The Life of Robert E. Lee for Boys and Girls
By J. G. De Roulhac Hamilton and Mary Thompson Hamilton
WESTMORELAND COUNTY, Virginia, is a little county lying between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers, which was originally cut off from Northumberland County. It is not more than thirty miles long and about half as broad, but it has probably produced more great men than any other spot of its size in the United States. George Washington was born there, and James Monroe, as were also the famous Lees—Richard Henry, Francis Lightfoot, Arthur, and “Light Horse Harry.” James Madison was born not far away in Prince George County, which adjoins Westmoreland.
Stratford, the Lee home, was one of the most beautiful and interesting of the Colonial mansions of Virginia. Its timbers were of solid hewn oak of great size, and the brick used in the building were brought from England. The walls of the first floor were two and a half feet thick and those above were two feet. The house was meant to be a permanent family home, after the fashion of English houses, and was very stately. It contained seventeen rooms besides the great hall, and on the roof were two pavilions or summer houses made with the chimneys for columns and connected by a gallery. From them was visible the broad expanse of the stately Potomac, and there at night in the olden time promenaded the ladies and gentlemen, while a band of negro servants played for them. Around the house were great oaks, cedars, and maples, and the drive through the grounds skirted a magnificent grove of the maples. There were, in addition to the house, four large offices, the kitchen, and stables to accommodate perhaps a hundred horses. The buildings cost about eighty thousand dollars at a time when the purchasing power of money was much greater than it is now. The house is still standing.
In this home, on January 19, 1807, was born Robert Edward Lee. The room in which he was born was the same one in which two signers of the Declaration of Independence had first seen the light. All the surroundings were full of tradition, and all suggested culture and refinement, and stood for honor, sincerity, and patriotism. Here was a fit nursery of greatness, and the mind of the small boy, who was surrounded by books, by portraits of soldiers and statesmen, by beautiful silver and china and mahogany, must have been impressed to his future advantage.
It has been seen that all of Lee's half-brothers and sisters save one died early. The one exception, Henry Lee, was already a grown man when Robert Lee was born. Of his own mother's children, he was the fourth. The others were Algernon Sydney, who died in infancy, Charles Carter, and Sydney Smith, and two girls, Anne and Mildred, both younger than himself.
Charles Carter Lee, after graduation at Harvard, became a lawyer, and was one of the most talented and popular men in Virginia. Sydney entered the navy at fifteen years of age and served with distinction for many years. He commanded Commodore Perry's flagship in the famous expedition to Japan; was in command for a time of the navy yard at Philadelphia; and, at the time that Virginia seceded, was commandant of the Naval Academy at Annapolis. True to the traditions of his race, he resigned and entered the Confederate Navy. He was the father of General Fitzhugh Lee, of the Confederate Army, who was later, during the war with Spain, a major-general in the United States Army. Anne married Judge William Marshall, of Baltimore, and Mildred married Edward Vernon Childe, of Massachusetts, and spent most of her later life in Paris.
When Robert was four years old, his father moved with his family to Alexandria that his children might have better opportunities for education; but as the boy grew older he was often at Stratford and spent much time at Shirley on the James River, which was the beautiful home of his mother's father, Charles Carter, a man of lofty character and princely generosity. At both places the past was vividly presented to him, not only by the things which surrounded him, but also by the old family servants who talked to him of its greatness. At both places he found companions in the many visitors, to whom the doors were always open wide, or, on the rare occasions when there were no visitors, in the little darkies, who loved to do “young master's” bidding, and act either as servants or as play-fellows to him. At both places he took part in the sports and games of rural Virginia: shot partridges, ducks, and geese; fished, rowed, and sailed; swam in the summer, and skated in the winter. He spent much time on horseback and became an expert horseman. He roamed freely through the woods and fields and came to have a love for the open which he never lost. In later years he often recalled running the fox on foot all day.
It was not strange that he never lost his love for these two old places. In 1861, after the seizure of Arlington, he wrote his daughter:—
Stratford is endeared to me by many recollections and it has always been the desire of my life to purchase it. And now that we have no other home, and the one we so loved has been so foully polluted, that desire is stronger in me than ever. The horse-chestnuts you mention in the garden were planted by my mother. You do not mention the spring, one of the objects of my earliest recollections. How my heart goes back to those early days.
In 1867, he wrote:—
I wanted, if possible, to pass one day at Shirley. I have not been there for ten years. It was the loved home of my mother and a spot where I have passed many happy days in early life, and one that probably I may never visit again.
