Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee

Chapter XI: The Idol of the South: His happy home life

The Document

My mother had arranged to start for Lexington on November 28th, via the canal, but for some reason was prevented on that day. In his next letter, my father, who was most anxious that she should make the journey before the bad weather set in, expresses his disappointment at not finding her on the packet on the expected morning.

"Lexington, Virginia, November 20, 1865.

"My Dear Mary: I am much disappointed that you did not arrive on the boat last night, and as you had determined when you wrote Saturday, the 25th, to take the boat as it passed Tuesday, I fear you were prevented either by the indisposition of yourself or of Robert's. I shall, however, hope that it was owing to some less distressing cause. Our room is all ready and looks remarkably nice. Mrs. Cocke, in her great kindness, seems to have provided everything for it that you require, and you will have nothing to do but to take possession. The ladies have also arranged the other rooms as far as the furniture will allow. They have put down the carpets in the parlour, dining-room, and two chambers upstairs, and have put furniture in one room. They have also put up the curtains in the rooms downstairs, and put a table and chairs in the dining-room. We have, therefore, everything which is required for living, as soon as the crockery, etc., arrives from 'Derwent,' of which as yet I have heard nothing. Neither has the furniture from Baltimore arrived, and the season is so far advanced that we may be deprived of that all winter. But with what we now have, if we can get that from 'Derwent,' we shall do very well. There is some report of the packets between this place and Lynchburg being withdrawn from the line, which renders me more uneasy about your journey up. This is a bright and beautiful morning, and there is no indication of a change of weather, but the season is very uncertain, and snow and ice may be upon us any day. I think you had better come now the first opportunity. Do not take the boat which passes 'Bremo' Saturday. It reaches Lynchburg Sunday morning, arriving here Monday night. You would in that case have to lie at the wharf at Lynchburg all day Sunday. I have heard of Agnes' arrival in Richmond, and shall be happy to have 'Precious Life' write me again. I have engaged a man for the balance of the year, who professes to know everything. He can at least make up fires, and go on errands, and attend to the yard and stable. I have heard nothing of Jimmy. Give my kind regards to all at 'Bremo.' Custis is well and went to the boat to meet you this morning. The boat stops one and one-quarter miles from town. Remain aboard until we come.

"Most affectionately yours, R. E. Lee.

"P.S.--Since writing the foregoing I have received your letter of the 28th. I shall expect you Saturday morning. R. E. L.

"Mrs. M. C. Lee."

At this time the packet-boat from Lynchburg to Lexington, via the James River and Kanawha Canal, was the easiest way of reaching Lexington from the outside world. It was indeed the only way, except by stage from Goshen, twenty-one miles distant, a station of the Chesapeake & Ohio R. R. The canal ran from Lynchburg to Richmond, and just after the war did a large business. The boats were very uncertain in their schedules, and my father was therefore very particular in his directions to my mother, to insure her as far as he could a comfortable journey [my father was not aware, when he wrote such explicit directions about the route, that Colonel Ellis had again put his boat at my mother's service].

We did get off at last, and after a very comfortable trip arrived at Lexington on the morning of December 2d. My father, on Traveller, was there to meet us, and, putting us all in a carriage, escorted us to our new home. On arriving, we found awaiting us a delicious breakfast sent by Mrs. Nelson, the wife of Professor Nelson. The house was in good order--thanks to the ladies of Lexington--but rather bare of furniture, except my mother's rooms. Mrs. Cocke had completely furnished them, and her loving thoughtfulness had not forgotten the smallest detail. Mrs. Margaret J. Preston, the talented and well-known poetess, had drawn the designs for the furniture, and a one-armed Confederate soldier had made it all. A handsomely carved grand piano, presented by Stieff, the famous maker of Baltimore, stood alone in the parlour. The floors were covered with the carpets rescued from Arlington--much too large and folded under to suit the reduced size of the rooms. Some of the bedrooms were partially furnished, and the dining-room had enough in it to make us very comfortable. We were all very grateful and happy--glad to get home--the only one we had had for four long years.

My father appeared bright and even gay. He was happy in seeing us all, and in knowing that my mother was comfortably established near to him. He showed us over the house, and pointed with evident satisfaction to the goodly array of pickles, preserves, and brandy-peaches which our kind neighbors had placed in the store-room. Indeed, for days and weeks afterward supplies came pouring in to my mother from the people in the town and country, even from the poor mountaineers, who, anxious to "do something to help General Lee," brought in hand-bags of walnuts, potatoes, and game. Such kindness--delicate and considerate always--as was shown to my father's family by the people, both of the town and the country around, not only then but to this day, has never been surpassed in any community. It was a tribute of love and sympathy from honest and tender hearts to the man who had done all that he could do for them.

My father was much interested in all the arrangements of the house, even to the least thing. He would laugh merrily over the difficulties that appalled the rest of us. Our servants were few and unskilled, but his patience and self-control never failed. The silver of the family had been sent to Lexington for safe-keeping early in the war. When General Hunger raided the Valley of Virginia and advanced upon Lexington, to remove temptation out of his way, this silver, in two large chests, had been intrusted to the care of the old and faithful sergeant at the Virginia Military Institute, and he had buried it in some safe place known only to himself. I was sent out with him to dig it up and bring it in. We found it safe and sound, but black with mould and damp, useless for the time being, so my father opened his camp-chest and we used his forks, spoons, plates, etc., while his camp-stools supplied the deficiency in seats. He often teased my sisters about their experiments in cookery and household arts, encouraging them to renewed efforts after lamentable failures. When they succeeded in a dish for the table, or completed any garment with their own hands, he was lavish with his praise. He would say:

"You are all very helpless; I don't know what you will do when I am gone," and

"If you want to be missed by your friends--be useful."

He at once set to work to improve all around him, laid out a vegetable garden, planted roses and shrubs, set out fruit and yard trees, made new walks and repaired the stables, so that in a short time we were quite comfortable and very happy. He at last had a home of his own, with his wife and daughters around him, and though it was not the little farm in the quiet country for which he had so longed, it was very near to it, and it gave rest to himself and those he loved most dearly.

Next: Labours at Washington College

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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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