Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 16


An Ill Wind

ROBERT LEE was already on his feet, leaning against one of the huge Doric columns. “Why it’s Jeb Stuart, my old friend, the lieutenant,” he said with surprise. “I wonder what he wants. I wonder if there could have been any trouble. . . . Jeb!” he called out. “Man, is anything wrong?”

“Plenty!” Jeb was dismounting now, giving his reins to one of the little cabin boys who had run around the corner of the house at the sound of the horse’s quick trot.

He gave Mrs. Lee a courteous nod and then, with a smart salute, handed the colonel a note.

“From the War Department,” Lee commented to his wife as he tore it open, frowning with the strain of reading the words in the dusk.

“The chief clerk orders me to report at once,” he explained to Mary, “I must leave for Washington immediately.”

“You’ll change into your uniform, Robert?” she asked quietly, rising stiffly from her chair.”

“No, I won’t even stop to do that. . . . Pete, tell your father to saddle Grace Darling and bring her around at once,” he called out to the little Negro boy. “Hitch the gentleman’s horse and hurry, fast as you can!”

“Yassir, Marse Robert!” The youngster made a quick rein-tie over the fence bar and scampered back around the house toward the barns.

“Take your thick coat, dear. The nights are chilly.” Mrs, Lee, having been an Army wife for many years, had learned to keep the anxiety she felt at any sudden call from showing in her voice.

Robert nodded as he went through the wide doorway toward the coat cupboard.

“I hope you won’t worry, Mrs. Lee,” Jeb said solicitously. “It’s a fellow named John Brown who’s stirring up the trouble. He’s a crackpot Abolitionist. You may have heard of him. He’s got a crowd of followers and they’re rioting at Harper’s Ferry. We’ll disperse them in no time. They think, they can stir up the slaves in a revolt, but they’re wrong about that. Dead wrong!”

Mary Lee shivered a little in the cooling evening air. This news seemed to her more serious than the lieutenant was making it out to be. It was a straw which showed which way the wind was beginning to blow. And that blowing wind might be an evil one. She sighed as she said good night to Jeb and excused herself for a last word with Robert who was waiting for her to bid him farewell.

As the two men cantered along the pike, Stuart told Lee that because there was an arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, where the sixteen white men and five Negroes were rioting, the troops from Fortress Monroe had been called out. The Maryland militia and a detachment of marines were to be sent to the seat of trouble.

“You’re to command these forces,” Stuart said, “and I am to support you. The men took sixty hostages. There’s been fighting most of the day. Brown and some of his followers have barricaded themselves in the engine house. It’s hard to tell how strong they are. You know how rumors spread.”

Lee nodded as he urged Grace Darling into a gallop. He was trying to collect his thoughts—to remember and dovetail together all the talk he had heard about the old man who was the leader of the insurrectionists.

He had been prominent, Lee recalled, in the Abolitionist movement. As a lad, he had been with his father, who was a cattle-driver in the War of 1812. He had seen a slave boy who was a companion of his unmercifully whipped and had pledged his life at that time to remedy the suffering of the Negroes.

Brown had paid militia fines rather than perform military duty, Lee remembered reading. He had been a failure in various businesses but, had married twice and had twenty children, all of whom he had imbued with his own ideas. Having planned unsuccessful Negro colonies in several places, he had moved to Kansas and he and five of his sons had taken part in the riots there.

Lee knew that John Brown had been backed financially by the many converts he had made to the Abolitionist cause and that a number of intelligent and thoughtful men had supported him in his plans for a slave rebellion. He himself believed Brown to be a true zealot and perfectly sincere in his dream. He knew that many people in the North and the West would consider him a martyr, rather than a fanatic.

Remembering the Nat Turner Slave Rebellion of his youth, Lee feared there was trouble—grave trouble––—ahead.

“Hurry, Jeb,” he called out. “We must get there as quickly as possible!” He laid his hand on his mare’s neck and spoke a word in her ear. She responded to his touch and raced ahead.

Clippety, clop, clippety, clop, the horses’ pounding hoofs echoed on the deserted road. The moon rode high and the stars twinkled brightly in the autumn sky. Far off there was the sharp, chattering bark of a fox, and once or twice a farmer’s watchdog yelped a brief alarm. Once there was a tollgate and the impatient riders had to shout to stir up a night-shirted, bearded old codger, who stumbled out with a flickering lantern in his hand and a grumbling curse on his lips.

Lee and Stuart reached Washington before the hour was out and Lee, having checked his orders, took command of the situation in his usual calm fashion, leading the marines in a forced march toward Harper’s Ferry. Throughout the day the quick double-trot could be heard on the road and it was not till night had come that the objective was reached.

