Robert E. Lee, The Southerner, by Thomas Nelson Page, Chapter 1

Robert E. Lee, The Southerner


“Prince once said of a Monarch slain,
‘Taller he seems in Death’.”


ON a plateau about a mile from the south bank of the Potomac River, in the old Colonial County of Westmoreland, in what used to be known as the “Northern Neck,” that portion of Virginia which Charles II. in his heedlessness once undertook to grant to his friends and favorites, Culpeper and Arlington, stands a massive brick mansion, one of the most impressive piles of brick on this continent, which even in its dilapidation looks as though it might have been built by Elizabeth and bombarded by Cromwell. It was built by Thomas Lee, grandson of Richard Lee, the emigrant, who came to Virginia about 1641–2, and founded a family which has numbered among its members as many men of distinction as any family in America. It was through him that Charles II., when an exile in Brussels, is said to have been offered an asylum and a Kingdom in Virginia. When the first mansion erected was destroyed by fire, Queen Anne, in recognition of the services of her faithful Counsellor in Virginia, sent over a liberal contribution towards its rebuilding. It bears the old English name, Stratford, after the English estate of Richard Lee, and for many generations—down to the last generation, it was the home of the Lees of Virginia.

This mansion has a unique distinction among historical houses in this country; for in one of its chambers were born two signers of the Declaration of Independence: Richard Henry Lee, who, in obedience to the mandate of the Virginia Convention, moved the Resolution in Congress to declare the Colonies free and independent States, and Francis Lightfoot Lee, his brother. But it has a yet greater distinction. In one of its chambers was born on the 19th of January, 1807, Robert E. Lee, whom we of the South believe to have been not only the greatest soldier of his time, and the greatest captain of the English-speaking race, but the loftiest character of his generation; one rarely equalled, and possibly never excelled, in all the annals of the human race.

His reputation as a soldier has been dealt with by those much better fitted to speak of it than I; and in what I have to say as to this I shall but follow them. The campaigns in which that reputation was achieved are now the studies of all military students throughout the world, quite as much as are the campaigns of Hannibal and Cæsar, of Cromwell and Marlborough; of Napoleon and Wellington.

“According to my notion of military history,” says Field-Marshal Viscount Wolseley, “there is as much instruction both in strategy and in tactics to be gleaned from General Lee’s operations of 1862 as there is to be found in Napoleon’s campaigns of 1796.”

Robert Edward Lee was the second son of “Light Horse Harry” Lee (who in his youth had been the gallant young commander of the “Partisan Legion”) and of Anne Carter, of Shirley, his second wife, a pious and gracious representative of the old Virginia family whose home still stands in simple dignity upon the banks of the James, and has been far-famed for generations as one of the best known seats of the old Virginia hospitality. In his veins flowed the best blood of the gentry of the Old Dominion and, for that matter, of England, and surrounding his life from his earliest childhood were the best traditions of the old Virginia life. Amid these, and these alone, he grew to manhood. On both sides of his house his ancestors for generations had been councillors and governors of Virginia, and had contributed their full share towards Virginia’s greatness. Richard Lee was a scion of an old family, ancient enough to have fought at Hastings and to have followed Richard of the Lion Heart to the Holy Land.* On this side of the water they had ever stood among the highest. The history of no two families was more indissolubly bound up with the history of Virginia than that of the Lees and the Carters. Thus, Lee was essentially the type of the Cavalier of the Old Dominion to whom she owed so much of her glory. Like Sir Walter Raleigh he could number a hundred gentlemen among his kindred and, even at his greatest, he was in character the type of his order.

It has been well said that knowledge of a man’s ideals is the key to his character. Tell us his ideals and we can tell you what manner of man he is. Lee’s ideal character was close at hand from his earliest boyhood. His earliest days were spent in a region filled with traditions of him who, having consecrated his life to duty, had attained such a standard of virtue that if we would liken him to other governors we must go back to Marcus Aurelius, to St. Louis and to William the Silent.

Not far from Stratford, within an easy ride, in the same old colonial county of Westmoreland, of the same noble river whose broad waters reflect the arching sky, there spanning Virginia and Maryland, was Wakefield, the plantation which had the distinction of having given birth to the Father of His Country. Thus, on this neighborhood, the splendor of the evening of his noble life just closed had shed a peculiar glory. And not a great way off, in a neighboring county on the banks of the same river, was the home of his manhood, where in majestic simplicity his ashes repose, making Mt. Vernon a shrine for lovers of Liberty of every age and every clime.

