Robert E. Lee is arguably the most famous American Civil War General. While he had attained some recognition in the Mexican-American War, his fame in the Civil War has far exceeded anything else in his lifetime. However, it is interesting to note those parts of Lee’s life which are neglected or ignored. What are his personality traits? What happened after the war? And what were some of his actual opinions on some events during his time period? Pop historians often gloss over these notes in favor of the often repeated events within the Civil War and his actions taken there. Therefore, in this piece, we will look at these often ignored notes and focus upon what happened to Robert E. Lee after the Civil War.

The post Civil War years have definitely distorted who and what Robert E. Lee has been. He’s noted as a reluctant general who felt he was doing what he had to do to protect his home. While some of these popular ideas aren’t necessarily wrong, they aren’t necessarily correct either. His view of the South was a strong one. When writing in 1857 he wrote, “I know of no other Country… than the United States & their Constitution.”1 Lee believed in the country, but only in that the country was made up upon an agreeable set of states. Later, in 1861, Lee added that he “…has been aggrieved by the acts of the North.”2 This again sets the tone that the United States wasn’t a central unit and was a collection of smaller states comprising something larger.

It is obvious, however, that the United States before the Civil War was a completely different country than after the war. The perception of states’ rights was an important and impactful one whereas after the war, the country had become much more centralized. States rights had certainly mattered less. The Civil War was a rebirth and complete alteration of the events which led to the signing of the Declaration of Independence of 1776. While there were certainly improvements of the New United States in 1865, it was a much different country that had preceded it.

Lee’s views on slavery, while sometimes waffled, were also largely resided within the Southern camp. While in the North before the war he wrote to his father-in-law with a clipped newspaper article about the Anti-Slavery’s annual meeting in New York, “see to what extent some men are carried by their evil passions – which indeed is calculated to excite some apprehensions for the peace & prosperity of the country. That the pulpit is denounced as the great stronghold of slavery. The founders of the Constitution & the fathers of the Revolution Swindlers, in accomplishing that which after fifty years trial is found to be a curse and not a blessing.”3

Personality wise, Lee was also a known flirt. While there isn’t any direct evidence that he physically cheated on his wife, he didn’t have a happy home life. Often he noted how his wife ought to spend the limited money they had and he carried out conversations in letters to other women. On 2 May 1865 he wrote to “Markie” Williams after she offered to go with him to Europe should he flee, “There is nothing my dear Markie that I want, except to see you, & nothing that you can do for me, except to think of & and love me. It wold require you to become a Fairy & turn what you touched to Gold to take me to Europe, but I would not desire you to change your nature for my benefit. I prefer you remaining as you are – “4 In the same letter he mentioned moving to the country. But in this letter he omitted that in this “country” was going to be a home where he was permitted to live rent free in a vacant home offered by Elizabeth Randolph Cocke.5 The home, however, would allow him to be closer to his invalid wife, Mary.

Lee also had a light-hearted attitude when it came to his children. In a letter to Agnes in 1870 he wrote, “My Dear Agnes: I have received both of your letters, the last the 17th, and thank you for them as well as for your care of my room and clothes. The former I understand is used for a mulitplicity of purposes, and the cats adn kittens have the full run of my establishment. Guard me against ‘Miss Selden,’* I pray you.”6 Miss Selden being Mildred’s kitten.

There were questions about Lee’s role after the War. Even as early as 24 August 1865, Lee had been elected to the board of trustees to the presidency of Washington College, of which he declined. He gave the reasons of likely being unable to fulfill the responsibilities associated with the work and that he had been excluded from the “terms of amnesty in the proclamation of the President of the United States…”7 He felt he would harm the reputation of the school as he was a traitor to the United States. However, he did leave himself open for a possibility of admission by noting that he’d yield to their judgment should they decided that his services would be necessary.

