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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. IV
Chapter XVIII

Social Conciliator

As college work at the end of the session of 1866‑7 was better organized than it had been the previous summer, the General could take a vacation, a needed one, for he had been almost continuously at work since he had moved to Lexington, nearly two years before.

First there came a trip to a lovely mountain, the Peaks of Otter, about thirty miles away, in Bedford County. It was undertaken on horseback, with his daughter Mildred, who had at last returned home after her lengthy visit in Maryland. The road led through a thinly settled, picturesque country, the beauty of which, in the verdure of late June, appealed profoundly to General Lee.​1 His spirits were high and Traveller was prancing, as they made their way over the hills, with Mildred at his side on Lucy Long. Lunching by the road, they came in the afternoon to the James River, where the ferryman proved to be a veteran of the Army of Northern Virginia. He refused to accept anything for conveying his old commander across the stream.

Up the valley of the James the two riders climbed, past mountain cabins and occasional prosperous homes. Out where the road was the steepest, they came upon a group of dirty-faced youngsters at play. The General spoke to them — he never passed children without doing so — and asked jestingly if they did not think some water would help their countenances. The children gaped and ran away. Presently the riders made a turn in the winding road, and down from a cabin, now visible for the first time, trooped the same youngsters, in clean aprons, their faces hurriedly but surely washed, and their hair combed. "We know you are General Lee," cried one of the group. "We have got your picture." Their toilet was in his honor.

 p321  The hotel at the Peaks of Otter nestles unassumingly in the high gap that leads over the mountain. The eminence that visitors are wont to climb lies directly above. On horseback one may get within 700 yards of the crest, which is 4000 feet above sea level — a high mountain for that friendly range. Walking from the hotel, the distance to the summit by a difficult track is a mile and a quarter, and by the easy route, two miles and a half. The General and his daughter arrived at the hotel about 9 o'clock in the evening, spent the night there, and very early the next morning set out for the mountain top under the escort of the proprietor. They rode in Indian file as far as the horses could scramble and then they went on afoot. When the crest was reached, the General sat down on one of the rocks and studied the far-sweeping landscape below him. He had little to say and seemed very sad. Was it that the magnificence of the blue panorama stirred him deeply, as noble scenery often did,​2 or was he wondering about the future of the people of Military District No. 1 whose homes were spread out before his vision?

Down from the mountain and straight on toward Liberty, county seat of Bedford, father and daughter rode. On the way a sudden thundershower overtook them and forced them to gallop back to the nearest cabin. The General lifted the girl off the horse and hurried her into the house, while he led the animals to the shed. When he came back the atmosphere in the tiny dwelling was uncomfortable: the reticent mountain woman had not been pleased that a stranger of her sex had come dripping into her house, forming pools of water wherever she paused on the clean floor. Still less, now, did she relish the arrival of a booted man, who was tramping mud on the boards she had laboriously scoured white. The General sensed her indignation and almost in the breath that he asked permission to remain until the rain had passed, he apologized for marring the beauty of a floor he gallantly extolled. Somewhat mollified, the housewife invited her guests into her best room, which her absent husband, a veteran of the Army of Northern Virginia, had adorned with pictures of Lee and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jackson, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Davis and Johnston. She did not associate the  p322  man before her, in the wet coat, with the soldier whose likeness was on her wall, but she was measurably appeased, as is the way of mortals, with the continuing praise of the bearded cavalier. After a while, when the thunder-cloud had gone over, the General bowed his way out and went for the horses. In his absence, Mildred obligingly told her hostess who he was. "The woman seemed stunned," the General's daughter wrote, and her startled mind ran on to the return of her husband to whom she would break the incredible news that his old commander had been under his roof. "What will Joey say, what will Joey say?" she kept repeating.

