>Part 1 of 3 Parts. General Robert E. Lee (1807-70) and Philanthropist George Peabody (1795-1869) at White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, July 23-August 30, 1869.

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Part 1 of 3 Parts. General Robert E. Lee (1807-70) and Philanthropist George Peabody (1795-1869) at White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, July 23-August 30, 1869.

By Franklin Parker and Betty J. Parker, 63 Heritage Loop, Crossville, TN 38571-8270. Email bfparker@frontiernet.net

The hot spring health spas of Virginia were the first gathering places of southern and northern elites after the Civil War. It was at the Greenbrier Hotel, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, the most popular of the hot spring spas, that Robert E. Lee and George Peabody met by chance for a few weeks during July 23-August 30, 1869. For each this meeting was a symbolic turn from Civil War bitterness toward reconciliation and the lifting power of education.

Lee was then president of Washington College, Lexington, Virginia (1865-70, renamed Washington and Lee University from 1871). Peabody had just (June 29, 1869) doubled to $2 million his Peabody Education Fund, begun February 7, 1867, to advance public education in the South.

Historical circumstances had made both Lee and Peabody famous in their time, Lee’s fame more lasting; Peabody’s, strangely, soon forgotten. Yet when they met in 1869 Peabody was arguably better known in the English speaking world and more widely appreciated.

For Lee, age 62, hero of the lost Confederate cause, it was next to the last summer of life. For Peabody, age 74, best known philanthropist of his time, it was the very last summer of life. They were the center of attention that summer of 1869 at “The Old White.” They ate together in the public dining room, walked arm in arm to their nearby bungalows, were applauded by visitors, and were photographed together and with others of prominence.

Robert E. Lee’s Father

Born in Stratford, Westmoreland County, Virginia, Robert Edward Lee was the son of Revolutionary War hero Henry Lee (1756-1818), popularly known as “Light Horse Harry.” Henry Lee was a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress (1785-88), member of the Virginia Convention for the Continental Congress (1788), served in Virginia’s General Assembly (1789-91), was Virginia Governor (1792-95), was appointed by George Washington to command troops to suppress the “Whiskey Insurrection” in Western Pennsylvania (1794), served in the U. S. Sixth Congress (1799-1801), and last served in the War of 1812.

Despite this impressive record (Congress voted him a gold medal for his American Revolutionary War exploits) Henry Lee was a less than satisfactory husband, a poor family breadwinner, an absentee father to his five children, was often hounded by creditors, and was several times imprisoned for debt.
Robert E. Lee was age six when he last saw his father, who left to regain his health in the West Indies. Young Lee was age eleven when his father died. Robert E. Lee’s biographer, Emory M. Thomas wrote: “All his life, Robert Lee knew his father only at a great distance.”

Robert E. Lee’s Career

Robert E. Lee attended private schools in Alexandria, Virginia. At age 18, with family finances prohibiting attending a private college, Robert E. Lee, bent on a military career, applied for admission to the tuition free U. S. Military Academy, West Point, New York. His family and friends sent petitions and letters of recommendation to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun (1782-1850). In the summer of 1825 R. E. Lee entered West Point as one of 107 new cadets.

Forty-seven of that entering class graduated, Lee among them. He was an exemplary cadet, without a single demerit, held every cadet post of honor, and graduated second in his class of 1829. He was assigned to the engineer corps where he soon won a high reputation. On June 30, 1831, two years after graduating, he married Mary Randolph Custis, daughter of a grandson of Mrs. George Washington (Martha Washington, 1731-1802).

Distinguishing himself as chief engineer in river drainage and fort-building projects, he served in the Mexican War, where General Winfield Scott (1786-1866), valuing his military and engineering skills, constantly consulted him.

Lee was superintendent of West Point (1852-55). He was the United States military officer ordered to put down the John Brown (1800-59) insurrection at Harper’s Ferry federal arsenal, Virginia, October 16, 1859. Abolitionist Brown’s fanatical attempt to steal federal weapons in order to arm slaves for an insurrection against the South helped precipitate the bitter four-year Civil War.

