Washington and Lee University

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

CHAPTER IV
THE YOUNG ENGINEER

THE Engineer Corps of the United States Army has been, ever since the establishment of the Military Academy, a body of men of high distinction. The West Point cadets who have achieved first honors are those assigned to it upon their promotion to the Army, and it is thus made up of scholarly men who have shown themselves capable and obedient soldiers. Many distinguished men and able soldiers have served in the corps. These men have charge of coast defenses and forts and other fortifications. They also plan and direct the government work on rivers and harbors. In recent years they have done a wonderful piece of work in the construction of the Panama Canal.

To this body Lee was assigned upon his graduation and was commissioned a second lieutenant. At this time the life of the officers in other branches of the service was not, as a rule, attractive. The army posts were often remote and sometimes practically cut ofi from the civilized world. The life was narrowing, with little incentive to study or hard work of any kind, and this fact, combined with the dullness of the life, formed a strong temptation to dissipation. In the Corps of Engineers, life was very different. Most of its members were regularly assigned to work close to some city and so were in close touch with the world. They were apt to lead a somewhat gayer life than other officers, but usually it was a fuller life as well and one with greater opportunity for self-development.

After the usual short leave of absence or furlough, Lee was stationed at Fortress Monroe, in Virginia, the oldest of the coast defenses of the United States. He was delighted at being sent back home, and he enjoyed the five years he spent there as assistant to Captain Talcott, seeking to strengthen the defenses of Hampton Roads to a point where they could never be taken. It was while Lee was there that the famous negro uprising at Southampton took place, in which more than sixty white persons, the majority of them women and children, were murdered. Lee, like every one else, felt the horror of the thing deeply and it made a great impression upon him.

Soon after he went to Fortress Monroe, Lee was summoned to his mother, who was dying at “Ravensworth,” in Fairfax County. Her death was a great sorrow to him, for he had with increasing years come to understand her better and to appreciate her worth even more than in his early years. In 1869, the year before his death, he visited “Ravensworth,” and, as he passed the door of the room in which she died, he said: “Forty years ago, I stood in this room by my mother's death-bed! It seems now but yesterday.” Lee was married on June 30, 1831, at Arlington, to Miss Custis. The newspaper notice of the wedding was simply:—

Married June 30, 1831, at Arlington House, by the Reverend Mr. Keith, Lieut. Robert E. Lee, of the United States Corps of Engineers, to Miss Mary A. R. Custis, only daughter of G. W. P. Custis, Esq.

The party gathered at Arlington must have been one of the gayest the house had ever known. The place was filled with guests, including six bridesmaids and six groomsmen, five of the latter being officers in the army or navy. As wedding journeys were not the fashion in those days, the young couple and their guests made merry for a week and the house was full of life and gayety. Then the Lees settled down to life together, a life to,be marked throughout by the deepest devotion and most perfect understanding. Mary Custis Lee was a woman of unusual strength of mind and character and she had received a fine education. She proved herself a fit mate for a great man.

ROBERT E. LEE

The demands of Lee's profession took him often from home and this fact had been brought forward by Mr. Custis, who had at first opposed the engagement, as one of the reasons against the match. Lee's bride was the only child of a very wealthy father, but she chose to fit her life to her husband's very modest income and for years they lived upon that alone. Later, she inherited two splendid Virginia estates, Arlington, and the White House on the Pamunkey River, in New Kent County. Arlington was one of Virginia's most beautiful homes. It was built by George Washington Parke Custis. It occupied a commanding site upon the top of an elevation more than three hundred feet above tide-water of the Potomac and half a mile from the river's shore. The building was of brick and had a frontage, including the main building and the two large wings, of one hundred and forty feet. In front was a grand portico with eight magnificent Doric columns. It was sixty feet across and twenty-five feet in depth. It was modeled after the Temple of Theseus at Athens. The house held many relics of Washington and other connections of the family and was filled with memories and traditions of the good and great. In front of the house was a fine park of two hundred acres, sloping to the Potomac, dotted with groves of oak and chestnut trees and with clumps of evergreens. Behind, was a dark old forest containing many magnificent trees, most of them very old, and covering about six hundred acres of hill and dale. Through a part of this forest, wound the road to the house. The view from the house was, and is still, superb. One looked out upon the Potomac and across to Washington and Georgetown with beautiful views of the Capitol, the White House, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Washington Monument. The view of the river is particularly fine. On the grounds at the edge of the river was a magnificent spring set in a grove and coming out of the roots of a splendid oak. Here Mr. Custis, who was the soul of hospitality, had built a wharf, storeroom, kitchen, dining-room, and dancing pavilion. This place was very popular with picnic parties from Washington who were welcome to come any day except Sunday, provided no liquor was sold there. In 1852, it was estimated, twenty thousand people visited the place. On the grounds was a willow tree, called “Pope's Willow.” It had grown from a slip planted there by a British officer in 1775. The slip was obtained from a weeping willow which had grown from a slip brought from the East and planted in Pope's villa at Twickenham, in England, which became the parent tree of all the weeping willows in England. The one at Arlington is the parent tree of all the weeping willows in the United States. Here at Arlington, Lee and his wife lived with Mr. and Mrs. Custis; here their children were born; and, to them all, this home was associated with the greatest happiness of their lives.

