Robert E. Lee and the Southern Confederacy
By Henry Alexander White





ROBERT EDWARD LEE was born at Stratford on the Potomac, in Westmoreland County, Virginia, January 19, 1807. This eighth year after the passing of Washington saw new fierceness added to the commercial warfare between England and Napoleon. It witnessed also the rise of the war-spirit in the United States in connection with President Jefferson’s struggle to maintain the honour of his Administration against British seizure of American seamen.

Robert Edward was the third son of Colonel Henry Lee and Anne Hill Carter, his second wife; the baptismal name of the child was bestowed in honour of two scions of the house of Carter. “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, as a Federalist of the school of General Washington, held himself aloof from political affiliation with the sage of Monticello. When Jefferson assumed the robes of office as Chief Magistrate in Washington, Lee withdrew himself from the halls of Congress to the shade of his own maple-grove in the country of his fathers, where, during the first decade of the new century, he bore mild sway as the patriarch of a Virginian household. There did he often repeat and then make careful record of the story of marches and fields of war in the Revolutionary days when he himself was the chief leader of horse in Washington’s armies.

Robert E. Lee and the Southern Confederacy By Henry Alexander White


Stratford, the stately dwelling-place, had become the property of Colonel Lee through his marriage with the daughter of Philip Ludwell Lee in 1782; about 1790 she had passed away, leaving behind her a daughter and one son, who bore his father’s name, Henry Lee. From Thomas Lee, of the third generation of Lees in Virginia, this mansion had descended to the succeeding heirs in the days of King George H. The tradition runs that Queen Caroline’s admiration for the colonial officer led her to send a private gift of money to Thomas Lee for the construction of a mansion befitting the dignity of the President of the colonial Council. Spacious were the rooms, and lofty was the ceiHng of this dwelling of brick; from the platforms laid between the chimney towers, the promenader could catch glimpses of Virginia’s broadest and deepest river.

Since the early reign of Governor Berkeley, the family of Lee had become native to the soil of the Old Dominion. Richard Lee, first of his line to cross the seas, was a landholder of Stratford-Langton, in the county of Essex, England. According to his own claim, this founder of the Virginian house sprang from that line of knights and gentlemen bearing the name of Lee who dwelt originally in Shropshire. By King James I., in 1620, a member of this Shropshire family was honoured with a baronetcy; but, in 1660, the title passed away on the death of the second baronet. The Virginian emigrant did not claim descent from these two baronets of the Langley branch, but from the collateral and younger branch, the Lees of Coton Hall. With the Lees of Ditchley he had no affinity; but a daughter of the latter house, Eleanor Calvert, became the wife of John Parke Custis, and thus unto the wife of Robert Edward was transmitted the blood of a separate and distinct family of Lees.

In the portrait handed down to us, the face of the first Richard Lee of Virginia, framed in the official wig of the colonial Councillor, is marked with the lines of benevolence and vigour. The earliest land-grant recorded in his name, bearing the date, August 10, 1642, gave him title to one thousand acres of territory in Yorke County. To this farm on Poropotank Creek he gave the name “Paradise.” In November, 1647, as member from the county of Yorke, Richard Lee took his seat in the House of Burgesses at Jamestown. Richard Lee was loyal to the family of Stuart; for, in 1650, he sailed across the sea to Breda as member of a commission to invite the second Charles to wear the crown in Virginia; and, in 1651, he was styled by Berkeley, Colonel Richard Lee, Esquire, Secretary of State for this Colony. But he was also loyal to the young democracy cradled in the arms of the noble rivers that seek the Chesapeake, for, in 1654, when a Dissenter sat in the Governor’s chair, Lee was described as “faithful and useful to the interests of the Commonwealth.” At the time of his death, about the year 1663, he held the office of Lieutenant, or Master of the Militia, of the county of Westmoreland. Unto his two daughters and five sons, then living, this head of the Virginian line devised vast tracts of that sun-smitten soil on both banks of the Potomac, described by Captain John Smith as “lusty and very rich.”

