The Life and Campaigns of General Lee, by Edward Lee Childe, Chapter 2

The Life and Campaigns of General Lee, by Edward Lee Childe


THE character of a man is always best explained and understood when one knows something of his origin. He often resumes and accumulates in his person the most remarkable qualities of his ancestors. In General Lee we shall discover more than one trait of the members of his family. The Lees of Virginia spring from an old English family, whose patrimonial estates were situated in Essex. In 1192, we find a Lionel Lee at the head of a company of gentlemen, accompanying Richard Cœur de Lion in the third crusade. He so distinguished himself at the Siege of Saint Jean d’Acre, that, on his return, King Richard created him Earl of Lichfield, and gave him the property of Ditchley, a name which subsequently was borne by one of the Lees’ estates in Virginia. The armour which Lionel wore in the Holy Land can still be seen in the Tower of London.

In 1542, Richard Lee entered Scotland with the Earl of Surrey. Two members of the family were at that time Knights of the Garter, and their banners, with the Lees’ arms above, are suspended in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor.

Under Elizabeth, Sir Henry Lee was a Knight of the Garter. The title of Earl of Lichfield was still in the Lee family in 1674.

Richard Lee, the seventh son of Sir Robert Lee, of Hullcott, and younger brother of Sir Henry Lee, of Ditchley, came to Virginia in the reign of Charles I. as secretary to the colony.

After an absence in England, he returned to settle for good in the country. Altogether royalist, like all his family, he did not wait for the end of the English Commonwealth to proclaim Charles II. The rest of his days were given up to the care of his vast estates, and the direction of the affairs of the colony.

Thomas Lee, grandson of Richard, was President of the Colonial Council, and Governor of Virginia, the first man of American birth named to this post by the English Government Three of his sons played a remarkable part in the War of Independence: Richard Henry Lee, one of the best orators and debaters in the United States Congress; Francis Lightfoot Lee, one of the signatories to the Act of Independence; and Arthur Lee, who represented, in France and elsewhere, the colonial insurgents.

General Henry Lee, the contemporary and friend of Washington, father of General R. E Lee, was grandson of a brother of President Lee. He took service in 1776. After having valiantly and brilliantly fought under the eyes of Washington, he went, in 1781, with his regiment of light cavalry, become celebrated by its exploits, to join General Green’s corps in the Carolinas.

There he rendered great service in the series of operations which led to the surrender of the English army under Lord Cornwallis. The memoirs left by him on his campaign are remarkable. He was a man of well-cultivated mind, as is proved by some admirable letters addressed to one of his sons, very energetic, brilliant in conversation, having in a very high degree the mens œqua in arduis. Become Governor of Virginia and member of congress, he pronounced the funeral oration of Washington. He died himself in 1818.

It was at Stratford, in the county of Westmoreland (Virginia), that Robert Edward Lee, the third son of the preceding, was born. Before passing to the accidental events of Robert Lee’s public life, let us stop a moment to contemplate the old dwelling where he first saw the light, on January 19th, 1807. Those old walls, mute and sad witnesses of the past, attract us, not only because they saw the birth of an illustrious man, but also because they recall to us a state of society which exists no longer, and of which they are one of the last remaining monuments.

Stratford House was originally built by Richard Lee, the first of the name who came to America. It was destroyed by a fire in the beginning of the eighteenth century, in the time of Thomas Lee. A member of the council-royal, Thomas Lee was much beloved; as soon as the disaster was known, contributions flowed in on all sides from persons desirous to testify to him their esteem. Queen Caroline herself wished to contribute, and wrote Lee an autograph letter. The mansion rapidly rose again; the bricks of which it was built, the wainscoting, and furniture all came from England. Goodly dwellings like this had at that time their reasonable purpose. Lost in the depths of the country, they served as a refuge and place of assembly for all the members of the family.

The eldest son succeeded the father, and the representative of the family continued to reside there from generation to generation. These times exist no longer; and the love of the hearth and family recollections have disappeared with them.