The other estate, the White House, also had its historic associations. It was there that Washington courted the widow Custis; there they were married and spent their honeymoon of three months. The house was no such imposing mansion as that at Arlington. It was a simple country house, comfortable for its time. It was built by William Claiborne, Secretary of the Colony of Virginia, to whom the place had been given for a victory over the Pamunkey Indians. Claiborne, it will be remembered, was the man who defied Lord Baltimore in regard to the ownership of Kent Island in the Chesapeake, and actually began armed hostilities against the Maryland settlers who interfered with his rights. It was for this estate that the President's Mansion at Washington is named.

Lee, unlike many officers of his day, did not stop his studies with his graduation from the Academy. In his branch of the service, promotion came in no other way than through work, and Lee, with all his modesty, was properly ambitious. He studied his profession with the same earnestness he had shown while learning his lessons at school, and he made rapid progress. In 1834, he was ordered to Washington as assistant to the chief engineer. This suited him well, as it enabled him to live at Arlington and ride in to his office every day. Many of his old friends were already in Washington and he rapidly made new ones. A group of his friends had a “mess” at Mrs. Ulrich's, whose house was on the spot where the Riggs House was later to stand. In this group was Joseph E. Johnston, Lee's intimate friend, together with several others, including Mahlon Dickerson, Secretary of the Navy; William C. Rives, former minister to France, then a Senator; Hugh S. Legaré, an eminent South Carolina lawyer, then in Congress; and Joel R. Poinsett, Secretary of War. Lee was often cut off from home by bad roads and at such times was one of this gay and joyous group of congenial friends. One of the number was John N. Macomb, who had been at West Point with Lee, but in a lower class. One day, as Lee was mounting his horse to start for Arlington, he saw Macomb approaching. He called, “Come, get up with me.” Macomb leaped up behind him on the horse and the two galloped off down Pennsylvania Avenue. As they passed the White House they met Levi Woodbury, the Secretary of the Treasury, whom they greeted with a great assumption of dignity, much to that gentleman's bewilderment.

In 1835 Lee was made assistant astronomer of the commission to run a boundary line between Ohio and Michigan, and the next year he was promoted to first lieutenant of engineers. A year later a great task was intrusted to him. The city of St. Louis was in great danger because of the deflection of the current of the Mississippi River to the Illinois side, with the practical certainty that, unless something was done to prevent it, it would cut a new channel and thus leave St. Louis “high and dry,” which would, of course, mean ruin to the city. Whatever was to be done had to be done quickly, and General Scott was asked for aid. His reply was that he knew only one man equal to the task and that was Lieutenant Lee. “He is young, but, if the work can be done, he will do it.” So Lee left Arlington and his work in Washington with the large order to make the Father of Waters behave. He was also directed to make surveys and prepare plans for improving the navigation of the river in the neighborhood of St. Louis and above.

Lee left Washington in June and went by canal to Pittsburgh and from there traveled by steamboat to St. Louis. It was a most exciting trip, for again and again they came near disaster, and did assist in the rescue of some who had been wrecked.

