The Remarkable Robert E. Lee
In March of 1870 General Robert E. Lee began his two-month journey to visit two family graves – daughter Annie and that of his father, “Light Horse Harry” Lee of Revolutionary War fame. He wrote his son Fitzhugh that “I wish to witness Annie’s quiet sleep . . . and to feel that her pure spirit is waiting in bliss in the land of the blessed.”
Bernhard Thuersam, Circa 1865
The Remarkable Robert E. Lee
“The train now puffed into North Carolina . . . With only a ninth of the South’s population, North Carolina had furnished a fifth of all the soldiers who fought, and a fourth of all that died in action. [Scalawag Reconstruction Governor] Holden would be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” found guilty and removed from office. [A staunch Republican] admitted: “One of the greatest evils affecting society in North Carolina is the incompetent and worthless State and federal officials now in power. They are for the most part pestiferous ulcers feeding upon the body politic.”
[At Charlotte] the ovation was overwhelming. By now, word had been flashed ahead by railroad telegraphers. The General, moving south on the Charlotte, Columbia, and Augusta Railroad, would soon be in South Carolina. On they rolled over the clicking track, into the deeply wounded and largely unreconstructed Deep South. Lee watched the landscape change, smelled the west spring flowers, saw the woodlands rich in magnolia trees and red buds . . .
If the physical situation was lovely, the human landscape was not. Sidney Andrews, an early visitor, had found in South Carolina “enough woe and want and ruin and ravage to satisfy the most insatiate heart.” [The enemy] had done more damage in South Carolina, pillaging a path across the State forty miles wide.
A New York Herald correspondent who followed the whole campaign wrote:
“As for wholesale burnings, pillage and devastation committed in South Carolina, magnify all I have said of Georgia some fifty-fold, and then throw in an occasional murder, ‘jis to bring an old hard-fisted cuss to his senses,” and you have an idea of the whole thing.”
Corruption still permeated Statehouse, courthouse, courtroom and city hall. Dixie had been subject to such immorality and private plundering that government seemed transformed into an engine of destruction.
The antics of the South Carolina [Reconstruction] legislature scandalized the nation. Having installed two hundred six richly embossed cuspidors, the carpetbaggers and Negroes stripped he cupboard clean. “They took everything they desired,” noted the Senate clerk, Josephus Woodruff, “from swaddling cloth and cradle to the coffin and the undertaker.” The “Rule of the robbers” had begun and it would last long after General Lee had come and gone.
Lack of ability, as well as lack of morality, brought on the sorry mess. In South Carolina’s 1868 Convention, seventy-six of the delegates were newly-emancipated Negroes, of whom only seventeen were taxpayers. Their governor, Ohio-born R.K. Scott, was induced to sign one of the more notorious pieces of legislation while he was intoxicated.
Knowing some of these things, Lee must have been sick at heart as he pulled into decimated Columbia. Rain was pouring down. Confederate veterans, used to rainy musters, defied the weather and marched smartly to the railroad station. Alexander Haskell, who had commanded the Seventh South Carolina Cavalry, was there; so was General Porter Alexander who had conducted the Gettysburg bombardment preceding Pickett’s Charge.
After the usual acclaim and bravado, the train continued its journey westward through Lexington and Aiken counties toward the Georgia border. Besides all her man-inflicted woes, Georgia had suffered almost total crop failures in 1865 and 1866. Natives had tried to survive on roots and berries; the weak had starved to death. The stately rice plantations had disappeared, along with the larger cotton plantations. The problem was not how to plant new crops, but how to survive at all.
One thing, at least, was left to those who crowded to the stations whenever the train stopped; their respect for Robert E. Lee. What a burden it must have been for him to have realized this! That he could see this, understand it, and yet not be puffed up by pride, is one of the remarkable and admirable features of Robert E. Lee.”
(Lee After the War, Marshall W. Fishwick, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1963, pp. 188-192)