Before death claimed him, the father had seen two sons, John and Richard, bear away the seals of graduation from Oxford University. The mantle of family patriarch soon fell to Richard, the second son, a diligent reader of books, a busy planter, and man of affairs. “Mt. Pleasant” on the Potomac was his home; there he dwelt in the midst of an estate of two thousand acres inherited from his father and elder brother John. In 1676, this second Richard was called to fill his father’s former position of Councillor, and henceforth he bore the title Colonel Richard Lee. When he donned the official wig, the smoke was just clearing away from that summer of strife known as Bacon’s Rebellion. It may have been, in part, his personal friendship for Berkeley that led Lee to support the Governor in the day of his warfare with Nathaniel Bacon, who played the noble role of patriot while Berkeley attempted the part of despot. During seven weeks Bacon kept Lee shut up in prison. In 1691, Lee’s attachment to the house of Stuart held him back, for a time, from taking the oath of allegiance to William and Mary. Not many years passed, however, until Governor Spotswood spoke of Colonel Lee as “a gentleman of as fair character as any in the country for his exact justice, honesty, and unexceptional loyalty.”

Fifth in order among the sons of the second Richard and Laetitia Corbin, his wife, was Thomas Lee. The year that saw the birth of George Washington, 1732, brought to Thomas the seals of office as colonial Councillor. Thomas was not educated in England, but received his scholastic training at home, under the care of tutors.

He afterwards became a proficient in the classics through his own unaided researches in the library at Stratford. In the Council, Thomas Lee was ever a stout upholder of the Established Church of the colony; his voice was against the wide extension of the privileges of public worship to the religious Dissenters. In the home of wealth and intellectual cultivation maintained at Stratford by Thomas Lee and his wife, Hannah Ludwell, six sons were trained for large service unto their commonwealth and country. Foremost among these was that quartet of patriot brothers, Richard Henry, Thomas Ludwell, Francis Lightfoot, and Arthur Lee. The spirit of democracy was not completely banished from the fireside of this Virginian royalist and Churchman, who could bequeath to his sons two hundred and twenty adult negro servants and at the same time lay the command upon his executors to educate his children “in such manner as they think fitt, religiously and virtuously, and, if necessary, to bind them to any profession or trade, soe that they may learn to get their living honestly.”

A younger brother of Thomas Lee bore the name Henry. This Henry Lee was sixth in order among the sons of the second Richard. Upon a plantation in Westmoreland, adjoining his father’s estate, he built Lee Hall, and there by the Potomac, in ease and quietness, did he dwell with his wife, Mary Bland. Three sons blessed this marriage, and to the third son were bequeathed the father’s name, Henry, and large estates in Prince William and Fairfax counties. Concerning this son Henry, the patriarch of Lee Hall left behind him this injunction: “My Will and desire is that my son Henry be continued at the College two years from the date hereof [1746], and afterwards to be a writer in the Secretary’s Office, till he be twenty-one years of age.” From William and Mary College this scion of Lee Hall betook himself to Prince William County, and there, at Leesylvania, in 1756, was born the eldest son of Henry Lee and Lucy Grymes, his wife. This heir-at-law, christened with the name of his parent, was afterwards to become famous as “Light-Horse Harry,” the father of Robert E. Lee.

The hour of separation from the mother-country was now drawing nigh. When the Revolutionary programme was outlined by Patrick Henry in “The Parsons“ Cause,” in 1763, wherein he denounced the Establishment as an incumbrance, and denied the King’s authority to veto a statute of the colonial Assembly, a full-fledged republican party already stood behind him, composed of the Dissenters of the upland counties of Virginiao The rifles of these Ulstermen had enabled Washington to win the Ohio Valley from the French and Indians, and the same guns were still primed on the mountain-top, ready to resist the aggressions of King George III. As opposed to Grenville’s iniperial theory that the colonies were mere trading corporations, to be taxed by the English Parliament, this republican party advanced the home-rule view that the colonies were political communities, self-governing commonwealths from their origin, controlled and taxed by local parliaments.

When Patrick Henry’s voice rang out in opposition to the Stamp Act in 1765, claiming for the Assembly the charter-right to supreme authority in Virginia, his resolutions were passed through the House of Burgesses by the republican party against the votes of the conservatives from the tide-water section. With these stern Calvinists, who held that government must be based on compact, many of the Potomac planters were in full accord. Among the latter were Washington, Mason, Madison, and several members of the house of Lee.

From his early studies in law and government, Richard Henry Lee had come forth an ardent republican of the type of Hampden and Sidney. This son of the royalist, Thomas Lee, stood side by side with Patrick Henry in the leadership of the Virginian republicans against the party of the Establishment. It was not to William and Mary, the stronghold of the Establishment, but to Princeton College, the academic centre of the Revolutionary party, that Henry Lee of Leesylvania sent the vigorous young horseman of the household.

