On January 19, 1807, Robert Edward Lee was born.
For a close look into his life, I cannot recommend too strongly the book, The Recollections and Letters of Robert E. Lee, compiled by his son, Captain Robert E. Lee. (One can find this for free online here, so cost can hinder no one from reading this volume.)
If you read these Recollections and Letters, I believe you will share my reaction to General Lee’s correspondence, which the son himself pinpoints:
In looking over his correspondence one is astonished at the amount of it and at its varied character. He always answered all letters addressed to him, from whatever source, if it was possible.
His son’s labor of love is the closest thing to an autobiography. Indeed, the Recollections and Letters are noteworthy not only because of General Lee’s role in history, but also because this is a son honoring his father.
And what a father he was.
Most men can succeed in the professional or the personal realm, but few succeed in both. Few men are seamlessly virtuous before the public and the private eye. Few can be good generals and be good fathers.
The sheer fact of a military father’s absence from the home may create a gulf between him and the hearts of his children. Also, a man may become so entrenched in the military way of living, to the rigors of combat, that when he returns from the battlefields he struggles to relate to his children or others outside of the inflexible command structure of a military.
But revealed from the pen of the son, and from the pen of the father, who would not know how his words would speak beyond the grave, what a gem General Lee truly was.
Robert E. Lee with his son, William Henry Fitzhugh, known as “Rooney,” about 1845
In the first chapter of Recollections and Letters, the son Rob declares:
From that early time I began to be impressed with my father’s character, as compared with other men. Every member of the household respected revered and loved him as a matter of course, but it began to dawn on me that every one else with whom I was thrown held him high in their regard.
What was the General like as a father?
In one letter to his wife, Lee would exclaim: “Oh, what pleasure I lose in being separated from my children! Nothing can compensate me for that.”
And Rob Lee describes the mutual pleasures the Lee children knew from their father’s presence:
… He was always bright and gay with us little folk, romping, playing, and joking with us. With the older children, he was just as companionable, and I have seen him join my elder brothers and their friends when they would try their powers at a high jump put up in the yard. The two younger children he petted a great deal, and our greatest treat was to get into his bed in the morning and lie close to him, listening while he talked with us in his bright, entertaining way. This custom we kept up until I was ten years old and over.
Although he was so joyous and familiar with us, he was very firm on all proper occasions, never indulged us in anything that was not good for us, and exacted the most implicit obedience. I always knew that it was impossible to disobey my father. I felt it in me, I never thought why, but was perfectly sure when he gave an order that it had to be obeyed. My mother I could sometimes circumvent, and at times took liberties with her orders, construing them to suit myself; but exact obedience to every mandate of my father was a part of my life and being at that time.
Lee’s own father had been no example—irresponsible, extravagant, and unfaithful to his wife. In fact, Lee’s father died in self-exile when the boy was only eleven. Lee would name none of his three sons after his father.
But Lee had high standards for his children, and let them know it at an early age— as we see in this letter to one of his sons:
I cannot go to bed, my dear son, without writing you a few lines, to thank you for your letter, which gave me great pleasure....You and Custis must take great care of your kind mother and dear sisters when your father is dead. To do that you must learn to be good. Be true, kind and generous, and pray earnestly to God to enable you to keep His Commandments ‘and walk in the same all the days of your life.’
We have photographs and paintings of General Lee, but according to
Rob, none of them portray him wholly:
“My father never could bear to have his picture taken, and there are no likenesses of him that really give his sweet expression. Sitting for a picture was such a serious business that he never could ‘look pleasant.’ ”
When the drums of war began beating, the first cause of deep grief began. Lee’s very brother, Sydney Smith Lee, was in the Federal Navy.
In these wrenching circumstances, Robert E. Lee wrote to his sister on April 20, 1861:
Now we are in a state of war which will yield to nothing. The whole South is in a state of revolution, into which Virginia, after a long struggle, has been drawn; and though I would recognise no necessity for this state of things, and would have forborne and pleaded to the end for redress of grievances, real or supposed, yet in my own person I had to meet the question whether I should take part against my native State.
