Raleigh Edward Colston grew up in Paris until his mid-teens. At that time, as a son of a Virginia-born adoptive father and a citizen of the United States, he enrolled in Virginia Military Institute. After graduating from VMI, he taught French—particularly since he was a fluent native—and also taught Military Science at VMI. When the Civil War began, he served as Colonel with the 16th Virginia Infantry Regiment. After becoming Brigadier General, he lead in Williamsburg, commanded the Stonewall Brigade, and served in Petersburg which stood for ten months under Colston’s command. Prior to Colston’s arrival in Lynchburg, the city was spared much of the widespread and major destruction experienced in other Southern cities; his duty in Lynchburg was to build protection for the city. This may give some context to the nature of his observations of life in Lynchburg as his letters are not necessarily focused on the war. General Colston was assigned to Lynchburg in July, 1864 until the Confederate surrender in 1865.
While his military performance is met with mixed reviews of success and challenges, his letters to his family including his wife, Louisa, and daughters, Lou and Mary, are, at times, sharply honest but also personal, kind, and nostalgic for a time gone by. The Lynchburg letters are certainly not composed with the strategic language of a Brigadier General which a reader might expect. The reader does, thankfully, gain some insight into life in Lynchburg, 1864-1865.
Current and ongoing transcriptions of nearly 30 letters and documents originating from Lexington, Savannah, Petersburg, and Lynchburg reveal General Colston’s struggles and lifestyle during the Civil War. For example, in one Lynchburg letter dated March 1865, General Colston updates the family on his concern regarding the enemy coming closer to Lynchburg. “Every time they think we are in a state of laziness, they approach this place. If [General] Early...gets hurt or dies in Waynesboro, we will be in a bad way.” (General Early faced challenges in Waynesboro and was later relieved of his command by General Lee.) In the subsequent paragraphs, General Colston informs the family that he cannot afford to buy or repair shoes in Lynchburg ($2.00 to make a pair of shoes as good as new) and he requests that the family send copies of literature, including GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, to him. He ends this letter from Lynchburg with the explanation that the enemy’s approach is the reason why he cannot come to Lexington for a day or two at the beginning of April 1865. Less than two weeks after this letter, General Lee would surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.
In this three paragraph letter, General Colston gives little insight into any strategy of war in Lynchburg. In fact, two of the three paragraphs do not discuss the war; rather, this Confederate General in Lynchburg commends the daughter on choosing teaching as a career, criticizes other members of the family by name for not financially supporting his wife and daughters, and apologizes that he cannot supply what they need. This letter shows a Confederate General who demonstrates love and loyalty to his family in Lexington and gives us a glimpse at his Civil War mission in Lynchburg.
Following the surrender, General Colston served as a leader in North Carolina military schools. In 1873, he moved to Egypt and served in a variety of expeditions. Unfortunately, General Colston contracted an unknown and paralyzing disease. In 1878, he returned to the United States where he had a difficult time finding permanent employment. He lectured and wrote articles on his experiences in Egypt, served as commandant at a New York military academy, translated French novels for publication, and eventually secured a position with the War Department. Due to his debilitating illness, Colston was dismissed from the War Department in 1894. He then entered the R.E. Lee Camp Soldiers’ Home in Richmond for Confederate Veterans where he died in 1896. He is buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.
Written by Tom Yarber
Colston, Raleigh. Letter. Lynchburg. May 1865.
Colston, Raleigh Edward. Virginia Encyclopedia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. 2015