify the "White Sulphur Letter." With an eye to effective publicity, Rosecrans recommended that these gatherings be held at intervals so that the proceedings of all of them would find a place in the newspapers. He enclosed, also, a political program which had been drawn up by some of Seymour's advisers. In short, his old opponent of Sewell's Mountain was enthusiastically initiating Lee into the secrets of the campaign and was trying to make a politician of him. But Lee would have none of it. He felt that he had gone as far as he should in making a single exception to his rule of complete public silence on political questions; so he turned the letters over to General Echols with the request that he ask Mr. Stuart to answer them. Echols explained to Stuart that Lee "did not desire to be connected any further, in any way, with the political questions or canvass of the day." Lee himself repeated this to Rosecrans. "When I united with the gentlemen, at the White Sulphur Springs," he said, "in the reply to your letter addressed to me there, I went as far as I thought it was proper for me to do under the circumstances of the case, and did not intend to connect myself with the political questions of the Country, or to depart from the course I had adopted on entering upon my present vocation."15 He had little time for outside activity, even if he had felt the inclination, for he was soon deep in the heavy work incident to the registration of the students and the reopening of the college on September 17.
Attendance was not so large as during the previous session. The total enrollment for the session of 1868‑69 was 348 as against 410 the previous year. The decline, which was chiefly in students from Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky, probably reflected p379 economic conditions and the improvement of institutions available nearer the homes of young men ready for college.16 As a whole, the students settled down to their work promptly enough, but the memory of the disturbances of the previous winter had not died in the minds of the military authorities. On November 19 Lee received a letter in which the commanding officer of the troops in Lexington advised him that the Negroes planned to have a meeting at the fair-grounds the next evening and were fearful that the students would interfere. The General had heard nothing of the proposed gathering. Neither had any of those with whom he talked. Nevertheless, he issued a warning. Stating his brief that the boys had no intention of troubling the Negroes, he requested that those who might be led by curiosity to go to the place of meeting would refrain from doing so. "From past experience," he concluded, "they may feel certain that, should any disturbance occur, efforts will be made to fix the blame on Washington College. It therefore behooves every student to keep away from all such assemblies." He wrote, also, to the commander of the Federal garrison and told him he did not think the students proposed to obstruct the exercises. He added: "Everything, however, in our power will be done by the Faculty as well as myself to prevent any students attending; and I heartily concur with you in the hope that the peace of the community may at all times be preserved."17 The meeting was held without interference. Not a student was there. It was the last time any charge was made that the students were conspiring against the free assembly of the Negroes.
Except for a trip of two days to the fair at Staunton in October,18 Lee did not leave Lexington during the whole of the fall and winter. From the beginning of the session to the second week in April, 1869, he missed only one faculty meeting. In contrast to the hard, unhappy summer, it was a pleasant time, broken by the coming and going of kinspeople. The General's p380 nephew, Edward Lee Childe, journeyed over from Paris and was a welcome guest in October.19 Rooney and his wife, coming in November, were much entertained. The young Mrs. Lee had been coached by her husband in the ways of the family and had been told, in particular, that the General would expect her to be present punctually at family prayers, which were always held before breakfast. She met the test and had a perfect attendance, during a stay of three weeks, with not a single tardiness over which to blush. The General's estimate of her, already high, was raised by this tour de force. For her part, she confided to other members of the household that she did not believe even George Washington himself, if the father of his country had been late at family prayers, would have the unqualified good opinion of General Lee.20
At Christmas, Robert arrived for a stay of two weeks, and all the girls were at home. Only Rooney, of the six children, was absent. It was the last time as many as five of them were together during Lee's lifetime. The General had much delight in their company. Christmas morning he had remembrances for them all, and for Mildred a pile of treasures. It developed that some time previously she had mentioned in his hearing the presents she wanted, and he had bought everything she had mentioned, instead of selecting one gift from the list. As the father of numerous daughters, he should have known better. However, the family historian did not record that the other Misses Lee were jealous at this show of partiality. Perhaps they regarded it as the crowning bit of "spoiling" to which Mildred was entitled because of her long illness.21
Robert and his father were much together during this visit. They frequently inspected the new "president's house" that was now nearing completion on the same ridge with the old residence. p381 They rode out together, too, Lee on Traveller and Robert on Lucy Long. The General's health for the time seemed excellent and his spirits were high. "He also took me around with him visiting," Robert records, "and in the mild festivities of the neighbors he joined with evident pleasure."22
