Chapter XIV

 

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Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee
by Captain Robert E. Lee, His Son

Chapter XIV
An Ideal Father


Letters to Mildred Lee--To Robert--To Fitzhugh--Interviewed by Swinton,
historian of the Army of the Potomac--Improvement in grounds and
buildings of Washington College--Punctuality a prominent trait of its
President--A strong supporter of the Y.M.C.A.

My sister, after the Christmas holidays, went from "Ashby" to Baltimore,
Cousins George and Eleanor Goldsborough taking her with them to their
town house.  I think my father always wanted his daughters with him.
When they were away he missed them, their love, care, and attention.
The next letter I find is to Mildred in Baltimore:

                            "Lexington, Virginia, January 27, 1867.

"My Precious Daughter:  Your letter to your mother gave us the
satisfactory information of your continued good health, for I feared
that your long silence had been caused by indisposition of body,
rather than that due to writing.  I hope you will not let so long an
interval between your letters occur again, for you know I am always
longing to hear from you, when I cannot see you, and a few lines, if
only to say you are well, will prevent unpleasant apprehensions.  I
am delighted at your increased bodily dimensions, and your diminished
drapery.  One hundred and twenty-eight avoirdupois is approximately
a proper standard.  Seven more pounds will make you all right.  But
I fear before I see you the unnatural life, which I fear you will lead
in Baltimore, will reduce you to skin and bone.  Do not go out to
many parties, preserve your simple tastes and manners, and you will
enjoy more pleasure.  Plainness and simplicity of dress, early hours,
and rational amusements, I wish you to practise.  You must thank
Cousins Eleanor and George for all their kindness to you, and remember
me to all friends.  If you see your uncle Marshall, present my kind
regards to him, and my best wishes for his health and happiness.  I
hope you will see Robert.  I heart that he stayed at Mr. Edward Dallam's
when in Baltimore, but do not know whether he will return there from
Lynwood.  I was sorry to hear that you lost your purse.  Perhaps the
finder was more in want than you are, and it may be of service to
him, and you can do without it.  A little money is sometimes useful.
You must bear in mind that it will not be becoming in a Virginia girl
now to be fine or fashionable, and that gentility as well as self-
respect requires moderation in dress and gaiety.  While her people
are suffering, she should practise self-denial and show her sympathy
in their affliction.  We are all pretty well.  Your poor mother suffers
more pain than usual during this inclement weather.  Your sister is
devoted to the snow and ice, and Agnes is becoming a very good
housekeeper.  She has received a letter from a gentleman, whose
judgement she respects, recommending her to acquire that useful
knowledge, and assuring her that it will not only promote domestic
happiness, but will add greatly to connubial bliss.  This is a great
encouragement to her.  Our young friends, the law students and cadets,
all inquire after you and wish for your return.  You know that is my
wish and hope, so whenever you are ready to return you will know that
I am waiting to receive you.  I will leave your mother and sisters to
give you all domestic news.  Tell Annette I have been looking for her
in every stage since her letter last fall, and that I hope for her
arrival daily.  Nipper is well, and endeavors, by stern gravity, to
repress the frivolity of Baxter.  All unite in much love, and I am,
as ever,

                   "Your father,              R. E. Lee.

"Miss Mildred Lee."

Just after the intermediate examinations, he writes to Mildred again:

                          "Lexington, Virginia, February 16, 1867.

"My Precious Daughter:  I have wished to answer your letter of the
2d for some days, but have not been able.  The intermediate examinations
which were in progress when it arrived continued ten entire days, and
since their termination the necessary arrangements for the resumption
of studies, and the reorganisation of the classes, have occupied my
time not devoted to other pressing matters.  The students generally
passed very creditable examinations.  Many of your friends were
distinguished.  The ordeal through which the higher classes passed was
as severe as any I ever witnessed.  Colonel Johnston [William Preston
Johnston, the son of General Albert Sidney Johnston, who fell at
Shiloh.  He had recently been elected to the chair of History and
Literature at Washington College.] has arrived and entered upon his
duties.  He is living at the hotel with his wife and six sweet little
children, being unable to procure a house, and the college being too
poor to build one for him.  We have other professors also houseless.
Robert has returned to his 'broken-back cottage,' though he confesses
to having enjoyed great pleasure during his visit to Baltimore.  He
dwells with delight upon his intercourse with the Misses ---, whom
he considers angels upon earth, without wings.  His account of them
increases my desire to get them to Virginia.  Miss --- once promised
me to have Fitzhugh.  Tell her I will release her from her engagement
if she will take Rob.  He was also much gratified at being able to
spend a week with you, and I am getting very anxious for your return.
The winter has passed, the snow and ice have disappeared, and the
birds have returned to their favourite resorts in the yard.  We have,
however, a sea of mud around us, through which we have to plunge,
but I hope the pleasant air and sun now visiting us will soon dissipate
it.  I am glad you are enjoying yourself among such kind friends, but
do not remain too long, as you may detain Cousins Eleanor and George
from the Eastern Shore.  Markie has sent me a likeness of you on
porcelain, from the negative taken by the celebrated Plecker, which
she carried with her to Philadelphia.  It is very good, but I prefer
the original....  Everybody seems anxious for your return, and is
surprised you can stay so long from your papa.  May God bless and
keep you, my dear child, is the constant prayer of

