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The Funeral of Gen. Robert E. Lee


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William Nalle Letter

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Biographical Note

William Nalle, born ca. 1848, Culpeper, Virginia; graduated from Virginia Military Institute in 1872; Civil Engineer and farmer; Adjutant General of Virginia; Col., 4th Virginia Infantry, Spanish-American War; Board of Visitors, VMI, 1898-1906; died July 30, 1911 in Culpeper, Virginia.

Letter of October 16, 1870 from Cadet William Nalle to his mother, Mrs. Thomas Botts Nalle. Contains a detailed account of the death and funeral of General Robert E. Lee. Nalle describes mourning activities at VMI, Washington College, and Lexington; standing guard over Lee's body with other cadets; funeral procession. Nalle also mentions flood in Rockbridge County that destroyed canal locks, bridges and other property.

Va Military Institute
Lexington Oct 16th 1870

Dear Mother

I expect you have been looking for a letter from me for some time and in fact I would have written but about the time I thought of writing the rains & the flood came on, destroying bridges canals, & cutting off communication generally.

I suppose of course that you have all read full accounts of Gen Lee's death in the papers. He died on the morning of the 12th at about half past nine. All business was suspended at once all over the country and town, and all duties, military and academic suspended at the Institute, and all the black crape and all similar black material in Lexington, was used up at once, and they had to send on to Lynchburg for more. Every cadet had black crape issued to him, and an order was published at once requiring us to wear it as a badge of mourning for six months. The battalion flag has heavily draped in black, and is to stay so for the next six months. The Institute has been hung all around with black. The College buildings were also almost covered with black. All the churches and in fact the town looked as if they had been trying to cover everything with festoons of black cambric, and every sort of black that could be procured.

The morning after his death we marched up and escorted the remains from the house to Washington College Chapel, where they lay in "state" until the burial yesterday morning.

After the remains were placed in the Chapel on the morning of the 13th the entire procession was marched through the Chapel, past the corpse, which they were allowed to look at. The lid of the coffin having been taken off for that purpose. I saw the General after his death, and never saw a greater change than must have taken place in him a short time before he died. Some days before he was taken I met him in the path leading into town, coming in direction of the barracks. He was walking, and seemed to be the picture of health, and when I saw him in his coffin, he looked to be reduced to half his original size, and desperately thin. When first taken with the paralytic stroke or whatever it was, he fell on his dining room floor, a bed was placed under him and he died where he fell. The doctors forbid anyone to move him. Myself and four other cadets with Gen Smith's permission sat up all night with the corpse on Friday night, perfect silence was kept the whole night, no one speaking except in a low whisper. It was considered a great honor to be allowed to sit up with the remains, and a great many applied for the privilege but one of the college professors on arrival took only five of us, whom he requested to stay.

The day following the funeral procession after marching all around town and through the Institute grounds, formed around the college chapel and he was buried in the chapel under the floor of the basement. The procession was a very large one, a great many persons from a distance being here. Our brass band with muffled drums, went ahead of the hearse playing the dead march. Cannon of our stationary battery were fired & &. The hearse however was perfectly empty the corpse being all the time in the Chapel where it was placed at first.

The flood of which I spoke, did a great deal of damage in this part of the country, carrying off some ten or fifteen houses, some dwelling houses some ware houses situated at the canal boat landing near here all the bridges in the river were carried off and the canal running to this place entirely ruined, all the locks being torn up and carried off. It was a rare sight to see large houses, bridges, mills & every sort of lumber go sailing at a rapid rate, down the river. Up to a week or two since, we could get no mails or any thing that had to come from a distance, and it is still very difficult to get provisions. Mails come and go regularly now, as they have fixed ferries for stages &&.

I was made a sergeant in Co A about three weeks ago, and the evening after the first appointment, I was appointed color sergeant. I have to carry the battalion flag and have charge of the color guard, do not wear any such accoutrements as cartridge box and bayonet scabbard, when I am in charge of the guard, as the other sergeants have to do, but wear only a sword and sash, go to church in the staff, and enjoy various other privileges Jessie is getting along very well, he seems to be a great favorite. I had him put in a room, with the best new cadets that I could find. One of them is a son of Col. Dulaney of Loudoun, the others seem very nice little fellows, and they are all about the same size.

I am getting along pretty well I think, and I written about all that I can think of at present. Let me hear from you soon and let me know whether or not Gen Smith sent pa the receipt for the deposit.
Your affectionate son
W. Nalle

Funeral of Gen. Robert E. Lee, October 1870

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Below is a transcription of a request submitted by Virginia Military Institute cadets to VMI's Superintendent Francis H. Smith to serve as honor guard after death of General Robert E. Lee.

V.M. Institute
October 14, 1870

We the undersigned cadets respectfully apply for permission to be absent from Barracks from 7 P.M. today until 8 A.M. tomorrow, as their services have been kindly accepted by the Chief Marshall at Washington College to sit up with the remains of General Robert E. Lee tonight.

Respectfully Submitted by Cadets Hamilton, Alex.; Morgan, J.H.; Hawkins, N.D. Taylor, S.M.; Taylor, Z.; Sullivan, A.R.; Nalle, Wm.,  Murrell, W.H.; Harrison, N.M.; Farrar, Walton.

Cadet William Nalle

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Cadet life, 1870.
Summer camp scene. Cadet William Nalle, Class of 1872, right front. Shows tents, artillery field pieces, drum, cadets. 

