Here in the South no one is more revered than General Robert E Lee whose birthday is today. Born in Virginia in 1807, he graduated West Point, saw action in the Mexican War and worked as an engineer before the Civil War. Dubbed “the handsomest man in the Army”, he was known to his friends and some of his military foes as “Bobby Lee” . He was not a supporter of secession. But he refused President Lincoln’s call to serve the Union forces and signed on instead to the Confederacy. Any casual student of history knows of his military successes during the war, and of his biggest failure–the misjudgments at Gettysburg that led to a stunning defeat and sealed the fate of the South. Fewer people know about his personal life–his deep faith, his love of his family, his self deprecating manner and his delightful sense of humor.
After the surrender at Appomattox, he returned home to Virginia where he became President of Washington College in Lexington, which later would be named Washington and Lee University. He worked long hours to improve both the school and its students, but the war had taken its toll. The most beloved man of the South suffered a stroke and died on October 11, 1870. He was buried in the campus chapel where he had worshiped each day with his students.
One of my favorites among the hundreds of books about him is his collection of wartime papers, which contains letters written to his family from the battlefield. In these letters we catch endearing and fascinating glimpses of General Lee the husband, father, and grandfather. Here are a few brief excerpts from his letters home.
To his daughter in law, Charlotte (June, 1862) he writes a description of himself: My coat is of gray, of the regulation style and pattern and my pants of dark blue…partly hidden by my long boots. I have the same hat which surmounts my gray head ( the latter is not prescribed in the regulation) and shields my ugly face which is masked by a white beard as stiff and wiry as the teeth of a card. In fact, an uglier person you have never seen and so unattractive is it to our enemies that they shoot at it whenever it is visible to them…though age with its snow has whitened my head and its frosts have stiffened my limbs, my heart, you well know is not frozen to you…Kiss your sweet boy for me and love always, Your devoted papa, R E Lee.
To his wife, Mary Custis Lee (March, 1864) My dear Mary, your note of the 19th with the bag of socks arrived this afternoon. The number of pairs stated by you was correct–30 pairs good and true. I am glad to find there is arithmetic enough in my family to count to 30. ( Note: He was teasing her because earlier in the war she sent him 23 pairs of socks with a note that said here are 25 pairs…) I have sent the parcel to the Stonewall Brigade which makes over 200 pairs….Give much love to the girls and remember me to all friends. With constant prayers for yourself, I am with great affection, truly yours, R E Lee
To his daughter Annie, written from Savannah (March 2, 1862) I received a letter from Precious Life the other day. She is well but you must tell her not to be too particular in her diet but to eat everything before her. It is not necessary for young ladies to become etherial ( sic) to grow wise. She moans after Tom, her cat, and knows he is alive and his precious heart will break if he does not see her soon. I shall have to get General Johnston to send in a flag of truce and make inquiries…Goodbye my dear child. May God bless you and our poor country Your devoted father, R E Lee
To his daughter Mildred, (“Precious Life” ) (July 27, 1863) I have heard, my precious daughter that you have returned to your school. I had looked forward to your vacation with so much pleasure in the hope of seeing your for a little while at least….My only pleasure is to think of your mother and my children. May God bless you my dear daughter and strew your path in this world with happiness and finally usher you and all of us to His mansions of bliss in heaven is my daily and hourly prayer! Tell me of your companions, your roommate, studies, occupations, &c. All that concerns you will be interesting to me. Your devoted father, RE Lee
In an interview earlier this week. I was asked which person from history I’d most like to meet. The answer was really easy. I hope and trust the general is indeed at home now in the mansion of bliss, surrounded once again by those whom he loved so dearly on earth.