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Bill Thayer

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  This webpage reproduces an appendix to Volume IV 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.

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. IV
Appendix IV-8

The Funeral of Lee

Word of Lee's death was passed quickly from the house to the campus and thence to the town, where the church bells soon were tolling. The stores closed. Students of all the schools left their classes.​1 The town was isolated at the time by flood, and the news did not reach Richmond or the rest of the country until late in the evening.​2 In nearly every Southern city public mourning began at once. Memorial meetings were planned and business was suspended on the day of the funeral. The general assembly of Virginia, which was then in session, recommended that the General's body be interred in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, at the expense of the state, and immediately dispatched a delegation to Lexington. If the family decided to bury Lee in Richmond, the delegation was instructed to escort the body to that city.​3 Students, faculty, and trustees met at once.​4 At the suggestion of the faculty, the trustees provided for the burial in a vault in the library, pending the erection of a permanent memorial to him. The trustees also decided that "Lee" should be linked with "Washington" in the name of the college and that the anniversary of the General's birth should always be a day of observance at the institution.​5 His office, by like agreement, was to remain as he left it. The trustees tendered Mrs. Lee a deed to the president's house and an annuity of $3000, as soon as the first shock of her grief had passed, but she declined both.​6

At first no suitable coffin for the body could be found. Three caskets that an undertaker had ordered from Richmond, not long previously, had reached Lexington, but before they had been taken from the packet landing they had been washed away by the unprecedented floods that followed the long-continued, heavy rains. Fortunately two neighborhood boys, C. G. Chittum and Robert E. Hillis, found one of the coffins where it had been swept ashore. It was undamaged and was used for the General's body,​7 though it was a trifle short for him.​8

 p527  At 9 A.M. on the morning of October 14, Reverend Doctor Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pendleton, Reverend W. S. White, who had been Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jackson's pastor, and Reverend J. William Jones, a former chaplain in the Confederate army, delivered eulogies. Doctor Pendleton, who made the principal address, based it on Psalm XXXVII, 8‑11, 28‑40, which he applied to the life of Lee.

Mrs. Lee having expressed her wish that the body be buried at Lexington​9 — any other arrangement being rendered impossible, in fact, by the flood — the remains, clad in plain, black, civilian clothes, were removed at 1:30 P.M. on October 14 from the president's house to the chapel, where they lay in state until 10 A.M. the next day, with selected students of the college as a guard of honor.

On the morning of October 15 a long procession of old soldiers, students, V. M. I. cadets, townspeople, and dignitaries formed in front of the president's house at 10 o'clock and moved through the principal streets of the town, with Traveller following directly behind the empty hearse. Every effort was made to avoid pageantry or the display of any spirit contrary to that which Lee had exhibited during the difficult days of the reconstruction. The veterans, who formed the guard of honor, did not wear their old gray uniforms: only a simple black ribbon in the lapel of the coat distinguished them. No flags were put on the coffin, none was carried in the procession, and few were flown anywhere in the town except at the V. M. I. From its turrets the banners of the fifteen Southern states were hung at half-mast. The only martial notes were supplied by the cadet corps and band, and by the booming of minute-guns from the parade ground of the institute. Through silent, crowded streets, past black-draped buildings, the procession returned to the college grounds and then moved to the chapel. The service for the dead was then read by General Pendleton, without eulogism of any sort, before a crowd that completely filled the building and banked in thousands outside it. Lee's sons and his daughters were there, as were Colonel Walter H. Taylor and Colonel Charles S. Venable of his staff.​10

The service over, the body was carried to the vault, and the committal was read by the chaplain "from the bank on the southern side of the chapel, in front of the vault." The flood kept away many of Lee's famous lieutenants who wished to stand by his grave, but their place was taken by simple private soldiers, who had come down from  p528  the coves and from the mountains when they heard that he was dead. Some of them were in wornout shoes and battered hats and threadbare clothes, but they were men of the sort his leader­ship had made terrible in battle. They had cheered him at the Chancellor House. About him they had rallied after they had sullenly fallen back from Cemetery Ridge. They had cried "Lee to the rear" in the Wilderness and at the Bloody Angle. Theirs had been the tears that drew his own as they had tried to shake his hands or to touch his garments or to caress the flanks of his steed at Appomattox. And now, at the last, they compassed him about, a multitude on the hillsides. They had been silent as they had filed past in the chapel, for they were men of few words and reserved in their show of emotions, but when a solitary voice began "How Firm a Foundation" — they could sing! To the last bar they did him what honor they might in lines that seemed to echo the brave-hearted loyalty of the last days under his flag:

