Robert E. Lee, The Southerner, by Thomas Nelson Page, Chapter 2

Robert E. Lee, The Southerner


YOUNG LEE selected at an early age the military profession, which had given his father and his great prototype their fame. It was the profession to which all young men of spirit turned. It was in the blood. And young Lee was the son of him of whom General Greene had said that “he became a soldier from his womb,” a bit of characterization which this soldier’s distinguished son was to quote with filial satisfaction when, after he himself had become possibly the most famous soldier of his time, he wrote his father’s biography. At the proper time, 1825, when he was eighteen years of age, he was entered as a cadet among Virginia’s representatives at the military academy of the country, having received his appointment from Andrew Jackson, to whom he applied in person. And there is a tradition that the hero of New Orleans was much impressed at the interview between them with the frank and sturdy youth who applied for the appointment. At the academy, as in the case of young Bonaparte, those soldierly qualities which were to bring him later so great a measure of fame were apparent from the first; and he bore off the highest honor that a cadet can secure: the coveted cadet-adjutancy of the corps. Here, too, he gave evidence of the character that was to prove his most distinguished attribute, and he graduated second in his class of forty-six; but with the extraordinary distinction of not having received a demerit. Thus early his solid character manifested itself. “Even at West Point,” says Holcombe, “the solid and lofty qualities of the young cadet were remarked on as bearing a resemblance to those of Washington.”

The impress of his character was already becoming stamped upon his countenance. One who knew him about this time, records that as she observed his face in repose while he read to the assembled family circle or sat in church, the reflection crossed her mind that he looked more like a great man than any one she had ever seen.

Among his classmates and fellow students at West Point were many of those men whom he was afterwards to serve with or against in the great Civil War, and doubtless a part of his extraordinary success in that Homeric contest was due to the accurate gauge which he formed in his youth or a little later in Mexico of their abilities and character. Indeed, as may be shown, this was made almost plainly manifest in his dealings in, at least, three great campaigns of the war: that in which he confronted the overprudent McClellan and defeated him, and those in which he balked the vainglorious Pope and Hooker.

Here is a picture of him at this time, from the pen of one who knew and loved him all his life and had cause to know and love him as a true friend and faithful comrade: his old class mate and comrade in arms, Joseph E. Johnston. They had, as he states, entered the Military Academy together as classmates and formed there a friendship never impaired, a friendship that was hereditary, as Johnston’s father had served under Lee’s father in the celebrated Lee Legion during the Revolutionary War.

“We had,” says General Johnston, “the same intimate associates, who thought as I did, that no other youth or man so united 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, while his correctness of demeanor 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 that 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.” He mentions as an instance of the depth of his sympathy an occurrence which took place the morning after a battle in Mexico in which he had lost a cherished young relative. Lee, meeting him and seeing the grief in his face, burst into tears and soothed him with a sympathy as tender, declared the veteran long years after, “as his lovely wife would have done.”

Small wonder that the soldiers who followed Lee faced death with a devotion that was well-nigh without a parallel.

Still influenced in part, perhaps, by his worship for his great hero, the young officer chose as the partner of his life, his old playmate, Miss Mary Parke Custis, the granddaughter of Washington’s step-son, the surviving representative Washington. Mrs. Lee was the daughter and heiress of George W. Parke Custis, while Lieutenant Lee was poor; but such was her pride in her husband and her sense of what was his due that on her marriage to him she determined to live on her husband’s income as a lieutenant, and for some time she thus lived.* It was a fitting training for the hardships she was called on to face when her husband as Commander-in-Chief of the Confederate Armies, deemed himself happy to be able to send her one nearly dried up lemon. Their domestic life was one of ideal devotion and happiness. Should we seek through all the annals of time for an illustration of the best that exists in family life, we need not go further to find the perfection and refinement of elegance and of purity, than that stately mansion, the home of Lee, which from the wooded heights of Arlington looks down upon the city of Washington; and has by a strange fate, become the last resting-place of many of those whose chief renown has been that they fought bravely against Lee.

