Chapter XXIV

 

This Site:

Civil War

Civil War Overview

Civil War 1861

Civil War 1862

Civil War 1863

Civil War 1864

Civil War 1865

Civil War Battles

Confederate Generals

Union Generals

Confederate History

Robert E. Lee

Civil War Medicine

Lincoln Assassination

Slavery

Site Search

Civil War Links

 

Civil War Art

Revolutionary War

Mexican War

Republic of Texas

Indians

Winslow Homer

Thomas Nast

Mathew Brady

Western Art

Civil War Gifts

Robert E. Lee Portrait

  Up | Chapter I | Chapter II | Chapter III | Chapter IV | Chapter V | Chapter VI | Chapter VII | Chapter VIII | Chapter IX | Chapter X | Chapter XI | Chapter XII | Chapter XIII | Chapter XIV | Chapter XV | Chapter XVI | Chapter XVII | Chapter XVIII | Chapter XVIV | Chapter XX | Chapter XXI | Chapter XXII | Chapter XXIII | Chapter XXIV

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

Chapter XXIV
Last Days


Letter to his wife--To Mr. Tagart--Obituary notice in "Personal
Reminiscences of General Robert E. Lee"--Mrs. Lee's account of his
death

The following is the last letter that I can find written by my father
to my mother.  He was back in Lexington early in September, and was
never separated from her again while he lived:

                                    "Hot Springs, August 27, 1870.

"My Dear Mary:  I have received your letter of the 22d.  I should remain
here a week longer if time permitted, as I have felt in the last few
days better than I have yet, but I am obliged to be in Staunton on
the 30th and therefore must leave Monday, 29th.  I should not have
time to return here.  The college opens on September 15th, and I
wish to see that all things are prepared.  Possibly the little
improvement now felt will continue.  If not, I shall have to bear
my malady.  I am truly sorry to hear of Edwin Lee's death [Colonel
Edwin Grey Lee was a near cousin.  He had distinguished himself in
the late war.  At its commencement he had volunteered, and was made
a 2d. lieutenant in the Second Virginia regiment, "Stonewall Brigade."
From that rank he quickly rose to be lieutenant colonel of the 33d
Virginia, in the same brigade.  In 1862 his health, which was very
feeble, compelled him to resign, but after a short time he again
entered the service, though he never became strong enough to serve
actively in the field.  General lee's opinion of his abilities was
very high.].  He was a true man, and, if health had permitted, would
have been an ornament as well as a benefit to his race.  He certainly
was a great credit to the name.  Give my sincere sympathy to his wife
and family.  You have never mentioned anything of Dr. Grahame.  I
have heard that he was in a critical condition.  I saw Colonels
Allan and Johnston.  They only stayed a day, and went on to the White.
I have heard of them on their return, and presume they will reach
Lexington to-morrow.  Mr. George Taylor, who has been a month at the
White, arrived here to-day.  Both he and his wife are well.  The
company is thinning, though arrivals occur daily.  Mr. Middleton
and his daughter and son, from Washington, whom you may recollect,
also came.  But I hope to see you so soon that I will defer my
narrative.  I am glad that Mary is enjoying herself and that Rob is
so happy.  May both long continue so.  I will endeavour to get the
muslin, but fear I shall not succeed.  I trust I may not be detained
in Staunton more than a day or two.  In that event, you may expect
me Thursday, September 1st, but I cannot say as to time.  I hope
that I shall find you all well.  Give my love to Agnes and Mildred,
and Custis, if he has arrived.  Colonel Turner is very well.  Tell
his wife that he was exhibited to-day at the Healing as a specimen
of the health of the Hot.  In my last I gave you my views about the
servants and sent you a check for ---, which I hope that you have
received.  Most truly and affectionately,

                            "R. E. Lee."

His last letter was written on the morning of the day he was taken
ill, September 28th.  It was to Mr. Tagert, of Baltimore, at whose
home he had stayed the previous summer.  Its tone was cheerful and
hopeful, and he wrote that he was much better and stronger.

                         "Lexington, Virginia, September 28, 1870.

