Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 11


A Family Man

COUSIN Sally, Cousin Polly, Cousin Jack, Cousin Clara, Cousin Lulie, Cousin Tom—it seemed as though there were hundreds of cousins! And all of them cried, “Welcome, Mary! Welcome, Robert!” when the two young-marrieds went visiting from plantation to plantation on their honeymoon. Parties and frolics were planned to honor them throughout all the neighboring counties.

Mary wore her pink dress and her blue dress and her green dress and her yellow. She laughed and danced and was happy and gay as a playful kitten.

Robert wrote joyously to a friend, “I would not be unmarried for all you can offer me.”

Midsummer came and with it fond farewells as the young couple returned to their post. Their quarters were simple, but Mary made a true home out of them with some bright cloth curtains, a few easy chairs and pictures of their loved ones.

Here the days passed quietly, the only noteworthy event being a slave insurrection which resulted in the deaths of some sixty whites, and was a grave omen of trouble to come in the years ahead.

Mary and Robert found the happiness they had dreamed of in these peaceful weeks and months at Fortress Monroe. The uneventful days were filled with ordinary duties conscientiously performed and friends came visiting often for a neighborly chat.

The men talked mostly of technical affairs here at Fortress Monroe, and of the Army, whose strength at this time was less than ten thousand. They touched on national news—what was happening here and there in the twenty-four states—and commented on the growth of the population throughout the country—between twelve and thirteen million people, Lieutenant Lee exclaimed proudly.

The ladies sat with Mary in her little sitting room, sipping tea and enjoying a bit of gossip while they busied themselves with their knitting and their sewing. Mary and Mrs. Talcott were especially close, for each of them was expecting a baby and they smiled happily at one another as the pile of tiny dresses and undergarments grew till it overflowed two wicker baskets.

Mary’s baby was born in September, 1832, and was christened George Washington Custis Lee, This seemed a very important but also rather a formal name for the dear little newborn baby, so they decided to call him Custis.

Robert and Mary were proud and happy young parents, who played with their baby and gave him a great deal of love and attention. They held him high in their arms as the troops of soldiers went inarching by. They pointed out Old Glory waving in the breeze up on the flagpole which towered above the post and they smiled tenderly at one another when he took his first awkward step and spoke his first hesitating word. Soon, to their amazement, he was a sturdy two-year-old runabout.

Another baby was born that year and named Mary, for her mother. The happy father wrote news of the event to all his friends, saying, “Our new little girl is a beauty and brown as a berry. I diligently oil her hair, but not a curl.”

After the baby was born, Mary was ill for a time but some months later Robert noted happily, “Mary gets better and better every day. Her appetite is famous and the partridges, buckwheat cakes, etc., disappear at breakfast as fast as the pheasants, chickens, etc., at dinner.”

Shortly after this, Lee was transferred to Washington and made assistant to the chief engineer. Although he had no particular liking for office work, he was glad to accept the post, for it would mean that the family would be able to live at Arlington with Mary’s parents.

This beautiful place on the Potomac River was an ideal spot for the growing children. The stately mansion had been modeled after the Temple of Theseus in Athens. It was surrounded by a park of w o hundred acres, shaded by oak, chestnut and evergreen trees, and behind the house six hundred additional acres of forest offered a vast playground.

Custis and Baby Mary thought their grandfather was the most wonderful man in all the world. Every day he planned some new entertainment for them. He took them on picnics down under the huge, shady oak tree where the spring gushed right up out of the ground. He played gay little tunes for them on his flute and told them stories by the hour, and he pointed out the willow tree, planted by a British officer in 1775 from a slip of a tree which had been the first one of its kind brought to England from the Orient. This tree, he told them, was the parent of all the weeping willows in this country!

If there was one thing Grandfather Custis loved more than another, it was a party—a really big party, with boats pulling up to the wharf, with lots of ladies and gentlemen, all dressed up in their best bibs and tuckers, dancing in the pavilion, and with plenty of food—Virginia hams and chickens, and jellies and ices, cakes and sugar candies and all the rest. Patriotic speeches and flag raising, too. Music and singing and laughter. That was what he liked, he often declared and, best of all, he said, he loved to have his own family there, sharing the fun with him.

