A VERY close look at Davis and R.E. Lee–“It makes one feel better to look at him,” and the hair in his ears

From John Hennessy:

In answering a research request today, I came across this remarkable description of President Davis and Robert E. Lee, down to the hair growing out of Lee’s ears. The occasion was a service at St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church in Orange on November 22, 1863–just a few days before the Union army crossed the Rapidan to commence the Mine Run Campaign. The soldier was a commissary officer in the 47th North Carolina (the original is privately owned; a typescript resides in the park’s collection).  The letter reflects a type of writing that has, in the age of photography and video, largely disappeared from our world: the art of physical and personal description.  It largely speaks for itself.

St. Thomas Church today, courtesy of their website.

This morning I went with a friend up to Orange to attend church, the Episcopal. The motive that induced me particularly was the hope of seeing no less a personage than Pres. Davis, having learned that he came up on the train from Richmond yesterday. We were at the church early to secure seats, entered by the left door and sat near the middle of the house and near the left hand wall, the church fronting west. The services were commenced, by a young clergyman, evidently the rector, but Gen. Pendleton was seated near, in his black robe. You may remember that I gave you an account of a fast day sermon he preached in the same house last summer. He is in command of all the artillery n Gen. Lee’s army….

Pres. Davis and Gen. Lee entered while the young clergyman was reading a prayer and the congregation had bowed their heads. On looking up, I discovered very near me the well known form and face of Gen. Lee, and on his left, the thin, bony face that reminds one so forcibly of a postage stamp as to excite a smile. He was dressed in a plain dark citizen’s dress, with a worn brown overcoat thrown loosely over his shoulders, of which he divested himself on rising to take part in the service. His hair is slightly grey and his hair cut short. His face tapers to a point at the chin. If he were a plain common man he would be called “Lantern-pawed.” His cheeks are prominent. A very thin beard hangs under his chin….He is evidently careworn and pale from the burden of responsibility and the mental anxiety consequent on his office.

The interior of St. Thomas's church, from a postcard

By his side sat Gen. Lee, the very opposite of the President in form, features and general appearance. He is burly & “beefy” and fat. His form is large and full and round. His face is massive in its proportions, his nose slightly aquiline, his hair and beard are I the transition state from grey to snowy, his crown almost utterly bald, the back of his neck full and fat, indicating more of the animal in his nature than the lean, intellectual President.  He holds a high head and is the very impersonation of dignity and manly power.

Lynchburg Museum System

It makes one feel better to look at him. I was near enough to see that a bunch of coarse, brisly, black hair grows seemingly out of the orifice of each ear. He wears a very plain uniform and the three stars on his collar are of the plainest order.

In the sacred desk was Gen. Pendleton, who reminds me of Gen. Lee when the latter is not near. Near the centre of the house sat Gen. Lee & Pres. Davis, the two most prominent men in the Confederacy. I also noticed in the crowded house the face of Gen. A.P. Hill, Gen. Anderson, Gen. Wilcox, some other Generals to me unknown, and a host of lesser military lights…with a sprinkling of ladies to add grace and beauty to the medley. The sermon was plain and practical, pervaded by a tone of feeling.

 Justice concluded his missive with a lament: 

…The evil days are now upon us. Days of darkness and toil and sorry fill the years now. The hearts of all are hardened, and pity scarcely lingers in the human breast. Homes are desolate, the strength and pride of our land fall in battle by the thousands. O when will it end. When can I live in peace and quiet in the sweetest, best, little home on earth.



14 thoughts on “A VERY close look at Davis and R.E. Lee–“It makes one feel better to look at him,” and the hair in his ears

  1. I love pointing out to lady friends who comment about how “handsome” they think Robert E. Lee is, that he had a comb over! Now I can tell them he had hair growing out of his ears too!! Oh the joy of raining on people’s parades! 🙂

  2. Take a look @ the above letter written November 22, 1863 after a service @ St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Orange, Virginia. George E.(Edward) Tayloe was in Orange with General Robert E.(Edward) Lee @ this time and he was probably one of the officers in the church mentioned in the letter above. Delia Smith Willis (of Woodpark – Home of George Willis, her father) was also probably @ this service since this was her families church. George Edward Tayloe met Delia Smith Willis while he was in Orange with General Lee during the Fall of 1863 and the Winter of 1864. (They were married February 9, 1864 which was 79 days after this letter was written.)

    Additional notes:

    Jefferson Davis was @ the service as mentioned above.

    General A.P. Hill from Culpeper was also @ the service. He, his wife and his pregnant daughter were staying @ Mayhurst in Orange during this time since the Union Army had just occupied Culpeper. Mayhurst was the home of Henry Willis of Orange. (Henry Willis was the brother of George Willis of Woodpark) A.P.Hills daughter had her baby @ Mayhurst during this time and General Robert E. Lee was the Godfather of this child. The child was Christined @ St Thomas and General Lee became the Godfather. There was a party celebration the event @ Mayhurst following the Christening. You know that General Lee, General A P Hill, Henry Willis and his family, George Willis and his family, etc. had to have been @ Mayhurst for this party. Delia Willis obviously would have been there and if she was already courting George Tayloe, he would have been there with her.

