Chapter XXI

 

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


Chapter XXI
Failing Health


The General declines lucrative positions in New York and Atlanta--He
suffers from an obstinate cold--Local gossip--He is advised to go South
in the spring of 1870--Desires to visit his daughter Annie's grave

After General Lee had accepted the presidency of Washington College,
he determined to devote himself entirely to the interest and improvement
of that institution.  From this resolution he never wavered.  An offer
that he should be a the head of a large house to represent southern
commerce, that he should reside in New York, and have placed at his
disposal an immense sum of money, he declined, saying:

"I am grateful, but I have a self-imposed task which I must accomplish.
I have led the young men of the South in battle; I have seen many of
them die on the field; I shall devote my remaining energies to training
young men to do their duty in life."

To a request from some of his old officers that he should associate
himself with a business enterprise in the South, as its president, he
replied with the following letter:

                          "Lexington, Virginia, December 14, 1869.

"General J. B. Gordon, President,
   "Southern Life Insurance Company, Atlanta, Georgia.

"My Dear General:  I have received your letter of the 3d inst., and
am duly sensible of the kind feelings which prompted your proposal.
It would be a great pleasure to me to be associated with you, Hampton,
B. H. Hill, and the other good men whose names I see on your list
of directors, but I feel that I ought not to abandon the position I
hold at Washington College at this time, or as long as I can be of
service to it.  Thanking you for your kind consideration, for which
I know I am alone indebted for your proposition to become president
of the Southern Life Insurance Company, and with kindest regards to
Mrs. Gordon and my best wishes for yourself, I am,

                 "Very truly yours,

                                "R. E. Lee."

His correspondence shows that many like positions were made to him.

The Christmas of '69, neither my brother nor myself was with him.
Knowing of our plans in that respect, he wrote before the holidays
to Fitzhugh, wishing us both the compliments of the season and a
pleasant time in the visits we were going to make:

                           "Lexington, Virginia, December 18, 1869.

"My Dear Fitzhugh:  I must begin by wishing you a pleasant Christmas
and many, many Happy New Years, and may each succeeding year bring
to you and yours increasing happiness.  I shall think of you and my
daughter and my grandson very often during the season when families
are generally united, and though absent from you in person, you will
always be present in mind, and my poor prayers and best wishes will
accompany you all wherever you are.  Bertus will also be remembered,
and I hope that the festivities of 'Brandon' will not drive from his
memory the homely board at Lexington.  I trust that he will enjoy
himself and find some on to fill that void in his heart as completely
as he will the one in his--system.  Tell Tabb that no one in Petersburg
wants to see her half as much as her papa, and now that her little
boy has his mouth full of teeth, he would not appear so LONESOME as
he did in the summer.  If she should find in the 'Burg' a 'Duckie'
to take his place, I beg that she will send him up to me.

"I duly received your letter previous to the 12th inst., and requested
some of the family who were writing about that time to inform you.
When I last wrote, I could not find it on my table and did not refer
to it.  'The Mim' says you excel her in counting, if you do not in
writing, but she does not think she is in your debt.  I agree with
you in your views about Smith's Island, and see no advantage in leasing
it, but wish you could sell it to advantage.  I hope the prospects may
be better in the spring.  Political affairs will be better, I think,
and people will be more sanguine and hopeful.  You must be on the
alert.  I wish I could go down to see you, but think it better for
me to remain here.  To leave home now and return during the winter
would be worse for me.  It is too cold for your mother to travel now.
She says she will go down in the spring, but you know what an exertion
it is for her to leave home, and the inconvenience if not the suffering,
is great.  The anticipation, however, is pleasing to her and encourages
hope, and I like her to enjoy it, though am not sanguine that she
will realise it.  Mildred is probably with you, and can tell you all
about us.  I am somewhat reconciled to her absence by the knowledge
of the benefit that she will be to Tabb.  Tell the latter that she
[Mildred] is modest and backward in giving advice, but that she has
mines of wealth on that subject, and that she [Tabb] must endeavour
to extract from her her views on the management of a household,
children, etc., and the proper conduct to be observed toward husbands
and the world in general.  I am sure my little son will receive many
wise admonitions which he will take open-mouthed.  I have received
a letter from your Uncle Carter telling me of his pleasant visit to
you and of his agreeable impressions of his nephew and new niece.
He was taken very sick in Richmond and delayed there so long that he
could not be present at Wm. Kennon's wedding, and missed the festivities
at his neighbour Gilliam's and at Norwood.  Indeed, he had not recovered
his strength when Lucy wrote a few days ago, and her account makes me
very uneasy about him.  I am glad Rob has so agreeable a neighbour
as General Cooke, and I presume it is the North Carolina brigadier
[A Virginian--son of General St. George Cooke, of the Federal Army,
who commanded a North Carolina brigade in A. P. Hill's corps, A. N.
Va.].  When you go to Petersburg, present my kind regards to Mr. and
Mrs. Bolling, 'Miss Melville,' and all friends.  All here unite with
me in love to you, Tabb, and the boy, in which Mildred is included.

