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


HAVING in our opening chapter introduced the subject of this Memoir and glanced at his ancestry and lineage, let us now record his birth and early upbringing, together with such facts as are known of his professional education as a military cadet and of the characteristics of the youth as he appeared at the threshold of his bright and promising career. The era of Robert E. Lee’s birth, which occurred at the family home at Stratford, Westmoreland County, Virginia, January 19, 1807, was a troubled one, even for a neutral nation in the New World that had cut itself adrift from the Old, for at the period the two great world powers of Europe, France and Britain, were engaged in an armed and deadly struggle for political mastery and commercial dominance. At the same era, Denmark, Spain, Russia, and Prussia were for a period drawn into the vortex; while bombardment, invasion, and pillage were the national sport and burning dread of the time. At this grave juncture of international affairs, Napoleon was, or aimed to be, supreme on the European continent, while his chief adversary and checkmate were the British, who held undisputed sway on the high seas. Against each other, in the hotly-embraced interest of commerce, France fired at England her heavy-shafted bolt of the Berlin Decrees, which declared the British islands to be “in a state of blockade”; while her wary though inveterate enemy retorted with the British Orders in Council, closing to neutral commerce the ports of the continent and authorizing the seizure of any neutral vessel on a voyage to any of the prohibited French ports unless such vessel had first touched at a British port. France rejoined by authorizing, in the Milan Decree, the seizure of any vessel that had entered a British port. In this furious international strife, America soon became a sufferer, since the prohibitory decrees and hostile attitude of France and England struck a heavy blow at her carrying trade, and led to the enactment of Jefferson’s Embargo Policy, forbidding the importation of goods from Britain and her colonies and banning intercourse. Another result of European ferment was to revive the partly slumbering animosities between America and the old motherland, the result of the irritating and humiliating right of search on board American vessels on the high seas and the arrest or impressment of sailors, naturalized citizens of the United States who had renounced their allegiance to Britain. The ill-feeling and strained relations of the two nations, once mother and child, soon hore fruit in the unhappy second War with England—that of 1812–14.

It was at this era that the child Robert E. Lee was born, an era of unhappy friction between the United States and the disowned mother country, rendered more so as the result of fruitless international diplomacy, irritating retaliatory legislation, and a clashing of commercial interests which brought about a period of non-intercourse, and, finally, a state of war. Within the country, nevertheless, it was an era of strenuous political, industrial, and social effort, in the building up, by its sturdy nation-makers, of the youthful American Republic. The war, costly as it was to the young nation and a heavy drain upon its yet slender financial resources, had its compensations, not only in withdrawing the Eepublic from the complications of Old World politics, but in imparting to it a larger measure of self-reliance and independence, with a feeling of increased pride in the successes, on land and lake, of her militia and marine service. It also quickened the spirit of enterprise over the country, which followed the close of the struggle, and did much to cement the Union and implant in the heart of the nation love for its grand heritage and faith in its future mighty destiny.

Unfortunately for the still youthful scion of the Lee family, he early lost the fostering care of his father, who, when the hoy was but six years old, had to betake himself to the West Indies in the endeavor to restore his shattered health. A father’s interest in and love for the lad were more than compensated, however, by the devotion and attachment of his wise, tender mother, whose influence upon him was great, and to his lasting good. It was she who instilled in his youthful mind those high moral principles and that integrity and rectitude of conduct which in after-years were marked traits in the character of her eminent son. On the latter’s part, there was a strong reciprocal attachment and fine filial feeling, which showed itself in a loving care and dutiful regard and solicitude. The need for this was the more urgent, as the self-sacrificing mother was at this period much alone, her husband being in the tropics, and her other sons were absent at College; while of the two daughters one was as yet quite young and the other was in indifferent health. Hence Robert was the one child to whom the noble mother looked for those attentions and that companionship which were a comfort to her, while she watched with earnest solicitude his careful home-training and strove to embue his mind with sound religious principles and inspire him with high ideals and lofty purposes in life.

Previous to this, or, more precisely, when Robert E. Lee was but four years old, the Lee family had removed from the old homestead at Stratford, in Westmoreland County (near the birthplace and early home of George Washington), and settled higher up the Potomac at Alexandria, six miles south of the Federal capital. The city at this period had, like the city of Washington itself, for a time fallen into the hands of the British; and here, near by, at Arlington, young Lee had also associations with the home of President Washington, whose relative, the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, he was afterwards to be allied with in marriage. At Alexandria Academy young Robert received his early education, afterwards passing to a more advanced institution kept by a Quaker, named Hallowell, who has left on record his high opinion of his pupil as a zealous student, most exemplary in his conduct and habits. Throughout his school career he gave the utmost satisfaction to his several masters, while he was popular among his fellows, being manly in his bearing and attractive in his manners.

