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Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881
By George Holbert Tucker

Chapter 54

Norfolk's Farewell to a Hero

When General Robert E. Lee visited Norfolk for the last time he was the guest of Dr. William Selden, the father of William Boswell Selden, the first Norfolk man killed in the Civil War. Young Selden was mortally wounded at Roanoke Island, N.C., on February 8, 1862.

General Lee had less than five months to live when he stepped off the train in Portsmouth on April 30, 1870. He was returning from a southern trip for the benefit of his health and was accompanied by his daughter, Miss Agnes Lee.

When it was learned that he was a passenger aboard the Seaboard & Roanoke Railroad train en route from Wilmington, N.C., to Portsmouth, the Norfolk area went wild with excitement. Thousands of admirers gathered at the depot to greet him. And when he emerged from the coach, the air resounded with one crescendo after another of rebel yells. Also on hand was a famous Confederate cannon, affectionately known as "Brick Pomeroy," which the Portsmouth Volunteer Fire Department had dragged to the station in order to greet "Marse Robert" with a volley of salvos.

Colonel Walter Herron Taylor, Lee's former aide-de-camp, met his old chief at the train and escorted him to Norfolk on the ferry, where Lee occupied a special cabin to avoid being exhausted by the people who wished to show him their gratitude and devotion.

As soon as the ferry left Portsmouth, fireworks were set off on its deck to let the people in Norfolk know that Lee was on the way, while the Union Fire Department of Norfolk took up the saluting with another cannon on Market Square where the ferry docked.

In Norfolk, Lee was greeted with more rebel yells as he was driven to the home of Dr. Selden at the southwest corner of Freemason and Botetourt streets.

The next day, a Sunday, Lee escorted Miss Caroline Selden, the host's youngest daughter, to Old Christ Church. The route through which the carriage passed was lined with Lee's old soldiers with their hats in their hands. That night Lee was entertained at an elaborate dinner party by William Eyre Taylor in his home on Bute Street, now the site of the Central YMCA.

Lee's health had not improved by his southern trip, but he would not permit his host to forbid his former men from visiting him.

On Wednesday, May 4, 1870, after attending a service at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Lee rested before the reception that his host had planned for him later that day.

That evening the Seldens' latchstring was on the outside, and Norfolk-area Confederate veterans from all walks of life waited patiently in line to shake the hand of their former beloved general. One of these was Bryan, Lee's faithful manservant of the war days. Also on hand was eighty-nine-year-old Emanuel J. Myers, who proudly wore the Legion of Honor which had been presented to him in his youth by Napolean.

Before going to bed, Lee was given a physical examination by Dr. Selden, after which he fell asleep, weary but touched and full of memories, while the rain beat a ghostly tatoo on the rooftop.

The next day Lee and his daughter took a steamer for Lower Brandon, the Harrison plantation on the James River, where he rested for a few days before setting out on the last leg of his trip home to Lexington. Less than six months later, Norfolk again paid tribute to Lee, but that time the muffled tolling of bells replaced the booming of cannon and the chorus of rebel yells.

Lee had died on October 12, 1870, in Lexington, where, as the president of Washington College (later Washington and Lee University), he had spent his last years teaching, by example and precept, the youth of Virginia to be good Americans.

Chapter 55
The Norfolk Library and Its Antecedents

Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881

Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881

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