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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
p433
Chapter XXIV

The Beginning of the End

The general decline in Lee's health had become so serious by June, 1869, that he seems even to have thought that the strain of commencement might prove fatal to him.1 After that ordeal was behind him, he had to consider his physical condition in making his plans for the summer.2 He hoped that he might visit Rooney and Robert after the college closed and still be able to return to Lexington in time for the annual meeting on July 13 of the Educational Association of Virginia. Although he was a member of that body, he had never attended any of its conventions, and he felt that if he absented himself when the organization met at his own town, he would be considered inimical to it.3 By shortening his stay with his sons he might have gone down to the Pamunkey and have been back by the date of the meeting, but for the fact that new college officers were to begin their duties on July 1 and p434 would require some coaching. He accordingly gave up his plan and stayed in Lexington, which he found so quiet and pleasant, with the students away, that he wished he could remain there all summer.4 The Educational Association duly convened at the college5 with some of the most eminent teachers of the state in attendance, John B. Minor, Basil L. Gildersleeve, Matthew Fontaine Maury, Charles L. Cocke, and John P. McGuire among them. General Lee doubtless was present but he made no address and served on none of the committees.6

Very soon after the convention ended, the General took Mrs. Lee to the Rockbridge Baths, where she had decided she would spend the summer. Scarcely had Lee reached the springs, however, when he received the unexpected news that his brother Sydney Smith Lee had died at Richland, his home on the Potomac. The General set out immediately, but had to contend, as usual, with very poor transportation. When he arrived at Alexandria, on the evening of July 24, it was to find that the funeral had occurred late the previous afternoon.7 Lee was much shaken by the sudden taking of a brother he had loved to the end of his life as warmly as in the days of their boyhood in that same old city. He wrote Mrs. Lee: "May God bless us all and preserve us for the time when we, too, must part, the one from the other, which is now close at hand, and may we all meet again at the footstool of a merciful God, to be joined by His eternal love never more to separate."8

In melancholy mood, he went from the Mansion House, Alexandria, to Ravensworth, rested a day or two in its pleasant shade, and wandered about the well-beloved old house. At the door of the room in which his mother had died, he paused, almost overwhelmed by memories. "Forty years ago," he said, "I stood in this room by my mother's death-bed! It seems now but yesterday!"9

Robert was with him, having come up to attend the funeral, p435 and he now prevailed on the General to return home by way of the White House. Lee reached there on July 30 and on August 1 he attended Saint Peter's Church in New Kent County, a place precious to the family because of the tradition that George Washington had married within its walls the "Widow Custis" from whom Mrs. Lee was descended.10

The General did not think his daughter-in‑law was looking well and he believed that her baby, his namesake, would be the better for a trip to the mountains. So he prevailed on young Mrs. Lee to go to the springs with him. He was pleased at the prospect of having the young mother and her child in his care, and he hastened to write his excuses to a friend at whom home he had promised to stop on his way but also. ". . . I shall travel up," he wrote, "in a capacity that I have not undertaken for many years — as escort to a young mother and her infant, and it will require the concentration of all my faculties to perform my duties even with tolerable comfort to my charge. . . ."11 On August 2 the mother went to Petersburg, to see her family for a day, while the General and Rooney awaited her in Richmond.12 As always happened now, whenever he was away from Lexington, visitors began to pour in on Lee in such numbers that he was compelled to hold an impromptu reception in the parlors of his stopping-place, the Exchange Hotel.13 The next day, August 3, he set out for the springs, and after a long railroad trip and a wearying drive from Goshen to Rockbridge Baths, safely delivered the mother and the youngster to Mrs. Lee. It was a tedious journey and it may not have been altogether prudent, for the youthful object of the General's care was just recovering from a severe attack of whooping-cough. Obedient to his doctor's order, the General departed in a few days for the White Sulphur, in the hope that its waters would benefit his health. He took with him Mildred and Agnes, who found a gay season in progress.14 p436 George Peabody was among the guests, as was the General's table-mate of the summer of 1867, W. W. Corcoran of Washington.15

It probably was while Lee was at this resort that Reverend W. F. Broaddus began to talk of a meeting there in behalf of his project to establish an orphanage of the children of Virginia soldiers killed during the war. Jones stated16 that General Lee frequently wrote Mr. Broaddus about this and conferred in person with him regarding it. Lee's sympathies were of course with the enterprise, and his contributions to it were frequent.17 But when it was planned to hold a gathering at the springs, where inflammatory eloquence probably would have been applied for the extraction of gifts, he declined to attend.