One glimpse of the young Henry Lee, in 1770, at the feet of Witherspoon, reveals him thus: “He is more than strict in his morality, has a fine genius, and is diligent.” In 1773, he bore away the seal of graduation from Nassau Hall, and returned to Prince William in time to see his father, the County Burgess for many years past, depart as delegate to the Convention, a body that afterwards presided at the birth of the independent Commonwealth of Virginia.

The younger Henry Lee soon laid aside the law books which he had set himself to study, and in the summer of 1775 began to assist in the work of organising and drilling the militia of the colony. This preparation for warfare was due to the resolution pressed through the Convention of March, 1775, by Patrick Henry, with the assistance of Richard Henry Lee and other republican leaders. In July, 1775, the Committee of Safety, appointed by the Convention, assumed complete executive control of the colony; a prominent member of that committee was Thomas Ludwell Lee. Virginia was absolutely independent now of all external authority. Representatives elected by the people exercised complete legislative, judicial, and executive functions. May, 1776, marked the assembling of the fifth and last colonial Convention that gave permanence to the republican form of government. In this Convention sat three members of the Lee family, Henry of Prince William, his brother Richard of Westmoreland, and Thomas Ludwell of Stafford. June 29, 1776, was the birthday of the Commonwealth of Virginia, for that day added George Mason’s Constitution to his previous Bill of Rights. The adoption of these instruments by the Convention, in the name of the sovereign people, constituted their formal separation from the English Crown. This written Constitution of Virginia was, in large part, the model followed by the other colonies in the formation of permanent state governments.

At the same time with this Virginia Convention, another assembly of delegates from all the colonies was in session in Philadelphia. This Congress of deputies was clothed only with advisory powers. It formed a central committee whose business it was to secure concert of action among the colonies through a series of recommendations to the different colonial legislatures. Among the Virginia deputies were the brothers Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee. May 15, 1776, the Williamsburg Convention sent commands to the Virginia representatives to secure from the Congress a formal announcement of the already existing fact that the thirteen colonies were independent States. When Richard Henry Lee, on June 7, offered a resolution to that effect, every royal governor had fled, and the thirteen commonwealths were each as sovereign and independent as ever were the kingdoms of Holland, Denmark, or Portugal. Lee’s resolution was adopted by the Congress, July 2, and, two days later, delegates from twelve of the thirteen colonies agreed to Jefferson’s formal Declaration of Independence. Authority to vote for the Declaration had been forwarded to their delegates by all the colonial conventions and legislatures, except the legislature of New York. Back to those legislatures was the Declaration sent for ratification; the formal sanction thereof by the thirteen law-making bodies at last gave legal character to this great document and transformed a committee’s work into a colonial compact.

Wearing a captain’s sword, as the leader of a band of volunteer horsemen, Henry Lee the younger entered the field of war at the call of the Commonwealth of Virginia. In April, 1777, Lee presented himself for orders at Washington’s headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey. The flower of the American army at that point was composed of riflemen from Virginia and Maryland. These patriots, one hundred days before Lee’s arrival, had enabled Washington to save the cause of the Revolution at Trenton and Princeton. Upon the arduous service of scouting and foraging for Washington’s army did Lee now enter. Not long did he wait to secure the commander’s commendation for “gallant behaviour” and for “conduct of exemplary zeal, prudence, and bravery.” Lee kept his men at hot work in the days of Brandywine and Germantown. During the winter of suffering at Valley Forge he was continually astir in bringing bread and beef to the starving soldiers. Early in 1778, he was promoted to the rank of major, and placed in command of a corps of light-armed horsemen. Lee now became the eye and the ear of the army; the daring courage which marked the man of swift vigilance soon fastened upon him the name of “Light-Horse Harry” Lee. It was Lee who suggested the capture of Stony Point, and it was a band of North Carolinians who formed Wayne’s head of column in the assault upon that fortress. Three hundred Virginians followed Lee in his successful dash against Paulus Hook on the Jersey coast, August, 1779. In honour of Lee and his Legion in this enterprise, the Congress bestowed a medal with warm commendation of his “remarkable prudence, address, and bravery.”

The summer of 1780 brought the darkest hour of the Revolution. Cornwallis was sweeping northward through the Carolinas in order to end the war by the subjugation of the South. The people of New England were now mending their fishing-nets and unfurling the sails of their trading-vessels. Virginia was girding herself for the combat; her sons stood behind Washington as he watched New York; they withstood the British in Carolina, and they made ready to keep back the invader from their own soil. The victory of King’s Mountain in October scattered the cloud of gloom. In December came Greene to take command of the Southern army, and with him came Lieutenant-Colonel Lee with his Legion.