              "Your devoted father,      R. E. Lee."

Before Mildred returned to Lexington she received one more letter from
my father, in which he advises her of the two routes to Lexington,
and tells her some college news:

                          "Lexington, Virginia, February 23, 1867.

"My Precious Daughter:  Agnes wishes you to purchase some articles for
her, and your mother and sister may have some commissions, which I
fear will reduce your purse to an inconvenient collapse.  I therefore
send a check for --- dollars, which I hope will enable you to gratify
their wishes and serve as a reserve for your own wants.  I hope you
are well and passing your time profitably as well as pleasantly.  The
cadets are under the impression that you are at the Patapsco Institute,
and will expect to find you, on your return, more agreeable than ever.
They are labouring so industriously in mental culture that they believe
every one is similarly engaged.  I went last evening to the celebration
of the anniversary of the Washington Society, and was much pleased
with the speeches.  It was held in the Methodist church, which was
filled to overflowing.  The institute and Ann Smith [Female Academy]
were represented.  Your sisters were present, and as they were both
absent from breakfast this morning I fear so much learning made them
sleepy.  They were also at a cadet hop on the 21st, and did not get
home till between two and three A. M. on the 22d.  I suppose, therefore,
they had 'splendid times' and very fresh society.  We were somewhat
surprised the other morning at Mrs. Grady's committing matrimony.  I
missed, at our chapel exercises, Captain Grady and our acting chaplain,
but did not know at the time what prevented their attendance.  I heard
afterwards that they had put the happy pair in the stage and sent them
on their way rejoicing.  She is now Mrs. Richard Norris, and has
gone to Baltimore.  It will be but fair now that Captain Grady should
go to Baltimore and bring us a young lady from there in return for
his mother.  If you see Miss Armistead, ask her to be ready on short
notice, as we are a people of few words in this region, and proceed
in all matters in a businesslike way.  Agnes, I suppose, has told you
of all matters of gaiety and fashion.  She has, no doubt, too, kept
you advised of the progress of young Baxter and of the deeds of
'Thomas the Nipper.'  They are both flourishing, and are much
admired....  The roads are so muddy that my evening rides have been
suspended, and I see nobody....  You must write me when to expect you.
The stage from Staunton now crosses during the night, and, when the
roads are favourable, arrives about two A. M.  When the roads are
unfavourable, it gets in generally in time for an early breakfast.
The canal-boats have resumed their trips now, so you will have a choice
of routes from Richmond, if you conclude to go there.  All unite
with me in much love, and I am, always,

                         "Your father,        R. E. Lee."

From Lexington I had gone to Baltimore for a short visit, and had spent
a week with Mildred at the home of our cousin, Mr. George Washington
Peter, near Ellicott City.  Soon after getting back to my farm, I
received the following letter from my father, still trying to help
me along in my work:

                            "Lexington, Virginia, February 8, 1867.

"My Dear Son:  I was very glad to learn from your letter of the 31st
ult. that you had enjoyed your visit to Baltimore, for I feared when
you left us that you might have a visit from your shaking enemy.  I
trust, however, that he has now left you never to return.  Still be
prudent and watch his approach closely.  I hope you may be able to
procure some good mules in Richmond, as it is a matter of importance
to your operations.  If you can get the lime delivered at ten cents,
I do not know a more economical application to your land.  I believe
you will be repaid by the first crop, provided it acts as I think it
will.  Of this you must judge, and I can only say that if you can
accomplish it, and wish to try, I can send you $300, and will send it
by draft to you, or to any one in Baltimore that you will designate,
as soon as I hear from you.  I commend you for not wishing to go in
debt, or to proceed faster in your operations than prudence dictates.
I think it economy to improve your land, and to begin upon the system
you prefer as soon as possible.  It is your only chance of success,
so let me know.  I have to write in haste, as the examination is in
progress, and I have to be present.  George and Robert both came up
to-day in the subjects in which they are respectively weakest, so give
them your good wishes.  I received yesterday a letter from Mildred
regretting your departure from Baltimore, and expressing the pleasure
she derived from having been with you even a short week.  I hope she
will continue well and return to us soon.  We are all about as you
left us.  The weather has moderated and the ice disappeared from the
river, though the boats have not yet resumed their trips.  Mud
predominates now instead of snow....  Wishing you all happiness, I
am, Your affectionate father,   R. E. Lee.