Faced with the “irrepressible conflict,” General Winfield Scott reportedly told President Abraham Lincoln that Lee was worth 50,000 men. Lee was offered command of Federal forces, April 18, 1861, but declined. He told Francis Preston Blair (1791-1876), who approached him on behalf of President Lincoln: “…though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern States.” Loyal to Virginia, Lee resigned from the United States Army, April 20, 1861.

In Richmond Virginia, at the request of the Virginia Convention, he was placed in command of the Virginia forces, April 23, 1861. Lee’s organizing ability, grasp of military strategy, and his integrity held out for four bitter Civil War years against overwhelming Union strength in numbers, manpower, and economic resources. Faced by inevitable crushing defeat Lee surrendered to General U. S. Grant, Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, April 9, 1865.

He told his defeated troops: “…You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed, and I earnestly pray that our merciful God extend to you his blessing and protection.”

With the Confederate cause lost, Lee sought obscurity and declined to lend his name to commercial ventures. When first invited to the presidency of small, obscure and struggling Washington College, Lexington, Virginia (August 1865), Lee hesitated. He wrote the trustees that he was “an object of censure” to the North, that his presence might “cause injury” to the college.

Knowing that Lee’s name and fame would attract students, the trustees persisted. Lee accepted. His biographer Emory M. Thomas wrote that Lee quickly “established himself as a presence in Lexington,” and that in the five years of life left to him (1865-1870) became “the savior of Washington College.”

Greenbrier Hotel, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia

The first inn at what is now the Greenbrier Hotel, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, was built in 1780, long before West Virginia became a state in 1863. It was a favorite resort for southern elites who gathered there to meet relatives and friends, to rest and recuperate, and to drink and bathe in its healthful mineral springs. Lee, with heart trouble, needing rest, was an occasional health spa visitor, particularly at the Greenbrier.

At the Greenbrier the summer of 1868, Lee heard that some young northern visitors were receiving a frosty reception. He asked the young southern women who surrounded him if one of them would go with him to greet and welcome the young northern guests.

The young lady accompanying him, Christina Bond, asked, “General Lee, did you never feel resentment towards the North?” She recorded his quiet reply, “I believe I may say, looking into my own heart, and speaking as in the presence of my God, that I have never known one moment of bitterness or resentment.” The next summer of 1869 at the Greenbrier he met George Peabody for the first and only time.

Peabody’s Career
George Peabody was third of eight children born to a poor family in Danvers (renamed Peabody, April 13, 1868), 19 miles from Boston, Massachusetts. After four years in a district school (1803-07) and four years apprenticed in a general store (1807-10), the 16-year-old in 1811 worked in his oldest brother’s clothing store in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

His father’s death that year (May 13, 1811) left the family in debt, their Danvers home mortgaged, with the mother and five younger siblings forced to live with relatives. The Great Fire in Newburyport (May 31, 1811) occurred eleven days after his father’s death. The fire, coming as it did during an economic depression in New England, led many to leave that town and migrate to the South.

An improvident paternal uncle whose Newburyport store had burned in the fire encouraged his 16-year-old nephew, George Peabody, to open with him a drygoods store in Georgetown, District of Columbia. Needing credit, backed by Newburyport merchant Prescott Spaulding’s (1781-1864) recommendation, Peabody secured a $2,000 consignment of goods, basis of his first commercial venture in the Georgetown drygoods store (1812).

His uncle soon left for other enterprises. Young Peabody operated the store and was also a pack peddler selling goods to homes and stores in the D. C. area. With Washington, D. C., under siege by the British he volunteered and served briefly in the War of 1812.

Fellow soldier and older experienced merchant Elisha Riggs, Sr. (1779-1853), took the 19-year-old Peabody as traveling junior partner in Riggs, Peabody & Co. (1814-29), Georgetown, D.C. The firm, which imported clothing and other merchandise for sale to U. S. wholesalers, moved in 1815 to Baltimore and by 1822 had Philadelphia and New York City warehouses.

Peabody early took on the support of his family. He sent clothes and money to his mother and siblings, and by 1816, at age 21, he paid off the family debts and restored his mother and siblings to their Danvers home. Handling the Peabody home deed, Newburyport, Massachusetts, lawyer Ebon Mosely wrote George Peabody (December 16, 1816): “I cannot but be pleased with the filial affection which seems to evince you to preserve the estate for a Parent.”

