Three days after the opening of the session of 1870‑71, unobserved by formal ceremonies and perhaps unnoticed, the fifth anniversary of General's arrival in Lexington occurred. He had changed greatly in appearance since that September afternoon of 1865 when he had drawn rein on Traveller in front of the hotel. His hair was entirely white now and his gait was slow. Once the most erect of men, he was beginning to stoop in the shoulders. The nervous strain of the war and the difficult exercise of a stern self-control during reconstruction had proved too much for even his stout system. Although he was only sixty-three, he was an old man.
Yet none of the work he had done since the summer of 1865 had the shadow of senescence about it. On the contrary, nothing more surely exhibits the strength of his intellect than the sustained quality of his labors and the continued sureness of his judgment during years when a similar physical condition would have been accompanied, in the case of most men, by a progressive mental decline. He had taken a feeble, old-fashioned college and had made it a vigorous pioneer in education, the admiration of the South. Although that had demanded hourly thought and many months of grinding labor, it had not been his chief contribution to his country since the close of the war. His example had been more important than his administration. He had meant less to education than to reconciliation. Denounced and lied about, in a time more difficult than any America had ever known except in the most baffling period of the Revolution, he had preached this gospel of silence and good-will, of patience and hard work:
"If the result of the war is to be considered as having decided that the union of the states is inviolable and perpetual under the constitution, it . . . is as incompetent for the general government to impair its integrity by the exclusion of a state, as for the states p483 to do so by secession; . . . the existence and rights of a state by the constitution are as indestructible as the union itself. The legitimate consequence then must be the perfect equality of rights of all the states."
"The war being over . . . and the questions at issue . . . having been decided, I believe it to be the duty of every one to unite in the restoration of the country, and the reestablishment of peace and harmony."
"I think it wisest 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."
"All should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of the war, and to restore the blessing of peace. They should remain, if possible, in the country; promote harmony and good feeling; qualify themselves to vote; and elect to the state and general Legislatures wise and patriotic men, who will devote their abilities to the interests of the country, and the healing of all dissensions."
"It should be the object of all to avoid controversy, to allay passion, [and] give full scope to reason and every kindly feeling. By doing this and encouraging our citizens to engage in the duties of life with all their heart and mind, with a determination not to be turned aside by thoughts of the past and fears of the future, our country will not only be restored in material prosperity, but will be advanced in science, in virtue and in religion."
"You can work for Virginia, to build her up again, to make her great again. You can teach your children to love and cherish her."
"I look forward to better days, and trust that time and experience, the great teachers of men, under the guidance of an ever-merciful God, may save us from destruction and restore to us the bright hopes and prospects of the past."
"My experience of men has neither disposed me to think worse of them nor indisposed me to serve them; nor, in spite of failures p484 which I lament, of errors which I now see and acknowledge, or of the present aspect of affairs, do I despair of the future. The truth is this: The march of Providence is so slow and our desires so impatient; the work of progress is so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope."1
This was the counsel of a man who not only was capable of accurate observation and precise reason, but who also was absolute master of his own soul. Had he left Virginia in 1865 many of the best men of the South might have emigrated with him, and those who remained might have been under the domination of Negroes and carpet-baggers for a generation. The South might have become an American Poland. Instead, to repeat, the Confederates came to consider it as much the course of patriotism to emulate General Lee in peace as it had been to follow him in war. More than any other American, General Lee kept the tragedy of the war from being a continuing national calamity. He did not survive to behold the industrialism he foresaw for a South rid forever of the burden of slavery, but he lived to witness the readmission of the last of the former Confederate States to the Union, despite a thousand obstacles. From five such years of passion as 1865‑70, what more could any man have hoped? Who would not have been willing, when that was consummated, to say Nunc dimittis?