"My Dear Mr. Tagart:  Your note of the 26th reached me this morning,
and see how easy it is 'to inveigle me into a correspondence.'  In
fact, when a man desires to do a thing, or when a thing gives a man
pleasure, he requires but small provocation to induce him to do it.
Now I wanted to hear how you and Mrs. Tagart were, what you were
doing, and how you had passed the summer, and I desired to tell you
so.  That is the reason I write.  In answer to your question, I reply
that I am much better.  I do not know whether it is owing to having
seen you and Doctor Buckler last summer, or to my visit to the Hot
Springs.  Perhaps both.  But my pains are less, and my strength
greater.  In fact, I suppose I am as well as I shall be.  I am still
following Doctor B---'s directions, and in tie I may improve still
more.  I expect to have to visit Baltimore this fall, in relation
to the Valley Railroad, and in that event I hope to see you, if you
will permit me.  I am glad to hear that you spent a pleasant summer.
Colonel --- and I would have had a more agreeable one had you been
with us at the Hot, and as every place agrees so well with Mrs. Tagert,
I think she could have enjoyed as good health their as at Saratoga,
and we should have done better.  Give my sincere regards to Mrs.
Tagart, and remember me to all friends, particularly Mr. ---.  Tell
--- his brother is well and handsome, and I hope that he will study,
or his sweethearts in Baltimore will not pine for him long.  Captain
--- is well and busy, and joins in my remembrances.  Mrs. Lee and
my daughters unite with me in messages to you and Mrs. Tagart, and
I am most truly yours, R. E. Lee.

"S. H. Tagart, Esq."

When my brother Fitzhugh and I reached Lexington, my father was no
more.  He died the morning of our arrival--October 12th.  He had
apparently improved after his first attack, and the summoning of my
brother and myself had been put off from day to day.  After we did
start we were delayed by the floods, which at that time prevailed over
the State.  Of his last illness and death I have heard from my family.

The best account of those last days was written by Colonel William
Preston Johnston for the "Personal Reminiscences of General Robert
E. Lee," by the Rev. J. W. Jones, published in 1874.  Colonel Johnston
was an intimate friend of the General and a distinguished member of
the faculty of his college.  He was also one of the watchers by his
dying bedside.  I, therefore, give it in full:

"The death of General Lee was not due to any sudden cause, but was
the result of agencies dating as far back as 1863.  In the trying
campaign of that year he contracted a severe sore throat, that resulted
in rheumatic inflammation of the sac inclosing his heart.  There is
no doubt that after this sickness his health was more or less impaired;
and although he complained little, yet rapid exercise on foot or on
horseback produced pain and difficulty breathing.  In October, 1869,
he was again attacked by inflammation of the heart-sac, accompanied
by muscular rheumatism of the back, right side, and arms.  The action
of the heart was weakened by this attack; the flush upon the face
deepened, the rheumatism increased, and he was troubled with weariness
and depression.

"In March, 1870, General Lee, yielding to the solicitations of friends
and medical advisors, make a six-weeks' visit to Georgia and Florida.
He returned greatly benefited by the influence of the genial climate,
the society of friends in those States, and the demonstrations of
respect and affection of the people of the South; his physical
condition, however, was not greatly improved.  During this winter and
spring he had said to his son, General Custis Lee, that his attack
was mortal; and had virtually expressed the same belief to other
trusted friends.  And, now, with that delicacy that pervaded all his
actions, he seriously considered the question of resigning the
presidency of Washington College, 'fearful that he might not be equal to his
duties.'  After listening, however, to the affectionate remonstrances
of the faculty and board of trustees, who well knew the value of his
wisdom in the supervision of the college and the power of his mere
presence and example upon the students, he resumed his labours with
the resolution to remain at his post and carry forward the great
work he had so auspiciously begun.

"During the summer he spent some weeks at the Hot Springs of Virginia,
using the baths, and came home seemingly better in health and spirits.
He entered upon the duties of the opening collegiate year in September
with that quiet zeal and noiseless energy that marked all his actions,
and an unusual elation was felt by those about him at the increased
prospect that long years of usefulness and honour would yet be added
to his glorious life.

