Robert E. Lee on the Mississippi, by Rick Britton

“What a Beautiful Country It Is”
Robert E. Lee on the Mississippi

By Rick Britton

Note: Rick Britton is a Charlottesville-based historian, writer, photographer, and cartographer. An award-winning historical journalist, his work on the Civil War has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines across the country. His books include Albemarle & Charlottesville: An Illustrated History of the First 150 Years, and Jefferson: A Monticello Sampler. He is also a regular weekly guest on WINA’s Charlottesville–Right Now radio show, talking about Virginia history topics, and he leads historical tours across the state. The following essay was presented at Washington and Lee University’s 2007 Spring Speakers Series in the Lee Chapel on 25 March 2007.

“What a Beautiful Country It Is”
Robert E. Lee on the Mississippi

The old steamboat sat alongside the rapids, perched atop the river rocks that had stoved in her thin hull. The lower deck was partly submerged, but her upper cabin deck, along with its staterooms, was dry and habitable. Yawning holes in the steamer’s flooring, holes through which the engines had been hoisted, gave notice of her recent abandonment. And perhaps served as a reminder that her predicament—along this treacherous stretch of the Mississippi—was not unique.

While members of the surveying party fished from the stern for pike and blue catfish, their leader—a thirty-year-old lieutenant of engineers—composed a letter on one of the stranded ship’s few remaining tables. “I assure you we were not modest,” he wrote to a fellow engineer of his appropriation of the vessel, “and [we] helped ourselves to everything that came our way. . . . I need not tell you what a beautiful country it is and I think at some time, some future day, must be a great one. You would scarcely recognize it. Villages have sprung up everywhere and some quite pretty ones too. . . . Some ten years hence, many . . . will have grown into cities. . . . The formation of a good channel through these rapids will be of immense advantage to the country, and great anxiety seems to be felt on the subject.”[note 1] The date was October 11, 1837, the site a section of the Mississippi’s Upper Rapids near the mouth of the Rock River. The letter-writer, of course, was Robert E. Lee, and this letter in particular, to Andrew Talcott, would prove prophetic. Many of the river towns indeed grew into cities for the coming decade of the 1840s would feature a massive boom in Mississippi-borne commerce. Commercial tonnage transported on the upper Mississippi, in fact, tripled in the ten years following 1839 (from 400,000 to 1.2 million).[note 2] Many would later claim that the Virginia engineer’s work on the river played a significant role in that growth.

Robert E. Lee is best remembered, of course, as the commander of the Confederacy’s premier fighting force—the Army of Northern Virginia. At the helm of the A.N.V. for almost three years, he not only turned back several Federal attempts at Richmond but also launched two invasions of the North. Lee’s performance during the May of 1863 Chancellorsville Campaign, despite being outnumbered two-to-one, is still studied as a masterpiece of military science. He is also well remembered for the position he accepted after the war. As president of Washington College, Lee set the standard for the South in terms of acquiescence to the conflict’s outcome, and reconciliation between the previously warring sections. By comparison, however, little is remembered of Lee’s first profession—that to which he devoted the most years of his life—engineering. Perhaps his finest efforts in the Army Corps of Engineers were those directed toward improving navigation on the “Father of Waters”—the Mississippi River.

Born at Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County on January 19, 1807, Robert E. Lee was home-schooled until he was thirteen. At that age he entered the Alexandria Academy and came under the tutelage of William B. Leary, an Irishman who for the next three years provided the young Virginian with a rudimentary classical education. “In mathematics he shone,” wrote biographer Douglas Southall Freeman, “for his mind was already of the type that delighted in the precise reasoning of algebra and geometry.”[note 3]

Seeking to further his education, but not wanting to burden his mother with the expense, Lee then sought an appointment to the United States Military Academy. With the endorsement of five U.S. senators and three representatives to his favor—as well as, of course, the military reputation of his father, General Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee—Robert E. Lee was appointed to West Point in March of 1824. The War Department letter, however—signed by then secretary, John C. Calhoun—notified him that because of the large number of applicants, he could not be admitted until July of the following year. In order to avoid getting rusty, Lee studied mathematics during the intervening period under Benjamin Hallowell, the headmaster of a new boys’ school in Alexandria. “He was a most exemplary pupil in every respect,” Hallowell noted years later. “His specialty was finishing up. He imparted a finish and a neatness, as he proceeded, to everything he undertook. One of the branches of mathematics he studied with me was Conic Sections, in which some of the diagrams are very complicated. He drew the diagrams on a slate: and although he well knew that the one he was drawing would have to be removed to make room for another, he drew each one with as much accuracy and finish, lettering and all, as if it were to be engraved and printed.”[note 4]

