General Robert E. Lee, The Christian Soldier, by Judith Brockenbrough McGuire, Chapter 3

General Robert E. Lee, The Christian Soldier


AFTER this brief furlough and sad visit to his home, Lieutenant Lee entered upon the duties of his profession with the zeal and interest which foreshadowed success. In the spring of 1831 he was married, at Arlington, to Mary Randolph Custis, only child of George Washington Parke Custis, and granddaughter of the wife of General Washington. The marriage ceremony was performed by the Rev. Dr. Keith, of the Theological Seminary, near Alexandria.

After his marriage, Lieutenant Lee became, when on furlough, the resident of Arlington House, the beautiful home of his father-in-law. Soon afterwards he was sent to Fortress Monroe, Virginia, where he remained three years. In 1835 he was appointed Assistant Astronomer for marking out the boundary between Ohio and Michigan. In Sept., 1836, he was promoted to the rank of First Lieutenant, and in 1838 to a Captaincy. In 1838–39 he was sent to improve the navigation of the Mississippi at St. Louis, and to open a passage for the river at Des Moines Rapids. While absent from home, and working so skilfully for his country, his warm heart longed for the dear ones from whom he was necessarily so much separated. “His care and anxiety for his children,̶ writes one who knew him best, “commenced with the first; and though he was so frequently absent from them, their obedience to his commands was perfect, as was their respect for his wishes; and certainly his example never misled them.”

In a letter written to his wife, when far from home, and while his children were very young, we find this extract:

The improved condition of the children, which you mention, was a source of great comfort to me; and as I suppose, by this time, you have all returned to Arlington, you will be able to put them under a proper restraint, which you were probably obliged to relax while visiting among strangers, and which that indulgence will now render more essential. Our dear little boy seems to have among his friends the reputation of being hard to manage,—a distinction not at all desirable, as it indicates self-will and obstinacy. Perhaps these are qualities which he really possesses, arid he may have a better right to them than I am willing to acknowledge; but it is our duty, if possible, to counteract them, and assist him to bring them under his control. I have endeavored, in my intercourse with him, to require nothing but what was in my opinion necessary or proper, and to explain to him temperately its propriety, at a time when he could listen to my arguments, and not at the moment of his being vexed, and his little faculties warped by passion. I have also tried to show him that I was firm in my demands and constant in their enforcement, and that he must comply with them; and I let him see that I looked to their execution in order to relieve him, as much as possible, from the temptation to break them. Since my efforts have been so unsuccessful, I fear I have altogether failed in accomplishing my purpose, but I hope to be able to profit by my experience. You must assist me in my attempts, and we must endeavor to combine the mildness and forbearance of the mother with the sternness and, perhaps, unreasonableness of the father. This is a subject on which I think much, though M— may blame me for not reading more. I am ready to acknowledge the good advice contained in the text-books, and believe that I see the merit of their reasoning generally; but what I want to learn is, to apply what I already know. I pray God to watch over, and direct our efforts in guarding our dear little son, that we may bring him up in the way he should go. . . .

. . . Oh what pleasure I lose in being separated from my children. Nothing can compensate me for that; still I must remain here, ready to perform what little service I can, and hope for the best.

This letter is dated St. Louis, Oct. 16th, 1837.

This extract, showing his wisdom and love in endeavoring to train so young a child, seems too good to be withheld from parents, for their instruction and example. Another letter, showing how tender and amiable he was in his domestic relations, was written nearly two years afterwards, while still on duty in the West.

LOUISVILLE, June 5th, 1839.

MY DEAREST MARY:—I arrived here last night, and before going out this morning I will inform you of my well-doing thus far.

After leaving Staunton, I got on very well, but did not reach Guyandotte till Sunday evening, where, before alighting from the stage, I espied a boat descending the river, in which I took passage to Cincinnati. . . .

. . . You do not know how much I have missed you and the children, my dear Mary. To be alone in a crowd is very solitary. In the woods I feel sympathy with the trees and birds in whose company I take delight, but experience no interest in a strange crowd. I hope you are till well, and will continue so; and therefore must again urge upon you to be very prudent and careful of those dear children. If I could only get a squeeze at that little fellow turning up his sweet mouth to “keese Baba!” You must not let him run wild in my absence, and will have to exercise firm authority over all of them. This will not require seventy, or even strictness, but constant attention, and an unwavering course. Mildness and forbearance, tempered by firmness and judgment, will strengthen their affection for you, while it will maintain your control over them.

In 1842 Captain Lee was sent to Fort Hamilton, in New York harbor, and while there was, in 1844, appointed a member of the board of visitors at West Point. In 1845 he was a member of the board of Engineers, and in 1846, when the Mexican War broke out, he was assigned to the duty of Chief Engineer of the Central Army of Mexico, in which capacity he served with great ability to the end of the war.

While still at Fort Hamilton, the following letter was written to one of his sons:

FORT HAMILTON, March 31st, 1846.

I cannot go to bed, my dear son, without writing you a few lines to thank you for your letter, which gave me great pleasure. I am glad to hear you are well, and hope you are learning to read and write, and that the next letter you will be able to write yourself. I want to see you very much, and to tell you all that has happened since you went away. I do not think I ever told you of a fine boy I heard of in my travels this winter. He lived in the mountains of New Hampshire. He was just thirteen years old, the age of Custis. His father was a farmer, and he used to assist him to work on his farm as much as he could. The snow there this winter was deeper than it has been for years, and one day he accompanied his father into the woods to get some wood. They went with their wood-sled, and after cutting a load and loading the sled, this little boy, whose name was Harry, drove it home, while his father cut another load. He had a fine team of horses, and returned very quickly, when he found his father lying prostrate on the frozen snow, under the limb of a large tree he had felled during his absence, which had caught him in its fall and thrown him to the ground. He was cold and stiff; and little Harry finding he was not strong enough to relieve him from his position, seized his axe and cut off the limb, and rolled it off of him. He then tried to raise him, but his father was dead, and his feeble efforts were in vain. Although he was far out in the woods by himself, and had never before seen a dead person, he was nothing daunted, but backed the sled close up to his father, and with great labor got his body on it, and placing his head in his lap, drove home to his mother as fast as he could. The efforts of his mother to reanimate him were equally vain with his own, and the sorrowing neighbors came and dug him a grave under the cold snow, and laid him to rest. His mother was greatly distressed at the loss of her husband, but she thanked God, who had given her so good and brave a son.

You and Custis must take great care of your kind mother and dear sisters, when your father is dead. To do that, you must learn to be good. Be true, kind, and generous, and pray earnestly to God to enable you to “keep his commandments, and walk in the same all the days of your life.” Alec and Frank are well, and the former has begun to ride his pony Jim again. Captain Bennett has bought his little boy a donkey, and as I came home I met him riding, with two large Newfoundland dogs following, one on each side. The dogs were almost as large as the donkey. My horse, Jerry, did not know what to make of them. I go to New York now, on horseback, every day; one day I ride Jerry, and the next Tom, and I think they begin to go better under the saddle than formerly. I hope to come on soon, to see that little baby you have got to show me. You must give her a kiss for me, and one to all the children, and to your mother and grandmother. Good-bye, my dear son.

Your affectionate father, R. E. LEE.

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