Shortly after the Christmas parties broke up, the last word was written in the treason proceedings that had been initiated almost four years before. President Davis had never been brought to trial because of legal difficulties that Chief Justice Chase saw in the way of the prosecution. The technical ground on which proceedings were halted was that Mr. Davis had been punished already under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which barred him from office, and that he could not be tried again for any act of war against the United States during the struggle with the South. This contention was embodied in a motion to quash the indictment, and on this the court divided. Chase was for sustaining the motion, Underwood was for denying it. On December 5, 1868, the division of the judges was certified to the Supreme Court of the United States. The general amnesty proclamation of December 25 followed in less than three weeks and of course operated to stop the prosecution of any former Confederate for treason.23 On February 15, 1869, the indictments against General Lee, Rooney, Custis, and Fitz Lee, fourteen other general officers of the Confederacy, and nineteen other persons, were nolle prossed.24
Coming after the general amnesty proclamation, this formal dismissal of the indictments passed almost unnoticed. There is no reference to it, or to the December amnesty proclamation, in General Lee's correspondence. The outcome of the proceedings did not lead him to change in any respect the rule he had imposed upon himself to refrain from the public discussion of questions apt to arouse political or sectional antagonisms. Nor did the amnesty proclamation in a material way change Lee's status, though he could no longer be accounted a paroled prisoner p382 of war. In one respect the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment offset the amnesty in that it barred him from state or Federal office of any sort. As a soldier, he had taken oath to support the Constitution, and, consequently, under the third paragraph of the new amendment, a two-thirds vote of Congress would be required to restore to him the right to hold office. When the new constitution of the state was ratified and the test-oath was eliminated25 he could have qualified to vote, but he did not do so. He did not die disfranchised, in the strict sense of the word, nor as a paroled prisoner of war, often as this has been asserted, but he did end his days disbarred from office.
The only effect of the amnesty proclamation on Lee was to make it possible for him to undertake the recovery of property seized at Arlington. The silver, as already noted, had been sent to Lexington and, after it had been dug up and cleaned, was in daily use. Through the efforts of Mrs. Britannia Kennon, virtually all the portraits at the Custis mansion had been removed to Tudor Place, Georgetown, and after the war had been forwarded. The boat carrying them was sunk in the canal below Lexington, but when it was raised the pictures were salvaged and were restored so skillfully in Baltimore that they seemed undamaged.26
But the Washington relics had been left at Arlington in 1861. Some of them were stolen and carried away by individuals, as were the small personal belongings of the Lees, found in the house by marauding Federal soldiers. When General McDowell took over Arlington as a Federal post, the servant in charge told him of the depredations that had occurred. To save the remaining effects of Washington from theft and to safeguard them for Mrs. Lee, General McDowell removed them across the Potomac to the Department of the Interior. Placed on exhibit at the Patent Office, with the legend "Captured at Arlington," they constituted a rather pitiful display — a pair of candelabra, part of a set of china that Lafayette had given Mrs. Washington, a punch-bowl, a looking-glass, a washstand, a "dressing bureau," a few of p383 Washington's tent poles and pins, a little of his bed clothing and a pair of his breeches, with a waistcoat — nothing that had any value apart from its association with the first President.
In the winter of 1868‑69, Captain James May, of Illinois, a long-time friend of the Lees, saw the relics, thought they should be returned, and consulted some of his friends in the administration. All of them agreed that it was proper to restore the articles to Mrs. Lee. The President had power to take this action, under existing law, and was sounded out. Although he declined to commit himself until the matter came before him in some definite form, Captain May was satisfied Johnson would not withhold his consent. Captain May accordingly wrote Mrs. Lee on February 9, 1869, suggesting that she apply for the relics. Mrs. Lee of course sought the counsel of the General, and he, knowing her natural interest in the property, and believing that the return could be arranged without contention, approved of her proceeding as Captain May suggested. So she addressed a brief application to the President on February 10, under cover to Captain May.27 He delivered it to Secretary O. H. Browning of the Department of the Interior, who brought it to the President's attention at a cabinet meeting. The chief executive and all his advisers were unanimously for complying with Mrs. Lee's request, and the Secretary of the Interior was authorized to deliver the goods to Mrs. Lee upon proper identification. Mr. Browning communicated promptly with Lee, under date of February 24, whereupon the General replied that Mrs. Lee had designated Mrs. Beverly Kennon to identify the articles and to receipt for them.28 Browning was a native Kentuckian, though a staunch Republican and a residence of Illinois, and in ante-bellum days he had known the Lees. His part in facilitating the return of Mrs. Lee's property was personal and friendly.
