What four years of war couldn’t do, nature was accomplishing in similar time. His heart, never once questioned, was now on the edge of surrender; its beats were numbered and the old General was the only one who knew it. True to character, he mentioned it to no one. Instead, he decided on one last trip, on the pretense of a much-needed rest but in actuality to say his farewells.
He rode south from Lexington, Virginia, greeted by family and friends and former brothers-in-arms at each stop, as well as by tens of thousands of well-wishers, admirers, and curious who knew in advance his every move in ways that his opponents had never been able to ascertain.
Early spring found him in Augusta, Georgia. For the entirety of that afternoon, the sixty-three-year-old warmly greeted the throngs of visitors in the lobby of his hotel. Among the crowds, children were especially abundant, pressing personalized cards and bouquets of japonica into hands. One boy in particular though, a thirteen-year-old who’d wormed his way to the old man’s side, caught his attention.
“What’s your name son?”
“Thomas, sir... I’m from Virginia...” He fell silent and stared in wonder at the model of the man he hoped one day to become.
The General winked a sad, tired eye at Thomas and put a hand on the boy’s back, forcing him to straighten his posture.
“Walk tall then,” he said, “you’re doubly blessed.” And the boy was shoved aside by the next group of strangers bearing gifts.
Seven months later, October 12, 1870, the General passed quietly into eternity after waking from sleep and issuing his final order. And forty-three years afterward, Thomas, better known as Woodrow Wilson, was sworn in as the 28th President. He never forgot his brief meeting with Robert E. Lee.