On the Fringe of Fame, by Elizabeth Fleming Rhodes, Chapter 2

On the Fringe of Fame


West Point Cadet, Lieutenant, Captain

THE DRUMS OF WAR were still beating in 1814. Seventeen-year-old Richard Bland Lee had always wanted to follow his uncle’s footsteps and for years had been dreaming of ways to see the world. There were no family funds available for a college education but the army would provide a free education, career, and travel. Therefore, on May 8, 1814, Light Horse Harry’s nephew entered the new Military Academy at West Point.

Steamships had been plying between New York and Albany since Robert Fulton’s successful trip of the Clermont in 1807. Richard had his first experience with steam power when he went up the Hudson through the Palisades to West Point where two forts guarded the Academy: Fort Clinton, perched out on a point to peer around the bend in the Hudson, and Fort Putnam, the rear guard, a little back from the river. Between the two sprawled heterogeneous buildings—the “salt box” headquarters which dated back to the Revolution, the Academy, the Long Barracks, small hospital, sutler’s store and officer’s quarters. Between the Academy and Long Barracks was Execution Hollow, a depression in the ground named for the hanging of a soldier during the Revolution.

West Point had a very rustic look, its forts notwithstanding. Numerous sheep grazed over the grounds, getting in the way of drill practice. Often long lines of briskly marching cadets were sent sprawling, round hats with cockades and gilt eagles tipped askew by gamboling lambs and disrespectful rams. Isaac Partridge, the steward, had imported the sheep to augment the larder. The cadets, however, were convinced that the only mutton that found its way to the mess tables had come from the beasts that had died of old age. There were so many complaints about this that Isaac and his flock were ousted in March of 1815, despite the fact that Isaac was the superintendent’s uncle.

The Military Academy, created by an Act of Congress in 1802, was still in its struggling infancy. The enthusiasm of its nativity had quickly waned, and in 1810 academic instruction had been almost abandoned. At the beginning of the War of 1812, there were no instructors at West Point and only sixty-five graduates of the Academy in the Army. The emergency of war, however, had resulted in a quick reorganization of the Military Academy.

The academic year started in April after a long winter vacation. The days were a monotony of drills and classes with only a few outstanding milestones. In July 1814, the Corps made its first trip away from West Point. A Hudson sloop carried them to Governor’s Island at the top of Manhattan where they camped at Fort Columbus and took part in the daily activities of the garrison. Here, on July 7, they stood at grim attention to witness the execution of a deserter.

In August, letters from Richard’s home were full of tragedy and terror. Richard’s mother described the British advance and told how relatives in Alexandria had watched the burning of the new city, Washington, five miles up the river. The Madisons had fled from the White House into the Virginia woods. From August 28 to 31, 1814, the British had approached Alexandria and forced the town to pay ransom to prevent its destruction.

West Point Academy was small enough with its maximum of 250 cadets so that soon Richard knew all of them. One of his fellow students who graduated in 1815 was Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville. Richard and Bonneville would explore the West; perhaps as cadets they discussed Nicholas Biddle’s newly published Journals of Lewis and Clark as well as Pike’s report, which had been published in 1810. Richard also met Luis and Mateo Blanco, the first foreign cadets to attend the Academy.1 The Blancos arrived in December of 1815 from Valparaiso, Chile. (Richard remembered them thirty-five years later

In 1815 a new mess hall, Academy building, and two stone barracks were built at West Point, the barracks standing three and four stories high. In October 1816, cadet gray uniforms were worn for the first time. A few months later, the gray uniformed cadets experienced a tragic day. On New Year’s Day 1817, a holiday salute was being fired and as one of the cadets rammed home a powder charge for the second volley, the cannon went off accidently, killing him instantly. The next day the cadets marched in the funeral procession as gusts of snow stung their eyes.

