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

by Douglas Southall Freeman

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

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


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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. II
Chapter XIX

Domestic Interlude

General Lee saw little of his family during the desperate weeks that raced relentlessly to the bloody climax of Malvern Hill. When in March, 1862, he came back to Richmond, Mrs. Lee was at the White House, with her daughter-in‑law, Charlotte. The girls were visiting,​1 Rooney was with his command in the field, Robert was still at the University of Virginia, and only Custis was in the city, acting as an aide to the President. The General had his quarters at the Spotswood Hotel in Spartan loneliness. His duties kept him for long hours at the War Department building and gave him few opportunities for social life. He went daily to morning prayer-meeting at 7 o'clock,​2 but he did not find time to visit even his old rector of boyhood days, now the Bishop of Virginia, Right Reverend William Meade. On the evening of March 14, Bishop Meade sent for Lee, who hurried at once to see him. The distinguished cleric was nearing his end, feeble and in great pain, but rational and resigned. In an affecting farewell, the bishop gave him his blessing. "God bless you! God bless you, Robert!", he said, "and fit you for your high and responsible duties. I can't call you 'general' — I must call you 'Robert'; I have heard you your catechism too often.

"Yes, Bishop, very often," Lee said, choking with tears and pressing his hand.3

That night the venerable cleric died. " ' I ne'er shall look upon his like again,' " Lee sorrowfully quoted.​4 "Of all the men I have ever known," he wrote after the war, "I consider him the purest."5

That evening, after Bishop Meade expired, Robert Lee came to  p252  town, intent on entering the army.​6 His father had opposed this in April, 1861, but had weakened in September​7 and now he was reconciled to it. He did not believe the boy would study at college and he did not wish him to attend simply to claim the military exemption allowed students. "I must leave the rest in the hands of our merci­ful God," Lee told his wife. "I hope our son will do his duty and make a good soldier."​8 The next day he went with Robert to get his outfit, with which the boy left in a few days to join the Rockbridge Artillery as a private. It was in that capacity Lee next met him, on the field of Gaines's Mill.9

Lee left it to Mrs. Lee whether she would remain for the time being at the White House or would come to Richmond, though he reminded her that "in the present condition of affairs no one can foresee what may happen, nor in my judgment is it advisable for any one to make arrangements with a view to permanency or pleasure."​10 Mrs. Lee elected to continue at the White House, and there she stayed until the Federals were close at hand. Her impulse doubtless was to hold the plantation against McClellan and all his army, for she had the finest of courage; but she was prevailed upon to seek refuge at the home of a neighbor. Prior to May 11, she left,​11 but not until she had penned and had attached to the front door this appeal:

"Northern soldiers who profess to reverence Washington, forbear to desecrate the home of his first married life, the property of his wife, now owned by her descendants."

'A Grand-daughter of Mrs. Washington."12

A few days later, two Federal officers with an escort rode up to her new shelter and asked for her. One introduced himself as Captain Joseph Kirkland, aide to General Fitz John Porter. The other was Doctor George H. Lyman, medical director of Porter's corps. They had come, they explained, with a message from  p253  General Porter, to acquaint her with "his desire to assure her proper care and protection with as little of constraint to her wishes and movements as might be compatible with her position" inside the Federal lines. Mrs. Lee feared no Federal from commanding general to foraging private, and she proceeded to give the abashed officers a piece of her mind. It was an indignity, she said, to be confined to a house with sentinels posted about, especially at the order of General Porter, who had often been a guest at Arlington. Kirkland and Lyman protested that Porter was acting under McClellan's orders and that the wish of all was to show her every possible protection until she could be passed through the lines.​13 Mrs. Lee broke in with an emphatic announcement that she did not want to "pass through the lines"; she wished to return to the White House, "if not yet in ruins." The puzzled Federals told her that if she desired to do so, she could journey there or anywhere else, as long as she had an escort. That did not suit her: she would not go to the White House or make any move if she had to have bluecoats buzzing about her. The officers diplomatically explained that an escort was for her protection, not for espionage, and that it was necessary if she intended moving about where ignorant soldiers might not be considerate of her sex and station. This somewhat mollified her. "The visit was finally terminated with much more courtesy on her part," Doctor Lyman subsequently wrote, "than our reception promised."14