That afternoon the General and Mildred reached Avenel, in the little town of Liberty,​3 the home of William M. Burwell, a connection of theirs. Back among the people of her own sort, Mildred sought to dress appropriately. When she came downstairs for the evening, her father was surprised to see her glorified in crinoline — her own crinoline at that! How was it done, when she had brought no luggage with her, other than her saddle-bag? The General had to be advised, in his masculine ignorance, that a resource­ful young lady of fashion could contrive to roll up her hoops until she was able to squeeze them into the saddle-bags, and, in due season, to be ready for suitors or for ceremonies. The General was greatly amused.

That night and the next day, Sunday, were spent at Avenel. Monday morning the two rode westward again, paralleling the line of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad​4 for about twelve miles, until they reached the home of Captain Pascal Buford, at the site of the present Montvale.​5 The captain was a success­ful old farmer whose extensive property had been little injured by moving armies and roving commissaries. He had entertained Mrs. Lee, Mary, and Agnes for a short time during the war, and he was delighted now to see the General and another of his daughters. They spent the afternoon going over the Buford farm, and at night they sat down to a supper so bounti­ful that it almost overflowed the table.

 p323  When the meal and the evening chat were over, and Mr. Buford was showing his guests to their rooms, the General thoughtfully inquired at what time they should be ready for breakfast.

"Well, General," said Buford indulgently, "as you have been riding hard, and as you are company, we will not have breakfast tomorrow till sunup."

The General, of course, did not allow himself to smile, and doubtless he was ready to sit down at table on Tuesday morning the very minute the rim of the sun shone over the horizon, but in the Lee family circle, for many a day thereafter, he delighted to tell of the kindly host whose consideration for his guest prompted him to defer breakfast until four-thirty!

That fifth day away from home was pleasantly passed at Captain Buford's. On Wednesday the General and Mildred covered the forty-one miles back to Lexington, by way of Buchanan and Natural Bridge. It was a pleasant excursion after so long a period of all-consuming labor.6

Mrs. Lee's condition had not been favorable during the spring, for she had worried over the course of the reconstruction. Often she made herself indignant by reading the newspapers, but she could hardly leave them alone, because, as she explained, few books were available, and she had no employment if she did not read.​7 "I know you long sometimes for the banks of the Potomac and James," she confided to an old friend. "I confess I do[.] These mountains seem to shut out all I used to know and love[,] yet I am thankful we have found an asylum here and such kind people."​8 Her invalidism was so confirmed that she wrote, "The greatest feat I can expect to accomplish will be to walk across my room without crutches & even that I have no hope of accomplishing."​9 The General felt, as he had in peaceful years before the war, that a change of scene would do her good and that the mineral waters of some popular "Springs" might relieve her rheumatism. He left the choice of a resort to her, and she selected the Greenbrier White Sulphur, "merely on the ground, I believe,"  p324  that General wrote Rooney, "that she has never tried those waters, and, therefore, they might be of service to her."​10 As soon as he got back from the Peaks of Otter, he began to make his preparation to take her to the spa — a long, bone-breaking journey by railroad and conveyance over the mountains.

Some time in July the party set out, Mrs. Lee, Agnes, Miss Mary Pendleton, and Custis. They were to go by the stage to Goshen, thence by train to Covington, and on from that town by horse-drawn vehicles to the springs, which were across the new state line in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. General Lee rode ahead on Traveller, accompanied by Captain-Professor J. J. White, was becoming a close friend.​11 After a night at Covington, the adventurers climbed into the clumsy old four-wheelers and made ready for the last struggle with the mountain roads. The hotel proprietor had reserved a special coach for the Lees, and now sent out lunch with his compliments. When the drivers were about to give the word, the General discovered that the other vehicles were overcrowded, while there were vacant seats in the one assigned his party. He insisted that some of those who were uncomfortably placed should travel with Mrs. Lee — an invitation he did not have to repeat.​12 Off rumbled the carriages, with Lee and White still on horseback.

