Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 9


The Making of a Soldier

ROBERT’S only disappointment in his new life at the Academy was that there were no horses. He had looked forward to mounted drill because he was an expert horseman and loved riding more than anything. In the artillery exercises the students had to put the harness on their own shoulders and pull the cannon around the parade grounds. It was good for the muscles, Robert and the others found, but the dullest; and most tiresome drudgery imaginable.

The superintendent of the Academy was Major Sylvanus Thayer, who had graduated thirteen years before, in the class of 1812. Under him, it was said later, the true spirit of West Point was born. His three principal cardinals were that every cadet should be trained in every subject taught, that each one should be proficient in all the subjects and that every cadet should recite every day.

Though no conversation was allowed at mealtimes, the boys who had interests in common soon were attracted to one another and formed friendships.

From the very beginning Robert was particularly drawn to Joseph E. Johnston, whose father had served in Light Horse Harry’s legion. This friendship lasted for a lifetime. Jack Mackay of Georgia was another good friend whose comradeship was lasting.

Every Saturday the cadets were given a half-holiday and allowed to hunt or to go for long rambles on the rocky plateau or in the near-by woods which surrounded the spacious grounds. To the north and east there was the Hudson River, which offered fine fishing, and to the west and south there were uncultivated highlands, fine for exploration and rough tramps.

Robert wrote to his mother and to Milly that he was studying hard and they had the gratification of finding he stood third man in his class at the end of the first year.

Among his schoolmates were many who were later to achieve distinction. Leonidas Polk and Joe Johnston later served with him as officers in the Confederate Army and Philip St. George Cooks and W. H. C. Bartlett made names for themselves in the Federal forces.

During his second year at the Academy, Lee achieved second place and this rank he held for the remainder of his school career. When he was a senior, he was appointed adjutant of the battalion. This post was a great honor and awarded only to a man who was felt to embody the ideals of West Point.

Some of the students, among them Jefferson Davis, were not as serious-minded as Robert and were often in trouble for patronizing Benny Haven’s Tavern at Buttermilk Falls, which was outside of bounds, Nine boys were expelled for taking part in the “great riot” which followed an eggnog party during the Christmas celebration in Robert’s second year. He and Joe Johnston had been invited to the party but declined.

During the summer vacations Robert returned to Alexandria to be with his mother. In his becoming uniform, with the collar so high that it touched the tips of his ears, he made a handsome and distinguished figure which provoked many admiring glances from the young ladies of the town. But Cadet Lee did not return these glances, for he still had eyes for no one but his Mary, with whom he passed many happy hours.

The four years slipped by quickly and Robert graduated, along with forty-five other members of his class. He was commissioned a second lieutenant of engineers, which honor was reserved for cadets whose standing was in the top flight.

Joy fully the young officer returned home to Alexandria to enjoy a long furlough with the loving mother from whom he had been separated for so long but, sadly enough, this was not to be, for, having made the great effort of retaining some small measure of health until her children should be grown and established, Anne Carter Lee allowed her strength to ebb away. She died at Ravensworth, a cousin’s home, on July tenth, leaving her children what substance she had, through a life-long economy, been able to preserve for them.

To her daughters, Ann Lee Marshall and Mildred, she left her personal possessions, including four tablecloths, her horse and carriage, two slaves and several thousand dollars. To each of her sons she left an equal sum of money.

At the age of twenty-two, Robert was left an orphan, with his own way to make in the world, It was well for him that he was a steady and responsible young man, though he was never smug nor goody-goody, for an aunt writes of him, “He’s as full of life, fun, and particularly teasing, as any of us.” And Joe Johnston, his classmate, notes, “He’s genial and fond of gay conversation . . . he’s the only man I’ve ever known who can laugh at the faults and follies of his friends in such a manner as to make them ashamed without touching their affection for him.”