On the wall at Shirley, Lee’s mother’s home, among the portraits of the Carters hangs a full-length portrait of Washington in a general’s uniform, given by him to General Nelson who gave it to his daughter, Mrs. Carter. Thus, in both his ancestral homes the boy from his cradle found an atmosphere redolent at once of the greatness of Virginia’s past and of the of the preserver of his country.

It was Lee’s own father, the gallant and gifted “Light Horse Harry” Lee, who, as eloquent in debate as he had been eager in battle, had been selected by Congress to deliver the memorial address on Washington, and had coined the golden phrase which, reaching the heart of America, has become his epitaph and declared him by the unanimous voice of a grateful people, “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

How passionately the memory of “Light Horse Harry” Lee was revered by his sons we know, not only from the life of Robert E. Lee, himself; but from that most caustic of American philippics: the “Observations on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson, with Particular Reference to the Attacks they contain on the Memory of the Late General Henry Lee, in a Series of Letters by Henry Lee of Virginia.”

Mr. Jefferson with all his prestige and genius had found a match when he aroused “Black Harry” Lee by a charge of ingratitude on the part of his father to the adored Washington. In no family throughout Virginia was Washington’s name more revered than among the Lees, who were bound to him by every tie of gratitude, of sentiment, and of devotion.

Thus, the impress of the character of Washington was natural on the plastic and serious mind of the thoughtful son of “Light Horse Harry.”

One familiar with the life of Lee cannot help noting the strong resemblance of his character in its strength, its poise, its rounded completeness, to that of Washington, or fail to mark what influence the life of Washington had on the life of Lee. The stamp appears upon it from his boyhood and grows more plain as his years progress.

Just when the youth definitely set before himself the character of Washington we may not know; but it must have been at an early date. The famous story of the sturdy little lad and the cherry tree must have been well known to young Lee from his earliest boyhood, for it was floating about that region when Parson Weems came across it as a neighborhood tradition, and made it a part of our literature.* It has become the fashion to deride such anecdotes; but this much, at least, may be said of this story, that however it may rest solely on the authority of the simple itinerant preacher, it is absolutely characteristic of Washington, and it is equally characteristic of him who since his time most nearly resembled him.

However this was, the lad grew up amid the traditions of that greatest of great men, whose life he so manifestly takes as his model, and with whose fame his own fame was to be so closely allied in the minds and hearts of the people of the South.

Like Washington, Robert E. Lee became an orphan at an early age, his father dying when the lad was only eleven years old, and, like Washington, he was brought up by a devoted mother, the gentle and pious Anne Carter of Shirley, a representative, as already stated, of one of the old families of Tidewater Virginia and a descendant of Robert Carter, known as “King Carter,” equally because of his great possessions, his dominant character, and his high position in the Colony. Through his mother, as through his father, Lee was related to most of the families of distinction in the Old Dominion, and, by at least one strain of blood, to Washington himself. To his mother he was ever a dutiful and devoted son and we have a glimpse of him, none the less interesting and significant because it is casual, leaving his playfellows to go and take his invalid mother driving in the old family carriage, where he was careful to fasten the curtains and close up the cracks with newspapers to keep the draughts from her.

Early in his life his father and mother moved from Stratford to Alexandria, one of the two or three Virginia towns that were homes of the gentry, and his boyhood was passed in the old town that was redolent of the memory of Washington. He worshipped in the same church in which Washington had been a pew-holder, and was a frequent visitor both at the noble mansion where the Father of his Country had made his home and at that where lived the Custises, the descendants and representatives of his adopted son.

Sprung from such stock and nurtured on such traditions, the lad soon gave evidence of the character that was to place him next to his model. “He was always a good boy,” said his father. “You have been both son and daughter to me,” wrote his mother, in her loneliness, after he had left home for West Point. “The other boys used to drink from the glasses of the gentlemen,” said one of the family; “but Robert never would join them. He was different.”

A light is thrown on his character at this time in a pleasant reference to his boyhood made by himself long afterwards in writing of his youngest son, then a lad. “A young gentleman,” he says, “who has read Virgil must surely be competent to take care of two ladies; for before I had advanced that far I was my mother’s outdoor agent and confidential messenger.”*


* “Lee of Virginia.” By Edmund I. Lee.

* A Japanese officer, a military attaché at Washington, related to the writer that when he was a boy in a hill-town of Japan where his father was an officer of one of the old Samurai, his mother told him the story of George Washington and the cherry tree and tried to impress on him the lessons of truth.

* Letter of June 25, 1857.

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