Like a soldier in action, General Lee regarded his taking off as probable at any time, but he had no special premonitions and he made no deliberate preparations for the great adventure. He worked on from September 18 to September 27 in accordance with a precise and supply schedule. He saw students between 8:45 and 10:30 A.M.2 Then, until dinner, which came after 2 o'clock, he attended to the routine of the college. Then he had a brief nap, and, later, if the weather was fair, he took a short ride on Traveller over the hills around Lexington, in the strange companionship that had existed for eight years between master and mount. p485 Returning home, the General spent his evenings quietly there. He read, during his last days, of the Franco-Prussian War, and all his sympathies in that contest were with the French. "No," he wrote a kinswoman, not long before Sedan, "I am not 'glad that the Prussians are succeeding.' They are prompted by ambition and a thirst for power. The French are defending their homes and country." In that he saw the struggle of his own Southland.3
On September 27 he attended faculty meeting as usual. The attendance was thin, and the business was of no great importance: three students wished indulgence in the payment of their tuition fees, and one wanted to withdraw on account of ill-health; a committee reported the names of ministerial students who should be admitted without charge; rules were presented to govern the award of literary medals offered by Joseph Santini of New Orleans. The teachers who were seeking to stimulate attendance on chapel services were directed to consider the purchase of hymn books. That was all. In the minutes of this meeting, the last that General Lee ever attended, his name does not appear. The only reference to him was in the line: ". . . present the President and Professors. . . ."4
The next morning, September 28, the General rose early and had morning prayers. If, as usual, he read the Psalter for the day, these were the words of Holy Writ with which the morning lesson ended:
"Praise the Lord, ye house of Israel: praise the Lord, ye house of Aaron.
"Praise the Lord, ye house of Levi: ye that fear the Lord, praise the Lord.
"Praise be the Lord out of Sion: who dwellest at Jerusalem."
And if he read on through the psalter for the evening he closed the Book on these lines:
"Though I walk in the midst of trouble, yet shalt thou refresh me: thou shalt stretch forth thy hand upon the furiousness of mine enemies, and thy right hand shall save me.
"The Lord shall make good his loving kindness toward me: p486 yea, thy mercy, O Lord, endureth for ever; despise not then the work of thine own hands."
Eight years before, on that very date, having concluded the Sharpsburg campaign, he had written President Davis from his camp on Washington River, "History records but few examples of a greater amount of labor and fighting than have been done by this army during the present campaign."5 Six years before, on September 28, 1862, Ord had been preparing his surprise attack on Fort Harrison. Now, on a cloudy, chilly day, Lee had nothing on his calendar other than the routine of his office and a meeting of the vestry of Grace Church in the afternoon.
The first part of this schedule was rather heavy, for students were still being adjusted to their classes; but he found time, before dinner, to answer a letter he received that morning from Samuel H. Tagart, who, during July, had been his host in Baltimore. Mr. Tagart had written that he wanted to inveigle him into a correspondence. Lee responded cheerfully. "I am much better," he said in answer to a question from Tagart. "I do not know whether it is owing to having seen you and Doctor Buckler last summer or to my visit to the Hot Springs. Perhaps both. But my pains are less and my strength greater. In fact, I suppose I am as well as I shall be. I am still following Doctor B.'s directions, and in time I may improve still more." He concluded, as usual, with friendly messages: "Tell ––––– his brother is well and handsome, and I hope that he will study, or his sweethearts in Baltimore will not pine for him long. Captain ––––– is well and busy, and joins in my remembrances. . . ."6
He finished and sealed this letter, completed his morning's work, and was just stepping out from his office when he met Percy Davidson, a sophomore from Lexington, who had with him a small picture of Lee, which a girl had asked him to get the General to autograph. Davidson explained this and added that as Lee was leaving, he would come some other time. "No," said Lee, "I will go right back and do it now." He returned and signed his name for the last time.7
p487 Then he went out again and shut the door behind him, to open it no more in life.8 From the office he walked slowly home, ate his dinner, and slept for a short time in his arm-chair.9
It was chilly after dinner and rain began to fall steadily. Lee should have stayed home to protect himself against a cold, but he did not feel he should miss the vestry meeting, which was to consider the perennial question of a new church building and was also to decide what could be done to increase the scanty salary of General Pendleton. Lee insisted on going, and took no precaution against the weather other than to put on his old military cape. He walked through the rain and went directly to the church auditorium. There was no heat in the building and no smaller room into which the vestrymen could conveniently retire. They had to sit in the pews, cold and damp.