June 15, 1817, brought President James Monroe to the Academy. While he was there, a sealed letter from members of the faculty was handed to him. The letter enumerated complaints against the superintendent, Captain Alden Partridge, and so aroused the President that he determined to replace Partridge. The superintendent was suspicious, and as soon as the Presidential party had departed, arrested all the teaching staff, except two members who were away, and took over all their duties himself.

Captain Partridge, who was called “Old Pewter” or “Old Pewt” by the cadets, had been unpopular for a long time. Upon graduating from West Point in 1806, he had merely moved from the cadet to the faculty quarters, staying on as assistant professor and later as full professor of mathematics and engineering. Hating to delegate authority or duties, he gradually assumed more and more power until he had become acting commander and superintendent. As superintendent, he antagonized the rest of the faculty because he refused to consult them before granting advancement or commissions to the cadets. His favorites could do no wrong and ran the Academy, receiving commissions ahead of the others.2

Richard was one of those who basked in his favored light. Captain Partridge had written a friendly, personal letter to Richard’s father stating that Richard had a “manly and noble disposition.”3 The position of Chief Drill-Master to the Corps of Cadets and Adjutant to the Summer Encampment during his second year led to the highest position in his third year, the Captaincy of the First Corps of Cadets. Diligently absorbing the courses in civil and military engineering, tactics, natural and experimental philosophy, history and ethics, he succeeded in completing the four-year course in three years, and in July 1817 he graduated ninth in the class of thirty. Twenty-year-old Richard was the bearer of a “to whom it may concern” letter, signed by the Commandant and the Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy (probably languishing in prison), stating that he had been “attentive to his duties, correct in his deportment and his whole conduct that of a Gentleman and Soldier.”4

Captain Partridge signed this certificate just five days before being replaced on July 28 by Sylvanus Thayer, Richard’s class being the last of the old regime. Sylvanus Thayer swept through the old Revolutionary buildings, operations and traditions like a whirlwind: great improvements were effected immediately, and the name of Sylvanus Thayer became synonymous with the future greatness of West Point.

Richard was proud to be commissioned Third Lieutenant of the Corps of Artillery, and he felt rich as Croesus with his pay of $#36;30 a month, plus forage for two horses and two rations a day.5 Two years later; he was barely aware of the business panic of 1819 because he was feeling even more opulent with his recently acquired First Lieutenant’s pay.

The newspapers in 1819 were full of news about Florida, which the King of Spain had just ceded to the United States for $5,000,000. There were also numerous articles about the admission of Missouri to the Union. Did Congress have the right, under the Constitution, to exclude slavery from a territory? The bitterness and recrimination between North and South were temporarily assuaged by Henry Clay’s Missouri Compromise, which prohibited slavery north of the 36° 30´ line in the Louisiana Territory.

Richard’s first few years as an Army officer did not seem to lead him any nearer the West; the two regiments of Artillery, authorized by the 1812 Act of Congress, were wed as sea coast defense. Richard was stationed at various forts in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina, spending some of his spare time writing letters to his mother and his sister Ann Matilda describing the local belles, the social accomplishments of the young ladies, barbecues and balls, and begging his mother to send him some new ruffled shirts because he was “letterally naked.” At times this frivolity palled, and for a while he even considered resigning his commission to enter the Russian Service, in spite of the language barrier.6

The army was suffering various vicissitudes. The Congressional Act of 1821 had suddenly reduced the Army to 5,600 enlisted men, put an end to the old Corps of Artillery, and merged the Ordnance Department with the new Artillery. The Artillery was divided into four regiments of nine companies each, one company of each regiment being equipped as light artillery. Each regiment of 468 enlisted men had such an overabundance of officers that hope of promotion was nil. The entire Army was to suffer from stagnation in promotions, but the Artillery was the worst off. By 1836, so many disgruntled officers would have departed from the Artillery (including George G. Meade), that the Army’s plight would finally attract the attention of Congress. This, then, was Richard’s unpropitious prospect for the future.