                 "Your affectionate father,

                                   "R. E. Lee.

"General William H. F. Lee."

In a note, written the day after, acknowledging a paper sent to him
to sign, he says:

"...I wrote to you yesterday, Saturday, in reply to your former letter,
and stated the reasons why I could not visit you.  Your mother has
received Mildred's letter announcing her arrival in Richmond and will
write to her there.  I can only repeat my love and prayers that every
blessing may attend you and yours.  We are as usual.

                    "Truly and affectionately,

                                           "R. E. Lee.

"General William H. F. Lee."

The attack of cold from which my father suffered in October had been
very severe.  Rapid exercise on horseback or on foot produced pain
and difficulty in breathing.  After he was considered by most of his
friends to have gotten well over it, it was very evident to his doctors
and himself that there was a serious trouble about the heart, and he
often had great weariness and depression.  He complained but little,
was often very bright and cheerful, and still kept up his old-time
fun and humour in his conversation and letters, but his letters written
during this year to his immediate family show that he was constantly
in pain and had begun to look upon himself as an invalid.  To Mildred,
who was in Richmond on a visit to friends, he writes jokingly about
the difficulty experienced by the family in finding out what she meant
in a letter to him:

                            "Lexington, Virginia, January 8, 1870.

"My Precious Life:  I received you letter of the 4th.  We held a family
council over it.  It was passed from eager hand to hand and attracted
wondering eyes and mysterious looks.  It produced few words but a
deal of thinking, and the conclusion arrived at, I believe unanimously,
was that there was a great fund of amusement and information in it
if it could be extracted.  I have therefore determined to put it
carefully away till your return, seize a leisure day, and get you to
interpret it.  Your mother's commentary, in a suppressed soliloquy,
was that you had succeeded in writing a wretched hand.  Agnes thought
that it would keep this cold weather--her thoughts running on jellies
and oysters in the storeroom; but I, indignant at such aspersions
upon your accomplishments, retained your epistle and read in an
elevated tone an interesting narrative of travels in sundry countries,
describing gorgeous scenery, hairbreadth escapes, and a series of
remarkable events by flood and field, not a word of which they declared
was in your letter.  Your return, I hope, will prove the correctness
of my version of your annals....  I have little to tell.  Gaiety
continues.  Last night there was a cadet hop.  Night before, a party
at Colonel Johnston's.  The night preceding, a college conversazione
at your mother's.  It was given in honour of Miss Maggie Johnston's
visit of a few days to us.  You know how agreeable I am on such
occasions, but on this, I am told, I surpassed myself.

"On New year's Day the usual receptions.  many of our friends called.
Many of my ancients as well as juniors were present, and all enjoyed
some good Norfolk oysters.  I refer you to Agnes for details.  We
are pretty well.  I think I am better.  Your mother and sisters as
usual.  Custis busy with the examination of the cadets, the students
preparing for theirs.  Cadet Cook, who was so dangerously injured by
a fall from his window on the 1st, it is hoped now will recover.  The
Misses Pendleton were to have arrived this morning, and Miss Ella
Heninberger is on a visit to Miss Campbell.  Miss Lizzie Letcher
still absent.  Messrs. Anderson, Baker, W. Graves, Moorman, Strickler,
and Webb have all been on visits to their sweethearts, and have left
without them.  'Mrs. Smith' is as usual.  'Gus' is as wild as ever
["Mrs. Smith" and "Gus" were the names of two of the pet cats of my
sister.  "Gus" was short for Gustavus Adolphus.].  We catch our own
rats and mice now, and are independent of cats.  All unite in love
to you.

             "Your affectionate father,

                               "R. E. Lee.

"Miss Mildred Lee."

A month later he writes again to this daughter in the same playful
strain, and sends his remembrances to many friends in Richmond:

                            "Lexington, Virginia, February 2, 1870.

"My Precious Life:  Your letter of the 29th ultimo, which has been
four days on the road, reached me this morning, and my reply, unless
our mails whip up, will not get to you before Sunday or Monday.
There is no danger, therefore, of our correspondence becoming too
brisk.  What do the young girls do whose lovers are at Washington
College or the Institute?  Their tender hearts must always be in a
lacerated and bleeding condition!  I hope you are not now in that
category, for I see no pining swains among them, whose thoughts and
wishes are stretching eagerly toward Richmond.  I am glad you have
had so pleasant a visit to the Andersons.  You must present my regards
to them all, and I hope that Misses Ellen and Mary will come to see
you in the summer.  I am sure you will have an agreeable time at
Brook Hill.  Remember me to all the family, and tell Miss Belle
to spare my friend Wilkins.  He is not in a condition to enjoy the
sufferings which she imposes on her Richmond beaux.  Besides, his
position entitles him to tender treatment.

