Eleanor Agnes Lee: A Sweet Quiet Sadness

By Richard Salzberg © 2013


In visions of the dark night

I have dreamed of joy departed –

But a waking dream of life and light

Hath left me broken-hearted.

                                     From “A Dream” by E.A. Poe (1829)

 ¶      ¶      ¶      ¶

 While pursuing research for the play “True Honor, True Glory” (see www.highbridgepublications.com), the character of Agnes Lee quickly became rather revelational. A recent visit to the Lee Chapel & Museum at Washington and Lee University (www.leechapel.wlu.edu) impelled a re-acquaintance, with magical items in its remarkable exhibition spaces making Agnes’ story and that of her family all the more compelling. Accompanying the poignancy and accomplishments of her life, a number of ongoing considerations emerged, including broad definitions of “courage” (and to what degree suffering might contribute to that), and just what it means to be remembered.     

Eleanor Agnes Lee 6-07-13Eleanor Agnes Lee (1841–1873) was the third of four daughters and the fifth of seven children of Mary Anna Custis and Robert E. Lee, born at the family’s estate at Arlington. Despite direct descendancy from George Washington (her maternal grandfather was the president’s adopted son and the builder of Arlington) and the aristocratic Lees of Virginia and England, in today’s parlance Agnes would be considered an “army brat.” Most of her life was spent in Virginia, including her years at the Virginia Female Institute in Staunton, now the Stuart Hall School. The most notable exception was the time the family spent in New York, when her father served as Superintendent of West Point, from 1852 to 1855. Those antebellum years through 1858 were evocatively recounted in “Growing Up in the 1850s: The Journal of Agnes Lee, a colorful reminiscence published only in 1984, with the years at West Point recalled with particular fondness.

The years growing up at Arlington seem idyllic. The four Lee girls (Mary, Annie, Agnes, and Mildred) had their gardens, their tutors and books, their array of dogs and cats and chickens, and the dolls with whom to share porcelain tea parties; while the boys (Custis, Fitz, and Rob) also had whatever they needed, along with the natural world of their hundreds of acres overlooking the Potomac River. And there was also always a steady flow of visitors and playmates, cousins from their large extended family, and a host of friends.  

Agnes was deeply religious, and confirmed in the Episcopal Church in 1857. Whether or not impelled by that, she would today be considered a social activist. Despite laws prohibiting it, “. . . she helped to instruct the Arlington slaves by conducting a Sunday evening school for them, and by instructing individual children before and after breakfast.” Although contemporary standards are ever too easily applied to societies of past centuries, that effort and commitment for its time and place was as radical as it was commendable. It also says much about the character and values of the Lee family.   

On the eve of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee turned down the command of Federal troops offered by President Lincoln, and resigned his commission in April of 1861. He left Arlington and never returned; and the world of Agnes Lee turned darker and far more narrow. The family was forced to leave the home they had known for more than 30 years and move further south. They never owned another residence.

With all three sons in the army, the sisters were able to do some traveling within the boundaries of the short-lived Confederate nation, but their home life was centered at the townhouse they rented at 707 E. Franklin Street in Richmond, and caring for their invalided mother, Mary. As the two middle sisters, Agnes and Anne Carter Lee were particularly close. Unlike the other Lee siblings, there is no definitive image of Annie, due to a childhood accident which cost her the sight in one eye. In the fall of 1862, when Annie was stricken with typhoid fever while in North Carolina, it was Agnes who risked her life to be by her side, providing whatever care and comfort she could. A young relative recorded that when Annie died at the age of 23, it “was a shock to Agnes from which she never recovered.”  

One of the revelations about Agnes is that she was committed to poetry, as can be seen at www.poemhunter.com/eleanor-agnes-lee. In “Her Going” she writes:


I am a child, yet old as the earliest sorrow.

Talk to me as you would to an old, old woman.

I own the ages.

Another severe blow followed the next year, when what had been “a storybook romance” between Agnes and Orton Williams became another of the war’s countless tragedies. Their mothers were actually first cousins, and they had been playmates throughout childhood. Orton’s sister, Markie, was also Agnes’ best friend. Their fathers served together in the old Army Engineers until Orton’s father was killed in the Mexican War. By all accounts and expectations they were to be married. But that was never to be. Not long after Annie’s death, during the Christmas season of 1862, the Lee women were staying at Hickory Hill, the Virginia country home of relatives. Col. Orton Williams proposed marriage at that time, having taken leave from his regiment “in the west.” But for reasons never made known, Agnes rejected the young man’s proposal. 

By all accounts she still loved him deeply. A family member who was at Hickory Hill as a child later wrote: “We could not understand it. After a long session in the parlor from which we children had been warned to stay away he came out, bade the family good-bye and rode away alone.” Perhaps the proposal was too close to Annie’s death. Or perhaps it was because two years of war had changed and hardened young Orton Williams. As a soldier he had gained the reputation of being brave yet reckless, even unpredictably violent, and some said he had taken to drink. In any case, in June of 1863, Williams and another Confederate officer were captured behind Union lines near Franklin, Tennessee. The purpose of Williams’ mission was never revealed, and the exact details of their case remain a tragic mystery (see www.civilwarcavalry.com/?p=720). After a summary trial, both men were hanged as spies the next day. Just hours before his death, he wrote to his sister Markie: “Do not believe that I am a spy; with my dying breath I deny the charge.”