In spite of his taking up arms against the United States, Lee was wildly popular. It would be difficult to punish him outright especially since he demurred against guerrilla warfare toward the end of the war even though he had momentarily considered it. Even from the northern states he received praise an admiration, having to sign autographs upon his photographs.8 Lee’s son also admitted that his father appreciated the people of the South but wasn’t powerful enough to do anything. This may have been one of the primary reasons Robert E. Lee had considered Washington College’s proposal.9

Lee himself saw education as paramount to the reconstruction of the South. In a letter in 1867 he wrote, “The thorough education of all classes of the people is the most efficacious means, in my opinion, of promoting the prosperity of the South. The material interests of its citizens, as well as their moral and intellectual culture, depend upon its accomplishment. The text-books of our schools, therefore, should not only be clear, systematic, and scientific, but they should be acceptable to parents and pupils in order to enlist the minds of all in the subjects.”10 And these points would remain true through today, points of which today are often ignored.

It was beginning to appear that Lee’s opinions on some matters had changed as well. Herbert Saunders wrote about Lee’s views concerning the issue of slavery, “On the subject of slavery, he assured me that he had always been in favour of the emancipation of the negroes, and that in Virginia the feeling had been strongly inclining in the same direction, till the ill-judged enthusiasm (amounting to rancour) of the abolitionists in the North had turned the Southern tide of feeling in the other direction. In Virginia, about thirty years ago, an ordinance for the emancipation of the slaves had been rejected by only a small majority, and every one fully expected at the next convention it would have been carried, but for the above cause. He went on to say that there was scarcely a Virginian now who was not glad that the subject had been definitely settled, though nearly all regretted that they had not been wise enough to do it themselves the first year of the war.”11 But Lee himself would reserve most of his political thought, especially after the war, to himself or more personal contacts.

In these personal contacts, Lee wrote specifically to Longstreet on his views in October 1867: ” I have avoided all discussion of political questions since the cessation of hostilities, and have, in my own conduct, and in my recommendations to others, endeavoured to conform to existing circumstances. I consider this the part of wisdom, as well as of duty; but, while I think we should act under the law and according to the law imposed upon us, I cannot think the course pursued by the dominant political party the best for the interests of the country, and therefore cannot say so or give it my approval. This is the reason why I could not comply wit the request in your letter. I am of the opinion that all who can should vote for the most intelligent, honest, and conscientious men eligible to office, irrespective of former party opinions, who will endeavour to make the new constitutions and the laws passed under them as beneficial as possible to the true interests, prosperity, and liberty of all classes and conditions of the people. “12 Lee had recognized that the country wasn’t the country in which he grew up. No longer was it a collection of states which worked in coordination of a larger nation, but rather it was one, large government of which the southern states were now subjugated. Furthermore, any political talk, he realized, would likely be used against him whenever possible and it behooved him to remain silent on any number of explosive issues.

This does conflict, slightly, with moments when Lee was interrogated to decide his fate. Some such questions, particularly about Virginia, views of the north and slavery within the context of President Johnson’s policies. The Question and Answer below are highlighted between Henry T. Blow, a representative from Missouri and Robert E. Lee with the Joint Congressional Committee on Reconstruction:

Blow asked again about attitudes of Virginians toward the North. “They think,” Lee stated, “That the north can afford to be generous.”

Blow returned to the circumstance of new freedmen and the proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing them the right to vote. Lee asserted that “at this time, they cannot vote intelligently,” and that black suffrage would “exclude proper representation; that is, proper intelligent people would not be elected.”

Lee concluded his testimony by following some leading questions from Blow:

Do you think that Virginia would be better off if the colored population were to go to Alabama, Louisiana, and the other Southern States?

I think it would be better for Virginia if she could get rid of them. That is no new opinion with me. I have always thought so, and have always been in favor of emancipation – gradual emancipation…

Do you think that the States of Virginia is absolutely injured and its future impaired by the presence of the black population there?

I think it is.

And do you not think it is peculiarly adapted to the quality of labor which would flow into it, from its great natural resources in case it was made attractive by the absence of the colored race?

I do.

