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After Appomattox - Marching out of step

The Frank O'Reilly Lecture

Report edited by Greg Bayne

In April 1865, Robert E Lee was a man without a job, and a home. His immediate concerns however were for his fellow soldiers and the citizens of the country that he had fought hard for. Frank O'Reilly took us on a trip from April 1865 to October 1870, five years in which Lee lived more than most of us do in 50.


Lee felt that he had nothing to live for, he said to Rooney earlier in war: "If defeated, nothing will be left for us to live for, but Lee was inspired to keep trying. The inscription on his sword blade was "Aide ton et Dieu t'aidera", "Help yourself and God will help you."

But he had a profound sense of duty, "But it is our duty to live. What will become of the women and children of the South if we are not here to protect them?" At Appomattox, Lee felt the found a friend in Grant. The terms were favourable to the rebels. Lee respected Grant for that. Later at the college, he was once accosted by a faculty member: "Sir, if you ever again presume to speak disrespectfully of General Grant in my presence, either you or I will sever his connection with this university."

As the army disbanded, he gave some advice to staff and generals: "...words of encouragement and advice. Almost every one of the officers went away in tears."

He told them to go to their homes ... stay there ... take any job that offered. He then started a ride through the army. "Then commenced an ovation .... From the time we left his camp till we passed the last of his regiments the men seemed to come from everywhere and the 'Rebel Yell' was continuous." Lee stopped and singled out the Stonewall Brigade- think of the future not the past, and be as loyal citizens as they had been soldiers.

Finding a home

Lee could not return to Arlington. It had been commandeered as a cemetery for the Union dead. The family was homeless and to all intents and purposes penniless. He arrived in Richmond and a Baptist minister wrote "His steed was bespattered with mud, and his head hung down as if worn by long traveling. The horseman himself sat his horse like a master; his face was ridged with self-respecting grief; his garments were worn in the service and stained with travel; his hat slouched and spattered with mud... Even in the fleeting moment of his passing by my gate, I was awed by his incomparable dignity. His majestic composure, his rectitude and his sorrow, were so wrought and blended into his visage and so beautiful and impressive to my eyes that I fell into violent weeping."

He set up home at 707 Franklin Street, a house that Custis had rented and nicknamed "the Mess". As he entered the house he declared that this was the last time he would ever wear a sword. Union soldiers were posted at the house, not a prison guards, but as sentinels to protect Lee from the crowds of well wishers that started to appear.

Thomas M. Cook of the New York Herald received an interview with Lee and wrote:

"Lee is American not Southern". He noted Lee spoke of "we" referring to North and South together: "It was a most noticeable feature of the conversation that General Lee, strange as it may appear, talked throughout as a citizen of the United States. He seemed to plant himself on the national platform, and take his observations from that standpoint."

Lee promised peace: "to make any sacrifice or perform any honorable act that would tend to the restoration of peace."

Indicted for treason

In June 1865 Lee was indicted for treason. He initially took it quite stoically, "Well, it matters little what they do to me; I am old, and have but a short time to live anyhow."

On June 13, 1865 Lee applied for a pardon, enclosed application to president in a letter to Grant. Lee also made representations through Senator Reverdy Johnson of Maryland, a unionist friend who favored reconciliation. Grant acted quickly and threatened to resign from the army if Federal authorities arrested Lee. Pres. Johnson refused to give Lee his citizenship, but suspended prosecution. So Lee was left in a sort of limbo, not knowing if the next knock on the door would bring imprisonment.

The family moves to Derwent

The situation in Richmond began to oppress Lee. He searched for a place to move to, to make a new start. A family friend, Mrs. Elizabeth Randolph Cocke offered them the Derwent farm, 55 miles west of Richmond. Lee accepted.

Lee liked Derwent. He wrote to Rob: "We are all well, and established in a comfortable but small house, in a grove of oaks... It contains four rooms, and there is a house in the yard which when fitted up will give us another."

Mary hated Derwent: "You would suppose from the title of this retreat that we were in sight of cool lakes and romantic scenery but it is a retired little place with a straight up house and the only beauty it possesses is a fine grove of oaks which surround it. Thro' the kindness of a friend who has given us the use of ft has been rendered habitable, but all the outbuildings are dilapidated and the garden is a mass of weeds...."

Daughter Mary hated Derwent: unnerved by "a quiet so profound that I could even number the acorns falling from the splendid oaks that overshadowed the cottage .... Our future will be guided by circumstances, all seems so dark now, that we are almost tempted to think God has forsaken us."

President of Washington College

However, the idyll farm life could not last the Lee family, especially the ladies of the house. In nearby Lexington, it was daughter Mary that planted the notion the Lee needed a new job and challenge. Borrowing $50 to hire a suit, the judge of Lexington went to see Lee. On August 4, 1865, Lee was unanimously elected president on Washington College.