Lee was deeply imbued with these sentiments of former times; he loved the old country-houses of old Virginian families, simpleminded and honourable folks, attached, like himself, to the soil of Virginia.

Stratford, the old home of the Lees, situated on a hillock which rises on the left bank of the Potomac, is a building sufficiently large. The estate is well wooded. Oaks, cedars, and maple-trees abound there. In the interior, the distribution of the rooms, the style of the wainscot and mouldings, the appearance of the halls and corridors, all remind us of the times of powdered perriwigs and silk stockings. It was here that, after the War of Independence, General Henry Lee retired to live. Three generations of Lees had lived here, leading a large-hearted and hospitable existence.

In each generation more than one distinguished man had attracted there the élite of colonial society; those ancient walls had resounded with the noise of fêtes; the great gate had never been closed, everybody was welcome, and the type of a life there existed which one looks for now in vain, but which had at least the merit of being cordial, generous, and engaging. Henry Lee, the brilliant warrior, was, like all his race, given to expense; with him the cover was ever laid, all who came were well received; whence it happened that his latter years were straitened.

It was in this abode, become silent and solitary, in the same room where several of his distinguished ancestors were born, that Robert Edward Lee first saw the day.

The first looks of his infancy were directed to those old rooms, those large paternal fields and familiar rural occupations, those oaks and poplars over which the wind brought him the murmurs of the Potomac. It was thus that there became gradually impressed on his young heart a love for the soil, for country life, for his fatherland, for his family.

Surrounded as he was by portraits, parchments, and other tokens, which recalled the already ancient origin and position of his forefathers, the child saw, in one of the rooms of the manor house, his father, sick and grey-headed, not long since the friend of Washington and Greene, writing an account of the battles in which he had drawn the sword for the defence of his country.

It was amidst such surroundings that young R. E. Lee grew up. His character was deeply affected by them, for he was at an age when the mind receives each new impression; thus to his last day he remained simple-minded, true, worthy, courteous, the type of a Virginian country gentleman. He rejoiced in a view of the fields; he loved horses, and rode admirably; rural occupations and the murmur of streams had for him many more charms than cities and crowds. In the year of his death he wrote to a friend: “My visits to Florida and the White Sulphur (mineral springs in Virginia) have not benefited me much; but it did me good to go to the White House (an estate belonging to one of his sons), and see the mules walking round, and the corn growing.

A last and inestimable advantage which he owed to this simple and manly country life, was the robust and vigorous health which resisted all the trials of war. Strong as a forest oak, he appeared equally insensible to want of sleep, hunger, thirst, cold, and heat.

“Robert was always good,” wrote his father. All his youth, all his life proved this. In 1811, his family removed to live in Alexandria, a small town situated nearly opposite Washington, which offered more conveniences for the education of the children. Robert remained there with his mother and sisters till, having decided on a military career, he was sent, at the age of eighteen, to the military school of West Point, where Virginia paid the expenses of his education. This school, situated in the village of the same name, on the Hudson River, in the state of New York, was founded in 1802, on the model of St. Cyr, and its studies were very severe. Lee left in 1829, the second in his class. He had been remarked for his studious habits and exemplary conduct. From this time his living was temperate; he drank only water, and did not smoke. Nominated as a lieutenant of engineers, he was for several years employed in fortifying the United States’ boundaries. In 1832, he married Mary, daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Washington’s wife, and adopted son of Washington himself, who, having no children, had adopted two of his wife’s grandchildren.

Miss Custis brought the young officer a large landed fortune, of which later events in part deprived him. This marriage, in the eyes of the world, made Robert Lee the representative of the family of the founder of American liberty. In estimating his conduct at the beginning of the Civil War, it is necessary not to lose sight of this fact.

