One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 14, Number 6
September 2006

The legendary attributes of Robert E. Lee are well known, and the stories of his Civil War exploits are thoroughly ingrained in the American mind. The sterling personality, great accomplishments, high moral courage, and admirable character of this remarkable man have stood the test of time. Even the current crop of Lost Cause “de-mythologists,” with a few exceptions, pretty much accept the prevailing positive assessments of Lee, the man, and Lee the general.

For those of us who are admirers of General Lee, next year will be a special time, because on January 19th we will celebrate his two-hundredth birthday. Perhaps fortuitously, in 2007 Virginia will also celebrate its founding four hundred years ago in 1607. Maybe I’m making too much of the coincidence of the two anniversaries occurring in the same year, but in my mind Lee and his beloved Virginia are inseparable, and he rightfully belongs in the pantheon of other august and historic Virginians such as John Smith, Patrick Henry, George Washington, John Marshall, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, to name a few.

In order to achieve that honored position in Virginia’s and America’s history, however, Lee had to overcome some awesome impediments in his youthful days. Although some have said that Robert E. Lee was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, in truth, at the time of his birth there was almost no “silver” left, and most of the family’s assets had been dissipated by his once-famous, but later-disgraced father. Like many Virginians of their class with distinguished pedigrees and long-established lineages, the Lee’s lived off their name, and under conditions that might be termed “genteel poverty.”

To add to the woes of the family, in 1813 when young Robert was only 6 years old, his father by then the pathetic “Light-Horse Harry” Lee fled his creditors and ignominious misery, and sailed off to Barbados in the West Indies for his “health” leaving his family and young son in sorrow, never to return home. Talk about adversity—Henry Lee’s wife Anne Hill Carter Lee, age 40, was left as a “single mom” charged with the entire care of her five children ranging in age from 15 to 2. Although practically penniless, she came from the remarkable stock of Carter women and was up to it spiritually. Her legacy as demonstrated by her children’s lives would be proof of her success. It is not surprising that later in life Robert would acknowledge that he “owed everything to his mother.”

But, as Douglas Southall Freeman noted in his magisterial biography of Lee, the “overconfidence, recklessness, disaster, and ruin” of his father Henry Lee’s tragic life were not to be a part of the character of the young son. In their place his mother instilled in him self-denial, self-control, and the strictest economy in all financial matters. These qualities were the precise reverse of those that his father had displayed, and were inculcated into Robert from day one by his mother so that they became fundamentals of his character, and axioms of conduct for the rest of his life. In a simplistic diagnosis then, we can say that Lee’s basic character was essentially the product of the negative consequences of his father, and the positive influences of his mother. Or, as Freeman so eloquently put it, “the weakness of the sire became the strength of the son.”

Sometime around 1814 young Robert began his formal education when he was sent away to the Carter family school with his cousins known as Eastern View in nearby Fauquier County. While he was studying at Eastern View, his father sought to return to Virginia from exile in Barbados and set sail home. But it was not to be. The family’s misfortunes continued when Henry Lee was stricken mortally on the voyage and was put ashore at Dungeness, Cumberland Island, Georgia where he died on March 25, 1818, some five years after leaving home. Although “Light-Horse” Harry Lee would leave a dichotomic legacy, perhaps he is most commonly remembered as the man who delivered the immortal funeral oration in 1799 for George Washington: “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

One wonders what Lee thought about his father—a man he barely knew. He was only six when Henry Lee abandoned his family for good. Even when his father had been home, there was apparently almost no father-son relationship, and his ponderous letters written in exile barely mentioned his youngest son. For whatever reason, Robert would visit his father’s grave only twice, and then years later, once in 1862 in the first year of the Civil War, and again in 1870 when he made his farewell rip through the South with his daughter Eleanor Agnes.

Robert remained at Eastern View until about 1819 or 1820 when he was enrolled in the Alexandria Academy in his home town. There, where his tuition was free, he came under the tutelage of an Irishman named William B. Leary for whom the young Lee acquired an enduring respect, and where he received the rudiments of a classical education by studying Greek, Latin, and mathematics. He apparently showed a special aptitude for mathematics. By the end of 1823, at age 16, he had completed the course of study at Alexandria Academy and it came time to make a career decision. What to do next?

The oldest sibling, Charles Carter Lee, had graduated from Harvard, and in 1819 opened a law office in Washington. The next year the second son and brother Sidney Smith Lee was given a midshipman’s commission in the navy by President James Monroe. We had no direct evidence of how Robert reached his decision to pursue a military career. Perhaps his aptitude in mathematics combined with a subconscious desire to restore some of the family’s prestige and status that was held by his once famous father as a colonel in the Revolutionary War and as a general afterwards were factors in his decision. It is also likely that he was strongly influenced by Sidney Smith’s choice of a military career. If Robert could get in the United States Military Academy at West Point and become a soldier, he could get a fine education that would cost nothing and lead to a substantial and respectable career. Years later after the Civil War he would say that his decision to enter the military was the greatest mistake of his life.

Then, as now, there was great competition to gain an appointment to West Point. His first step was to make a personal application to the Secretary of War at the time, none other than the later statesman from South Carolina—John C. Calhoun. Using his good academic and personal recommendations, and the fact that he was the son of the once distinguished Colonel Henry (“Light-Horse Harry”) Lee of the Continental Army (later in 1798 a major-general), and all the political influence that his Lee and Carter family connections could bring to bear, Robert was accepted as a cadet at West Point. Although the letter of acceptance was dated March 11, 1824, he would have to wait for over a year until July 1825 before he could be admitted. Interestingly, the very next appointee of Calhoun after Lee and one other boy were named was none other than a future Confederate general from Virginia, Joseph E. Johnston.

Lee completed his studies at Alexandria Academy no later than the summer of 1824, and apparently stayed home with his near-invalid mother for the remainder of the year. But, in February of 1825 in preparation for his coming enrollment at West Point, he enrolled at Benjamin Hallowell’s school in Alexandria for some “refresher” courses in math. He remained there until June of 1825 when he left for West Point where he became a cadet on July 1, 1825. No doubt those extra months at Hallowell’s School were especially beneficial in preparing the eighteen-year-old Lee for the more rigorous academic curriculum and stern discipline he was soon to encounter at West Point. Afterwards Hallowell was effusive in his praise of the young man and said that “he was a most exemplary student in every respect.”

Next month we’ll follow his career at West Point.