Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee

Chapter XIII: Family Affairs: He joins her there about once a week

The Document

My father was still very busy with his college work, and, after establishing her there, spent most of the time in Lexington, riding Traveller over to see her whenever he could get a spare day. Among the few letters preserved of those written to her at this time, I have a note of July 16th:

"My Dear Mary: I am glad to see by your letter of yesterday that you are recovering so well from your fall. I hope you may soon be well again.... Caroline [the cook] got back this morning. Left her daughter better. Says there is a very good girl in Lynchburg, from General Cocke's estate, anxious to live with us. I shall have more conversation with her [Caroline], and, if satisfied, will write for her, by the boat to-night. Her father is in Lynchburg, and anxious for her to come.... Tell Mrs. Cabell I am sorry to have missed seeing her. Where is Katie? I wish she would send her to see me. I will endeavour to find some one to carry this to you. Love to all.

"Very affectionately and truly yours,

"R. E. Lee."

The mails in those days were not very direct, and private messenger was often the surest and speediest method of letter-carriage. In the absence of my mother, my father was trying to better the staff of servants. Their inefficiency was the drawback to our comfort then, as it is now. Often the recommendation of some was only the name of the estate from which they came. A few days later, my father writes again:

"Lexington, Virginia, July 20, 1866.

"My Dear Mary: I was glad to receive your note this morning, and wish it could have reported a marked improvement in your health. But that, I trust, will come in time. It has been impossible for me to return to you this week, and, indeed, I do not see how I can absent myself at all. I shall endeavour to go to the Baths Monday, and hope during the week you may be able to determine whether it would be more advantageous for you to remain there or go further, as I shall have to return here as soon as I can. I can accomplish nothing while absent. Custis ahs determined to accompany Mr. Harris to the White Sulphur Monday, and the girls seem indifferent about leaving home. They ask, properly, what is to become of it? Mr. Pierre Chouteau, son of Julia Gratiot and Charles Chouteau, will hand you this. He will remain over Sunday at the Baths, and can tell you all about St. Louis. I send such letters as have come for you. I have no news. The heat seems to extend everywhere, but it will be cool enough after a time. We are as usual, except that 'Aunt' Caroline [the cook] seems more overcome, and Harriet [the maid] indulges in lighter attire. I fear Mrs. Myers had an awful time. The Elliotts do not seem in haste to leave town. They are waiting for a cool day to go to the Natural Bridge, and do not seem to have decided whether to go to the Baths or Alum Springs. We had an arrival last night from the latter place-- General Colquit and daughters. They return to-morrow. The girls will write of domestic matters. I received a letter from Rob at Romancoke. He is still taking cholagogue, but well. Nothing of interest has occurred.

"Affectionately yours,

"R. E. Lee."

Cholagogue was a fever-and-argue remedy of which I partook largely at that time. After this letter, my sisters joined my mother at the Baths, my father still spending most of his time in Lexington, but riding over to see them whenever he could. He was very busy repairing some of the old buildings of the college and arranging his work for the next session. Here is another short note to my mother:

"Lexington, Virginia, August 2, 1866.

"My Dear Mary: Mr. Campbell has just informed me that Cousins George and Eleanor Goldsborough are with you. Tell them they must not go till I can get to the Baths. I think the waters of the latter will do them as much good as anything they can try, and the sight of them will do me great benefit. I find here much to do, but will endeavour to be with you to-morrow evening or Saturday morning. Custis has just come, but finding me occupied with builders, shook hands, got his dinner, and left for the Institute. So I do not know where he is from or where he will go next. Our neighbours are generally well, and inquire for you. Colonel Reid better. Tell the girls, if I find them improving, I will bring them something. Remember me to Cousins George and Eleanor and all the ladies. I have about a bushel of letters to answer and other things to do.

"Very affectionately,

"R. E. Lee."

On one of his visits to my mother, he took advantage of the comparative quiet and rest there and wrote me a long letter, which I give her in full:

"Rockbridge Baths, July 28, 1866.

