War Chicken

Robert E. Lee’s image is everywhere. His silhouette is so easily recognizable that it is one of the most powerful symbols of the Confederacy. Tales are told, legends have been created concerning the love and affection his men had for him–how they would stare at their General in silence as he rode by the Southern troops, mounted on his beautiful, well-bred horse Traveler, how they would spontaneously cheer and rush toward him for any type of personal recognition possible. And yet, he seems utterly unloveable when recreated from historic sources.

General Robert E. Lee seems gray.  His uniform, his hair, his horse–little if any sparkling personality comes through the mists to convince a reader that Lee was charming, or congenial. He just seems . . . gray.  Even Theodore Roosevelt noticed this. “He stood that hardest of all strains, the strain of bearing himself well through the gray evening of failure . . .”

Imagine the delight of finding out that this Marble Man had a chicken for a pet. She was a small, black hen, and arrived in Lee’s camp, sometime in early 1862, with a shipment of chickens sent to the Army of Northern Virginia for food. Sensing that no good could come from staying with the flock, she escaped and ran, taking cover in a tent with an open flap. The tent was warm and chicken-killer free, so she stayed. As hens are wont to do, at some point she laid an egg under the cot in the tent, and settled herself down on it to see what would happen.

Here’s what happened: fortunately, the tent to belong to General Robert E. Lee, and, fortunately, General Lee enjoyed a fresh egg for breakfast. These two pieces of incredible luck combined to save the life of the little black hen. Lee named her either “Nellie,” or “Hen,” depending on the source. Let us combine them into “Nellie Hen” for the purposes of this article. Imagine the look of pleased surprise on Lee’s face when he discovered her gift. He took the egg to his former slave and current butler and cook, William Mack Lee, who inquired as to its provenance. Lee explained about the chicken.

From that time forward, Nellie Hen had a regular nesting spot in one of the baggage wagons that followed the army.  She laid an egg, “mighty near every day,” and, when not on the march, she wandered the camp.  The General kept his tent flap open for her, and she often bivouacked under his cot.

In July, 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia suffered a defeat at the hands of the Yankees in a place called Gettysburg.  As the southern army was preparing to return to Virginia, Lee suddenly realized that Miss Nellie was missing from her usual spot.   “Where is the hen?” he asked, in a concerned tone.  By this time, the soldiers knew about the hen, and her absence caused much concern. The retreat came to a halt as the men looked for Nellie.  The General himself joined in the hunt.

Finally she was found.  Those reading this who have an animal (especially a cat) will know exactly how Lee felt when she was finally discovered–perched safely in an ambulance on an impromptu nest, where she had probably been all along.  Only then could the retreat from Gettysburg continue.

Little Nellie the Hen travelled with the Army of Northern Virginia for over two years, laying an egg for General Lee almost daily to earn her keep and safe haven.  No doubt she brought solace and a memory of home in Arlington to the General with her faithful eggs and friendly clucking.  But, to the approximately 11,400 Confederate casualties from the Battle of the Wilderness, there must be added one more: Nellie Hen.

On May 4, the eve of the fighting, General Lee invited some people over for dinner.  According to the memoirs of William Mack Lee:

On dat day–we was all so hongry and I didn’t have nuffin in ter cook, dat I was jes’ plumb bumfuzzled.  I didn’t know what to do.  Marse Robert, he had gone and invited a crowd of ginerals to eat wid him, an’ I had ter git de vittles.  Dar was Marse Stonewall Jackson, and Marse A. P. Hill, and Marse D. H. Hill, and Marse Wade Hampton, Gineral Longstreet, and Gineral Pickett and sum others.

I am a touch “bumfuzzled” how Stonewall Jackson was there, having died in 1863, but allowances must be made.  The book, History of the Life of Rev. Wm. Mack Lee, Body Servant of General Robert E. Lee Through the Civil War–Cook From 1861-1865, was published in 1918, and written, unfortunately, in dialect.  Perhaps memory failed the Reverend Lee just a bit.  After all, a lot of time had passed.