The process lasted two hours; then Lee was free to go.13

It is also strange that as Law-like and dutiful as Lee had been, that he hadn’t necessarily seen himself as a traitor to the federal government. Certainly, he couldn’t be called a traitor to the state government and perhaps this is where his feelings had been assuaged. But, no matter the feelings, it is true this his side lost. Whether right or wrong, he ought to have considered that some brushback would’ve happened for being on the losing side, just as the Northern states would’ve received had they lost depending on the circumstances. But Lee, in spite of his actions, felt compelled to note to his wife, “I have passed a quiet & tolerably comfortable winter but my heart will never know rest or peace while my dear home is so used & I am almost maddened daily by the accounts i read in the paper of the number of interments continually placed there… My home was too beautiful stretched out before their eyes to escape their avarice & covetousness… If justice & law are not utterly extinct in the U.S. I will have it back.”14

While Lee was handling all these issues, the board at Washington College had considered Lee’s letter. Upon little review, by August 31 of that same year, the college adopted a resolution to bring Lee in. It wasn’t an entire celebratory moment. Mary, Lee’s wife, wrote to a friend, “I do not think he is very fond of teaching, but is willing to do anything that will give him an honorable support.”15 But Mary misunderstood her husband in part. While Washington College was going to take advantage of the famous name and popular General, Lee did have his own views about education and wasn’t merely going to attend the position with a passive role.

Aside from the loss of the war, Lee was only just beginning to suffer. He was now poor, somewhat homeless and had been diagnosed with angina. Insurance companies and other businesses were also hounding him for use of his famous name. But Lee set to work toward Washington College. It was a far cry from what it had been due to the war and its use by Federal troops; no more did a library or laboratory exist.16 But by August 1865, five months after Appomattox, Lee was off to Lexington and the college.

Lee tried to change his perception and his ultimate goals. Before departing he spoke, “I have a self-imposed task which I must accomplish. I have led the young men of the South in battle. I have seen them die in the field; I shall devote my remaining energies to training young me to do their duty in life.” It was his obligation, he said, “to educate Southern youth into a spirit of loyalty to the new conditions and the transformation of the social fabric which… resulted from the war.” As to his role as college president in the defeated South: “It is particularly incumbent upon those charged with the instruction of the young to set them an example of submission to authority.” Additionally he added, “Obedience to lawful authority is the foundation of manly character.”17 War had ceased to be his focus. Now it was rebuilding and, even moreso, education and loyalty to the new government.

The College had wanted to use Lee for publicity. But Lee was very much averse to this idea. The college had wanted to bring thousands to his inauguration with bands and young girls singing “songs of welcome.”18 Lee rejected this note and was instead sworn into office in a second-floor physics room, afterwards, immediately beginning work. On this same day, he signed his oath of allegiance to the United States. Previously he had omitted this document for a pardon having not realized that it was required. Even though he observantly followed through the proper channels he never received a receipt that the request for pardon had been received. Lee thought, instead, it was the government keeping him in the dark with a future intention to prosecute him, and so, he went no further with it.19 Here again it can be seen that at best government is incompetent, and at worst, it can be evil.

Lee’s post-war career, while not outshining his efforts in the Civil War, did much to shape how people would judge him in the future. He remained silent on many political matters, remained to himself and adhered to his work. Naturally this is a grand way for people to like anyone for they can fill in all the blanks they like and nearly anyone could be lionized when silent.

But Lee would improve both the school’s and his value and reputation further. Within five years he rebuilt the school, encouraged great endowments, built a chapel and restored many of the old buildings. Likewise the faculty had grown to twenty three members with a student body of nearly 500, many of them having been war veterans. For all these efforts Lee would be making roughly $5000 per year.20 Not only this but Lee was invested in the curriculum which he developed and of which many colleges are now centered around.

Lee’s school was now emphasizing learning, not simply rote memorization or indoctrination which many modern colleges have rushed toward. The College had brought in Greek, Latin and moral philosophy, engineering, law, agriculture, commerce, other modern languages and journalism.21 There were concerns among the north before these moments when it was thought that the school would be an indoctrination mill to promote hatred for the northern states. But this it never became. Lee was pushing the South into a new direction under the discretion of the, and not these, United States.

Had Washington College not been offered, Lee did have other offers at other colleges. Or, if he had rejected all of these, there was a burning thought in his mind to edit a reprinting of his father’s, Harry Lee, memoir of the Revolutionary War.22 While Lee may not have had the same impact, he was forceful in getting back into living and remaining industrious in some capacity.

