Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee

Chapter XVIII: Mrs. R. E. Lee: Her husband's devotion

The Document

To my mother, who was a great invalid from rheumatism for more than ten years, he was the most faithful attendant and tender nurse. Every want of hers that he could supply he anticipated. His considerate fore-thought saved her from much pain and trouble. During the war he constantly wrote to her, even when on the march and amidst the most pressing duties. Every summer of their life in Lexington he arranged that she should spend several months at one of the many medicinal springs in the neighbouring mountains, as much that she might be surrounded by new scenes and faces, as for the benefit of the waters. Whenever he was in the room, the privilege of pushing her wheeled chair into the dining-room and out on the verandas or elsewhere about the house was yielded to him. He sat with her daily, entertaining her with accounts of what was doing in the college, and the news of the village, and would often read to her in the evening. For her his love and care never ceased, his gentleness and patience never ended.

This tenderness for the sick and helpless was developed in him when he was a mere lad. His mother was an invalid, and he was her constant nurse. In her last illness he mixed every dose of medicine she took, and was with her night and day. If he left the room, she kept her eyes on the door till he returned. He never left her but for a short time. After her death the health of their faithful servant, Nat, became very bad. My father, then just graduated from West Point, took him to the South, had the best medical advice, a comfortable room, and everything that could be done to restore him, and attended to him himself.

I can find few family letters written by my father at this time. Those which have been preserved are to my brother Fitzhugh, and are mostly about Smith's Island and the settling up of my grandfather's estate. The last of September he writes:

"Lexington, Virginia, September 28, 1868.

"My Dear Fitzhugh: Your report of the condition of Smith's Island corresponds with my own impressions, based upon my knowledge of the island and the reports of others. I think it would be advantageous, under present circumstances, to make sale of the island as soon as a fair price can be obtained, and I have so instructed Mr. Hamilton S. Neale, who has consented to act as my agent.... I should like this while matter arranged as soon as possible, for my life is very uncertain, and its settlement now may avoid future difficulties. I am very glad to hear that you and Rob have continued well, and that my daughter is improving. Give my love to them both. The loss of your fine cows is a serious one, and I believe you will have to procure them in your vicinity and improve them. Get some calves this fall of a good breed. We hope that we shall see you this fall. Your mother is as comfortable as usual, and Mildred is improving. Custis, Mary, and Agnes are well, and all would send love, did they know I was writing.

"Very affectionately your father, R. E. Lee."

This autumn he had a visit from his nephew, Edward Lee Childe. Edward lived in Paris, and had crossed over in the summer to see my father and mother. He made a very pleasant impression on everybody, and was much pleased with his visit. Here is a letter written by my father to my brother just after Edward left:

"Lexington, Virginia, October 14, 1868.

"My Dear Fitzhugh: I have returned to Mr. Hamilton S. Neale the advertisement of the sale of Smith's Island, with my approval, and have requested him to advertise in the Northern and Richmond papers, etc., and to send out such other notices as he deems best calculated to attract attention to the property, and to take every measure to enhance the value of the island and to procure for your grandfather's estate the full benefit of the sale.... I have heard from Mr. Compton that my daughter Tabb has returned to the White House in improved health, which I am very glad of. I hope that you will soon be able to bring her up to see us. Do not wait until the weather becomes too cold. Our mountain atmosphere in winter is very harsh. So far, the weather has been delightful. Your cousin Edward left us last Thursday evening on his way to see you. We enjoyed his visit greatly. Agnes and I rode down to the Baths last Saturday to see the Harrisons, and returned Sunday evening. They were well, and somewhat benefited by their visit. Mr. George Ritchie's death no doubt threw a shade of sadness over the whole party on Mrs. Harrison's account, though all were charming and Miss Belle very sweet. We are about the same--your poor mother comfortable, Mildred improving. All would unite in love to you and yours, did they know I was writing. Give much love to my dear daughter, Tabb, and tell her that I want to see her very much.

"Truly and affectionately your father,

"General W. H. Fitzhugh Lee. R. E. Lee."

In a few days, he writes again, still about Smith's Island, but adds much about the family and friends:

"Lexington, Virginia, October 19, 1868.

"My Dear Fitzhugh: I received your letter of the 12th the day I last wrote to you. I am glad we agree that $--- should be the minimum limit for the price of Smith's Island. You will see by my letter referred to that it has been so fixed. December 22d is the day proposed by Mr. Neale as the time of public sale, which was approved by me, though I feared the notice might be too short. Still there are good reasons for the sale being made without unnecessary delay. I think November, which you suggest, would not afford sufficient notice. I would recommend that you and Robert attend the sale, and be governed by circumstances in what you do. I would go myself, but it would be a long, hard journey for me at that season of the year, and I do not see any material good that I can do. Mr. Neale kindly offered to meet me at Cherrystone landing and take me to his house, but I shall decline in your favour. I am sorry that Edward did not get down to see you, for I wanted him to see my daughter, Tabb. I am sure he has seen none like her in Paris. He left here with the purpose of visiting you and his uncle Smith, and I do not know what made him change his mind. I hope that you will get in a good crop of wheat, and get it in well. The latter is very important and unless accomplished may deprive you of the whole benefit of your labour and expense. We shall look anxiously for your visit. Do not put it off too late or the weather may be unfavourable. Our mountain country is not the most pleasant in cold weather, but we will try and make you warm. Give my love to Tabb, and tell her I am wanting to see her all the time. All unite in love to her and you. Your mother is about the same, very busy, and full of work. Mildred is steadily improving, and is able to ride on horseback, which she is beginning to enjoy. Mary and Agnes very well. We see but little of Custis. He has joined the mess at the institute, which he finds very comfortable, so that he rarely comes to our table to breakfast now. The rest of the time he seems to be occupied with his classes and studies. Remember me to Rob. I hear of a great many weddings, but his has not been announced yet. He must not forget his house. I have not, and am going to take up the plan very soon. Mildred says a good house is an effective card in the matrimonial game. She is building a castle in the air. The Harrisons propose leaving the Baths to-morrow. George arrived a week ago. I did not get down Saturday to see them as I wished. I hope the health of the whole party has been improved. I wish I could spend this month with you. That lower country is delightful to me at this season, and I long to be on the water again, but it cannot be. With much love,

"R. E. Lee.

"General Wm. H. Fitzhugh Lee."

The last of October he went to Staunton on some business. He rode Traveller, and Colonel Wm. Allan rode with him. It was the time of the Augusta Agricultural Fair, and while there he visited the exhibition and was received by the people with great demonstrations of delight. A student standing by remarked dryly:

"I don't see why the Staunton people make all this to do over General Lee; why, in Lexington, he SENDS for me to come to see him!"

In a letter of November 2d he mentions this little journey:

"...I have recently paid a visit to Staunton and saw the young people there. They seemed very happy in their fair, and the beaux with their belles. I rode over on Traveller and was accompanied by Colonel Allan. The former was delighted at the length of the road, and the latter relieved from an obstinate cold from which he was suffering. On the second morning, just as the knights were being marshalled to prove their prowess and devotion, we commenced our journey back to Lexington, which we reached before nine P. M., under the light of a beautiful moon."

Next: Visit of Fitzhugh and bride to Lexington

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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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