Washington’s opinion of the cavalry leader was set forth in the declaration that Lee had “great resources of genius.” Under Greene served Morgan, William Washington, Marion, Pickens, Sumter, and Lee; of the latter Greene declared, “No man in the progress of the campaign had equal merit.” In the course of that masterly strategy whereby Greene drew CornwalHs away from his base into the mountains of North Carolina, Lee’s Legion formed the American rear-guard. More than a match for the British cavalry leader, Tarleton, was Lee in this long running, fight. The skill and daring of the Virginian horseman enabled Greene to unite his two wings for the battle at Guilford. In September, 1781, when Washington was hurling his army like a thunderbolt from the Hudson to the York to secure Cornwallis in the toils, Lee and Marion had already led Greene’s advance southward, and were now making hot pursuit after Rawdon’s recruits as they scampered into
Charleston from the last battle in Carolina, at Eutaw Springs. The famous trooper celebrated his own victories by coming to witness the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, and by his marriage to the heiress of Stratford the following year.

Colonel Lee’s ardent support was accorded to the Federal Constitution when it was presented to the separate States for ratification. His career in the field of war had revealed to him the necessity for a governmental compact more binding than the old Articles of Confederation; his admiration for Washington made him desirous of giving sanction to that leader’s work as President of the Convention of 1787. Richard Henry Lee, made cautious by his experience in the Continental Congress, stood in the forefront of the opposition to the compact. He affirmed that the proposed Constitution was “dangerously oligarchic” in its “blending of the legislative powers with the executive.” But Colonel Henry Lee spoke and voted in the Convention of 1788 in company with Madison; the latter won Virginia’s sanction for the Constitution on the ground that it was only a compact wherein the contracting parties were “the people—but not the people as composing one great body, but the people as composing thirteen sovereignties.” This was the view held in all the commonwealths by the Federalists, who triumphantly established the new league among the States.

As member of the Virginia Legislature, Colonel Lee watched the early sessions of the Federal Congress. When that body adopted Hamilton’s scheme for centralising in Congress the management of the finances of the States, the Virginia Assembly made protest. Lee was on the committee that formulated the following declaration: “Your memorialists can find no clause in the Constitution authorizing Congress to assume the debts of the States.” In this juncture of affairs Lee wrote to Madison: “To disunite is dreadful to my mind; but, dreadful as it is, I consider it a lesser evil than Union on the present conditions.”

In 1792, when Lee entered upon his three years’ tenure of office as Governor of Virginia, the political differences between Hamilton and Jefferson in the Cabinet had assumed the form of personal hostility. As Jefferson withdrew to wave the magician’s wand from Monticello and call into existence the Republican-Democratic party, Colonel Lee drew himself into closer political sympathy with the Federalists. When the farmers of Western Pennsylvania raised an insurrection against Hamilton’s direct tax on whiskey, it was Lee whom Washington sent against them as commander of the militia; but the rioters were suppressed without the shedding of blood.

Robert E. Lee and the Southern Confederacy By Henry Alexander White


In the crisis of party warfare that marked the close of the century, Lee played his part as a zealous Federalist. Talleyrand’s insult to the envoys of President Adams in 1798 aroused the wrath of the American people and swept the Federal Administration into active preparations for war with France. Lee was given commission in the army as Major-General. Adams and his Federalist followers rode upon the whirlwind and directed the storm. Against the foreigners who held positions as editors and leaders of the republican party, they passed through Congress the Alien and Sedition laws. In opposition to these two measures that lodged great personal power in the hands of the President, vigorous protests came from the legislatures of Kentucky and Virginia, drafted by Jefferson and Madison. They declared the Constitution to be a compact formed by the different States as integral parties; they further denounced the Alien and Sedition laws as violations of the compact, with a dangerous tendency toward consolidation. The Virginia resolutions, however, were passed against the voice of Colonel Henry Lee, who denied that these Congressional statutes were breaches of the Constitution. In 1799, Lee was elected to Congress on the Federalist platform. His friendship for Washington rendered him hostile to Jefferson, and the only ground on which the enemies of Jefferson could stand was Federalism. Washington made use of his own great personal influence among the Potomac planters to secure Lee’s election as their representative. When the news reached Congress that the sage of Mount Vernon had passed away, it was Lee who prepared the resolution referring to him as “The man first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his fellow-citizens.” Upon Colonel Lee was laid the task of delivering before Congress a formal oration on the character of Washington, and in the performance of this labour of love he manifested “distinguished powers of eloquence.”