General Lee desired, in fact, "to avoid all public gatherings that had anything to do with the war."18 On two or three occasions he wrote as though he would have gone, if he could, to meetings held to memorialize the dead or to dedicate Confederate burial grounds,19 but in actual fact after the war he never was present at a single assembly of any sort related in any way to the struggle between the states. "I think it wisest," he wrote, "not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered."20 He even held, in 1866, that it was unwise at that time to attempt to raise Confederate monuments. He wrote General Rosser, "All, I think, that can now be done is to aid our noble and generous women in their efforts to protect the graves and mark the last resting-places of those who have fallen, and wait for better times."21 Every such effort to care for the tombs of Southern soldiers had his instant endorsement. "The graves of the Confederate dead will always be green in my memory, and their deeds be hallowed in my recollection" — thus he wrote the chairman of a memorial p437 association in Richmond.22 When the proposal was first made in 1866 to bring back to their native states the bones of the Confederates slain at Gettysburg, he expressed the belief that the Gettysburg Association would not be lacking in respect for the Southern men buried there. In any case, he said, it would be time enough to talk of moving them when a reason for it arose: "I am not in favor of disturbing the ashes of the dead, unless for a worthy object, and I know of no fitter resting-place for a soldier than on the field on which he has nobly laid down his life."23 Hearing, four years later, that what had been feared by many had come to pass and that the graves of the Confederates were being neglected at Gettysburg, General Lee was for restoring to Virginia soil the ashes of the men who at his command had charged the ridge. He set aside in this instance his rule against the publication of his letters of endorsement, and both he and his family contributed generously to the fund being raised for the reinterment.24 But his opposition to fervid meetings remained unchanged. They aroused old passions and they might stir up ill-will against the South. It was in this spirit, no doubt, that he discouraged Mr. Broaddus's plan, and it was in this same spirit that he declined to read books on the war. They kept alive feelings it was better to bury for the country's good.

Late in arriving, he had but a short stay at the springs, and before the end of August he was back in Lexington, preparing for the family's return. He did not leave again until spring, though he received many invitations to visit different parts of the South. One of the most pressing was to attend a commercial convention in Louisville on October 12. He sent in reply an optimistic letter in which he affirmed that if the people cherished the principles of their fathers and practised their virtues, they would find it easy to revive the South. "Every man must, however, do his part in this great work. He must carry into the administration of his affairs industry, fidelity, and economy, and p438 apply the knowledge taught by science to the promotion of agriculture, manufactures, and all industrial pursuits. . . . In my particular sphere I have to attend to my proper business, which occupies so much of my attention that I have but little time to devote to other things."25

His "proper business" was heavy enough after September 16, when the college opened. The attendance was slightly less than that of the previous season,26 but the geographical distribution of the student-body was wider. As other colleges in Virginia were now somewhat restored, the students from the Old Dominion, who had numbered 130 in 1867‑8, and 111 in 1868‑69, dropped to 77. The boys from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas also formed a somewhat smaller contingent, but there were larger groups from most of the other parts of the South. All the states of the Confederacy were represented by at least ten men each. Twenty came from the North.27 All these young men had to be assigned to their classes and adjusted to the life of the college — a troublesome task, though one soon discharged.