"Then there was a pause, and silence prevailed for some moments. The board seemed oppressed with the gravity of the situation, and seemed to feel they had acted rashly."

It was presumptive to expect Lee to come to a "broken-down college." He was offered $1,500 annual salary, plus percentage of the tuition fees.

In that same period, an insurance company offered Lee $10,000 to use his name on the masthead. Lee responded, "I cannot consent to receive pay for service I do not render."

It took Lee three weeks for Lee to decide. Judge John Brockenbrough wrote to him "You alone can fill its halls, by attracting to them not the youth of Virginia alone, but all the Southern and some even of the Northern States." William N. Pendleton wrote to Lee, "You might be presenting to the world in such a position an example of quiet usefulness and gentle patriotism, no less impressive than the illustrious career in the field."

Lee asked for one caveat - not to actively teach because his health. At the Lexington Hotel with Custis at his side, he was sworn into office, October 2, 1865 in 2nd floor south hall. Mindful of his still uncertain status as a former rebel leader, Lee applied for a pardon on the same day. It would be three long years before Andrew Johnson grants a general amnesty from prosecution on Christmas Day, 1868.

Although no day is typical, Lee established a "military pattern" as President:

7 a.m. breakfast

7:45 devotion Office

2 p.m. Lunch at hotel Brief nap Meetings or riding

7:30 Supper Read

10 p.m. Sleep

Lee settled into the president's house. At 8:15 p.m. it was open house. Mary did needlework at levees-sometimes mending Lee's underwear or darning socks for Custis.

Lee ended levee at 10:00 p.m. by closing the shutters. Although Lee was soon settled, Mary was not. Mary was sad and lonely: "my affliction is peculiarly trying to one of my active temperament, but I am unable to mix in anything that is going on and am often very sad and lonely." Mildred hated Lexington "I believe ft was you who told me Lexington was such a delightful place. I disagree with you in toto. I am dreadfully lonely; know no one well in the whole town..."

Lee defined his role: "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 ... It is particularly incumbent upon those charged with the instruction of the young to set them an example of submission to authority." He also defined practical curriculum - Metallurgy, engineering, and other practical skills. Lee even taught teachers how to teach: `May I give you a piece of advice, sir?' `Well, sir, always observe the stage driver's rule.' "Always take care of the poor horses."

Under his supervision the college grew. He Lee solicited financial help Cyrus McCormick donated $15,000. Warren Newcomb of New York $10,000 along with other contributions and fund-raisers, the college earned $100,000 in a year since they borrowed $50. In a land recovering from war, the faculty increased. Professors up from 4 to 15 in one year and to 22 the next. Lee wrote letters to encourage students to resume their studies. The attendance was 50 in 1865, this rose to 300 in 1866.

Lee inspired and taught students principles of discipline and being a gentleman. Lee reviewed all grades and sought personal involvement with each student. "An invitation to visit General Lee in his office was the most dreaded event in a student's life."

Lee was gentle with the Yearlings (the first year students) "My heart cut all kinds of capers, and my knuckles could make but a very gentle rap on the office door. I was not sure what would happen when I realty stood face to face with the General ... But I did at last timidly rap, and the voice which told me to come in seemed to bring with it a sort of strengthening and sustaining power. Within two minutes, I was seated in a chair, talking to the General as if I had known him and played at his feet since childhood."

Lee didn't suffer insolence. He told one Kentucky student to remove his chewing tobacco. "Chewing is particularly obnoxious to me. Go out and remove that quid, and never appear before me again chewing tobacco." ...Lee wrote on a piece of paper-and told the boy to read it as it would be posted on the bulletin board in ten minutes: " is dismissed from Washington College for disrespect to the President."

Lee confronted a boy who missed classes to hunt fox, softly: "We did not come here to hunt foxes." "That boy, never even wanted to go after foxes any more."

On patriotism

Lee wrote to Beauregard: "I need not tell you that true patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another, and the motive which impels them-the desire to do right-is precisely the same ... History is full of illustrations of this: Washington himself is an example of this. At one time he fought in the service of the King of England; at another he fought with the French at Yorktown, under the orders of the Continental Congress of America, against him. He has not been branded by the world with reproach for this, but his course has been applauded."

On reconciliation/ against hate

Lee was appalled by Lincoln assassination: "It is a crime previously unknown to this Country, and one that must be deprecated by every American." Lee believed everyone had a duty to peace: "I believe it to be the duty of everyone to reunite in the restoration of the country, and the reestablishment of peace and harmony." Lee to a Confederate widow: "Madam, do not train up your children in hostility to the government of the United States. Remember, we are all one country now. Dismiss from your mind all sectional feelings, and bring them up to be Americans."

