Christian Book Reviews, Author Interviews, Excerpts

The Gentle Warrior (Part 2) - Mrs. General Lee in Richmond

  • John Perry Contributing Writer, Faith in God and Generals
  • 2003 7 Feb
The Gentle Warrior (Part 2) - Mrs. General Lee in Richmond

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.

The next month brought the kind of news that every soldier’s mother hoped never to hear. Brigadier General William Henry Fitzhugh Lee—“Rooney,” her second son—was shot in the thigh at the battle of Brandy Station on June 9. She thanked God that the wound was not life threatening and rejoiced when Rooney received a furlough to recuperate at Hickory Hill, home of her husband’s Uncle William Wickham.

There was no question in Mary’s mind that she should nurse him back to health, and so she made the difficult trip by carriage to the plantation, a few miles north of Richmond on the Pamunkey River. Rooney was healing nicely and recovering his strength until the morning of June 26, when a posse of Federals rode up the drive to the plantation office that had been converted into Rooney’s quarters, claimed the bedridden officer as a prisoner of war, bundled him into old Mr. Wickham’s carriage, and disappeared as fast as they’d come.

The news that summer continued grim, though it would be yet awhile before they realized July of 1863 marked the beginning of the end. On July 4 Vicksburg fell at last, starved and exhausted after forty-seven days, giving the Union undisputed control of the Mississippi from New Orleans to St. Louis and splitting the Confederacy in two. The same day back east, General Lee retreated in a thundering downpour from the hills of Gettysburg, the deepest penetration ever into enemy territory, despondent over opportunities lost but determined to carry on.

When Mary Custis Lee returned to Richmond it was to a small rented house at 210 East Leigh Street. There the mistress of Arlington House had not a chair or a spoon to call her own. But she borrowed odd pieces of furniture, found a cache of linens (this difficult because so much had been torn up for bandages) and carpets (likewise rare, cut up for army blankets), then set up her sock factory and resumed knitting day and night.

Early in December, one of Mary’s most frequent and fervent prayers was answered when Robert arrived at Richmond on official business and came to be with her at the house on Leigh Street. It had been six months since they’d seen each other, and each was distressed by the other’s appearance. Robert saw Mary’s disability was worse than ever, the lines of pain and worry in her face chiseled deeper. Mary saw a man aged dramatically, his beard nearly white now, his figure so heavyset that he had had to order bigger uniform jackets, his energy and mobility impaired by the pain of angina and the burdens of an unwinnable war.

And yet there was so much to be thankful for. Mary and her husband hadn’t spent Christmas together since 1859. The cramped and modest house on Leigh Street was far from the elegant ballroom at Arlington, appointed with Washington’s favorite furniture and decorated every Christmas with garlands from Arlington Forest, dried fruits, lavish bows, the fragrance of roasted pheasants drifting in from the dining room and the Custis and Washington family silver polished to its utmost brilliance.

The great house and its contents were in the hands of strangers now, and what little silver Mary was able to save sat tarnishing, buried in the dirt somewhere far away. But it was Christmastime and Robert was here with her, as were all three of their daughters and oldest son, Custis. They’d heard, too, from Rooney in prison at Fort Lafayette, in good health and good sprits, his wound fully healed.

They decorated their small rooms with holly boughs and cranberries, built up the fires of scarce and expensive coal a little brighter in spite of the cost, and celebrated gifts that no war could take away: the gifts of love between husband and wife, between parent and child, and the unspeakable gift of God’s only Son to a hopeless and fallen world.

Sitting quietly before the fire late on Christmas Day, Mary let her thoughts drift to the image of a young woman, newly engaged, standing straight and beautiful at a window overlooking her mother’s vast rose garden and on toward the silvery Potomac River shimmering in the moonlight. Ancient oaks towered overhead. God had just entered her life and she couldn’t sleep on account of it. She was too excited and couldn’t make herself lie down until she captured her emotions on paper. They were too precious and intimate to put in a letter, much less talk to anybody about. And so she put them in a prayer journal, a letter to God:

I would not exchange the hope I have now in my Saviour for all that the world could give. I now solemnly dedicate myself & all that I have or may possess to His service. Have I not the sweetest promise for the days of temptation & darkness? Why should I fear? Oh doubting soul, trust entirely to thy God for He will yet glorify thee! My prayer is for a stronger faith, though I sometimes shrink at the tribulation I may be called to endure for this purpose. But Jesus is all sufficient.

Separated from her home, her health, her heritage, her livelihood, her friends, her worldly riches, and even her beloved husband who had returned to his troops in the field, faith was about all Mary Custis Lee had left in these troubled times. But faith was all she needed.

Mary smiled and looked into the fire, her eyes dancing.

Excerpted from Faith in God and Generals, compiled by Ted Baehr and Susan Wales.  Copyright © 2003, Ted Baehr and Susan Wales.  ISBN 0-8054-2728-7
Published by Broadman & Holman Publishers.  Used by permission.  Unauthorized duplication prohibited.