Little Lost Girl and the Civil War General

 

A young girl like this accidently found her way into the bed of a later Civil War general.

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There’s only one thing more disconcerting that waking up and hearing strange noises in the night. Waking up and finding a stranger in your bed is worse. Even if it’s only a small child.

One of my favorite anecdotes of any Civil War general deals precisely with that situation. Like many other Civil War generals, this one got his first taste of battle in the Mexican-American War. That war, fought between 1846 and 1848, was like a training ground for many of the West Point graduates. For a brief period of time, they all fought side by side, only to fight against each other thirteen years later.

The Civil War general was travelling on a steamer like this one.

Steamer, ca. 1852. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

It was in August 1846 when it happened. He was on his way to the war, travelling aboard a steamer. The passengers consisted of 66 mules, quartered in the “Ladies Saloon,” a young soldier’s wife journeying to the front to find her husband, her little daughter, and my general, who at that point was a captain. He and the soldier’s wife had neighboring cabins in a section of the boat labeled, in gold letters, “Ladies Private Apartments.” The sole three human passengers reached their cabins by passing under a sign “Gentlemen Not Admitted.” That the future general was allowed to sleep there was probably an exception to give more room to the mules.

Mules boarding a ship.

Mules boarding a ship over a passenger gangplank. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

One night, the little girl apparently used the head and wandered back to the wrong cabin.

The future general wrote about it in a letter to his family the following day. “I was dreaming of you all last night & thought [our] daughter was in the bed with me & I was wondering how she should be so small when lo & behold when I awoke in the morning and found it was little Agnes. But I did not see that precious Mildred [one of his daughters].”

Morguefile free photos.

Morguefile free photos.

There’s no additional information about little Agnes and her mother; they remain unidentified and lost to history. But I’ve often wondered if Agnes, who was probably a teenager during the Civil War, ever remembered the incident and realized she had spent half a night in the arms of the now-famous general.

Robert E. Lee, ca. 1846.

Robert E. Lee, ca. 1846. Library of Congress.

The general was Robert E. Lee, but it could have also been Ulysses S. Grant, Nathan Bedford Forrest, or George Gordon Meade for all it matters. The point is that none of those men were made of wax or marble; they were flesh and blood, like us. When they were at home, their children slept in their beds, and at least once, in the morning, one of them returned a lost, sleeping girl to her mother.

Literature on point

Emory M. Thomas, Robert E. Lee: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995) p. 113.

Robert E. Lee to Mary Custis Lee, August 13, 1846, Lee Family Papers, Mss1L51c50, Virginia Historical Society.

4 Comments

  1. JamiG4
    Jun 11, 2015

    If we could remember that we’re all just human beings, doing the best we can, as we ride this planet through the solar system, then we’d all be a lot more understanding. And much more forgiving.

    • Ann Marie
      Jun 12, 2015

      That’s true, JamiG4. There’s also a tendency to deify some historical figures, and although they may offer plenty to admire, the deification doesn’t help our understanding of history. I love this story simply because it’s so human.

  2. Antoine Vanner
    Jan 17, 2016

    There was apparently a case after the Civil War when at Sunday service, in Lee’s otherwise all-white church, a black man advanced to the altar rails and knealt down for communion. Nobody moved. Lee went forward and knealt down beside him. Enough said.

    • Ann Marie
      Jan 17, 2016

      I’ve read that too, Antoine. It was a small gesture that spoke a thousand words.

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