The Soul of Lee, by Randolph H. McKim, Chapter 2

The Soul of Lee


“What a grace was seated on his brow!
. . . the front of Jove himself;
An eye, like Mars, to threaten and command;
A station like the herald Mercury,
New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill;
A combination and a form indeed
Where every God did seem to set his seal,
To give the world assurance of a man!”—Shakspeare.

. . . “I have no ambition
To see a. goodlier man.”—Shakspeare.

Lieutenant Lee’s first assignment to duty was at Old Point, Va., where he remained several years. In 1835 he was appointed assistant astronomer on the commission for marking out the boundary line between Ohio and Michigan. In 1838 he was made captain in the Engineer Corps, He had previously been on duty in Washington as assistant to the chief engineer.

The soul of the man shone out during these early years of his career just as it did in later life, high and pure and noble, so that he was universally beloved and respected by his brother officers.

In 1837–8 Lieutenant Lee did most valuable service as engineer in charge of the improvement of the navigation of the Mississippi, for which St. Louis, as well as Minneapolis and St. Paul will ever owe him a debt of gratitude. The problem was to open a passage for the river at the Des Moines rapids. It was a great feat of engineering. Capt. May, of Illinois, in a notice of Gen. Lee’s death wrote: “His exhibition of skill as an engineer and reliable manager made for him thousands of admirers and friends on the Upper and Lower Mississippi. In 1838–9 there was a serious alarm and real danger of the Mississippi cutting a channel on the Illinois side, by which St. Louis would have become a deserted village, when the talent and skill of R. E. Lee were sought and obtained. He conceived and executed a plan which saved St. Louis from destruction as a commercial city.”

In a letter written from St. Louis at this time occurs the following playful passage:

Tell my cousin Philippa that it is the furthest from my wish to detract from any of the little Lees, but as to her boy being equal to Mr. Rooney (a pet name for his son W. H. F. Lee), it is a thing not even to be supposed, much less believed, although we live in a credulous country, where people stick at nothing from a coon story to a sea serpent.

In 1842 Capt. Lee was stationed at Fort Hamilton, in New York harbor, and soon after was made one of the visitors to West Point.

We come now to his career in the Mexican War in which he won great distinction. His first important service was in March, 1847, in connection with the siege of Vera Cruz where he directed the firing of the guns manned by a detachment of seamen in the trenches. In General Scott’s autobiography, he says of Lee: “This officer greatly distinguished himself at the siege of Vera Cruz.” Indeed the commanding general throughout the campaign constantly makes honorable mention of him.

At Cerro Gordo he wrote: “I am compelled to make special mention of Capt. R, E. Lee, Engineer. This officer was again indefatigable during these operations in reconnoissances, as daring as laborious, and of the utmost value. Nor was he less conspicuous in planning batteries, and in conducting columns to their stations under the heavy fire of the enemy.” On one of these occasions, having ventured too far from his supporting column; he found himself in the midst of the Mexicans. “He conceded himself under a fallen tree, near a spring where the Mexicans obtained water. While he lay there Mexican soldiers passed and repassed over the tree, and even sat down upon it, without discovering him. He remained until night enabled him to retire in safety.”

Throughout the campaign Capt. Lee was constantly distinguished for skill and daring, but the most famous of his achievements was his exploration at night of the Pedregal—“a vast surface of volcanic rocks and scoria, pathless, precipitous, broken into every possible form, presenting sharp ridges and deep fissures, exceedingly difficult for the passage even in the daytime of infantry, cavalry, or single horsemen.” Seven staff officers dispatched by Gen. Scott had reported that it was impracticable to penetrate the Pedregal in the dark, but Capt. Lee undertook it and succeeded. It was accomplished amid darkness and storm—“without light, without a companion or a guided—scarcely a step could have been taken without fear of death.“ ”The brilliant victory of Contreras on the following morning was made possible, Gen. Scott reported, “only by Capt. Lee’s services that night,” and he characterized it as “the greatest feat of physical and moral courage performed by any individual, in my knowledge, pending the campaign.” The same officer in his report of the battle at Chapultepec speaking of Lee says he was “as distinguished for felicitous execution as for science and daring,” and again, “Capt. Lee, so constantly distinguished, also bore important orders from me (Sept. 13th) until he fainted from a wound.”

Other American officers bore similar high testimony to Lee’s invaluable services, among whom we may mention Gen, P. F. Smith, Gen. Pillow, and Gen. Shields. Throughout the Mexican War he was equally distinguished for military skill and for personal daring.

His letters at this period to members of his family show on the one hand his enthusiastic appreciation of the beauty of the scenery in Mexico, and on the other, his keen interest in the politics of the day.

It is noteworthy also that he fully reciprocated Gen. Scott’s warm friendship. He writes: “The great cause of our success was in our leader. It was his stout heart that cast us on the shore of Vera Cruz; his bold self-reliance that forced us through the pass at Cerro Gordo; his indomitable courage that, amidst all the doubts and difficulties that surrounded us at Pueblo, pressed us forward to this capital, and finally brought us within its gates.”

