Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee

Chapter XXIV: Last Days: Obituary notice in "Personal Reminiscences of General Robert E. Lee"

The Document

The best account of those last days was written by Colonel William Preston Johnston for the "Personal Reminiscences of General Robert E. Lee," by the Rev. J. W. Jones, published in 1874. Colonel Johnston was an intimate friend of the General and a distinguished member of the faculty of his college. He was also one of the watchers by his dying bedside. I, therefore, give it in full:

"The death of General Lee was not due to any sudden cause, but was the result of agencies dating as far back as 1863. In the trying campaign of that year he contracted a severe sore throat, that resulted in rheumatic inflammation of the sac inclosing his heart. There is no doubt that after this sickness his health was more or less impaired; and although he complained little, yet rapid exercise on foot or on horseback produced pain and difficulty breathing. In October, 1869, he was again attacked by inflammation of the heart-sac, accompanied by muscular rheumatism of the back, right side, and arms. The action of the heart was weakened by this attack; the flush upon the face deepened, the rheumatism increased, and he was troubled with weariness and depression.

"In March, 1870, General Lee, yielding to the solicitations of friends and medical advisors, make a six-weeks' visit to Georgia and Florida. He returned greatly benefited by the influence of the genial climate, the society of friends in those States, and the demonstrations of respect and affection of the people of the South; his physical condition, however, was not greatly improved. During this winter and spring he had said to his son, General Custis Lee, that his attack was mortal; and had virtually expressed the same belief to other trusted friends. And, now, with that delicacy that pervaded all his actions, he seriously considered the question of resigning the presidency of Washington College, 'fearful that he might not be equal to his duties.' After listening, however, to the affectionate remonstrances of the faculty and board of trustees, who well knew the value of his wisdom in the supervision of the college and the power of his mere presence and example upon the students, he resumed his labours with the resolution to remain at his post and carry forward the great work he had so auspiciously begun.

"During the summer he spent some weeks at the Hot Springs of Virginia, using the baths, and came home seemingly better in health and spirits. He entered upon the duties of the opening collegiate year in September with that quiet zeal and noiseless energy that marked all his actions, and an unusual elation was felt by those about him at the increased prospect that long years of usefulness and honour would yet be added to his glorious life.

"Wednesday, September 28, 1870, found General lee at the post of duty. In the morning he was fully occupied with the correspondence and other tasks incident to his office of president of Washington College, and he declined offers of assistance from members of the faculty, of whose services he sometimes availed himself. After dinner, at four o'clock, he attended a vestry-meeting of Grace (Episcopal) church. The afternoon was chilly and wet, and a steady rain had set in, which did not cease until it resulted in a great flood, the most memorable and destructive in this region for a hundred years. The church was rather cold and damp, and General Lee, during the meeting, sat in a pew with his military cape cast loosely about him. In a conversation that occupied the brief space preceding the call to order, he took part, and told with marked cheerfulness of manner and kindliness of tone some pleasant anecdotes of Bishop Meade and Chief-Justice Marshall. The meeting was protracted until after seven o'clock by a discussion touching the rebuilding of the church edifice and the increase of the rector's salary. General Lee acted as chairman, and, after hearing all that was said, gave his own opinion, as was his wont, briefly and without argument. He closed the meeting with a characteristic act. The amount required for the minister's salary still lacked a sum much greater than General Lee's proportion of the subscription, in view of his frequent and generous contributions to the church and other charities, but just before the adjournment, when the treasurer announced the amount of the deficit still remaining, General Lee said in a low tone, 'I will give that sum.' He seemed tired toward the close of the meeting, and, as was afterward remarked, showed an unusual flush, but at the time no apprehensions were felt.

"General Lee returned to his house, and, finding his family waiting tea for him, took his place at the table, standing to say grace. The effort was valid; the lips could not utter the prayer of the heart. Finding himself unable to speak, he took his seat quietly and without agitation. His face seemed to some of the anxious group about him to wear a look of sublime resignation, and to evince a full knowledge that the hour had come when all the cares and anxieties of his crowded life were at an end. His physicians, Doctors H. S. Barton and R. L. Madison, arrived promptly, applied the usual remedies, and placed him upon the couch from which he was to rise no more.