This mergence of the Ordnance and Artillery departments was disrupting and unsatisfactory to both departments. Every few years an Artillery officer would find himself on Ordnance duty under the direct orders of the War Department. From gunnery practice and drilling he would turn to the problems of manufacturing, laws of supply and demand, inventories, designs, material, etc. At times, he might be stationed with an unfamiliar regiment in the field, responsible for its supplies; then, as soon as he had begun to acquire a little experience and knowledge of the technical ordnance problems, he would be whisked back to his Artillery regiment.

From 1823 to April 1826, Richard found himself moving from one fort to another. Richard did not accept these orders docilely; without a moment’s qualm, he wrote in 1823 to General Jacob Brown.

Since the reduction of the Army in 1821 it has been my fortune to he removed in several instances from military station contrary to my interests, as well as inclinations, whilst most officers of my grade in the Regt. have enjoyed an uninterrupted repose. From Fort Washington in the midst of friends and bosom of my family I was transferred to Annapolis, from thence to this distant command [Fort Moultrie at Charleston Harbour], where under the impression of being permanently established I have been inclined to make arrangements accordingly. Disappointed in the expectations I have been recently assigned to the arsenal near Richmond, Virginia, an arrangement which will not only put me to the greatest inconvenience, but deprive me of the command of Artillery which I should in all probability have continued untill [sic] the promotion of Captain Archer, an advantage which I can yield but with the greatest reluctance.7

His commanding officer, Major Bankhead, backed him up, enclosing Lee’s letter in his own endorsement,

Lieut. Lee has been attached and has had command of Company F [Archer’s] for some time and has considerably improved the company. . . . [His] intelligence and attention to his duties claim from me the expression of my favorable opinion of him.8

The protest and Bankhead’s commendation were of no avail, and Richard continued on Ordnance duty, proceeding from Richmond to Bellona Arsenal, which Richard described as an unusually sickly fort with a third of its personnel hospitalized for over two months. While en route to this unhealthy spot, Richard “contracted a violent billious fever,” about which he later said, “I was near losing my life and from the effects of which I did not recover for eighteen months.”9

In spite of his protestations to the contrary, the effects of billious fever did not seem to cramp Richard’s style noticeably, and he soon wrote enthusiastically to his sister Ann Matilda that the “Last month has presented one continual round of pleasures and amusements arising from the races (which have just terminated) and several recent weddings. . . . The weddings were well attended and the display of fine horses greater than for many years past.” Richard reassures Ann Matilda about his health, adding, “I do not think I have anything to apprehend from this climate, tho sickly the diseases are generally of a mild description ie slight billious intermittants and agues and fevers, neither of which I am predisposed to.”10

Again resorting to family influence, Richard wrote to his parents saying he would prefer to stay at Bellona, but if a move seemed imminent, would his father please “see the Quarter Master General [Jessup] and Comm. Genl. [Gibson] and obtain . . . the appointment of Ast. Com. and Quartermaster at Annapolis. . . .”11

In spite of these machinations, Richard was sent back to Richmond in 1826, but did not regret the move long. Richard’s first cousin, John Lee (his uncle Theodoric’s eldest son), who had always been a close friend, was living in Richmond. John, like all newlyweds, was an ardent matchmaker and arranged to have Richard meet his wife’s sister. Richard succumbed immediately and wrote hastily to his mother:

Richmond, March 16th, 1826

Dear Mama,

I yesterday wrote you a short letter of apology for having so long neglected you. But as my rule is to write whenever I have anything agreeable to communicate, I so soon again address you. You will hardly believe me when I tell you that I am at last engaged to be married, and that too to the lady of all others in the world you would have selected for me. To not as your apprehensions may lead you to imagine the fair Virginia—But to the most amiable and gentle of her sex Miss Julia Prosser, sister of John Lee’s wife, and daughter of Mrs. Mary Rootes—I have the approbation of her mother, and relatives—and feel assured that no obstacle be presented by most affectionate parents—A letter from you the Lady or her mother, I have no doubt would be gratifying—direct to them at Glouster Court House—I have just received orders for Old Point, but shall not get off for week—Write by return of the mail certainly. My love to you all Yr. aff. Son


Mrs. B. Gibbon promises to take good care of me and will not spare a scold when it is necessary.12

The “most affectionate parents” gave their consent, but one can but wonder about the once alarming “fair Virginia.”