"Robert E. Lee, Jr."

The Robert and George mentioned here were two of his nephews whom he
was educating at the college, the sons, respectively, of his brothers,
Sydney Smith Lee and Charles Carter Lee.  They were members of his
household and were treated as his own family.

To my brother Fitzhugh he writes at this time the following, chiding
him for his extravagance in a Christmas gift, and asking for some
data of the movements of his command.  It is full of good advice,
encouragement, and affection:

                            "Lexington, Virginia, February 26, 1867.

"My Dear Fitzhugh:  You must not think because I write so seldom that
you are absent from my thoughts.  I think of you constantly, and am
every revolving in my mind all that concerns you.  I have an ardent
desire to see you re-established at your home and enjoying the pleasure
of prosperity around you.  I know this cannot be accomplished at once,
but must come from continuous labour, economy, and industry, and be
the result of years of good management.  We have now nothing to do
but to attend to our material interest which collectively will advance
the interests of the State, and to await events.  The dominant party
cannot reign forever, and truth and justice will at last prevail.  I
hope I shall be able to get down to see you and Rob during the next
vacation.  I shall then have a more correct apprehension of existing
circumstances, and can follow your progress more satisfactorily.  I
was very much obliged to you for the nice eye-glasses you sent me
Xmas, and asked your mother and the girls to thank you for them, which
I hope they did.  I fear they are too nice for my present circumstances,
and do not think you ought to spend anything, except on your farm,
until you get that in a prosperous condition.  We have all, now, to
confine ourselves strictly to our necessities....  While you are your
own manager you can carry on cultivation on a large scale with
comparatively less expense than on a small scale, and your profits
will of course be greater.  I would commence a system of progressive
improvement which would improve your land and add steadily to your
income.  I have received, lately, from Fitz Lee a narrative of the
operations of his division of cavalry.  I requested Custis to write
to you for a report of your operations during the winter of 1863-4
down to April 18, 1865.  How are you progressing with it?  I know
the difficulties of making such a narrative at this time; still, by
correspondence with your officers, and by exerting your own memory,
much can be done, and it will help me greatly in my undertaking.
Make it as full as you can, embracing all circumstances bearing on
the campaigns affecting your operations and illustrating the conduct
of your division.  I hope you will be able to get up to see us this
spring or summer.  Select the time when you can best absent yourself,
that you may feel the freer and enjoy yourself the more....  I wish
I were nearer to you all....  Your mother is about the same, busy
with her needle and her pen, and as cheerful as ever....

                  "Affectionately your father,     R. E. Lee.

"General Wm. H. F. Lee."

His desire for accounts from his officers of the movements of their
commands shows he still intended to attempt to write his campaigns
with the Army of Northern Virginia.  Some months later he writes
again to my brother, and in it he alludes to the dark cloud of the
"reconstruction" days, hanging then over the South:

                               "Lexington, Virginia, June 8, 1867.