Lee immediately made a rapid reconnaissance of the grounds and gathered what information he could. He had with him the orders from Governor Wise of Virginia, which stated that he was to grant no terms.

“Jeb,” Colonel Lee said quietly to his lieutenant, “I’ve had a truce flag made out of a strip of white cloth. I want you to carry it to John Brown and his men.”

“Yes, sir!” Stuart saluted and accepted the flag which his commanding officer held out to him.

“Take it to them at once, now, before dawn,” Colonel Lee ordered. “Tell them that if they will surrender themselves and restore the property they have stolen, they shall be assured of safety. Tell them that I say, in all frankness, it is not possible for them to escape, that the armory is surrounded on all sides by troops. Say, also, that if I am compelled to take them by force, I cannot answer for their safety.”

“Yes, sir!” Stuart about-faced and marched forward toward the barricaded building, holding the flag so that it was plainly visible to the men at the window.

Behind the group of the military, crowds had gathered and were doing their best to push forward to witness the excitement. There were shouts of encouragement and of derision:

“Hold on, Saint John! Heaven will aid you!”

“Come outer that hole, you rat!”

“You’re a hero, Brown!”

“Wait’ll I lay my hands on you, Nigger-lover!”

Lee himself was unmoved by the hubbub. He might have been alone for all the notice he took of the shouting, jostling throng. His eyes gazed fixedly at the erect advancing figure, with the white rag dangling from the pole. He saw Stuart approach Brown and proffer the signal of truce.

The old man shook his head. His eyes blazed with the light of his vision and he gestured with a threatening fist. Behind him, the bound hostages clustered at the window.

Among the group Lee recognized the figure of Lewis Washington, a grandnephew of the first President, and saw him make a sign for the soldiers to approach.

Lee signaled that he had seen him and Washington called out, “Never mind us. Fire!”

“Get a ladder,” Lee shouted to his men when Jeb Stuart had returned to him. “Use it as a battering-ram. Arm yourselves only with canes and light dress-swords. Break down the barricaded doors. Avoid bloodshed!”

“Ready! March!” Stuart gave the command and the dozen marines who had volunteered for action rushed forward.

The door was thick and stout, but Bang! Bang! Bang! went the ram against the timbers. A plank split and then another and another. There was a crack. An opening!

A revolver shot echoed from inside the building and one of the marines fell, mortally wounded. The soldiers, now that they had the advantage, scrambled through the doorway, swinging their swords, attempting to cut the men off in their dash for liberty.

Two of John Brown’s sons were killed and he himself and several of Ins companions were wounded.

“Enough!” one of the men shouted. “We surrender!”

“Bring them out!” Colonel Lee called. “Guard them well. Have the wounded men cared for by the doctor. Now lead out the hostages!”

“Lee,” Washington shouted. “Have one of your men fetch me a pair of white gloves. My hands are filthy. I won’t make an appearance till they are covered.”

Colonel Lee smiled at Washington’s gallant quip and gave orders that the gloves be taken to him and that the crowds be dispersed. When this was done, he seized Brown’s depot of arms and commanded the marines to escort the prisoners to Charlestown to await trial.

Colonel Lee returned to Washington the next morning and made his official report on the affair, telling his friends he was glad he had not had to kill Brown, for he thought him a misguided but honest and conscientious person, a good old man.

When Brown was sentenced to be hanged, the press and the clergy of the North proclaimed him a second messiah and his cause and name became a banner in the political unrest which gripped the country.

Many newspapers carried the speech which Brown made when be received the verdict and this won fresh sympathizers for his cause. Speaking in a clear, calm voice he said that he had wished to do the same as he had done the previous winter in Missouri. There he had taken slaves “without the snapping of a gun on either side.” He had moved them through the country at that time, he said, and finally left them in Canada. It had been his scheme now to do this same thing on a larger scale. He had not intended murder or treason nor destruction of property. He had not even planned, he insisted, to excite slaves to rebellion or to “make an insurrection.”

He admitted that he felt his trial had been fair and admired the truthfulness and candor of most of the witnesses, but felt it was unjust for him to suffer the supreme penalty, because if he had interfered in behalf of the rich and powerful, and endured the same suffering and sacrifices, he felt that it would have been all right, and that every man in the court would have deemed it “all act worthy of reward rather than of punishment.”

He went on to say that he had not induced any man to follow him but that each had done so of his own free will. He added that he was entirely satisfied with the treatment he had been given and found it more generous than he had expected, but that he felt no consciousness of guilt, since the Bible taught him to remember them that are in bonds and be bound with them.

After John Brown had finished his speech, the judge passed sentence, saying that since no reasonable doubt could exist as to the guilt of the prisoner, he was sentenced to be hung in public on the second of December. This was followed by applause from a single spectator, which was promptly suppressed.

