Chapter XXXI. Lee's Years of Peace

Desperate as their plight had been for many days, Lee's men had not wholly abandoned the hope of escape, but when their beloved commander returned from the Federal lines they saw by his face that the end had come, and crowding around him, they pressed his hands, even the strongest among them shedding bitter tears. For a time he was unable to respond in words to this touching demonstration, but finally, with a great effort, he mastered his emotion and bravely faced his comrades.

"Men," he said, "we have fought through the war together; I have done my best for you; my heart is too full to say more."

Brief as these words were, all who heard them realized that Lee saw no prospect of continuing the struggle and meant to say so. He was, of course, well aware that the Confederates had many thousand men still in the field, and that by separating into armed bands they could postpone the end for a considerable period. But this to his mind was not war and he had no sympathy with such methods and no belief that they could result in anything but more bloodshed and harsher terms for the South. A word from him would have been quite sufficient to encourage the other commanders to hold out and prolong the cruelly hopeless contest, but he had determined not to utter it.

Grant was firmly convinced that this would be his attitude, but whether he would actually advise the abandonment of the cause was another question, and it was to suggest this course that the Union commander sought him out on the morning after the surrender. This second interview occurred between the lines of the respective armies and as the former adversaries sat conversing on horseback, Grant tactfully introduced the subject of ending the war.

He knew, he told Lee, that no man possessed more influence with the soldiers and the South in general than he did, and that if he felt justified in advising submission his word would doubtless have all the effect of law. But to this suggestion Lee gravely shook his head. He frankly admitted that further resistance was useless, but he was unwilling to pledge himself to give the proposed advice until he had consulted with the Confederate President, and Grant did not urge him, feeling certain that he would do what he thought right. Nor was this confidence misplaced, for though Lee never positively advised a general surrender, his opinions soon came to be known and in a short time all the Confederate forces in the field yielded.

But though peace was thus restored, the war had left two countries where it had found one, and to the minds of many people they could never be united again. It was then that Lee showed his true greatness, for from the moment of his surrender he diligently strove by voice and pen and example to create harmony between the North and South and to help in the rebuilding of the nation. To those who asked his opinion as to whether they should submit to the Federal authorities and take the required oath of allegiance, he unhesitatingly replied, "If you intend to reside in this country and wish to do your part in the restoration of your state and in the government of the country, which I think is the duty of every citizen, I know of no objection to your taking the oath."

He denounced the assassination of Lincoln as a crime to be abhorred by every American, discountenanced the idea of Southerners seeking refuge in foreign lands, scrupulously obeyed every regulation of the military authorities regarding paroled prisoners and exerted all the influence at his command to induce his friends to work with him for the reconciliation of the country. Even when it was proposed to indict and try him for treason he displayed no resentment or bitterness. "I have no wish to avoid any trial that the Government may order. I hope others may go unmolested," was his only comment. But no such persecution was to be permitted, for Grant interfered the moment he heard of it, insisting that his honor and that of the nation forbade that Lee should be disturbed in any way, and his indignant protest straightway brought the authorities to their senses.

In the meanwhile, innumerable propositions reached Lee, offering him great monetary inducements to lend his name and fame to business enterprises of various kinds, but although he had lost all his property and was practically penniless, he would not consent to undertake work that he did not feel competent to perform and would listen to no suggestion of receiving compensation merely for the use of his name. His desire was to identify himself with an institution of learning where he could be of some public service, and at the same time gain the peaceful home life of which he had dreamed for so many years. As soon as this was understood offers came to him from the University of Virginia and the University of the South at Suwannee, Tennessee, but he feared that his association with a State institution like the University of Virginia might create a feeling of hostility against it on the part of the Federal Government, and the Vice-Chancellorship of the Tennessee university would have required him to leave his native state.

Finally, the Trustees of Washington College offered him the Presidency of that institution and the fact that it bore the name of the first President and had been endowed by him straightway appealed to his imagination. At one time the college had been in a flourishing condition but it had suffered severely from the war, much of its property having been destroyed and only a handful of students remained when he was invited to take charge of its tottering fortunes. Indeed, the Trustees themselves were so impoverished that none of them possessed even a decent suit of clothes in which to appear before Lee and submit their proposition. Nevertheless, one of them borrowed a respectable outfit for the occasion and presented the offer with much dignity and effect and Lee, after modestly expressing some doubts as to whether he could "discharge the duties to the satisfaction of the Trustees or to the benefit of the country," accepted the office at a merely nominal salary, closing his formal acceptance of Aug. 11, 1865, with these words: "I think it the duty of every citizen in the present condition of the country to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony and in no way to oppose the policy of the state or general Government directed to that object."

This was the key-note of his thought from this time forward. "Life is indeed gliding away and I have nothing of good to show for mine that is past," he wrote shortly after assuming his new duties. "I pray I may be spared to accomplish something for the benefit of mankind and the honor of God."