With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the Army, and save in defense of my native State, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword.
A century later, Garry Wills would accurately assess Lee’s position:
“As a professional soldier, he had only three choices - (a) to remain in the federal army and help destroy his own state, in the process killing his friends, his relatives, the countrymen closest to him; or (b) to resign his commission and stand by idle, watching others ravage his homeland and kill his friends; or (c) though convinced of the futility of secession, to stand, once it came, between his people and those who would harm them.”
Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man, p. 482
Besides Lee himself, all three of his sons would end up fighting.
During the first two years of the war, son Rooney and his wife, Charlotte, lost their two children — Robert E. Lee III, and Annie Agnes Lee.
The deaths of his grandchildren were far from the end of the grief. His daughter Anne Carter Lee, called “Annie,” was a gentle, pious girl. An accident with a pair of scissors in her childhood had rendered her blind in one eye.
In 1862, at the age of twenty-three, Annie fell ill with typhoid fever, and entered eternity on October 20th.
Due to the war, her father could not be present by her side, but six days after his daughter died, he wrote to his wife:
I cannot express the anguish I feel at the death of our sweet Annie. To know that I shall never see her again on earth, that her place in our circle, which I always hoped one day to enjoy, is forever vacant, is agonising in the extreme. But God in this, as in all things, has mingled mercy with the blow, in selecting that one best prepared to leave us. May you be able to join me in saying ‘His will be done!’ I know how much you will grieve and how much she will be mourned. I wish I could give you any comfort, but beyond our hope in the great mercy of God, and the belief that He takes her at the time and place when it is best for her to go, there is none. May that same mercy be extended to us all, and may we be prepared for His summons.
Inscribed upon her tombstone were lines from a hymn she loved,
Perfect and true are all His ways
Whom Heaven adores and earth obeys.
November 24, 1862, he would write to his daughter Mary,
The death of my dear Annie was, indeed, to me a bitter pang, but ‘the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away: blessed be the name of the Lord.’ In the quiet hours of the night, when there is nothing to lighten the full weight of my grief, I feel as if I should be overwhelmed. I have always counted, if God should spare me a few days after this Civil War was ended, that I should have her with me, but year after year my hopes go out, and I must be resigned...
On December 25, 1862, he wrote to his wife:
...My heart is filled with gratitude to Almighty God for His unspeakable mercies with which He has blessed us in this day, for those He has granted us from the beginning of life, and particularly for those He has vouchsafed us during the past year.
...But what a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world! I pray that, on this day when only peace and good-will are preached to mankind, better thoughts may fill the hearts of our enemies and turn them to peace
The following year, at the cavalry battle of Brandy Station in June 1863, his son Rooney was wounded; the younger son Rob, then a lieutenant, supervised moving him to the house of his mother-in-law, where Rooney’s wife was living. There they thought he would be safe from the enemy.
Two weeks after the women began nursing Rooney back to health, a Federal raiding party rode up.
The women watched, horrified, helpless, as the Federal forces took away the severely wounded man, lying prone on his mattress, into captivity.
Rooney’s wife Charlotte was so traumatized that she fell ill, and ultimately, never recovered: after a period of relatively better health, she died on December 26, 1863.
When news came to Rooney Lee at Fortress Monroe that his wife Charlotte was dying in Richmond, he requested to be allowed to go to her for 48 hours. His brother Custis Lee, of equal rank with himself, had formally volunteered in writing to take his place as a hostage. This request was curtly and peremptorily refused.
Following Charlotte’s death, General Lee wrote to his wife Mary,
...Thus is link by link the strong chain broken that binds us to the earth, and our passage soothed to another world. Oh, that we may be at last united in that heaven of rest, where trouble and sorrow never enter, to join in an everlasting chorus of praise and glory to our Lord and Saviour! I grieve for our lost darling as a father only can grieve for a daughter, and my sorrow is heightened by the thought of the anguish her death will cause our dear son and the poignancy it will give to the bars of his prison. May God in His mercy enable him to bear the blow He has so suddenly dealt, and sanctify it to his everlasting happiness!