As there was no effort at concealment, the news of the prospective restoration of the relics was printed on February 26, 1869, in The Washington Evening Express. Unfortunately, it was erroneously stated that General Lee had made the application, that the relics had been taken from "the Arlington House, General p384 Lee's estate," and that they were to be placed in the hands of some person deputized by the General to receive them.
On the basis of this publication, General John A. Logan, of Illinois, introduced into the United States House of Representatives on March 1, 1869, a resolution calling on the committee on public buildings and grounds to ascertain "by what right the Secretary of the Interior surrenders these articles so cherished as once the property of the Father of his Country to the rebel general-in‑chief." Pending inquiry and report, the Secretary of the Interior was requested not to permit the delivery of the property.29 The Radicals who controlled the House permitted no debate on the resolution, but rushed it through at once.
The committee held a hurried hearing, with Captain May and Secretary Browning as the principal witnesses.30 On March 3, a few hours before Congress adjourned sine die, the committee reported a resolution that the Washington relics were the property of the United States and that any attempt on the part of the administration "to deliver the same to the rebel General Robert E. Lee is an insult to the loyal people of the United States." The articles should remain in the Patent Office, the resolution concluded, and should not be delivered to any one without the consent of Congress.31
Thomas L. Jones of Kentucky offered a minority report, asserting that the articles were the property of Mrs. Lee, and that as they had been taken from Arlington without authority of the United States, and were of little value except as family heirlooms, they should be returned to her. Jones's attempt to discuss his recommendation was cut off by a call for the previous question. His resolution was then voted down: ayes, 34; nays, 92; not voting, 96. The majority resolution was thereupon passed, and the Kentuckian could do no more than print his remarks in the appendix to The Congressional Globe.32
General Lee must have felt keenly this action by Congress, but p385 his observations upon it were brief. "[The relics] were valuable to [Mrs. Lee]," he wrote, "as having belonged to her great-grandmother,33 and having been bequeathed to her by her father. But as the country desires them, she must give them up. I hope their presence at the capital will keep in the remembrance of all Americans the principles and virtues of Washington."34 In a letter of thanks to Jones he said: "It may be a question with some whether the retention of these articles is more 'an insult,' in the language of the Committee on Public Buildings, 'to the loyal people of the United States' than their restoration; but of this I am willing that they should be the judge, and since Congress has decided to keep them, [Mrs. Lee] must submit."35 He was even more philosophical about the property that had been carried away from Arlington by private persons. "From what I have learned," said he, "a great many things formerly belonging to General Washington . . . in the shape of books, furniture, camp equipage, etc., were carried away by individuals and are scattered over the land. I hope the possessors appreciate them and may imitate the example of their original owners, whose conduct must at times be brought to their recollection by these silent monitors. In this way, they will accomplish good to the country."36
A more serious matter occupying General Lee's attention that winter was the settlement of the Custis estate, of which he was still active executor. It will be remembered that Lee had liberated the slaves of his father-in‑law during the winter of 1862‑63, when, despite the demands of the aftermath of the Fredericksburg campaign, he had found time to check the list of Negroes and to have the deed of manumission recorded in the Hustings Court of the City of Richmond.37 The other requirements of the p386 will General Lee had not been able to carry out. Arlington, which had been sold for delinquent taxes on January 11, 1864, was now the property of the United States and had been set aside as a soldiers' cemetery. The price paid was $26,860,38 but money was merely transferred from one government account to another. The "Four-Mile" tract had similarly passed out of the hands of the family. At the end of the war, General Lee had been of opinion that Smith's Island had shared the fate of Arlington and the "Four-Mile" property.39 He therefore considered that the only realty left to the estate was Romancoke,40 which Mr. Custis had left to Robert, and the White House, which had been bequeathed to Rooney. Each of these farms contained •4000 acres and, it will be recalled, had been given subject to the condition that if the sale of certain other real estate and the labor of the slaves did not yield enough to pay the legacies to the grand-daughters, these two farms were to be worked and part of the proceeds set aside until the full amount of $40,000 had been realized.
It was an odd situation. Two of the sons were in possession of their full share of the estate, thanks to the fact that the land left them had been within the Confederate lines, but Custis had been deprived of virtually the whole of his prospective inheritance by the tax sales, and the daughters, it then appeared, had no prospect of receiving the cash bequests their grandfather had devised for them.
