Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 13


The Years Between

IT was hard for Lee to slip back into the traces of office work in Washington alter the color and excitement of the life in Mexico and he was glad when, in the fall, he was assigned to duty in Baltimore, where he was placed in charge of the military defenses of the port and the building of Fort Carroll. He was also reappointed on the Board of Engineers whose special work was the inspection of the system of fortifications on the entire Eastern Coast. His family moved with him to Baltimore and lived there with him in a rented house.

At the suggestion of his former schoolmate, Jefferson Davis (who had himself declined the post), Colonel Lee was invited by the Revolutionary Junta to head the Cuban Army. He declined this offer and contented himself with routine duties for the next three years, at which time he was assigned to West Point, to become Superintendent of the Academy. He wrote his superiors that he did not feel himself to be experienced enough for this appointment, but his modesty was overridden and the order confirmed.

The family was delighted with the move, for Custis was a student there and the social life would be pleasant and gracious.

Mary Lee was a charming and delightful hostess and Robert had a genuine love for young people and an interest in their welfare. Though his dignity was at all times his leading characteristic, his simple friendliness never set him apart from the plainest man or the youngest child. His own sons and daughters wrote in later days of their happy youthful memories of their father—of how he told them endless stories and taught them to swim and ride. Always he seemed to have plenty of time for playing games with them and entering into any gay pastimes they suggested.

His good looks were striking. With his dark, curly hair now touched with gray and his erect carriage, he was accounted by many to be the handsomest man in the Army. Stonewall Jackson said that Lee had the most perfect physique of any man he ever saw, and so well-proportioned that, though he was just under six feet, he appeared taller than that, due to his commanding presence.

His appearance, as well as his character, made him an ideal man for the position of Superintendent at the Academy. He was often called on there to display that soldierly strictness which had been developed by many years of Army discipline, but this was always tempered by sympathy for the guilty cadet and an understanding of the motives behind his misconduct.

Among the students whom it was Colonel Lee’s duty to dismiss from the Academy was “Curly” Whistler, who was later to become the great artist. After having tried in every way to improve the cadet’s standing, Lee was forced to write that he could do nothing more in young Whistler’s behalf, and to say that he did not know of anything entitling him to further indulgence, adding that he regretted that a lad so capable of doing well should be so negligent that he must suffer the penalty.

Lee was as strict with his own boys as with the others. Once, when writing to Custis, he told him that he was pleased with the improvement in his standing and did not feel he lacked either energy or ambition, but that, so far, there did not seem to have been the incentive to call these qualities forth—that he had been content to “do well,” but had not tried to “do better.” At examination time, he told his boy to stand up before the Board boldly and manfully and added that if he did his best, that would be satisfactory.

Certainly the father’s belief in his son was justified, for Custis graduated at the head of the class of 1854.

On one occasion, when two cadets had a fight on the parade grounds, only one of them was caught and sent before Colonel Lee, The other then confessed his part in the fracas and said that he thought it was only fair for him to share in the heavy penalty. Lee canceled the punishment for both, merely giving them a stern lecture and advising them “to dwell together in peace and harmony.”

“If we were all like you, sir,” said one youth, “that would be an easy thing to do.”

In after years, during the War between the States, this young man saved Lee’s life, stepping between his commander and an enemy bullet.

Whenever any of the cadets were ill, Lee visited them in the hospital and wrote long letters to their families, explaining the nature and extent of the sickness.

A personal sorrow came to the Lee family during these quiet years, when Mrs. Custis died at Arlington, in 1853. Robert, as well as Mary, had called her Mother and loved her dearly.

Two years after this, Colonel Lee was again transferred to active duty, in the cavalry under Albert Sidney Johnston, and in April he was sent to Louisville to join the new regiment which was being organized for frontier duty. From there he went to St. Louis, where his time was taken up with court-martial service. In line with this, he was sent East and was able to bid his family good-bye before he joined the troops in Texas.

Here, on the Comanche Indian reserve, he spent more than a year and a half, attempting to “humanize” the Indians. The dreary discomfort, and loneliness shows through the enforced cheerfulness of the letters he wrote to Mary and the children. He said that he longed for one of his favorite kittens and wished his little daughter could send him one in her next letter as there were none in the country. He added that at least there was a dearth of mice because the wandering wolves frightened them away, and said plaintively that his rattlesnake, his only pet, had lost his appetite for frogs, grew sick and died.

On the Fourth of July, Robert Lee wrote again to his wife, telling her that the sun was fiery hot, the water salty and the atmosphere like the blast from a hot-air furnace, but that in spite of his present discomfort his feelings for his duty and his country were as ardent as ever. His faith in her future, he wrote, was still true and his hopes for her advancement were as unabated as if called for under more propitious circumstances.

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