“All night long the northern streamers
Shot across the trembling sky:
Fearful lights, that never beckon
Save when kings or heroes die.”
The day held such promise. Fall was in the air and the trees were beginning to display their spectrum of colors in the Shenandoah Valley. But the day would prove to darken the skies of the time as a legend faded into the mist.
Wednesday, September 28, 1870, was a typical day for him. He went to his office at the usual time. After taking care of the business issues and daily tasks of running a small college, he wrote a letter to his dear friend, Samuel Tagart, who lived in Baltimore. In the letter the college president reassured his friend that he was well. He informed him that the young man from Baltimore who attended Washington College was doing ‘well and handsome’. He lightheartedly stated that he hoped the young man, “Would study, or his sweethearts in Baltimore will not pine for him long.”
As was his custom, he started walking home to have his lunch.
He happened upon a student by the name of Percy Davidson.
The boy greeted the president in accordance with the ‘speak rule’ initiated by president. He stated that a friend had given him a picture of him and asked would it be too much trouble to sign it. If so, the young sophomore stated he would come back later. The president said, “No, I will go back and do it right now.”
That would be the last signature and writing of Robert E. Lee.
He went home and ate with his family. As was the custom, he relaxed in his chair by the bay window, as Agnes, (the one he nicknamed Wigs and Aggie) rubbed his feet. Mildred, the one he called ‘Precious Life or Life’ was playing the piano. The song titled, Songs Without Words. Soon he fell asleep.
Upon awakening, he put on his old military cape and keeping his hat in his hand, he walked into the parlor. Mildred was playing a song by Mendelssohn entitled, ‘Funeral March’. Her father looked at his youngest and said, “Life, that is a doleful piece you are playing! I wish I did not have to go and listen to all that powwow.” He kissed his daughter and walked out into the rain.
That afternoon, the weathered dampened and unbeknownst to the people of Virginia, the great flood of 1870 (September 28-30) was beginning.
The local Smithsonian weather observer’s name was John Campbell. He reported that in Lexington, Virginia, “At 3 p.m. (on September 28), the most remarkable rain that the oldest inhabitants have ever witnessed. It was light until about 9 p.m. After this, heavy showers fell until about 1 a.m. During the remainder of the night, the whole of the next day (29th), till about 12 at night, the rain fell in torrents. A fraction over 14 inches fell at Washington College (now Washington and Lee). At a point 7 miles from Lexington about 15 inches was measured… “The river near Lexington (North Branch of the James River) was 20-feet and 6 inches above its ordinary height, and 12 feet above what is considered very high water.” The year 1870 became known as the ‘year of disasters’.
The president was aware of the weather and the chill in the air, but had a vestry meeting at the Grace Church. He felt compelled to attend. After a brief greeting and conversation, the meeting began around four o’clock. The fund-raising committee had several items on the agenda, including the money owed the Reverend Doctor Pendleton. Money was gathered but was short fifty-five dollars. Lee spoke up and said, “I will give that sum”.
The long meeting adjourned around seven and Lee meandered up the incline towards the president’s house. As noted by Dr. H. T. Barton and Dr. R. L. Madison, who attended the meeting, Lee was flushed, chilled, and looked exhausted. Their observations proved to be true.
Lee entered his house, went upstairs and hung his coat and hat in his room. He heard the voice of his Mildred talking to two students who had come to visit. His wife Mary had expected him earlier and gently scolded him. Lee did not respond. As was his custom, he went to the head of the table and stood to bless the food. The words of blessing did not come. For an eerie moment he stood without speaking. Then he slumped down into his chair. His wife yelled for George Washington Custis Lee, their eldest son, to come check on his father. Upon seeing him, he ran to find the doctors who were walking together towards their home. They immediately came running to Lee’s side.
Robert’s bed was brought downstairs and placed in front of the bay window where he normally sat. Lee was gently laid on the bed and was able to speak a little. The doctors examined him and concluded he had a ‘venous congestion of the brain’ as well as a bad throat infection. Soon he fell into a deep sleep. That night and for thirty-six hours straight, the heavens burst with over fourteen inches of rain falling upon the land. The area received the worst flooding in over one hundred years.
The family rallied to his side and took turns so that he would never be alone. Colonel W. P. Johnston, a very close friend, joined the vigil at night. His youngest daughter wrote in her journal that her father’s “Lips never uttered a sound! The silence was awful! He would lay straight and motionless, gazing with that solemn unalterable look, into the flames that played on the hearth.” His beloved wife commented that he was at times revisiting those dreadful battlefields.
Days passed as Lee lay on his bed. His daughters rubbed his hands and the doctors talked to him to encourage him. At one juncture, his gallant horse, Traveller, was brought in front of the bay window for him to see. One of the doctor’s stated that Lee, “Must make hast and get well, Traveller has been standing so long in the stable, he needs exercise.” Lee slowly shook his head and pointed in a heavenly direction.
On Tuesday morning, October 12, 1870, Lee struggled to get on his right side. His youngest daughter felt helpless and noted his slipping into a coma. At one juncture he rallied and gave his second to last command, “Tell Hill he must come up!” It was the same command that General Jackson gave before his last words were spoken. Lee had refused to eat and only after prodding from his doctors would he take his medication.
His Mary was sitting next to him in her rolling chair. His daughters Agnes and Mildred and son Custis knelt by his bed. The Reverend Doctor Pendleton offered prayers and last rights as in accordance with Lee’s faith. The doctors and reverend had done all they could do. They left the family for their final farewell. It had been fourteen days since he had been stricken with the afflictions.
His final words came. The words that he had said so many times while on the fields of battle. Three words that gave the command to move from one location to another, but this time he was crossing that turbid veil. At nine fifteen, on ‘a lovely October day’, he faded into the mist with his parting words: “Strike the Tent”!
Lee The Last Years: Flood, Charles B.; Houghton Mifflin Co.; Boston, N. Y.; 1981; Chapter 36; Pages 252-261
Lee; Freeman, Douglas S.; Simon and Schuster; Touchstone; New York, N.Y.; 1961; Pages 578-582
Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee; Korda, Michael; Harper Publishing; 2014; Page 682
R.E. Lee: Reflections; Chaltas, David; 2013; DC Publications; pages 380-413
Lays of Scottish Cavaliers; Aytoun, William E.; Published in Edinburgh; 1848