General Lee's first impulse after the war had been to wait, trusting that his civil rights would be restored and that he could proceed to clear the estate, though, meantime, he asked a friendly attorney to investigate the case.41 As the prospect of a pardon faded out, he still hoped that he might redeem Arlington, which he assumed the government had sold in the belief that the estate was his. "I should have thought," he told a Northern friend, p387 "that the use of the grounds, the large amount of wood on the place, the teams, etc., and the sale of the furniture of the house, would have been sufficient to have paid the taxes. I do not know whether the Secretary of War would relinquish possession of the estate, or permit its redemption under the Virginia laws. If he did, and should require $26,860 stated to have been bid for it by the United States, to be refunded, it would be out of my power to redeem it."42 In the circumstances, Lee could do nothing to prevent the award to the government of a tax-sale title, which was allowed on September 26, 1866.43
That same year General Lee told Robert to regard Romancoke as his own, subject to such a charge as might be necessary to make up the bequests to the Misses Lee. The General felt that deduction in the amount of these gifts should be made in view of the shrinkage of the estate.44 A similar understanding doubtless was reached with Rooney.
Lee had strong attachment to the soil, and thought he did not complain because the misfortunes of war had fallen heavily on his wife and children, he had lasting interest in the old properties and a deep love for them. In April, 1866, some one in New York had tried to sell him a painting of the White House as it had been before the Federals burned it. Lee replied that he was unable to purchase works of art. He added: "The White House of Pamunkey, as it lives in my memory, must suffice for my purposes."45 To a woman who sent him photographs of a painting of Stratford, he wrote: "Your picture recalls scenes of my earliest recollection and happiest days. Though unseen for years, every feature of the house is familiar to me."46
Cherishing these feelings, he was only deterred from an active effort to recover Arlington by his failure to find any practical means of attaining his result, though there was a general feeling in the spring of 1868 that the property would be returned.47 In January, 1869, J. S. Black of Washington, a lawyer and publicist of high position, volunteered his services in proceedings for the p388 restoration of the former Custis property. The case demanded abilities as distinguished as those of Black, because in addition to the involvements of the tax sale, there were prospective complications owing to the fact that Custis Lee had not taken, and did not propose to take, his grandfather's "name and arms," as required under the Custis will.
Lee acknowledged and accepted Mr. Black's offer with a hearty "I thank you." He explained that he had no personal property interest in Arlington and that his desire simply was to turn it over to the rightful heir. "I have not as yet taken any steps in the matter," he wrote Black, "under the belief that I could accomplish no good, nor do I wish to do so, unless in your opinion some benefit would result from it."48 He was willing to go to law for Mrs. Lee's and Custis's sake, but he did not wish to enter into litigation that would arouse dark passions, to no good purpose.
Meantime, it was discovered that though Smith's Island had been sold for delinquent taxes on June 15, 1864,49 it could be recovered under Virginia law. Action was accordingly instituted, and on April 23, 1868, the court returned the property to the Custis estate.50 Rooney became interested in this land, which the General was anxious to make productive for the estate. The place contained •4038 acres, was in the Atlantic, off Cape Charles, and had never appeared to Lee to be so valuable as Mr. Custis had thought it was.51 Lee now suggested that Rooney and Robert visit the island and devise some plan for its use or disposition. Whatever they recommended, he would approve. They might find it desirable, he said, to buy the freehold themselves.52 Rooney went there and found that except for the small government reservation and lighthouse, the property had been much neglected and misused. Wild cattle were roving over it, and its value was declining. Good business dictated that unless a better p389 offer could be had, the two sons should take the island in hand and should make what they could from it. "I should like this whole matter arranged as soon as possible," the General concluded, "for my life is very uncertain, and its settlement now may avoid future difficulties."53 A friendly agent, Hamilton S. Neale, accordingly advertised the property, and on December 22, 1868, receiving no higher bid, sold it for $9000 to W. H. F. and R. E. Lee, Jr.54 The General took the note of his sons for the principal, payable without interest in thirteen years.55 From his own funds he took an equivalent amount and transferred it to his daughters, as part of the legacy due from their grandfather's estate. This was invested for them in railroad bonds.56 To raise the money with which to pay the Misses Lee he evidently had to sell a sizeable block of securities, for soon after making the settlement he reinvested something more than $8000 of his own funds.57 The net result of the sale of the island to his sons was that the daughters received a third of their legacy, the boys got the island and the General lost the interest on $9000.58
With the sale of Smith's Island, General Lee had proceeded as far as he could in settlement of the estate.59 Nothing more p390 could be done about Arlington or about the "Four-Mile tract," though, as late as the summer of 1870, hopes were maintained and a conference with his lawyer was held by General Lee.60
The family, of course, had never been able to live after the beginning of the war as it had lived in the sumptuous, earlier years. Simplicity had been a virtue during the days of the Confederacy; thereafter it was a necessity. When the Confederacy fell, $20,000 of Lee's securities, about one-fourth of his estate, became worthless.61 The family had only the interest on his other investments, which yielded not more than $3600 a year. During the months immediately after the surrender he may not have been able to collect on that basis.62 For the first year of his presidency, living had been most spartan, with no luxuries and little travel.