Traveller and his companion soon outdistanced the coaches and brought their riders in good time to the half-way house, where it was customary to break the journey with a wash, a lunch, and a rest in a quiet, darkened room, after the noise and dust of the road. The General had quarters reserved for Mrs. Lee and happened to be on the stairs when, below him, he heard some young girls from Maryland trying to coax the maid into finding them a chamber in the crowded little tavern. She apologized volubly but kept explaining that all the space had been taken. When the  p325  General smiled at the colloquy, the girls for the first time became conscious of his presence. They looked up at him and, though they had never seen him before, they identified him on the instant. Nearly sixty years after, one of the two recalled her impressions of that moment:

"The man who stood before us, the embodiment of a Lost Cause, was the realized King Arthur. The soul that looked out of his eyes was as honest and fearless as when it first looked on life. One saw the character, as clear as crystal, without complications or seals, and the heart, as tender as that of ideal womanhood. The years which have passed since that time have dimmed many enthusiasms and destroyed many illusions, but have caused no blush at the memory of the swift thrill of recognition and reverence which ran like an electric flash through one's whole body."

At once the General insisted that the young ladies, who also were on their way to the White Sulphur, should refresh themselves in Mrs. Lee's room. They were mortified that he had overheard their complaints, but they accepted his courtesy with blushing thanks. For a few moments they talked with him, and that day they laid the foundation of a friendship to which history owes one of the most interesting accounts of the social life of General Lee.13

Ending a hard journey, the family reached White Sulphur that afternoon. At the time, and for forty years thereafter, this resort consisted of a rambling central hotel, a huge wooden structure with long, wide porches, beyond which were rows of small cottages, each of them usually occupied by a single family. General Lee had the Harrison Cottage in Baltimore Row, and around him he found many whom he had known in the old days before the Potomac had become a chasm. He ate in the main dining room, at a table with W. W. Corcoran of Washington, Mildred Lee, Miss Pendleton, and Custis. Mrs. Lee's meals, of course, were served in her cottage.

The social impulse of the General was always strong, and now, in renewed contact with long-separated friends, it asserted itself vigorously. For such another period in his life one had to go  p326  back to the years at Fort Monroe. He did not write of social happenings as exuberantly in 1867 as he did in 1833 — he left to the women of the family the chronicling of arrivals and departures — but he unmistakably enjoyed the company.

Young gallants at the springs admired him, of course, but kept at a distance, for he overawed them. The older men, in some instances, he purposely avoided, because they were forever talking of the war and of politics, two subjects he considered it his duty to leave alone. With the women guests, particularly the girls, he seemed less reserved. "Apparently," Miss Bond concluded, "he felt among the maidens a safety from intrusion which he could not have among those to whom his personality, and the great issues which he represented, were uppermost thoughts."14

The centre of the social life of "The White" was the parlor of the main hotel. It was a vast place, nearly always thronged. "Here," writes Miss Bond, "everyone took part in a promenade up and down the great uncarpeted space, not usually in couples but in lines of three or four. Here introductions took place, here engagements were made, and this was the stranger's opportunity to be absorbed into the strenuous stream of life. . . ."​15 On the evening of his arrival, it was expected that the General would come into the parlor, and there was some hurried consultation as to how he should be received. Some honor, of course, must be shown him, but would applause embarrass him? Before the question could be answered, Lee entered. There was a moment's hush, and then, as if by common impulse, every one rose and remained silent and standing until he took a seat.16

After that, assured that no demonstration would be made, he went regularly into the parlor, and as often as he did so, he was surrounded by groups of young women, with whom he talked, half-seriously, half-jestingly. If new girls came to the hotel, he saw that they were made to feel at home. The homeliest and least known were as sure to receive his courteous attention as the fairest or the most aristocratic. When flirtations developed — and they were many — the General followed them with interest. Not a few love-affairs had their origin in his introductions.

He kept to his old habit of pretending to seek sweethearts for  p327  his sons, and while Custis remained at the White that summer with the family, the General pledged him to at least one of his young favorites. Custis was as modest as his father, and self-conscious besides, and was not at all willing to be delivered. For a long time he refused to share in the promenade. When at last he consented and was introduced, he became a resigned attendant on the salons, but usually he stood silently by the young lady to whom the General had promised him as a cavalier. "General Custis," she said, one morning, "why do you not sit down?" He answered, "I am a modest man, and for a modest man to have his hands and his feet on his mind at the same time is too much; when I stand, my feet are off my mind and I have only my hands to attend to."

