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


COLONEL LEE, in 1852, entered actively on his duties as head of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, from which he had himself so creditably graduated in 1829. At this period, his eldest son, G. W. Custis Lee, was a pupil of the institution, and, like his father before him, stood high in his class and graduated two years later as cadet-adjutant, also following the paternal bent, of choosing to serve in the Engineers. Colonel Lee’s administration of the Academy lasted for three years, and, like everything he did, it was characterized by efficiency and ability. He had ever a high sense of duty, and was assiduous in inculating it not only in his sons, but in all who were at any time subordinate to him. On his retirement from the superintendency of the Academy, Lee was assigned to the Cavalry branch of the U.S. military service, two new Cavalry regiments having just then been raised for duty in the West, to give increased military protection in that section, where settlement was fast making inroads, and where, in Kansas and Texas especially, there was at the time considerable menace from marauding bands of Indians under the Comanche chief Catumseh. Though hitherto an Engineer officer of eminence, he took kindly to the Cavalry service; nevertheless, he withdrew from his own particular branch of the profession of arms, in which he had greatly distinguished himself, with regret. Moreover, he was fond of horses and much accustomed to be in the saddle; while many from his own State and section of the country were entering the Cavalry service, afterwards to gain distinction in it as Confederate commanders. One of these was Albert Sidney Johnston, who was given the colonelcy of the second Cavalry corps, while Colonel Lee was appointed Lieutenant-Colonel. The destination of the corps was Western Texas; and thither the regiment went, after Colonel Johnston had established his headquarters at Louisville, Ky., where Lt.-Col. Lee joined it, proceeding later to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, thence to active duty in Texas.

Before reaching Texas, Lt.-Col. Lee was detailed for service on a court-martial in Kansas, the occasion being the trial of an assistant army surgeon who had left his station during the prevalence of an alarming epidemic. On rejoining the regiment in Texas, the latter became broken into detachments, ordered for duty over a far-reaching area. This was rendered necessary by the wide stretch of frontier the regiment had then to guard, there being as yet few towns and no railways in the Territory. Parts of it were scattered over the region from the Rio Grande far to the north-westward, Lee himself doing duty at one time at Ringgold Barracks, at another at Camp Cooper, on one of the forks of the Brazos River, and at still another at Fort Brown. His life at this time could not have been much to his liking, for the region was still in the rough, and regimental officers of Lee’s standing and eminence, cut off to a large extent as they were from the comforts and elegancies they had at home been accustomed to, could find little to compensate, and less to interest, them in a country yet in the wild state; where the United States mails had to be transported from post to post by armed soldiers on mules, often over long strips of dreary, uninhabited country. Nor was there any active duty worthy of their prowess. All there was consisted, for the most part, of scouting duty, performed amid much discomfort and frequent sickness, when the stations were unhealthy, and occasionally in no little peril from the poisoned arrows of treacherous Indians shot at them from ambush.

The Life of General Robert E. Lee G. Mercer Adam CHAPTER IV.
Arlington, the home of General Lee previous to the Civil War.

The life was now and then varied by visits to dirty Indian camps, for a parley with their chiefs, who it was often found, however, were fine specimens of nature’s children and magnificent horsemen, their nomadic life making them “active, vigilant, and a foe not to be despised.”

While Lee was in the West, he naturally maintained a regular and affectionate correspondence with his family at Arlington, and longed often to be back to them and to civilization. At this period, the autumn of 1857, the death of his father-in-law, Mr. Custis, recalled him for a time to his home. The latter’s wife had predeceased him; and now with his own death the Arlington House estate came into the possession of Colonel Lee’s wife, Mary Custis Lee, together with the Arlington heirlooms and family plate. Unfortunately, the fine historic property was ere long now to be lost to the Lees, in the calamitous outbreak of the civil war, while the family slaves were given their freedom by the good-will and humanity of their fond master and mistress. That the sectional struggle, now about to ensue, was foreseen by Lee and by all thoughtful observers need hardly be said. Though Lee personally took no part in politics, he could not be, nor was he, ignorant of the sectional strife by which it was preceded; still less was he indifferent to the outbreak of the calamity, dreadful as it was sure to be to the antagonists on either side.