Parents and children had taken their condition philosophically. They made no pretenses when they went abroad and they offered no excuses when they entertained friends at plain dinners.63 Lee "was fond of elegance of every sort; fine houses, furniture, plate, clothing, ornaments, horses, equipage," wrote a young assistant who observed him closely during his presidency. "But he could and did deny himself and his family the enjoyment of such things when he did not have the money to buy them. I have seen him in garments which many men of smaller income and far less reputation would have been unwilling to wear. . . . He impressed these ideas and habits on his family. Mrs. Lee's usual occupation in the dining room . . . during the evenings was p391 mending her husband's and son's underclothing. . . . I met one of his daughters at a railway station. She had a basket of very fine pears, on the beauty of which I commented. 'Yes,' she said, 'they are nice and I would offer you one; but I have just enough for my dessert tomorrow.' She then laughed and said: 'I want this inscribed on my tombstone:
" ' "Although on pleasure she was bent,
She had a frugal mind." ' "64
After the first session at Lexington the increase in General Lee's salary from $1500 to $3000, plus his share of tuition fees, of course relieved his finances somewhat. For 1866‑67 the college paid him a total of $4756,65 but he did not change the style of his living. The only difference was in his provision of more extensive summer vacations for his family. He was able, also, to offer financial help to Robert in stocking his farm and in building a new house, though he stated downrightly that the money he might lend Robert for the erection of a better residence would be taken from the sum he was putting aside for the purchase of a home for Mrs. Lee.66 Robert declined to touch this fund.
Speaking generally, and for the whole of General Lee's life, the dollar mark was a symbol that occurred seldom in his correspondence. So large a household, with fortune so changeful, had its financial problems, of course, but it was not dominated or depressed by them. The General had a horror of debt67 and he prudently avoided it by living within his income, however small it was. Nothing is more impressive, in the intimate annals of the family, than the absence of complaints about hard living or lack of money. They were frank in their family conversation. The General teased all his daughters.68 Jesting among themselves of p394 many things, they wrote one another reams about the details of marriages, visits, and journeyings, for all of them except Custis were strongly social in nature. But money was a theme they tacitly avoided.69 The repeated business offers that came to him seem to have awakened no yearnings. Nothing appears in his correspondence to show any desire on the part of any member of the family that he accept the post of supervisor of agencies of the Knickerbocker Life Insurance Company, a position pressed on him in the winter of 1868‑69 at the then dazzling salary of $10,000. Not a flutter was aroused in the president's house, so far as one may now judge, by rumors that he might be named president of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad.70 When he rejected a subsequent proposal that he remove to New York and, at a large salary, represent Southern commerce71 his girls did not even hint that life in New York would be interesting. The household was content to live modestly and to share the hardships of the time, and Lee himself was even more determined than before 1861 to save all he could. For the protection of his wife and daughters he spent no more than necessity and duty claimed of him. He was successful in his thrift and invested wisely in good securities. Never so poor a man as he was supposed to be after the war, he died worth some $88,000, not counting the $20,500 he had put into Southern war-time issues or the $4000 he had in bonds of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company.72
The will of General Lee, drawn twenty-four years before his death,
while an officer in the United States Army, and never superseded;
after the original in the records of Rockbridge County, Virginia.
