The Gentle Warrior (Part 2) - Mrs. General Lee in Richmond
- Tuesday, January 28, 2003
God in His wisdom had denied her the use of her legs, but He gave her some movement in her hands: she could still knit like lightning. She set up a vigorous cottage industry in the Caskies’ second floor parlor, encouraging her daughters Agnes and Mildred and all her neighbors to knit socks and gloves for Confederate soldiers. Mrs. Lee had them packed into boxes and sent to her husband in the field for distribution to the most needy. In one six-month stretch Mary and her helpers knitted 859 pairs of socks and 190 pairs of mittens. Cotton thread was four dollars a spool and knitting yarn available only by barter. Mrs. Lee sent out “yarn scouts” who combed the city for supplies.
“Tell the girls to send all they can,” General Lee wrote his wife. “I wish they could make some shoes too.”
Mary Chestnut, wife of former South Carolina senator James Chestnut, came to call and described Mrs. Lee’s room in her diary as “like an industrial school: everybody so busy. Her daughters were all there plying their needles, with several other ladies.” Another visitor portrayed her as “always bright, sunny-tempered and uncomplaining.”
Still others wrote with astonishment of Mrs. General Lee’s indomitable spirit. “Almost unable to move,” one of them recalled, “Mrs. Lee was busily engaged in knitting socks for sockless soldiers.” A neighbor who dropped by noted that Mary “listened, and strengthened, and smiled even when her own heart ached. The brightness of her nature, amidst uncertainty and pain, was wonderful.”
New Year’s Day brought news of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Mrs. Lee had no use for Lincoln or his politics, but she had been a moral opponent of slavery all her life. By the time she inherited Arlington almost six years earlier—long before the war or thoughts of war—the slaves had already been promised their freedom and Mary saw that they received it. The day the president’s proclamation was issued there were no slaves at Arlington: they were working for wages or long gone in search of other opportunities and adventures.
Another new law that winter affected her far more: An Act for the Collection of Direct Taxes in the Insurrectionary Districts within the United States that required her to pay a $92.07 levy on Arlington in person to Union authorities. Even if she hadn’t been the wife of the Confederate general-in-chief, it would have been impossible to travel to the courthouse in Alexandria. Just getting downstairs to the street was an excruciating, dangerous, and time-consuming ordeal she seldom attempted. Within a year the estate would be sold on the courthouse steps for non-payment of a lawful tax.
Winter turning to spring brought soothing, cheerful mornings and temperate days. Mary sat at the window enjoying the view of rooftops and the intense blue Virginia sky, her knitting needles flashing in the sunlight. And yet there was a sinister side to the emerging dogwoods and apple blossoms. The same sun that nurtured them ripened the seeds of war: companies and battalions abandoned the safety of their winter encampments for another season of killing and being killed.
Overmatched as they were, General Lee’s men continued to stand steadfast and even to gain ground. Against the worst odds of the war so far—134,000 United States troops under Fighting Joe Hooker to Lee’s 60,000—the Confederates made a bold offensive at Chancellorsville, just west of Fredericksburg, before daylight on May 2. Within four days the Union army had retreated north across the Rappahannock.
It was a great victory but at a terrible price. The day of the attack General Stonewall Jackson, Lee’s fearless and indispensable tactical mastermind, was accidentally shot by one of his own troops; eight days later he died of pneumonia despite the amputation of his shattered left arm in a desperate attempt to save his life. He died on the tenth, and the next day Mary heard church bells tolling all over Richmond to mourn his loss.
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