The Life of General Robert E. Lee
G. Mercer Adam



IN attempting to write a record of the Life and Career of General Robert E. Lee, the great commander of the Southern Army in the Civil War, the author undertakes the work with some diffidence and misgiving. This is occasioned, in part, by a sense of responsibility in undertaking so important a task—a task that had already been so well achieved by other and prominent biographers of “the hero of a Lost Cause”; and in part also, by a doubt in the present writer’s mind of being able to do adequate justice to so eminent an actor in the drama of his time, who was, moreover, one of the greatest soldiers and most clever military tacticians of the past century, and, withal, a splendid type of Christian manhood. Here, however, the writer’s hesitation ends, and the impelling motive finally becomes admiration—long and heartily entertained—for the noble theme of this volume, and the ambition to add another, and it is hoped a not unworthy tribute, to the fame of the illustrious General, who was personally not only greatly beloved and highly esteemed in his day, but whose professional eminence among the renowned commanders of the war is conceded by every critic and writer of distinction who has dealt with its tragic annals.

But great as is the niche filled by the grand old soldier in the history of the Southern side of the Civil War contest, we must remember that this is not all we have to deal with in relating the life and military exploits of the man, since long before the outbreak of the War of the Rebellion and his espousal of the interests of his native State in that dire struggle, Lee had had a lengthened, varied, and honorable career of service in the Army of the United States. In that service, not only had he won distinction as chief engineer officer and active combatant in the War with Mexico, where he rendered heroic and conspicuous service at the siege of Vera Cruz, and was wounded in the assault; but was, moreover, of invaluable service to the commander of the expedition, General Winfield Scott, in his council of officers, as well as in important reconnoissances, in planting batteries, in conducting columns from point to point under fire during the assault upon the place, and taking part in the onerous and often perilous operations of the siege. For this highly efficient work he was repeatedly mentioned in the General’s despatches; while from the campaign as a whole he issued, as it has been said, “crowned with honors and covered with brevets for gallant and meritorious conduct.” After this we find Lee engaged in the important duty of constructing defensive works at various points for the Washington government; and during the year 1852–55, he acted as commandant of the Military Academy at West Point, of which he was himself a distinguished graduate. Later on, Colonel Lee was transferred from the Engineers to the Cavalry branch of the service, when he held for a time responsible posts in Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, and Texas, and was at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, at the era of the John Brown raid. When Civil War loomed upon the scene, Lee, as we shall ere long see, had reached his fifty-fourth year, and had thirty-two years of honorable service to his credit in the national army. Moreover, so conspicuous had been his career, and so highly esteemed was he as an officer and a gentleman, that, had he remained in the service of the Union, his name, it is well known, was designed to be brought before the military authorities of the nation and that favorably, as the successor in the chief command of the army to the then aged warrior. General Winfield Scott. Nor, at the crisis that then fell upon the country, was Lee actuated by caprice or mere partisanship in taking sides with the South in the calamitous war that was about to ensue and drench the land in fratricidal blood. His attitude was far otherwise; for at first we know that he regarded Secession as anarchical, if not treasonable, and looked with grave apprehension upon the threatened rupture of the Union, and was ill at ease at the prospect of the disseverance of his own relations with the North and the breaking of the ties, professional and social, that had hitherto connected him with its military service. The slavery question did not appeal to him as a cause of sectional strife, his chief concern being the attitude of his native State in the unhappy prospect of war, for to his loved Commonwealth of Virginia he was chivalrously loyal, and if strife was to come he felt that he could not draw his sword against her and her interests. This was his answer to his friend and superior officer, General Winfield Scott, as well as to the Hon. Montgomery Blair, son of the then Postmaster-General of Washington, who was authorized to offer Lee command of the Federal army if he would remain stanch in his fidelity to the Union. In deserting the Northern cause, he asserted that he could not consult his own feelings entirely, so strong was his allegiance to his own section of the country as well as faithful his attachment to his own State. “Save in defense of my State,” he feelingly wrote in the Spring of 1861 to General Scott, in asking to be relieved of his command, “I never desire again to draw my sword.” After resigning his commission in the Federal service, his own State having by this time prepared to withdraw from the Union and make the call upon her many brave sons to rally to her standard and espouse the Southern side in the pending struggle, Lee repaired to his Virginia home as a private citizen, while deprecating war and trusting that sectional strife would not break out, but that a peaceful solution would yet be formed of the grave problems that were then a menace to the nation. Unhappily, war, and not peace, was to be the issue of the distracting times, for already seven States, in accordance with convention ordinances, had taken themselves out of the Union, and at Montgomery, Alabama, had organized a separate government under the designation of the Confederate States of America. A little later on, the other sister States of the South joined the new Confederacy, whose capital was Richmond, Va.; while its president, provisionally, became Jefferson Davis, formerly a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and national senator, who arrived at Richmond, May 29th (1861), and was duly installed in office. Meanwhile, Virginia had declared for Secession and joined the Confederacy, and Lee, having been nominated by the Grovernor of his own State as a delegate to the Virginia Convention, he now repaired to Richmond, where he was enthusiastically intrusted with the chief command of the Virginia forces and confirmed in the rank of major-general, which high office had been conferred upon him by the Governor of his State, under the authority of the Legislature.

