Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee

 Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee

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

"The death of General Lee was not due to any sudden cause, but wasthe result of agencies dating as far back as 1863. In the tryingcampaign of that year he contracted a severe sore throat, that resultedin rheumatic inflammation of the sac inclosing his heart. There isno doubt that after this sickness his health was more or less impaired;and although he complained little, yet rapid exercise on foot or onhorseback produced pain and difficulty breathing. In October, 1869,he was again attacked by inflammation of the heart-sac, accompaniedby muscular rheumatism of the back, right side, and arms. The actionof the heart was weakened by this attack; the flush upon the facedeepened, the rheumatism increased, and he was troubled with wearinessand depression.

"In March, 1870, General Lee, yielding to the solicitations of friendsand 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 ofrespect and affection of the people of the South; his physicalcondition, however, was not greatly improved. During this winter andspring he had said to his son, General Custis Lee, that his attackwas mortal; and had virtually expressed the same belief to othertrusted friends. And, now, with that delicacy that pervaded all hisactions, he seriously considered the question of resigning thepresidency of Washington College, 'fearful that he might not be equal to hisduties.' After listening, however, to the affectionate remonstrancesof the faculty and board of trustees, who well knew the value of hiswisdom in the supervision of the college and the power of his merepresence and example upon the students, he resumed his labours withthe resolution to remain at his post and carry forward the greatwork 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 Septemberwith that quiet zeal and noiseless energy that marked all his actions,and an unusual elation was felt by those about him at the increasedprospect that long years of usefulness and honour would yet be addedto 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 othertasks 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, atfour o'clock, he attended a vestry-meeting of Grace (Episcopal) church.The afternoon was chilly and wet, and a steady rain had set in, whichdid not cease until it resulted in a great flood, the most memorableand destructive in this region for a hundred years. The church wasrather cold and damp, and General Lee, during the meeting, sat ina pew with his military cape cast loosely about him. In a conversationthat occupied the brief space preceding the call to order, he tookpart, and told with marked cheerfulness of manner and kindlinessof tone some pleasant anecdotes of Bishop Meade and Chief-JusticeMarshall. The meeting was protracted until after seven o'clock bya discussion touching the rebuilding of the church edifice and theincrease of the rector's salary. General Lee acted as chairman,and, after hearing all that was said, gave his own opinion, as washis wont, briefly and without argument. He closed the meeting witha characteristic act. The amount required for the minister's salarystill lacked a sum much greater than General Lee's proportion ofthe subscription, in view of his frequent and generous contributionsto 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 seemedtired 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 waitingtea 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 withoutagitation. His face seemed to some of the anxious group about himto wear a look of sublime resignation, and to evince a full knowledgethat the hour had come when all the cares and anxieties of his crowdedlife were at an end. His physicians, Doctors H. S. Barton and R. L.Madison, arrived promptly, applied the usual remedies, and placedhim upon the couch from which he was to rise no more.

"To him henceforth the things of this world were as nothing, and hebowed with resignation to the command of the Master he had followedso long with reverence. They symptoms of his attack resembledconcussion of the brain, without the attendant swoon. There wasmarked debility, a slightly impaired consciousness, and a tendencyto doze; but no paralysis of motion or sensation, and no evidenceof suffering or inflammation of the brain. His physicians treatedthe case as one of venous congestion, and with apparently favourableresults. Yet, despite these propitious auguries drawn from hisphysical symptoms, in view of the great mental strain he had undergone,the gravest fears were felt that the attack was mortal. He took withoutobjection the medicines and diet prescribed, and was strong enoughto turn in bed without aid, and to sit up to take nourishment. Duringthe earlier days of his illness, though inclined to doze, he waseasily aroused, was quite conscious and observant, evidently understoodwhatever was said to him, and answered questions briefly butintelligently; he was, however, averse to much speaking, generallyusing 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 myarm.' Although he seemed to be gradually improving until October10th, he apparently knew from the first that the appointed hour hadcome when he must enter those dark gates that, closing, open no moreon the earth. In the words of his physician, 'he neither expectednor desired to recover.' When General Custis Lee made some allusionto his recover, he shook his head and pointed upward. On the Mondaymorning before his death, Doctor Madison, finding him looking better,tried to cheer him. 'How do you feel to-day, General?' General Leereplied slowly and distinctly: 'I feel better.' The doctor thensaid: 'You must make haste and get well; Traveller has been standingso long in the stable that he needs exercise.' The General made noreply, but slowly shook his head and closed his eyes. Several timesduring his illness he put aside his medicine, saying, 'It is of nouse,' but yielded patiently to the wishes of his physicians or children,as if the slackened chords of being still responded to the touch ofduty or affection.

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

"General Lee's physicians attributed his death in great measure tomoral causes. The strain of his campaigns, the bitterness of defeataggravated by the bad faith an insolence of the victor, sympathy withthe subsequent sufferings of the Southern people, and the effort atcalmness under these accumulated sorrows, seemed the sufficient andreal causes that slowly but steadily undermined his health and ledto his death. yet to those who saw his composure under the greaterand lesser trials of life, ad his justice and forbearance with themost unjust and uncharitable, it seemed scarcely credible that hisserene soul was shaken by the evil that raged around him.

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

"As the old hero lay in the darkened room, or with the lamp andhearth-fire casting shadows upon his calm, noble front, all themissing grandeur of his form, and face and brow remained; and deathseemed to lose its terrors and to borrow a grace and dignity in sublimekeeping with the life that was ebbing away. The great mind sank toits last repose, almost with the equal poise of health. The fewbroken utterances that evinced at times a wandering intellect werespoken under the influence of the remedies administered; but as longas consciousness lasted there was evidence that all the high,controlling influences of his whole life still ruled; and even whenstupor was laying its cold hand on the intellectual perceptions, themoral nature, with its complete orb of duties and affections, stillasserted itself. A southern poet has celebrated in song these lastsignificant words, 'Strike the tent': and a thousand voices wereraised to give meaning to the uncertain sound, when the dying mansaid, with emphasis, 'Tell Hill he must come up!' These sentencesserve to show most touchingly through what fields the imaginationwas passing; but generally his words, though few, were coherent; butfor the most part, indeed, his silence was unbroken.

"This self-contained reticence had an awful grandeur, in solemn accordwith a life that needed no defense. Deeds which required nojustification must speak for him. His voiceless lips, like the shutgates of some majestic temple, were closed, not for concealment, butbecause that within was holy. Could the eye of the mourning watcherhave pierced the gloom that gathered about the recesses of that greatsoul it would have perceived a presence there full of an ineffableglory. Leaning trustfully upon the all-sustaining Arm, the man whosestature, measured by mortal standards, seemed so great, passed fromthis world of shadows to the realities of the hereafter."


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