With the distinction of such a high graduation as his, young Lee was, of course, assigned to the Engineers, that corps of intellectual aristocracy from which came, with the notable exceptions of Grant and Jackson, nearly all the officers who attained high rank during the war. His first service was in Virginia, and he was stationed at Fortress Monroe when occurred in a neighboring county the bloody negro-uprising known as the “Nat Turner Rebellion,” which thrilled Virginia as thirty years later thrilled her the yet more perilous “John Brown Raid” which Lee was sent to quell, and quelled. Lee’s letters to his wife touching this episode, while self-contained as was his wont, show the deep gravity with which he regarded this bloody outbreak.

His early manhood was devoted to his profession, wherein he made, while still a young man, a reputation for ability of so high an order, and for such devotion to duty, that when the Mississippi, owing to a gradual change in its banks, threatened the city of St. Louis, General Scott, having been appealed to to lend his aid to prevent so dire a calamity, said he knew of but one man who was equal to the task, Brevet Captain Lee. “He is young,” he wrote, “but if the work can be done, he can do it.” The city government, it is said, impatient at the young engineer’s methodical way, withdrew the appropriation for the work; but he went on quietly, with the comment, “They can do as they like with their own, but I was sent here to do certain work and I shall do it.” And he did it. Feeling in the city ran high, riots broke out, and it is said that cannon were placed in position to fire on his working force; but he kept calmly on to the end. The work he wrought there stands to-day—the bulwark of the great city which has so recently invited America and the nations of the world within her gates.

The Mexican War was the training-ground of most of those who fought with distinction in the later and more terrible strife of the Civil War, and many of the greatest campaigns and fiercest battles of that war were planned and fought with a science learned upon the pampas and amid the mountains of Mexico. During the Mexican War, Lee, starting in as an engineer officer on the staff of General Wool, achieved more renown than any other soldier of his rank, and possibly more than any other officer in the army of invasion, except the commander-in-chief.

The scope of this volume will not admit of going into the details of his distinguished services there which kept him ever at the crucial point and which led General Scott to declare long afterwards that he was the “very best soldier he ever saw in the field.” His scouts and reconnaissances at Cerro Gordo, Contreras, Churubusco, and Chapultepec, brought him the brevets of Major at Cerro Gordo, April 18, 1874, of Lieutenant-Colonel at Contreras and Churubusco, and of Colonel at Chapultepec, September 13th. His first marked distinction was won by a reconnaissance made at night with a single guide, whom he compelled to serve at the muzzle of the pistol, wherein he ascertained the falsity of a report that Santa Anna’s army had crossed the mountains and lay in their front. This distinction he greatly increased by work at Vera Cruz, by which that strategic point, protected, as was believed, by impregnable defences, was captured. But this, as notable as it was, was as far excelled by his services at Cerro Gordo as that was in turn by his work at Contreras. At Cerro Gordo, where Santa Anna with 13,000 troops and forty-two guns posted in a pass barred the way in an apparently impregnable position, Lee discovered a mountain pass, and having in person led Twigg’s division to the point for assault in front, and having worked all night posting batteries, at dawn next morning led Riley’s brigade up the mountains in the turning movement which forced Santa Anna from his stronghold. At Contreras again, he showed the divinely given endowments on which his future fame was to rest.

