Robert E. Lee and His Family, by John W. Wayland, Chapter 3

Robert E. Lee and His Family

Chapter III

In the early life of Robert E. Lee we find remarkable likenesses to the early life of George Washington, with whose name his own is now associated in a great university. Both were born in Westmoreland County, Va.; each at the age of 11 years lost his father; Lee grew up in Alexandria, Washington’s home town; both were strong and athletic, fond of horses and outdoor life; both gave earnest attention to rules of courtesy, honor to parents, and the precepts of morals and religion: Washington as a boy carefully copied in writing 110 rules of civility from an old book; Lee diligently recited his catechism at the feet of Rev. William Meade.

On foot, Lee reminds us of Thomas Jefferson. While a college student in Williamsburg, Jefferson would take an evening run—a mile out of town and back; young Lee, it is reported, would follow the fox-hunters, running for several hours at a stretch. At that time, evidently, he did not have a good saddle horse of his own.

The Lee family must have moved to Alexandria when Robert was a very small child. He was born in Westmoreland County in January, 1807; his sister, Catherine Mildred, was born in Alexandria in February, 1811. His first teacher in Alexandria, we are told, was an Irishman named William B. Leary. Later, when preparing to enter West Point, he studied under the famous Quaker teacher, Benjamin Hallowell. Mr. Hallowell wrote:

Robert Lee entered my school in Alexandria, Va, in the winter of 1824–25, to study mathematics, preparatory to his going to West Point. He was a most exemplary student in every respect. He was never behind time at his studies, never failed in a single recitation, was perfectly observant of the rules and regulations of the institution; was gentlemanly, unobtrusive, and respectful in all his deportment to teachers and fellow-students. His specialty was finishing up. He imparted a neatness and finish to everything he undertook. One of the branches of mathematics he studied with me was conic sections, in which some of the diagrams were very complicated. He drew the diagrams on a slate, and although he well knew that the one he was drawing would have to be removed to make room for the nest, he drew each one with as much accuracy and finish, lettering and all, as if it were to be engraved and printed. The same traits he exhibited at my school he carried with him to West Point where, I have been told, he never received a mark of demerit, and graduated at the head of his class. (See “Stratford Hall and the Lees,” by Fred W. Alexander, 1912, pages 206, 207.)

The Lee House on Oronoco Street, Alexandria, Virginia
Here Robert E. Lee lived with his mother while growing up.
He attended Benjamin Hallowell’s school in the house at the left.

The Hallowell house, on Oronoco Street, in Alexandria, adjoined the house in which the Lees lived. Friend Hallowell’s statement that Robert Lee graduated at the head of his class at West Point is only slightly in error—Robert graduated second in his class; his eldest son Custis, also prepared in Hallowell’s school, graduated at West Point 25 years later at the head of his class.

Mrs. Lee, during her later life, was an invalid. Her older daughter, Anne Kinloch, was not strong and for several years was in Philadelphia under the care of physicians: the other daughter, Catherine Mildred, was too young to assume much responsibility. The son Charles Carter was at Cambridge and Sydney Smith was in the navy. Robert was his mother’s main dependence—as she said, he was both son and (laughter to her. He carried her about in his arms and would hurry home from school in the evening to take her out driving in the old carriage. She missed him sorely when he left for West Point, but by that time Catherine Mildred was 14 years old.

At West Point there were plenty of young fellows who were ready to take a chance at breaking the rules if they believed they could escape detection, and some were addicted to the drinking of too much hard liquor. There is no indication that Lee fell into any of those bad habits. His record evidently was excellent, for at the time of his graduation he was adjutant of the corps. Among the men who were in the Academy while he was there were a number of others who became distinguished, among them Jefferson Davis, John B. Magruder, and Joseph E. Johnston. Johnston was of Lee’s age—both were born in Virginia in 1807, and both graduated in 1829. Upon graduation Lee entered the U.S. Army, having been appointed a second-lieutenant in the corps of military engineers.

Following his graduation at West Point, Lieutenant Lee was with his mother during her final illness. She died the same year at Ravensworth.1 His first tour of duty in the army service was at Cockspur Island, near Savannah, Ga., where a fortification known later as Fort Pulaski was erected. He was engaged there from about November 1, 1829, until December, 1830, or later.


1 Ravensworth is an old Fitzhugh homestead in Fairfax County, Va., about 10 miles west of Alexandria.

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