However, Lee was content to lead Washington College into a new age. He’s noted as stating, “I am grateful, but I have a self-imposed task which I must accomplish. I have led the young men of the South in battle; I have seen many of them die on the field; I shall devote my remaining energies to training young me to do their duty in life.”23 And Lee would continue to change the face of the New South and future higher education.

He saw himself as a protector of the boys at his school. He studied the reports coming in from the progress of his students every month, going so far as to invite troubled students to his office to discuss their conduct and learning.24 Lee had developed a very hands-on approach which has rarely been seen in the elitist institutions seen then or hence. He encouraged students to push themselves while abstaining from destructive habits such as alcohol. Indeed, Lee had gone so far as to contact the Friends of Temperance.

Lee’s health was slowly beginning to wane on him. Already his brother had died and his family wasn’t entirely healthy. By the winter of 1870 Lee had been convinced to travel along the Atlantic coast to keep him in a warm climate. Lee’s travels were celebrated once they were known but Lee had merely wanted to keep to himself, recover and visit important people to him. After one train stop, after he had recently visited his daughter Anne’s grave in North Carolina, a train operator had recognized Lee and word quickly got out as to his whereabouts. At repeated train stations people would gather to chant his name, hoping for a glimpse of the general but often he would keep silent and his curtains closed.25 Lee wasn’t in any condition for visits. A meeting with Pickett, along with a few others in Richmond, Pickett had noted that Lee, “…did not look like the Apollo I had known in the Army,” noting that he looked, “pale and haggard.” While Pickett and Lee met, they were still “coldly polite” with Pickett later commenting, “He had my division slaughtered at Gettysburg.”26

Lee had a number of stop such as these. One of which he made an exception for was in Columbia, South Carolina where a holiday was declared for Lee. Veterans formed ranks near the track even in the heavy rain. To this, Lee showed himself from a passenger car, raising his hat and bowed to them.27 But by and by most were random stops with random attendees which Lee had little interest considering his condition. Although among one of these groups lied in wait at thirteen years old, future president, Woodrow Wilson.

There were moments where he tried to stay nights, such as Savannah, but even the house was so swarmed that he had to be snuck out the back to neighbor’s homes. And occasionally, in other cities, there were military men which whom Lee would try to meet but as due to their number, it was impossible for him to greet them all. Eventually he reached Florida where he would be able to try to rest , the end of the journey reaching Palatka before he began his return trip home.28 But the trip didn’t seem to do much for Lee.

Lee’s son admitted in collecting General Lee’s papers that, “Judged by what he ways of himself, my father’s trip South did him no permanent good. The rest and change, the meeting with many old friends, the great love and kindness shown him by all, gave him much pleasure, and for a time it was thought he was better; but the main cause of his trouble was not removed, though for a while held in check.”29 Likewise, it probably had done himself some good mentally to see old acquaintances, his father’s and Anne’s grave and noting the outpouring of support even if he didn’t often acquiesce to it. But Lee little improved.

Ultimately, Lee suffered from a likely stroke. Rain and floods harassed the land for days after the stroke as pneumonia settled into his body. For two weeks he wavered on the verge of absolute death.30 Throughout this process Lee would be greeted and met by people but he could muster no more than a word a day. He was no longer Robert E Lee but rather the husk of the man who could no longer control anything, even his own thought.

The days brought on more agony. This was noted by Mildred who remembered that “a change came – he seemed to suffer more…” By the next day it was added that, “his face had an agonized expression…” This was “another awful day – every one frightened & crying…” That night the Reverend William Pendleton appeared, and Mary Lee, Custis, Agnes, and Mildred knelt around the bed. Mildred recalled these last moments, ‘Wednesday morning found us still watching – a lovely October day – the 12th 1870 – at 9, he seemed to be struggling – I rushed out of the doctor (Madison). He came, looked at him, and without saying a word walked quietly away.’ Drs. Madison and Barton reported later in print:

It soon became evident from his rapid and feeble pulse, deepening unconsciousness and accelerated breathing, that his case was hopeless. Still the stimulants were perseveringly used up to daybreak, when he became unable to swallow… from daylight his decline was rapid, but gentle. Soon after 9 o’clock A.M. he turned, with assistance, upon his right side, then closed his eyes and as tranquilly as the setting sun his noble spirit passed into the presence of his Maker.32

