I have spent a lot of time in Winchester, VA performing research on the Powells, the school they ran for girls, and the town. While there, I've heard it said that Robert E. Lee never came through the town during the war. In addition to hearing it, I read it in the book, "Occupied Winchester 1861 - 1865" by Garland R. Quarles. On page 28 he writes the following about Robert E. Lee:
"We have never had any proof of the fact that General Robert E. Lee was in Winchester during the War. After the Antietam and Gettysburg campaigns on the withdrawal of his army to Virginia, we know that he was close to Winchester, and that when he moved on southward part of his army moved through Winchester, but no diarist or local observer or official record places him inside the Town."
This is a definitive statement, and Mr. Quarles is clear that he performed an extensive search without finding any contemporary evidence of Lee being in Winchester. However he goes on to say the following:
"We are, therefore, gratified that Miss Riely states that General Lee on his return from Gettysburg 'rested only a little while in Winchester.' (Riely - Page 86)"
Emma Riely lived in Winchester during portions of the war, and she was later encouraged to write a memoir in her old age. Mr. Quarles is pointing out that while Lee's presence was noted in her memoir, he was unable to find evidence contemporary to the war. Perhaps, like me, he viewed memoirs with a wary eye. They can be enormously helpful, but memories fade and are tainted by the passing of time and changing opinions. I found Emma Riely's memoir online with the Library of Congress (available at this link). Her account at page 86 is brief and nonchalant - squeezed between a paragraph on candles and an account of women tending the wounded.
The same day I read the above and found Emma Riely's diary, I was also re-reading a portion of Mary P. Coulling's book, "The Lee Girls." (I was trapped in an airport due to a cancelled flight and had a lot of time on my hands). Mrs. Coulling's book interested me because the Powells knew the Lees, and her book was a rare opportunity for me to have a window into their world. Further, Lee's youngest daughter, Mildred, was in school with the Powells in Winchester. In her book, Mrs. Coulling writes of a letter Lee sent to Mildred about seeing some of her classmates in 1863. On page 129 she writes the following:
"He had seen some of her former classmates from Mrs. Powell's, he wrote, as he had passed through Winchester on his way [from] Pennsylvania. 'Poor Winchester has been terribly devastated, & the inhabitants plundered of all they possessed.'"
She mentions that he traveled through Winchester and saw some of Mildred's classmates. And it appears that he wrote about it himself in a letter to Mildred. This was surprising to read after Quarles' statement about there being no contemporary evidence about Lee being in town. Mrs. Coulling's footnote refers to a letter from Robert E. Lee to Mildred Lee on July 27, 1863.
To confirm Mrs. Coulling's account, I had a copy of Lee's letter pulled at the Virginia Historical Society. In that letter, Lee writes the following:
"I saw some of your acquaintances in the Valley who enquired particularly after you, particularly Miss Lilly Dandridge & Miss Fanny Mc--- of Smithfield. I have forgotten her name but her mother was a Miss Nelson. She said she was a great friend of yours & that you had once accompanied her home during some holy day. I saw her Mother also & Dr. Nelson etc. etc. Poor Winchester has been terribly devastated & the inhabitants plundered of all they possessed. Mr. James Masons residence has been torn down to the ground. Scarcely one brick stands upon another & a pile of rubbish rests upon the hill on which it stood."
In Winchester, Mr. James Mason's home was called, "Selma." It stood on Amherst Street about a half mile west from the Powells' school and near the home of the diarist Mrs. Cornelia McDonald. Mrs. McDonald recorded the destruction of Selma by the Union Army in June of 1862. Therefore, this is the home Lee described with such rich visual detail. He said the home was "torn down to the ground," and that "scarcely one brick stands upon another." He further described what he saw up on the hill - "a pile of rubbish" where the house once stood. These are three very visual descriptions that lead me to believe Lee saw the remains of Selma with his own eyes. He would not have been as descriptive had he been merely repeating what someone else reported to him. And I further believe that briefly being in Winchester is what prompted him to write the letter to Mildred. Since she had been in school there with the Powells for almost 2 years, she would have been interested in what he had seen. Therefore, Robert E. Lee's own letter indicates that he was in Winchester in July of 1863 as he moved south from Gettysburg.
I suspect this letter has been overlooked given that Lee wrote it to his daughter Mildred instead of to a member of his army. But it was not overlooked by Historian and Author, Mary P. Coulling.
See more on Robert E. Lee's letter and the two girls he mentions at my post titled, "Lillie & Fanny: Misidentified in a Robert E. Lee Letter for 60 Years."
The image is of the Powells' school in Winchester, VA at the corner of Braddock and Amherst Streets. The photo was taken by Alison Herring.