But Custis Lee was not always silent or embarrassed. He found, in some fashion, that a freckled-faced young girl, with a dumpy figure, had a father who had shown kindness to Confederate prisoners, among whom had been soldiers of his own command. Forthwith Custis decided that the girl, who up to that time had received no attention at the resort, should be a belle. He called in the Confederate veterans and asked them to aid him. They gallantly consented. From that day on, never had a girl a more attentive following. "How she danced and walked and flirted! How she was encircled by a brilliant group, all bent upon doing her honor! No doubt her children proudly cherish yet the memory of the time when their quiet, plain little mother was the belle of the White!"​17 General Lee was greatly delighted at the girl's pleasure and at the device his retiring son had hit upon for repaying, as far as he might, the generous action of her father.

Lee's quiet participation in the promenades and his talk with guests occupied only a small part of the long summer days. "There are some 500 people here," he wrote Robert in August, "very pleasant and kind, but most of my time is passed alone with Traveller in the mountains."​18 Sometimes he had companions or found them. One day two of his feminine friends made a bargain to ascend the mountains behind the hotel. It was a remote, rough place, where he did not think women should venture  p328  alone. So, after they had started, he rode Traveller up the steep grade until he came upon them. "I overheard you this morning planning to climb the mountain," he said very simply, "and I could not suffer you to go unattended. With your permission I will accompany you." He offered a seat on his steed to each of them in turn, but as neither would accept a lift, he led the horse by the bridle-rein and walked up with them. He did not leave them until they were safely back in sight of the hotel.​19 Often his entire ramble was in solitude, but not in loneliness, for it was a rule with him to occupy his hours of exercise with pleasant meditations and with a study of whatever beauty he might find. "When I was with the army," he once told a nephew, "I had to take daily rides in order to obtain the exercise that was necessary for me. When I got on my horse . . . no matter what battle or movement was impending, and no matter what my cares or troubles were, I put all such things out of my mind and thought only of my ride, of the scenery around me, or of other pleasant things, and so returned to my work refreshed and relieved and in a better and stronger condition. If it had not been for . . . power [to do this], I do not see how I could have stood what I had to go through with."20

Those weeks at the White were not entirely made up of restful rides and light talk. Northern people were beginning to visit the springs again: they did not always show the spirit of reconciliation, nor were they received with it. The women were more resent­ful than the men, and as they were much more numerous, any vindictiveness on the part of the Northerners was met with something akin to social ostracism. Against every manifestation of this spirit General Lee felt he should exert himself publicly. If former Federal officers avoided him, through consideration for his sensibilities, he quite subordinated the past to the present in a desire to see Southern hospitality vindicated and the strangers put at ease. He was thoughtful, too, in dealing with the Northern ladies, also, and sought, as far as he could, to break up the ice of animosity.

One Northern family group, though bearing a noted name,  p329  was so forbidding in manner that not a single member of General Lee's circle made the acquaintance of any of them. When the General discovered this, while he was chatting in the parlor, he reminded his girl friends of their duty to be hospitable, and said that as nobody could present him, he would introduce himself to the austere guests. Would any of the young people go across the room with him for that purpose?

Only one was willing. "I will go, General Lee," she said, "under your orders."

"Not under my orders," he answered, "but it will gratify me deeply to have your assistance."

As they started, he told her of his grief at finding Southern young people so bitter.

"But, General Lee," the girl broke out, "did you never feel resentment toward the North?"

He stopped and in a low voice answered: "I believe I may say, looking into my own heart, and speaking as in the presence of God, that I have never known one moment of bitterness or resentment."

Then, after a pause, he told her: "When you go home I want you to take a message to your friends. Tell them from me that it is unworthy of them as women, and especially as Christian women, to cherish feelings of resentment against the North. Tell them that it grieves me inexpressibly to know that such a state of things exists, and that I implore them to do their part to heal our country's wounds."