Robert E. Lee arrived at West Point in June of 1825. Thirty-seven miles up the Hudson from New York City, the United States Military Academy then consisted of but a handful of fairly plain structures arranged upon a commanding plateau 190 feet above the river. Historian Emory Thomas has called the institution “a military monastery, a single-sex community of vigorous study, rigid discipline, and Spartan living.”[note 5] But it was much more. The Academy was the first and, at the time, the finest engineering school in the United States—the special province of the Army Corps of Engineers. The two, in fact, were inseparable, having been created simultaneously by an 1802 act of Congress which read that the Corps “shall be stationed at West Point . . . and shall constitute a military academy.” The act also stipulated that the Army’s principal engineer would be West Point’s superintendent.[note 6]

During the demanding four-year course of study, Robert E. Lee proved that diligence and self-control were his in abundance. Early on he displayed a special proficiency in mathematics. In his second year, in fact, he was made an acting assistant professor of that subject, and spent many long hours tutoring those cadets who were struggling. Mathematics, naturally, was at the heart of the West Point curriculum and formed the foundation for the courses in engineering and the sciences. At the Academy, Lee studied, among other subjects, chemistry, physics, optics, mineralogy, and astronomy. The courses on advanced mathematics covered trigonometry, calculus, analytical and descriptive geometry, and those pesky conic sections. (One of the math textbooks, by the way, was Treatise on Descriptive Geometry and Conic Sections by French engineer Claudius Crozet, one of the founders of the Virginia Military Institute.)

The final term at West Point featured an intense focus on engineering. The comprehensive course was divided into five sections—field and permanent fortifications, the science of artillery, grand tactics, and civic and military architecture. This last topic covered drafting, the various orders of architecture, the design and construction of arches, bridges, buildings, canals, and other public works, and a detailed description of the machines used in that construction. “In this subject [Lee] found especial satisfaction,” wrote Freeman. “As among the sciences, the applied meant more to him than the theoretical. . . . When he began engineering he may have felt, also, that this more fully than anything else represented the profession he had chosen.”[note 7]

Robert E. Lee graduated second in the class of 1829—without incurring a single demerit—and, exercising the right accorded class leaders, asked to be assigned to the Engineers. Because engineering had fascinated him more than any other subject it would now become his profession. Thanks to his hard work, Lee was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers.

The Army wasted no time in putting the twenty-two-year-old to work. In August of 1829 Robert E. Lee was posted to Cockspur Island in the Savannah River, twelve miles downstream from the port city of Savannah. There he helped prepare for the construction of a large earthwork—eventually named Fort Pulaski—which would command the river. Lee remained at Cockspur for the 1829 and 1830 work seasons, spending much of his time, legend has it, armpit deep in the muddy Savannah. His final months there he was under the command of Lieut. Joseph Mansfield, who was later killed at the Battle of Sharpsburg leading a Union Army corps.

Lee was next assigned to Fortress Monroe in Virginia. Located on Old Point Comfort, a narrow spit of land forming the extreme tip of the peninsula between the James and York Rivers, it had been the site of a military work since 1609. Lee reported for duty in May of 1831. The following month, furlough in hand, Lee was married to Mary Anne Randolph Custis at Arlington. Returning to Fort Monroe with his bride—but a few weeks prior to the slave insurrection led by Nat Turner—Lee went to work as assistant to Captain Andrew Talcott, the post’s constructing engineer. The fort was nearly complete but the outworks and moat needed attention. Additionally, Lee supervised work on Fort Calhoun, a steadily sinking mound of stone just offshore. During his three-year stay on the Virginia Peninsula he designed buildings, wharves, and fortifications; oversaw the preparation of accounts and reports; learned how to deal with laborers; and gained a great amount of experience in estimating construction costs. He had arrived with but limited experience—he was now completely qualified to independently direct a large engineering project.[note 8]