Robert E. Lee

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Birth: Jan. 19, 1807Death: Oct. 12, 1870

Civil War Confederate General.

He occupies a unique place in U.S. military history. Dispite his affiliation with the Confederacy, he is often regarded as one of America's greatest soldiers. As head of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee fought eight major campaigns. Half of them: The Seven Days, 2nd Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, were noted victories. Of the other four campaigns, Gettysburg and Petersburg were decisive losses; Antietam was unsuccessful, but not disastrous; and the Wilderness-Spotsylvania was considered a draw. During the last winter of the war, in February 1865, Lee was named General-in-Chief of all the southern armies. The appointment came to late. By that time, there was little that he could do to prevent the collapse of the Confederacy. Two months later, on April 9, 1865, Lee was forced to surrender at Appomattox Court House. His post-war years were spent as President of little Washington College (now Washington & Lee University), 1865-1870. On Sept 28th, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in the college presidents residence. The next ten days showed a steady improvement. However, on October 12th, during the worst rain storm and flooding in Virginia history, he became suddenly worst. With the last words, "Strike the Tent", he quietly and peacefully expired. The first building constructed by the General as head of the college was the chapel and it was decided to be the burial place. A casket for Lee had to be retrieved from those that had been washed down stream because of the flooding. The only useable one was short and the Generals boots were removed so that he would fit. His body was embalmed at the residence, dressed in his military uniform, place in the retrieved casket and taken to the College Chapel for viewing. One day prior, a funeral procession was formed at the Episcopal church ( Robert E. Lee was a member) of enormous proportions. At the head was a brass band with muffled drums followed by a hearse (minus the body as it remained in the College Chapel) and behind came "Traveller" the Generals famous horse and finally thousands of people from every walk of life. After parading around town and through the College it ended at the College Chapel with concluding cannon fire by cadets from nearby Virginia Military Institute. All were permitted to past by the bier of the General. The following day, a service was conducted and the body was placed in the basement crypt. When Mrs. Lee passed on, her body was entombed next to her husband's and each of the remaining six children was laid to rest there as well. Their daughter Annie Carter remained in a cemetery in North Carolina where she died during the civil war. In 1994 she was disinterred and reinterred in the Lee Chapel thus reuniting her with the Lee family. Even "Traveller" after being mounted and displayed for a time was removed and buried a few yards away.

Lee Chapel Museum
Lexington (Lexington City County)
Lexington city
Virginia, USA

Confederate General

Robert E. Lee, considered by most authorities to have been the Confederacy's best general, was born and raised in his beloved Virginia. His parents, Revolutionary War hero "Light Horse Harry" Lee and Ann Carter, were from two of the most prominent families in the state, but his father squandered most of their money and deserted his mother when Robert was young.

Lee met Jefferson Davis when he entered West Point. He graduated a year after the future Confederate president, ranking second in the class of 1829. Entering the Engineers, Lee performed duties such as supervising construction of a fort and flood control work before winning notice (and three brevets) on the staff of Winfield Scott during the Mexican War.

Lee and Davis had considerable contact in the early 1850s while Lee was superintendent of West Point and Davis served as secretary of war. In 1855 Davis granted Lee's wish for a more active command and arranged his transfer to the cavalry.

Lee's personal conflict over what he should do when the Civil War broke out has been well documented. Offered command of the Union army, he chose instead to side with his native state. After serving in western Virginia and South Carolina during the first year of the war, Lee was called to Richmond in March 1862 and became Davis' top military adviser. When Joseph E. Johnston was wounded that May, Davis asked Lee to assume command of what was coming to be known as the Army of Northern Virginia.

Lee deflected George B. McClellan's move on Richmond in the Seven Days' campaign, then transferred his army northward to defeat John Pope at Second Manassas. Following up on his success, he crossed the Potomac in September, but was forced to pull back after fighting to a bloody draw at Antietam. Lee's men repulsed Union advances at Fredericksburg in December 1862 and Chancellorsville the next May, then crossed the Potomac again, only to be turned back at Gettysburg.

Throughout the final year of the war, Lee dueled U. S. Grant across eastern Virginia, with Grant laying siege to Petersburg in the fall and winter of 1864-65. When Grant finally broke through in April 1865, Lee was forced to abandon Richmond and attempt to reorganize his army west of the capital. With the Federals in close pursuit and his men near starvation, Lee finally surrendered on April 9.

Lee, who developed a rapport with Davis during his 1862 stint in Richmond, remained the president's most trusted military adviser. He understood Davis' desire for an aggressive prosecution of the war, and he also made a point of keeping the president well informed of his plans.

After the war Lee served as president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee) until his death. He apparently saw Davis only once more, when Davis was in Richmond in November 1867 for what was supposed to be the beginning of his trial.

For more information, the definitive work remains Douglas Southall Freeman's four-volume R. E. Lee (New York, 1934-35). The most recent biographical study, Robert E. Lee: A Biography (New York, 1995), is by Davis Papers editorial board member Emory M. Thomas. Gary W. Gallagher's Lee the Soldier (Lincoln, Neb., 1996) is an interesting collection of interviews and essays. All three works contain extensive bibliographies. Lee's relations with Davis can be traced in the published volumes of The Papers of Jefferson Davis.

Contributor: bgill
Created: June 9, 2007 · Modified: July 12, 2007

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