In what estimation General Lee was held, even at this time in the South, may be seen from the reception accorded him by the Convention at Richmond, on the occasion of his presentation to the body to receive its president’s address of welcome, be formally installed in the office of commander-in-chief of the military and naval force of the State, and accept his instructions to mobilize and put in the field an army for its defense and protection. The appointment, we need hardly say, had come unsought by him, and was confirmed by the unanimous vote of the Convention, the fullest confidence of the body (handsomely vouched for by the president) being felt in his ability, integrity, and trusty honor, as well as in the high historic traditions of his family, by which General Lee, like his illustrious forebears, had always been influenced and guided, and had ever scrupulously respected with pardonable pride and becoming dignity. After a brief, modest reply in acknowledgment of the Convention’s reposeful trust in him and assignment of duty, the Commander-in-chief entered vigorously upon his task of organizing and equipping the State forces, which were subsequently merged with those of the Confederacy as a whole; while Lee became one of the able group of general officers of the regular army of the Confederate States, still retaining, however, his chief command of the army of Virginia.

When these momentous events were taking place in the South, with the formation of a Confederate Government, based on the claim of their leaders to State Rights, and in opposition to Northern sentiment adverse to the peculiar institutions of the South, menaced as it was thought by the success of the Republican party in the election of Abraham Lincoln, the North at last awoke to a sense of the reality of the situation, quickened by the levying of war by the seceded States, the departure of their representatives and senators from Congress, and the seizure of the forts and Federal property in the border States. The call of President Lincoln for 75,000 militia had been issued, and the North roused itself to action, in virtue of the powers vested in the Executive head by the Constitution and laws of the nation. The response to the Northern summons of troops was immediate and gratifying; and following it came the blockade of the ports of the seceding States, the rallying of forces to the defense of Washington, with preparations for the invasion of Virginia and the contemplated raid southward with the design of capturing and occupying Richmond, the seat of the “rebel” government.

But before proceeding with the narrative of events embraced in the era of the Civil War, in which General Lee, during the four protracted years of the great conflict, bore so conspicuous and brilliant a part, let us relate the early personal history of the intrepid soldier and valiant captain-general of the Southern army in the War of the Rebellion, and fill in the details of his remarkable career from his birth and up-bringing, with some account of his family and the traditions of his historic ancestry and their genealogical belongings. In what remains of this chapter, let us first glance at the lineage and advent of our hero.

Robert Edward Lee belonged to the old Colonial family of the Lees of Virginia, which has given not a few distinguished statesmen and soldiers to the service of his country. The first of the family we learn of, Colonel Richard Lee, came to Virginia in Charles the First’s era from the old home of the Lees in Stafford Langton, Essex, England, other branches of the family being resident of the counties of Bucks, Oxford, and Shrops. The home of the Lees in the latter shire was at Morton Regis, a representative of which family branch also emigrated to the New World in early Colonial times and settled in Westmoreland County, Virginia. Colonel Richard Lee, being a sturdy adherent of the reigning Stuarts and the scion of an influential English family, when he arrived in Virginia, naturally became a firm ally of Sir William Berkeley, governor of the colony, who warmly welcomed the newcomer as a member of the King’s Privy Council and the monarch’s nominee for the post of the Colonial State-secretaryship. Stanch royalist as he was, Lee, with Berkeley’s assistance, kept the colony true in its allegiance to the Stuart cause, so long at least as the unfortunate Charles I. lived; and when Cromwell’s Commonwealth was created he was instrumental in negotiating a treaty between it and the colony, recognizing the latter as an independent State, until the Restoration gave the lordship of the Virginia colony back to the Stuart House, Charles II. being persuaded to proclaim himself King of Virginia, as well as of France and the separate kingdoms of Britain. Colonel Richard Lee at length died and found a grave in Virginia, where he had settled with his family. One son, a namesake, survived him, and as a man of fine parts became a member of the Colonial council. He married an English lady, a Miss Corbin, by whom, besides a daughter, who subsequently married in Virginia, he had five sons, all of whom rose to be influential men in the Colony, and by their marriages allying themselves with many well-known Virginia families. Of these sons, two became notable in the later annals of the Lee family: these were Thomas and Henry, the fourth and fifth sons, respectively, of Richard Lee, who died about the year 1690. Of Henry Lee we shall write later on. The fourth son, Thomas, who resided at Stratford, Va., and there erected a magnificent manor-house long a marvel among
the colonial homes of the Old Dominion, allied himself with an influential family in the colony, the progeny including two daughters and six sons. The eldest of the latter, Philip Ludwell Lee, in turn married and had two daughters, the elder of whom, Matilda, became the wife of her second cousin. Colonel Henry Lee, known in history as “Light-Horse Harry,” and the father (though by a second wife) of the subject of this memoir—General Robert E. Lee. The third son of Thomas Lee, Governor of Virginia, Richard Henry Lee (1732–1794), was the noted champion of American Independence, the patriot orator who, in the Continental Congress, in June, 1776, offered the now famous resolution that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent States.” In making this free, bold speech the sturdy statesman of his day took unflinchingly the side of popular rights against the encroachment of the mother country, as he previously showed in opposing the Stamp Act, and in a brilliant, impressive speech now advocated the Declaration of Independence. It was by the same Congress, in July, 1775, that the historic “Address of the Twelve Colonies to the Inhabitants of Great Britain” was adopted and transmitted to the motherland. In the closing years of the Revolutionary War, Richard Henry Lee took part against England in the field at the head of the militia of Westmoreland County, Va.; from 1789 to 1792, he sat in the United States Senate, and though not a Federalist he warmly supported the Washington administration. As an orator, he was by his contemporaries called “the American Cicero” and was an impressive and distinguished public speaker. He was, moreover, “a man of amiable and noble character, of commanding presence, excellent abilities, and self-sacrificing patriotism.” In these respects, his virtues were conspicuously reflected in his famous son.