As noted by Mary in a letter to a friend of the entire episode, she wrote, “…My husband came in. We had been waiting tea for him, and I remarked; ‘You have kept us waiting a long time. Where have you been?’ He did not reply, but stood up as if to say grace. Yet no word proceeded from his lips, and he sat down in his chair perfectly upright and with a sublime air of resignation… and did not attempt to a reply to our inquiries. That look was never to be forgotten, and I have no doubt he felt that his hour had come; for though he submitted to the doctors, who were immediately summoned, and who had not even reached their homes from the same vestry-meeting, yet his whole demeanour during his illness showed one who had taken leave of earth. He never smiled, and rarely attempted to speak, except in his dream, and then we wandered to those dreadful battle-fields. Once, when Agnes urged him to take some medicine, which he always did with reluctance, he looked at her and said, ‘It is no use.’ But afterward he took it. When he became so much better the doctor said, ‘You must soon get out and ride your favorite gray!’ He shook his head most emphatically and looked upward. He slept a great deal, but knew us all, greeted us with a kindly pressure of the hand, and loved to have us around him. For the last forty-eight hours he seemed quite insensible of our presence. He breathed more heavily, and at last sank to rest with one deep-drawn sigh. And oh, what a glorious rest was in store for him!”33 Robert E. Lee had died at 63 years old.

It is quite unfortunate that Lee’s last coherent words were, “I will give that sum.”34 There isn’t any context beyond this point as Lee, under a stroke and heavy illness, may have been speaking about anything. It may be lofty to consider it a conversation with God, but such things cannot be known.

Perhaps more properly it would be better to remember Lee’s views on life, and perhaps potential final words in this way. In a letter in 1852, Lee wrote, “Live in the world you inhabit. Look upon things as they are. Take them as you find them. Make the best of them… Do not imagine things are to happen as you wish. Wish them to happen right. Then strive hard to make them so… Sad thoughts I know will sometimes come over us. They are necessary and good for us. They cause us to reflect. They are the shadows to our picture.”35

Lee was a traitor to the United States. And while he was upheld in the south and never truly punished for his crime aside from a few incidents, Lee was held up as a reformer to the South. Lee resisted the encouragement to lead guerrilla warfare which could’ve destroyed the South for decades to come, he committed himself to reforming a college, and turning it into one of the leading institutions of the South. He saw himself as rebuilding the South in a new, correct way for a more modern America. Whatever crimes Lee had committed against the State, he sought to correct them in the aftermath of the Civil War for any number of reasons. Regardless of these reasons, his actions was a net benefit for the country, the people of the South, and for his own home of Virginia.


1 Trudeau p 37

2 ibid. p 37

3 Thomas p 110

4 Recollections and Letters pp 373-4

5 ibid. p 373-4

6 ibid. p 429

7 ibid. p 181

8 ibid. p 198

9 ibid. p 210

10 ibid p 211

11 ibid. p 231

12 ibid. pp. 268-9

13 Thomas p 375

14 ibid. pp 382-3

15 ibid. pp 382-3

16 The Long Surrender p 230

17 ibid. p 230

18 ibid. p 231

19 ibid. p 231

20 ibid. p 231

21 ibid. p 231-2

22 Trudeau pp 203-4

23 Recollections and Letters p 376

24 Thomas p 395

25 Trudeau p 206

26 ibid. p 206

27 ibid. p 206

28 ibid. p 207

29 Recollections and Letters p 412

30 Thomas p 412-3

31 ibid. p 414-5

32 ibid. p 414-5

33 Recollections and Letters pp 439-40

34 Thomas p 412-3

35 Trudeau pp 213-4

Works Cited

Davis, Burke. The Long Surrender. New York, NY: Open Road Integrated Media, 2016.

Lee, Robert Edward. Recollections and Letters of Robert E. Lee. Newburyport: Dover Publications, 2012.

Thomas, Emory M. Robert E. Lee: A Biography. Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books, 2014.

Trudeau, Noah Andre. Robert E. Lee: Lessons in Leadership. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.


Header. “The surrender of Lee,” Appomattox C.H., Va., April 9th. , 1885. [United States:publisher not transcribed] Photograph.