Every morning Tom or Jerry would be saddled and brought round to the front door and, after a fond kiss and a wave to Mary and the children, Lieutenant Lee would trot off down the road, bound for a long day’s work in his office. When the weather was pleasant, he would return at sunset, but when it was stormy, he often stayed in town, dining with some of his fellow officers and sleeping at a comfortable boarding-house.

One day, meeting a fellow officer on Pennsylvania Avenue, he called out to him, “Want to ride?”

“Sure I do!” the friend cried gaily.

“Well, hop up behind me then!” Lee pulled Jerry to a halt.

The young man mounted and the two cantered off down the street, eyed sternly and disapprovingly by the elderly Secretary of the Treasury.

During this summer of 1835 Lee was given the appointment of overseeing the running of the disputed boundary line between Ohio and Michigan. This Western trip made a pleasant break in the monotony of office work but young Lee was, by this time, essentially a family man, as his constant letters home showed.

Two years of routine work in Washington were followed by the birth of another boy, this one christened William Henry Fitzhugh, but called Rooney in the family circle. Custis, who was nicknamed Boo, was a sturdy handsome little fellow by now and delighted in the company of his father.

Shortly after the birth of the new baby, Lee was again sent West; and for several years was employed as the directing engineer of an important project on the Mississippi River, at St. Louis. The fact that he had won the complete confidence of his superior officers is shown by the statement in a letter of recommendation, which said, “He is young, but if anyone can do the work, he can.”

After a good deal of unavoidable trouble, Lee successfully accomplished the undertaking and won the praise and good will of the citizens of St. Louis by re-directing the current; of the river, thus saving their commerce, which had been endangered.

On several occasions before the completion of this job, Lee was able to return to Arlington and spend a brief holiday with his family, and when he came home in 1839 he welcomed a new little daughter, Annie. Two years afterward Baby Agnes was born. In ’43 Robert Edward Junior arrived and in ’46, Mildred, the final child, came upon the scene, making a total of seven children in fourteen years.

During these last years, since the completion of the work in St. Louis, Lee had been stationed in the East, first finishing up his work in Washington and after that in charge of reconstructing the defenses around New York City. To his great joy, Mrs. Lee and the brood were able to join him at Fort Hamilton. However, there were frequent returns to Arlington and many joyous family gatherings and celebrations.

Lee, now a captain, was a busy and happy man, though his inclination was for a more active life than the paper work and detailed technicalities which had fallen to his lot during the past several years. In his family life, at least, he felt himself to be ideally situated. Thoughts of his wife and his children were constantly with him when he was away from home and when he was beside them, presiding over the family board, he took a constant delight in the training of his boys and girls.

When Custis was eight, his father took him for a walk one snowy day. Glancing back, he saw that the little boy stretched his short legs to set his feet down in the footprints which his father made in the snow. Lee remarked afterward, “That small incident taught me a lesson. It behooves me to walls very straight when this fellow is already following in my tracks.”

After an inspection tour of the defenses on the Eastern Coast line, Captain Lee was appointed one of the officers to attend the final examinations at West Point and had the pleasure of returning to the Academy and seeing the changes which had been made during the nearly twenty years since he had graduated. It is probable that he felt like a middle-aged man who had settled down into a rut of duty, perhaps having missed the flash of adventure which he had glimpsed in his youth. At the time, he could not know how broad and rich a lifetime was before him and that, just ahead, lay opportunity for distinguished service.

On May 9, 1846, Brevet Brigadier-General Zachary Taylor sent dispatches to Washington announcing a clash near the Rio Grande between his troops and the Mexicans, in a section of the country which was claimed by President Polk.

During the next three months, affairs moved speedily forward. General Kearny advanced on Sante Fé, General Taylor gathered troops for a march on Monterey and Santa Anna slipped through the blockade at Vera Cruz.

Robert E. Lee was longing for action but awaited his orders with his usual patience. At last, on August nineteenth, they arrived. He was ordered to San Antonio de Bexar, Texas, where he was to report to Brigadier-General John E. Wool. Eager to be off on the instant, Lee paused only to bid his family a loving farewell and to make his last will and testament, which reads, in part:

To my beloved wife, Mary Custis Lee, I give and bequeath the use and profit of my whole estate, real and personal, for the term of her natural life, in full confidence that she will use it to the best advantage in the education and care of my children.

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