William Lee had planned to serve flannel cakes (soft, fluffy pancakes), tea and lemonade, but he “ ‘lowed as dat would not be enuff fo’ dem gemm’n.”  Swallowing hard, he went out to catch “de little black hen, Nellie.”  He found her, dispatched her, and plucked her.  She was served to the gemm’ns with bread stuffing mixed with butter.  The stuffed chicken and dressing was a culinary hit, but General Lee was suspicious.

Just where had such a plump little chicken come from?  Surely not from foraging!  Upon questioning, William admitted to the deed.  After hearing the sad truth, Lee asked, “William, now that you have killed Nellie, what are we going to do for eggs?”

“I jes’ had ter do it, Marse Robert,” William replied.

But General Lee kept up the pressure.  “No, you didn’t, William; I’m going to write Miss Mary about you.  I’m going to tell her you have killed Nellie.

Marse Robert kep’ on scoldin’ me mout dat hen.  He never scolded ‘bout naything else.  He tol’ me I was a fool to kill her whut lay de golden egg.  Hit made Marse Robert awful sad ter think of anything being killed, whedder der ‘twas one of his soljers, or his little black hen.


Rest in peace

 Miss Nellie Hen

You, too gave your last full measure,

as a true War Chicken should.

Note: In some sources, Lee’s cook is referred to as “Bryan.” 

Further Reading:

The Slaves’ War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves, by Andrew Ward

Robert E. Lee’s Slave.

23 Responses to War Chicken

  1. An interesting story to be sure…from where I sit, it adds to the Lee myth in regard to his utter infallibility. His concern for a chicken amidst all the carnage of war enhances his near Christ-like status among white southerners then and now.

  2. A nice story but I fear much of it is probably apocryphal. I don’t recall any mention of a pet chicken by D.S. Freeman in his R.E. Lee biography. If any biographer would have latched onto such a story about Lee’s human side, it would have been Freeman. I can only speculate, but I would venture that the story doesn’t appear in Freeman either because he never heard it from any other source or that he didn’t believe it was true. Is there any primary source that corroborates Rev. Lee’s story?

  3. One good thing offered by this blog is that we can put some of our sources at the end of our posts. I try to take advantage of this, so check those. But please–“Have at it!” in searching out errors! I considered Rev. Lee’s memoirs a primary source, but I am always open to other points of view. I first read about the chicken in”Lincoln’s Dreams,” by Connie Willis. It’s science fiction, so go figure!

  4. I have a new comment about this wonderful post and the poignant story of Hen. Recently I heard a radio interview with an author who had written a history of chickens. He did not relate this story (at least it did not come up in the interview), but he told about the chicken as an important element in the Roman military. Every great general, he explained, brought along a chicken on his campaigns and was considered foolish and incompetent if he failed to consult the fowl’s signs (the food it ate that day, the pattern of its pecking, etc.) in formulating his plans and maneuvers. The chicken was seen as an alert, brave, bellicose beast–in marked contrast with its cowardly connotation in our culture! While taking in the history lesson of the chicken, I recalled this story and wondered if General Lee knew of this correlation with his ancient Roman counterparts.

  5. I do not doubt for a moment that William Mack Lee’s “memoir” is questionable. It was, apparently, ghosted and created specifically to help prop up the Lost Cause myth, humanizing Lee and pointing out that he was kind to his slaves as well. Plus it is in dialect–so go figure.

    My theory is that Lee might or might not have had a chicken. If he didn’t, he should have!

  6. I like this story very much. It shows a human side to Lee. General Lee is seen in marble much of the time. It is good to see marble needs a good breakfast as we all do.

  7. I don’t think William Mack Lee was confirmed as ever working for Lee as cook and butler. Perry Parks had been with him since spring 1862-At lease Feb 1864 (perhaps until end of war). There are two other men mentioned in Lee’s letters referencing a cook – Meredith and George. Who was with him at Gettysburg, I haven’t seen yet. But I don’t think Lee’s letters ever reference a William Mack Lee!

  8. The Myth of the Lost Chicken … much better story than the other “myth”

  9. Pingback: Emerging Civil War
  10. Pingback: Emerging Civil War

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!