1 New York Herald, quoted in The Lexington Gazette, July 1, 1868.
2 R. E. Lee to W. H. F. Lee, July 1, 1868; R. E. Lee, Jr., 318.
3 R. E. Lee, Jr., 320.
4 R. E. Lee to W. H. F. Lee, Aug. 14, 1868; R. E. Lee, Jr., 322‑23.
5 John S. Mosby, quoted in Watson's Notes of Southside Virginia, 248.
6 R. E. Lee to Wade Hampton, MS., Aug. 29, 1868; Lee's MS. Letter Book.
7 T. C. Johnson: Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, 498 ff. Doctor Dabney was not present and received his account of the meeting from Governor Stockdale. The latter told Dabney that he was the last to leave the room, and that as he was saying good-bye, Lee closed the door, thanked him for what he had said and added: "Governor, if I had foreseen the use these people desired to make of their victory, there would have been no surrender at Appomattox, no, sir, not by me. Had I foreseen these results of subjugation, I would have preferred to die at Appomattox with my brave men, my sword in this right hand." This, of course, is second-hand testimony. There is nothing in Lee's own writings and nothing in direct quotation by first-hand witness that accords with such an expression on his part. The nearest approach to it is the claim by H. Gerald Smythe that "Major Talcott" — presumably Colonel T. M. R. Talcott — told him Lee stated he would never have surrendered the army if he had known how the South would have been treated. Mr. Smythe stated that Colonel Talcott replied, "Well, General, you have only to blow the bugle," whereupon Lee is alleged to have answered, "It is too late now" (29 Confederate Veteran, 7). Here again the evidence is not direct. The writer of this biography, talking often with Colonel Talcott, never heard him narrate this incident or suggest in any way that Lee accepted the results of the radical policy otherwise than with indignation, yet in the belief that the extremists would not always remain in office. For these reasons the writer is unwilling to quote this doubtful testimony in the text.
8 Text lost but easily reconstructed from Lee to Rosecrans, MS., Aug. 26, 1868; Lee's MS. Letter Book.
9 A. F. Robertson: Alexander Hugh Holmes Stuart, 261‑63.
10 A. F. Robertson, op. cit., 263; full text in Lee's MS. Letter Book.
11 Lee's MS. Letter Book, Aug. 29, 1868.
12 Lee to Rosecrans, MS., Aug. 29, 1868; Lee's MS. Letter Book.
13 R. E. Lee, Jr., 324.
14 Faculty Minutes of that date show him present. See also Lexington Gazette, Sept. 16, 1868.
15 John Echols to A. H. H. Stuart, Sept. 16, 1868; A. F. Robertson, op. cit., 264. Lee to Rosecrans, MS., Sept. 18, 1868; Lee's MS. Letter Book. The writer's friend, Colonel Jennings C. Wise, is of opinion that General Lee was the moving spirit in a general plan to organize the conservatives of the South for a just restoration of the Union, and in an article in The Tidewater Tribune (Hampton, Va., October, 1929) he stated that General Lee "summoned General Longstreet [and others] to the White Sulphur to join with him in proclaiming the terms upon which the South would return to the Union." The writer has found no confirmation of this, but believes, on the contrary, that Lee had no part in the campaign beyond that set forth in the text. In the absence of any positive evidence to the contrary, it is impossible to reconcile any theory of political activity on the part of General Lee with the statement made in the letters quoted above.
16 1868‑69 Catalogue, p16.
17 Jones, 104‑5.
18 R. E. Lee, Jr., 330. A woman who saw him at the fair remembered that he rode into the grounds on Traveller, attended by a number of gentlemen. She wrote: "the women's booths stood beside the gate. All were waiting to see our idolized hero. Cheers arose from the crowd as he entered. He lifted his hat and looked upward. So, plainly, he gave to his God the glory" (MS. note to the writer, Jan. 21, 1930, from "A Lover of Lee," Grottoes, Va.).
19 R. E. Lee, Jr., 327.
20 R. E. Lee, Jr., 330. Winston, op. cit., 411‑12, quoted a contrary Lexington tradition that Mrs. Rooney Lee was late at prayers her first two mornings. On the second, Lee remarked that "no day should be lived unless it was begun with a prayer of thankfulness and an intercession for guidance." Then he said: "And now, my child, unless you get down to morning prayers, your old father will give you no more kisses." The writer has followed the version of the Lee family because it is first-hand and also because it accords better with Lee's known treatment of women. He was always the courtier in his manners.
21 R. E. Lee, Jr., 324.
22 R. E. Lee, Jr., 333.
23 6 Richardson's Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 708.
24 MS. Records U. S. Circuit Court, Richmond, Va. For the establishment of the facts regarding the indictment of General Lee and the nolle pros., the late Jos. P. Brady, clerk of the United States Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, was due the writer's warmest thanks.
26 R. E. Lee, Jr., 190, 354. Mrs. Rufus King had also been active in trying to preserve some of Mrs. Lee's belongings (5 Wisconsin Magazine of History, 371‑72).