Soon thereafter Mrs. Lee shook the dust of the Federal camps from her creaking carriage-wheels and journeyed up the Pamunkey to Marlbourne, the estate of Edmund Ruffin, the famous agricultural experimentalist, who had fired the first gun on Fort Sumter. There she remained for some weeks — only to find the onmarching Federals, ere long, at nearby Old Church. Again she was "within the enemy's lines," with a suspicious colonel confident she would soon report the movements of his command to the Confederates.15

 p254  This time, Mrs. Lee decided that if she was to leave the company of the Federals, she would go where she did not believe they could follow her — to Richmond. Lee arranged with McClellan for her to pass through the lines, and not long before the opening of the Seven Days, he sent Major W. Roy Mason to meet her. Mason awaited her at McClellan's headquarters, where the General himself received her with due honors. Thence the carriage took her across the Meadow Bridges to Gooch's farm, a mile and a half from the Chickahominy. There General Lee welcomed her. It was the first time he had seen her since he had kissed her good-bye at Arlington on April 22, 1861, fifteen months before. Physically she had changed much for the worse during that time, as she always seemed to do in their long separations. Travel, arthritis, and suspense had aged and crippled her. Only with great difficulty was she able to walk at all.16

During the first weeks after Mrs. Lee's return to Richmond, the General was rarely with her, but when the Seven Days lay behind him, he could occasionally come into the city for a few days and could taste a little of the domestic life he so well loved. Robert got a furlough on account of minor sickness, and the girls fluttered home. The quiescence of the enemy temporarily lifted from his heart the burden of his responsibility. "He was the same loving father to us all," road remembered, "as kind and thoughtful of my mother . . . and of us, his children, as if our comfort and happiness were all he had to care for. His great victory did not elate him, so far as one could see."​17 He told his wife, "Our success has not been so great or complete as we could have desired, but God knows what is best for us. Our enemy met with a heavy loss, from which it will take him some time to recover, before he can recommence his operations."18

 p255  It was not for long, Robert rejoined his command, Mrs. Lee and some of the girls went to Hickory Hill, the Wickham home in Hanover County, and thence to the Warren County springs in North Carolina;​19 and soon the rumble of artillery, the clatter of cavalry, and the haunting tramp of ill-shod infantry was moving northward through the streets of Richmond. The army was moving northward to still bloodier fields, and Lee must lead it there.

The Author's Notes:

1 Annie, however, joined her mother before the end of March. Annie Lee to Agnes Lee, May 2, 1862, MS., Duke University.

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2 Charleston Mercury, April 22, 1862.

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3 Jones, 436; Cooke, 47.

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4 Lee to Mrs. Lee, March 14, 1862; R. E. Lee, Jr., 67.

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5 Lee to Right Reverend John Johns, March 7, 1866; Jones, 436.

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6 Annie Lee to Agnes Lee, May 2, 1862; MS., Duke University.

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7 Lee to Mrs. Lee, Sept. 9, 1861; R. E. Lee, Jr., 43‑44.

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8 Lee to Mrs. Lee, March 15, 1862; R. E. Lee, Jr., 68.

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9 See supra, p161.

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10 Lee to Mrs. Lee, March 14, 1862; R. E. Lee, Jr., 67.

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11 National Intelligencer, May 13, 1862, p3, col. 2. The Intelligencer's correspondent says Mrs. Lee was "stopping with a physician a few miles in advance." If he was correct in this, then Mrs. Lee must have been at Mt. Prospect, the home of Doctor William Hartwell Macon.

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12 Cooke, 61; N. M. Curtis, From Bull Run to Chancellorsville, 104‑5; Jones, 982.

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13 McClellan was criticised by Northern extremists for posting a guard at the White House. McClellan's Own Story, 406.

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14 G. H. Lyman: Some Aspects of the Medical Service in the Armies of the United States during the War of the Rebellion, 13 Papers of the Military Historical Society of Mass. (cited hereafter as M. H. S. M.), 193‑94. Lyman's account is merely paraphrased in the text. There is no other report of the interview.

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15 O. R., 11, part 3, pp202, 203.

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16 It does not seem possible to fix with certainty the date of Mrs. Lee's arrival at Marlbourne or of her coming to Richmond. She was at Marlbourne on May 30 (O. R., 11, part 3, p202), and as she passed McClellan's headquarters before they were transferred to Doctor Trent's house, south of the Chickahominy, she must have come into the Confederate lines prior to June 12, the date McClellan moved (O. R., 11, part 3, p224). Major Mason mentions the fact that she gave him two fine tomatoes, when he said good-bye at Gooch's, but they must have come from a hothouse, because even on Ruffin's fine plantation, tomatoes would not have been ripe before June 20. For information as to Mrs. Lee's presence at Marlbourne, the writer is indebted to Mrs. Mary Sayre Johnston of Richmond.

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17 R. E. Lee, Jr., 74.

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18 Lee to Mrs. Lee, July 9, 1862; R. E. Lee, Jr., 75.

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19 R. E. Lee, Jr., 75; Mrs. A. C. W. Byerly to Senator H. T. Wickham, Jan. 29, 1931, Wickham MSS.

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