Unfortunately, the Corps of Engineers had other plans. Far from receiving an independent project, Lee was instead ordered to Washington. In November of 1834, he reported for duty in the capital city as assistant to the Army’s chief engineer, Brigadier General Charles Gratiot (pronounced “grass-shot”). Initially excited about the assignment, he quickly discovered that the office work was sheer drudgery—a daily shuffling of accounts, budgets, queries, clarifications, complaints, reports, and vouchers. On the plus side, Lee was in charge of the office whenever the general was away, which was frequently, and the proximity to Arlington meant he could ride to work and back across the Potomac. Despite one shining moment, however—a summer of 1835 assignment surveying the Ohio-Michigan border—Lee became extremely frustrated with his position, as well as with the Corps itself.

“You ask what are my prospects in the Corps?” he wrote Andrew Talcott on February 2, 1837. “Bad enough—unless [the Corps] is increased and something done for us. . . . As to what I intend doing, it is rather hard to answer. There is one thing certain, I must get away from here. . . . I am waiting, looking and hoping for some good opportunity to bid an affectionate farewell to my dear Uncle Sam, and I seem to think that said opportunity is to drop in my lap like a ripe pear.”[note 9] Luckily for Lee, and Uncle Sam, that pear had just ripened.

The independent assignment Lee longed for lay out west, on the mighty Mississippi. In the 1830s the railroads had yet to conquer the West—the region’s rivers, therefore, still served as its principal highways. Only thirty-some years had passed since the Louisiana Purchase, however, and commerce along the upper section of the Mississippi River was just getting up a head of steam. St. Louis had welcomed its first steamboat in 1817, but it was underpowered. Steamboats with more horsepower began plying the “Father of Waters” in the 1830s but the upper Mississippi—the portion above the mouth of the Ohio—posed several significant navigational problems. Specifically, two long sets of dangerous rapids were forcing vessels—at times of low water—to lighten their loads and reduce their draft, before attempting passage. Many steamers, despite this measure, were being lost to the rocks. One of the rapids, eleven miles long, was upstream from where the Des Moines River empties into the Mississippi near Keokuk, Iowa. The other, a fifteen-mile white-knuckler, lay just above the mouth of the Rock River at Rock Island, Illinois.

There was another, entirely different, problem at St. Louis. Founded by the French in the 1760s—on the Mississippi’s right bank where a forty-foot-high limestone bluff commands the water—St. Louis had boasted over 14,000 residents in the census of 1830. River commerce was its lifeblood—the city’s entire riverfront, in fact, was one continuous bustling wharf. By the 1830s, however, that harbor was endangered—the very real possibility existed that St. Louis would become landlocked. Just opposite the city, a large sand and silt island had grown in the Mississippi River. Over a mile in length, 500 yards wide, and thick with cottonwood trees, it was known as Bloody Island because of the large number of duels fought there. In 1830, for example, Maj. Thomas Biddle had faced off against the Hon. Spencer Pettis—a Missouri member of the 21st Congress—after being infuriated over charges Pettis had made against Biddle’s brother, Nicholas Biddle, president of the Bank of the United States. On August 27, the two met on Bloody Island, beyond the jurisdiction of local authorities. Both, unfortunately, were mortally wounded at the first exchange.

The problem with the island, of course, was not the affairs of honor being settled there. By the early 1830s, the Mississippi’s current was beginning to cut along the eastern, or Illinois, side of the island. During any major flood season, it was feared, the mercurial river might shift its main channel in that direction. Additionally, as the river in front of the city slowed and shallowed, another large sandbar—Duncan’s Island, just as big as its bloody brother—was building up below the harbor and fast approaching. When these two land masses merged, St. Louis would be stranded about a mile away from its livelihood.