The famous Northern preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, stated from his pulpit that “John Brown has twice as much right to hang Governor Wise of Virginia as the Governor has to hang Brown,” and argument on the issue grew more intense.

Governor Wise received a letter from a lady in Massachusetts in which she said that, knowing he was a man of chivalrous sentiments, she was venturing to ask him to give a letter which she enclosed to John Brown.

She wrote that she and all her large circle of Abolitionist acquaintances had been greatly surprised when news came of Captain Brown’s recent attempt; that she did not know a single person who approved of it, but that she and thousands of others felt a natural impulse of sympathy for the brave and suffering man. She said that she felt he needed a mother or sister to dress his wounds and speak soothingly to him and volunteered to perform “that mission of humanity.”

Continuing, she explained that for years she had been an uncompromising Abolitionist and would scorn to deny that fact or to apologize for it as much as John Brown himself would, but gave her word of honor that if she were permitted to see the old man, she would do nothing beyond rendering sisterly aid to him.

The gist of her letter to the prisoner was contained in the paragraphs which read:

Believing in peace principles, I cannot sympathize with the method you chose to advance the cause of freedom. But I honor your generous intentions—I admire your courage, moral and physical. I reverence you for the humanity which tempered your zeal, I sympathize with you in your cruel bereavement, your suffering’s and your wrongs. In brief, I love you and bless you.

Thousands of hearts are throbbing with sympathy as warm as mine. I think of you night and day, bleeding in prison, surrounded by hostile faces, sustained only by your trust in God and your own strong heart. . . .

Yours, with heartfelt sympathy and affection,

Maria C—

Governor answered that he would forward her letter to the prisoner, John Brown, who had been sentenced for the crimes of robbery, murder and treason.

He said that he would be glad to allow her to visit Brown in his cell and that her mission, being merciful and humane, would be respected if not welcomed. He said that he trusted she would meet with not only chivalrous, but Christian, treatment but warned her of the possibility that she might be molested by “unenlightened and inconsiderate persons.” He added that every arm of the law which guarded Brown from rescue on the one hand and from Lynch law, on the other, would be ready to protect her rights and person, since he could not permit an insult to a charitable woman, even though he had no sympathy with her sentiments in regard to Brown.

Maria’s second letter to the Governor said that she had collected a quantity of old linen for bandages and packed her trunk, planning to slip away quietly, but that after he, Governor Wise, had written her that he considered the plan imprudent, she and her husband had taken counsel together and (since the noble old veteran was already recovering from his rounds) she had abandoned the idea of the trip.

Since her first letter, Maria said she understood Brown’s wife, “a brave-hearted Roman matron, worthy of such a mate,” had gone to him. She had received an answer from Brown himself, she told the Governor, in which he expressed gratitude for her great sympathy but said that he could see objections to her coming to nurse him, since he was in charge of a most humane gentleman who had rendered him every possible attention. He felt that her coming would subject her to great personal inconvenience and expense and would do him no good, but recommended his wife and children to her care. . . .

The record of the correspondence ends here, although the controversy as to the rights and wrongs of the case continued to wage.

When the day of execution arrived, Colonel Lee was ordered back to Harper’s Ferry as a precautionary measure, in case further trouble should develop, but this did not prove to be the case, though later the memory of the affair was used as a torch to set off sectional hatred.

Shortly after this, Colonel Lee was assigned to temporary command of the Department of Texas, with orders to capture the bandit Cortinas, who was making trouble for the authorities, and until the following autumn his time was taken up with routine duties.

During these months his thoughts were, as always, with his family at home. He was worrying over Mary’s ill-health and over the family finances, for although he had held a commission for thirty-one years, his annual salary was only twelve hundred and five dollars, and twenty-two men stood between him and his advancement in the regular channels.

Although Lee had been mentioned along with several other men for a special appointment as quartermaster-general, this plum was awarded to his old friend, Joseph E. Johnston.

Perhaps in his heart Robert Lee may have been a trifle envious of his friend’s good fortune, but there is no evidence to show that he was, for his congratulations were hearty and sincere.

In writing to his son Custis he says:

I shall soon be turning my face to the Comanche country. . . . My personal comforts will be less there than here and I shall leave the protection of a house for the shelter of a tent. But I shall not mind that, nor regret my departure from San Antonio, except so far as it will take me farther from you all, and render my communication with you more difficult and precarious. But God’s will be done! It will only prepare us for a longer separation soon to come. My little personal troubles sink into insignificance when I contemplate the condition of the country, and 1 feel as if I could easily lay down my life for its safety. . . .

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