General Lee’s Daughters

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In the spring of 1870, his health not good, Lee took protracted leave from his duties to go on a trip. He would take Agnes with him, he wrote a friend, “or perhaps she will take me.” Their first stop was Warrenton, North Carolina, to visit Gentle Annie’s grave at the Jones Springs cemetery. Agnes piled white hyacinths on it. Six months later he sat listening to Mildred play Mendelssohn’s “Funeral March” on the piano. “Life, that is a doleful piece,” he smilingly said, kissed her, and left wearing a cape for the rain. That night Mildred and Agnes rubbed his hands, wiped off perspiration, tried to get him to take medicines. He declined to do so: “It is of no use.” In two weeks he was dead. Mildred found she could not bear to be on a horse any more and did not even want to visit Traveller and the others in their stalls.

Three years later, in 1873, long ill with a debilitating intestinal disorder, Agnes was gone. She was thirty-two. Within a month Mrs. Lee also was dead. Mildred was then twenty-seven but suddenly looked far older, her face lined and hair gray. It was hard for people not seeing her for a while to recognize Precious Life, her father’s darling.

Mary traveled: Australia, Japan, India, Europe, Africa, everywhere, a total of more than two dozen countries. Once, in Egypt, she was asked to a dinner honoring a former President of the United States. “I wouldn’t sit down at the same table with General Grant to save his life,” Mary said. Back in Lexington a desolately lonely Mildred wrote, “Most women when they lose such a Father replace by husband and children. I have had nothing—” The cause, derivation, and meaning of her loneliness were entirely understood: “To me he seems a Hero—& all other men small in comparison.” There must have been opportunities for both aging women to marry widowers, men whose wives had died in childbirth. Neither did.

Mary went on her trips, and Precious Life said of Robert Jr.’s little girls: “My two precious nieces occupied my entire time and heart. One must have something to love in this world.” In 1905, her father thirtyfive years gone, Mildred was in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. She was found unconscious in her room from a stroke. She died the next morning. She was fifty-nine. Flags were at halfmast all over the South for Robert E. Lee’s favorite daughter.

Mary was in London as the First World War began. “I am a soldier’s daughter,” she said to a reporter, “and what I can foresee of this war and the misery which must follow have made me nearly a peace advocate at any price.” She died in 1918, just after the armistice. She was buried at Lexington with all the Lees save for Anne. Then, over the years, Anne’s North Carolina cemetery turned into lovers’ lane and dump; her obelisk was knocked over, so in October of 1994 the remains were removed to Lexington. There with their father they rest, the vestal virgins who kept the flame or the four old maids, take your pick.