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 United States Military Academy at West Point was established by act of Congress in 1802, and was opened on July 4 of the same year. Its first superintendent was Colonel Jonathan Williams. As first organized, it was the headquarters of the Engineer Corps of the army, and all the superintendents until 1866 were from that branch of the service. The number of cadets was at first very small, only fifty, increasing to two hundred and six in 1808, and to two hundred and sixty in 1812. The cadets were appointed by the President upon the recommendation of the Secretary of War, and Lee was thus appointed by President Monroe, acting upon the advice of John C. Calhoun. It soon came about that the Secretary was much influenced in his choice by the suggestions of members of Congress, and later the number of cadets was made to coincide with the number of Representatives, who then began to name the cadets.

The exact status of the cadets was in doubt until 1819 when it was decided that they formed a part of the land forces of the United States. The requirements for entrance at this time were very low—simply that the candidate should be “well versed in reading, writing, and arithmetic,” or, as they were commonly called, “the three R's.” The age of appointment was between fourteen and twenty-one years, and the applicant had to be at least four feet nine inches in height. These requirements remained unchanged until 1866.

In spite of its establishment in 1802, and its remodeling in 1812, the real West Point did not begin to exist until fifteen years after the opening. There was neither discipline nor system, and the instruction was most uneven and incomplete. An officer who was there during those first years wrote of it: “The Military Academy was then in its infancy. All order and regulation, either moral or religious, gave way to idleness, dissipation, and irreligion. No control over the conduct of the officers and the cadets was exercised.”

In 1817, with the appointment as superintendent of Major Sylvanus Thayer, a graduate of the class of 1812 and a veteran of the War of 1812, who had studied abroad, the spirit of West Point was born. He remained as superintendent until 1833 when he had a quarrel with President Jackson and resigned his position. In those sixteen years, he made West Point and earned the just title of “Father of the United States Military Academy.” Under him discipline became steadily more efficient and severe, the teaching more and more thorough, and the course of study longer and better. Colonel Thayer was superintendent during the whole period of Lee's cadetship.

West Point is beautifully situated. On the north and east it is hemmed in by the majestic Hudson River; on the west and south by the Highlands. The Point itself is a plateau, which since Lee's time has been increased by filling, partly enclosed by redoubts that date back to the Revolution. The natural scenery was beautiful then as it is to-day, but, when Lee went there, man had done little to help nature. The rough, rocky plateau was almost without trees; there were no made walks, but only twisting footpaths. A public road of the State of New York ran through the grounds—the State still claiming jurisdiction over the place. On the south there was a rough fence to keep out the cows of a farmer who lived in that direction, and the woods came almost to the Academy grounds. None of the present buildings were then standing. Instead, there were cottages for instructors, the Long Barracks, where lived the regular troops stationed there, the North Barracks, the South Barracks, the Mess Hall, the Academy, and the Hospital.

Even at this time West Point had a fine reputation and thousands applied for appointments who never received them. Many failed on the entrance examinations, simple as they were. Lee had received special preparation from Mr. Hallowell and so was able to pass them without difficulty, and of course the physical examination gave him no trouble at all. Having passed his entrance examinations, which were oral ones, before a board, Lee was admitted on probation until the following January, when the appointment became permanent. Upon his admission, under the law Lee entered the military service of the United States and became entitled to the pay of twenty-eight dollars a month.

As soon as he was admitted to the Academy, he was measured for his uniform. It was not unlike that worn by the cadets of to-day. The coat was of gray cloth with black trimmings and with three rows of gilt buttons in front, and with the skirt, collar, and sleeves also trimmed with them. The collar was so high that it touched the tips of his ears. A gray or white vest with gilt buttons was worn with this. The trousers, of which he was required to have two pairs, were of gray kerseymere with black stripes down the sides. In summer white linen trousers were worn, each cadet having at least four pairs. The trousers were all very baggy and so short that they came well above the shoe-tops, in spite of having straps which went under the feet. The cap was seven inches high. It was made of leather and was ornamented with a plume, a cord, and a gilt medallion with “U.S.” on it. It was so uncomfortable that few cadets wore it except on duty, but it had the advantage of being an easy means of smuggling food into barracks.

