Part 8- Chapter 19


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 "Duty is the sublimest word in our language."  

 "Human virtue should be equal to human calamity."  LEE. 1876



XIX.   General Lee's Last Years and Death

 For about five years--from the latter part of 1865 nearly to the end of 1870--General Lee continued to concentrate his entire attention and all his energies upon his duties as President of Washington College, to which his great name, and the desire of Southern parents to have their sons educated under a guide so illustrious, attracted, as we have said, more than five hundred students. The sedentary nature of these occupations was a painful trial to one so long accustomed to lead a life of activity; but it was not in the character of the individual to allow personal considerations to interfere with the performance of his duty; and the laborious supervision of the education of this large number of young gentlemen continued, day after day, and year after year, to occupy his mind and his time, to the exclusion, wellnigh, of every other thought. His personal popularity with the students was very great, and it is unnecessary to add that their respect for him was unbounded. By the citizens of Lexington, and especially the graver and more pious portion, he was regarded with a love and admiration greater than any felt for him during the progress of his military career.

This was attributable, doubtless, to the franker and clearer exhibition by General Lee, in his latter years, of that extraordinary gentleness and sweetness, culminating in devoted Christian piety, which--concealed from all eyes, in some degree, during the war--now plainly revealed themselves, and were evidently the broad foundation and controlling influences of his whole life and character. To speak first of his gentleness and moderation in all his views and utterances. Of these eminent virtues--eminent and striking, above all, in a defeated soldier with so much to embitter him--General Lee presented a very remarkable illustration. The result of the war seemed to have left his great soul calm, resigned, and untroubled by the least rancor. While others, not more devoted to the South, permitted passion and sectional animosity to master them, and dictate acts and expressions full of bitterness toward the North, General Lee refrained systematically from every thing of that description; and by simple force of greatness, one would have said, rose above all prejudices and hatreds of the hour, counselling, and giving in his own person to all who approached him the example of moderation and Christian charity. He aimed to keep alive the old Southern traditions of honor and virtue; but not that sectional hatred which could produce only evil. To a lady who had lost her husband in the war, and, on bringing her two sons to the college, indulged in expressions of great bitterness toward the North, General Lee said, gently: "Madam, do not train up your children in hostility to the Government of the United States. Remember that we are one country now. Dismiss from your mind all sectional feeling, and bring them up to be Americans."

A still more suggestive exhibition of his freedom from rancor was presented in an interview which is thus described:

    "One day last autumn the writer saw General Lee standing at his     gate, talking pleasantly to an humbly-clad man, who seemed very     much pleased at the cordial courtesy of the great chieftain, and     turned off, evidently delighted, as we came up. After exchanging     salutations, the general said, pointing to the retreating     form, 'That is one of our old soldiers, who is in necessitous     circumstances.' I took it for granted that it was some veteran     Confederate, when the noble-hearted chieftain quietly added,     'He fought on the other side, but we must not think of that.' I     afterward ascertained--not from General Lee, for he never alluded     to his charities--that he had not only spoken kindly to this 'old     soldier' who had 'fought on the other side,' but had sent him on     his way rejoicing in a liberal contribution to his necessities."

Of the extent of this Christian moderation another proof was given by the soldier, at a moment when he might not unreasonably have been supposed to labor under emotions of the extremest bitterness. Soon after his return to Richmond, in April, 1865, when the _immedicabile vulnus_ of surrender was still open and bleeding, a gentleman was requested by the Federal commander in the city to communicate to General Lee the fact that he was about to be indicted in the United States courts for treason.[1] In acquitting himself of his commission, the gentleman expressed sentiments of violent indignation at such a proceeding. But these feelings General Lee did not seem to share. The threat of arraigning him as a traitor produced no other effect upon him than to bring a smile to his lips; and, taking the hand of his friend, as the latter rose to go, he said, in his mildest tones: "We must forgive our enemies. I can truly say that not a day has passed since the war began that I have not prayed for them."

[Footnote 1: This was afterward done by one of the Federal judges, but resulted in nothing.]