27 Mrs. Lee to President Johnson, MS., Feb. 10, 1869; MS. Dept. Interior, P. and M. File, Box 144.
28 R. E. Lee to O. H. Browning, MS., Feb. 26, 1869; Lee's MS. Letter Book.
29 Congressional Globe, 3d Session, 40th Congress, March 1, 1869, pp1742‑43.
30 R. E. Lee to Captain May, March 12, 1869; Mason, 342.
31 Globe, as above, p1895.
32 Globe, as above, pp1895‑96; Jones's undelivered address (ibid., Appendix, 295‑97) is the chief source of information about the proceedings. Mr. Jones tried to make it plain that Lee himself with not involved. "The distinguished and noble gentleman and hero," he boldly wrote, "has had nothing whatever to do with this transaction, but, in regard to it has maintained the delicacy and dignity which have characterized him (p385)through life, and which now especially challenge the admiration of every unprejudiced and manly heart. These articles were the property of Mrs. Lee, and hers only, for her natural life. . . ." The writer is much indebted to Enoch A. Chase of Washington for information regarding the effort of the Lees to recover Arlington and its relics.
34 R. E. Lee to Geo. W. Jones, n. d.; R. E. Lee, Jr., 337.
35 R. E. Lee to T. L. Jones, March 29, 1869; R. E. Lee, Jr., 338.
36 R. E. Lee, Jr., 337; cf. Jones, 220.
37 R. E. Lee, Jr., 89‑90. See also R. E. Lee to Amanda Parks, March 9, 1866; Jones, 404. The original deed, from the records of the Hustings Court of Richmond, is now in the Confederate Museum, Richmond. It was acknowledged before Benj. S. Cason, J. P. of Spotsylvania County, Va.; Dec. 29, 1862, and was recorded in Richmond, Jan. 2, 1863.
38 Decker and McSween: Historic Arlington, 79‑84. R. E. Lee to W. H. Hope, April 3, 1866; Jones, 247. Decker and McSween put the price at $26,100.
39 R. E. Lee to Reverdy Johnson, Jan. 27, 1866; Jones, 211; Moore: The Family Life of Washington, 190.
40 After the war, in the Lee correspondence, Romancock became Romancoke.
41 Letter to Reverdy Johnson, loc. cit.; Lee to Francis S. Smith, MS., April 5, 1866, for a copy of which the writer wishes to acknowledge the kindness of Mrs. Thomas P. Bryan of Richmond.
42 R. E. Lee to W. H. Hope, April 5, 1866; Jones, 246.
43 Decker and McSween, op. cit., 79‑84.
44 R. E. Lee to R. E. Lee, Jr., May 26, 1866; R. E. Lee, Jr., 236.
45 R. E. Lee to unnamed correspondent, April 17, 1866; Jones, 249.
46 R. E. Lee to Miss Mattie Ward, May 28, 1866; Jones, 364.
47 1 Macrae, 225.
48 R. E. Lee to J. S. Black, Jan. 13, 1869; Jones, 229‑30.
49 R. E. Lee to Francis S. Smith, MS., Nov. 2, 1867, a copy of which was given the writer by Mrs. Thomas P. Bryan of Richmond.
50 Chancery Order Book No. 2, pp70 and 127; Northampton County court; Abstract of title to Smith's Island, prepared for the Lawyers' Title Ins. Co. by Reuben J. Martin, for use of which the writer is indebted to Judge T. C. Fletcher.
51 When Lee had been at Old Point in 1832, he had visited Smith's Island and had reported on it to Mr. Custis (Lee to Custis, MS., May 22, 1832; Duke Univ. MSS.).
52 R. E. Lee to W. H. F. Lee, Aug. 14, 1868; R. E. Lee, Jr., 323.
53 R. E. Lee to W. H. F. Lee, Sept. 28, 1868; R. E. Lee, Jr., 326‑27.
54 This is the date mentioned in R. E. Lee to W. H. F. Lee, Oct. 19, 1868; R. E. Lee, Jr., 328. The price is given in Northampton Co. Deed Book No. 37, p689. For this and other references to Smith's Island, the author is indebted, through Senator G. Walter Mapp, to George T. Tyson, clerk of Northampton County. Although the agent declined to accept the full commissions, the cost of the sale and transfer was $950 (R. E. Lee to Hamilton S. Neal[e], MS., Feb. 9, 1869; Lee's MS. Letter Book; same to same, MS., Feb. 23, 1869, ibid.).
55 This note appears among the assets listed in the appraisal of General Lee's will, Nov. 7, 1870; Will Book 19, p361, Rockbridge Co. (Va.) Court Records. Cf. R. E. Lee, Jr., 378.