In 1833, city leaders had paid John Goodfellow almost 3,000 dollars to plow up the islands. It was thought that the river, when high, would then wash away the loosened sand. When that plan failed the mayor wrote to the House Committee on Roads and Canals asking for assistance from the Federal government. Three years later, in 1836, Congress appropriated first $15,000 and then an additional $50,000 to solve the growing problems at St. Louis. That year, too, Robert E. Lee’s superior, General Charles Gratiot—a proud native of St. Louis and one of four Louisiana Territory boys appointed to West Point by President Thomas Jefferson—spent several weeks personally examining the river. Gratiot believed that the Corps of Engineers could solve the problems along the upper Mississippi, the rapids as well as the islands at St. Louis, and at first assigned Captain Henry Shreve to the task. Shreve—who had made a name for himself by developing a steam-driven snagboat—was extremely busy, however, clearing the western rivers. Gratiot then remembered that back east, at Corps headquarters, his assistant was not only very capable but also very eager to get out into the field.[note 10]

Lee’s orders for this, his first independent assignment, were dated April 6, 1837. Because his wife was expecting a baby, however—their third—he did not depart until mid June. From Arlington Lee, now a first lieutenant, journeyed to Philadelphia to purchase the necessary surveying equipment, then by way of the Pennsylvania Canal to Pittsburg, where he boarded a steamer and descended the Ohio to Louisville. His traveling companion—and assistant for this engineering project—was Second Lieutenant Montgomery C. Meigs, but one year out of West Point. (A native of Georgia, Meigs later served as quartermaster general of the Federal Army during the Civil War.) At Louisville Lee met up with Captain Shreve and inspected the equipment the experienced engineer had ordered for improving the rapids. This included two “machine boats” especially designed for raising submerged rocks, and an open barge in which to transport them. These were not quite completed so Lee directed that they follow him to St. Louis. At Louisville, too, First Lieutenant Lee, according to Meigs, “organized and outfitted a strong surveying-party of river-men.”[note 11]

Arriving at St. Louis on August 5, 1837, Lee and Meigs took up rooms in a hotel—“excellently kept though the building itself is bad,” Lee noted—and made a preliminary investigation, on foot, of their immediate surroundings. The Virginian was not impressed with St. Louis. “It is,” he wrote, “the [most expensive] and dirtiest place I was ever in. Our daily expenses about equal our daily pay.”[note 12] A week later he complained to his wife: “It is astonishingly hot here, thermometer 97 degrees in the House.” The dust “is now only ankle deep in the streets,” but “put in motion by the slightest wind . . . penetrates every where.”[note 13] The city’s saving grace, according to Lee, was its pretty girls, which he had yet to encounter but knew must be somewhere.

After sixteen days in St. Louis, Lee and Meigs, along with a fourteen-man surveying party, headed upriver. One hundred and fifty miles upstream, at the Des Moines Rapids, “the party attempted to pass . . . in their steamer,” Meigs wrote in the third person, “and quickly experienced the difficulties of the navigation by finding themselves fast on the rocks. . . . All efforts to float the steamer failed, and the party proceeded to make their survey of these rapids while using the steamer as a base of operations, the surveying-parties leaving the steamer in small boats in the morning and returning at night.”[note 14] Their work involved collecting data at the rapids—sounding the water depth at various intervals, taking sightings for an accurate map, etc.—so that the problem could be approached scientifically. Low water—during three months of the year—made passage all but impossible. Lee planned to blast a permanent, year-long-lasting channel through the white water.

When not working the engineers fished amongst the rocks, and penned long letters home. They also admired the untouched, unimproved countryside. The land along the upper Mississippi had yet to be surveyed or brought into the market. When the party tired of living aboard the steamer Lee quartered the men in an abandoned log cabin nearby. He and Meigs, meanwhile, “took up our blankets and walked a short mile to [a so-called city] composed of the worst kind of a small log cabin which contained the Proprietor and the entire population. Here we were kindly received and accommodated.”[note 15] His host, Lee wrote his wife, “the Nabob of this section of country,” was a “hard featured man of about fifty, a large talker, and has the title of Doctor, whether of Law, Medicine or Science, I have never learned but infer all three.”[note 16] This gentleman told Lee of his plans for a mill, a distillery, and a bridge spanning the Mississippi.

From the Des Moines Rapids the party next proceeded another 100 miles upstream, to the tail end of the Rock Island Rapids. “There they discovered another steamer wrecked upon a rock,” wrote Meigs. “Lieutenant Lee made this wreck his base of operations during the survey of the upper rapids. . . . About the end of October the work on this part of the river was finished and they returned to the Des Moines Rapids on a passing steamer. At these rapids they found the banks lined with birch-bark canoes and Indian tepees, a tribe of Chippewas having assembled there to receive the fall distribution of presents from the agents.”[note 17] Picking up their original steamboat, the party rode the current back to St. Louis.

