General Robert E. Lee, The Christian Soldier, by Judith Brockenbrough McGuire, Chapter 2

General Robert E. Lee, The Christian Soldier


THE father of General Lee removed to Alexandria, for the purpose of educating his children, when Robert was but four years of age, but the peaceful, quiet, country scenes left a deep impression upon his childish imagination. He always loved the country, loved horses and country pursuits; the trees, streams and grass were dearer to him than all the elegancies and grandeur of the most refined city life. During the last year of his life, he said to a lady, “Nothing does me as much good as to visit my son at the ‘White House,’ and see the mules walk around, and the corn growing.” His childhood was passed amid the stirring events of the second war with England. A British fleet under Admiral Cockburn ravaged the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and its large rivers, and on the 29th of August, 1814, the town of Alexandria, then his home, was captured by the enemy’s vessels, and soon afterwards the opposite shore of the Potomac, and the city of Washington, were occupied by the enemy. These events occurring immediately under his eye when so young, may have had some effect in moulding his naturally gentle nature, and in giving the preference for the army. When he was eleven years old his father died. Then, his older brother being absent and his sisters very young, he became the stay and comfort of his pious and devoted mother.

Mrs. Lee remained in Alexandria, and was a communicant of “Christ Church.” Her children were taught the Episcopal Catechism by the Rev. Wm. Meade, rector of the church, and afterwards the venerated Bishop of Virginia. Many years afterwards, when General Lee commanded the Army of Northern Virginia, he passed through Richmond, and hearing that the revered teacher and pastor of his boyhood was on his dying bed, at the house of a friend in that city, he immediately went to see him. When his name was mentioned to the Bishop, and a doubt expressed of the propriety of his seeing him in his weak state, he said, faintly:

“I must see him, if but for a few moments.”

General Lee approached the bed evincing deep emotion, and, taking the emaciated hand, said to him:

“How are you to-day, Bishop?”

“Almost gone,” replied Bishop Meade, in a voice scarcely audible; “but I wanted to see you once more. God bless you, Robert! God bless you, and fit you for your high and responsible duties. I can’t call you General; I must call you Robert. I have heard your Catechism so often.”

A brief conversation then ensued, the Bishop putting some pertinent questions to General Lee about the state of the country and the army, showing, as he always did, the most lively interest in the success of the Southern cause. It now seemed necessary to close the interview, such was the Bishop’s exhaustion, but he pressed warmly the General’s hand, saying, “Heaven bless you! Heaven bless you, end give you wisdom for your important and arduous duties.” He could say no more. General Lee returned the pressure of the feeble hand, stood motionless by the bedside in perfect silence for some minutes, and then left the room. Bishop Meade died the next morning.

Alexandria continued to be the residence of his mother, and his devotion to her, invalid as she was, seems to have been one of the distinguishing traits of his boyhood. There are persons still living who remember how cheerfully he executed her orders and attended to her business, and how tenderly and untiringly he labored to promote her happiness. His self-denying devotion to her when a boy of eleven is often spoken of by a relative who was often with her at that time. His oldest brother, Carter, was then at Cambridge, Sidney Smith in the navy, one sister under the care of the physicians in Philadelphia, and the other too young for household cares; so that Robert was the housekeeper, carried the keys, attended to marketing, the horses, or anything which relieved the mind or lightened the burden of his sick and widowed mother. When school-hours were over, and other boys went to the play-ground, he would be seen running to assist his mother to be ready for her drive. The relative alluded to was often the companion of those drives, and remembers his efforts to amuse her, saying, with the gravity of a man, that unless she was cheerful the drive would not be beneficial; and if she complained of the draughts of air, he world pull out his knife and a newspaper, and amuse her by his efforts to improvise curtains, to protect her from the wind which whistled through the crevices of the old family-coach. When, at eighteen years of age, it became necessary for him to choose a profession, he chose the army, and obtained an appointment from Virginia as cadet at West Point. Then came the trial of parting with his mother, knowing, as he did, how sorrowful it would make her to give him up. “How can I live without Robert?” she was heard to say; “he is both son and daughter to me.”

He entered the Military Academy in 1825, carrying with him the steady Christian character, and the determination to do right, which so signally marked his public and private course through life. He had been early taught, by his good mother and faithful pastor, his duty towards God and his neighbor, to “submit himself to all his governors and teachers, and to order himself lowly and reverently to all his betters;” therefore he found it comparatively easy to submit to the rigid discipline of the Institution. He left it in 1829, having passed through the whole course of four years without receiving a single demerit or being once reprimanded. He was noted for his studious habits and exemplary conduct. He never used an oath, drank intoxicating liquors, placed cards, or indulged in any of those bad practices so fatal to students, but unfortunately regarded by so many of them as marks of manliness or as mere sources of amusement, and the more enjoyed because forbidden. He never used tobacco in any shape.

On the 4th of July, 1829, he graduated first in his class, and received the appointment of Brevet Second Lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers, to which branch of the service the most distinguished graduates of West Point are assigned. Very soon after graduation, he was summoned to attend the dying bed of the mother whom he loved so much. She was ill at Ravensworth, the residence of the Hon. Wm. H. Fitzhugh, near Alexandria. Having obtained his furlough, he hastened thither, and nursed her with the tenderness and fidelity of a devoted daughter; administering her nourishment and medicine with his own hands, and rarely leaving her bedside until the distressing scene was over. One who knew him best says that it was from his good mother that he learned at an early age to “practise self-denial and self-control, as well as the strictest economy in all financial concerns,” virtues which he retained and exercised throughout his checkered life. He was wont to say that he “owed everything to his mother.”

When but a child, while his father was in the West Indies, during his last illness, he wrote to his son Carter, then a student at Cambridge, and speaking feelingly of his children, whom he was destined never to see again, he says:

Robert, who was always good, will be confirmed in his happy turn of mind by his ever watchful and affectionate mother.

This tender remark, which seems to have been written in the spirit of prophecy, shows how beautifully the boy, even at that early age, had fulfilled the commandment, “Honor thy father and thy mother,” to both parents. To the teachers of his childhood, as well as to his school-mates, his memory seems to be dear, as that of one who only gave them pleasure. They remember that Robert Lee was always regarded with love and respect by the whole school, and that he was remarkable for his quiet and peaceable disposition. His first teacher was a Mr. Leary, an Irish gentleman, who, twice after the war, went a great distance to see him, which meetings were greatly enjoyed by both teacher and pupil. He was taught mathematics by Mr. Benjamin Hallowell, a famous teacher in Alexandria, who still lives to give by letter the estimation in which he held his pupil, as the following extract will show:

Robert E. Lee entered my school in Alexandria, in the winter of 1824–25, to study mathematics preparatory to his going to West Point. He was a most exemplary student in every respect. He was never behind time at his studies; never failed in a single recitation; was perfectly observant of the rules and regulations of the Institution; was gentlemanly, unobtrusive, and respectful in all his deportment to teachers and to his fellow-students.

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 was to be engraved and printed. He carried the same traits be exhibited in my school to West Point, where I have been told he never received a demerit mark, and graduated head of his class.

A feeling of mutual kindness and respect continued between us to the close of his life. He was a great friend and advocate of education.

Mr. Hallowell, who was a Union man during the war, adds, “It was a matter of great regret to me that he thought it right to take the course he did in our recent national difficulties; but I never entertained a doubt that he was influenced by what he believed to be his duty, and what was entirely in harmony with the requirements of a gentleman and the dictates of honor.

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