"Wednesday, September 28, 1870, found General lee at the post of duty.
In the morning he was fully occupied with the correspondence and other
tasks incident to his office of president of Washington College,
and he declined offers of assistance from members of the faculty,
of whose services he sometimes availed himself.  After dinner, at
four o'clock, he attended a vestry-meeting of Grace (Episcopal) church.
The afternoon was chilly and wet, and a steady rain had set in, which
did not cease until it resulted in a great flood, the most memorable
and destructive in this region for a hundred years.  The church was
rather cold and damp, and General Lee, during the meeting, sat in
a pew with his military cape cast loosely about him.  In a conversation
that occupied the brief space preceding the call to order, he took
part, and told with marked cheerfulness of manner and kindliness
of tone some pleasant anecdotes of Bishop Meade and Chief-Justice
Marshall.  The meeting was protracted until after seven o'clock by
a discussion touching the rebuilding of the church edifice and the
increase of the rector's salary.  General Lee acted as chairman,
and, after hearing all that was said, gave his own opinion, as was
his wont, briefly and without argument.  He closed the meeting with
a characteristic act.  The amount required for the minister's salary
still lacked a sum much greater than General Lee's proportion of
the subscription, in view of his frequent and generous contributions
to the church and other charities, but just before the adjournment,
when the treasurer announced the amount of the deficit still remaining,
General Lee said in a low tone, 'I will give that sum.'  He seemed
tired toward the close of the meeting, and, as was afterward remarked,
showed an unusual flush, but at the time no apprehensions were felt.

"General Lee returned to his house, and, finding his family waiting
tea for him, took his place at the table, standing to say grace.
The effort was valid; the lips could not utter the prayer of the heart.
Finding himself unable to speak, he took his seat quietly and without
agitation.  His face seemed to some of the anxious group about him
to wear a look of sublime resignation, and to evince a full knowledge
that the hour had come when all the cares and anxieties of his crowded
life were at an end.  His physicians, Doctors H. S. Barton and R. L.
Madison, arrived promptly, applied the usual remedies, and placed
him upon the couch from which he was to rise no more.

"To him henceforth the things of this world were as nothing, and he
bowed with resignation to the command of the Master he had followed
so long with reverence.  They symptoms of his attack resembled
concussion of the brain, without the attendant swoon.  There was
marked debility, a slightly impaired consciousness, and a tendency
to doze; but no paralysis of motion or sensation, and no evidence
of suffering or inflammation of the brain.  His physicians treated
the case as one of venous congestion, and with apparently favourable
results.  Yet, despite these propitious auguries drawn from his
physical symptoms, in view of the great mental strain he had undergone,
the gravest fears were felt that the attack was mortal.  He took without
objection the medicines and diet prescribed, and was strong enough
to turn in bed without aid, and to sit up to take nourishment.  During
the earlier days of his illness, though inclined to doze, he was
easily aroused, was quite conscious and observant, evidently understood
whatever was said to him, and answered questions briefly but
intelligently; he was, however, averse to much speaking, generally
using monosyllables, as had always been his habit when sick.

"When first attacked, he said to those who were removing his clothes,
pointing at the same time to his rheumatic shoulder, 'You hurt my
arm.'  Although he seemed to be gradually improving until October
10th, he apparently knew from the first that the appointed hour had
come when he must enter those dark gates that, closing, open no more
on the earth.  In the words of his physician, 'he neither expected
nor desired to recover.'  When General Custis Lee made some allusion
to his recover, he shook his head and pointed upward.  On the Monday
morning before his death, Doctor Madison, finding him looking better,
tried to cheer him.  'How do you feel to-day, General?'  General Lee
replied slowly and distinctly: 'I feel better.'  The doctor then
said:  'You must make haste and get well; Traveller has been standing
so long in the stable that he needs exercise.'  The General made no
reply, but slowly shook his head and closed his eyes.  Several times
during his illness he put aside his medicine, saying, 'It is of no
use,' but yielded patiently to the wishes of his physicians or children,
as if the slackened chords of being still responded to the touch of
duty or affection.

"On October 10th, during the afternoon, his pulse became feeble and
rapid, and his breathing hurried, with other evidences of great
exhaustion.  About midnight he was seized with a shivering from
extreme debility, and Doctor Barton was obliged to announce the danger
to the family.  On October 11th, he was evidently sinking; his
respiration was hurried, his pulse feeble and rapid.  Though less
observant, he still recognised whoever approached him, but refused
to take anything unless prescribed by his physicians.  It now became
certain that the case was hopeless.  His decline was rapid, yet gentle;
and soon after nine o'clock, on the morning of October 12th, he closed
his eyes, and his soul passed peacefully from earth.