"My Dear Robert: I was very glad to see from your letter of the 2d the progress you are making in your farm. I hope things may move prosperously with you, but you must not expect this result without corresponding attention and labour. I should like very much to visit you, but it will be impossible. I have little time for anything but my business. I am here with your mother, waiting to see the effects of these waters upon her disease, before proceeding to the Warm Springs. She is pleased with the bath, which she finds very agreeable, and it has reduced the swelling in her feet and ankles, from which she has been suffering for a long time, and, in fact, from her account, entirely removed it. This is a great relief in itself, and, I hope, may be followed by greater. I do not think she moves with more facility, though I think she walks [on her crutches] oftener and longer than heretofore, and probably with more confidence. She has been her too short a time to pronounce positively as to the effects of the water, and will have to remain three or four weeks before we determine whether she will go further. I am unwilling for her to lose the whole summer here unless it promises some advantage, and, after the middle of next week, unless some marked change takes place, shall take her to the Warm Springs. Custis has gone to the White Sulphur, but expects to be in Richmond on August 6th to meet Fitzhugh, with the view of going to the Warrenton White Sulphur Springs in North Carolina, to witness the erection of a monument over dear Annie, which the kind people of that country have prepared for the purpose. My attendance on your mother, which is necessary, prevents my being present. Agnes and Mildred are here. I think the baths have been beneficial to them already, though they have not been here a week. I will leave them to describe the place and visitors. I applied the dressing of salt to the old meadow at Arlington with the view of renovating the grass. I believe it is equally good for corn. It was refuse salt--Liverpool-- which I bought cheaply in Alexandria from the sacks having decayed and broken, but I cannot recollect exactly how much I applied to the acre. I think it was about two or three bushels to the acre. You had better consult some work on farming as to the quantity. I would advise you to apply manure of some kind to all your land. I believe there is nothing better or cheaper for you to begin with than shell lime. I would prefer cultivating less land manured in some way than a large amount unassisted. We are always delighted to hear from you, and I trust with care you may escape the chills. The incentives I spoke of were a sweet wife and child. God bless you, my dear son.

"Most affectionately,

"R. E. Lee."

My mother continued to improve so much that she did not go that summer to the Warm Springs. My father spent most of his time in Lexington, but rode over to the Baths about once a week. There was nothing he enjoyed more than a good long ride on Traveller. It rested him from the cares and worries incident to his duties, and gave him renewed energy for his work. He was often seen that summer along the eleven miles of mountain road between Lexington and the Baths. He made himself acquainted with the people living near it, talked to them about their affairs, encouraged and advised them, and always had a cheery greeting and a pleasant word for them. The little children along his route soon became acquainted with the gray horse and his stately rider. College reopened the last of September and by October he had his wife and daughters with him again. He write to me on October 18th, trying to help me in my agricultural perplexities:

"...Am glad to hear that you are well and progressing favourably. Your Uncle Smith says, in a letter just received in which he writes of his difficulties and drawbacks, 'I must tell you that if you desire to succeed in any matter relating to agriculture you must personally superintend and see to everything.' Perhaps your experience coincides with his.

"I hope your wheat will reimburse you for your labour and guano. I think you are right in improving your land. You will gain by cultivating less and cultivating that well, and I would endeavour to manure every crop--as to the kind of manure which will be the most profitable, you must experiment. Lime acts finely on your land and is more lasting than guano. If you can, get shells to burn on your land, or, if not, shell lime from Baltimore. I think you would thereby more certainly and more cheaply restore your fields. I hope your sale of ship-timber may place you in funds to make experiments. You will have to attend to your contractors. They will generally bear great attention, and then circumvent you.... I hope I shall see you this winter, when we can talk over the matter. We are pretty well. Your mother is better by her visit to the Baths. Mildred talks of going to the Eastern Shore of Maryland next month, and I fear will be absent from us all winter. I must refer you to your sisters for all news. They are great letter-writers, and their correspondence extends over the globe. Miss Etta Seldon is with us. All our summer visitors have gone, and some who, I hoped, would have visited us have not come.... Good-bye, my dear son. God bless you....

"Your affectionate father,

"R. E. Lee."

"Robert E. Lee, Jr."

Next: Distinguished and undistinguished callers at his Lexington home; He advocates early hours

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

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