The war which broke out in 1847, between the United States and Mexico, found Robert Lee arrived at the rank of captain. He commanded the engineers during the whole campaign. At the siege of Vera Cruz he rendered signal service. Pursued by the American army into the interior, the Mexican troops halted on the heights of Cerro Gordo, and there gave battle, which was well contended for. Captain Lee had, at the head of his pioneers, to make several dangerous reconnoitrings. In three days he constructed a road, by which, unknown to the enemy, he brought up some light batteries. The extreme left of the Mexicans was turned, and the whole army obliged to surrender. General Santa Anna confessed that he did not think a goat would have been able to climb on that side. It was not an easy thing to construct a road all along steep declivities, over deep fissures, and lastly, under the Mexican fire. To protect the workmen it was necessary to fight Captain Lee was nobly seconded by Lieutenant Beauregard of the Engineers. Already we find these two names associated.

In all the other affairs, and especially in the last, the battle of Chapultepec, which caused the capital to fall into the hands of General Scott, Lee was continually remarked for his military talents, conducting works for attack, directing columns, advising his general-in-chief, and often taking part in the most sanguinary combats. He was wounded at Chapultepec, and obliged to leave the field of battle. In the official report, General Scott did justice to the gallant conduct of his chief of engineers, and passed great encomiums on him. From that day the old soldier felt himself attracted in a peculiar manner towards the young officer. In 1847, Lee was promoted to the rank of major, for his services at Cerro Gordo, and later he received his brevet as lieutenant-colonel, after the battles of Contreras and Cherubusco.

He was entrusted, in 1852, with the place of Superintendent of the Military School, twenty-three years after having quitted it a lieutenant In 1855, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, he passed into one of the new cavalry regiments. This regiment (the second) was, for several years, stationed on the Texas frontier, where it had to struggle continually against the Indians of that region. A great number of officers, who later became distinguished in the Civil War, were at that time in the squadrons of the second regiment of cavalry. Thus, Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, Lieutenant-Colonel R. E. Lee, First Major Hardee, Second Major Thomas, Captains Van Dorm and Kirby Smith, Lieutenants Hood, Crosby, Fitzhugh Lee, Johnston and Stoneman, attained the rank of general in one or the other army. It is rare to see a single regiment furnish so many remarkable names.

The subjoined fragment of a letter (addressed about this time by Lee to his wife) will show the sentiments the young colonel already had on the political affairs of his country:

Fort Brown, Texas, 27th Dec. 1856.

. . . I was much pleased with the President’s Message. His views of the systematic and progressive efforts of certain people at the North to interfere with and change the domestic institutions of the South, are truthfully and faithfully expressed. The consequences of their plans and purposes are also clearly set forth. These people must be aware that their object is both unlawful and foreign to them and to their duty, and that this institution (i.e. slavery) for which they are irresponsible and unaccountable, can only be changed by them through the agency of a civil and servile war. There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery, as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it a greater evil to the white than to the black race. While my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically, and socially. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a race, and, I hope, will prepare them for better things. How long their servitude may be necessary is known and ordered by a merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influence of Christianity, than from the storms and tempests of fiery controversy. This influence, though slow, is sure. The doctrines and miracles of our Saviour have required nearly 2000 years to convert but a small portion of the human race, and even among Christian nations what gross errors still exist! While we see the course of the final abolition of human slavery is still onward, and give it the aid of our prayers, and of all justifiable means in our power, we must leave the progress, as well as the result, in His hands who sees the end; who chooses to work by slow influences; with whom 2000 years are but as a single day. Although the abolitionist must know this, must know that he has neither the right nor the power of operating, except by moral means, and that, to benefit the slave, he must incite angry feelings in the master; that although he may not approve the mode by which Providence accomplishes its purpose, the result will still be the same; that the reasons he gives for interference in what he has no concern with, hold good with every kind of interference with our neighbour; still I fear he will persevere in his evil course.

. . . Is it not strange that the descendants of those Pilgrim Fathers who crossed the Atlantic to preserve their own freedom of opinion, have always proved themselves most intolerant of the spiritual liberty of others?

Profiting by a leave of absence, in 1859, he went home to his family at Arlington. This was a very large estate which had belonged to General Washington. At his death his adopted son, Mrs. Lee’s father, had inherited it. Arlington has since been confiscated and made into a public cemetery. During these events the rising of John Brown took place, a prelude, in some sort, to the Civil War. This fanatic, urged on by the abolitionists, got possession, one fine morning, of the Federal Government Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, a small town on the Potomac, above Washington. He and his companions, after having pillaged this establishment, where they found several thousands of rifles, spread themselves in the environs, calling the slaves to arms, and seizing all the white proprietors whom they could get possession of. The next day, when recovered from their surprise, the militia of the neighbouring counties assembled to stifle the revolt.

