Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee

Chapter XXI: Failing Health: He suffers from an obstinate cold; local gossip

The Document

The attack of cold from which my father suffered in October had been very severe. Rapid exercise on horseback or on foot produced pain and difficulty in breathing. After he was considered by most of his friends to have gotten well over it, it was very evident to his doctors and himself that there was a serious trouble about the heart, and he often had great weariness and depression. He complained but little, was often very bright and cheerful, and still kept up his old-time fun and humour in his conversation and letters, but his letters written during this year to his immediate family show that he was constantly in pain and had begun to look upon himself as an invalid. To Mildred, who was in Richmond on a visit to friends, he writes jokingly about the difficulty experienced by the family in finding out what she meant in a letter to him:

"Lexington, Virginia, January 8, 1870.

"My Precious Life: I received your letter of the 4th. We held a family council over it. It was passed from eager hand to hand and attracted wondering eyes and mysterious looks. It produced few words but a deal of thinking, and the conclusion arrived at, I believe unanimously, was that there was a great fund of amusement and information in it if it could be extracted. I have therefore determined to put it carefully away till your return, seize a leisure day, and get you to interpret it. Your mother's commentary, in a suppressed soliloquy, was that you had succeeded in writing a wretched hand. Agnes thought that it would keep this cold weather--her thoughts running on jellies and oysters in the storeroom; but I, indignant at such aspersions upon your accomplishments, retained your epistle and read in an elevated tone an interesting narrative of travels in sundry countries, describing gorgeous scenery, hairbreadth escapes, and a series of remarkable events by flood and field, not a word of which they declared was in your letter. Your return, I hope, will prove the correctness of my version of your annals.... I have little to tell. Gaiety continues. Last night there was a cadet hop. Night before, a party at Colonel Johnston's. The night preceding, a college conversazione at your mother's. It was given in honour of Miss Maggie Johnston's visit of a few days to us. You know how agreeable I am on such occasions, but on this, I am told, I surpassed myself.

"On New year's Day the usual receptions. many of our friends called. Many of my ancients as well as juniors were present, and all enjoyed some good Norfolk oysters. I refer you to Agnes for details. We are pretty well. I think I am better. Your mother and sisters as usual. Custis busy with the examination of the cadets, the students preparing for theirs. Cadet Cook, who was so dangerously injured by a fall from his window on the 1st, it is hoped now will recover. The Misses Pendleton were to have arrived this morning, and Miss Ella Heninberger is on a visit to Miss Campbell. Miss Lizzie Letcher still absent. Messrs. Anderson, Baker, W. Graves, Moorman, Strickler, and Webb have all been on visits to their sweethearts, and have left without them. 'Mrs. Smith' is as usual. 'Gus' is as wild as ever ["Mrs. Smith" and "Gus" were the names of two of the pet cats of my sister. "Gus" was short for Gustavus Adolphus.]. We catch our own rats and mice now, and are independent of cats. All unite in love to you.

"Your affectionate father,

"R. E. Lee.

"Miss Mildred Lee."

A month later he writes again to this daughter in the same playful strain, and sends his remembrances to many friends in Richmond:

"Lexington, Virginia, February 2, 1870.

"My Precious Life: Your letter of the 29th ultimo, which has been four days on the road, reached me this morning, and my reply, unless our mails whip up, will not get to you before Sunday or Monday. There is no danger, therefore, of our correspondence becoming too brisk. What do the young girls do whose lovers are at Washington College or the Institute? Their tender hearts must always be in a lacerated and bleeding condition! I hope you are not now in that category, for I see no pining swains among them, whose thoughts and wishes are stretching eagerly toward Richmond. I am glad you have had so pleasant a visit to the Andersons. You must present my regards to them all, and I hope that Misses Ellen and Mary will come to see you in the summer. I am sure you will have an agreeable time at Brook Hill. Remember me to all the family, and tell Miss Belle to spare my friend Wilkins. He is not in a condition to enjoy the sufferings which she imposes on her Richmond beaux. Besides, his position entitles him to tender treatment.

