There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Robert E. Lee is remembered by many Southerners as one of the greatest Confederate leaders in the Civil War (1861-65). When thinking of Lee, it’s hard not to picture a stately looking man with a white beard sitting on a beautiful gray horse named Traveller. I have been reading a lot lately about Lee from various sources and have found interesting information about the man. I’d like to share some of it with you.
Lee was born Jan. 19, 1807, in Virginia. His father was the famous Gen. “Light Horse” Harry Lee of the Revolutionary War, a highly educated and well-to-do man who once served as governor of Virginia. But when Lee was 2, his father lost everything he had and was put in debtors prison for one year in Virginia. When Lee was 5, Light Horse was beat up by a mob while trying to defend an editor friend. Later, Light Horse went to the West Indies for several years to recover and was on his way home in 1818 when he became very sick. He was put off the ship at an old family friend’s home on Cumberland Island where he soon died. He was buried there. Light Horse’s family did not learn of his death until the fall of that year, though he died in March. In 1912, the Virginia Legislature had his body moved and placed in the crypt next to Robert E. Lee’s. When his father died, Lee was 11 years old and had to become the man of the family. He had to care for his invalid mother and sister and learned to be a good nurse.
Robert started at West Point in 1825 and was an exemplary student, graduating second in his class. After graduation, he worked on Fort Pulaski near Savannah where he stayed for 17 months. He visited his father’s grave at this time. The fort that Lee helped to build would become useful years later during the Civil War.
Lee was tidy and punctual. His wife Mary was said to be sloppy and habitually late so he went alone to church and she came later as he did not want to be late. The Confederate general was a religious man who always thanked God and credited him for keeping the Lee family safe during the war.
Mary Anna Randolph (1808-1873), who was from a very influential and wealthy family, married Lee against her father’s wishes. He was opposed to the marriage because he did not consider the son of disgraced Light Horse Harry to be worthy of his daughter. But the couple married and had three sons and four daughters. None of the daughters ever married. Two of the sons were in the war at the same time as their father.
His daughter Anna died from typhoid fever at the age of 23, and her father did not get to go to the funeral. It is said that when a messenger gave Lee a note telling him his daughter was dead, Lee did not lose his composure. Later, however, others say they saw him weeping in his tent.
Daughter Agnes was proposed to by her cousin, Orton Williams, but she turned him down. He was hung a few months later for treason by the United States Army.
Lee reportedly once said his life’s goal was to own a farm. “All I ever wanted was a Virginia farm, no end of cream and fresh butter and fried chicken — not one fried chicken or two but unlimited fried chicken!” he said. Lee also maintained that a person’s education is not finished until their death.
In January 1865, Lee was made general-in-chief of the Confederate forces. He was always begging the government for more food, clothing, blankets and weapons for his men. They were freezing and starving to death and he was doing all he could, which was little, to make them comfortable. His wife and daughters knitted socks and sent them to the troops. Lee wrote to his wife at Christmas in 1862: “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.”
It has been said that Arlington National Cemetery stands where it does today because of Robert E. Lee. The Confederate general’s Arlington home was burned during the war and many Union soldiers were buried on his property. They said this was his punishment for abandoning the Union and fighting against them.
Lee’s legendary command came to an end at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia on April 9, 1865. “There is nothing left for me to do but go see General Ulysses S. Grant and I would rather die a thousand deaths,” he said. After that, Lee worked hard to bring the entire country back together and start building again.
He was offered many prominent jobs, which would have helped him rebuild his fortune. He was offered wealth and a home in England; a high military position in Egypt; and a huge salary as the head of a great U.S. business enterprise. He accepted none of the offers. Instead, he was offered the position of president at Washington College in Lexington, Va. The rector of the college board, wearing a borrowed coat, riding a borrowed horse and traveling on borrowed money, came to Lee and offered him a salary of $1,500 a year, every bit of which still had to be raised, to seclude himself in a mountain village 40 miles from the nearest railroad. The rector asked Lee to help prepare young men to become leaders of the South and of the nation. Lee accepted and remained there until his death in 1870.
Lee had a stroke at the age of 63 and died a few days later from pneumonia complications, two days before a huge flood swept the hill country. The Lexington undertaker was embarrassed to admit that he had no coffins as the three he had just bought in Richmond were swept away by the flood. Two young men volunteered to search for a coffin and found one that had been swept over a dam and lodged on an island two miles downstream. This was the coffin in which the Confederacy’s greatest leader was buried. It was too short for Lee and he had to be buried without his shoes. The legendary general was buried on the college campus. The college was later named Washington and Lee University.
Robert E. Lee died a man without a country. In my next column, I will tell you about the restoration of his citizenship.