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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

William George White and the Funeral of Robert E. Lee

William George White

     My great-grandmother, Mary Elizabeth "Lizzie" Houston (the subject of numerous posts on this blog), was born in Rockbridge County, Virginia in 1854 to George Washington Houston (a graduate of Washington College) and Annette Louise Willson. Lizzie's grandfather was a cousin of Samuel Houston, who achieved some fame in the history of Tennessee and Texas. In 1875, Lizzie married Spotsylvania County native, George Washington Estes Row, in a ceremony held at New Providence Church in Rockbridge. The presiding minister was Ebenezer Dickey Junkin, whose father had once been president of Washington College in Lexington, and whose sister had been the first wife of Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson.

Ann Eliza Houston White
     On January 12, 1842, Lizzie's aunt, Ann Eliza Houston, married Lexington merchant William George White. Born in Rockbridge County in 1811, William was an able man of many resources and achieved a certain stature in the Lexington of his time. He was town treasurer for a while and also served as treasurer of Washington College 1857-1865.
     William and Eliza had five children who survived to adulthood. Only one of these, Ann Eliza White, married (she was the wife of Reverend Leonidas Beverly Chaney). The widowed Ann Chaney died in Fredericksburg in 1919. Her brothers and sisters--Margaret, Clara, William Houston and Robert-- lived together as a family their entire lives until each succumbed to the infirmities of old age.
     William White's store stood on Main Street in Lexington, opposite the Presbyterian Church. In January 1854, this site became the scene of of a violent struggle and murder, and the ensuing trial made headlines in many papers of the time. Harboring a grudge against VMI cadet Thomas Blackburn, Washington College law student, Charles Burks Christian, attacked him outside the church after evening services. During the fracas at the intersection of Nelson and Main Streets, Christian stabbed Blackburn, who then staggered to the walk in front of White's Store, where he died on hay scales near the store's basement entrance. (For those of you who enjoy reading well-written history, I recommend Daniel S. Morrow's book,  Death in Lexington: VMI, Honor and Justice in Antebellum Virginia. The History Press, Charleston, SC: 2013)

William Houston White

     In 1864, William G. White's older son, William Houston White,  enlisted in the Rockbridge Light Artillery immediately upon his graduation from Washington College. He remained in Confederate uniform for a year, until the surrender of General Robert E. Lee's army at Appomattox in April 1865. Earlier in the war, General Lee's son, Robert, Jr., also served in that battery. After the battle of Antietam, young Robert was promoted and became an aide to his brother, General George Washington Custis Lee [1].
     By the end of the Civil War, Washington College was destitute and its prospects were not bright. It had invested heavily in Virginia state bonds, whose potential value was negated by the outcome of the war. Fortunately, money was raised from some of the more solvent members of the local citizenry, including $20,000 contributed by inventor Cyrus McCormick. In addition to money, strong leadership was also required to attract new students to the College. The school's trustees offered the presidency of Washington College to Robert E. Lee during the summer of 1865. The former general accepted their offer, and presided at the school for the next five years.

Robert E. Lee (Wikipedia)

     Soon after his arrival, Lee was contacted by the executive committee of the Rockbridge Bible Society, which included the Society's treasurer, William George White, inviting him to join their membership. Although most families in Rockbridge were of Scots-Irish descent and devout Presbyterians, they had no difficulty in making room for the revered former general, an Episcopalian. Lee and White became good friends.
     A house was built for Mr. and Mrs. Lee. President Lee also raised funds to build a church for the school's campus. Completed in 1868, this church came to be known as Lee Chapel.
     Robert E. Lee died Wednesday morning, October 12, 1870 at 9:30 at his home at Washington College. His death could hardly have occurred at a more inopportune time for the planners of his funeral. During the first week of October 1870, the worst flood in living memory occurred on the North (now called Maury) River. Great damage was done along the canal, including the destruction of the lumber house belonging to Archibald Alexander and James D. Anderson. Just prior to the flood, Alexander and Anderson had accepted the shipment of metal coffins intended for C. M. Koones & Brother, Lexington's undertakers. Those coffins and everything else stored there had been swept down the North River.

Charles Henry Chittum (Barbara Chittum Hutchens)

     This posed a very difficult problem for the burial of Robert E. Lee. Because of the damage done to Lexington's wharf, coupled with the fact the area's roads had been washed out, it was unlikely that a proper metal coffin could be obtained in sufficient time. Volunteers began to search the river banks for the missing coffins, and one was found two miles downstream by Charles Henry Chittum, who owned a shoe shop in Lexington.

Funeral cortege of Robert E. Lee (Washington & Lee Special Collections)

     Lee's funeral took place in Lexington on October 15, 1870. Accompanied by the solemn music played by the band from the Virginia Military Institute, the funeral procession went past William White's store, shown in the photograph above. The cortege then proceeded to the College. In the picture below, throngs of mourners are seen at Lee Chapel, where he was buried.



     Among the pallbearers that day were two of Lexington's leading citizens. One was lawyer Joseph Grigsby Steele, who at one time served as clerk of court for Rockbridge County. The other was William George White.

William George White
    
     William White retired from business by 1880. His son, William Houston, assumed management of the store. William died on October 2, 1888. He is buried in the Stonewall Jackson Cemetery in Lexington.


There were two other pallbearers at Lee's funeral that day who deserve mention here:

Matthew Fontaine Maury (Wikipedia)

     Spotsylvania-born Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806-1873), called the "Pathfinder of the Seas," served his country as an astronomer, historian, oceanographer, meterologist, cartographer, geologist and naval officer. During the Civil War, Maury served the cause of the Confederacy. By the time of Lee's funeral, Maury was a professor of physics at the Virginia Military Institute.

William Preston Johnston (Wikipedia)
     William Preston Johnston (1831-1899) was the son and biographer of Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston, who was killed at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. During the Civil War, William served as aide-de-camp to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America. He was captured with Davis at Irwinville, Georgia in 1865. He spent several months imprisoned at Fort Delaware.
     At the invitation of Robert E. Lee, Johnston joined the faculty of Washington College. During his tenure there, he lived at "Clifton," a house on the North River opposite Lexington. Johnston and Lee used to sit on the porch of this house and watch collegiate boat races on the river.

Clifton

     In 1897, Clifton was purchased by Lizzie Houston's brother, Finley Houston, who at that time was quartermaster at VMI. The house remained in the Houston family for the next 80 years.

Finley Houston



[1] In 1865, Custis Lee joined the faculty of the Virginia Military Institute. After the death of his father, he assumed the presidency of Washington and Lee University, serving until 1897. In 1877, Lee sued the United States government to regain title to Arlington, his family's estate, which had been seized during the Civil War. The case went to the Supreme Court, which decided in his favor in 1882. The following year, Lee sold Arlington back to the federal government for $150,000.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. I had no idea that the Lee family was ever compensated to the seizure of Arlington plantation by the North during the Civil War. I always thought that the Federal government just kept it as a spoil of war - especially since that had by then buried Union soldiers right up to the front door of the plantation to ensure that the Lee family would never return to their home.

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