In February 1866 the Joint Committee on the Reconstruction called Lee to Washington to testify for readmission to Union. Lee stays in his hotel and doesn't call on anyone. "I am now considered such a monster, that I hesitate to darken with my shadow, the doors of those I love lest I should bring upon them misfortune." That didn't stop visitors calling at Lee's hotel, including Amanda Parks, one of the former Arlington House slaves.

Lee testified on secession: "that most felt as he did that the decisions of their states to secede had bound them personally." He did not consider his actions treasonable, "the act of Virginia, in withdrawing from the United States, carried me along as a citizen of Virginia, and that her laws and acts were binding on me."

On November 27, 1867 Lee appeared before the Richmond Grand Jury. Prosecutors maneuvered Lee to turn state's evidence but Lee refused to indict or implicate Davis in any wrongdoing: "I am responsible for what I did, and I cannot now recall any important movement I made which I would not have made had I acted entirely on my own responsibility."

Things changed so much in the public persona of Lee that in 1868 the New York Herald proposed Lee as a Democratic candidate for president: "We will recommend a candidate for its favors. Let it nominate General R. E. Lee. Let it boldly take over the best of all its soldiers, making no palaver or apology. He is a better soldier than any of those they have thought upon and a greater man."

Politics took hold in 1868 and whilst resting at Sulphur Springs, Lee was faced with former Union General Rosecrans who was organizing Southern support 1868 Democratic ticket. 31 influential men at the Springs. Alexander H. H. Stuart, drafted the White Sulphur Letter-promise faithful loyalty of the South and advocate the restoration of states' rights: "Above all, they would appeal to their countrymen for the re-establishment, in Southern states, of that which has justly been regarded as the birth-right of every American, the right of self government.... We can safely promise, on behalf of the Southern people, that they will faithfully obey the Constitution and the laws of the United States .... and fulfill every duty incumbent on peaceful citizens, loyal to the Constitution of their country." Although Lee was a signatory, he made no further effort to promote the Democratic Party.

Failing health

Doctors became concerned during the summer of 1869 whilst Lee rested at the springs.

Col. William Preston Johnston noted that Lee continued to press his work against doctors' wishes, and that the general had gained a bit of weight. A student recalled, "The impression left on me is that of a stout old man who had no too great strength."

On October 19, 1869 Lee was sick again and bedridden into November. He had fluid in lungs, aches in chest, arms, back, related to heart and circulatory system. We suspect it pointed towards Angina pectoris-blocked coronary arteries.

Lee admitted to Rooney: "The doctors still have me in hand, but I fear can do me no good." To Mildred he said "I cannot walk much farther than to the college, though when I get on my horse I can ride with comfort." He told Rob that he was an "invalid."

He complained to Preston Johnston that he could not walk from the chapel to the house without resting - a matter of a few brisk steps for a fitter man -"He alluded to his age, his wish to rest." Lee wrote to Edward Valentine: "I fell that I have an incurable disease coming on -old age." The Faculty was afraid that Lee might retire, and insisted on a vacation.

Final trip through the South

Lee began a tour on March 24, 1870 accompanied by Agnes. They visited Annie's grave on March 29, the train arrived in Raleigh to crowds chanting "Lee! Lee!" Union soldiers on duty sent a basket of fruit to Lee.

In Columbia, SC, the city declared a holiday in the rain. Stores and offices closed and a parade went to the train. They were greeted by E. P Alexander. Ii Augusta, Ga. there was a reception Planter's Hotel. Crowds thronged in line for hours to meet Lee. Somehow a 13-year old Woodrow Wilson worked his way through the crowd to stand right next to Lee. Wilson later said he admired him silently and glowingly.

At Savannah, Ga. Lee bowed to the crowd. They went to Cumberland Island, Ga. To see his father's grave. At Jacksonville, FI Lee took refuse on a boat but a receiving line soon formed on the quay. They filed past Lee in the lounge. The ship was so heavy that it dropped in the water. Lee appeared on deck and took off his hat. "Everywhere else in the South, the crowds roared as he appeared. Here, silence. Starting in the front of the crowd, men took off their hats; like a ripple through a sea of people, hats were removed until all were bareheaded. Lee gazed at them and they at him. The water could be heard lapping against the pilings."

They returned to Savannah and then onto Charleston for spontaneous parade. At Portsmouth, Va. Lt. Col. H. Walter Taylor took him to Norfolk where they fired cannon, rockets, and fireworks over the harbor in his honour. Lee was home by May 28, 1870 a final tour totaling 2 months, 4 days. Lee's travels were like a benediction. It certainly had religious overtures. A young cousin of Lee, who never met him before, wrote: "We regarded him with the greatest veneration. We had heard of God, but here was General Lee!"