But the doom of Federalism was at hand. The Virginia and Kentucky resolutions became the slogan of the democracy. The Federalists had sought to concentrate authority in the hands of an oligarchy, and now the masses of the people began flocking to Jefferson’s standard. Dissensions split the Federalist party in twain; the Presidential election in 1800 was thrown into the House of Representatives, where the votes of ten States out of sixteen gave the office to Jefferson. So intense was Lee’s antipathy to the republican leader that he cast his vote from beginning to end of the contest for Aaron Burr. When Jefferson and his party, in 1801, entered upon their long voyage of supremacy, with the compact theory nailed to the masthead as the rule of Constitutional interpretation, Colonel Lee retired from the field of politics, and sought repose beneath the trees, by the still waters of Stratford on the Potomac.

The planting of fields and the gathering of harvests were engaging the warrior’s care when the home was made glad in 1807 by the birth of the soldier-child, Robert. From Shirley, on the lower James River, to Stratford had Colonel Lee brought as wife the eldest daughter of Charles Carter and Anne Moore Carter. The eldest male heir of the fourth generation of the house of Carter in Virginia was this Charles Carter of Shirley. He passed from earth in the summer before the advent of his illustrious grandchild, Robert E. Lee.

Among the papers of his daughter, the wife of Colonel Henry Lee, was found this obituary testimonial to Charles Carter: “His long life was spent in the tranquillity of domestic enjoyments. From the mansion of hospitality his immense wealth flowed like silent streams, enlivening and refreshing every object around. In fulfilling the duties of his station, he proved himself to be an Israelite indeed, in whom there was no guile.”

When we trace the Carter line backward from Charles of the fourth generation, we find his father, John Carter, eldest son of the house, becoming the master of the Shirley plantation through marriage with the heiress, Elizabeth Hill. This John was son of Robert Carter of Lancaster, familiarly known as “King Carter” of the realm of the upper Rappahannock River; Robert’s father was the emigrant John who sat as member of the Virginia House of Burgesses as early as 1649. “King Carter” played his part in the public service as Speaker of the Burgesses, Rector of William and Mary College, and Governor of the Colony of Virginia. A large stone in former time stood at the east end of Christ Church in Lancaster County to speak of him as “An honourable man, who by noble endowments and pure morals gave lustre to his gentle birth . . . Possessed of ample wealth, blamelessly acquired, he built and endowed, at his own expense, this sacred edifice,—a signal monument of his piety toward God. He furnished it richly. Entertaining his friends kindly, he was neither a prodigal nor a parsimonious host.“ It was the daughter of this house of Carter who became the mother of Robert E. Lee, and her prayers with her tender admonitions were the forces that cast his growing character in that mould of noble self-control that made the child the father of the man.

In the days of Robert E. Lee’s early childhood the leadership among all the States of the Federal Union was held by Virginia. In population, in wealth, and in political prestige she stood like a tower above the other commonwealths; in law and in politics she was furnishing leaders to other States; new commonwealths were growing up within her former domain, and the Ulstermen from her Alleghanies, a race regarded by Jefferson as the basis of an everlasting democracy, were reaching out brawny arms to conquer and organise the Southwest. In Virginia was intrenched the Jeffersonian Democracy that was now shaping the home and foreign policy of the United States. But ere the child at Stratford had learned the art of speech, the sky grew dark with the cloud of approaching war with England. Little more than five months had passed over his head, when his opening ears may have heard, perhaps, the sound of heavy guns rolling up the Potomac from the capes that form the gateway to the Chesapeake. The wrath of the people of the United States was kindled into flame by the broadsides poured from the guns of the British frigate Leopard, without provocation, into the American vessel Chesapeake y June 22, 1807. When Jefferson’s party in the following December passed the Embargo Act, cutting off all commercial intercourse with foreign ports, as the only mode of public defence, short of war, against English aggression, the New England Federalists at once rushed into fiercer opposition to Jefferson’s Administration. The Federalists of Virginia and South Carolina cast themselves into the bosom of the Republican-Democratic party, or like “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, retired to the quietude of plantation-life. But Lee was not ready to join the active Opposition party. While he busied himself in writing. Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States, that campaign which brought independence to all the States nearly three decades before, Lee kept watch upon the course of public events, and was ready to buckle on the sword and take his place among his own people. Long before had Colonel Lee given expression to the following sentiment, which continued to glow within him to the end of life: “No consideration on earth could induce me to act a part, however gratifying to me, which could be construed into disregard or forgetfulness of this Commonwealth.”


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