Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee

Chapter XX: The New Home in Lexington: Meetings with interesting people at White Sulphur Springs

The Document

Monday night was spent in Richmond. It was soon known that General Lee was at the Exchange Hotel, and great numbers came to call upon him, so that he was compelled to hold an informal reception in the large parlours. The next day, with his "new daughter" and her baby, he started for the Baths, where they arrived safely the same night. Then he proceeded to carry out his original plan for the summer, and went with his two daughters to the White Sulphur Springs. From there he writes to his wife:

"White Sulphur Springs, Greenbrier County, West Virginia, "August 10, 1869.

"My Dear Mary: I received this morning your addenda to Annie Wickham's letter inclosing Custis's. I also received by same mail a letter from Mr. Richardson, reiterating his request to insert my portrait in my father's Memoirs, saying that it was by the desire 'of many mutual friends' on the ground of its 'giving additional interest to the work, and increasing its sale.' That may or may not be so; at any rate, I differ from them. Besides, there is no good portrait accessible to him, and the engraving in the 'Lee Family' I think would be an injury to any book. His recent proposition of inserting my portrait where the family history is given takes from it a part of my obligation, and if it were believed that such an addition would add to the interest of the book, I should assent. I have so told him, and that I would write to you for your suggestions, and to ask whether you could send him a portrait worth inserting. What do you think?

"There is to be a grand concert her to-night for the benefit of our church in Lexington. It is gotten up by Miss Mary Jones and other kind people here, and the proposition is so favourably received that I hope a handsome sum will be realised.

"The girls are well. I do not know how long they will continue so. They seem to be foot-free. A great many visitors were turned off last night--no room for them! A grand ball in honour of Mr. Peabody is to come off to-morrow, after which it is supposed there will be more breathing-space. I have seen Mr. and Mrs. Charles Ridgely of 'Hampton' since I wrote, also numerous other acquaintances. I should prefer more quiet. How is my daughter Tabb? Mother and son are improving, I trust. I hope you and Markie are also doing well. No change in myself as yet. The girls would send love if I could find them. Affectionately yours,

"Mrs. R. E. Lee. R. E. Lee."

A few days later he writes:

"White Sulphur Springs, August 14, 1869.

"My Dear Mary: I received last night your letter of the 13th--very prompt delivery--and ma very glad to learn of the well-doing of all with you. I am particularly pleased to hear that our daughter and grandson are improving, and should you find them not benefiting I wish you would urge them to try some other springs, for I have it greatly to heart that they should receive all possible advantage from their summer trip. I hope Markie will be benefited by the Red Sweet. The water is considered a great tonic, but I fear none will be warm enough for her but the HOT. If I cannot get over to see her, I will notify her of our departure from here, which will be in about two weeks. I have received a letter from Fitz. Lee, saying that Mary would leave 'Richlands' last Tuesday, 10th inst., for 'Ravensworth,' which I presume she did, as his letter was postmarked that day at Acquia Creek, and was probably mailed by him, or one of the boys, on putting her aboard the mail-boat. You will be glad to learn that the proceeds of the concert for our church at Lexington netted $605, which has been subsequently increased to $805 by Messrs. Corcoran and Peabody with a donation of $100 from each. For all of this I am extremely grateful.

"As regards the portrait for Mr. Richardson, you must do as you please. I shall not write to him any more on the subject. Unless the portrait is good and pleasing, I think it will be an injury to the book. I have had a visit since commencing this letter from a Mr. William BATH, of New Orleans, who showed me a wreath, made in part, she says, of my, your and Mildred's hair, sent her by you more than two years ago. She says she sent you a similar one at the time, but of this I could tell her nothing, for I recollect nothing about it. She says her necessities now compel her to put her wreath up to raffle, and she desired to know whether I had any objection to her scheme, and whether I would head the list. All this, as you may imagine, is extremely agreeable to me, but I had to decline her offer of taking a chance in her raffle.

"Miss Mary Jones has gone to the Sweet. Tell Miss Belle I wish she were coming here. I shall be glad to see Mrs. Caskie. Mildred has her picture. The girls are always busy at something, but never ready. The Stuarts have arrived. Mrs. Julia is improving perceptibly. Love to all.

"R. E. Lee."