The Lee-Meigs surveying party returned to the river town on October 8. The surveys of the upper rapids had convinced Lee that channels could be cut through them without too much trouble. Now it was necessary to produce the requisite maps and write up the recommendations. It was also time to tackle the largest portion of Lee’s assignment: the Mississippi at St. Louis. Therefore—after renting the second story of a levee-facing warehouse as an office, and turning over the map illustration to Meigs and Henry I. Kayser, a German-born cartographer—Lee focused his attention on saving the harbor. First, wrote Meigs, “parties were placed in the field on each bank of the river. Signals were established, and the river was thoroughly triangulated and sounded from the mouth of the Missouri to some distance below St. Louis.”[note 18] (Meigs makes the task sound simple, but he is referring here to at least twenty miles of river.)

With the harbor data thus collected, Lee devised a scheme to deepen the original channel in front of the city and wash away Duncan’s Island. Based, in part, upon the investigations performed by Shreve and Gratiot, Lee presented his formal report on December 6, 1837. It was deceptively simple. From the Illinois bank of the Mississippi, a 600-yard-long dam, or dike, would be laid to the head of Bloody Island. Hopefully, this structure would permanently divert the river to the Missouri side of the sandbar and eventually attach Bloody Island to the State of Illinois. The western face of the island below this dam was to be shielded by a stone revetment one-third of a mile long. Additionally, at the foot of Bloody Island another dam—this one at least 1,000 yards long, running parallel with the banks of the Mississippi—would be constructed to throw the full force of the river against the head of Duncan’s Island.[note 19] Lee admitted that the dams could only be built with “great difficulty,” and estimated the total cost at $158, 554.

Lee’s proposal, if it worked, would manhandled the Mississippi into its original channel—by cutting off its alternative route, east of Bloody Island—and then use the river itself for the demise of Duncan’s Island. Obviously, the construction of the two dams was crucial to the plan’s success. For each, Lee proposed driving two parallel rows of pilings, twenty-five feet apart, into the riverbed. The space between them was to be filled with sand and small stones. On both of the outer faces, brush weighted with rocks would be dumped into the water until it extended out a good forty feet. It was anticipated that sand and silt would soon thereafter fill in all the open spaces.[note 20]

Taking stock of the river’s problems, and putting together his report, had consumed the balance of 1837. So, after preparing for the upcoming work season—including ordering four more flatboats—Lee and Meigs headed back east. Henry Kayser, the German mapmaker, would hold down the fort until Lee returned. The trip home to Arlington was memorable for Lee because it included a ride on the newly opened Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. It was Lee’s first. In Washington, Lee and Meigs parted company. Although the two engineers would never again work together Montgomery Meigs would later profoundly affect the Lee family.

Robert E. Lee returned to St. Louis on May 1, 1838, this time with his wife and children in tow. After establishing his family in comfortable quarters, Lee went back to work. Within a couple of weeks, his new assistant—Lieut. Horace Bliss—arrived from Louisville with the new flatboats so Lee dispatched him to the Des Moines Rapids, along with a good size work force. While Bliss concentrated on improving the channel upriver—first drilling into the rocks and then blasting them apart—Lee made war on the St. Louis sandbars. Because Congress had not appropriated enough funds for both of his proposed dams, Robert E. Lee decided to begin construction on the one he believed would most greatly affect Duncan’s Island. In June, therefore, the dike facing the city—the one running from the foot of Bloody Island—was begun and within time stretched south for 2,500 feet.

Naturally, the citizens of St, Louis were extremely interested in this project. Robert E. Lee was determined not to let them down. Lee “ went in person with the hands every morning about sunrise,” St. Louis Mayor John F. Darby later wrote, “and worked day by day in the hot broiling sun—the heat being greatly increased by the reflection from the river. He shared in the hard task and common fare and rations furnished to the common laborers—eating at the same table in the cabin of the steamboat used in the prosecution of the work. . . . In this same place, Lieutenant Lee with his assistant, Henry Kayser, worked at his drawings, plans and estimates every night till eleven o’clock.”[note 21]