The luxury that the cadets of to-day have was unknown to Lee and his fellow cadets. The buildings were badly constructed and were hot in summer and cold in winter. The rooms in the barracks were only about twelve feet square and there were three, four, or even more cadets lodged in each. The furniture was the same in all the rooms and consisted of nothing more than a table, a book-shelf, a rack over the mantel for muskets, and a chair for each cadet. At night, narrow mattresses were spread on the floor. The only heat was supplied by fireplaces, and the wood for these was kept in great boxes in the halls. The cadets had to make their own fires, and, as in those days there were no matches, the blaze had to be started with flint, steel, and tinder. Each room was in charge of the cadets, serving in turn as orderlies. At the time Lee entered West Point, all the water had to be brought by the cadets from a spring on the grounds or from pumps, but in 1826, a water system was installed. Until this change was made there was not a bathtub at West Point.

The Mess Hall contained classrooms as well as the dining-room. The latter was furnished with long, bare tables and wooden benches. The tableware was all of tin or iron. Here a Mr. Cozzens furnished board for the cadets at ten dollars a month. The fare was usually plentiful, and, though it was plain, it was very good. At times there were exceptions in certain dishes, for one cadet wrote home that the soup was bad and “that a most filthy kind of Orleans molasses was served with some black-looking stuff contained in a tin pan which was honored with the name of pudding.” Cozzens held the theory that “if you give young men plenty of first-rate bread and potatoes, they will require little meat and never complain.” The cadets were very fond of his bread and often carried quantities away in their pockets and caps to eat later in their rooms. At each table one of the cadets did the carving and was responsible for the good order of his table.

The course of study which was followed for the first year had only mathematics and French. Six hours a day were given to the former and three to the latter. During the second year the same amount of time was given to mathematics, but drawing alternated with French. In the third year natural philosophy was studied five hours a day, chemistry and drawing each two hours. In the last year the time was divided in this way: engineering, five hours; chemistry, two hours; and constitutional law, ethics, and rhetoric, two hours. Every summer was spent in camp and the time was largely taken up with drilling and other out-of-door occupations.

Soon after Major Thayer became superintendent, he planned a course based upon three fundamentals: (1) that every cadet should be trained in every subject taught; (2) that each should be proficient in all the subjects; and (3) that every cadet should recite every day. That plan has been followed ever since. Cadets at West Point never bother their heads with wondering if they are going to be called on the next day and if it is worth while preparing. They know that they will be called on to recite in everything and that it is well to be prepared. In Lee's time, as now, the classes were divided into small sections in order that each cadet might recite every day and also that each might receive individual instruction. The grading of the work was on a basis of three as perfect down to zero indicating an entire failure.

Like most men Lee must have been strongly influenced by the men under whom he studied. The professor of mathematics was Charles Davies, who was a very distinguished writer in his field and whose textbooks are still often used. The cadets called him “Old Tush” because of his projecting teeth, but they liked him personally and as a teacher. Another teacher of mathematics, Ross, was also excellent. He had long whiskers which he pulled nervously as he talked and he chewed tobacco all the time. The course in mathematics for the first year included algebra, geometry, and trigonometry; for the second, descriptive geometry, conic sections, and analytical geometry.

The professor of French was Claudius Bérard, and both the grammar and introductory book he used were written by himself. A reading and writing knowledge of the language were the chief things sought after in the course, and in the two years Lee read “Gil Bias” and Voltaire's “Charles XII.”

Drawing was under the direction of Thomas Gimbrode, a Frenchman. For the first two years there was little attempted in this line beyond copying drawings of heads and figures, and map drawing, which was of course important. In the third year there was some work given in landscapes and topographical drawing.

Natural philosophy, which included mechanics, physics, astronomy, electricity, and optics, was taught by Jared Mansfield. He was really a fine teacher, but was not very strict with the cadets. He looked old and was near-sighted, a misfortune of which the cadets took advantage.

Chemistry was under W. F. Hopkins. The course was almost as full then as it is to-day. It included in the fourth year geology and mineralogy, but there was no collection of minerals and there were no chemical laboratories. The most important study of the last year was engineering, including civil and military engineering and architecture. David B. Douglas, an experienced teacher, and later a distinguished engineer, was professor. Only French textbooks were used in this course.

The very last group of studies, taken up only in the fourth year, was that including geography, history, ethics, rhetoric, political economy, and constitutional law. The instructor was Thomas Warren. Of the course itself, as studied by Lee, we know little. Perhaps the most interesting fact that has come down to us about it is that one of the textbooks used in the course was Rawle on the Constitution, a book on Constitutional law, written by a distinguished lawyer and judge in Pennsylvania, which set forth in unmistakable terms the doctrines of state sovereignty and of secession. The following extracts show the nature of this teaching:—

If a faction should attempt to subvert the government of a State for the purpose of destroying its republican form, the national power of the Union could be called forth to subdue it. Yet it is not to be understood that its interposition would be justifiable if a State should determine to retire from the Union.

