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Death of Robert E. Lee: October 12, 1870

On October 12, 1870, former Confederate general Robert E. Lee died at his home in Lexington, Virginia, at age 63, after suffering a stroke two weeks prior.

Fold3 Image - Map of Appomattox Court HouseFollowing his surrender to Union general Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in April 1865, Lee—who had been commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and then General in Chief of all Confederate armies—traveled to Richmond, Virginia, where his family was living. Now jobless and without an income, Lee briefly considered turning to farming but instead accepted the presidency of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia—a position he would hold until his death five years later.

Washington College (today’s Washington and Lee University)—at the time a private white, all-male school—had been damaged during the war and had fewer than 50 students when Lee became its president in the fall of 1865. During Lee’s tenure, the student body grew to several hundred students, and Lee favored adding modern, practical courses to the curriculum in addition to the traditional courses in the classics.

In the years following the Civil War, Lee largely stayed out of the public eye and avoided postwar politics. Despite being indicted, Lee was never tried for treason, due mainly to the intercession of Ulysses S. Grant on his behalf. However, although he submitted the necessary documents, Lee was never returned to U.S. citizenship during his lifetime; instead, Congress would posthumously restore his citizenship in 1975.

Fold3 Image - Page 1 (of 67) of Robert E. Lee's Civil War service recordIn his final years, Lee’s health declined due to cardiovascular disease, but he remained active with the college. In the early spring of 1870, the college faculty and Lee’s doctors recommended he travel further south for his health. This trip—in which he visited Southern states such as North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida—became what many historians call Lee’s “farewell tour.”

Although his health was poor, Lee remained president of Washington College when it resumed classes in the fall of 1870. However, on September 28, following a church meeting, Lee suffered what was most likely a stroke after returning home that evening. Lee remained largely incapacitated for two weeks following his stroke and developed pneumonia, finally passing away on the morning of October 12 at the age of 63. He was interred at the Washington College chapel.

If you’re interested in learning more about Robert E. Lee, you can find more documents and images relating to his life and career on Fold3.

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