The "Markie" referred to in each of the above letters was Martha Custis Williams, a great-niece of my grandfather, Mr. Custis, who had for many years lived at Arlington with her uncle. The "little children" were her motherless nieces, whom she had brought that summer to the mountains for their health. General Lee had been engaged for some time in bringing out a third edition of his father's "Memoirs of the War of '76 in the Southern States." It was now in the hands of his publisher, Mr. Richardson, of New York. To this edition he had added a sketch of the famous "Light Horse Harry," written by himself. It was to his publisher's proposition of placing his portrait in the "Introduction" to the new work that he at first objected, and then agreed, as stated in the two letters just given. The season of '69 is still noted in the annals of the White Sulphur as having had in its unusually large company so many noted and distinguished men. Mr. George Peabody and Mr. W. W. Corcoran, the two great philanthropists, were among them and helped to enlarge the receipts of the concert for the benefit of the little Episcopal church in Lexington, of which General Lee was a member and a vestryman.

By the last of August he was back again in Lexington, making arrangements for the home-coming of his wife and her party from the Baths. Here is part of another letter written soon after his arrival home, some lines of which (apparently relating to the servants) have been partially obliterated by time:

"Lexington, Virginia, August 31, 1869.

"My Dear Mary: I received this evening your note by Miss Mays. You had better come up whenever agreeable to your party...we can only try them and make the best of them. Alice, when she gets well, will return if wanted. If Cousin Julia [Mrs. Richard Stuart, of 'Cedar Grove'] will return with you, you can see her here as well as there, and we can all have that pleasure. If she will not, you had better remain with her as long as she will stay. Mrs. Pratt died to-day at 12:30 P. M.

"I received a letter to-day from Edward Childe saying that he and Blanche would leave Liverpool in the 'Fava' on September 4th, and after spending a few days in the North, would come to Lexington. He will probably reach Boston about September 15th, so that they may be expected here from the 20th to the 30th of September. I am anxious for them to see our daughter and grandson and all our sons. Give my best love to all with you. The girls would send love, but a 'yearling' and a 'leader of the herd' ["Yearling" was a term that originated with us just after the war (when many of the students were ex-soldiers), to distinguish the real boys from the "Confeds." From that expression, a professor came to be called a "leader of the herd." It was a form of speech that we had kept up amongst ourselves.] occupy them. Affectionately yours,

"R. E. Lee."

"Mrs. M. C. Lee."

This session of Washington College opened with very favourable prospects. The number of students was larger than ever before, every southern, and some northern States being represented. The new chairs of instruction which had been instituted were now in good working order, their professors were comfortably established, and the entire machinery of the institution was running well and smoothly. The president commenced to see some of the results of his untiring energy and steady work. He had many plans which lack of funds prevented him from carrying out. One of them was a School of Commerce in which a student, while following the branches which would discipline and cultivate the mind, might also receive special instruction and systematic training in whatever pertained to business in the largest sense of the term. Another was a School of Medicine, the plan for which, with full details, was drawn up under his eye, and kept in readiness until the funds of the institution should permit of its being carried into effect.

His meeting with Mr. Peabody at the White Sulphur Springs attracted that gentleman's attention to the college and to his work as its president. To a request for his photograph to be placed in the Peabody Institute among the friends of its founder, he sends with the likeness the following note:

"Washington College, Virginia, September 25, 1869.

"F. Poole, Secretary Peabody Institute, Peabody, Massachusetts.

"Dear Sir: In compliance with your request, I send a photograph of myself, the last that has been taken, and shall fell honoured in its being placed among the 'friends' of Mr. Peabody, for, though they can be numbered by millions, yet all can appreciate the man who was illustrated his age by his munificent charities during his life, and by his wise provisions for promoting the happiness of his fellow-creatures.

"Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

"R. E. Lee."

My father's family was now comfortably established in their new home, and had the usual number of friends visiting them this autumn. In due time Edward Childe, Blanche, and "Duckie," their little dog, arrived and remained for a week or two. The last-named member of the party was of great interest. He was very minute, very helpless, and received more attention than the average baby. He had crossed the Atlantic in fear and trembling, and did not apparently enjoy the new world. His utter helplessness and the great care taken of him by his mistress, his ill-health and the unutterable woe of his countenance greatly excited my father's pity. After he went away, he often spoke of him, and referred to him, I find, in one of his letters. During this trip to America, Edward and his wife, carrying the wretched "Duckie" with them, paid their visit to the "White House."

