Robert E. Lee, general of all the Confederate forces during the Civil War, was born Jan. 19, 1807. I have been researching Lee’s history and have found many fascinating bits of information about him. I shared some of my findings in my column last week and I will do the same now. I have read many articles, books and some letters that Lee and his family wrote to each other. One tiny book — perhaps it should be called a pamphlet — was written by the Rev. William Mack Lee, who served as Gen. Lee’s slave, bodyguard and cook during the Civil War. The book, “History of the Life of Rev. Wm. Mack Lee: Body Servant of General Robert E. Lee through the Civil War: Cook from 1861 to 1865,” was written in 1918 when William Mack Lee was 82 years old. The reverend wrote his memoir to raise money to pay off a debt on the last church building he helped build. When he wrote the short book, he needed $418 to pay for the church.
Mack was born June 12, 1835 in Virginia and raised at Arlington Heights in Robert E. Lee’s home. He was 26 when the Civil War began and he went with Lee as his personal bodyguard and cook. He was a free black man as Gen. Lee, who did not believe in slavery, freed all his slaves 10 years before the war. Mack and all the other freed slaves had a choice to leave or stay and they all stayed on the plantation. Mack wasn’t literate, but he started preaching sermons two years before the war.
He married six years before the war began and had eight daughters. Mack’s wife died in 1910. He was ordained July 12, 1881 as a Baptist preacher and built his first church in Washington, D.C.
Mack got the idea to write a book when he went to the World-News office in Bedford, Va., to solicit donations for the church he needed to pay for. He told the receptionist why he was there. All the clerks listened to his plea for money and immediately went back to typing. The stooped and limping old man, who had a white, grizzly beard and an honest face, then told the office workers that he had been Gen. Robert E. Lee’s bodyguard and cook throughout the horrible war. All the typewriters stopped. The workers turned their attention to Mack and he told them his fascinating personal stories. When he got up to leave more than half an hour later, everyone in the office opened their wallets and gave him generous donations. His story was published in the newspaper, and readers tracked him down to donate to his cause.
In his little book, the reverend made a list of the generals and great officers he cooked for during the war. Some of the most well-known were Stonewall Jackson, who was a very dear friend of Lee’s, J.E.B. Stuart, George Pickett, Wade Hampton, James Longstreet and Jefferson Davis. He also listed the many different battles they endured together. Jackson was one of the South’s most aggressive generals and was the next best-known under Gen. Lee.
Mack described the day that word arrived that Stonewall Jackson had died. Mack, who was not yet aware of Jackson’s death, went to see his master. Gen. Lee told Mack that he had “lost his right arm.” Mack looked at Lee and replied, “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.”
Gen. Lee said, “I am broken-hearted and my heart is bleeding.” The cook said the general looked as if he wanted to be alone with his thoughts so Mack left him alone. The next morning, Lee told his servant that his dear friend Stonewall had died. Mack had heard that Stonewall had been shot accidentally by the Confederate pickets at the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia. They mistook Stonewall and several staff members for Union soldiers. Stonewall took three bullets and several staff members and many horses were killed. Stonewall’s left arm was amputated. Stonewall developed complications from pneumonia and died eight days later at the age of 39. Lee sent a message to him as he was dying that said, “You have lost a left arm, but I have lost my right arm.” Gen. Stonewall Jackson once said Lee was “the only man I would follow blindfolded.”
My favorite story that Mack told in his book was about a little, black hen. Gen. Lee got a little black hen from a man in Petersburg. He kept the hen and named her Nellie. He let her make her nest in the wagon and she laid an egg almost every day for two years. He loved the little hen as he loved all of God’s creatures. One day as they were about to pull out from the camp and move to another place, the little hen went missing. An APB was put out for Nellie. She was finally found, put back into the wagon and the unit moved on.
On July 3, 1863, Gen. Lee informed Mack, the cook, that he had invited several generals to eat lunch with them. Mack became very anxious and agitated. He said, “I was jest plumb bumfuzzled.” There was hardly any food available for anyone to eat. The men and horses were starving. He scratched his head and thought. He made some flannel cakes, a pitcher of tea and some lemonade. This was certainly not enough to feed a bunch of hungry generals. He heard Nellie cackle after laying her egg. The thought entered his head. He hated to do it but it seemed he had no choice. He wrung poor, old faithful Nellie’s neck and cleaned her. He stuffed her with a dressing made with bread crumbs and butter and cooked her. At dinner time, with all the generals sitting around the makeshift table, Mack proudly produced a platter with a large baked, stuffed hen on it. Gen. Lee looked at it and straight at Mack. Instantly, he admonished Mack in front of all the generals for killing the little pet hen that provided them with an egg a day. Mack said it was the only time Lee ever scolded him.
Gen. Lee said, “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. I am going to write Miss Mary (Lee’s wife) and tell on you!”
I wonder if they all enjoyed the baked hen.
Just a few days after baking the hen for the generals, Mack went out to get Traveller, Gen. Lee’s horse, ready for the general to ride. He saddled the horse and led him over in front of the tent. Just as he tied her there, shots rang out from the Union army. One landed and exploded about 35 feet from Mack. Shrapnel struck him in his head and in his hip. He fell over and the general told him later that he had never heard anyone holler as loud as Mack did when the shells struck him. He was taken to the hospital for a few days. The piece of shell in his hip was never removed. He pointed to the hole in his head to show the office personnel.
Mack was with Gen. Robert E. Lee when he bade farewell to his comrades and instructed them to go home and make themselves good citizens after he surrendered 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. He, like Stonewall, also died from pneumonia complications after having a stroke several days earlier.
The Rev. William Mack Lee ended his book by saying that he had been raised by one of the greatest men in the world. Gen. Robert E. Lee generously left the Rev. Mack Lee $350 in his will for Mack to continue his education, which he did.