"I think it time that you should be thinking of returning home. I want to see you very much, and as you have been receiving instruction from the learned pig, I shall expect to see you much improved. We are not reduced to apply to such instructors at Lexington. Here we have learned professors to teach us what we wish to know, and the Franklin Institute to furnish us lectures on science and literature. You had better come back, if you are in search of information on any subject. I am glad that Miss 'Nannie' Wise found one occasion on which her ready tongue failed her. She will have to hold it in subjection now. I should like to see Miss Belle under such similar circumstances, provided she did not die from suppressed ideas. What an awful feeling she must experience, if the occasion should ever come for her to restrain that active member! Although my friend Wilkins would be very indulgent, I think he would want her to listen sometimes. Miss Pendleton has just been over to give us some pleasing news. Her niece, Miss Susan Meade, Philip's daughter, is to be married next month to a Mr. Brown, of Kentucky, who visited her two year ago upon the recommendation of the Reverend Charles Page, found her a school-girl, and has waited until she became a woman. He is rich, forty-nine, and has six children. There is a fair start in the world for a young woman! I recommend her example to you. We are all as usual, and 'Mrs. Smith' is just the same. Miss Maggie Johnston, who has been staying with us occasionally for a few days at a time, is now on a visit to us. There is to be an anniversary celebration of the societies of the Institute on Friday, and a student's party on Monday night, and a dance at the College Hotel. To-morrow night your mother has an evening for some young students. Gaiety will never cease in Lexington so long as the ladies are so attractive and the men so agreeable. Surprise parties are the fashion now. Miss Lucy Campbell has her cousin, Miss Ella Heninberger, staying with her, who assists her to surprise and capture too unwary youths. I am sorry to hear of Mrs. Ould's illness. If you see her, present me most kindly to her; also to Mrs. George Randolph. Do beware of vanilla cream. Recollect how far you are from home, and do not tamper with yourself. Our semi-annual examination has been in progress for a fortnight. We shall conclude on Saturday, which will be a great relief for me, for, in addition to other things, I have to be six hours daily in the examination rooms. I was sorry that I could not attend Mr. Peabody's funeral, but I did not feel able to undertake the journey, especially at this season. I am getting better, I hope, and feel stronger than I did, but I cannot walk much farther than to the college, though when I get on my horse I can ride with comfort. Agnes accompanies me very often. I must refer you to her and your mother for all local news. Give my love to Fitzhugh, and Tabb, and Robert when you see them, and for yourself keep an abundance. I have received letters from Edward and Blanche. They are very anxious about the condition of political affairs in France. Blanche sent you some receipts for creams, etc. You had better come and try them.

"Your affectionate father, R. E. Lee.

"Miss Mildred Lee."

The following letter to his son, Fitzhugh, further shows his tender interest in his children and grandson:

"Lexington, Viriginia, February 14, 1870.

"My Dear Fitzhugh:...I hope that you are all well and that you will not let any one spoil my grandson. Your mother has written all the family and Lexington news. She gathers much more than I do. I go nowhere but to the college, and when the weather permits I ride in the mountains. I am better, I think, but still troubled. Mildred, I hope, is with you. When she gets away from her papa, she does not know what she wants to do, tell her. You have had a fine winter for work, and later you will have a profitable season. Custis is well and very retired; I see no alarming exhibition of attention to the ladies. I have great hopes of Robert. Give much love to my daughter Tabb and to poor little 'Life.' I wish I could see you all; it would do my pains good. Poor little Agnes is not at all well, and I am urging her to go away for a while. Mary as usual.

"Affectionately your father, R. E. Lee.

"General W. H. F. Lee."

Next: He is advised to go South in the spring of 1870; Desires to visit his daughter Annie's grave

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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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