"My Dear Son:  Your letter written on your birthday has been welcomed
by the whole family, and I assure you that we reciprocate your regrets
at the distance which separates us.  Although the future is still
dark, and the prospects gloomy, I am confident that, if we all unite
in doing our duty, and earnestly work to extract what good we can
out of the evil that now hangs over our dear land, the time is not
distant when the angry cloud will be lifted from our horizon and the
sun in his pristine brightness again shine forth.  I, therefore, can
anticipate for you many years of happiness and prosperity, and in my
daily prayers to the God of mercy and truth I invoke His choicest
blessings upon you.  May He gather you under the shadow of His almighty
wing, direct you in all your ways, and give you peace and everlasting
life.  It would be most pleasant to my feelings could I again, as
you propose, gather you all around me, but I fear that will not be in
this world.  Let us all so live that we may be united in that world
where there is no more separation, and where sorrow and pain never
come.  I think after next year I will have done all the good I can
for the college, and I should then like, if peace is restored to the
country, to retire to some quiet spot, east of the mountains, where
I might prepare a home for your mother and sisters after my death,
and where I could earn my daily bread.  We will talk of it when we
meet.  This summer I wish to carry your mother to some of the mineral
springs where she might obtain some relief, but it is hard to know
where that can be found.  She seems now to prefer White Sulphur, merely
on the ground, I believe, that she has never tried those waters, and,
therefore, they might be of service to her.  If she makes up her
mind to go, I will endeavour to get her there with one of the girls,
at least.  Mildred has returned to us, looking very well, and says
she has had a very pleasant tour among her friends, and has received
a great deal of kindness wherever she has been.  She seems to be very
contented now at home.  I think you did right to defer her visit to
us until you had more leisure.  I am glad your prospects for a harvest
are so good.  Every one must look to his material interests now, as
labour is our only resource.  The completion of the railroad to the
Pamunkey will be a great advantage to you in getting to market what
you make, and I hope you will put everything to account.  I hope
Robert is doing well.  Mary is in Staunton, where she went a week
since to attend Miss Stribling's wedding....  Miss Mary Stewart is
staying with us, and I believe is to remain until July, when her sister
Belle is to join her.  The examination of the students has been
progressing a week and will continue until the 20th.  The young men
have, so far, done very well on the whole....  Mr. Swinton has paid
his visit.  He seemed to be gentlemanly, but I derive no pleasure from
my interviews with book-makers.  I have either to appear uncivil,
or run the risk of being dragged before the public....  I am,

             "Always as ever, your father,  R. E. Lee.

"General Wm. H. Fitzhugh Lee."

The Pamunkey was the name of the river on which the White House, my
brother's estate, was situated.  The railroad from Richmond, torn up
during the war, had just been rebuilt to that point.  Swinton was
the historian of the Federal Amy of the Potomac.  He spent some days
in Lexington, and, I suppose, sought from my father information on
points connected with his history of the movements of General Grant's
army.

My father, as I have said before, commenced almost as soon as he became
the president of the college to improve the grounds, roads, walks,
fences, etc., and systematically kept up this work up to the time
of his death.  The walks about the college grounds were in very bad
condition, and, in wet weather, often ankle-deep in mud.  As a first
step toward improving them the president had a quantity of limestone
broken up and spread upon the roads and walks.  The rough, jagged
surface was most uninviting, and horsemen and footmen naturally took
to the grass.  seeing Colonel T. L. Preston riding one day across
the campus on his way to his classes at the Virginia Military Institute,
my father remarked:

"Ah, Colonel, I have depended upon you and your big sorrel to help
smooth down my walks!"

Another day, a student who was walking on the grass saw the General
not far away, and immediately stepped into the middle of the rocks,
upon which he manfully trudged along.  A strange lady, going in the
same direction, followed in the student's footsteps, and when the
youth came within speaking distance, my father, with a twinkle in his
eye, thanked him for setting so good an example, and added, "The
ladies do not generally take kindly to my walks."

The buildings also were altered and renovated, so far as funds for
the purpose permitted.  He urged the erection as soon as possible of
a chapel, which should be of dimensions suitable for the demands of
the college.  There were other objects calling for a far greater
outlay of money than the resources of the college afforded, but he
deemed this of great importance, and succeeded in getting appropriations
for it first.  He hastened the selection of the site and the drawing
of the plans.  the completion of the work was much retarded owing to
the want of funds, but his interest in its erection never flagged.
He gave it his personal superintendence from first to last, visiting
it often two or three times a day.  After it was dedicated, he always
attended morning prayers and all other religious exercises held there,
unless prevented by sickness.  Whenever I was there on a visit I
always went with him every morning to chapel.  He had a certain seat
which he occupied, and you could have kept your watch regulated by
the time he entered the doors.  As he thought well of the young men
who left his drawing-room by ten o'clock, so he placed in a higher
estimate those who attended chapel regularly, especially if they got
there in proper time.  There was no regular chaplain, but the ministers
of the different denominations who had churches in the village
undertook, by turns, to perform a month's service.  The hour was forty-
five minutes past seven o'clock every morning, except Sunday, during
the session, save in the three winter months, December, January, and
February, when it was one hour later.  He was the earnest friend and
strong support of the Young Men's Christian Association, and an annual
contributor to its funds.  Upon one occasion, at least, he placed in
its library a collection of suitable books, which he had purchased
with that intention.  In his annual reports to the trustees, he always
made mention of the association, giving an account of its operations
and progress.

 

 

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