Chatting a few minutes with his associates, the General gave an historical turn to his conversation and related several anecdotes of Chief Justice Marshall and of his old friend Bishop Meade. Then, at 4 o'clock, he called the meeting to order. The discussion was close and tedious. Sitting with his cape about him, Lee presided, but, as usual, did not attempt to influence the deliberations. When all who would do so had expressed their views, Lee "gave his own opinion, as was his wont, briefly and without argument."
After they had decided what should be done about the church building, the vestrymen began to subscribe a fund to raise Doctor Pendleton's salary. Lee was tired by this time, and despite the chill of the place, his face was flushed, but he waited in patience. All the vestrymen contributed; the clerk cast the total and announced how much was still needed to reach the desired sum. It was $55, considerably more than the part of one who already had contributed generously, but Lee said quietly, "I will give that sum."10
Seven o'clock had struck, the hour at which, in so many of his battles, darkness had put an end to the fighting. The end had p488 come now — not on a field of blood, but in the half-gloom of a bare little church, where the talk was of a larger house of prayer, and the only reminders of the days of strife were the cape and the weary, lined face of the old leader, and the military titles by which some of the vestrymen addressed one another. High command, great fame, heart-anguish, galling burdens had ended in this last service — to plan a little church in a mountain town, and to give of his substance to raise the pay of a parson who had been his loyal lieutenant in arms.
Bidding his associates good night, Lee walked home alone through the darkness and the rain, such a rain as had fallen that night when the army had crossed the Potomac on the retreat from Gettysburg. He climbed the steps. He entered the lighted house and turned into his chamber, as was his custom, to take off his damp covering and hat. Then he went to the dining room, where Mrs. Lee was waiting for him. She saw something unusual in his face and told him he looked chilly. "Thank you," he said in his normal voice, "I am warmly clothed."
It was rare that he, the promptest of men, should delay a meal half an hour, and as he often teased wife and daughters about their tardiness, Mrs. Lee from her rolling-chair smilingly challenged him: "You have kept us waiting a long time, where have you been?"
He made no reply. Taking his usual position in front of his chair, he opened his lips to say grace. But the familiar words would not come. Another instant and he sank back to his seat.
"Let me pour you out a cup of tea," said Mrs. Lee, "you look so tired."
He tried to answer but could make no intelligible sound. On the instant he must have realized that his summons had come, for a look of resignation lighted his eyes. Then he carefully and deliberately straightened up in his chair. If it was the "last enemy" he had to meet now, he would face him mindfully and erect, as if he were going into battle astride Traveller of the tossing neck.
Seeing that he was seriously ill, the family sent immediately for his physicians, Doctor H. T. Barton and Doctor R. L. Madison. Both of them had been at the vestry meeting with the General p489 and as they lived farther from the church than Lee did, neither had reached home when the messenger arrived, but in a short time they hurried into the room. The General was placed on the couch that had been over by the windows. His outer garments were removed. "You hurt my arm," he said, and pointed to the shoulder that had long been paining him.
The physicians' examination showed no paralysis. He was very weak, had a tendency to doze, and was slightly impaired in consciousness. The doctors decided that he had what they termed "venous congestion," an impairment of the circulation that now would probably be termed a thrombosis. A bed was at once brought down from the second floor and was set up for him. Placed upon it, he turned over and went into a long and tranquil sleep, from which his physicians hoped he would awake much improved.
Their hopes were not altogether in vain. He was better the next day, though still very drowsy,11 but manifestly required careful nursing and close watching. As the rain continued to pour down and the house became damp, a fire was lighted on the hearth. The dining room table was removed and the room was turned into a sick-chamber. Friends and members of the faculty began a regular round of waiting at his side. He lay quietly, now awake, now asleep, always on the border-line of the unconscious. Ere long, he responded to the treatment the doctors prescribed, and physically he seemed to improve. Taking his medicine regularly and eating with some appetite, he soon was able to turn over in bed and could sit up to swallow. The attendants' questions he understood and would answer. His replies were monosyllables, but his family explained that he always was silent in sickness.12
View from the parlor of the "new" President's house
This picture, taken at Washington College during the presidency of General Custis Lee, shows the house more elaborately furnished than during the lifetime of his father.