The telegraph carried the news to Washington, grossly exaggerating it. In the absence of General Scott, President Buchanan, on the advice of his Secretary of War, summoned Colonel Lee, and confided to him the care of the operations against Harper’s Ferry. Hastily gathering some troops, Lee arrived on the scene of the insurrection. The insurgents had barricaded themselves inside the arsenal, and kept prisoners there Colonel Washington and various other citizens, as hostages, hoping the troops would not dare to fire on them for fear of killing the prisoners. After some parleying, as Brown refused to surrender, Lee made an assault, and obtained possession of all the insurgents, several of whom were either killed or wounded. When once the prisoners were in the hands of civil justice, Lee returned to the capital, and shortly after, his leave having expired, he rejoined his regiment at San Antonio, in Texas, where he commanded in chief.

The election of Mr. Lincoln, in 1861, to the presidency of the United States, caused the liveliest agitation throughout the country. What everybody feared, without believing it possible, actually happened. The Southern States withdrew from the Union, and formed a new confederation, composed exclusively of slave states, under the name of the Confederate States of America.

We have already spoken of the causes which led to this result; they were numerous. Several, indeed, were inherent in the very essence of the Union, and would, in a given time, have worked its downfall. The authors of the Federal agreement had unhappily regulated the constitution in such a manner that this result was inevitable. As long as this constitution remained in vigour, neither the Federal Government nor the Northern States had the least right to force any state to remain in the Union in spite of itself. Whatever change the war has brought about in the United States’ system of government, there is no doubt that the Southern States, in withdrawing from the Union, availed themselves of an incontestable right.

Virginia was the last state to quit the Union. This “mother of presidents,” as it was called-six of the thirteen presidents (before 1861) having been Virginians by birth—feeling that its past glory was intimately allied to that of the United States, and that by its geographical position it would be called upon to be the theatre of the war, had remained in the Union to the last moment, without wishing to leave it as long as there was any chance of remaining in it on honourable conditions. The Virginian Legislative Assembly suggested the Peace Conference which assembled at Washington in February, 1861. Its representatives to Congress sought by all means to arrive at an amicable arrangement. Finally, the convention assembled at Richmond sent delegates to Mr. Lincoln to persuade him to pursue a more peaceable policy.

But the conduct of the Federal Government in bringing about the capture of Fort Sumter, and President Lincoln’s proclamation demanding 75,000 men to restrain the separated states by force, left Virginia no other alternative than that of uniting its destiny with that of its Southern sisters, or of joining the North to oppress them. Her choice could not be doubtful. She had laboured to bring about a pacific agreement, and all her labours had been useless. She, therefore, was compelled to prepare herself to repulse the attack with which she would be threatened.

Colonel Lee, camped among the Indians, several days’ march from every great town, was outside the great movement agitating the country. Nevertheless, he followed the march of events with disquiet, as these lines of a letter, dated from Fort Mason, prove.

Texas, 23rd January, 1861.

I have received Everett’s Life of Washington. How his spirit would be grieved could he see the wreck of his mighty labours! I will not, however, permit myself to believe, until all the ground for hope is gone, that the fruit of his noble deeds will be destroyed, and that his precious advice and virtuous example will so soon be forgotten by his countrymen. As far as I can judge by the papers, we are between a state of anarchy and civil war. May God avert both of these evils from us! I fear that mankind for years will not be sufficiently Christianized to bear the absence of restraint and force. I see that four states have declared themselves out of the Union; four more will apparently follow their example. Then, if the border states are brought into the gulf of revolution, one half of the country will be arrayed against the other. I must try and be patient, and await the end, for I can do nothing to hasten or retard it. . . .