His description of the battle of Cerro Gordo is very graphic. In it he says: “The papers cannot tell you what a horrible sight a field of battle is, nor will I.” In another letter he tells his son Custis how he had the wounded Mexicans carried to a house by the roadside, where they were attended by Mexican surgeons; of his finding by the side of a hut a little Mexican boy who had been a bugler or drummer, with his arm terribly shattered, and how a large Mexican soldier, in the last agonies of death, had fallen on him; how he was attracted to the scene by the grief of a little girl; how he had the dying Mexican taken off the boy, and how grateful the little girl was. “Her large black eyes,” he said, “were streaming with tears, her hands crossed over her breast; her hair in one long plat behind reached her waist, her shoulders and arms bare, and without stockings or shoes. Her plaintive tone of ‘Mille gracias, Signor,’ as I had the dying man lifted off the boy and both carried to the hospital, still rings in my ears.”[1] In this incident another aspect of the Soul of Lee is revealed—his humanity, his tenderness, his sympathy, his unfailing effort to relieve suffering, without distinction of friend or foe.

Of this characteristic we have the following testimony from the pen of Gen, Joseph E. Johnston, who writes: “We had the same intimate associates who thought as I did that no other youth or man so unites the qualities that win warm friendship and command high respect. For he was full of sympathy and kindness, genial and fond of gay conversation, and even of fun, that made him the most agreeable of companions, while his correctness of demeanor and language and attention to all duties, personal and official, and a dignity as much a part of himself as the elegance of his person, gave him a superiority that every one acknowledged in his heart. He was the only one of all the men I have known who could laugh at the faults and follies of his friends in such a manner as to make them ashamed without touching their affection for him, and to confirm their respect and sense of his superiority.

“I saw strong evidence of the sympathy of his nature the morning after the first engagement of our troops in the valley of Mexico. I had lost a cherished young relative in that action, known to Lee only as my relative. Meeting me, he suddenly saw in my face the effect of that loss, burst into tears and expressed his deep sympathy as tenderly in words as his lovely wife would have done.”

Lee’s opinion regarding the right of the conqueror to exact indemnity, is interesting in this crisis of the Great War that is convulsing the world. He wrote:

We have the right, by the laws of war, of dictating the terms of peace and requiring indemnity for our losses and expenses. Rather than forego that right, except through a spirit of magnanimity to a crushed foe, I would fight them ten years, but I would be generous in exercising it.

He returned from the Mexican campaign “crowned with honors and covered with brevets.” More than twelve years were to elapse before Lee was called to face the great crisis presented by the outbreak of the war between the states.

Invited by the Cuban Junta to become their military leader, he declines. Appointed a member of the Board of Engineers, he was employed until 1852 in strengthening the port of Baltimore by new defenses.

Then followed three years as superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point, during which term he raised the discipline of the corps to a higher state of efficiency and improved the course of study. From 1855 to 1860 his service was in the West and the Southwest, as Lieutenant Colonel of the Second Cavalry—in Missouri and in Texas.

His experience with the Quartermaster’s department in 1855 may help some of our officers in 1917 to endure their experiences today with more equanimity.
He writes.

“I have been busy all the week superintending and drilling recruits. Not a stitch of clothing has as yet arrived for them, though I made the necessary requisition for it to be sent here more than two months ago in Louisville. Yesterday, at muster, I found one of the late arrivals in a dirty, tattered shirt and pants, with a white hat and shoes and other garments to match. I asked him why he had not put on clean clothes. He said he had none. I asked him if he could not wash and mend those. He said he had nothing else to put on. I then told him immediately after muster to go down to the river, wash his clothes and sit on the bank and watch the passing steamboats till they dried, and then mend them. This morning at inspection he looked as proud as possible, stood in the position of a soldier with his little fingers on the seams of his pants, his beaver cocked back, and his toes sticking through his shoes, but his skin and solitary two garments clean. He grinned very happily at my compliments.”

In a letter from Fort Brown, Texas, in 1836, Lee expressed his views on the institution of slavery thus:

In this enlightened age there are few, I believe, but will acknowledge that slavery, as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any country. I think it, however, a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, and while my feelings are strongly interested in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are stronger for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially and physically. . . . While we see the course of the final abolition of slavery is onward and we give it the aid of our prayers and all justifiable means in our power, we must leave the progress as well as the result in His hands who sees the end. . . . and with whom a thousand years are but as a single day.”

The last incident of note in Lee’s life before the storm of war broke over the country is connected with the “John Brown Raid” in October, 1859. Being on furlough at Arlington when that fanatic-madman made his invasion of Virginia and seized Harper’s Ferry, he was ordered to proceed to that place with a battalion of marines and arrest the invader. This he did on the 17th of October, quietly and expeditiously. The insurgents, few in number, were all killed or mortally wounded but four, John Brown, Stevens, Coppie and Shields, The ringleader was tried, convicted and hanged December 2, 1859.

Ordered back to Texas, Lee remained at San Antonio in discharge of his duty unti1 February, 1861, when he was summoned to Washington, reaching Arlington March 1.


[1] Quoted by Gen. Fitzhugh Lee.

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