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