Julia’s father, John Prosser, had been a successful merchant in Richmond, where Julia had grown up with her three brothers and two sisters.

Richard Bland Lee, from miniature owned by Mrs. John Davidge.
Julia Anna Marion Prosser from portrait owned by Mrs. John Yost.

Just before his death, he had moved to Glouster County, where he had bought the plantation White Marsh. At his death, his widow, Mary had remarried, but continued to live on the plantation, and so the wedding took place at White Marsh on the tidewater on November 23,1826. Richard’s sisters represented his family; his parents had been unable to come because of his father’s “indisposition.”

In her portrait, the twenty-year-old bride looks almost fragile; large dark eyes under delicate eyebrows, a straight nose, small mouth and firm pointed chin. Her dark wavy hair was parted in the middle, soft curls falling over her ears, and she wore a satin gown with bare shoulders, large, puffed, short sleeves and lacing down the front of the bodice to the narrow waist. Richard, now twenty-nine years old, had grown splendid sideburns. Tall and slender, his miniature reveals him to be resplendent in his full dress uniform: dark blue coatee with tall standing collar, doeskin vest, doeskin pantaloons and black cap seven inches high, with a gold band, tassel, and six-inch white plume tipped with red.13

Secretary of War Calhoun, hoping to raise the U.S. Artillery to the same plane as the European, advocated the need for artillery practice. As a result, Fortress Monroe, Virginia, had been turned into a Practice School for Artillery in 1824, and when Richard reported for duty with his bride, he found eleven companies stationed there, using the new manual, “A System of Exercise and Instruction of Field Artillery,” as a guide, another innovation of Calhoun’s. Richard was assimilated quickly into the routine of artillery practice, instructing his men on the use of six- and 12-pounder guns and 24-pounder howitzers, the six large pieces mounted on caissons drawn by four horses. Action in a real war seemed remote.

During 1827 at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, the young experienced both of the extremities of life: Richard’s father died in March, at the age of sixty-six, and Richard hastened to Washington to comfort his mother. Then in August, Julia returned to her mother at White Marsh for the birth of Mary Elizabeth, who was named astutely for both her grandmothers.

The elder Lee’s last years had been happy. As Judge of the Orphan’s Court he had enjoyed living in Washington, surrounded by many old friends and relatives. One highlight had been the visit of Lafayette in 1824, when the ex-Congressman had been selected to meet the old General in Baltimore and to extend to him the greetings and invitations from the Mayor of Washington. As an official delegate he had watched the military exhibitions and ingenious illumination honoring the French general and the other great figures of the Revolution, an illumination that “seemed to throw in a shade the brightness of the moon.” 14

Richard Bland Lee, Sr’s death was deeply felt by the whole family. He had been the one to whom everyone turned in time of trouble. His orphaned cousins Portia and Cornelia had chosen to live with him rather than with their brother or other cousins; he had helped Light Horse Harry when he had been imprisoned for debt. His kindness had included everyone, from the members of his family to the widow of his overseer, whom he urged to stay on at Langley as long as she wished after her husband’s death. His role of family protector would now fall on his eldest son’s shoulders.

From spring of 1828 to midsummer 1831, Richard was again on ordnance duty, this time at the arsenal at Pikesville, Maryland. Writing to her son Zaccheus Collins on March 21, 1828, Elizabeth shows a mother’s deep anxiety.