It was no easy task to reestablish an institution practically destitute of resources in a poverty-stricken community struggling for a bare subsistence after the ravages of war. But Lee devoted himself body and soul to the work, living in the simplest possible fashion. Indeed, he refused to accept an increase in his meager salary, which would have provided him with some of the ordinary comforts of life, on the ground that the institution needed every penny of its funds for its development. But though the work was hard he took keen pleasure in seeing it grow under his hands, and, little by little, the college regained its prestige, while with the help of his daughters he made his new home a place of beauty, planting flowers about the little house and doing all in his power to make it attractive for his invalid wife.

Thus, for five years he lived far removed from the turmoil of public life, performing a constant public service by exerting a direct personal influence upon the students who came under his charge, and by doing everything in his power to reunite the nation. Suggestions were constantly made to him to enter politics and had he cared to do so, he could undoubtedly have been elected to the Governorship of Virginia. But he steadily declined to consider this, declaring that it might injure the state to have a man so closely identified with the war at its head and that he could best help in restoring harmony to the country in the capacity of a private citizen.

During all this time he took an active interest in his sons, encouraging them in their efforts to establish themselves and earn their own living, visiting their farms and advising them in the comradely spirit which had always characterized his relations with them. Indeed, every moment he could spare from his collegiate duties was devoted to his family, and his letters to his children, always cheerful and affectionate and sometimes even humorously gay, expressed contentment and unselfishness in every line.

At times it required great self-restraint to avoid bitterness toward the Government, but even when Congress refused his wife's petition for the restoration of the mementos of Washington, taken from her home in Arlington during the war, he refrained from making any public protest and his private comment showed how completely he subordinated his personal wishes to the good of the country.

"In reference to certain articles which were taken from Arlington..." he wrote, "Mrs. Lee is indebted...for the order from the present Administration for their restoration to her. Congress, however, passed a resolution forbidding their return. They were valuable to her as having belonged to her great grandmother (Mrs. General Washington) and having been bequeathed to her by her father. But as the country desires them she must give them up. I hope their presence at the capital will keep in the remembrance of all Americans the principles and virtues of Washington." [These articles were restored to Lee's family by the order of President McKinley in 1903.]

Toward the individuals, however, who had looted his house and appropriated its treasures to their own use, he felt rather differently. But his rebuke to them was written rather more in sorrow than in anger and it likewise reflects the regard for his country which was ever the uppermost thought in his mind.

"...A great many things formerly belonging to General Washington, bequeathed to Mrs. Lee by her father, in the shape of books, furniture, camp equipage, etc., were carried away by individuals and are now scattered over the land," he wrote. "I hope the possessors appreciate them and may imitate the example of their original owners whose conduct must at times be brought to their recollection by these silent monitors. In this way they will accomplish good to the country...."

For his first four years at Washington College Lee accomplished his arduous duties with scarcely a sign of fatigue, but from that time forward his health began to fail and though he kept at his work, it told so heavily upon him that his friends at last persuaded him to take a vacation. He, accordingly, started south with his daughter in March, 1870. Had he permitted it, his journey would have been one continual ovation, for this was the first time he had traveled any considerable distance from his home since the war and people flocked to greet him from all sides with bands and speeches and cart-loads of flowers and fruits. Indeed, it was extremely difficult to escape the public receptions, serenades and other honors thrust upon him, and though he returned to his duties in somewhat better condition, he was soon obliged to retire to Hot Springs, Virginia, for another rest, from which he returned toward the end of the summer vacation apparently restored to health.

Meanwhile he had undertaken various other duties in addition to his collegiate work and some two weeks after the reopening of the college he attended a vestry meeting of the Episcopal Church. At this meeting the subject of rebuilding the church and increasing the rector's salary was under discussion and the session lasted for three hours, at the close of which he volunteered to subscribe from his own meager funds the sum needed to complete the proposed increase of the clergyman's salary. By this time it was seven in the evening and he at once returned to his own house, and finding his family ready for tea, stood at the head of the table as he usually did to say grace. But no words came from his lips, and with an expression of resignation on his face he quietly slipped into his chair and sat there upright as though he had heard an order to which he was endeavoring to respond by remaining at "attention."

Physicians were immediately called who diagnosed the trouble as hardening of the arteries combined with rheumatism of the heart, and though their patient never quite lost consciousness, he gradually fell asleep, and on October 12, 1870, passed quietly away.

Three days later "Traveller," led by two old soldiers and followed by a small but distinguished assemblage, accompanied his master to the grave outside the little chapel which Lee had helped to build for the college which soon thereafter changed its name to Washington and Lee University.

Nothing could have been more grateful to Lee then to have his name thus associated with that of the man whom he revered above all other men and upon whom he had patterned his whole life, and in this graceful tribute he had his heart's desire.