In the Spring of 1818, his father, General Henry Lee, when returning from the West Indies, had to be put ashore on the coast of Georgia as his death was imminent. He died at “Dungeness,” the home of a daughter of his old friend, General Nathanael Greene, while his son Robert was but in his twelfth year. The death of “Light-Horse Harry,” as he was familiarly called, was much and widely lamented, and at his funeral in Georgia military and naval honors were paid to his remains as they were interred beneath “the magnolias, cedars, and myrtles of beautiful Dungeness.” As his son Robert grew up and the time came when he must make choice of a profession, naturally he sought to follow a military career, like his distinguished father, the General. His brother, Sydney Smith Lee, had taken to the navy, and was already beginning to carve out his own career in that profession (later on, he was known as Commodore Lee of the Confederate service and father of General Fitzhugh Lee, the famous cavalry commander). Ere long Robert succeeded in his application for admittance to the United States Military Academy, and that famous training college for military cadets at West Point, he entered in 1825, and at once applied himself to a four years’ course of drill and hard study, taking special interest in engineering science, with its accompanying lectures in strategy and tactics, varied by guard-mounting and cavalry exercises. Here his excellent character, scrupulous honor, and amenability to discipline, coupled with his studious habits and ambition to stand high in his class, won him the respect of his instructors and the esteem and love of his fellow-cadets, with the honor-post of adjutant of his corps. His whole course at West Point was that of a talented and ambitious youth who had high aims and an earnest purpose in life, and who sought to attain his objects by a preliminary career which should be marked by proficiency in his studies and an attention to them, as well as assiduity in the performance of his duties, which would win the commendation of those to whom he was indebted for efficient training and well-directed instruction and counsel. Throughout his four years’ course, it is said, that he never had a demerit mark placed against his name; while he graduated second in a class of forty-six, and at once received a commission as second lieutenant in the corps of engineers.

With a highly creditable standing as a “West-Pointer,” Robert E. Lee, after a brief furlough, entered actively on his professional career, finding employment for several years in duties, enthusiastically performed, in connection with the coast aefenses of the United States at Hampton Roads and elsewhere. Society at that era, as well as now, was exceedingly attractive in the city of Washington and its vicinity; and to the handsome young lieutenant of engineers it had its charms, for he was well fitted to shine among the elite of the capital, and that not alone for his good looks, but also by reason of his superior education and fine prospects in the army, not to speak of his high birth and the fair repute and heroic traditions of his family. With the young matrons and belles of the capital and its adjoining city of Alexandria, his own home, Lieutenant Lee was much made of; while he was popular among his own sex, and especially among the knots of military men always to be found at the salons of Society people at Washington and at the manor-houses in the neighborhood. At Arlington, the home of the Custis family, the young engineer lieutenant was at the period particularly welcome, for he had long known and admired the beautiful daughter of the house, Mary Custis, the granddaughter of Martha Washington; and already more than a liking for each other had come about, which was soon now to bring both within Hymen’s silken bonds. Only two years had passed since Lee had graduated at West Point and received his commission in the army; but while only in his twenty-fifth year he fell into Cupid’s snares and succumbed to the irresistible attractions of his affianced Mary Custis. Their marriage speedily followed, the ceremony taking place within the stately mansion of Arlington House, replete as it was with historic interest and attractive by its traditions of Washington and his fellow-patriots of Revolutionary days. Through his marriage, which was solemnized June 30, 1831, Lee with his wife subsequently became owners of Arlington, as well as of another property belonging to the Custis family on the Pamunkey River, where Washington, in 1759, married “the widow Custis”—a property that was ruthlessly given to the flames by the Federal troops in the Civil War.

After a brief honeymoon, Lee returned to his army duties at Hampton Roads, but ere long was transferred to Washington, where he became assistant to the chief government engineer, and was consequently near to his bride and her paternal home at Arlington. Promotion here came to him, first to a full lieutenancy and afterwards to a captaincy in the corps of engineers. After this, he acted for a time as astronomer to a commission appointed to define the boundary between the States of Ohio and Michigan; and then was despatched to St. Louis to engage actively in professional work in connection with the channel of the Mississippi River, so as to obviate its overflowing its bounds on the side opposite St. Louis, as well as to recover waste lands on its borders which at periods had been subject to inundation. Indefatigable as well as professionally successful in his work. Lee rendered admirable service in improving the legitimate bed of the great river and in artificially confining “the Father of Waters” to its natural and desirable course. When this important task had been accomplished, he was despatched to New York to strengthen the defenses of Fort Hamilton, which protects the entrance to the spacious harbor of the city; while recognition of his merits otherwise came to him in being elected a member of the Board of Visitors at West Point and appointed one of the Board of Engineers, at his professional alma mater.


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