As for healing effect of the trip, Lee was disappointed. He wrote to Mary: "I do not think traveling in this way procures me much quiet or repose. More than ever regretted that I undertook it. I perceive no change in the stricture in my chest. If I attempted to walk beyond a very slow gait, the pain is always there." In June, 1870, Lee went to Baltimore to see another doctor.

Last Days

September 28, 1870: Lee felt stronger; he worked in his office for the morning. He even found time to sign a photograph. He left the office for lunch. Mildred was at the piano playing Mendelssohn's Funeral March. "Life, that is a doleful piece you are playing."

He had a Vestryman church meeting. Lee called them a "powwow." Drs. Howard T. Barton and R. L. Madison noted that Lee looked tired and flushed. Lee arrived home and was unable to speak. Lee sat down to dinner, but could not say Grace. He sat in his chair and looked blankly at Agnes and Mary. Custis was summoned.

Lee suffered cerebral thrombosis coupled with throat infection and heart disease. Mildred noted Lee "bowed down, and looking very strange and speaking incoherently."

Lee ate soup, and spoke a few words, answering with a nod of his head.

Lee took to his bed. Outside the weather was cold and raining. Mildred: "his lips never uttered a sound! The silence is awful! He would lay straight and motionless, gazing with that solemn unalterable look, into the flames that played on the hearth." Everyone was speechless. Mildred: "hour after hour Agnes and I would sit by him-never saying a word. Now I wonder I did not read comforting passages from the Bible-did not repeat his favorite hymns but words seemed frozen in all our mouths; he was speechless-so were we!" Suddenly, the weather broke and the Aurora borealis seen on October 7, 8, and 9.

Dr. Madison called and asked Lee how he felt, he answered, "I-feel-better."

Dr. Madison: "you must make haste and get well. Traveller has been standing so long in the stable he needs exercise." Lee shook his head. Custis said he must get better, he shook his head again, and pointed skyward. Agnes attempted to give him his medicine, he sighed, "It is no use."

October 11: Mildred noted his "agonized expression" when he tried to turn on his right side. He refused nourishment or medicine except from Dr. Madison or Dr. Barton. His pulse weakened and became rapid. In the afternoon Lee sank into a coma. Mary sat beside him in her wheelchair."

Midnight, October 12, it was raining. Agnes woke Mildred, Lee was slipping away. Mary said later, "He wandered to those dreadful battlefields." Lee was delirious in his last hours. He calls out "Tell A. P Hill he must come up!" Pendleton was at Lee's bedside, saying prayers for the dying. At his side was Mary in her wheelchair, Custis was kneeling beside the bed and Agnes and Mildred knelt beside Custis.

Mildred remembered Lee "breathing hard and painfully." Agnes kneeling by his side-moistening his lips-fanning him-he lying on his right side--drawing long, hard breaths.

The storm broke and the sun lit up the chamber. His final words were "Strike the tent."

Lee died at 9:00 a.m. October 12, 1870, age 63.


Lee believed he owed a debt to society and the young men who once served under him. Lee himself said: "I have a selfimposed task which I must accomplish. I have led the young men of the South in battle; I have seen many of them die on the field; I shall devote my remaining energies to training young men to do their duty in life."

Lee became an effective role-model of Peace. A former brigade commander under Lee, Nat Harris once wrote to the general, "Your great and wise example of retirement and peace, obedience to government and law we are all pursuing and following ... All your old men here are peacefully at work trying to build up their shattered fortunes, and the Country, its peace and prosperity."

General John T Morgan of Alabama wrote that Lee's example still set him apart as a leader of men: "Eight millions of people turn their eyes to Lexington seeking instruction and paternal advice in the severe trials they have to undergo. They read in the example of their General ... the lessons of patience, moderation, fortitude, and earnest devotion to the requirements of duty, which are the only safe guides to them in their troubles. His history, his present labors, and his calm confidence in the future kindle the flames of hope in the hearts of millions, that else all would be darkness."

Lee believed in mankind: He wrote optimistically, "My experience of men has neither disposed me to think worse of them nor indisposed to serve them....", and mankind believed in Lee. Lee was now part of history, and as the general once wrote, "It is history that teaches us hope."

Lee truly set a stamp of greatness on the Civil War generation: emphatically through his military genius, but even more so, with his gentlemanly demeanor and selfless manners. The historian, Mark Grimsley summed up Lee's greatness beautifully. "Real greatness," he wrote, "is never found on a battlefield, and if Lee was a great captain that did not automatically make him great as a man. Real greatness must at last be found in humanity, in the slow, stubborn will to behave with compassion and decency no matter the circumstances or cost."


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