With that he went on and, after introducing himself and presenting his youthful companion, sat down with the group whom the young girls, in his presence, did not dare call Yankees. "The invisible restraint which had existed in social intercourse between the representatives of the different sections still remained, but the example and influence of the illustrious leader modified its expression and led to exchanges of courtesies" — so, years after, wrote the woman who had crossed the floor with him and had braved the frigid bearing of the strangers.21

A rumor passed around the piazza one day that General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant was to visit "The White." Every one began to speculate on what  p330  would happen when the two former adversaries met. One young girl ("Some of us would gladly have slain her on the spot," wrote Miss Bond) had the hardihood to inquire: "Well, General Lee, they say General Grant is coming here next week; what will you do then?"

A faraway look came into his eyes. He passed by the bad taste of the question. "If General Grant comes," he said, "I shall welcome him to my home, show him all the courtesy which is due from one gentleman to another, and try to do everything in my power to make his stay here agreeable."22

Despite the good manners of most of the guests, Lee had to contend with some fire-eaters and, what was worse, with some rhetorical admirers. One man of this type kept asking for an introduction to the General. He was so bombastic in his speech that the friend of the Lees to whom he made the request hesitated to present him. However, one evening, as they were in front of the Lee cottage, there seemed to be no way of avoiding an introduction, though the General and Mrs. Lee were at the time entertaining some callers. No sooner was the man's name pronounced than he began; "Do I behold the honored roof that shelters the head of him before whose name the luster of Napoleon's pales into a shadow? Do I see the walls within which sits the most adored of men? Dare I tread the floor which she who is a scion of the patriotic house of the revered Washington condescends to hallow with her presence? Is this the portico that trails its vines over the noble pair –––––"

The General was bewildered and the guests were aghast, but Mrs. Lee, as always, was mistress of her own home. Calmly and with a kind look she interrupted the flow of nonsense. "Yes," she said, "this is our cabin; will you take a seat upon the bench?"23

Before the time came to leave "The White," at the end of a three weeks' sojourn, General Lee was taken sick.​24 In a short while, he recovered sufficiently to ride over to the Old Sweet, whither the family then moved, for it was the fashion of the day to go to at least two or even three springs in a season. After his arrival, his physical distress grew into a real illness, superinduced,  p331  as Lee thought, by a cold. "It seems to me," he wrote later, "for all the sickness I ever had experienced in my life was put together, it would not equal the attack I experienced."​25 His recovery was slow, and the seizure, whatever its nature, left him feeble. Fortunately, the quarters were quite comfortable. One of the parlors on the first floor was made into a bedroom so that Mrs. Lee could be rolled about on the porch and into the ballroom to watch the dancers.

While the General was slowly getting better, some of the mountaineers came to the hotel with fruit for sale. When they saw their old commander — for they were survivors of his army — they forgot their trade and raised the rebel yell. And after the General acknowledged their tribute by shaking hands with each of them, they insisted that he accept the contents of their baskets.​26 Such incidents were of frequent occurrence: wherever he went he met men who had served under him. Whether they had saved something from their country's wreck or were fighting with black poverty, they wanted to do what they could and to give him what they had, to show their affection for him.27

Early in September it was arranged that Custis should escort home his mother, his sister, and Miss Pendleton, and that the General should return by a more leisurely journey, halting for his health at three resorts along the way. He reached Healing Springs on September 10, and was still so much indisposed that he had to remain there until the 13th or 14th. He then went on by easy stages and reached Lexington on the 17th.28

He had been away from the college almost continuously since its close the previous June. As he had rested he should have been re-established in health; but there had begun to creep more frequently  p332  into his letters an occasional sentence indicating his belief that he was getting old and that the end was not far distant. A sense of weakness and perhaps a note of weariness, too, appear in his family correspondence. "I am still so feeble," he wrote Rooney on September 20, "that I cannot attend to the pressing business connected with the college."​29 Again, in contrast to his old-time gaiety, he wrote the "Beauti­ful Talcott," who was still beauti­ful despite war and time, "Trouble and distress seem to pervade every part of the world, and peace and happiness are secure in none."30

The Author's Notes:

1 Whether the trip began on June 21 or June 28, it is not possible to determine.

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2 "No words can express the intense enjoyment he would get out of a brilliant sunset" (Mrs. Preston, loc. cit., 276, quoting "one of his daughters").