The incidents here related define the views and feelings of General Lee as accurately as they could be set forth in a whole volume. The defeated commander, who could open his poor purse to "one of _our_ old soldiers who _fought on the other side_," and pray daily during the bitterest of conflicts for his enemies, must surely have trained his spirit to the perfection of Christian charity.

Of the strength and controlling character of General Lee's religious convictions we have more than once spoken in preceding pages of this volume. These now seemed to exert a more marked influence over his life, and indeed to shape every action and utterance of the man. During the war he had exhibited much greater reserve upon this the most important of all subjects which can engage the attention of a human being; and, although he had been from an early period, we believe, a communicant of the Protestant Episcopal Church, he seldom discussed religious questions, or spoke of his own feelings, presenting in this a marked contrast, as we have said, to his illustrious associate General Jackson.

Even during the war, however, as the reader has seen in our notices of his character at the end of 1863, General Lee's piety revealed itself in conversations with his chaplains and other good men; and was not concealed from the troops, as on the occasion of the prayer-meeting in the midst of the fighting at Mine Run. On another occasion, when reviewing his army near Winchester, he was seen to raise his hat to a chaplain with the words, "I salute the Church of God;" and again, near Petersburg, was observed kneeling in prayer, a short distance from the road, as his troops marched by. Still another incident of the period--that of the war--will be recorded here in the words of the Rev. J. William Jones, who relates it:

    "Not long before the evacuation of Petersburg, the writer was one     day distributing tracts along the trenches, when he perceived     a brilliant cavalcade approaching. General Lee--accompanied by     General John B. Gordon, General A. P. Hill, and other general     officers, with their staffs--was inspecting our lines and     reconnoitring those of the enemy. The keen eye of Gordon     recognized, and his cordial grasp detained, the humble     tract-distributor, as he warmly inquired about his work. General     Lee at once reined in his horse and joined in the conversation,     the rest of the party gathered around, and the humble colporteur     thus became the centre of a group of whose notice the highest     princes of earth might well be proud. General Lee asked if we ever     had calls for prayer-books, and said that if we would call at his     headquarters he would give us some for distribution--'that some     friend in Richmond had given him a new prayer-book, and, upon his     saying that he would give his old one, that he had used ever since     the Mexican War, to some soldier, the friend had offered him a     dozen new books for the old one, and he had, of course, accepted     so good an offer, and now had twelve instead of one to give away.'     We called at the appointed hour. The general had gone out on some     important matter, but (even amid his pressing duties) had left     the prayer-books with a member of his staff, with instructions     concerning them. He had written on the fly-leaf of each,     'Presented by R.E. Lee,' and we are sure that those of the gallant     men to whom they were given who survive the war will now cherish     them as precious legacies, and hand them down as heirlooms in     their families."

These incidents unmistakably indicate that General Lee concealed, under the natural reserve of his character, an earnest religious belief and trust in God and our Saviour. Nor was this a new sentiment with him. After his death a well-worn pocket Bible was found in his chamber, in which was written, "R.E. Lee, Lieutenant-Colonel, U.S. Army." It was plain, from this, that, even during the days of his earlier manhood, in Mexico and on the Western prairies, he had read his Bible, and striven to conform his life to its teachings.

With the retirement of the great soldier, however, from the cares of command which necessarily interfered in a large degree with pious exercises and meditations, the religious phase of his character became more clearly defined, assuming far more prominent and striking proportions. The sufferings of the Southern people doubtless had a powerful effect upon him, and, feeling the powerlessness of man, he must have turned to God for comfort. But this inquiry is too profound for the present writer. He shrinks from the attempt to sound the depths of this truly great soul, with the view of discovering the influences which moulded it into an almost ideal perfection. General Lee was, fortunately for the world, surrounded in his latter days by good and intelligent men, fully competent to present a complete exposition of his views and feelings--and to these the arduous undertaking is left. Our easier task is to place upon record such incidents as we have gathered, bearing upon the religious phase of the illustrious soldier's character.