General Scott, perceiving the gravity of what was brewing, and wishing to have at hand a man of whom he might be sure, recalled Lee immediately. Scarcely had he returned to Arlington before he was summoned to Washington. President Lincoln offered him the effective command of the Federal army, old General Scott being too infirm to take the field in person. The latter also conjured him, in the name of their old friendship, not to quit the army, seeking by all possible arguments to shake Lee’s already settled resolution.

This magnificent offer was, in effect, one of those temptations which but few officers would have been able to resist. But Lee did not hesitate to oppose a formal and immediate refusal to all the propositions made to him. One must be a soldier to understand all that he had to experience. On the one hand, his education at West Point, his habits of discipline, his life passed entirely under the flags of the Union, retained him in the service of the United States; on the other, his love for Virginia called to him to abandon all for her. He felt also that the crisis had been hastened by political leaders, whose ideas he was far from sharing. He knew too well, from a military point of view, the resources of the different regions of the Union, not to be able to measure, without illusion, all the dangers which the South was about to run. For a quarter of a century Lee had served in the United States army with distinction. He actually held in the eyes of the army and country the first place after the veteran Scott, public opinion designating him beforehand as his successor in the commander-in-chief. If he remained in the service of the North, there were no honours to which he might not aspire. The official offer just made to him was a guarantee of this, and no efforts were wanting to induce him to accept it. On the contrary, he knew that, if he associated his destiny with that of Virginia, miseries and trials without number were awaiting him; he and his ran the risk of being ruined; he would be proclaimed a traitor in the face of the world by the very government he had loved so much and served so honourably. The trial was terrible, and if he had obeyed convictions less pure, or a sentiment less elevated, ambition would have gained the day.

But his conduct appeared ready sketched for him. He was convinced that Virginia had the right to act as she intended, although, with his sound practical sense, he foresaw the cruel sufferings which must result from it. A Virginian by birth, he thought his state had the first right to his services, that it was his duty to obey the call of Virginia without hesitation or discussion. He therefore espoused the cause of his province. His resolution had been dictated by an inward conviction of his conscience, after mature reflection. To seek his duty, and, having found it, to do it, such was ever the principle of his actions.

“My husband has wept tears of blood,” Mrs. Lee wrote to a friend, “over this terrible war; but he must, as a man and a Virginian, share the destiny of his state, which has solemnly pronounced for independence.”

The two following letters will show what Lee experienced in leaving the United States army. The first is that in which he sent in his resignation; it is addressed to General Scott.

Arlington, Virginia, April 20th, 1861.


Since my interview with you on the 18th inst., I have felt that I ought not to retain my commission in the army. I therefore tender my resignation, which I trust you will recommend for acceptance. It would have been presented at once but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted all the best years of my life, and all the ability I possessed.

During the whole of that time, more than a quarter of a century, I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors, and the most cordial friendship from my comrades. To no one, General, have I been so much indebted as to yourself for uniform kindness and consideration; and it has always been my ardent desire to merit your approbation. I shall carry to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kindness and consideration; and your name and fame will always be dear to me.

Save in defence of my native state, I never desire again to draw my sword. Be pleased to accept my most earnest wishes for the continuance of your happiness and prosperity, and believe me most truly yours,

R. E. LEE.

Lieutenant-General Wingfield Scott,
Commanding United States Army.

The next is addressed to his eldest sister, whose husband had very pronounced opinions in favour of the North.


I am grieved at my inability to see you. . . . I have been waiting for a more convenient season, which has brought to many before me deep and lasting regret Now we are in a state of war which will yield to nothing. The whole South is in a state of revolution, into which Virginia, after a long struggle, has been drawn; and though I recognise no necessity for this state of things, and would have forborne and pleaded to the end for redress of grievances, real or supposed, yet, in my own person, I had to meet the question whether I should take part against my native state.

