The Soul of Lee, by Randolph H. McKim, Chapter 1

The Soul of Lee

I
ANCESTRY, BIRTH AND EARLY YEARS

“The fatherlands of Sidney and Bayard never produced a nobler soldier, gentleman and Christian than Gen. Robert E. Lee.”—London Standard.

Robert Edward Lee was a scion of an ancient family. Launcelot Lee, who fought at Hastings under the banner of William the Conqueror, in 1066, and Lionel Lee,[1] who won fame at the Siege of Acre with Richard Cœur de Lion, in 1192, were his ancestors; and on his maternal side the blood of Robert Bruce flowed in his veins. In American history the Lees of Virginia had been distinguished for character and achievement since the middle of the seventeenth century; but Gen. Robert E. Lee, though he was proud of his name, and resolved never to tarnish it, was yet so far from wishing to exploit his ancestry, that when the project of publishing a Lee genealogy was submitted to him he said: “I think the money had better be appropriated to relieve the poor.”

He was born in that Virginian county which the early settlers named “Westmoreland,” after that famous shire in the west of England, which has ever been renowned for its beautiful mountains and its lovely lakes—Windermere, Grasmere, Ullswater.

The Virginian Westmoreland presents, indeed, a striking contrast in those respects to the Westmoreland of old England. For, though on its northern border there flows a majestic river to which all Europe can scarcely show an equal, yet it boasts no charming lakes reflecting woody hills and mirroring the changing hues of the sky, nor any beautiful mountains lifting their lofty heads to heaven. In a word, though it has a beauty and a charm all its own, it cannot rival the picturesqueness of that famous lake country of the northwest of England.

But as the traveller passes through the Virginian Westmoreland, he falls under a spell which few localities anywhere can rival. The forms of the great men who have sprung from its soil rise before him. Their fame towers up to heaven, loftier and more majestic than the mountains of England’s Westmoreland. The deeds they have wrought, the ideas they have given to the world, the standards of civic virtue they have upheld, are like lofty peaks piercing the sky on every hand. After all, great men are more impressive than great mountains,—and the great men born in this Virginian county are among the greatest of all time.

Here was born Washington, the Father of his Country, and Monroe, the Father of the Monroe Doctrine. Close to its border was born Madison, the Father of the Constitution. Here, too, was born Thomas Marshall, father of the great Chief Justice John Marshall, so that Westmoreland is the grandsire of that illustrious jurist, Here was born another great jurist, Bushrod Washington, whom President Adams placed second only to Marshall, and who, in the estimation of Mr. Justice Story, was one of the greatest ornaments that ever adorned the Supreme Bench of the United States. Westmoreland then well deserves to be called, as it has been, “the birthplace of Genius.”

Here, too, flourished the first of the Lee name in Virginia, the stout-hearted Colonel Richard Lee, who dared to challenge the power of the mighty Cromwell, and only at last acknowledged his authority on condition that the Old Dominion should never bear taxation without representation. Grand old Stratford House, the Lee ancestral home, has a history scarcely equaled by any other mansion in American history. There lived Governor Thomas Lee, whose worth was so much appreciated in the mother country that Queen Caroline contributed, unsolicited, a large sum from the Privy Purse to help in its rebuilding, when it had been destroyed by file. There in the same chamber were born two signers of the Declaration of Independence, par nobile fratrum, Francis Lightfoot Lee and Richard Henry Lee, the Cicero of the Continental Congress;—scholar, debater, statesman, patriot, orator—the man who dared to propose the resolution that “these colonies are, and by right ought to be, free and independent states”—the man who was unanimously elected president of the American Congress, and was afterwards one of Virginia’s first representatives in the United States Senate. It was he who wrote the Memorial of Congress to the people of British America. His hand also produced the Address of Congress to the people of Great Britain—productions which Mr. Wirt says were “unsurpassed by any of the state papers of the time.” (No wonder the British made such strenuous efforts to capture him!) At Stratford, too, lived Gen. Robert E. Lee’s father, Henry Lee, the famous “Light Horse Harry,” a soldier of marked ability, the favorite of Washington, chosen by Congress to pronounce that great man’s funeral oration; an accomplished classical scholar, a brilliant orator and the historian of the Southern campaigns of the Revolution. And at Stratford was born, on the 19th day of January, 1807, his son Robert Edward Lee, destined to become the greatest soldier in American history.[2]

Henry Lee, at the age of nineteen, was nominated by Patrick Henry to be a captain of cavalry; rapidly rose in rank; was presented by Congress in 1779 with a gold medal for “warlike skill and prowess”; became lieutenant colonel of dragoons in 1780; was described by Washington as an officer possessed of “great reserves of genius”; was praised by Lafayette for “his talents as a corps commander”; and by Gen. Nathaniel Greene in the highest terms; while another general officer said: “He seemed to have come out of his mother’s womb a soldier.” After the war, as a member of the Virginia Convention, he pleaded with eloquence and power for the adoption of the Federal Constitution, with Washington and Madison and Marshall and against Patrick Henry and George Mason and Benjamin Harrison, who opposed its ratification.