56 R. E. Lee to R. H. Maury, MS., Feb. 19, 1869; Lee's MS. Letter Book.
57 R. E. Lee to R. H. Maury, MS., Feb. 27, 1869; Lee's MS. Letter Book.
58 Cf. R. E. Lee to Walter H. Taylor, Dec. 2, 1869; Taylor's General Lee, 312; "Smith's Island has been bought by my sons Fitzhugh and Robert. They will sell it, but I do not know whether they will lease it."
59 Owing to the commendable reticence of the Lees in all that concerned their financial affairs, the sale of Smith's Island and the subsequent settlements constitute a chapter that presents many difficulties. The following is believed to be an accurate summary of what happened but it is subject to correction: After General Lee's death, Mrs. Lee and the other heirs made a friendly agreement with Robert and Rooney by which Smith's Island was conveyed to them in fee (Nov. 30, 1871; Jan. 15, 1872; Deed Book 37, p689; Northampton Co. Court Records). In return, the two sons waived their part of their father's estate (Will of Mary Custis Lee, Rockbridge County Will Book 21, p179), so that the legacies due the daughters might be paid and White House and Romancoke relieved of the lien put on them under that part of Mr. Custis' will which made the bequests for his granddaughters a charge on those two estates and on Smith's Island. Nine thousand dollars was much less than the value of Smith's Island. Consequently, when Mrs. Lee died and the note of Rooney and Robert became part of the joint assets of the (p390)estate, they reconveyed three-fifths of Smith's Island to their surviving sisters and brother, so that all of them became tenants in common (Deed Book 38, p498, loc. cit.). The survivors and their heirs retained the property until Nov. 1, 1911, when it was sold to Samuel Oliver Campbell of New York (Deed Book 66, p72, loc. cit.). He built a handsome club-house on the island and on Oct. 21, 1926, transferred it, for $90,000, to Smith's Island Corporation, Richmond, Va. (Deed Book 84, p380, loc. cit.). The United States Government meantime had added to its reservation on the island and had erected thereon a powerful lighthouse and a coastguard station (Deed Book 46, pp224‑28, loc. cit.).
60 R. E. Lee to Mrs. Lee, April 11, 1870; R. E. Lee, Jr., 396; same to same, July 15, 1870; R. E. Lee, Jr., 414. For the circumstances attending the payment of $150,000 to Custis Lee for Arlington by the United States in 1883, see Decker and McSween, op. cit., 83‑84; Memorial of G. W. C. Lee, Sen. Doc. 96, 1st sess., 43d Congress; U. S. vs. Lee, 106 U. S., 196.
61 Appraisal of estate, will of R. E. Lee, loc. cit.
62 This estimate is based on the assumption that approximately $48,000 of his holdings represented pre-war investments.
63 E. C. Gordon, in Riley, 95.
64 E. C. Gordon, in Riley, 95‑96.
65 MS. Treasurer's Records, Washington and Lee Univ., for which entry the writer is indebted to the late Dean H. D. Campbell.
66 R. E. Lee to R. E. Lee, Jr., March 21, 1869; R. E. Lee, Jr., 342.
67 Riley, 95.
68 See, as typical, R. E. Lee, Jr., 193, 194, 195, 253. Custis, too, came in for a certain measure of bantering, particularly because of his continued bachelorhood. In 1869, Lee reverted to his favorite jest (see supra, p327 and vol. I, p136) and bespoke the daughter of Colonel Walter Taylor — a tiny tot — for Custis (R. E. Lee to W. H. Taylor, Dec. 2, 1869; Taylor's General Lee, 313). General Lee was glad for his sons to marry, and urged them to do so, but he was never anxious for his daughters to wed. None of them ever did.
69 He did not permit himself to be imposed upon in money matters. At Longstreet's instance, in 1866, he accepted position as non-resident director of the Great Southern and Western Life, Accident and Insurance Co. Three years later, when the concern went into receivership, he was called upon to pay a stock subscription of $500 he had never made. He wrote General John B. Hood, asking him to see what should be done and authorizing him to get counsel, if need be, to represent him.
70 Lexington Gazette, Nov. 18, 1868; R. E. Lee to H. J. Ferber, MS., Feb. 8, 1869; Lee's MS. Letter Book.
71 Reverend T. V. Moore, in Jones, 476.
72 Inventory of the estate of Robert E. Lee, attached to his will, loc. cit.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
Robert E. Lee
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 8 Dec 10