With all my devotion to the Union, and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home; I have, therefore, resigned my commission in the army, and, save in defence of my native state, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword. I know you will blame me; but you must think as kindly of me as you can, and believe I have endeavoured to do what I thought right. . . . That God may guard and protect you and yours, and shower upon you everlasting blessings, is the prayer of your devoted brother,


Colonel Lee’s resignation having been accepted on the 20th of April, he immediately went to Richmond, leaving behind the beautiful dwelling in which he had passed the best years of his life, and which soon was no longer to belong to him.*

* Arlington House was pillaged shortly after by the Federals. The beautiful Sèvres service given by Lafayette to Mrs. Washington, all the relics of Washington, the plate, family portraits, library, everything in fact, was taken. The family, persistently believing there would be no serious war, had carried away scarcely anything. Nothing has been restored since, and the soil has become Federal property.

Lee, having ceased to be a member of the United States army, was presently offered the place of commander-in-chief of the Virginian forces. Although he would not have sought this honour, he did not feel at liberty to refuse it. In answer to the President of the Convention assembled at Richmond, Lee thus expresses himself:

Mr. President, and gentlemen of the Convention. Profoundly impressed with the solemnity of the occasion, for which I must say I was not prepared, I accept the position assigned me by your partiality. I would have much preferred your choice had fallen upon an abler man. Trusting in Almighty God, an approving conscience, and the aid of my fellow citizens, I devote myself to the service of my native state, in whose behalf alone will I ever again draw my sword.

There was not a word of blame or reproach in this address for the adversaries of Virginia. This constant moderation, this absence of rancour, did not fall off in any of his actions or words during the continuance of the whole war. His heart bled, his soul was saddened, his deep patriotic grief left no place for bitterness or anger.

Installed, at the end of April, in his new office, General Lee lost not a moment in putting Virginia in a state of defence. His head-quarters were in the buildings of the Richmond Custom House; immense activity prevailed there. From the first, every one understood that Virginia, facing, as it did, the Federal capital, and constituting the extreme frontier of the new Confederacy, would necessarily be the theatre of the war. Its greatness, richness, and importance, as the chief of the Southern States, made it the principal object of Federal hostility. From all points of the Confederacy, therefore,—from Texas, Florida, the Carolinas, and Alabama,—convoys of provisions, war-ammunition, aids of all kinds, and thousands of men, were directed to Richmond. It was for Lee to give form to this confused mass, and the task was Herculean. Everything was wanted at once,—arms, cannon, powder, drill-instructors. Everything had to be organized: the commissariat, the service of provisions, the artillery, the staff. The volunteers who daily arrived in great numbers, thus responding to the appeal of the Confederate Government, brought devoted hearts and strong arms, but were without organization, discipline, or arms. To remedy what was lacking, and make these peaceable citizens into an effective army, would be the first duty of the new commander. He succeeded much more rapidly than could have been believed. The troops were organized and equipped, all the strategic positions in the territory were occupied and fortified, and an unheard of life and activity were impressed on all the military services. Attention was also given to turning three steamers into ships of war.

On the 16th of May, Virginia formally entered the Southern Confederacy, and the Virginian soldiers were incorporated with the Confederate army. Lee passed as general into the service of the Confederacy, the third on the list, taking rank after Generals Cooper and Sidney Johnston. Generals Joseph E. Johnston and Beauregard completed the list of division generals. With that extreme modesty which was one of the most notable features of his character, Lee never sought opportunities to push himself forward, and however trifling the task assigned him, he was always happy to obey. Later, during the war, he well expressed his guiding sentiment when he said: “I will accept every position to which the country appoints me, and I will do my best in it.” Here is the secret of all his success. He always did his best, never thinking, however trifling might be the thing he undertook, that it was too little to be done conscientiously.

In May, 1861, General Lee was fifty-four years old. All his faculties had arrived at their complete development. Of tall figure, he had still at that time a carriage somewhat stiff, owing to his military education; but gradually his appearance changed, and gave place to a grave and reflective air, the result of his heavy responsibility as commander-in-chief. The rude trials of the Civil War had not yet whitened his hair. His moustache was black, the rest of his beard close-shaved. His fine clear blue eyes, full of sweetness and benevolence, shone beneath his black eyebrows. One could not meet his look without loving him. His temperance was nearly absolute; he seldom drank anything but water, and was completely indifferent as to what he ate. Excess had never enfeebled his robust vigour. Grave, silent, shut up in himself, he impressed those who saw him for the first time with the idea that he was a man endued with little sensibility. His sincerity, his frankness at all times, his great and generous heart, full of honour and candid simplicity, could only become known during the war.

