July/august 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 4
Had he been a Catholic, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, self-effacing in victory and noble in defeat, would likely today be known as St. Robert of Appomattox, idol as he was of his people, their lodestar. It is not so easy to be the daughter of a saint, idol, lodestar.
Robert E. Lee was a wonderful father to his young children. He taught them to ride, bought sleds and skates, had them learn to swim, competed in their jumping contests, was intensely involved in their studies. Telling lively and entertaining stories—he liked to be tickled and would say, “No tickling, no stories”—and showing how step-by-step solutions could be found for Schoolbook problems, he was always cheery and with a bright smile that, Robert Jr. remembered, characterized him for his boys and girls.
The children turned into adults. The general adored his son Rooney’s wife, and he was forever asking friends to find a suitable match for his youngest son: “You see, there is no Mrs. R. E. Lee, Jr. Cannot you persuade some of those pretty girls in Baltimore to take compassion on a poor bachelor?”
It was different for the daughters. Quite different. “Experience will teach you,” he wrote Mildred, “that notwithstanding all appearances to the contrary, you will never receive such a love as is felt for you by your father and mother. . . . Your own feelings will teach you how it should be returned and appreciated.” When Agnes went to a friend’s nuptials, her father wrote, “I hope that this is the last wedding that you will attend.” When she became involved in another friend’s marriage preparations, he wrote a relative, “There was a great rage for matrimony, and the fever seemed to be contagious. It made me anxious to extricate Agnes.”
The oldest of the four daughters, Mary, was born in 1835. Anne was born in 1839 and Agnes two years later; the two were so close as to be known collectively as the Girls. Mildred arrived in 1846. Lee early referred to her as Precious Life; in time it became simply Life. They grew up at the Arlington estate their mother had inherited, playing amid jasmine and lilac and honeysuckle and grape arbor and rose garden and herb border and woods and orchards where now are the national-cemetery gravestones. When their father was away, he wrote them of cats and dogs and horses he had met or taken with him, ending always with reminders of how he prayed for and loved them. “ They must not go in the sun without their bonnets,” he wrote their mother.
They were tutored at home before attendance at what were termed female academies or female institutes— “Staunton Jail,” the girls termed one —and when at Arlington followed their mother’s lead in teaching slaves to read, although it was against Virginia law to do so. She was afraid, Anne wrote, that the slaves’ spelling and syntax did not “do us, their masters, teachers I mean, much credit.”
The war came. Their brothers were in the Confederate Army along with General Lee. They knitted socks and gloves for soldiers and worked in hospitals for the wounded, Mildred in a blue riding habit never mentioning who her father was. In North Carolina Anne grew ill. Gentle Annie, her father called her. It was typhoid. “Where’s Agnes?” were her last words. A staff officer came into Lee’s tent and found him crying as he read the letter. She was twenty-three.
The war ended. Arlington was lost. Lee went to be president of Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia. For relaxation from his new job he went riding on his horse Traveller with his daughters. Precious Life was his most regular companion. Perhaps he loved her best of all. “Where is my little Miss Mildred?” he would call when he came home at the end of the day. “She is my light-bearer, the house is never dark when she is in it.”
Lexington was jammed with students from the all-male college and Virginia Military Institute, and there were plenty of young professors. Callers came in squads. Evenings just before ten Lee entered his outer parlor, where the young women and their guests were chatting or singing at the piano. That was the signal for the gentlemen to make their good-nights. If one failed to take the hint, Lee sat at his side and looked at him. His final weapon was to get up and start closing the window shutters.
None of the young men ever became a serious suitor for any of the daughters. That one might seemed never to enter Lee’s mind, for when he spoke of the future, it was of how his girls would remain with their parents and take care of them, make them clothing and collect eggs from the chicken coop. Mildred liked chickens, naming them after friends and relatives. “My chickens are a great comfort,” she told a friend. “I am often dreadfully lonely,” she wrote. Did all four of the Lee daughters live out their lives as virgins? “Oh, certainly,” says Mary P. Coulling, author of The Lee Girls . “Well, maybe not Mary. But I doubt it.” Mary was sharp, critical, independent, self-willed. “You know, she is not sympathetic with weakness, nervousness,” Mildred wrote of her, years later.
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.