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3 Liberty later became known as Bedford City. Avenel was subsequently the residence of J. W. Ballard.

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4 Now the Norfolk and Western.

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5 The railroad station was then called Buford's.

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6 The only account of this trip to the Peaks was written many years later by Miss Mildred Lee and was printed in R. E. Lee, Jr., 271‑73.

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7 Mrs. R. E. Lee to Mrs. R. H. Chilton, MS., March 10, 1867; Chilton Papers.

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8 Same to same, March 10, 1867; loc. cit.

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9 Same to same, May 6, 1867; loc. cit.

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10 R. E. Lee to W. H. F. Lee, June 8, 1867; R. E. Lee, Jr., 260.

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11 R. E. Lee, Jr., 274. It is impossible to give precise dates for Lee's arrival and departure from the springs. His letters during the summer were few. The hotel registers are no longer in existence. The only available supplementary check is afforded by The Lexington Gazette, which chronicled his movements but unfortunately gave conflicting dates. See its files, July 24, Aug. 11, and Aug. 26, 1867. R. E. Lee, Jr., said the family went "about the first of July," and remained there three weeks, but this is manifestly an error, unless General Lee subsequently returned, for there appears in R. E. Lee, Jr., 277, a letter written from the White Sulphur, dated Aug. 5.

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12 R. E. Lee, Jr., 274.

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13 Christiana Bond: Memories of General Robert E. Lee (cited hereafter as Miss Bond), 18.

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14 Miss Bond, 27.

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15 Miss Bond, 24.

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16 21 Confederate Veteran, 53; Alderman and Gordon: J. L. M. Curry, 213‑14.

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17 Miss Bond, 37‑38.

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18 R. E. Lee to R. E. Lee, Jr., Aug. 5, 1867; R. E. Lee, Jr., 278.

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19 Miss Bond, 41‑42.

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20 George Taylor Lee: "Reminiscences of General Robert E. Lee, 1865‑68"; 26 South Atlantic Quarterly, 244.

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21 Miss Bond, 32‑34.

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22 Grant did not come; Miss Bond, 39‑40.

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23 Mrs. Preston, 274‑75.

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24 Miss Bond, 43.

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25 Lee to Martha Williams, Oct. 4, 1867, Markie Letters, 76; Lee to Mrs. Andrew Talcott, MS., Oct. 14, 1867, Talcott MSS. (VHS).

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26 R. E. Lee, Jr., 276‑77. Jones, 323‑24, recounts how two veterans in homespun tramped down from the mountains to see him at the White Sulphur and went to him in the parlor, where the usual throng surrounded him. Lee received them cordially and talked pleasantly with them, while the rest of the company stood and watched and listened.

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27 Cf. R. E. Lee, Jr., 276, the story of the mountaineer who was found opening the blinds of Lee's room at the Warm Springs. "Go away," commanded Miss Pendleton, "that is General Lee's room." The man obeyed but said mournfully, "I only wanted to see him."

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28 This is the date given in The Lexington Gazette of Sept. 18, 1867. His letter of Sept. 12 to Mrs. Lee (R. E. Lee, Jr., 279) indicated that he hoped to get home on Sept. 16. Cf. Markie Letters, 76. An incident of Lee's stay at one of these resorts, probably apocryphal as to place and details, appears in 21 Confederate Veteran, 53.

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29 R. E. Lee, Jr., 283. Cf. his letter of Feb. 4, 1867, to Judge Robert Ould, Jones, 222, and his letter of Aug. 5, 1867, to his son Robert; R. E. Lee, Jr., 277.

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30 Lee to Mrs. Andrew Talcott, MS., Oct. 14, 1867, Talcott MSS. (VHS).

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