A round of family and neighborhood visits occupied Robert during the next month and the most pleasant of these days were spent quietly with Mary. Though no formal proposal of marriage was made at this time, there was probably some sort of “understanding” between them, and surely there was great joy for them in one another’s companionship.

About the middle of August, Brevet Lieutenant Robert E. Lee was ordered to report by the middle of the following November to the major in command of the corps of engineers, for duty at Cockspur Island, in the Savannah River.

This assignment was considered by those who knew it a dreary and uninteresting post, but Robert didn’t mind it a bit for it gave him a chance to renew his friendship with his good friend, Jack Mackay, who lived in near-by Savannah. Moreover, the Georgia climate would be mild and would benefit the health of old Nat, the ailing slave to whom the Lees were all devoted. Nat had been left by Mrs. Lee to Milly, but it was Robert who felt the responsibility for the kind old man’s last days on earth.

On November first the two made the trip to Savannah by packet and Robert undertook his new duties and nursed the aged Negro until his death some months later.

Robert found a warm welcome in the Mackay household. There were several pretty young-lady daughters whose friendliness consoled him for the absence of Mary.

In contrast to the pleasant social life of the town, the island itself was as desolate as it had been represented. It was a mile long and two-thirds of a mile wide, mostly flooded marshland, alive with mosquitoes and sandflies. The construction of a fort was being undertaken on the island and this presented many difficult engineering problems. However, by the summer of 1830 the drainage canal had been dug and part of the necessary embankment erected.

Because of the unhealthiness of the midsummer climate, furloughs were given the workers and Robert returned to Virginia to visit his relatives. Finding that Mary was staying at Chatham, her mother’s former home, Robert followed her there and had several happy months before his return to duty at Cockspur Island in the late autumn.

The dam had broken during his absence. He was the only engineer on the job now, so his work was cut out for him and he applied himself to it with great energy.

In April he was given a new assignment, being ordered co report to Fortress Monroe, at Old Point Comfort, Virginia[.] Here his commanding officer was Captain Andrew Talcott, who was to become a lifelong friend. Mrs. Talcott was a cousin of Mary’s and this immediately established a pleasant bond of affection which was to grow ever stronger throughout the years. Perhaps it; was at her suggestion that Robert now took an immediate furlough and returned home to pay court and present his prospects to the lady of his heart.

There is a family legend chat the actual proposal took place under the following circumstances. The two young people spent the evening reading aloud a new novel by Sir Walter Scott. This would have been altogether delightful, except that it was done under parental chaperonage. Mrs. Custis was, however, a sympathetic cicerone, for presently she remarked to Mary that Robert’s voice appeared to be flagging and suggested that her daughter take him into the adjoining dining room for some light refreshment.

The eager suitor, quick to take the hint, followed his Robert E, Lee, Knight of the South young hostess and, as she bent over the sideboard to cut him a slice of fruit cake, he seized the moment of privacy to whisper to her that he loved her very dearly and would be greatly honored if she would consent to be his wife.

Mary nodded demurely, without even the pretense of a “This-is-so-sudden, sir!” and perhaps there was time for a snatched kiss before an admonitory voice called, “Daughter, we are waiting!” Perhaps there was even a further pause for a hurried embrace before the somewhat stern Mr. Custis appeared in the doorway.

According to the records, he finally said, “We’ll see,” and later his “Well, maybe,” was changed to “Yes” when Robert, using all his powers of persuasion, begged a formal permission.

Mary had many wealthier suitors but none who was better born or of finer character. And besides, as she explained to her father, she loved this particular young man and had no least, affection for any of the others. Mr. Custis smiled and said, “Well, I’m only a poor old father, after all. Sooner or later it had to happen that my darling would desert me!”

“June the thirtieth would be a good wedding date,” Mrs. Custis said with satisfaction. “The garden will be at its loveliest then.”

Robert said, “Thank you, sir. Thank you ma’am,” and took Mary’s hand in his.

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