Poor Richard is packing up to set off tomorrow to his station, or rather to a tavern near it till he gets it in order. He has much on his hands and mind I assure you. I pity him. His little wife has been sick ever since she came and looks badly, his child is quite the reverse. It is now pouring down rain after a week of August weather, but he must go peremptory orders.15

Julia’s illness was the result of another pregnancy; in June she visited her mother at White Marsh to await the birth of another daughter, Matilda, who died upon her return to Pikesville Arsenal, “aged one month and twelve days.”16

Julia soon rose above her grief, and the next year she wrote enthusiastically to her sister-in-law, Ann Matilda, “Tell Mother I wish she could be prevailed on to come on and see your little Paradise, the flowers are so beautiful. I am sure she would be delighted with her visit and say Richard and Julia were happy. . . .”17

In 1829 Richard was breveted Captain for ten years of faithful service in one grade. This dubious honor enabled him to be called captain while receiving a lieutenant’s pay, and was all the War Department could do to encourage its officers, with four lieutenants to every captain in the Artillery.

This was a time of strain for the whole family. The Lee name had become the subject of gossip, an anathema: General Henry Lee’s eldest son, Harry, was in social disgrace because he had been accused of making love to his wife’s sister. Although Andrew Jackson had befriended him, taking him into The Hermitage in 1827, and on to the White House as an unofficial assistant secretary after the bitter election of 1828 that had killed Mrs. Jackson, public feeling still simmered against him. When the President appointed Harry Consul of Algiers, the accusations flared into headlines, and Cousin Harry (later called “Black Horse Harry”) had the distinction of having Congress vote unanimously against his appointment in 1829.

When another daughter, Julia Eustis, was born at Pikesville Arsenal, Maryland, in 1830, Julia and Richard wondered whether they would ever have a son. They were in a rut, both parental and military, until orders in February 1831 sent Richard to the arsenal at St. Louis, Missouri, for Ordnance duty. For a while he led a peripatetic existence: the following year found him back in Norfolk on sick leave and in Baltimore for a brief visit, before settling his wife and daughters in St. Louis, well before the birth of Evelina Prosser there in September of 1832.



1. There is no reference to this meeting, but as they were all at West Point in 1815, it is probable.

2. Dupuy, R. Ernest. Where They Have Trod. New York, 1940. For early days of West Point, Captain Partridge, Thayer, etc.

3. Partridge, Capt. Letter to Richard Bland Lee, December 10, 1815. (Letter owned by Mrs. R. B. L. Fleming of Sheffield, Al., R.B.L.F. Collection.)

4. Partridge, Capt. Letter of Recommendation. July 23, 1817 (R.B.L.F. Collection).

5. The Army Register of the United States, Philadelphia, 1815.

6. Letters written 1823–26 in the collection of Richard B. L. Fleming of Sheffield, Alabama. Letter from Ann Matilda Lee to Lt. Lee begs Richard to abandon this unpatriotic plan (R.B.L.F. Collection).

7. Lee, R. B. Letter to General Brown, Aug. 25, 1823. National Archives.

8. Bankhead, Major. Letter to General Brown, Aug. 27, 1823. National Archives.

9. Lee, R, B. Letter to Adjutant General R. Jones, Vol. 1, 1825. National Archives. Lee, R. B. Letter to Adjutant General, September 10, 1835.

10. Lee, R. B. Letter to Matilda Lee, May 8, 1824. Bellona Arsenal. (R.B.L.F. Collection).

11. Lee, R. B. Letter to Elizabeth Collins Lee, April 18,1825. (R.B.L.F. Collection).

12. Letter owned by Richard Bland Lee Fleming of Sheffield, Al. (R.B.L.F. Collection).

13. Description of Julia taken from a portrait owned by the Goldsborough family of Maryland. Richard’s portrait is from a miniature owned by Mrs. John Washington Davidge of Washington, D.C.

14. Letter to Roger Weightman, Mayor of Washington, October 8, 1824, quoted in Lee, Edmund Jennings, Lee of Virginia, op. cit., p. 371.

15. Letter owned by Mrs. John W. Davidge of Washington, D.C.

16. Letter from Richard to Matilda, March 16, 1830, announced the birth of another daughter. (R.B.L.F. Collection).

17. Lee, Julia, Letter to Matilda Lee, September 13, 1829. (R.B.L.F. Collection).

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