The session got smoothly underway and passed with few incidents. Its chief feature was the vigorous continuance of the campaign for endowment. George Peabody had assigned the college a claim he had against the commonwealth of Virginia, and was indirectly in correspondence with the college regarding it at the time of his death.28 Expectations were raised also by reports that Missourians had given $10,000 to support the chair of Applied Chemistry, and that General W. S. Harney of the United States p439 army had donated $1000 toward the endowment of the "presidential chair" in the college.29 General Lee was much gratified by the benevolence of Harney and wrote his personally, recalling kindnesses done him by that Federal officer in the years preceding the war.30

Along with these satisfactions came distress in November at the fate of Professor Frank Preston. He had been graduated a bachelor of arts in 1860, had been a volunteer in the Rockbridge Artillery, and had been captain in the cadet corps at the Virginia Military Institute. Chosen assistant professor of Greek in Washington College, he resigned in 1869 to accept the professorship of Greek and German in the College of William and Mary. Scarcely had he entered upon his duties when he sickened and died. Lee was much attached to the young artillery Hellenist. He issued a sorrowful announcement to the student-body and suspended classes for the day — a rare occurrence at Washington College.31

The life of the family was very pleasant that fall. Mrs. Rooney Lee and the General's little grandson, Robert, remained in Lexington for some time after they left the springs. Edward Childe paid another visit at the end of September and brought with him not only a wife but also the little dog of woeful countenance that aroused the General's pity.32 Mrs. Lee's health was no better but she was able to ride out with the General, on sunny autumn afternoons, in the carriage he had purchased for her the previous spring in Baltimore. These were their last rides together. She was not with him, however, the afternoon he had trouble with the strong-limbed Lucy Long. He used her to pull the carriage — Traveller disdained such employment — and that day he had driven down the river, with Mrs. Rooney Lee and the baby, to call on the William Preston Johnstons. They made the trip comfortably, and the General was driving the mare up the stiff grade to the front of the house when she stumbled and fell as if dead. Lee jumped out, began to unfasten her harness and soon discovered that she had been choked by a tight collar. The General was acutely distressed and reproached himself hotly for p440 having permitted such a thing to happen. He caressed the animal and told her that he was ashamed of himself for mistreating her in this wise after all her fidelity to him.33

It is quite within the possibilities that the excitement of this incident contributed to the illness that marked the beginning of the end. The symptoms commenced about October 22, 1869, and at first were simply those of another severe cold, which kept Lee indoors and forced him to be absent from the faculty meeting of October 26.34 He was better within a week and on November 2 was able to take a ride on Traveller and to confer with the faculty,35 but he was again confined to the house for a few days,36 and when he was allowed to go out once more, his weakness was pronounced and he felt a certain depression of spirits. ". . . Traveller's trot is harder to me than it used to be and fatigues me very much," he had to admit to his son at the beginning of December.37 Truth was, his doctors by this time had diagnosed his malady as the same "inflammation of the heart-sac" from which in 1863 he had suffered much. This was attended now by rheumatism of the back, right side, and arms. Rapid exercise, afoot or on horseback, caused difficulty in breathing. Apparently the physicians did not explain to him the nature of his trouble, but he knew his heart was affected. He confided this to Custis, and told his eldest son that he considered himself doomed, but he said nothing of it to any other member of the family.38

As Christmas approached he wrote cheerfully to Rooney, who could not come to Lexington for the holidays, and he sent a message to Robert in the same spirit. On New Year's Day he kept open house to his friends and had much satisfaction in serving them oysters procured in Norfolk through Colonel Walter Taylor.39 He still had strength for his correspondence and he did not miss another faculty meeting until the end of March, 1870.40 He was able, too, to see visitors, bidden and unbidden. One afternoon, p441 during the autumn, a stranger accosted him at the gate of his house, talked with him for a few moments, when Reverend J. William Jones, pastor of the Baptist church and a chaplain of the college, walked up for a chat. After they had exchanged greetings, Lee remarked of the man who had just left, "That is one of our soldiers who is in necessitous circumstances." Jones, who was already something of an historian and was wholly unreconstructed, inquired to what command the veteran belonged. "He fought on the other side," said Lee, very simply, "but we must not remember that against him now." Jones subsequently learned from the man that General Lee had given him money to help him on his way.41