The following letter, addressed to his eldest son, G. W. Custis Lee, a little while before the events narrated above, will show the degree to which his frankness and freedom from all subterfuge was carried:

You must study to be frank with the world; frankness is the child of honesty and courage. Say just what you mean to do on every occasion, and take it for granted you mean to do right. If a friend asks a favour, you should grant it, if it is reasonable; if not, tell him plainly why you cannot; you will wrong him and wrong yourself by equivocation of any kind. Never do a wrong thing to make a friend or keep one; the man who requires you to do so, is dearly purchased at a sacrifice. Deal kindly, but firmly, with all your classmates; you will find it the policy which wears best. Above all, do not appear to others what you are not. If you have any fault to find with any one, tell him, not others, of what you complain; there is no more dangerous experiment than that of undertaking to be one thing before a man’s face and another behind his back. We should live, act, and say nothing to the injury of any one. It is not only best as a matter of principle, but it is the path to peace and honour.

In regard to duty, let me, in conclusion of this hasty letter, inform you that, nearly a hundred years ago, there was a day of remarkable gloom and darkness—still known as “the dark day”— a day when the light of the sun was slowly extinguished, as if by an eclipse. The legislature of Connecticut was in session, and as its members saw the unexpected and unaccountable darkness coming on, they shared in the general awe and terror. It was supposed by many that the last day—the day of judgment—had come. Some one, in the consternation of the hour, moved an adjournment. Then there arose an old Puritan legislator, Davenport of Stamford, and said that, if the last day had come, he desired to be found at his place, doing his duty, and, therefore, moved that candles be brought in, so that the House could proceed with its duty. There was quietness in that man’s mind, the quietness of heavenly wisdom and inflexible willingness to obey present duty. Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things, like the old Puritan. You cannot do more, you should never wish to do less. Never let me and your mother wear one grey hair for any lack of duty on your part.

Lee’s greatest glory consisted in this, that he never failed in any of these precepts, that he always allowed himself to be guided by these wise maxims in the most terrible storms of a troubled life, and the most gloomy moments of the civil strife. His military glory, however great it may be, yields to that of his having had continually before his eyes the accomplishment of his duty as the supreme end of his life. He tendered his resignation from a sentiment of what was owing to the state in which he was born; at every step in his career this sentiment was his only guide, and when the grand collapse came, and the cause for which he fought was crushed, the inward conviction of having done his best took away from him the bitterness of defeat, and gave him that fearless calm which cannot be contemplated without admiration. “Human virtues ought, in case of need, to equal human calamities,” were his words when all was lost, when all the minds around him bent under the accumulated weight of so much anguish and so many disasters. These words could only be uttered by a man who had made duty the first object of his life, and who had found the only glory worthy of the name in the accomplishment of it.

There are some persons who think that Lee was mistaken in embracing the cause of the South. This objection takes nothing from his greatness. What he did he at least regarded as right. The old Puritan whom he so much admired was neither calmer nor more resolute than he, when the last day of the cause for which he struggled came. In the spring of 1865, it was manifest to all those who beheld him unshaken in the midst of the universal downfall, that his only ambition was “that he might be found at his post doing his duty.”

It has been said that he sought to influence other officers of the United States army, natives of the South like himself, and so cause them to send in their resignation. Nothing can be less true. One of his old companions in arms testifies to the contrary in the following letter:

Immediately after Mr. Lincoln’s election, I wrote to him (i.e. General Lee) in the effusion of our old friendship, asking his advice, and seeking to know what he intended to do. My letter was not answered. We could not help being struck with this fact, that the scrupulous reserve which he always maintained in the discussion of political affairs, or the rigid exactness which he showed in fulfilling his military duties, had never been greater than in this moment of solemn crisis.

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