Already the Federal tie which had bound the States in one family since the Revolution was loosening, owing to the growing abolition sentiment in the North, which, on conscientious moral grounds, as well as from the fact that she was an industrial and commercial community, was opposed to slavery in the South (an agricultural and cotton-growing section) and to its extension in the new states and territories of the Union. The anti-slavery sentiment was resented by the South as an intolerable interference with its natural, though peculiar, institution, which not only had imposed restrictions on its extension in the new and fast-settling regions of the country, but sought to proscribe and eliminate it in the South. This resistance speedily shoyved itself in the new theories which had now become prevalent in the Southern half of the Union as to state-sovereignty and the so-called state-rights in the cotton-growing section and along the border States. The first practical step taken towards secession was manifested by South Carolina, which was the earliest to take action among the irreconcilable sisterhood in the South. This step she took Dec. 20th, 1860, then declaring the Union dissolved, as far as she was concerned, and setting forth the reasons for her course with regard to repeal and the erection of an independent State government. The chief reason assigned was the threatened Federal interference with slavery, following upon Mr. Lincoln’s election to the Presidency of the United States. A like attitude was taken by other of her sister States, which ere long (before the inauguration of Lincoln, March 4th, 1861) joined her in revolt: these were Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas. These States not only seceded from the Union, but seized the military posts and national property within their several State jurisdictions. The motive of secession was the same in all, namely, unmistakable jealousy of their favored institution of slavery, and the desire to perpetuate it within the area of the seceding States. The principle which governed their joint action was that embodied in the constitutional theories held and propounded by Calhoun, viz., that each State was in its own right sovereign and an independent entity, an interpretation of the Constitution radically at variance with the views held by the people and their leading statesmen in the North, who maintained that the United States was a nation, one and indivisible, and by their moral sense opposed, at least, to the extension of slavery, and dedicated, in so far as practicable, to free labor. This was the opinion held and expressed by Mr. Lincoln in his first Inaugural, but more decidedly affirmed in his message to Congress of July 4, 1861, where he insisted that the individual States had no other legal status in the national commonwealth than that of the Union, and that none of them had a Constitution independent of the Union; and hence, if it is broken, or if any of them dissevered themselves from it, they did so against law and only by revolutionary process. In justice, it must be said, that not all the abolitionists of the North viewed Secession in this extreme and disputed light. Many, on the contrary, deemed the view of a centralized government as a national compact between all the States not to be broken or dissevered as an autocratic and aggressive one, fraught with peril to the stability and perpetuation of the Union. Among those who took the more cautious and reasonable side in the distracting controversies of the time were men like Daniel Webster, who, with Clay and Calhoun of the South, protested against the aggressions and heedlessness of aboUtionisin; while men, like Horace Greeley and Henry Ward Beecher, were opposed to coercion and took action with the Border States as peacemakers, by desiring that the South, if she wished it, should withdraw in peace. As to the legal right of any State under the Constitution to secede, there were others again who took one or the other side of the controversy, and by their contentions added to the ferment and disquiet of the time. On this fiercely-debated question not a few of the best minds of the era were at issue with each other; while there were those who, without rashly committing themselves to either side, took the ground, like Secretary Seward, that there was a “Higher Law,” above the Constitution, whose moral dictates were worthy of being imperatively heard, and which, as in Mr. Seward’s case, condemned slavery out and out, and incited the North to ban it by force from the nation.

As we calmly look back now on the distracting period, with the knowledge we historically have of the issues of the contest—the result largely of the rabid and inflammatory appeals addressed to the North by the abolitionists—we can see that there was much reason for a more sane and restrained judgment, and for less of the extravagant and melodramatic censure of negro slavery and the fugitive slave law, to which the period was recklessly treated in public speeches and in partisan appeals through the medium of fiction such as that of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Even emancipation, had it been brought about slowly and dispassionately, was a most difficult problem, especially in the absence in the negro of adequate preliminary training for freedom, and of due precautionary measures for the self-interest and safety alike of slave and of master. Slavery might be a curse and a blight to the South—and doubtless it was, as it has been, wherever it has existed—but the fact that it was this hardly justified intemperate and vituperative denunciation of those who treated the slave well, as it was the economic interest of the master, as well as creditable to his humanity, to do; while it led, as it did, to the most untoward event in the annals of the nation—disunion and its frightful consequences to both sides in the prolonged and calamitous Civil War.

But it is time to return to Colonel Lee and the theme proper of our biography. In the distracting controversies of the period we have been dealing with, he, as we have already indicated, took no personal, and still less a public, part. The shadows of the time were however about him, as they were about all patriots and true lovers of their country. On the subject of slavery and slave-emancipation, he, moreover, held pronounced, though moderately expressed, opinions. His letters of the era indicate that, and not only those written to members of his own family, but those forwarded to his close personal friends. In these we see that the controversies of the time were much in his thoughts, though he relied, as a Christian man was bound to do, on a benign Providence to overrule human affairs for the best, and that in God’s own good time. The evils, political and moral, of slavery he explicitly admits, though he deemed them evils no less to the white race than to the black. Towards the blacks, he tells us, his feelings are strongly enlisted, though he considered them immeasurably better off in this country than in Africa, and that not only as far as their physical condition went, but morally and socially as well. The discipline they are undergoing here, even where it is painful, he deemed necessary for their further instruction as a race, while he hoped it would prepare them for better things. Their emancipation, he, however, affirmed, would sooner result from the mild and melting influences of Christianity, than from the storms and tempests of fiery controversy. “While we see the course of the final abolition of human slavery is still onward, and give it the aid of our prayers, and all justifiable means in our power, we must,” he adds, “leave the progress as well as the result in His hands who sees the end, who chooses to work by slow influences, and with whom a thousand years are but as a single day.” At the same time, he termed Secession nothing but revolution, and dreaded no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. “The framers of our Constitution,” he writes, in January, 1861, in a letter to his son, “never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. . . . Still,” he is careful to add, “a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me. I shall mourn for my country and for the welfare and progress of mankind. If the Union is dissolved, and the government disrupted,” he concludes, “I shall return to my native State and share the miseries of my people, and, save in defense, will draw my sword on none.” Elsewhere he patriotically declared, that “if he owned all the negroes in the South he would gladly yield them up for the preservation of the Union.” These are brave and inspiring words to come from one who was soon now to be termed by the North “rebel” and chief among rebels; but whose whole past testified to the fidelity of a loyal and true gentleman, alike to the Union and to the Constitution, as they were founded and established by the Fathers.