"I think it time that you should be thinking of returning home.  I
want to see you very much, and as you have been receiving instruction
from the learned pig, I shall expect to see you much improved.  We
are not reduced to apply to such instructors at Lexington.  Here we
have learned professors to teach us what we wish to know, and the
Franklin Institute to furnish us lectures on science and literature.
You had better come back, if you are in search of information on any
subject.  I am glad that Miss 'Nannie' Wise found one occasion on
which her ready tongue failed her.  She will have to hold it in
subjection now.  I should like to see Miss Belle under such similar
circumstances, provided she did not die from suppressed ideas.  What
an awful feeling she must experience, if the occasion should ever
come for her to restrain that active member!  Although my friend
Wilkins would be very indulgent, I think he would want her to listen
sometimes.  Miss Pendleton has just been over to give us some pleasing
news.  Her niece, Miss Susan Meade, Philip's daughter, is to be married
next month to a Mr. Brown, of Kentucky, who visited her two year ago
upon the recommendation of the Reverend Charles Page, found her a
school-girl, and has waited until she became a woman.  He is rich,
forty-nine, and has six children.  There is a fair start in the world
for a young woman!  I recommend her example to you.  We are all as
usual, and 'Mrs. Smith' is just the same.  Miss Maggie Johnston,
who has been staying with us occasionally for a few days at a time,
is now on a visit to us.  There is to be an anniversary celebration
of the societies of the Institute on Friday, and a student's party
on Monday night, and a dance at the College Hotel.  To-morrow night
your mother has an evening for some young students.  Gaiety will
never cease in Lexington so long as the ladies are so attractive
and the men so agreeable.  Surprise parties are the fashion now.  Miss
Lucy Campbell has her cousin, Miss Ella Heninberger, staying with her,
who assists her to surprise and capture too unwary youths.  I am
sorry to hear of Mrs. Ould's illness.  If you see her, present me
most kindly to her; also to Mrs. George Randolph.  Do beware of
vanilla cream.  Recollect how far you are from home, and do not tamper
with yourself.  Our semi-annual examination has been in progress for
a fortnight.  We shall conclude on Saturday, which will be a great
relief for me, for, in addition to other things, I have to be six
hours daily in the examination rooms.  I was sorry that I could not
attend Mr. Peabody's funeral, but I did not feel able to undertake
the journey, especially at this season.  I am getting better, I hope,
and feel stronger than I did, but I cannot walk much farther than to
the college, though when I get on my horse I can ride with comfort.
Agnes accompanies me very often.  I must refer you to her and your
mother for all local news.  Give my love to Fitzhugh, and Tabb, and
Robert when you see them, and for yourself keep an abundance.  I
have received letters from Edward and Blanche.  They are very anxious
about the condition of political affairs in France.  Blanche sent you
some receipts for creams, etc.  You had better come and try them.

                          "Your affectionate father,  R. E. Lee.

"Miss Mildred Lee."

The following letter to his son, Fitzhugh, further shows his tender
interest in his children and grandson:

                         "Lexington, Viriginia, February 14, 1870.

"My Dear Fitzhugh:...I hope that you are all well and that you will
not let any one spoil my grandson.  Your mother has written all the
family and Lexington news.  She gathers much more than I do.  I go
nowhere but to the college, and when the weather permits I ride in
the mountains.  I am better, I think, but still troubled.  Mildred,
I hope, is with you.  When she gets away from her papa, she does not
know what she wants to do, tell her.  You have had a fine winter for
work, and later you will have a profitable season.  Custis is well
and very retired; I see no alarming exhibition of attention to the
ladies.  I have great hopes of Robert.  Give much love to my daughter
Tabb and to poor little 'Life.'  I wish I could see you all; it
would do my pains good.  Poor little Agnes is not at all well, and
I am urging her to go away for a while.  Mary as usual.

                       "Affectionately your father,   R. E. Lee.

"General W. H. F. Lee."

After waiting all winter for the improvement in his health, my father,
yielding at last to the wishes of his family, physician, and friends,
determined to try the effect of a southern climate.  It was thought
it might do him good, at any rate, to escape the rigours of a Lexington
March, and could do no harm.  In the following letters to his children
he outlines his plans and touchingly alludes to the memory of his
daughter Annie, who died in 1862 and was buried at Warrenton Springs,
North Carolina:

                             "Lexington, Virginia, March 21, 1870.