Word spread, of course, that he was ill. The trustees had been called for September 29, the day after the General was stricken, and with their usual consideration for him they named a committee to express the board's regret at his absence and to consider the advisability of urging him to take a six-months' rest.13 Newspapers p490 were quick to make inquiries and were able on September 30 to report him much improved.14 Despite this, reports persisted that he was paralyzed and speechless.15 In England, Disraeli's Standard was so certain his malady was fatal that a review of his career was made ready for publication.16
In Lexington apprehension battled with hope. The doctors remained confident, and Mrs. Lee talked of the time "when Robert gets well,"17 but in her heart she was haunted by the look that had come into his eyes when he had tried vainly to answer her at the supper table and then had sat upright. "I saw he had taken leave of earth," she afterwards wrote.18 The superstitious whispered that his end was at hand because his picture had fallen down from the wall of his house;19 and when a flashing aurora lighted the sky for several nights some saw in it a beckoning hand. One Lexington woman took down a copy of The Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers and pointed significantly to this quatrain:
"All night long the northern streamers
Shot across the trembling sky:
Fearful lights, that never beckon
Save when kings or heroes die."20
A week passed, and General Lee's improvement, though slight, was apparent and seemed to be progressive.21 On October 8 a Richmond paper quoted he physicians as saying he would soon be out again. He still talked very little, and once, when Agnes started to give him his medicine, he said: "It is no use." But she prevailed on him to take it. Conscious of nearly all that went on around him, he was manifestly glad to have the members of the family come in to see him. He did not smile during his whole illness, but he always met greetings of his wife and children with the pressure of his hand.22
p491 On the morning of October 10, Doctor Madison thought his patient was mending. "How do you feel today, General?" he inquired.
"I . . . feel . . . better," said Lee, slowly but distinctly.
"You must make haste and get well; Traveller has been standing so long in the stable that he needs exercise."
The General shook his head deliberately and closed his eyes again. It had been much the same when Custis Lee had spoken of his recovery. Lee had then moved his head from side to side and had pointed upward.
That afternoon, without warning, his pulse began to flutter. His breathing became hurried. Exhaustion was apparent. The evening brought no improvement. At midnight he had a chill, and his condition was so serious that Doctor Barton had to warn the family.
One of his professors, son of his old comrade, Sidney Johnston, sat by him that night,23 fully appreciative of the life that was ending. "Never," he recorded, "was more beautifully displayed how a long and severe education of mind and character enables the soul to pass with equal step through this supreme ordeal; never did the habits and qualities of a lifetime, solemnly gathered into a few last sad hours, more grandly maintain themselves amid the gloom and shadow of approaching death. The reticence, the self-contained composure, the obedience to proper authority, the magnanimity and Christian meekness that marked all his actions, preserved their sway, in spite of the inroads of disease, and the creeping lethargy that weighed down his faculties. As the old hero lay in the darkened room, or with the lamp and hearth fire casting shadows upon his calm, noble front, all the massive grandeur of his form, and face, and brow remained; and death seemed to lose its terrors, and to borrow a grace and dignity in sublime keeping with the life that was ebbing away. The great mind sank to its last repose, almost with the equal poise of health."24
Lee refused medicine and nourishment the next day, even from his daughters, but despite the confusion of his mind, self-discipline p492 still ruled, and when either of his doctors put physic to his mouth he would swallow it. During the morning he lapsed into a half-delirium of dreams and memories. ". . . His mind wandered to those dreadful battlefields."25 He muttered unintelligible words — prayers, perhaps, or orders to his men. Sometimes his voice was distinct. "Tell Hill he must come up," he said, so plainly and emphatically that all who sat in the death-chamber understood him.
His symptoms now were aggravated. Mrs. Lee, in her rolling-chair, took her place by his bed for the last vigil and held his moist hand.26 His pulse continued weak and feeble; his breathing was worse. By the end of the day the physicians admitted that the fight was lost: the General was dying. They could only wait, not daring to hope, as he lay there motionless, save for the rapid rise and fall of his chest. His eyes were closed. When he talked in his delirium he did not thresh about. The words, though now mingled past unravelling, were quietly spoken.