Peabody paid for the education at Bradford Academy (now Bradford College), Bradford, Massachusetts, of five younger relatives. He bought a house in West Bradford for his relatives studying at the academy, where his mother also lived for several years.

He later paid for the complete education of nephew Othniel Charles Marsh (1831-99), first U. S. paleontologist at Yale University; nephew George Peabody Russell (1835-1909), Harvard-trained lawyer, niece Julia Adelaide (née Peabody) Chandler (b. 1835), and others.

Deprived, as I was…

Peabody’s May 18, 1831, letter to a nephew named after him, George Peabody (1815-32), son of his oldest brother David Peabody (1790-1841), hinted at his motive for educating his relatives and for his later philanthropies.
Particularly fond of this nephew, Peabody paid for his schooling at Bradford Academy and received regular reports of his nephew’s progress. When this nephew asked his uncle for financial help to attend Yale College, Peabody replied in a poignant letter.

Peabody wrote his nephew: (his underlining): “Deprived, as I was, of the opportunity of obtaining anything more than the most common education, I am well qualified to estimate its value by the disadvantages I labour under in the society [in] which my business and situation in life frequently throws me, and willingly would I now give twenty times the expense attending a good education could I now possess it, but it is now too late for me to learn and I can only do to those who come under my care, as I could have wished circumstances had permitted others to have done by me.”
Sadly, this favorite nephew died at age 17 on September 24, 1832, in Boston of scarlet fever, his potential unfulfilled.

Selling Maryland’s Bonds Abroad

As purchasing partner in the United States and abroad for Riggs, Peabody & Co. (renamed Peabody, Riggs & Co., 1829-48), Peabody made four buying trips to Europe during 1827-37.

In the mid-1830s several states began internal improvement of roads, canals, and railroads requiring European investment capital through state bonds sold abroad. In 1836 the Maryland legislature voted to finance the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. On his fifth trip abroad, February 1837, Peabody represented both his firm and was also appointed one of three agents to sell abroad Maryland’s $8 million bond issue.

In the financial Panic of 1837 the two other agents returned home without success. Peabody remained in London the rest of his life (1837-69), 32 years, except for three visits to the United States. Nine U. S. states in financial difficulty, including Maryland, stopped interest payments on their bonds sold abroad. Peabody faced a depressed market, with British and European investors angry at nonpayment of interest on their U. S. state bonds.

Peabody bombarded Maryland officials with letters urging that interest payments on Maryland bonds be resumed, and retroactively. His letters were published in U. S. newspapers. Abroad, he also publicly assured foreign investors that interest nonpayment was temporary and that repayment would be retroactive. He finally sold his part of the Maryland bonds to London’s Baring Brothers.
The Panic of 1837 eased. The nine defaulting states resumed their bond interest payments. Peabody’s faith that they would do so was justified and appreciated. His integrity became known to an ever-wider circle.

Some minor fame came to Peabody when the Maryland Legislature (1847-48), realizing what he had done, voted him unanimous thanks for upholding its credit abroad and for declining the $60,000 commission due him.

He had not wanted to burden the state treasury during its financial difficulty. In transmitting these resolutions of thanks, Maryland Governor Philip Francis Thomas (1810-90) wrote Peabody, “To you, sir…the thanks of the State were eminently due.”

London-Based Banker

In London, Peabody gradually reduced his trade in drygoods and commodities. Under the firm name of George Peabody & Co. (1838-64) he made the transition from merchant to international banker. He sold U. S. state bonds to finance roads, canals, and railroads; helped sell the second Mexican War bonds; bought, sold, and shipped European iron and later steel rails for U. S. western railroads; and helped finance the Atlantic Cable Co.

Asked in an interview, August 22, 1869, how and when he made most of his money, the London-based securities broker and international banker said, “I made pretty much of it in 20 years from 1844 to 1864. Everything I touched within that time seemed to turn to gold. I bought largely of United States securities when their value was low and they advanced greatly.”

