Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee

Chapter X: President of Washington College: The General's arrival at Lexington

The Document

In the latter part of September, he mounted Traveller and started alone for Lexington. He was four days on the journey, stopping with some friend each night. He rode into Lexington on the afternoon of the fourth day, no one knowing of his coming until he quietly drew up and dismounted at the village inn. Professor White, who had just turned into the main street as the General halted in front of the hotel, said he knew in a moment that this stately rider on the iron-gray charger must be General Lee. He, therefore, at once went forward, as two or three old soldiers gathered around to help the General down, and insisted on taking him to the home of Colonel Reid, the professor's father-in-law, where he had already been invited to stay. My father, with his usual consideration for others, as it was late in the afternoon, had determined to remain at the hotel that night and go to Mr. Reid's in the morning; but yielding to Captain White's (he always called him "Captain," his Confederate title) assurances that all was made ready for him, he accompanied him to the home of his kind host.

The next morning, before breakfast, he wrote the following letter to my mother announcing his safe arrival. The "Captain Edmund" and "Mr. Preston" mentioned in it were the sons of our revered friend and benefactress Mrs. E. R. Cocke. Colonel Preston and Captain Frank were her brother and nephew:

"Lexington, September 19, 1865.

"My Dear Mary: I reached here yesterday about one P.M., and on riding up to the hotel was met by Professor White, of Washington College, who brought me up to his father-in-law's, Colonel Reid, the oldest member of the trustees of the college, where I am very comfortably quartered. To-day I will look out for accommodations elsewhere, as the Colonel has a large family and I fear I am intruding upon his hospitality. I have not yet visited the college grounds. They seem to be beautifully located, and the buildings are undergoing repairs. The house assigned to the president, I am told, has been rented to Dr. Madison (I believe), who has not been able to procure another residence, and I do not know when it will be vacated, nor can I tell you more about it. I saw Mrs. and Colonel Preston, Captain Frank, and his sister. All the family are well. I shall go after breakfast to inquire after my trunks. I had a very pleasant journey here. The first two days were very hot, but, reaching the mountain region the third day, the temperature was much cooler. I came up in four days' easy rides, getting to my stopping-place by one P.M. each day, except the third, when I slept on top of the Blue Ridge, which I reached at three P.M. The scenery was beautiful all the way. I am writing before breakfast, and must be short. Last night I found a blanket and coverlid rather light covering, and this morning I see a fire in the dining-room. I have thought much of you all since I left. Give much love to the girls and Custis and remember me to all at 'Oakland.'

"Most affectionately yours, R. E. Lee.

"Mrs. R. E. Lee."

When he first arrived, the family, very naturally, stood a little in awe of him. This feeling, however, was soon dispelled, for his simple and unaffected manners in a short while put them at ease. There were some little children in the house, and they and the General at once became great friends. With these kind and hospitable friends he stayed several days. After being present at a meeting of the board of trustees, he rode Traveller over to the Rockbridge Baths--eleven miles from Lexington--and from there writes to my mother, on September 25th:

"...Am very glad to hear of Rob's arrival. I am sorry that I missed seeing the latter, but find it was necessary that I should have been present at the meeting of the board of trustees on the 20th. They adjourned on the eve of the 21st, and on the morning of the 22d I rode over here, where I found Annie and Miss Belle [Mrs. Chapman Leigh and Miss Belle Harrison, of Brandon, both very dear friends and cousins of my father].... The babies [Mrs. Leigh's] are well and sweet. I have taken the baths every day since my arrival, and like them very much. In fact, they are delightful, and I wish you were all here to enjoy them.... Annie and Belle go in two, and sometimes three, times a day. Yesterday I procured some horses and took them up to the top of Jump Mountain, where we had one of the most beautiful views I ever saw. To-day I could get but one horse, and Miss Belle and I rode up Hays Creek Valley, which possessed beauties of a different kind. I shall return to Lexington on the 29th. I perceive, as yet, no change in my rheumatic affection.... Tell Custis I am much obliged to him for his attention to my baggage. All the articles enumerated by him arrived safely at Colonel Reid's Thursday morning early. I also received the package of letters he sent.... I hope he may receive the appointment at the V. M. I. Everyone interested has expressed a desire he should do so, and I am more desirous than all of them. If he comes by land, he will find the route I took very pleasant, and about 108 miles, namely: 'Bremo'--Dr. Wilmer's--Waynesboro'--Greenville. He will find me at the Lexington Hotel.... I wish you were all here with me. I feel very solitary and miss you all dreadfully. Give much love to the girls and boys--kind remembrances to Mrs. P., Miss Louisa, and Mrs. Thos. Cocke. I have no news. Most affectionately, R. E. Lee.

"P.S.--Annie and Belle send a great deal of love to all. R. E. L."

These little excursions and the meeting with old friends and dear cousins were sources of real enjoyment and grateful rest. The pains of the past, the worries of the present, and the cares for the future were, for the time being, banished. My father earnestly desired a quiet, informal inauguration, and his wish was gratified. On October 2, 1865, in the presence of the trustees, professors and students, after solemn and appropriate prayer by the Rev. W. S. White, D. D., the oldest Christian minister in the town [the father of Professor (or "Captain") White], he took the oath of office as required by the laws of the college, and was thus legally inaugurated as its president.

On October 3d he wrote my mother:

"...I am glad to hear that Rob is improving, and hope you had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Dana [Our old pastor of Christ's Church, Alexandria, the trusted friend of my grandmother and mother, who had baptised all the children at Arlington].... The college opened yesterday, and a fine set of youths, about fifty, made their appearance in a body. It is supposed that many more will be coming during the month. The scarcity of money everywhere embarrasses all proceedings. General Smith informs me that the Military Institute will commence its exercises on the 16th inst.; and that Custis was unanimously elected to the chair of Civil Engineering [The Virginia Military Institute, a State institution, modelled after the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, was located in Lexington, and its grounds adjoined those of Washington College. Since its foundation in 1839, unto this time, General F. H. Smith had been its superintendent.]. I am living at the Lexington Hotel, and he must come there if he comes up.... The ladies have furnished me a very nice room in the college for my office; new carpet from Baltimore, curtains, etc. They are always doing something kind.... I came up September 30th from the Baths. Annie and Miss Belle still there and very well. They expect to be here on the 10th.... You tell me nothing of the girls. I hope Agnes is getting strong and fat. I wished for them both at the Baths. Annie and Belle were my only companions. I could not trespass upon them always. The scenery is beautiful here, but I fear it will be locked up in winter by the time you come. Nothing could be more beautiful than the mountains now....

"Most affectionately, R. E. Lee."

He prepares for the removal of his family to that city

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How to cite this article

Lee, Robert E. jr., The Recollections & Letters of Robert E. Lee,, webpage created by Rickard, J (8 June 2006),

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