Meanwhile matters political were fast approaching a crisis in the country, for the John Brown raid upon Harper’s Ferry had taken place, and a wild scheme was formed by this hero-fanatic and his nineteen followers to free the slaves of the South, though it bore on its face the design, if not the intent, of inciting a servile war. When it occurred and the U.S. arsenal had been seized by Brown and his meager band, Lee was on furlough at Arlington to settle his deceased father-in-law’s affairs. Being on the spot, the Secretary of War summoned him to proceed to Harper’s Ferry with some marines and four companies of soldiers from Fort Monroe to quell the trouble; which Lee promptly did. Brown and a portion of his fanatical following being captured in a hiding-place in which they had sought refuge and were turned over to the civil authorities. John Brown, as all know, was subsequently tried on a charge of treason and conspiracy, found guilty, sentenced, and executed; while Colonel Lee returned to Washington, and from Arlington he once more proceeded to his command in Texas. Here, in garrison at San Antonio, Lee spent his last year of service under the United States flag, for on February 13, 1861, when Texas had withdrawn from the Union, he delivered over his authority at Fort Mason and repaired to the national capital, at the summons of the Secretary of War.

On his return to Washington, Lee was confronted with an embarrassing and painful situation. Not only had seven of the States of the South passed ordinances of secession and seized United States forts within their State jurisdictions, but his own loved commonwealth of Virginia was on the brink of withdrawing from the Union. This action was followed ere long by other States, while the Southern Confederacy was formally inaugurated—if we may not say legalized—by the installation of Jefferson Davis as its president. As president of the Union Government, Abraham Lincoln was installed in office, and presently made his call for 75,000 troops to suppress insurrectionary violence and oppose the secession of the slave-holding States. The period was obviously one of intense excitement, for coercion on the part of the United States government over the disaffected States that had arrayed themselves against Federal authority and taken themselves out of the Union, was an unusual, as it was an extreme, course, and naturally affected the attitude of most of the Southern officers who were then serving in the Union army. To Colonel Lee, the struggle between his sense of duty and attachment to his native State, in conflict with loyalty in his own breast to the country he had so long and faithfully served, was a distressing and painful one. Especially was it this when he realized what coercion meant, and that coercion would be the penalty to be paid by his own State of Virginia when, as presently happened, she joined the sisterhood of States embraced in the Southern Confederacy. Against his own State he could not, of course, draw his sword, still less could he stand idly by when she was menaced and attacked by the Federal power as a commonwealth in revolt from Union authority. In his mind there was nothing of sectional enmity or hatred, only love for his native State, and sorrow over the dire conditions that had arisen to compel her to withdraw from the North and join her forces with those of the Confederacy.

Into the vortex of war the two sections of the Republic soon now drifted, and with Lincoln’s call for troops and the War Department’s preparations to invade the South, Colonel Lee’s mental struggle as to what he should do came to an end. His devotion to the Union had hitherto delayed his action and made infirm his will; while it brought him overtures from the authorities to take command of the proposed army of invasion, which, of course, was repugnant to him, and, in declining, he at the same time handed in his resignation as an officer of the United States army. His period of sore trial was, happily, now soon over, though it cost him much to quit the service with which he had been so long and honorably connected and separate himself from his old comrades in the Union army and his friends and associates in the North. To General Winfield Scott, who loved him as a son and pleaded with him against resigning, he wrote a kindly letter of regret at parting with him, while acknowledging his appreciation of a long and cordial friendship. His resignation was accepted April 20th (1861), and three days later the Legislature of Virginia authorized the Governor of the State to offer Lee command of the military forces of the State, with the rank of Major-General. This changed the course of his career, and for the future identified himself with the cause of the South, in which he played so conspicuous and strenuous a part, shedding glory upon its arms, despite the final issue of the long and bloody conflict. Taking leave once more of Arlington and its loved inmates, Lee repaired to Richmond, Va., and to his new duties as commander-in-chief of the army of Virginia.


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