"My Dear Daughter:  The doctors and others think I had better go to
the South in the hope of relieving the effects of the cold, under
which I have been labouring all the winter.  I think I should do
better here, and am very reluctant to leave home in my present
condition; but they seem so interested in my recovery and so persuasive
in their uneasiness that I should appear obstinate, if not perverse,
if I resisted longer.  I therefore consented to go, and will take
Agnes to Savannah, as she seems anxious to visit that city, or,
perhaps, she will take me.  I wish also to visit my dear Annie's
grave before I die.  I have always desired to do so since the cessation
of active hostilities, but have never been able.  I wish to see how
calmly she sleeps away from us all, with her dear hands folded over
her breast as if in mute prayer, while her pure spirit is traversing
the land of the blessed.  I shall diverge from the main route of
travel for this purpose, and it will depend somewhat upon my feelings
and somewhat upon my procuring an escort for Agnes, whether I go
further south.

"I am sorry not to be able to see you before I go, but if I return,
I hope to find you here well and happy.  You must take good care of
your mother and do everything she wants.  You must not shorten your
trip on account of our departure.  Custis will be with her every day,
and Mary is with her still.  The servants seem attractive.  Good-bye,
my dear child.  Remember me to all friends, and believe me,

                     "Your affectionate father,  R. E. Lee.

"Miss Mildred Lee."

                             "Lexington, Virginia, March 22, 1870.

"My Dear Fitzhugh:  Your letter of the 17th inst. has been received.
Lest I should appear obstinate, if not perverse, I have yielded to
the kind importunities of my physicians and of the faculty to take
a trip toward the South.  In pursuance of my resolution, I shall
leave here Thursday next in the packet-boat, and hope to arrive in
Richmond on Friday afternoon.  I shall take with me, as my companion,
Agnes, who has been my kind and uncomplaining nurse, and if we could
only get down to you that evening we would do so, for I want to see
you, my sweet daughter, and dear grandson.  But as the doctors think
it important that I should reach a southern climate as soon as
practicable, I fear I shall have to leave my visit to you till my
return.  I shall go first to Warrenton Springs, North Carolina, to
visit the grave of my dear Annie, where I have always promised myself
to go, and I think, if I accomplish it, I have no time to lose.  I
wish to witness her quiet sleep, with her dear hands crossed over
her breast, as if it were in mute prayer, undisturbed by her distance
from us, and to feel that her pure spirit is waiting in bliss in the
land of the blessed.  From there, according to my feelings, I shall
either go down to Norfolk or to Savannah, and take you if practicable
on my return.  I would ask you to come up to Richmond, but my movements
are unknown to myself, as I cannot know the routes, schedules, etc.,
till I arrive there, but I have promised not to linger there longer
than necessary; so I must avoid temptation.  We are all as usual.
Your mother still talks of visiting you, and when I urge her to make
preparations for the journey, she replies rather disdainfully she has
none to make; they have been made years ago.  Custis and Mary are
well, and Mildred writes that she will be back by April 1st.  We
are having beautiful weather now, which I hope may continue.  From

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

To his daughter Mildred he writes again, giving her the minutest details
as to the routes home.  This is very characteristic of him.  We were
always fully instructed, all the roads of life were carefully marked
out for us by him:

                              "Lexington, Virginia, March 23, 1870.

"My Dear Daughter:  I wrote to you the other day, telling you of my
intention of going South and of my general plan as far as formed.
This morning your letter of the 21st arrived....  I hope you will
get back comfortably and safely, and if you can fall in with no
escort, you had better go as far as Alexandria, the first stage of
your journey.  Aunt Maria, Cassius Lee, the Smiths, etc., would
receive you.  If you wish to come by Goshen, you must take the train
from Alexandria on Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday, so as to arrive
here about twelve o'clock at night.  By taking the train from
Alexandria on the alternate days, Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, you
will reach Staunton that evening by four P. M., remain all night,
and come over by daylight the following day in the stage.  By taking
the train from Alexandria to Lynchburg, Mondays, Wednesdays, or
Fridays, you will reach there the same afternoon, about four P. M.,
then go IMMEDIATELY to the packet-boat, and you will arrive here
next morning.  This last is the EASIEST route, and the best if you
find no escort.  Tell all the conductors and captains that you are
my runaway daughter, and they will take care of you.  I leave
to-morrow evening on the packet-boat.  I told you that Agnes would
accompany me.  Tell my cousins Washington, Jane, and Mary that I
wish I were going to see them.  I should then anticipate some pleasure.
But the doctors say I must turn my face the other way.  I know they
do not know everything, and yet I have often had to do what I was
told, without benefit to myself, and I shall have to do it again.
Good-bye, my dear daughter.  All unite in love.

                    "Your affectionate father,   R. E. Lee.

"Miss Mildred Lee."

 

 

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