"General Lee's physicians attributed his death in great measure to
moral causes.  The strain of his campaigns, the bitterness of defeat
aggravated by the bad faith an insolence of the victor, sympathy with
the subsequent sufferings of the Southern people, and the effort at
calmness under these accumulated sorrows, seemed the sufficient and
real causes that slowly but steadily undermined his health and led
to his death.  yet to those who saw his composure under the greater
and lesser trials of life, ad his justice and forbearance with the
most unjust and uncharitable, it seemed scarcely credible that his
serene soul was shaken by the evil that raged around him.

"General Lee's closing hours were consonant with his noble and
disciplined life.  Never was more beautifully displayed how a long and
severe education of mind and character enables the soul to pass with
equal step through this supreme ordeal; never did the habits and
qualities of a lifetime, solemnly gathered into a few last sad hours,
more grandly maintain themselves amid the gloom and shadow of
approaching death.  The reticence, the self-contained composure, the
obedience to proper authority, the magnanimity, and the Christian
meekness, that marked all his actions, still preserved their sway,
in spite of the inroads of disease and the creeping lethargy that
weighted down his faculties.

"As the old hero lay in the darkened room, or with the lamp and
hearth-fire casting shadows upon his calm, noble front, all the
missing grandeur of his form, and face and brow remained; and death
seemed to lose its terrors and to borrow a grace and dignity in sublime
keeping with the life that was ebbing away.  The great mind sank to
its last repose, almost with the equal poise of health.  The few
broken utterances that evinced at times a wandering intellect were
spoken under the influence of the remedies administered; but as long
as consciousness lasted there was evidence that all the high,
controlling influences of his whole life still ruled; and even when
stupor was laying its cold hand on the intellectual perceptions, the
moral nature, with its complete orb of duties and affections, still
asserted itself.  A southern poet has celebrated in song these last
significant words, 'Strike the tent': and a thousand voices were
raised to give meaning to the uncertain sound, when the dying man
said, with emphasis, 'Tell Hill he must come up!'  These sentences
serve to show most touchingly through what fields the imagination
was passing; but generally his words, though few, were coherent; but
for the most part, indeed, his silence was unbroken.

"This self-contained reticence had an awful grandeur, in solemn accord
with a life that needed no defense.  Deeds which required no
justification must speak for him.  His voiceless lips, like the shut
gates of some majestic temple, were closed, not for concealment, but
because that within was holy.  Could the eye of the mourning watcher
have pierced the gloom that gathered about the recesses of that great
soul it would have perceived a presence there full of an ineffable
glory.  Leaning trustfully upon the all-sustaining Arm, the man whose
stature, measured by mortal standards, seemed so great, passed from
this world of shadows to the realities of the hereafter."

A letter from my mother to a dear friend tells the same sad story:

"...My husband came in.  We had been waiting tea for him, and I
remarked:  'You have kept us waiting a long time.  Where have you
been?'  He did not reply, but stood up as if to say grace.  Yet no
word proceeded from his lips, and he sat down in his chair perfectly
upright and with a sublime air of resignation on his countenance,
and did not attempt to a reply to our inquiries.  That look was never
forgotten, and I have no doubt he felt that his hour had come; for
though he submitted to the doctors, who were immediately summoned,
and who had not even reached their homes from the same vestry-meeting,
yet his whole demeanour during his illness showed one who had taken
leave of earth.  He never smiled, and rarely attempted to speak,
except in dreams, and then he wandered to those dreadful battle-fields.
Once, when Agnes urged him to take some medicine, which he always
did with reluctance, he looked at her and said, 'It is no use.'
But afterward he took it.  When he became so much better the doctor
said, 'You must soon get out and ride your favorite gray!'  He shook
his head most emphatically and looked upward.  He slept a great deal,
but knew us all, greeted us with a kindly pressure of the hand, and
loved to have us around him.  For the last forty-eight hours he seemed
quite insensible of our presence.  He breathed more heavily, and at
last sank to rest with one deep-drawn sigh.  And oh, what a glorious
rest was in store for him!"

 

 

site stats

 

Site Copyright 2003-2014 Son of the South. For Questions or comments about this collection,

contact: paul@sonofthesouth.net

privacy policy

Are you Scared and Confused? Read My Snake Story, a story of hope and encouragement, to help you face your fears.