Lee's last letter makes a return to Lexington

WAY BACK WHEN

Back Story

April 28, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

Frayda Salkin, McDonogh School archivist, took a ride down Interstate 81 this past Monday with Gen. Robert E. Lee to Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va.

Well, sort of.

What Salkin was delivering in a locked, fireproof box was the last letter written by the Confederate general turned college president, on Sept. 28, 1870.

Lee had assumed the presidency of Washington College (now Washington and Lee) six months after the surrender of his forces at Appomattox Court House, Va., in 1865.

On a cloudy, chilly late September morning before going home for midday dinner, Lee sat quietly in his college office drafting a two-page letter to Samuel H. Tagart, an old Baltimore friend and attorney, whose letter had arrived earlier that day.

Tagart, a founder of McDonogh School in 1873 and its board's second president, was also a man of substantial business interests. He was president of the Broadway and Locust Point Ferry Co., Falls Road Turnpike Co. and the York Road Railway.

Lee first became acquainted with Baltimore beginning in 1848, when the War Department assigned the West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran to oversee the construction of Fort Carroll, which still lies unfinished just east of the Key Bridge.

Lee and his wife, Mary Ann Randolph Custis Lee, moved to a new house at 908 Madison Ave., with their three sons and four daughters.

His favorite sister, Ann, who had married Judge William Louis Marshall, also lived in the city.

The handsome young officer and his wife became popular members of Baltimore society and were communicants of Calvary Episcopal Church at Madison Avenue and Hamilton Terrace.

In 1851, the 31st Congress made no further appropriations for the fort and work ceased. The next year, Lee left Baltimore, when he was appointed superintendent of West Point.

Seventeen years and a bloody civil war would pass, before Lee returned to the city in 1869. What brought him here was promoting the building of the Lynchburg & Danville Railroad, a project that would connect Baltimore to the Carolinas and Georgia with a line through the Shenandoah Valley.

Lee arrived in Baltimore on April 21, 1869, and stayed at the home of his friend, Tagart, who gave a reception in his honor.

During his Baltimore stay, Lee spoke of the proposed railroad before the City Council, which had convened in the auditorium of Western Female High School on Fayette Street, between Paca and Green streets.

Lee remained in Baltimore visiting cousins near Ellicott City and attending Old St. Paul's Episcopal Church with his host before traveling May 1 with the Tagarts to Washington.

There they called on Ulysses S. Grant at the White House, where the president reminded his old wartime adversary, "You and I, General, have had more to do with destroying railroads than building them."

In July 1870, Lee again visited Tagart in Baltimore, returning to Lexington in early August.

"I am much better," Lee wrote to Tagart on Sept. 28, 1870. "I do not know whether it is owing to having seen you and Dr. Buckler last summer, or to my visit to the Hot Springs. Perhaps both."

Lee added that his "pains are less, and my strength greater. In fact, I suppose I am as well as I shall be."

After signing the letter "R.E. Lee," he sealed it, and left his office for the last time.

He paused outside his office for just for a minute to sign a small photograph of himself for Percy Davidson, a college sophomore. It was the last time he ever signed his name.

After the conclusion of the midday meal, he rested until attending an early evening vestry meeting at church.

Afterward, he slowly walked through the rain; shortly after returning home, he suffered the stroke that would take his life several weeks later.

On Oct. 12, 1870, Lee died. Reportedly, his last words were, "Tell Hill he must come up. Strike the tent."

At the bottom of the letter, Tagart, who died in 1892, wrote, "This is believed to be the last letter ever written by General Lee."

Presumably, the letter, which has been at McDonogh and kept in a vault for years, came through the Tagart family.

"It been appraised for $37,500," said Salkin, who during the recent trip to Lexington never took her eye off her car when she stopped for gas or a quick meal.

"I had the box in the trunk," she said.

"The letter will be on display in the room where it was written, which has remained undisturbed since Lee's death," she said.

The Tagart letter will be on exhibition from October through January 2008 at Washington and Lee University, as part of an exhibition celebrating the 200th anniversary of Lee's birth.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Find previous columns at baltimoresun.com/backstory.

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