Morgan Partnership

Often ill and urged by business friends to take a partner, Peabody on October 1, 1854, at age 59, took as partner Boston merchant Junius Spencer Morgan (1813-90), whose 19-year-old son John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) began his banking career as New York City agent for George Peabody & Co., London On retirement, October 1, 1864, unmarried, without a son, and knowing he would no longer control his firm, Peabody asked that his name be withdrawn.

George Peabody & Co. (1838-64) continued in London as J. S. Morgan & Co. (1864-1909), Morgan Grenfell & Co. (1910-18), Morgan Grenfell & Co., Ltd. (1918-89), and Deutsche Morgan Grenfell (since 1989), a German-owned international banking firm.

Peabody was thus the root of the J. P. Morgan international banking firm. He spent the last five years of his life (1864-69) looking after his philanthropic institutions, begun in 1852 with the motto: “Education: a debt due from present to future generations.”


Peabody early told intimates and said publicly in 1850 that he would found a useful educational institution in every town and city where he had lived and worked. His 1827 will left $4,000 for charity. His 1832 will left $27,000 for educational philanthropy out of a $135,000 estate.

Founded Seven Libraries

Ultimately his philanthropic gifts of some $10 million included seven Peabody institute libraries, with lecture halls and lecture funds. These were, like the lyceums and the later chautauquas, the adult education centers of their time.

Later, Andrew Carnegie’s (1835-1919) libraries and other funds, John D. Rockefeller’s (1839-1937) funds and foundations, Henry Ford’s (1863-1947) funds, and those of others far surpassed Peabody’s philanthropy. But it was Peabody’s gifts which first initiated, set policies, patterns, and inspired the later vast educational foundation movement.

The seven Peabody Institute Libraries are in: Peabody, Danvers, Newburyport, and Georgetown (all in Massachusetts); and in Baltimore, where the Peabody Institute of Baltimore (from 1857, total gift $1.4 million) consisted of a unique reference library whose books from European estates Peabody, through agents, bought and shipped to Baltimore. The Library of Congress early borrowed from its rare book collection.

The Peabody Institute of Baltimore also had an art gallery, lecture hall and lecture fund, a Conservatory of Music, and gave annual prizes to Baltimore’s best public school students. In 1982 the Baltimore Reference Library and the Peabody Conservatory of Music became part of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. Other Peabody libraries are in 6-Thetford, Vermont, where he visited his maternal grandparents at age 15, and in 7-Georgetown, D.C.

Three Museums of Science

He endowed the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University (anthropology); the Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University (paleontology), both 1866; and what is now the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts (1867), containing maritime history and Essex County historical documents, including most of George Peabody’s letters and papers.

Other Gifts

He gave the Maryland Institute for the Promotion of Mechanic Arts (Baltimore) $1,000 for a chemistry laboratory and school (1851); Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, $25,000 for a mathematics professorship (1866); Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, $25,000, for a mathematics and civil engineering professorship (November 1866); and former general, then President Robert E. Lee’s Washington College (renamed Washington and Lee University, 1871), Lexington, Virginia, $60,000 for a mathematics professorship (September 1869).

He gave $20,000 publication funds each to the Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore (November 5, 1866), and the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston (January 1, 1867). He gave to the United States Sanitary Commission to aid Civil War orphans, widows, and disabled veterans $10,000 (1864). To the Vatican charitable San Spirito Hospital, Rome, Italy, he gave $19,300 (April 5, 1867). He built a Memorial Congregational Church in his mother’s memory in her hometown, Georgetown, Massachusetts, $70,000 (1866).

For patriotic causes he gave to the Lexington Monument in what is now Peabody, Massachusetts, $300 (1835); the Bunker Hill Memorial, Boston, Massachusetts, $500 (June 3, 1845); and the Washington Monument, Washington, D. C., $1,000 (July 4, 1854).

Peabody Education Fund

His most influential U. .S. gift was the $2 million Peabody Education Fund (PEF, 1867-1914) to promote public schools in the eleven former Confederate states plus West Virginia, added because of its poverty. For 47 years the PEF helped promote public schools in the devastated post-Civil War South, focusing on public elementary and secondary schools, then on teacher training institutes and normal colleges, and finally on rural public schools.

Continued in Part 2 of 3 Parts.

. Comments, corrections to bfparker@frontiernet.net

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