This autumn the "little carriage" my father mentioned having purchased for my mother in Baltimore was put into use. He frequently drove out in it with my mother, his new daughter, and grandson. "Lucy Long," under his guidance, carefully carried them over the beautiful hills around Lexington. One afternoon, while paying a visit with his daughter, Tabb, to Colonel William Preston Johnston, who lived two miles down the river, in pulling up a steep ascent to the front door, "Lucy" fell, choked into unconsciousness by too tight a collar. My father jumped out, hastily got off the harness, and on perceiving the cause of the accident reproached himself vehemently for his carelessness and thoughtlessness. He was very much distressed at this accident, petted his mare, saying to her in soothing tones that he was ashamed of himself for having caused her all this pain after she had been so faithful to him.

His rides on Traveller in which he delighted so much were not so frequent now. He was not so strong as he had been through the spring and summer, and, indeed, during November he had a very severe attack of cold, from which he did not recover for several weeks. However, during the beautiful days of October he was often seen out in the afternoons on his old gray. His favourite route was the road leading to the Rockbridge Baths. A year previous to this time, he would sometimes go as far as the Baths and return in an afternoon, a trip of twenty miles. A part of this road led through a dense forest. One afternoon, as he told the story himself, he met a plain old soldier in the midst of these woods, who, recognising the General, reined in his horse and said:

"General Lee, I am powerful glad to see you, and I feel like cheering you."

The General replied that this would not do, as they were all alone, only two of them, and there would be no object whatever in cheering. But the old soldier insisted that he must, and, waving his hat about his head, cried out:

"Hurrah for General Lee!" and kept repeating it. As the General rode away he continued to hear the cheers until he was out of sight.

On another afternoon, as Professors White and Nelson, taking a horseback ride, approached the summit of a long hill, they heard behind them the sound of a horse's feet running rapidly. In a few moments General Lee appeared on Traveller at full speed. On joining his friends he reined up and said:

"I thought a little run would be good for Traveller."

He often gave his horse a "breather," as he called it. The animal was so strong and powerful that he chafed at restraint, and, unless ridden regularly and hard, had a very disagreeable, fretful trot. After a good gallop up one of the long Rockbridge hills he would proceed at a quiet walk.

The tenderness in my father's heart for children I have already often remarked upon. One afternoon two little girls, the daughters of two of his professors, were riding on a gentle old horse up and down one of the back streets of the town, fearing to go too far from home. The General, starting out on his afternoon ride, came up with them, and knowing them well, said gaily:

"Come with me, little girls, and I will show you a beautiful ride."

Only too delighted, they consented to go. He took them out beyond the fair-grounds, from which point there is one of the grandest stretches of mountain scenery in the world. One of the little maidens had her face tied up, as she was just recovering from the mumps. He pretended that he was much alarmed lest his horse should catch them from her, and kept saying:

"I hope you won't give Traveller the mumps!" and "What shall I do if Traveller gets the mumps?"

An hour later, this party was seen returning, the two little girls in sun-bonnets on the one old, sleepy horse, and General Lee by their side on Traveller, who was stepping very proudly, as if in scorn of his lowly companion. My father took the children to their homes, helped them dismount, took a kiss from each, and, waving a parting salute, rode away. It was such simple acts of kindness and consideration that made all children confide in him and love him.

Soon after the attack of cold mentioned above, he writes to his son Fitzhugh, then at the "White House" with his family:

"Lexington, Virginia, December 2, 1869.

"My Dear Fitzhugh:... Your letters to Custis told us of your well-doing. I want to see you all very much, and think the sight of my daughter and grandson would do me good. I have had a wretched cold, the effects of which have not left me, but I am better. The doctors still have me in hand, but I fear can do no good. The present mild weather I hope will be beneficial, enabling me to ride and be in the open air. But Traveller's trot is harder to me than it used to be and fatigues me. We are all as usual--the women of the family very fierce and the men very mild. Custis has been a little unwell, but is well regulated by his sisters. Neither gaiety nor extravagance prevails amongst us, and the town is quiet. Our community has been greatly grieved at the death of Mr. Frank Preston, to whom I was much attached and for whom I had a high esteem. Give my love to Bertus. Tell him I hope Mrs. Taylor will retain one of her little daughters for him. She always reserves the youngest of the flock from Custis, as he is not particular as to an early date.

"Your affectionate father,

"R. E. Lee.

"General William H. F. Lee."

Next: Death of Professor Preston

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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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