"To him henceforth the things of this world were as nothing, and he bowed with resignation to the command of the Master he had followed so long with reverence. They symptoms of his attack resembled concussion of the brain, without the attendant swoon. There was marked debility, a slightly impaired consciousness, and a tendency to doze; but no paralysis of motion or sensation, and no evidence of suffering or inflammation of the brain. His physicians treated the case as one of venous congestion, and with apparently favourable results. Yet, despite these propitious auguries drawn from his physical symptoms, in view of the great mental strain he had undergone, the gravest fears were felt that the attack was mortal. He took without objection the medicines and diet prescribed, and was strong enough to turn in bed without aid, and to sit up to take nourishment. During the earlier days of his illness, though inclined to doze, he was easily aroused, was quite conscious and observant, evidently understood whatever was said to him, and answered questions briefly but intelligently; he was, however, averse to much speaking, generally using monosyllables, as had always been his habit when sick.

"When first attacked, he said to those who were removing his clothes, pointing at the same time to his rheumatic shoulder, 'You hurt my arm.' Although he seemed to be gradually improving until October 10th, he apparently knew from the first that the appointed hour had come when he must enter those dark gates that, closing, open no more on the earth. In the words of his physician, 'he neither expected nor desired to recover.' When General Custis Lee made some allusion to his recover, he shook his head and pointed upward. On the Monday morning before his death, Doctor Madison, finding him looking better, tried to cheer him. 'How do you feel to-day, General?' General Lee replied slowly and distinctly: 'I feel better.' The doctor then said: 'You must make haste and get well; Traveller has been standing so long in the stable that he needs exercise.' The General made no reply, but slowly shook his head and closed his eyes. Several times during his illness he put aside his medicine, saying, 'It is of no use,' but yielded patiently to the wishes of his physicians or children, as if the slackened chords of being still responded to the touch of duty or affection.

"On October 10th, during the afternoon, his pulse became feeble and rapid, and his breathing hurried, with other evidences of great exhaustion. About midnight he was seized with a shivering from extreme debility, and Doctor Barton was obliged to announce the danger to the family. On October 11th, he was evidently sinking; his respiration was hurried, his pulse feeble and rapid. Though less observant, he still recognised whoever approached him, but refused to take anything unless prescribed by his physicians. It now became certain that the case was hopeless. His decline was rapid, yet gentle; and soon after nine o'clock, on the morning of October 12th, he closed his eyes, and his soul passed peacefully from earth.

"General Lee's physicians attributed his death in great measure to moral causes. The strain of his campaigns, the bitterness of defeat aggravated by the bad faith an insolence of the victor, sympathy with the subsequent sufferings of the Southern people, and the effort at calmness under these accumulated sorrows, seemed the sufficient and real causes that slowly but steadily undermined his health and led to his death. yet to those who saw his composure under the greater and lesser trials of life, ad his justice and forbearance with the most unjust and uncharitable, it seemed scarcely credible that his serene soul was shaken by the evil that raged around him.

"General Lee's closing hours were consonant with his noble and disciplined life. Never was more beautifully displayed how a long and severe education of mind and character enables the soul to pass with equal step through this supreme ordeal; never did the habits and qualities of a lifetime, solemnly gathered into a few last sad hours, more grandly maintain themselves amid the gloom and shadow of approaching death. The reticence, the self-contained composure, the obedience to proper authority, the magnanimity, and the Christian meekness, that marked all his actions, still preserved their sway, in spite of the inroads of disease and the creeping lethargy that weighted down his faculties.

"As the old hero lay in the darkened room, or with the lamp and hearth-fire casting shadows upon his calm, noble front, all the missing grandeur of his form, and face and brow remained; and death seemed to lose its terrors and to borrow a grace and dignity in sublime keeping with the life that was ebbing away. The great mind sank to its last repose, almost with the equal poise of health. The few broken utterances that evinced at times a wandering intellect were spoken under the influence of the remedies administered; but as long as consciousness lasted there was evidence that all the high, controlling influences of his whole life still ruled; and even when stupor was laying its cold hand on the intellectual perceptions, the moral nature, with its complete orb of duties and affections, still asserted itself. A southern poet has celebrated in song these last significant words, 'Strike the tent': and a thousand voices were raised to give meaning to the uncertain sound, when the dying man said, with emphasis, 'Tell Hill he must come up!' These sentences serve to show most touchingly through what fields the imagination was passing; but generally his words, though few, were coherent; but for the most part, indeed, his silence was unbroken.

"This self-contained reticence had an awful grandeur, in solemn accord with a life that needed no defense. Deeds which required no justification must speak for him. His voiceless lips, like the shut gates of some majestic temple, were closed, not for concealment, but because that within was holy. Could the eye of the mourning watcher have pierced the gloom that gathered about the recesses of that great soul it would have perceived a presence there full of an ineffable glory. Leaning trustfully upon the all-sustaining Arm, the man whose stature, measured by mortal standards, seemed so great, passed from this world of shadows to the realities of the hereafter."

Next: Mrs. Lee's account of his death

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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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