Jan. 19, 1807, is the birthdate of Robert E. Lee, general of all the Confederate forces during the Civil War.
One tiny book, “History of the Life of Rev. Wm. Mack Lee, Body Servant of General Robert E. Lee Through the Civil War…Cook from 1861-1865,” was written by the general’s one-time slave who also was his bodyguard and cook during the Civil War. It was written in 1918 when the reverend was 82 years old.
Mack was born June 12, 1835, in Virginia and raised at Arlington Heights in the home of Robert E. Lee. He was 26 when the Civil War began and he went with Lee as his personal bodyguard and cook. He was a free man as Lee had freed all his slaves 10 years before. They had all stayed on the plantation. Mack started preaching two years before the war.
The reverend wrote his memoir of being with Lee to raise money to pay off the last church he helped build. He needed $418. He was in Richmond going around to different places asking for money. He was ordained July 12, 1881 as a Missionary Baptist preacher and built his first church in Washington, D.C.
Mack went to the World-News office in Bedford, Virginia, during a very busy hour and told the receptionist his reason being there. All the clerks listened a moment but as soon as they heard “donations wanted” they went back to typing. They refocused on the stooped black man when he said he had been with Gen. Lee throughout the horrible war. When he got up to leave over a half hour later everyone opened their wallets to donate. His story was published in the newspaper so people could find him to donate.
His book contains a list of the generals and other officers he had cooked for during the war, including Stonewall Jackson, who was a dear friend of Lee’s, J.E.B. Stuart, Pickett, Hampton, Longstreet and Jefferson Davis. He had also listed the many different battles they had endured.
He tells of the day they heard Jackson had died. Lee told him he had lost his right arm. Mack said to Lee, “Marse Lee, how can that be? You have not been in a battle since yesterday and I don’t see any blood on your arm.” He said Lee said, “I am broken hearted and my heart is bleeding.” The cook left the general alone with his thoughts. The next morning Lee told him his dear friend had died. Mack had heard that Stonewall had been shot accidentally by the Confederate pickets at the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia as they mistakenly thought Stonewall and staff members Union soldiers. Stonewall was hit by three bullets. Several of his staff and many horses were killed. Stonewall’s left arm had to be amputated. He died from complications from pneumonia eight days later at the age of 39.
My favorite story in the reverend’s little book was about a little black hen. Lee had got the hen from a man in Petersburg. He named her Nellie and let her nest in a wagon. She laid an egg almost every day. Little Nellie had been with the unit for two years, faithfully laying her eggs.
On July 3, 1863, Lee informed his cook he had invited several generals to lunch. Mack “…was jest plumb bumfuzzled.” There was hardly any food. The men and horses were starving. He made flannel cakes, tea and lemonade, but that was certainly not enough. He heard Nellie cackle after laying her egg. He hated the thought, but didn’t see a choice. He wrung faithful Nellie’s neck, cleaned her and stuffed her with bread-crumb dressing. At dinner, with the generals at a makeshift table, Mack proudly produced a baked hen on a platter. Lee looked at it and straight at Mack. He admonished Mack in front of others for killing the pet hen, “No, you didn’t have to kill her. Now, Mack, what are we going to do for eggs? You have already killed the hen that laid the golden eggs.”
It was the only time Lee had ever scolded the reverend.
Mack was with Lee when he bade farewell to his soldiers and instructed them to go home and make themselves good citizens after he surrendered “under conditions” in April 1865. Mack had several gavels made from the poplar tree under which Lee stood while making the farewell speech. Mack went home with the general and stayed with him until Lee died at the early age of 63 in 1870.
The reverend ended by saying that he had been raised by one of the greatest men in the world. Lee left $350 in his will for Mack to continue his education, which he did.