At Contreras the army of invasion found itself in danger of being balked almost at the Gates of the Capital, and Lee’s ability shone forth even more brilliantly than at Cerro Gordo. The defences of the City of Mexico on the eastward appeared impregnable, while an attack from the south, where the approach was naturally less difficult, was rendered apparently almost as unassailable by powerful batteries constructed at San Antonio Hill commanding the only avenue of approach, the road which wound between Lake Chalco with its deep morass on one side, and impassable lava beds on the other. Lee by careful reconnaissance discovered a mule-trail over the Pedregal, as this wild and broken tract of petrified lava was termed, and this trail having been opened sufficiently to admit of the passage of troops, though with difficulty and danger, he conducted over it the commands of Generals Pillow and Worth, and the village of Contreras was seized and held till night against all assaults of the enemy. The position of the American troops, however, was one of extreme peril, as it was known that heavy reinforcements were being rushed forward by the Mexicans, and at a council of war it was decided to advance before dawn rather than await attack from the Mexican forces. It became necessary to inform General Scott of the situation and Captain Lee volunteered for the perilous service. He accordingly set out in the darkness and alone, and in the midst of a furious tropical storm, he made his way back across the lava beds infested by bands of Mexicans, advised the Commander-in-Chief of the proposed movement, and having secured his co-operation, returned across the Pedregal in time to assist in the assault which forced the Mexicans to abandon their position, and opened the way to Churubusco, Molino del Rey and Chapultepec, and, finally, led to the occupation of the capital and the close of the War.

This was, declared Scott, “The greatest feat of physical and moral courage performed by any individual, to my knowledge, pending the campaign.”

The “gallantry and good conduct,” the “invaluable services,” “the intrepid coolness and gallantry of Captain Lee of the Engineers,” of “Captain Lee, so constantly distinguished,” fill all the dispatches of all the battles of the war, and Lee came out of this war with such a reputation for ability that his old commander, Scott, declared to General Preston, that he was “the greatest living soldier in America.” Indeed, Scott, with prescient vision, declared his opinion that he was “the greatest soldier now living in the world.“ ”If I were on my deathbed to-morrow,” he said to General Preston, long before the breaking out of the war, “and the President of the United States should tell me that a great battle were to be fought for the liberty or slavery of the country, and asked my judgment as to the ability of a commander, I would say with my dying breath, ‘Let it be Robert e. Lee’.”

Lee, himself, however, declared that it was General Scott’s stout heart and military skill which overcame all obstacles and while others croaked pushed the campaign through to final success.

During the period following the Mexican War, Lee was engaged for a time in constructing the defences of Baltimore. Then he was, in 1852, assigned to duty as Superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point, and three years later was assigned to active duty on the southwestern frontier as Lieutenant Colonel of one of the two regiments of cavalry which Mr. Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War, had organized on the recommendation of General Scott and made a separate branch of the service.* He soon rose to the rank of colonel of cavalry, a position which a great critic of war has asserted to be the best of all training schools for a great captain, and he held this rank when, having been brought to Washington to revise the tactics of the army, he was unexpectedly called on in the summer of 1859 to take charge of the force of marines sent to Harper’s Ferry to capture John Brown and his followers in their crazy and murderous invasion of Virginia, with the design of starting a servile war which should lead to the negroes achieving their emancipation. This duty he performed promptly and efficiently.

Long afterwards when he was a defeated general on parole, without means, his every act and word watched by enemies thirsting for his blood, one of the men he had commanded in the 2d Cavalry, but who had fought in the Union army throughout the war, called at his house in Richmond with a basket of provisions for his old commander, and when he saw him seized him in his arms and kissed him.

A light is thrown on his character in the letters he wrote about and to his children during his long absences from home on duty in the West and in Mexico. And it is one of the pathetic elements in the history of this loving and tender father, that with a nature which would have reveled in the joys of domestic life, he should have been called by duty to spend so large a part of his time away from home that he did not even know his youngest son when he met him. He was ever devoted to children, and amid the most tragic scenes of his eventful life, his love for them speaks from his letters. Writing to his wife from St. Louis in 1837, when he was engaged in engineering work for the government, he speaks with deep feeling of the sadness he felt at being separated from his family, and of his anxiety about the training of his little son. “Our dear little boy,” he says, “seems to have among his friends the reputation of being hard to manage—a distinction not at all desirable, as it indicates self-will and obstinacy. Perhaps, these are qualities which he really possesses, and he may have a better right to them than I am willing to acknowledge; but it is our duty, if possible, to counteract them, and assist him to bring them under his control. I have endeavored, in my intercourse with him, to require nothing but what was, in my opinion, necessary or proper, and to explain to him temperately its propriety, and at a time when he could listen to my arguments and not at the moment of his being vexed and his little faculties warped by passion. I have also tried to show him that I was firm in my demands and constant in their enforcement and that he must comply with them, and I let him see that I look to their execution in order to relieve him as much as possible from the temptation to break them.”

