Confederate Army Gen. Robert E. Lee died in 1870. While he had been in generally poor health, doctors were unable to specify the cause of death. There were no obvious symptoms other than what he spoke of in a letter to his wife some seven years before – “The troops are not encamped near me and I have felt so unwell since my return as not to be able to go anywhere”.
Lee’s doctors made some educated guesses based on his complaints and administered what was common medical care of the day: hot mustard plasters, doses of turpentine or ammonia, footbaths, brandy in moderate doses, and enemas. In the months prior to his death, his doctors variously diagnosed him as suffering from pneumonia, a stroke, or afflicted with rheumatism.
Since Lee’s death, there has been speculation that Lee suffered from heart disease. However, there hadn’t been much real evidence offered to support such claims. But now, it may be possible to support such a diagnosis based on actual physical evidence.
According to recent medical research, a crease in an earlobe is a physical sign that heart disease is likely present. When viewing photos of Lee, a detectable crease can be seen in his earlobes.
The possible connection between earlobe creases and heart disease was first made in 1973. Since then, there have been many studies that have investigated this link.
Scientists aren’t certain why creases appear in the earlobes of some heart disease patients. One theory is that a heart condition may affect the blood vessels and elasticity of the earlobe in a way that a crease is formed over time. Going back over some of his personal letters reveals that Lee’s gripes and complaints about his physical condition are consistent with heart problems.
In fact. in 1863 Lee had an episode of chest pain that became worse the more he exerted himself. The pain, along with other physical ailments, today would be recognized as most likely heart disease. In addition, in the months before his death in 1870, he was having chest pain even while he rested; this suggested a heart attack was imminent.
Even if the link between an earlobe crease and heart disease had been known to physicians in Lee’s time, there was little they could have done. One potential option was a form of nitroglycerin, which dilates arteries to allow for better blood flow. Though its effectiveness had been publicized in a British medical journal in 1867, it wasn’t a widely known remedy.
Another possible treatment was salicylate, a form of aspirin. While it had been around since before the Civil War to treat pain, its use to treat or prevent heart attacks would not occur until many decades later.
Some historians have even suggested that Gettysburg was lost due to Lee’s cardiovascular condition. The severe pain episode, which Lee experienced in March of 1863, was most likely a heart attack or a stroke.
Severe heart disease can affect many aspects of life, including judgment. Perhaps this explains his irrational decision to call for “Picket’s Charge” in which 15,000 Confederates charged across a three-quarter mile open field in a futile attempt to capture the high ground held by the Federals. With the failure of this attack, the Battle of Gettysburg was lost and it would ultimately lead to the surrender by Lee on April 9, 1865.