    Woodpark and Mayhurst are still standing. Mayhurst is currently a B&B.

    Gareth & David – George Edward Tayloe and Delia Smith Willis Tayloe are your Great Great Grandparents. George Edward Tayloe graduated from VMI in 1858 and was an officer in the Army of Northern Virginia from 1861-1865. He was @ Appomattox with Lee during the surrender.

    Robert Edward Lee and George Edward Tayloe were related through family marriages.

    General A.P. Hill was killed less than one week before the end of the war in fighting around Petersburg.

    • David: Not sure that all you intended to share in your comment appeared. I didn’t look for additional descriptions of the service, but suspected there were some. I suspect we would all love to see what you have.. Thanks. John H

      • There is a correction to what I wrote above. It was not A.P. Hill’s daughter who was pregnant while staying @ Mayhurst. It was his wife Dolly. So Robert E. Lee became the godfather of A.P. Hill’s daughter upon her birth @ Mayhurst in Orange.

        Another note:

        A.P. Hill’s home in Culpeper on East Street is also still standing.

  3. Meow…meow…meow! Feel better now, Mr. Hennessey? Is this really where contemporary research re: the War for Southern Independence has led us…to the hair in Lee’s ears? LOL. Also, I wonder what that commissary officer from the 47th North Carolina looked like, and what kind of person he was in his relationships with family and friends? One fact we do know is that we human beings tend to describe those people and things we approve of in pleasant and complimentary terms, and describe those people and things we disapprove of in unpleasant and uncomplimentary terms. Perhaps we should heed the following admonition: ‘Judge not lest ye be judged’. Just a suggestion. LOL.

  4. I’m not sure how anyone reading this description might conclude that the writer (Justice) did not “approve of” Lee or that he saw anything “unpleasant and uncomplimentary” in his commander in chief. The point of sharing this description is precisely the opposite of what you suggest. Justice’s attention to detail–the effort he put into describing Lee and Davis–reflects the writer’s admiration of Lee and his excitement at getting a close look at, as he put it, the two most important men in the Confederacy. Too, I think the passage a great example of the lost art of human description. More than most any other description of Lee I have seen, it humanizes him. Isn’t it our purpose to understand these people on a human level?

    As to why I posted it: the dark motives you imply never entered my mind (indeed I find them comical), and I confess it never occurred to me that someone could possibly find this heartfelt, human description of Lee objectionable.

    Alas. We learn every day.

    John H.

    • John,

      Your comments are well said and to the point. My take is that he is juxtaposing the descriptions of the two, and in no way demeans either. In fact, he writes about Lee, “He holds a high head and is the very impersonation of dignity and manly power…t makes one feel better to look at him.”

      What a fabulous description of Lee that is probably far more accurate than any we have ever seen written about him.


  5. John,

    i agree with you and found this interesting, and i am as big a fan of Gen Lee as anyone. For some people, i guess the pedestal just isn’t high enough….

  6. Very nice, informative article about a part of the story that is as important, although not as well known, as the battles and battlefields.

    I saw nothing negative in the article about either Lee or Davis. Although this was the first time I recall Lee being referred to as fat. Certainly there are first person accounts which describe them, and others, in less than flattering terms. Even in one case his own troops going so far as to threaten Gen. William Mahone at gunpoint. This seemed to be far from that.

    I look forward to more articles which tell about the day to day events in the lives of the participants.

  7. Fascinating! Thanks Mr. Hennessy. It appears that even R.E. Lee suffered from the slowing of the metabolism that hits many people as they age. I agree that this is as human a portrait of the general as we are likely to read.

  8. Davis as “lantern-pawed”? Pawed? The common description is “jawed,” an error in reading faded script i would venture is easily made. Is this what the official transcript says? If so, what does “lantern-pawed” mean?

    • Jim: We only have the transcript of the letter, and no original to reference and compare. You are almost certainly correct that the word is “Lantern-jawed,” and that the TS we have is incorrect. Lantern-jawed means “Having a protruding jaw giving the face a gaunt appearance.” That would be Davis, by all accounts. Thanks for pointing out the error. John H.

  9. The Minnis and Cowell portrait from 1863, and the Vannerson portraits of 1864 don’t present Lee as this late1863 description does, as fat, beefy, and burly. There is no doubt, as seen in many other portraits, that he did have tufts of hair growing from his ears. It is also clear that he did have a substantial comb over. But he is said to have stood around five foot eleven inches, and weighed a reasonable one hundred and seventy pounds.
    I wonder if the MOC has measurements of his Appomattox uniform, so we might know his neck size?

  10. The church interior is not St. Thomas but Christ Church in Alexandria –
    Note the description on the left bottom of the photo.
    Jerry Duffy

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