When Robert Edward Lee was four years old the family removed to Alexandria, where he received the foundation of a sound classical and mathematical education at the hands of Mr. Wm. B. Leary, for whom he cherished a sincere attachment to the end of his life. We know little of his relations to his father, the latter’s ill-health having separated them for a long period; but we see him reverently visiting his grave in South Carolina during the first year of the war, and we note that his only literary work was the editing of his father’s Memoirs, in June, 1869, to which is prefixed a biography from his own hand. When he was eleven his father, long an invalid, died, and upon the young Robert devolved the care of his widowed mother, in her declining years and failing health, his eldest brother being absent from home, and his second brother, afterwards Commodore Smith Lee, having entered the Navy. Never did son I more faithfully fulfil his trust. He cheerfully executed her orders and attended to her business, even the little household duties which ill-health incapacitated her to perform, and tenderly and untiringly labored to promote her happiness. It is stated that he was accustomed to carry her in his arms to the carriage and arrange her cushions with the gentleness of an experienced nurse. No wonder the dear lady exclaimed, on his departure for West Point, “How can I live without Robert? He is both son and daughter to me.”

He had just graduated at West Point when he was summoned to attend her in her last illness, and we are told that he nursed her with the tenderness and fidelity of a daughter, administering her food and medicine with his own hand, and scarcely for a moment leaving her bedside until the last painful scene was over. In after life he often said “he owed everything to his mother.”

Though we know few particulars of Lee’s boyhood, we do know that he loved to follow the hunt over hill and vale to the merry sound of the horn and the hound in pursuit of the wily fox or the bounding deer. We know also, on his own authority, that he always loved horses and enjoyed training them “as much as any one.” His personal affection for his old war horse “Traveller” is as pathetic as it is beautiful. And this love was reciprocated. “Everybody and everything—his family, his friends, his horse, and his dog—loves Colonel Lee,” was said of him when he returned home from the Mexican War.

The venerable and highly esteemed Mr. Benjamin Hallowell, who prepared him for West Point, said that he was as remarkable for the precision of his conduct as for the accuracy and beauty with which he drew the mathematical figures. One of his schoolmates remembered that Robert Lee was always looked up to with respect and esteem by the whole school and that he was noted for his quiet and peaceable disposition.

The following remarkable incident related of this period of his life is prophetic of the immense moral force of his manhood. Being invited, during a vacation, to visit a friend of his family who lived in the gay, rollicking style then but too common in old Virginia, he found his host one of the grand old gentlemen of that day, with every fascination of mind and manner, who though not of dissipated habits, led a life which the sterner sense of the boy could not approve. The old man shrank before the unspoken rebuke of the youthful hero. Coming to his bedside the night before his departure, he lamented the idle and useless life into which he had fallen, excusing himself upon the score of loneliness, and the sorrow which weighed upon him in the loss of those most dear. In the most impressive manner he besought his young guest to be warned by his example; prayed him to cherish the good habits he had already acquired, and promised to listen to his entreaties that he would change his own life.[4] Young Lee entered West Point in 1825, when he was eighteen years of age. There he was distinguished for the excellence of his scholarship and the purity of his life at a time when according to the statement made by the superintendent to President Adams, drunkenness and dissipation were very prevalent among the cadets. He graduated in 1829, with the second highest honors of his class, and with the record of never having received a demerit for neglect of duty.

Two years later he was united in marriage to Mary Custis, the daughter and heiress of George Washington Parke Custis, and the granddaughter of the wife of General Washington. She had received a fine classical education, and was the heiress of both Arlington and ̴the White House,” on the Pamunkey River, which was the scene of the marriage of Gen. Washington with the widow Custis. Hence her father did not favor the match with the young lieutenant, devoted to a military career. Seven children were born of this marriage, three sons and four daughters, George Washington Custis, Mary Custis, William Henry Fitzhugh, Annie Carter, Eleanor Agnes, Robert Edward, and Mildred.

[Notes]

[1] The armor worn by Lionel Lee in the crusades may still be seen in the Horse Armory of the Tower of London.

[2] Stratford was a Large and stately manor house, not far from the banks of the Potomac, built in the shape of the letter “H.” On its roof were summer houses where ladies and gentlemen promenaded in the evenings.

[3] Popular Life of Gen. R. E. Lee, by Emily V. Mason, p. 24.

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