His earnest piety cannot be better displayed than in the anxiety which he felt for the conversion of his students, Conversing with the Rev. Dr. Kirkpatrick, of the Presbyterian Church, on the subject of the religious welfare of those intrusted to his charge, "he was so overcome by emotion," says Dr. Kirkpatrick, "that he could not utter the words which were on his tongue." His utterance was choked, but recovering himself, with his eyes overflowing with tears, his lips quivering with emotion, and both hands raised, he exclaimed: "Oh! doctor, if I could only know that all the young men in the college were good Christians, I should have nothing more to desire."

When another minister, the Rev. Mr. Jones, delivered an earnest address at the "Concert of Prayer for Colleges," urging that all Christians should pray for the aid of the Holy Spirit in changing the hearts of the students, General Lee, after the meeting, approached the minister and said with great warmth: "I wish, sir, to thank you for your address. It was just what we needed. Our great want is a revival, which shall bring these young men to Christ."

One morning, while the venerable Dr. White was passing General Lee's house, on his way to chapel, the general joined him, and they entered into conversation upon religious subjects. General Lee said little, but, just as they reached the college, stopped and remarked with great earnestness, his eyes filling with tears as he spoke: "I shall be disappointed, sir, I shall fail in the leading object that brought me here, unless the young men all become real Christians; and I wish you and others of your sacred profession to de all you can to accomplish this result."

When a great revival of religious feeling took place at the Virginia Military Institute, in 1868, General Lee said to the clergyman of his church with deep feeling: "That is the best news I have heard since I have been in Lexington. Would that we could have such a revival in all our colleges!"

Although a member of the Protestant Episcopal Church, and preferring that communion, General Lee seems to have been completely exempt from sectarian feeling, and to have aimed first and last to be a true Christian, loving God and his neighbor, and not busying himself about theological dogmas. When he was asked once whether he believed in the Apostolic succession, he replied that he had never thought of it, and aimed only to become a "real Christian." His catholic views were shown by the letters of invitation, which he addressed, at the commencement of each session of the college, to ministers of all religious denominations at Lexington, to conduct, in turn, the religious exercises at the college chapel; and his charities, which were large for a person of his limited means, were given to all alike. These charities he seems to have regarded as a binding duty, and were so private that only those receiving them knew any thing of them. It only came to be known accidentally that in 1870 he gave one hundred dollars for the education of the orphans of Southern soldiers, one hundred dollars to the Young Men's Christian Association, and regularly made other donations, amounting in all to considerable sums. Nearly his last act was a liberal contribution to an important object connected with his church.

We shall conclude these anecdotes, illustrating General Lee's religious character, with one for which we are indebted to the kindness of a reverend clergyman, of Lexington, who knew General Lee intimately in his latter years, and enjoyed his confidence. The incident will present in an agreeable light the great soldier's simplicity and love for children, and no less his catholic feelings in reference to sects in the Christian Church:

"I will give you just another incident," writes the reverend gentleman, "illustrating General Lee's love for children, and their freedom with him. When I first came to Lexington, my boy Carter (just four years old then) used to go with me to chapel service when it was my turn to officiate. The general would tell him that he must always sit by him; and it was a scene for a painter, to see the great chieftain reverentially listening to the truths of God's word, and the little boy nestling close to him. One Sunday our Sunday-school superintendent told the children that they must bring in some new scholars, and that they must bring old people as well as the young, since none were too old or too wise to learn God's word. The next Sabbath Carter was with me at the chapel, from which he was to go with me to the Sunday-school. At the close of the service, I noticed that Carter was talking very earnestly with General Lee, who seemed very much amused, and, on calling him to come with me, he said, with childish simplicity: 'Father, I am trying to get General Lee to go to the Sunday-school and _be my scholar_.' 'But,' said I, 'if the general goes to any school, he will go to his own.' 'Which is his own, father?' 'The Episcopal,' I replied. Heaving a deep sigh, and with a look of disappointment, the little fellow said: 'I am very sorry he is '_Piscopal._ I wish he was a Baptist, so he could go to _our_ Sunday-school, and be my scholar.' The general seemed very much amused and interested as he replied, 'Ah! Carter, we must all try and be _good Christians_--that is the most important thing.' 'He knew all the children in town,' adds Mr. Jones, 'and their grief at his death was very touching.'"

