Tuesday, October 12, 2010

General Lee's last days

October 12, marks the anniversary of Robert E. Lee's death. Here is the story.
Robert E. Lee after the War
"The end was now drawing near, yet the General uttered no complaint. He was meeting the last enemy as he had met Grant at Appomattox, without parade or ostentation. 

An incident of these last days should be preserved. It was related by Mrs. Tabb Bolling Lee. This former Petersburg belle had been in the habit of rising at a late hour, anywhere perhaps from ten to noon.  Now, on her first visit to her husband's people, she was horrified to learn that breakfast would be ready at seven o'clock and each member of the household was expected at family prayers promptly at 6:45.
The first morning, the new arrival jumped into her clothes and hastened down to the parlor to find that the General had finished the "lesson" and was well into the "prayers."  As she slipped in and knelt by his side she felt his arm about her. Without interruption the prayer went on and was concluded.

Next morning the new daughter did not get down to prayers at all, but did manage to be on hand at breakfast. After the meal the General approached and quietly remarked that no day should be lived unless it was begun with a prayer of thankfulness and an intercession for guidance.  "And now, my child," he softly concluded, "unless you get down to morning prayers your old father will give you no more kisses." The punishment was adequate. Thereafter the new daughter was on time for prayers.

R.E. Lee's funeral
The evening of September 28 was raw, damp and unseasonably cold. At that unpropitious hour the vestry of Grace Church met in the unheated building. Lee was sitting in one of the pews, wrapped in his military cloak, and saying little during the meeting that lasted from four till seven o'clock.Some of those present noticed that his face seemed more than ordinarily flushed, but they did not sense anything wrong. The meeting was then adjourned and the general went outdoors to face the rain. It was very dark, for the sun had long since set, and it was the time of the dark of the moon, so there was not even a glimmer of light behind the scudding clouds racing across the sky.
English: Robert E. Lee death mask from the aut...
Robert E. Lee death mask (Wikipedia)
After presiding at the extended session the General walked up the hill to his home. When Lee entered the house, he took off his rain-soaked hat, cloak and overshoes. Tea awaited him. Mrs. Lee asked where he had been, saying that he had kept them waiting for a long time. He did not answer. Slowly moving to his pace at the head of the table, he stood, as was his custom, to ask the blessing. But no words came. His tongue failed to function, and he almost collapsed when he tried to sit down.
The summons had come. Alarmed now, the family sprang into action. The stricken man was stretched out on a couch, and two doctors, who had been at the meeting in the church, were sent for. 

When they arrived and started to remove their patient's outer clothing, he complained that they were hurting his arm. The doctors ordered a bed to be brought down and placed in the dining room. The dying general was put to bed in a comatose condition. He was never to leave the room alive.
September passed, and the golden days of October began. The physicians treated him for venous congestion of the brain, and, at first, held out hope for recovery. The symptoms were favorable. He was not paralyzed and could move his arms, legs and body, though with pain. He slept most of the time; when awakened, he took medicines and food as directed, but he showed little interest in what was going on around him. When he was awake, he was entirely conscious. Sometimes he spoke. He answered questions, but in monosyllables and did not want to talk or listen. His mind was clear and seemed independent of his body.
One day the doctor, seeking to cheer him, referred to Traveler. The General must make haste and get well; Traveler was lonely and was looking for him. The sick man shook his head and closed his eyes.
He was like one already half-dead; undoubtedly he knew that he was going to die. But he was reconciled to that and did not seem to care.


During the final days there was no death-bed scene, no posing, no sadness of farewell. 
During the afternoon of October 10, the general's hold on life began to weaken rapidly. His pulse became feeble, and his breathing was labored.
Toward midnight he was seized with a fit of violent shivering, after which his physicians told the family that the end was near. But he lingered on through the next day and night, barely conscious, but still clinging to life.
Lee's Casket
Silence filled the sorrowing chamber. Toward the end chilliness set in. Powerful restoratives were then administered. The intellect was dimmed. The poise and self-restraint of a life-time vanished. During the last morning his mind was evidently again on the battlefield, astride his war-horse, for he said audibly, "Tell [General A. P.] Hill he must come up.". Then he lapsed into unconsciousness again. In his dark dreams he may have been bringing his last campaign to a close because those around him heard him say with a tone of finality: "Strike the tent."  After that he sank down into a silence which was never broken.
Lee's Tomb
At 9:30 on the morning of October 12 the heart ceased to beat, and a great gentleman, please God, was dead. He had crossed the river to rest under the shade of the trees where his companion in arms [Stonewall Jackson] had preceded him."
The rains and flooding were the worse of Virginia's history on the day General Lee died.

The church bells rang as the sad news passed through Washington College, Virginia Military Institute, the town of Lexington and the nation. Cadets from VMI carried the remains of the old soldier to Lee Chapel where he laid in state. Many thousands witnessed Lee's funeral procession marching through the town of Lexington, Virginia, with muffled drums and the artillery firing as the hearse was driven to the school's chapel where he was buried.


Memorial meetings were held throughout the South and as far North as New York. At Washington College in Lexington, eulogies were delivered by Reverend Pemberton, Reverend W.S. White---Stonewall Jackson's pastor, and Reverend J. William Jones. Former Confederate President Jefferson Davis [eulogized Lee] in Richmond, Virginia. Lee was also eulogized in Great Britain. When all settled down, Mrs. Robert E. Lee said, "If he had succeeded in gaining by the sword all the South expected and hoped for, he could not have been more honored and lamented."


“His moral qualities rose to the height of his genius. Hitherto men have been honoured when successful, but here is one who amid disaster went down to his grave, and those who were his companions in misfortune have assembled to do reverence to his memory. It is an honor to you who give as well as to him who receives, for, about the vulgar test, you show yourselves competent to judge between him who enjoys, and him who deserves, success…He sleeps with the thousands who fought under the same flag; he sleeps in the soil to him and to them the most dear. That flag was furled when there was no one to bear it; and we, a remnant of the living, are here to do homage to his peerless greatness, and there is an army of skeleton sentinels to keep watch over his grave.”



The headline from a Richmond newspaper read,
“News of the death of Robert E. Lee, beloved chieftain of the Southern army, whose strategy mainly was responsible for the surprising fight staged by the Confederacy, brought a two-day halt to Richmond's business activities.” 

Virginia Military Institute (VMI) Cadet William Nalle said in a letter home to his mother, dated October 16, 1870,
“I suppose of course that you have all read full accounts of Gen Lee's death in the papers. He died on the morning of the 12th at about half past nine. All business was suspended at once all over the country and town, and all duties, military and academic suspended at the Institute, and all the black crape and all similar black material in Lexington, was used up at once, and they had to send on to Lynchburg for more. Every cadet had black crape issued to him, and an order was published at once requiring us to wear it as a badge of mourning for six months.”


US President Dwight D. Eisenhower knew and appreciated our nation’s rich history. He was criticized for displaying a portrait of Robert E. Lee in his office. This was part of his response: "Robert E. Lee was, in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by this nation."



Sources: Philip Van Doren Stern, Robert E. Lee, The Man and the Soldier (Bonanza Books, 1963), 243-244; Robert W. Winston, Robert E. Lee: A Biography (William Morrow and Company, 1934), 411-413.