It depends on a State itself whether it will continue a member of the Union. To deny this right would be inconsistent with the principle on which all our political systems are founded, which is that the people have in all cases the right to determine how they shall be governed.

The State may wholly withdraw from the Union.

If a majority of the people of a State deliberately and peaceably resolve to relinquish the republican form of government, they cease to be members of the Union.

The secession of a State from the Union depends on the will of the people of such a State.

It is likely that the influence of this book on Southern men has been much exaggerated as the doctrine of States' Rights had been learned first at home by them all. The whole country had believed in States' Rights at first and as yet no question concerning the doctrine had arisen to force a decision.

One other man whose influence must have been felt by Lee was the chaplain, Charles P. Mcllvaine, later Episcopal Bishop of Ohio. He left the Academy in 1827, so that Lee never studied under him, but the effect of his character and preaching had been to change the attitude of the whole Academy towards religion, which, until Mr. McIlvaine's time, had been often a subject for scoffing and ridicule. No cadet had ever knelt at prayers until, during Lee's first year, Leonidas Polk, of North Carolina, later Bishop of Louisiana and a Confederate major-general, set the example, which others followed.

Scarcely less important than the classwork was the military drill and instruction in military tactics. The cadets were formed into a battalion of four companies under the commandant. When Lee entered West Point, Major William J. Worth was commandant and remained so until some time during his last year, when Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock succeeded him. Major Worth was an able commandant and a true soldier. He later served with distinction as a general in the Mexican War. The cadets called him “Haughty Bill,” but they were devoted to him, and the value of his influence in setting the standard of officers and gentlemen can hardly be estimated. Captain Hitchcock, known among the cadets as “Old Hitch,” was not nearly so popular.

Infantry drill took place every day; artillery drill less often, and cavalry drill, at that time, not at all. The superintendent constantly asked for horses that the cadets might not forget how to ride. Lee stood in no danger of forgetting, as riding had long before become second nature to him.

The infantry drill was modeled upon the tactics of the United States Army, and was complete in every way. Artillery drill was very severe, as, lacking horses, the cadets themselves had to put on the harness in turn and drag the heavy cannon over the parade ground. Lieutenant Kinsley was the instructor. In addition to drill regular classes in military science were held for the first class, that is, the highest class, in the Academy. To Lee even as a cadet, all things military were attractive. He was a born soldier, and he was steadily promoted until in his last year he won the coveted post of adjutant of the battalion. His son, George Washington Custis Lee, gained the same honor just twenty-five years later. The Academy maintained the strictest discipline. The breaking of regulations was promply punished by demerits affecting class standing, by extra sentinel duty, by confinement to rooms or guard-house, or, in the more serious cases, by trial by court-martial and dismissal upon conviction. Lee, during his entire four years, never received a demerit or subjected himself to punishment.

The cadets' day was filled with work. At 5.45 in the morning, reveille sounded. This was followed immediately by roll call. The rooms in barracks all had then to be put in order fora close inspection before 7.45, when the squads of cadets marched separately to breakfast. No talking was allowed during this or any meal, and class-work began immediately afterwards and lasted until 12.30. One o'clock was the dinner hour, and classes were taken up again at two and lasted until four, when drill began. At sunset, there was parade, followed by prayers and supper. At eight all cadets had to be in their rooms and at work. At ten taps sounded the signal for the lights to be put out.

In spite of the hard work and rigid discipline, fun was not lacking at West Point. There was not then the gay social life the place has to-day, for it was out of touch with the outside world and very hard to reach. There were no dances, though dancing was taught for the purpose of keeping the cadets from awkwardness. Nor was there the flock of pretty girls making the cadets feel important and lessening the number of brass buttons on their coats. But every Saturday was a half-holiday and the country surrounding West Point gave opportunity for long, delightful walks and for some good hunting. All winter the skating was good and almost every cadet learned to skate, an art which Lee had already learned in his boyhood in Virginia. Strong ties of friendship were formed, many of them to last through life. At West Point with Lee were Albert Sidney Johnston, Joseph E. Johnston, Jefferson Davis, Leonidas Polk, John B. Macgruder, William N. Pendleton, T. H. Holmes, A. G. Blanchard,

L. B. Northrop, Philip St. George Cocke, G. B. Crittenden, Hugh W. Mercer, Gabriel S. Rains, Richard C. Gatlin, and Thomas F. Drayton, all of whom later became distinguished Confederate officers. Among those who became prominent as Federal officers were A. B. Eaton, Silas Casey, S. P. Heintzelman, Philip St. George Cooke, O. A. Humphreys, W. H. C. Bartlett, Benjamin Alvord, R. C. Buchanan, T. A. Davies, R. B. Marcy, T. J. McKean, and William H. Emory. A. E. Church was a noted professor at West Point, and O. M. Mitchel won fame as an astronomer.