It was two years after the Lees moved to Alexandria that General Henry Lee went to the West Indies, that journey from which he never returned to Virginia. When he died, five years later, Robert was only eleven and he never saw his father's grave until 1861. He was at that time in charge of the Confederate defenses of the Southern coast. One who was with him says: “He went alone to the tomb and after a few moments of silence plucked a flower, and slowly retraced his steps, leaving the lonely grave to the guardianship of the crumbling stone and the spirit of the restless waves that perpetually beat against the shore.” A few months before his death, he again visited the grave, this time with his daughter, who covered the mound with flowers.
Although Robert's father went out of his life so early, his mother was left to him. She was his intimate friend, for she was the sort of mother a boy could have for a friend. Her thought of her children, left entirely to her care, was unceasing, and her life was filled with good works. She was a woman of unusual gifts, and, when her two older sons left her, one for Harvard College, the other for the navy, she gave all her attention to the little fellow who was left at home and his two little sisters. His father wrote of him from the West Indies, “Robert was always good”; and, striving to keep him so, Mrs. Lee impressed upon him principles and habits of action and thought destined to remain with him throughout his whole life. He was taught industry, self-denial, self- control, truth, religion. He was taught the lessons of honor and pride of race along with modesty and self-effacement. Patriotism he was born to, and it was fostered in him through his school days at Alexandria. The place was full of associations of “the Father of his Country,” and, as Washington became there the hero and the ideal of Lee's boyhood, so he was in many ways the model of his manhood, and study of Washington teaches patriotism.
Robert's first teacher in Alexandria was an Irish gentleman named Leary, under whom the boy made rapid progress. He did particularly well in Latin and Greek, for which he always kept his fondness. He and Leary were always thereafter devoted friends.
Later, after his appointment to West Point, Lee went to a well-known school in Alexandria conducted by Benjamin Hallowell. This gentleman was a Quaker and a very strict teacher and the boys called his school “Brimstone Castle.” He wrote in later years of his pupil:—
He was a most exemplary student in every respect. He was never behind-time in his studies; never failed in a single recitation; was perfectly observant of the rules and regulations of the institution; was gentle, manly, unobtrusive, and respectful in all his deportment to teachers and his fellow students. His specialty was finishing up. He imparted a finish and a neatness to everything he undertook.
His mother was an invalid and he spent most of his time when out of school with her. As soon as school was over he hurried home to take her driving and often carried her to the carriage in his arms, placing her comfortably and seeking all the while to amuse her with cheerful conversation. The carriage was old and he would put newspapers up to keep out the wind, and, though the plan may have been, and probably was, a failure in keeping out the air, it amused Mrs. Lee greatly and that, after all, was what her son sought to do. As her strength failed, the boy took other cares upon himself. He went to market, took charge of the keys, and saw to the horses and to all the many details of the homeIt is not a matter for wonder that, when he left for West Point, his mother said: “How can I do without Robert? He is both son and daughter to me.” In spite of his gentleness and tenderness and his affectionate nature, there was in him no lack of manliness. All sports appealed to him, and he had a keen sense of humor accompanied by a great fondness for jokes. These characteristics remained with him always. Like his father, he had a furious temper; unlike his father, he had almost always absolute control over it. It is told of his father that, as he lay on his death-bed at Dungeness, being waited upon by “Mom Sarah,” an old family servant of the Greenes, he greeted her entrance into the room one day by seizing a boot which lay near the bed and throwing it at her head. She picked the boot up and returned the fire and thereby won such a place in his heart that he would thereafter have no other attendant. It would be hard to picture Robert Lee's throwing a boot at any one's head or having it thrown back.
As Lee grew towards manhood, he began to plan for the future, for, as there was no fortune at his command, he was anxious to be self-supporting. So far as we know, he consulted no one in his choice of a profession, but, guided largely by the fact that his father had been a soldier, chose that as his career. His brother was already in the navy, so Lee turned his eyes towards West Point, and, in 1824, applied for an appointment, and received it for the term beginning in 1825. There is a tradition that the appointment came to him through General Andrew Jackson's influence, but it is scarcely possible that this is true. As has been seen, he at once began special preparation for the new life, and, on July 2,1825, he entered the United States Military Academy and became a part of that great institution.
Return to The Life of Robert E. Lee for Boys and Girls