As the winter wore along, the General's free movement was greatly hampered by his physical condition. He rode out when the weather was favorable and he could do so with somewhat less discomfort, once he mounted his horse, but he could not walk much further than to his office. Constantly in pain, he was unable to attend to anything beyond his college duties and his necessary correspondence.42 He insisted he was better, as February passed, but by the middle of March he was less optimistic and had reached the conclusion that if the spring brought no improvement, he would resign. "I am admonished by my feelings," he said, "that my years of labor are nearly over, and my inclinations point to private life."43 He did not come readily to this belief that he would soon have to leave the college. As recently as the previous December, in declining the presidency of the Southern Life Insurance Company, he had written that he felt he should not abandon the position he held, so long as he could be of service to the college.44

The professors of the college, seeing him almost daily, realized p442 how serious his condition had become. Individually, from time to time, they urged him to take a long rest. He met every such appeal with a courteous "No." Feeling that it was his sense of discovery and his unwillingness to burden them that kept him from going away, they arranged among themselves a division of his college work and wrote him a letter in which they asked him to take a vacation and to spend it in travel for his health. In order that he might not be embarrassed by any nomination of their own, they proposed that he select one of their number to be titular acting president in his absence.45 It is quite likely that the suggestion of travel was made after conference with his physicians, who wereº very anxious for him to seek a climate where he would be less liable to contract colds.46

Upon the delivery of this communication from the faculty, Lee's doctor and his family united with the professors in new importunities. Lee yielded. "I think I should do better here," he wrote, "and am very reluctant to leave my home in my present condition; but they seem so interested in my recovery and so persuasive in their uneasiness that I should appear obstinate, if not perverse, if I resisted longer."47 On March 22, 1870, he formally notified the faculty that he had decided to take their suggestion and that he would name Professor Kirkpatrick to act as president in his absence.48 The selection evidently was made with care, for Doctor Kirkpatrick, professor of moral philosophy, was a mature man of wide educational experience.

Lee very promptly decided where he would go. He had long desired to visit the grave of his daughter, Annie, near the White Sulphur Springs, Warren County, North Carolina, for he had been unable to make the trip when, in August, 1866, the friendly people of the neighborhood had unveiled a simple monument to her memory.49 ". . . I have always promised myself to go [there]," he told Rooney, "and I think, if I am to accomplish it, I have no time to lose. I wish to witness her quiet sleep, with p443 her dear hands crossed over her breast, as if it were in mute prayer, undisturbed by her distance from us, and to feel that her pure spirit is waiting in bliss in the land of the blessed."50 From Warrenton he purposed to go either to Norfolk or to Savannah, and on his return journey he intended to stop and see his sons. His daughter Agnes, who had nursed him during his sickness, was to accompany him now.


The Author's Notes:

1 R. E. Lee to R. E. Lee, Jr., June 19, 1869; R. E. Lee, Jr., 358: "If I live through the coming week, I wish to pay you and F[image ALT: an underscored blank] a visit. . . ."

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2 R. E. Lee to W. H. F. Lee, June 30, 1869; R. E. Lee, Jr., 359.

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3 General Lee was always sympathetic with the other educational institutions of Virginia. It will be recalled that when Miss Anne Upshur Jones wrote him she intended to make a gift to some school, and was interested in the Episcopal Seminary near Alexandria but wished to know something of Washington College, he warmly praised the seminary (see supra, p420, note 3). On Jan. 21, 1867, answering a letter from Mrs. Coleman of Williamsburg on the future of the College of William and Mary, he expressed affectionate interest in the recovery of that old foundation from the effects of the war: "Your beautiful appeal in behalf of William and Mary was not needed to excite in me an interest in its welfare; for that I have felt all my life, and I have watched with anxiety the prospects of its resuscitation. . . . It must necessarily suffer under the depression incident to the calamities which oppress the state, but they will pass away, and William and Mary will again resume her place in the front rank of the colleges of the country. Time, which brings a cure to all things, will, I trust, remove the difficulties in the way of her progress and her restoration. Although without the influence you ascribe to me, it will give me pleasure to do all in my power for her advancement and prosperity" (Richmond Times-Dispatch, Oct. 17, 1921, p1). From the list of educational institutions in Virginia, published by the Educational Association of Virginia at the end of 1868, the name of Washington College was inadvertently omitted. The secretary wrote Lee an explanation, which Lee immediately accepted, urging the secretary to give himself no concern about it (R. E. Lee to W. R. Abbot, MS., Jan. 21, 1869; Lee's MS. Letter Book). Dean Campbell of Washington and Lee told the writer in 1933 that General Lee believed the University of Virginia should be essentially a graduate school and that Lee outlined to Professor John B. Minor a detailed plan of secondary education.

