“Taking the Waters”

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By Katie Hall

Reading Lee family letters, you learn a lot about their lives and personalities, as well as some of the writing quirks and conversational topics in each generation’s correspondence. One of the recurring subjects I’ve seen while transcribing is the practice of “taking the waters.” The Lees frequently visited hot springs–or as they sometimes simply called it, “The Hot.” The supposedly curative waters were especially important for Robert E. Lee’s wife, who was an invalid for much of her life. But Lee’s daughters were also afflicted by various maladies during their lives.

In the days before modern medicine, “taking the waters” was a popular 19th century medical practice. The waters were touted as a magical cure for ailments and diseases of all types, from minor headaches to serious conditions like consumption. The craze was helped spread by doctors and other proponents such as Vincent Priessnitz–the German doctor considered the father of hydroptherapy–and Mary Gove Nichols, a New Englander who believed the key to better health was a combination of natural remedies and improved hygiene.

Thus, springs began to be populated by people seeking relief. The waters’ chemicals and geothermal qualities were reputed to instill benefits to those who drank or bathed in them. Hydropathy, of course, is nothing new. Spring waters have been used for healing and rejuvenation across the world for centuries, perhaps most famously by the Romans who constructed elaborate bath houses for spa and recreation.

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White Sulphur Springs in West Virginia.

Mineral springs were enjoyed by the healthy and sick alike and were popular destinations among wealthier crowds, who also used their retreats as social gatherings among family and friends. Some of the many healing springs which can be found mentioned in Lee family letters include the White Sulphur Springs and Red Springs of present-day West Virginia and the Healing Springs in Bath County, Virginia. The Lees, however, were not the only historic patrons of spas. Thomas Jefferson also frequented the Warm Spring and Hot Spring for cures of rheumatism and general improvements in constitution. Stonewall Jackson, a famous hypochondriac, also sought the healing waters.

Robert E. Lee urged his wife and family to take to the springs for relief of chronic ailments. In one letter dated 1859 August 17 to his son, Custis, Lee reported how the springs improved the health of his daughter Agnes and his wife. Thus, he urged an extended stay at Capon Springs. Regardless of their actual curative track record, many believed in the healing effects of mineral waters–and still do today. So, if you’re feeling adventurous or a little under the weather, try one of the historic springs around you!


Author: leefamilydigitalarchive

The Lee Family Digital Archive is an online repository documenting the Lee family of Virginia. The editor of the LFDA is Dr. Colin Woodward, a historian of the South and published scholar. The site, which is free and open to the public, is located at www.leefamilyarchive.org. The LFDA contains 4,000 letters, documents, books, legal papers, and references sources, covering more than 300 hundred years of Virginia and American history. The site is updated Monday-Friday and contains many items never before published. Please check us out on the web. Comments and suggestions are appreciated, and reference questions are promptly answered.

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