Wise words from a father, and the significant thing was that they represented his conduct throughout his life. He was the personification of reasonableness. Small wonder that his youngest son, in his memoir of his father, recorded that among his first impressions was the recognition of a difference between his father and other persons, and a knowledge that he had to be obeyed. A touch in one of his letters to an old friend and classmate, then Lieutenant, afterwards Lieutenant General Joseph E. Johnston, gives a glimpse of his love for children, and also of that of another old friend: “He complains bitterly of his present waste of life, looks thin and dispirited and is acquainted with the cry of every child in Iowa.”

His son and namesake in his “Recollections” of his father makes mention of many little instances of his love of and care for animals, and the same love of and care for animals constantly shines from his letters.

At one time he picked up a dog lost and swimming wildly in “the Narrows” and cared for it through life; at another he takes a long, roundabout journey by steamer for the sake of his horse; at another he writes, “Cannot you cure poor ‘Spec’?” (his dog), “Cheer him up! take him to walk with you—tell the children to cheer him up.” In fact, his love for animals, like his love for children, was a marked characteristic throughout his life, and long after the war he took the trouble to write a description of his horse “Traveller,” which none but a true lover of horses could have written.

On his return from Mexico, after an absence so long that he failed to recognize his own child whom he had left a babe in arms, he was, like Ulysses, first recognized by his faithful dog.*

His two elder sons had both entered the military profession, which their father held in the highest honor, and the letters he wrote them illustrated not only the charming relation that existed between father and sons, but the lofty ideal on which he ever modeled his own life and desired that they should model theirs. To his oldest son, then a cadet at West Point, he writes from Arlington (April 5, 1852), as he was on the point of leaving for New Mexico to see that his “fine old regiment” which had been “ordered to that distant region” was “properly cared for”: . . . “Your letters breathe a true spirit of frankness; they have given myself and your mother great pleasure. You must study to be frank with the world. Frankness is the child of honesty and courage. . . . Never do a wrong thing to make a friend or to keep one. . . . Above all, do not appear to others what you are not. . . . In regard to duty, let me in conclusion of this hasty letter inform you that nearly a hundred years ago there was a day of remarkable darkness and gloom, still known as the dark day—a day when the light of the sun was slowly extinguished, as if by an eclipse. The legislature of Connecticut was in session, and, as its members saw the unexpected and unaccountable darkness coming on, they shared the general awe and terror. It was supposed by many that the last day—the day of judgment had come. Some one in consternation of the hour moved an adjournment. Then there arose an old Pilgrim legislator, Davenport of Stamford, and said that if the last day had come he desired to be found at his place doing his duty, and therefore moved that candles be brought in so that the House could proceed with its duty. There was quietness in that man’s mind, the quietness of heavenly wisdom and inflexible willingness to obey present duty. Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty things, like the old Puritan. You cannot do more; you should never wish to do less. Never let me or your mother wear one gray hair lack of duty on your part.”*


* This fact was stated to the writer by the wife of General Wm. N. Pendleton, Mrs. Lee’s close neighbor and friend.

* Of these E. V. Sumner was Colonel of the first and
Joseph E. Johnston was Lieutenant-Colonel, and Albert Sydney
Johnston was Colonel of the second, with Lee as his Lieutenant-Colonel.

* “Recollections and Letters of General Lee.[”] By R. E. Lee.

* It is said that this letter as a whole was made up by a clever newspaper man out of parts of different letters by Lee.

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