General Robert E. Lee’s visit to Wilmington, 1870

Bernhard Thuersam

January 6, 2014

In early 1870, Robert E. Lee was serving as President of Washington College in Lexington, VA. After having experienced chest pains and general exhaustion, he decided on a recuperative visit to Savannah, Georgia and other places.

Traveling by rail on March 24th via Richmond, Lynchburg, Raleigh, Salisbury, Charlotte, Columbia, Augusta, he was met in Savannah by the largest crowd ever to assemble in that city. After a short visit to visit the grave of his father, Light-Horse Harry Lee, he then moved on to Charleston.

On April 28 the General left Charleston for Wilmington, where he had been invited to stop. The northward route was by way of Florence to Meares Bluff (Navassa), a small community just southwest of Wilmington. There, when the cars stopped, a committee came to Lee’s seat and asked him if he would climb aboard a special train that had been sent out from Wilmington and would precede the regular locomotive into that city. The General consented and left his coach to make the transfer. As he stepped to the platform, there was word of command, the roll of a drum, and a line of boys in gray uniforms presented arms as their band started to play. They were the cadets of •Cape Fear Academy, under charge of one of Lee’s old brigadiers, R. E. Colston, but they must have seemed tragically like the thousands Lee had beheld during the early days of the war, before their uniforms of gray had become bloody rags. If the General was affected by the sight of these cadets, he said nothing. He passed the cadets in silence and went aboard the special train, into a car where only a few passengers were seated. They received him, according to a chronicler of the times, with “a suppressed whisper of admiration, respectfully restrained,” but when those who had clambered down to get a first glimpse of him came back into the coach, they began to crowd about him, to his evident embarrassment. In answer to questions, he said he would stop at Wilmington, probably for a day, but he begged that there be no further demonstration.

Arriving at the old port city that must have revived dark memories of Fort Fisher, he was escorted by the cadets to the Market Street home of George Davis, who had served as attorney general in the Confederate cabinet. There, at last, was privacy, and with it, old acquaintanceship. Mrs. Davis was an Alexandria woman, daughter of Doctor Orlando Fairfax, whose family had been friends of the Lees and Custises back in the peaceful days before the politicians had revived the slavery question.

A welcomed night of quiet was followed by another busy day of crowds and receptions. Friends by the score called on him at the Davis house. The whole corps of cadets from the Cape Fear Academy came at his request, probably because he did not want them to feel that he was unappreciative of the honor they had sought to do him the previous evening. A dinner given by Mr. Davis brought to the house other friends and the celebrities of the town. Despite the crowded day, the General found time to call on Bishop Thomas Atkinson, who had been rector of a church in Baltimore when Lee had been stationed in that city.

According to “Lee: The Last Years,” Charles Flood, 1981, Lee left Wilmington by train on the morning of April 30th, bound for Portsmouth, Virginia. Taking the ferry to Norfolk, he continued on to Richmond, and then home to Lexington, VA.

Here are two accounts of his visit:

“On April 28, 1870, Wilmington received a very distinguished visitor, General Robert E. Lee. General Lee was said to have come at the invitation of General (Raleigh E.) Colston, one of Lee’s former generals. For the event, Colston brought his (Cape Fear Academy) cadets to Meares Bluff (Navassa) to personally escort Lee to the city. There the general was entertained at the home of Honorable George Davis, ex-Attorney General of the Confederacy, on North Second Street where he received the cadets and citizens who called to pay their respects. The cadets were later marched on parade for General Lee on North Third Street, and, standing on the porch of Major C.P. Bolles at 215 North Third Street, he delivered a brief but inspiring address to them.” (The Book of Wilmington, Andrew J. Howell, Wilmington Printing Company, 1930)

The General’s arrival in Wilmington is described by Congressman John D. Bellamy in a speech he made in 1898:

“In the year 1870, General Robert E. Lee, the famous Confederate Commander in Chief, made a tour of the South and on his return came through Wilmington. At that time I was Captain of the Wilmington Military Company. We met the train on which General Lee came at the present site of Navassa, my Company being clad in its best uniforms, with their muskets, bayonets and swords splendidly polished! We were accompanied by a delegation of the most prominent people in Wilmington. Also with us was the Honorable George Davis, who had been a member of the Confederate Senate and Attorney General in Jefferson Davis’s cabinet. We met General Lee and escorted him from Navassa on the train. Reaching the depot on Front Street, we formed ranks and followed the carriage in which General Lee and Mr. Davis rode to the latter’s residence on Second Street between Walnut and Red Cross, where General Lee was entertained until the next day. He then proceeded on his return trip to Richmond. It was a great honor conferred on me to have been Captain of the Cadet-Corps that escorted General Lee, and was reviewed by him in front of Mr. Davis’s residence! The people of Wilmington thronged the balconies and streets to show their profound respect, reverence and love for the great Confederate leader and chieftain.” (Memoirs of an Octogenarian, John D. Bellamy, 1941)

The Cadet Corps that John Bellamy had captained as a youth was from the Cape Fear Academy, a military school begun in Wilmington in 1868 by General Raleigh E. Colston, who served as a Brigadier under Lee in the Army of Northern Virginia. General Colston was assisted at the Academy by Frank H. Alfriend, biographer of Jefferson Davis, and the school was operated in the Hill residence on Grace Street between 3rd & 4th Streets. In April 1870, General Lee addressed the assembled cadets from the front porch of Major C.P. Bolles residence at 215 North Third Street and “each member of the Corps enjoyed the honor of an introduction and a cordial handshake of the hand of the old General.”