Lee’s hard work paid off. With a stronger force of water beating against the head of Duncan’s Island its sand and silt began washing away. “By the end of the construction season,” wrote Freeman, “700 feet of the island had disappeared. Not only so, but the channel across the bar between Bloody Island and Duncan’s Island . . . had been deepened seven feet. . . . When boats once more could reach the lower part of the city there was as much rejoicing among the merchants as there was in the heart of the young engineer.”[note 22]

The success was gratifying, but because another shoal was growing opposite the head of Bloody Island—this one on the Missouri side—Lee was convinced more than ever that the other dike was absolutely necessary. He decided, however, that his original plan would likely fail because it called for a dam perpendicular to the current. Such a structure, naturally, would receive the most resistance from the river. Lee now proposed a longer dam which would begin much farther upstream and descend to the head of Bloody Island at a sharp angle. This dam required a further appropriation from Congress. That august body adjourned in July without approving the needed funds, however, so the city of St. Louis advanced Robert E. Lee $15,000 for the continuation of his work. With General Gratiot’s approval, the engineer began work on this slanting dam. From the Illinois shore, a steam-driven pile-driver Lee had contracted began pounding the double row of pilings into the Mississippi’s soft riverbed. While at work on this part of the project, Lee received notice that he had been commissioned captain of engineers.

In late December of 1838, Robert E. Lee received one of the worst shocks of his entire career. He learned that Charles Gratiot—his mentor, the St. Louis native who had strongly supported his work on the Mississippi—had been dismissed from the Army for refusing to account for certain public funds. “It came upon me like a thunderclap,” Lee penned to Talcott, “and I was as little prepared for such an event as I would have been for the annihilation of the city of Wash.[ington] by an earthquake.”[note 23] Gratiot’s replacement was Colonel Joseph G. Totten, a competent engineer who nonetheless had no special commitment to Lee’s project. Reeling from this unfortunate turn of events, Lee closed the year’s work season without completing the second dam. Lee and the family were free to return to Virginia but, due to the arrival of winter, navigation on the rivers was closed. At St. Louis they would have to remain.[note 24]

During Congress’s winter “short session”—running from December, 1838 to March 4, 1839—it was hoped that body would loosen its purse strings. To the contrary, however—responding to the government’s dire financial straits—Congress not only refused additional funds for the Mississippi improvements but called upon Lee to share the money from the previous year’s appropriation. Along with losing half of his available monies—$20,000 went to Captain Shreve for removing snags on the Missouri—Lee was advised by the Corps that, “under the present state of affairs you should not be involved in the details of these civil works more than is absolutely necessary.” If that was not enough, wife Mary was pregnant again, and needed to be escorted back to Arlington. Leaving on May 1, Lee made the trip home in an amazing eleven days. He was back in St. Louis by mid June.[note 25]

Although his project was underfunded, Lee was determined to forge ahead. The first order of business was getting Lieutenant Bliss back to work at the Des Moines Rapids. The lack of funds dictated that he attack only one of the two upriver torrents. The weather was fairly mild, however, and more importantly, the water was low. Under Lee’s instructions, a narrow, thirty-foot section of the channel at the tail end of the rapids was widened to over fifty feet. Difficult twists and turns through the rocks were straightened. At another location, a large reef that dominated the river was removed in its entirety. By the fall of 1839, Lee estimated that close to 2,000 tons of stone had been raised out of the river. Considering the lack of resources, he rated it “a tolerable season’s work.”[note 26]

Back in St. Louis, Lee renewed his work on the second dam—the one he had begun from the Illinois bank—on August 12. To bolster his coffers, he sold off the extra equipment that he now could not afford to man. And there was yet another change. Under orders from Colonel Totten, the new chief engineer, Lee had to revert to his original plan for this dike. He was now to construct a shorter dam, one that projected into the water perpendicularly. Work proceeded apace for two weeks until a Second Illinois Circuit judge had it halted on August 27. Lee had in hand what seemed all the proper permits, but he had not approached the owners of the Illinois river town of Brooklyn, which at the time existed only on paper. Upset that Lee’s work would create a sandbar at the site—and thus reduce its value—a man by the name of Morris had asked for the injunction. If the work was not terminated, the State of Illinois would send an officer to arrest Robert E. Lee, as well as several other men, under the charge of “obstructing a navigable river.” We can only imagine Lee’s reaction to this suit—which in public he referred to as fallacious—but the sad truth was that it would not be resolved prior to the court’s regular term in February of 1840.[note 27]