At last, on October 12, daylight came. The watchers stirred and stretched themselves and made ready to give place to those who had obtained a little sleep. Out of the windows, across the campus, the students began to move about, and after a while they struggled down to the chapel to pray for him. Now it was 9 o'clock, and a quarter past. His old opponent, Grant, was sitting down comfortably to breakfast in the White House. With axe or saw or plough or pen, the veterans of Lee's army were in the swing of another day's work. For him it was ended, the life of discipline, of sorrow, and of service. The clock was striking his last half-hour. In some corner of his mind, not wrecked by his malady, he must have heard his marching order. Was the enemy ahead? Had that bayoneted host of his been called up once again to march through Thoroughfare Gap or around Hooker's flank or over the Potomac into Maryland . . . moving . . . moving forward? Or was it that the war was over and that peace had come?
"Strike the tent," he said, and spoke no more.27
1 The source of these separate quotations already has been given, except that of the last. It is from R. E. Lee to Charles Marshall, n. d., 17 S. H. S. P., 245; 35 Confederate Veteran, 364.
2 These new hours were provided under resolution of June 27, 1870 (MS. Faculty Minutes, that date).
3 Lee to Martha Williams, Aug. 27, 1870; Markie Letters, 90‑91.
4 MS. Faculty Minutes, Sept. 27, 1870. In some of the biographies of General Lee it is erroneously stated that this faculty meeting was held on Sept. 28, the day when Lee was stricken.
6 R. E. Lee to S. H. Tagart, Sept. 28, 1870; R. E. Lee, Jr., 432‑33.
7 Washington and Lee Alumni Magazine, vol. 3, no. 1, January, 1927, p6. The picture, with the autograph, is now at Washington and Lee.
8 It is stated by some biographers that Lee left some unfinished letters on his table. This is improbable, for it was never General Lee's habit to leave today's work for tomorrow. No such letters are now on his table or are remembered by any of the older members of the staff of the college.
9 Mrs. R. E. Lee to Miss Mary Meade, Oct. 12, 1870; Va. Mag. of History and Biography, January, 1927, pp23‑26 (cited hereafter as Meade Letter).
10 Jones, 432.
12 Meade Letter, loc. cit., Johnston, in Riley, 208‑10; R. E. Lee, Jr., 440; Childe, 334; Mrs. M. C. Lee to R. H. Chilton, MS., Dec. 12, 1870; Chilton Papers.
13 Trustees' Minutes, Sept. 29, 1870; Cf. ibid., Oct. 1, for the trustees' letter of regret at his illness.
14 Lexington Gazette, Sept. 30, 1870; Richmond Dispatch, Oct. 7, 1870, quoting Lexington letter of Sept. 30, 1870.
15 Richmond Enquirer, Oct. 4, 1870; Richmond Whig editorial, Oct. 4, 1870.
16 Richmond Dispatch, Oct. 7, 1870, quoting New York World.
17 McDonald, 7.
18 Mrs. M. C. Lee to R. H. Chilton, MS., Dec. 12, 1870; Chilton Papers.
19 McDonald, 7.
20 McDonald, 7. The lines were wrongly quoted by Mrs. McDonald and were said by her to be taken from the heading of a chapter in "an old romance, The Scottish Cavalier," but the lines evidently are from W. E. Aytoun's Edinburgh After Flodden.
21 Richmond Dispatch, Oct. 6, Oct. 7, 1870.
22 R. E. Lee, Jr., 440.
23 This is inferred from the particularity of the account Johnston gave of events during the evening and night of the 10th.
24 W. P. Johnston, in Riley, 212, quoted from Jones, 450‑51. This account appears also in R. E. Lee, Jr., 438‑39.
25 Mrs. R. E. Lee to R. H. Chilton, loc.
27 W. P. Johnston, in Jones, 450. For the details of the burial of General Lee see IV‑8.
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: 26 Jan 15