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4 R. E. Lee to unnamed correspondent, July 9, 1869; R. E. Lee, Jr., 360.

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5 Lee had been mistaken as to the time of the opening meeting. It was July 13, not July 15, as he had thought.

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6 Minutes of the Educational Association of Virginia; Fourth Annual Session . . . Lynchburg . . . 1870.

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7 Alexandria Gazette, July 24, 1869. This body was placed in a vault in the Methodist Episcopal cemetery, to await the family's decision concerning the place of final interment.

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8 R. E. Lee to Mrs. Lee, July 25, 1869; R. E. Lee, Jr., 362.

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9 R. E. Lee, Jr., 363.

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10 Cf. R. E. Lee to Miss Virginia Ritchie, MS., Oct. 23, 1869.

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11 R. E. Lee to unnamed correspondent, Aug. 1, 1869; R. E. Lee, Jr., 364‑65.

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12 Richmond Whig, Aug. 3; Richmond Dispatch, Aug. 4; Richmond Enquirer and Examiner, Aug. 3, 1869.

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13 R. E. Lee, Jr., 365.

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14 The General's correspondence at The White seems to have been heavier than during most of his vacations. While there he received a business offer of some sort, or a tender of money, that he acknowledged feelingly, but declined at once (R. E. Lee to R. W. [image ALT: an underscored blank]; Aug. 26, 1869; Jones, 175). The details are not known.

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15 Lee had been exchanging letters with Corcoran since 1867 in the interest of the college (7 S. H. S. P., 152 ff.).

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16 Jones, 233‑34.

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17 During the last year of his life he gave $100 toward the education of soldiers' orphans (Jones, 432).

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18 The quotation is Jones's language, not Lee's.

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19 Cf. R. E. Lee to W. H. Travers, June 23, 1866; Jones, 324. Cf. also R. E. Lee to Mrs. William Coulling, March 5, 1866; Jones, 325.

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20 R. E. Lee to unnamed correspondent, apropos of the "Gettysburg Identification Meeting," Jones, 234.

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21 R. E. Lee to T. L. Rosser, Dec. 13, 1866; Jones, 257.

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22 R. E. Lee to Mrs. Wm. Coulling, March 5, 1866; Jones, 325. Cf. R. E. Lee to Mrs. V. S. Knox, August, 1866; Jones, 324. He was equally earnest in his support of the various efforts to raise funds for the relief of the needy in the South (cf. R. E. Lee to Mrs. Miles Lells, Sept. 26, 1866; Jones, 256. See also Jones, 228).

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23 R. E. Lee to Fitz Lee, Dec. 15, 1866; Jones, 325.

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24 R. E. Lee to Mrs. Mary E. (Geo. W.) Randolph, March 8 and 17, 1870; Jones, 280, 281; Richmond Dispatch, March 30, 1870; cf. R. E. Lee to Thomas Martin, March 15, 1870; Jones, 280.

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25 R. E. Lee to Blanton Duncan, Sept. 14, 1869; Jones, 231. He wrote a somewhat similar letter on May 11, 1869, to Colonel Lawrence S. Marye, regretfully declining an invitation to a commercial convention in Memphis: "It would afford me great gratification," he said, "to aid in every way in my power the efforts that [they?] are making to restore the prosperity of the country" (Lee's MS. Letter Book; Richmond Dispatch, May 21, 1869).

