Robert E. Lee and His Family, by John W. Wayland, Chapter 4

Robert E. Lee and His Family

Chapter IV
FROM 1831 TO 1861

On June 30, 1831, two years after he graduated at West Point and became an army engineer, Lieutenant Robert E. Lee was married. His wife, Mary Anne Randolph Custis, was the daughter and only surviving child of George Washington Parke Custis of Arlington. Mr. Custis was the grandson of Mrs. George Washington and grew up at Mount Vernon. He built his splendid mansion house, with its massive white columns, on the west bank of the Potomac about 1804, when he married Mary Lee Fitzhugh, daughter of William.

For the wedding in 1831 a gay company assembled. There were half a dozen bridesmaids and as many groomsmen, one of the latter being the groom’s brother, Lieut. Sydney Smith Lee. The minister, Rev. Ruel Keith, was late, detained, perhaps, by a heavy shower of rain that came up. After much looking out the windows and no little anxiety, a carriage arrived and the minister appeared; but he was in a sorry plight—well soaked by the storm. Mr. Custis provided a dry suit—one of his own; but Mr. Custis was short, while the minister was tall. Coat-sleeves and trouser-legs were much lacking in proper length. Both gentlemen laughed; but the reverend gentleman had managed to keep his surplice dry, or nearly so. When he put it on it covered up the several defects and he was able to appear in proper dignity for the wedding ceremony.

Inasmuch as Lieutenant Lee was in the engineering corps of the army, he was assigned to tasks of construction in different parts of the country. During the first two or three years following his marriage he was engaged at Fortress Monroe, improving that great military work and strengthening the defenses of Hampton Roads. He was continued on this assignment until 1833, and either at Fortress Monroe or at Arlington, September 16, 1832, George Washington Custis Lee was born.

Airview of Arlington, Custis-Lee Home, on the southwest side of the Potomac
opposite Washington City. Now the National cemetery.

In 1833 or 1834 Lee was made assistant to the chief engineer for the army, with his office in Washington City, and continued in this post for three years. Inasmuch as Arlington is just across the river from Washington, it was possible for him during this period to work in the city and at the same time make his home at Arlington. He made the trips forth and back on horseback, leaving Arlington in the morning early enough to reach his office before nine, and starting back in the afternoon shortly after three. His horse, we are told, was a handsome, well-built bay. One afternoon as he was starting from the city he fell in with a friend, a Captain Macomb, who was walking. In fun, he invited Captain Macomb to get up on the horse behind him. Macomb, not to be outdone, did so, and the sturdy bay, with his double load, proceeded up Pennsylvania Avenue, attracting much amused attention from the observers. The young officers enjoyed the banter until they met the Hon. Levi Woodbury, Secretary of the Treasury. They saw him in time for Macomb to dismount, but he refused to do so and Lee refused to turn off on another course. With straight faces they saluted the honorable Secretary, who evidently was surprised at what he saw. When past at a safe distance the riders exploded with laughter, and Macomb dismounted—he did not care to take a chance of meeting other dignitaries. This incident, with others that might be cited, shows that Lee had a keen sense of humor under his quiet reserve. He enjoyed teasing persons whom he liked.

For several years following his work in Washington, Lee was engaged in the Middle West, removing obstructions from the river channels at Des Moines, Iowa, and St. Louis, Mo. In 1842 he was put in charge of the defenses in New York harbor, with his headquarters in Fort Hamilton. Here he continued until the outbreak of the war with Mexico in 1846. He had been made a captain in 1838.

In the war with Mexico Lee was first with Gen. John Ellis Wool, for whom he did important scouting, often at great personal risk. In March, 1847, when Gen. Winfield Scott was investing Vera Cruz, he asked to have Captain Lee sent to him. Lee arranged the batteries so effectively that the city was reduced in a week. As Scott’s army advanced across the mountainous country towards the City of Mexico, Lee’s services as scout and engineer were outstanding, and after each of the battles of Cent Gordo, Churubusco, and Chapultepec he received promotions. In the last-named battle he was slightly wounded, but was able after a few days to take the field again.

Among Lee’s exploits in the Mexican campaigns none was more notable than his night crossing of the Pedregal. The Pedregal is a wide field of volcanic rock, near Mexico City, so rugged and hazardous, that it was not guarded by the Mexicans. It divided Scott’s army and on one occasion it was imperative that Scott communicate with the divisions on the other side. After several couriers had failed to get across, Lee volunteered for the undertaking and accomplished it with strenuous exertion and at great risk, returning at midnight with important information. General Scott later expressed the opinion that this was the greatest feat of physical and moral daring performed by any individual in the army. (See “The Hero of the Pedregal,” in the Appendix.)

About the end of the Mexican War.

For his services at Mexico City Lee was brevetted colonel, and for the next several years was engaged in constructing defenses at Baltimore. From 1852 to 1855 he was superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he had graduated in 1829 and where his son Custis Lee had entered as a cadet in 1850. On the formation of a new cavalry regiment in 1855, he was made a lieutenant-colonel in it and sent to Texas for service against the Indians. Texas was his main field of operations until 1861, although at intervals he returned for short periods to Washington and Arlington. In July, 1855, the command of his regiment devolved upon him. In October following he attended the funeral of his father-in-law, Mr. Custis. Again in the fall of 1859 he was at Arlington, and on this occasion he was sent with a small body of troops to Harper’s Ferry to suppress the John Brown raid. He was then called to Richmond to advise the legislature with regard to defense, in case other similar out-breaks might occur. Returning to Texas, he remained there until that state passed its ordinance of secession, February 1, 1861, when he was recalled to Washington.

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