This incident may appear singular to those who have been accustomed to regard General Lee as a cold, reserved, and even stern human being--a statue, beneath whose chill surface no heart ever throbbed. But, instead of a marble heart, there lay, under the gray uniform of the soldier, one of warm flesh and blood--tender, impressible, susceptible to the quick touches of all gentle and sweet emotion, and filling, as it were, with quiet happiness, at the sight of children and the sound of their voices. This impressibility has even been made the subject of criticism. A foreign writer declares that the soldier's character exhibited a "feminine" softness, unfitting him for the conduct of affairs of moment. What the Confederacy wanted, intimates the writer in question, was a rough dictator, with little regard for nice questions of law--one to lay the rough hand of the born master on the helm, and force the crew, from the highest to the lowest, to obey his will. That will probably remain a question. General Lee's _will_ was strong enough to break down all obstacles but those erected by rightful authority; that with this masculine strength he united an exquisite gentleness, is equally beyond question. A noble action flushed his cheek with an emotion that the reader may, if he will, call "feminine." A tale of suffering brought a sudden moisture to his eyes; and a loving message from one of his poor old soldiers was seen one day to melt him to tears.

This poor and incomplete attempt to indicate some of the less-known traits of the illustrious commander-in-chief of the Southern armies will now be brought to a conclusion; we approach the sorrowful moment when, surrounded by his weeping family,[1] he tranquilly passed away.

[Footnote 1: General Lee had three sons and four daughters, all of whom are living except one of the latter, Miss Anne Lee, who died in North Carolina during the war. The sons were General G.W. Custis Lee, aide-de-camp to President Davis--subsequently commander of infantry in the field, and now president of Washington and Lee College, an officer of such ability and of character so eminent that President Davis regarded him as a fit successor of his illustrious father in command of the Army of Northern Virginia--General W.H.F. Lee, a prominent and able commander of cavalry, and Captain Robert E. Lee, an efficient member of the cavalry-staff. These gentlemen bore their full share in the perils and hardships of the war, from its commencement to the surrender at Appomattox.]

On the 28th of September, 1870, after laborious attention to his duties during the early part of the day, General Lee attended, in the afternoon, a meeting of the Vestry of Grace Church, of which he was a member. Over this meeting he presided, and it was afterward remembered that his last public act was to contribute the sum of fifty-five dollars to some good object, the requisite amount to effect which was thus made up. After the meeting, General Lee returned to his home, and, when tea was served, took his place at the table to say grace, as was his habit, as it had been in camp throughout the war. His lips opened, but no sound issued from them, and he sank back in his chair, from which he was carried to bed.

The painful intelligence immediately became known throughout Lexington, and the utmost grief and consternation were visible upon every face. It was hoped, at first, that the attack would not prove serious, and that General Lee would soon be able to resume his duties. But this hope was soon dissipated. The skilful physicians who hastened to his bedside pronounced his malady congestion of the brain, and, from the appearance of the patient, who lay in a species of coma, the attack was evidently of the most alarming character. The most discouraging phase of the case was, that, physically, General Lee was--if we may so say--in perfect health. His superb physique, although not perhaps as vigorous and robust as during the war, exhibited no indication whatever of disease. His health appeared perfect, and twenty years more of life might have been predicted for him from simple reference to his appearance.

The malady was more deeply seated, however, than any bodily disease; the cerebral congestion was but a symptom of the mental malady which was killing its victim. From the testimony of the able physicians who watched the great soldier, day and night, throughout his illness, and are thus best competent to speak upon the subject, there seems no doubt that General Lee's condition was the result of mental depression produced by the sufferings of the Southern people. Every mail, it is said, had brought him the most piteous appeals for assistance, from old soldiers whose families were in want of bread; and the woes of these poor people had a prostrating effect upon him. A year or two before, his health had been seriously impaired by this brooding depression, and he had visited North Carolina, the White Sulphur Springs, and other places, to divert his mind. In this he failed. The shadow went with him, and the result was, at last, the alarming attack from which he never rallied. During the two weeks of his illness he scarcely spoke, and evidently regarded his condition as hopeless. When one of his physicians said to him, "General, you must make haste and get well; _Traveller_ has been standing so long in his stable that he needs exercise." General Lee shook his head slowly, to indicate that he would never again mount his favorite horse.