The work on the river at St. Louis, therefore, came to a grinding halt. The situation there had improved, however, at least enough to give Lee a bit of satisfaction. The dam a Bloody Island’s tail end was still standing and doing its job—another large portion of Duncan’s Island had been washed away. The second dam, though uncompleted, was nonetheless diverting the current back into its old channel. Steamboats again had a straight course down the river to the wharves at St. Louis. After a brief tour of duty inspecting the other improvements on the Mississippi River—as well as those on the Ohio and the Missouri—Lee returned to Arlington, in December 1839. After four months of leave, Lee was reassigned temporarily to the chief engineer’s office in Washington.

Robert E. Lee was ordered back to St. Louis in the summer of 1840. An inspection of the harbor showed that his improvements were still operating. The channel between Bloody Island and what was left of Duncan’s Island was now deep enough to accommodate the Mississippi’s largest steamboats. Upriver at the Des Moines Rapids, the passageways cut in 1839 had facilitated navigation and were now being used exclusively. More efforts were required at both of these locations. No more Federal funds were available, however, so Lee’s work on the Mississippi was done. Further improvements at St. Louis would henceforth be the province of the State of Missouri and the city itself. “Lee expressed to me his chagrin and mortification,” wrote Mayor Darby, “at being compelled to discontinue the work. It seemed as if it were a great personal misfortune to stop, when the work was about half finished.”[note 28] Lee departed St. Louis, never to return, in October 1840. (Henry Kayser, Lee’s civilian assistant, picked up where the Virginian had left off. Appointed city engineer of St, Louis, Kayser—in continuous communication with Robert E. Lee—completed the harbor projects devised by Lee in 1856 at the cost of an additional $175,000. Duncan’s Island was completely washed away. Bloody Island eventually attached itself to Illinois and became a part of East St. Louis.)[note 29]

The Mississippi project was Robert E. Lee’s first independent assignment. It developed his ingenuity and greatly reinforced his conviction that the scientific approach to a problem—the collection and careful study of all the data available—was an engineer’s first responsibility. It also established his standing in the Army Corps of Engineers. Difficult problems had been assigned him, and—despite the eventual evaporation of funds—he had tackled them brilliantly. According to Freeman, “the opportunities that were to come to him in Mexico were created at St. Louis.”[note 30] Mayor Darby never forgot Robert E. Lee. “By his rich gift of genius and scientific knowledge,” he wrote years later, “Lieut. Lee brought the Father of Waters under control. . . . I made known to Robert E. Lee, in appropriate terms, the great obligations the authorities and citizens generally were under to him, for his skill and labor in preserving the harbor. . . . One of the most gifted and cultivated minds I had ever met with, he was scrupulously conscientious and faithful in the discharge of his duties as he was modest and unpretending. . . . The labors of Robert E. Lee can speak for themselves.”[note 31] In writing this piece, the author was reminded of a fictitious twentieth-century hero who could, supposedly, “change the course of mighty rivers.” Robert E. Lee actually did.

As mentioned previously, Lee and Montgomery Meigs never again worked together. Although a Southerner by birth, Meigs sided with the North during the Civil War, and served ably as the Union Army’s quartermaster general. As the conflict dragged on, and the casualty lists lengthened, Meigs felt more and more animosity toward the Confederate leadership. In June of 1864, when asked to recommend a site for a national cemetery, Meigs chose Arlington, Robert E. Lee’s home. Union soldiers were interred at Lee’s doorstep shortly thereafter. Twenty years later, however—when Armistead Lindsay Long was compiling information for his Memoirs of Robert E. Lee—Meigs was able to recall the warm friendship he and Lee had enjoyed out West, on the mighty Mississippi. Lee, Meigs wrote to Long, was “a man then in the vigor of youthful strength, with a noble and commanding presence, and an admirable, graceful, and athletic figure. He was one with whom nobody ever wished or ventured to take a liberty, though kind and generous to his subordinates, admired by all women, and respected by all men. He was the model of a soldier and the beau ideal of a Christian man.”[note 32] Time truly heals all wounds.

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