We now turn back to trace the pedigree of Henry, fifth son of Richard Lee, the early and direct ancestor of General Robert E. Lee; a distant relation of R. H. Lee, the Revolutionary statesman; and the grandfather of the distinguished commander of “Lee’s Legion,” commonly known as “Light-Horse Harry.” This Henry Lee married a Miss Bland, by whom he had several children, one of whom, Henry, took a Miss Grymes to wife, and by her had issue three daughters and five sons. Of the latter, the third son, a Henry also (1756–1818), became the famous soldier of the Revolution and the father of the subject of the present Memoir. After graduating at Princeton, this distinguished member of the notable Lee family, as the present writer has elsewhere narrated, entered the Continental army, and at the battle of Germantown (Oct. 4, 1777) his cavalry troop was selected by General Washington as his personal body-guard. In January, 1778, when occupying a small stone house with a body of ten men, the remainder of his command being absent on a foraging expedition, the building was surrounded by 200 British cavalry, who attempted to take Lee prisoner, but were met with so spirited a resistance that they were compelled to retreat. Soon after this, Henry Lee was advanced to the rank of major, with the command of three companies of cavalry. While holding this rank he planned and executed the brilliant assault on the British post at Paulus Hook, their headquarters opposite the city of New York. Lee surprised and took the garrison under the eyes of the British army and navy, and safely conducted his prisoners within the American lines, many miles distant from the captured post. Than this there are few enterprises to be found on military record equal in hazard and difficulty, or are known to have been conducted with more boldness, skill, and daring activity. It was, moreover, accomplished without loss, while it filled the enemy’s camp with confusion and astonishment, and shed an unfading luster on American arms. In 1780, Lee was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel commandant of a separate legionary corps, known as “Lee’s Legion” of light horse, and was sent to the Southern Department of the United States, to join the army under General Greene, where he remained until the close of the war. Lee entered Congress in 1787, and was governor of Virginia between the years 1792 and 1795, during which he commanded the expedition against the Whiskey insurgents in Western Pennsylvania. He sat again in Congress at the period of Washington’s death, in 1799, and, being appointed by that body to deliver an oration upon the character of the deceased first President, statesman, and warrior, Lee extolled him in the terms of the since-famous eulogy, “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Henry Lee’s virtues and character have been extolled by many writers, for he possessed many of those admirable qualities of head and heart which, as we shall see later on, were manifested by his eminent son. His children had a great veneration, as well as affection, for him, for he was an excellent and kind father, a most exemplary and, considering his time, a highly moral man, and an ideal type of a self-sacrificing, patriotic citizen. He was twice married, first to Matilda Lee (his second cousin), daughter of Philip Ludwell Lee of Stratford, Va., and when that lady died he was united to Anne, daughter of Charles H. Carter of Shirley, on the James River, a lady who proved a devoted wife and mother, and who exercised a beneficent influence upon her children. The latter were six in number, namely two daughters and four sons; several of the sons, especially Robert Edward, and Sydney Smith Lee, afterwards attaining eminence and distinction, the one in the army, and the other in the navy of, the Southern Confederacy. The father, Henry Lee, died in 1818, aged 63, his life having been shortened by injuries received in suppressing a political riot in Baltimore in 1814, when the house in which he was at the time staying, that of a Federalist editor and journalist, was attacked by an angry mob. The next four years he spent in the West Indies in the search for health. A biography of him, by his distinguished son. General Robert E. Lee, was prefixed to an edition of his “Memoirs of the (Revolutionary) War in the Southern Department of the United States.” The work has an interest and value even to-day, since it is an outspoken and impartial record of events, based on the personal experience and observation of a contemporary narrator—those of “Light-Horse Harry.”

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