He remained in this state, with few alterations in his condition, until Wednesday; October 12th, when, about nine in the morning, in the midst of his family, the great soldier tranquilly expired.

Of the universal grief of the Southern people when the intelligence was transmitted by telegraph to all parts of the country, it is not necessary that we should speak. The death of Lee seemed to make all hearts stand still; and the tolling of bells, flags at half-mast, and public meetings of citizens, wearing mourning, marked, in every portion of the South, the sense of a great public calamity. It is not an exaggeration to say that, in ten thousand Southern homes, tears came to the eyes not only of women, but of bearded men, and that the words, "Lee is dead!" fell like a funeral-knell upon every heart.

When the intelligence reached Richmond, the Legislature passed resolutions expressive of the general sorrow, and requesting that the remains of General Lee might be interred in Holywood Cemetery--Mr. Walker, the Governor, expressing in a special message his participation in the grief of the people of Virginia and the South. The family of General Lee, however, preferred that his remains should rest at the scene of his last labors, and beneath the chapel of Washington College they were accordingly interred. The ceremony was imposing, and will long be remembered.

On the morning of the 13th, the body was borne to the college chapel. In front moved a guard of honor, composed of old Confederate soldiers; behind these came the clergy; then the hearse; in rear of which was led the dead soldier's favorite war-horse "Traveller," his equipments wreathed with crape. The trustees and faculty of the college, the cadets of the Military Institute, and a large number of citizens followed--and the procession moved slowly from the northeastern gate of the president's house to the college chapel, above which, draped in mourning, and at half-mast, floated the flag of Virginia--the only one displayed during this or any other portion of the funeral ceremonies.

On the platform of the chapel the body lay in state throughout this and the succeeding day. The coffin was covered with evergreens and flowers, and the face of the dead was uncovered that all might look for the last time on the pale features of the illustrious soldier. The body was dressed in a simple suit of black, and the appearance of the face was perfectly natural. Great crowds visited the chapel, passing solemnly in front of the coffin--the silence interrupted only by sobs.

Throughout the 14th the body continued to be in state, and to be visited by thousands. On the 15th a great funeral procession preceded the commission of it to its last resting place. At an early hour the crowd began to assemble in the vicinity of the college, which was draped in mourning. This great concourse was composed of men, women, and children, all wearing crape, and the little children seemed as much penetrated by the general distress as the elders. The bells of the churches began to toll; and at ten o'clock the students of the college, and officers and soldiers of the Confederate army--numbering together nearly one thousand persons--formed in front of the chapel. Between the two bodies stood the hearse, and the gray horse of the soldier, both draped in mourning.

The procession then began to move, to the strains of martial music. The military escort, together with the staff-officers of General Lee, moved in front; the faculty and students followed behind the hearse; and in rear came a committee of the Legislative dignitaries of the Commonwealth, and a great multitude of citizens from all portions of the State. The procession continued its way toward the Institute, where the cadets made the military salute as the hearse passed in front of them, and the sudden thunder of artillery awoke the echoes from the hills. The cadets then joined the procession, which was more than a mile in length; and, heralded by the fire of artillery every few minutes, it moved back to the college chapel, where the last services were performed.

General Lee had requested, it is said, that no funeral oration should be pronounced above his remains, and the Rev. William N. Pendleton simply read the beautiful burial-service of the Episcopal Church. The coffin, still covered with evergreens and flowers, was then lowered to its resting-place beneath the chapel, amid the sobs and tears of the great assembly; and all that was mortal of the illustrious soldier disappeared from the world's eyes.

What thus disappeared was little. What remained was much--the memory of the virtues and the glory of the greatest of Virginians.



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