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26 The total enrollment in 1868‑69 was 384; in 1869‑70, it was 344; 1869‑70 Catalogue, 17.

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27 1869‑70 Catalogue, 17.

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28 R. E. Lee to G. P. Russell, Sept. 27, Nov. 10, 1869; Jones, 276, 437; MS. Faculty Minutes, Nov. 16, 1869; R. E. Lee to Lewis Allen, Jan. 7, 1870; Jones, 278. In this last letter General Lee expressed regret that indisposition had prevented his attending Mr. Peabody's funeral. The trustees later named a committee to prosecute the claim (Trustees' Minutes, June 23, 1870). Mrs. Lee had not been impressed by the gift to the South in 1867 of the "Peabody fund." She wrote Mrs. Chilton, "I cannot hear how Mr. Peabody's munificent donation is to be applied [.] I fear it will benefit the South but little if it is to found schools with Yankee teachers" (Mrs. R. E. Lee to Mrs. R. H. Chilton, MS., March 10, 1867; Chilton Papers).

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29 Lexington Gazette, Feb. 18, 1870, quoting Richmond Dispatch.

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30 R. E. Lee to W. S. Harney, Feb. 26, 1870; Jones, 279.

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31 MS. Faculty Minutes, Nov. 23, 1869; Jones, 438; R. E. Lee, Jr., 374‑75.

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32 See supra, p309.

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33 R. E. Lee, Jr., 371.

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34 MS. Faculty Minutes, Oct. 26, 1869; Lexington Gazette, Oct. 27, 1869.

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35 MS. Faculty Minutes, Nov. 2, 1869; Lexington Gazette, Nov. 3, 1869.

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36 He was absent from the faculty meeting of Nov. 9.

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37 R. E. Lee to W. H. F. Lee, Dec. 2, 1869; R. E. Lee, Jr., 374.

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38 Cf. R. E. Lee, Jr., 379.

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39 Taylor's General Lee, 313, 314. For Lee's feast on oysters at Easter, 1868, see ibid., 311.

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40 See MS. Faculty Minutes.

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41 Jones, 196‑97.

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42 R. E. Lee to Agnes Lee, Feb. 2, 1870; R. E. Lee, Jr., 383; R. E. Lee to W. H. F. Lee, Feb. 14, 1870; R. E. Lee, Jr., 384.

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43 R. E. Lee to Robert H. Miller, MS., March 22, 1870; R. E. Lee to M. D. Corse et al., March 18, 1870; Jones, 176. These letters to Miller and Corse were in answer to a proposal that he accept a place, corresponding to that of a managing director of a modern chamber of commerce, for the development of the trade of Alexandria. It was probably about this time that Lee said: "I am too old for the work that I am trying to do" (M. W. Humphreys in Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jan. 20, 1907).

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44 R. E. Lee to J. B. Gordon, Dec. 14,º 1869; Jones, 277. The impairment of his health was not generally known. There had never been a time when he received more business offers, or offers with larger promised compensation (R. E. Lee to unnamed correspondent, Aug. 26, 1869; Jones, 175; cf. also R. E. Lee, Jr., 376).

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45 MS. Faculty Minutes, March 20, 1870; cf. Jones, 115‑16.

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46 "This is a terrible climate in winter and spring," Mrs. Lee had confided to Mrs. R. H. Chilton, March 10, 1867 (Chilton Papers).

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47 R. E. Lee to Mildred Lee, March 21, 1870; R. E. Lee, Jr., 384‑85.

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48 MS. Faculty Minutes, March 22, 1870.

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49 R. E. Lee to Mrs. Jos. S. Jones, et al., July 25, 1866; Jones, 394‑95. Cf. also R. E. Lee, Jr., 241‑42.

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50 R. E. Lee to W. H. F. Lee, March 22, 1870; R. E. Lee, Jr., 386.


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