Lee was not given to forming intimacies quickly, although there was about him no trace of snobbishness or aloofness. One deep friendship was formed which lasted all his life. This was with Joseph E. Johnston. When they met in after years, it was with all the demonstrativeness of school-boys, and for years they wrote to each other regularly. Johnston's tribute to Lee is significant. He said:—

We had the same associates, who thought, as I did, that no other youth or man so united the qualities that win warm friendship and command respect. For he was full of sympathy and kindness, genial and fond of gay conversation and even of fun, that made him the most agreeable of companions, while his correctness of demeanor and language and attention to all duties, both personal and official, and a dignity as much a part of himself as the elegance of his person, gave him a superiority that every one acknowledged in his heart.

Speaking of him at another time, Johnston said:—

He was the only one of all the men I have known who could laugh at the faults and follies of his friends in such a manner as to make them ashamed without touching their affections.

Lee and Jefferson Davis were good friends without being on terms of intimacy. They were destined to be thrown closely together in the future, and their friendship, steadily increasing all the time, carried them through many rough places.

One of the favorite amusements of the cadets was a trip to Buttermilk Falls, two miles away, where one Benny Havens sold food and drink, peculiarly adapted to the taste of a cadet. This was a forbidden pleasure, and Lee's passion for duty kept him away, but many adventurous cadets, including some of the best and strongest men at West Point, went often. The two Johnstons, like Lee, did not, but Jefferson Davis was court-martialed for drinking there, and, on one occasion, in escaping, he fell sixty feet over a cliff and received injuries that came near being fatal. Benny Havens lived until 1877, and West Pointers still sing a song of many verses called “Benny Havens, Oh.”

At Christmas of Lee's second year occurred the “great riot.” The cadets had planned an egg-nog party, and invitations had been sent around and accepted by many. Among those who declined were Lee and J. E. Johnston. News of this plan leaked, and the authorities kept careful watch, and, just as the affair was beginning, officers stepped in and broke it up. A serious riot followed, and the cadets, hearing that the regular troops stationed at West Point had been called out, formed what they called “the Helvetian League” to protect themselves. Nine cadets were later dismissed from the Academy for participation in all this. This sort of thing had little attraction for Lee. Throughout his whole life he was extremely abstemious, never using tobacco, rarely touching wine, and never using whiskey or brandy.

In 1828 Lee took the usual furlough and returned home for a visit of some months. This visit was marked by a great event in his life. He met again Mary Randolph Custis with whom he had played in childhood at Arlington. She was the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, a grandson of Mrs. Washington and the adopted son of Washington. Mary Custis had grown into a charming young woman and Lee into a handsome young soldier, and, as the result of this meeting, Lee returned to West Point engaged to be married. A cousin of Lee's wrote of him at this time:—

The first time I remember being struck with his manly beauty and attractiveness of manner was when he returned home after his first two years [three was correct] at West Point. He came with his mother and family on a visit to my father's. He was dressed in his cadet uniform of West Point gray with white bullet buttons, and every one was filled with admiration of his fine appearance and lovely manners.

Lee returned to West Point for his final year. As adjutant of the battalion, he was the most prominent and commanding figure among the cadets. Up to this time, he had held the second place in his class, the first being held by Charles Mason, of New York, and he succeeded in keeping it during the final year, graduating second in a rather unusual class of forty-six members.

The ideal of West Point has been always that each of its graduates should be an honorable, courageous, clear-thinking man, well trained for his profession, not only in technical military science, but also in all that goes to make an able officer. The Academy has been wonderfully successful in achieving this. The scroll of the Academy shield bears the significant words, “Duty, Honor, Country,” and devotion to these three has been characteristic of the sons of West Point. All three had been taught Lee in his childhood, but his life at West Point emphasized them and left its stamp upon him, as it has upon the vast majority of those who have there been trained to answer the call of country in peace as well as in war.

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