To his grieving son in prison, Lee exhorted,
God knows how I loved your dear dear wife, how sweet her memory is to me, & how I mourn her loss. My grief could not be greater if you had been taken from me. You were both equally dear to me. My heart is too full to speak on this subject, nor can I write. But my grief is not for her, but for ourselves. She is brighter & happier than ever, safe from all evil & awaiting us in her Heavenly abode. May God in his mercy enable us to join her in eternal praise to our Lord & Saviour. Let us humbly bow ourselves before Him & offer perpetual prayer for pardon & forgiveness!
Courtesy of the Gilder Lehrman Institute, we can see his missive in his own handwriting:
Although he loved his children so deeply, and grieved separation from his family, the General would not give way to nepotism.
When his wife inquired about his son Rob serving under him, the father responded in February 1864:
...In reference to Rob, his company would be a great pleasure and comfort to me, and he would be extremely useful in various ways, but I am opposed to officers surrounding themselves with their sons and relatives. It is wrong in principle, and in that case selections would be made from private and social relations, rather than for the public good. There is the same objection to his going with Fitz Lee [Rooney]. I should prefer Rob’s being in the line, in an independent position, where he could rise by his own merit and not through the recommendation of his relatives.
Throughout all the grief, all the strain, Lee bore his responsibilities manfully. When the war would be over, General Meade of the Federal forces would ask,
“I hope you will not deem it improper for me to ask, for my personal information, the strength of your army during the operations around Richmond and Petersburg.”
General Lee replied: “At no time did my force exceed 35,000 men; often it was less.”
With a look of surprise, Meade answered:
“General, you amaze me; we always estimated your force at about seventy thousand men.”
When the war was over—in which he resiliently fought although he foretold its futility—Lee would see constant reminders of his participation in a failure.
“On the road itself was
the wreckage of his army — dead horses, shattered wagons in ditches,
bloody bandages in the April mud. When he turned his head, he saw weed-choked
fields and burnt houses. Blasted trestles and torn-up railroad tracks bore
silent witness that there was no public transport, no shipment of goods.
There was nothing on the shelves of country stores. In towns, the banks were
closed. Confederate money was worthless. Amputees in grey poked along red-clay
roads on crutches while blue-clad columns marched to occupy strategic
points in the South.”
— Lee: The Last Years, Charles Bracelen Flood, p. 32
After the surrender, Lee hesitatingly accepted the presidency of Washington College—worrying that he “might draw upon the College a feeling of hostility,” due to his previous position, but adding, “I think it the duty of every citizen in the present condition of the Country, to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony.”
Under his capable leadership, Washington College grew: the faculty increased from four to twenty; the student body swelled from fifty to nearly four hundred students; and financial support came from both southern and northern sources.
An incoming student, upon meeting President Lee, was struck by the Confederate commander: “It looked as if the sorrow of a whole nation had been collected in his countenance, and as if he were bearing the grief of his people. It never left his face, but was ever there to keep company with the kindly smile.”
As president of Washington and Lee University, he made an individual impact on each student. He would meet them individually in his office, and to their astonishment he was able to remember their names from then on. “If he met one or two of the students walking on the street,” an undergraduate from South Carolina would recall, “it was his custom to call each by name. If he had had no other gift for the college presidency, this would have gone far towards qualifying him.”
By the spring of 1870, his health began to wane, and at the urging of the faculty, he travelled on vacation. Less than a month into the next school year, on September 28, 1870, he suffered a massive stroke.
Two weeks later, on October 12, he would die in his home on the college campus.
Rob Lee names the “best account of those last days,” as written by Colonel William Preston Johnston, a close friend of General Lee, and a member of the college faculty. Colonel Johnston was one of the watchers by the dying man’s bedside, and would say:
General Lee’s closing hours were consonant with his noble and disciplined life. Never was more beautifully displayed how 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 weighed down his faculties.
And his wife Mary would write,
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!
“There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God.
For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his.
Let us labor therefore to enter into that rest... ” — Hebrews 4:9-11a