"I will not, I will not desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell shall endeavor to shake,
I'll never, no, never, no, never forsake."​11

[image ALT: Two buildings on a gentle slope, the upper building, on the left, somewhat smaller, with a lantern and a columned portico, the lower, on the right, of brick and with a square tower with a sharply pointed roof. A concourse of maybe a thousand people stretches in front of and between them. It is a photograph of the chapel and campus of Washington College, Lexington, Va., during the funeral of Robert E. Lee.]

The men in uniform are the cadets of the Virginia Military Institute.

Memorial meetings were held throughout the South and in New York. They were addressed in different temper by speakers of varying ability, but they reflected the love of the whole South for General Lee. Mrs. Lee stated the simple fact when she wrote General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Chilton: "If he had succeeded in gaining by his sword all the South expected and hoped for, he could not have been more honored and lamented."​12 Some of the addresses contained material that still serves the biographer of Lee.​13 Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.President Davis spoke at the Richmond meeting,​14 and Colonel Charles Marshall in Baltimore.​15 A movement was at once organized to erect in the old Confederate capital a monument to General Lee. Out of the gatherings held in his honor sprang various associations to keep alive the two names with which this book may fittingly end, the names of Lee and of the Army of Northern Virginia.

The Author's Notes:

1 Jones, 452.

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2 Richmond Dispatch, Oct. 13, 1870.

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3 Richmond Whig, Oct. 14, 1870.

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4 Jones, 462.

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5 MS. Faculty Minutes, Oct. 12, Oct. 13, Oct. 14, Oct. 15, 1870; Trustees' Minutes, Oct. 13, Oct. 15, 1870.

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6 Trustees' Minutes, Oct. 28‑29, 1870.

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7 Washington and Lee Alumni Magazine, January, 1927, p8; Petersburg (Va.) Progress-Index, Oct. 11, 1925; Statement to the writer by Geo. E. Hillis of Richmond. These circumstances are the origin of the myth that the coffin in which Lee was buried came floating mysteriously down the river.

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8 For this reason the body was buried without shoes.

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9 Cf. G. W. C. Lee to W. H. Taylor, MS., Dec. 6, 1870; Taylor MSS.

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10 Custis, Mildred, and Agnes Lee had been at home throughout the General's illness. Owing to the belief that the General would recover, W. H. F. Lee and R. E. Lee, Jr., and Mary Lee, who was visiting friends, were not summoned in time to reach Lexington through the high water until after the General was dead. Rooney and Robert arrived on the 14th.

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11 The most complete account of the funeral is in Jones, 455 ff. Some previously unpublished details appear in McDonald, 7‑8. The list of pall-bearers appears in Mason, 357.

Thayer's Note: See also Cadet William Nalle's letter of Oct. 16, 1870: notice that the facsimile of the autograph is accompanied on that page by a printed transcription.

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12 Mrs. R. E. Lee to General R. H. Chilton, MS., Dec. 12, 1870, Chilton Papers.

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13 Various memorial addresses were printed as pamphlets. A number are republished, in part, in Jones, 473 ff. and in Mason, 358 ff. For an account of the recumbent statue of Lee at Lexington, see Colonel William Allan in Riley, 226 ff.

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14 Jones, 339.

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15 Jones, 329.

Thayer's Note:

[image ALT: A rectangular room with a reclining marble sculpture of a man, and in the corners in the background, two pairs of crossed Confederate battle flags. It is Lee's tomb in the Lee Memorial Chapel, Lexington, Va.]

Lee's tomb in the Lee Memorial Chapel: photo taken 28 Jun 2000.

Photograph by kind permission
(ceded to the public domain by the owner, Jan Kronsell)

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Page updated: 4 Dec 17