Washington and Lee University

The Life of Robert E. Lee for Boys and Girls
By J. G. De Roulhac Hamilton and Mary Thompson Hamilton

THE LIFE OF ROBERT E. LEE

CHAPTER I
LEE'S FORBEARS

LEE, in character and personality, was a logical product of his lineage and training, and to be really able to understand him, one must know something of his race and his surroundings.

The Virginia Lees were descended from the Lees of Shropshire, a family of high standing and position and one that had given many men of influence to England before the time when Richard Lee set out for the New World. There was Lancelot Lee, who took part in the battle of Hastings; and Lionel Lee, who went with Richard Coeur de Lion on the Third Crusade to the Holy Land, and who, for his gallantry at Acre, was made the first Earl of Litchfield; and Henry Lee, who won from Queen Elizabeth the coveted insignia of the Garter.

Richard Lee, that ancestor of Robert Lee who first came from England to Virginia, was a tall, handsome man, possessed of great ability and strength of character. He settled in the Northern Neck, which was that part of the province lying between the Rappahannock.and Potomac Rivers, and soon became prominent there. He was appointed a member of the Council and also served under Sir William Berkeley as Secretary of the Colony. He was a devoted Reyalist and brought all his influence to bear to hold Virginia loyal to the House of Stuart. It is said that, when Cromwell died, it was Richard Lee who induced Berkeley to proclaim Charles II, “King of England, Scotland, France, Ireland, and Virginia.”

Richard's son, also named Richard, succeeded to the high position that his father had held. A member of the Council, he was the intimate friend of Governor Spotswood, who said of him, “No man in the country bore a fairer reputation for exact justice, honesty, and unexceptional loyalty.” It is not improbable that he was one of that gallant band of gentlemen who accompanied Spotswood to the crest of the Alleghanies and who there, after laying claim to the great West, formed the Order of Knights of the Golden Horseshoe.

Thomas Lee, the fourth son of Richard, followed in his ancestors' footsteps and became a member of the Council, and was also for a time its president. In this capacity, he served a while as acting governor of the Colony, in which he was probably more distinguished than any other man. He was later appointed governor, but died before his commission reached him. He was the father of Richard Henry Lee, who proposed the Declaration of Independence, of Francis Lightfoot Lee, who, along with his brother, signed that immortal document, and of Arthur Lee, who was one of the envoys who secured the aid of France in the Revolution. Thomas Lee lived at “Stratford” in Westmoreland County, and, having lost his house by fire, he built there the fine old mansion in which the greatest of the Lees was presently first to see the light. Queen Caroline, from her private purse, sent him a considerable sum for the rebuilding of his home. This estate descended to Thomas's eldest son, Philip Ludwell Lee.

A younger brother of Thomas Lee was Henry Lee, who married a Miss Bland and whose third son, also named Henry, was the famous “Light Horse Harry” Lee of the Revolution and the father of Robert Edward Lee. It was through his wife, a daughter of Philip Ludwell Lee, that “Stratford” passed into the hands of Robert Lee's father and so became the birthplace of that great man.

“Light Horse Harry” Lee was born in 1756 and was educated at Nassau Hall, Princeton, from which institution he was graduated in 1774. Two years later he was placed in command of a cavalry company which was soon joined to the Continental Army under Washington. Lee was promoted to the rank of major and saw service at Germantown and at Brandywine and in many lesser battles. His daring in capturing a British fort at Paulus Hook (now Jersey City) won for him a resolution of thanks from Congress and a gold medal besides. In 1780 he was made lieutenant-colonel, and the next year he joined General Greene in the Carolinas. It was here, in the section already the scene of the exploits of Marion, Sumter, and Davie, that he won his greatest fame. After his brilliant feats in the Carolinas, his health failing, he returned to Virginia and there married his cousin Matilda Lee. Within a few years his wife and three of their four children had died, and later he married Anne Hill Carter, the daughter of Charles Carter of “Shirley,” on James River, one of the most noted estates in Virginia. The Carters had given few illustrious names to Virginia, but they possessed character, culture, and refinement, besides great wealth, and they had intermarried with most of the prominent families of the State. Anne Carter was a great-granddaughter of Governor Spotswood, and was thus descended from Robert Bruce.

“Light Horse Harry's” years of peace were not less distinguished than those of war. He was a member of the Congress of the Confederation in its closing days; he served in the Virginia Convention which ratified the Constitution of the United States, where he acted_with Washington, Madison, Marshall, and Randolph in securing the assent of the Old Dominion to the new form of government; and, later still, he was a member of Congress. There, when Washington died, he prepared the memorial address containing the famous words “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his fellow citizens.” He was a firm advocate of the Union, but was nevertheless a devoted believer in the sovereignty of each individual State, and, when he was defending the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions on the floor of Congress, he said, “Virginia is my country; her will I obey, however lamentable the fate to which it may subject me”; and he wrote to James Madison, “No consideration on earth could induce me to act a part however gratifying to me which would be construed into disregard of or of faithlessness to this commonwealth.” This firm faith his son inherited.

In 1794 he was appointed by President Washington to the command of the troops sent to Pennsylvania to suppress the so-called “Whiskey Rebellion.” In 1812 he was made a major-general in the United States Army. Unfortunately, soon afterwards he was seriously injured in Baltimore while defending a friend from mob violence and so could not serve in the second war with England. Because of his broken health he went to the West Indies and lived there five years, but his strength continued to fail, and he set out for home. On the voyage he grew rapidly weaker and begged to be landed at Dungeness on Cumberland Island, Georgia, the home of General Nathanael Greene's widow. There he died and was buried, and there his body still rests. He was a man of fiery and impetuous spirit and made warm friends and bitter enemies. He was brave, generous, and the soul of honor, and was a fine type of the active, warm-hearted, able men whom the Old Dominion of that day produced in such numbers.

From this lineage was born Robert Edward Lee, and into what environment?

The Virginia of 1807 was little changed from Colonial Virginia. The life of the community was much the same. Means of transportation were not many and few people went often far from home. The great number of Virginians were farmers; the plantation was the unit of the community; the negro slave the laborer who produced the staple crop, tobacco, which was almost as important at that time as in the days when it passed as money. The typical life of Virginia was its country life; a quiet life and an uneventful one, but one full of charm. The members of the leading class were closely bound together by association, by common interest, by friendships of long standing, and by ties of blood. They intermarried until relationships were hard to trace clearly, and this confusion was increased by a pleasing habit of claiming as kindred those who were really only close friends, a habit which gave rise to the term “Virginia cousin,” still known in the South as one indicating no close tie of blood. Year in and year out, the gentry of Virginia ruled over their plantations with patriarchal dignity and kindness, bred fine horses, raced and rode them, took part in politics, attended court, hunted and fished, and, not of least importance, danced and paid devoted court to the ladies. Everybody kept open house, paid visits which lasted for days, weeks, and even months at a time, and, in a sense, lived as one great family. It was a life of peace and happiness, but those who lived it were neither careless nor unworthy. America has had no finer type than those men who set the standards of this community. They exalted the State, womanhood, and religion, and practiced in their daily lives truth, courage, manliness, and kindness, and held firmly to the finest traditions of English life. They were untouched by that progress which comes from contact with new people and new ideas, and were conservative from nature and habit, so that the love which their ancestors had felt for the Old Dominion in them became a passion for the State, and service for the State became an honor which no one was too lofty to accept. For the same reason the will of the State commanded instant and absolute obedience.

From this air Robert Edward Lee drew his first breath.


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