After careful inspection of the river, Lee recommended the building of a system of piles and dams. His report was accepted by the War Department, and Lee was given charge of the construction work. The plan seemed absurd to the people of St. Louis, who knew little or nothing of engineering, and they became much excited. The large appropriation which the city had made for the work was withdrawn. Lee said quietly when he was told of this, “They can do what they like with their own, but I was sent here to do certain work, and I shall do it.” He and his men were threatened and abused, and cannon even were brought to use against them. In spite of it all, heedless of criticism, Lee carried his task to a successful end. Not only was St. Louis saved, but this was the beginning of the improvement of the navigation on the Upper Mississippi. In 1838 Lee was promoted to the rank of captain of engineers and was kept in the West for a number of years. A part of the time his family were with him, but, now that there were children, they lived most of the time in Arlington. There were seven children, three sons and four daughters. They were George Washington Custis, William Henry Fitzhugh, Robert Edward, Mary, Annie, Agnes, and Mildred. Lee called Custis, “Boo,” and William Henry Fitzhugh, “Rooney,” and Mildred, his youngest daughter, “Precious Life.” His devotion to them all was deep, and his letters are full of allusions to them which show his interest in what they were doing and also his strong desire to be with them. His love for children went further than his own, and children always knew that he loved them and so were never afraid to approach him. The following letter to his wife shows his feeling for them:—

St. Louis, September 4, 1840.

A few evenings since feeling lonesome, as the saying is, and out of sorts, I got a horse and took a ride. On returning through the lower part of the town, I saw a number of little girls all dressed up in their white frocks and pantalets, their hair plaited and tied up with ribbons, running and chasing each other in all directions. I counted twenty-three nearly the same size. As I drew up my horse to admire the spectacle a man appeared at the door with the twenty-fourth in his arms. “My friend,” said I, “are all these your children?” “Yes,” he said, “and there are nine more in the house, and this is the youngest.” Upon further inquiry, however, I found that they were only temporarily his, and that they had been invited to a party at his house. He said, however, he had been admiring them before I came up, and just wished that he had a million of dollars and that they were his in reality. I do not think the eldest exceeded seven or eight years old. It was the prettiest sight I have seen in the West, and perhaps in my life.

In 1840 Lee returned to Washington, and in 1842 he was sent to Fort Hamilton in New York Harbor to take charge of the work of improving the defenses of that city. Two years later, while still engaged on this work, he served on the Board of Visitors of the Military Academy, an assignment which was particularly pleasant to him. He remained for several years at Fort Hamilton, and very happy years they were, for his family were all with him and his surroundings were delightful. He gathered around himself here, as he had everywhere done, pet animals to which he was strongly attached. Chief among these, was a black and tan terrier named “Spec.” Spec's mother had been saved from drowning in the “Narrows” by Lee, as he was once crossing to Staten Island, and carried home, where she soon became a great favorite with the entire family. Spec was born in the fort and was considered a member of the family. He soon developed a habit of going everywhere the other members went. When he began to go to church with them, Lee was much annoyed and tried in every way to discourage the habit. He finally shut the little fellow up on the second floor of his quarters, only to have him jump bravely down and join the family party. Lee's affection for him is shown in a letter written from the fort while his wife and children were at Arlington on a visit. He says:—

I am very solitary and my only company is my dog and cats. But “Spec” has become so jealous now that he will hardly let me look at the cats. He seems to be afraid that I am going off from him, and never lets me stir without him. Lies down in the office from eight to four without moving, and turns himself before the fire as the side from it becomes cold. I catch him sometimes sitting up looking at me so intently that I am for a moment startled.

Later, he wrote from Mexico:—

Can't you cure poor “Spec”? Cheer him up—take him to walk with you and tell the children to cheer him up.

Again he wrote:—

Tell him I wish he was here with me. He would have been of great service in telling me when I was coming upon the Mexicans. When I was reconnoitering around Vera Cruz, their dogs frequently told me by barking when I was approaching them too nearly.

Upon Lee's return from the Mexican War, “Spec's” delight was without bounds.

From the happy, peaceful life at Fort Hamilton, Lee was called by the outbreak of the war with Mexico.


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