Who shall question her now in the land of shadow,

Question the mute pale lips, and the marble fingers,

Eyelids fallen on eyes grown dim as the autumn?

Ah, the beloved!

The deaths of Annie Lee and Orton Williams took a toll on Agnes’ health from which she never recovered. The once light-hearted girl – “General Lee’s pretty daughter” – became a distant figure, damaged and care-worn far beyond her years. Always reserved, Agnes became perceived as rather cold and aloof. But in the words of one Lee family biographer: “They were seeing not pride, but a mask for sorrow.”

After the surrender at Appomattox in April, 1865, R.E. Lee was essentially a man without a country, and “a civilian with means of livelihood.” After turning down a number of more remunerative offers, he accepted the presidency of Washington College, returning to the arena of education in which he had been so comfortable at West Point. So at the age of 24, in October of 1865, Agnes and her family moved to Lexington, Virginia.

Flowers 6-08-2013In her poem “Peace,” Agnes wrote:

Soon where the shrapnel fell

Petals shall wake and stir.

Look – she is here, she lives!

Beauty has died for her.

The Lees first settled into the original President’s House (ca. 1842), then later into a new home built by the General with modern conveniences of the day (and a connected brick stable for his old warhorse, Traveller). After so much suffering, a more peaceful time began, with the responsibility of the Lee women essentially to support the new president socially; although, sadly, it does not seem to have been a hopeful time for Agnes. That first year in Lexington she was stricken with a serious illness. In a letter to his son, Rooney, Lee wrote: “On my return I found Agnes quite sick, she having been taken with fever the day I left. She is better I hope poor child, but terribly reduced & prostrated, nor is she yet relieved of her disease.” Frequent family visits to Greenbrier’s White Sulphur Springs, and Warm Springs in Bath County for rest and cure were pleasant, but apparently did little to alleviate her ailments.

In his final role, Lee proved to be the most capable and visionary of college administrators, overseeing the vitalization of one of Virginia’s most respected institutions, and creating academic and organizational models which still hold. (This included the establishment of the first School of Journalism in the country.) But by 1870, Lee was tired, and far older than his 63 years. In March of that year, at the urging of his doctors and family, the aging general embarked upon a journey which was to serve to restore his health. Accompanied by Agnes, who served faithfully as her father’s companion and nurse, their odyssey took them through five states to the warmer climes of Georgia and Florida. On their way south they stopped at Warrenton, N.C., where they visited Annie’s grave and spread white hyacinths; and on their return they took a steamer from Jacksonville to Cumberland Island off the coast of lower Georgia and visited the last resting place of Lee’s father, Revolutionary War hero General Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, who had died when Robert was only 11 years old.

After more than six weeks, rather than a quiet, health-restoring excursion, the event had become an exhausting tour for both Agnes and her father. The South’s greatest hero was publicly received and wildly celebrated at every stop along their way, with General Lee at some places simply too weak to leave the train. They returned to Lexington in early May, with another summer of work and college society following. Agnes remained wan, with the General weakening; and in late September he suffered a stroke from which he never recovered. He died in his home on October 12, 1870, surrounded by his beloved family.

The few years remaining to Agnes after her father’s passing were surely trying and sorrowful. Expressions in a letter to a friend who had moved to Havana are telling: “How this warm island you were on when you wrote contrasts with the snow here that has lain on the ground a month, & the canal wh(ich) is one great source of supply to this place has been frozen for that length of time. Ah! I should like to spend a winter with you where there is no winter. . . We are in a land of strangers to you. Good – very Presbyterian, kind, but – not so winning in their manners as those we have been accustomed to. . . I am house keeper & find it quite a change with an ignorant girl for cook, & the mistress no wiser!” It seems also that she never recovered her health. Reflecting on the Lee family, a Lexington acquaintance noted: “Agnes was an invalid and was away from home on health trips most of the time and I saw very little of her.”


The snow is lying very deep.

My house is sheltered from the blast.

I hear each muffled step outside,

I hear each voice go past.

But I’ll not venture in the drift

Out of this bright security,

Till enough footsteps come and go

To make a path for me.

                                         –  Eleanor Agnes Lee

Eleanor Agnes Lee died in Lexington in October of 1873. She was only 32 years old. Hers was a quiet but exceptional life, if only for being the child of Robert E. Lee. One can try and imagine the sort of young woman Agnes Lee would be today, or perhaps simply imagine further how her life actually was. With such an idyllic youth, followed by war, tragedy, and sacrifice, that life can be seen as emblematic for her tumultuous times, and also seen as poignantly representative of a distant generation of women which in many ways is still relevant.

                                                                              Finis  –    


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