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



TO the quiet town of Alexandria, Virginia, in the year 1811, came Colonel Lee with his family. The schools there available for the children drew the old soldier away from the scenes of plantation life at Stratford. An epoch-making scene in the governmental drama was soon to burst upon his view. The child of four years, Robert, in the house on Cameron Street, near Christ Church, could not yet understand the political situation, but with eager interest did the father keep watch upon events in the Capital.

Just across the Potomac from Alexandria sat James Madison in the President’s chair. Into the Capitol in the autumn of the year 1811 came the Twelfth Congress to consider the grievances against England, grievances that had burdened the people of our country for twenty years. At the head of the Republican-Democratic party in the House stood now two young men from the South, John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay. They were filled with the spirit of patriotism; they were burning with the desire to maintain the honour of the United States against foreign aggression. These leaders inaugurated a vigorous policy toward the haughty mistress of the sea, and succeeded in carrying a declaration of war against England, June 18, 1812. The Opposition was composed of the ancient Federalists, assisted by John Randolph of Virginia. The news of war was greeted in New England with the tolling of bells, despite the fact that England had forcibly impressed into her navy more than four thousand American seamen. Some of the Eastern States carried their Opposition policy to the extent of nullifying the Acts of Congress, and, in 1814, delegates from these commonwealths assembled in the Hartford Convention to give serious consideration to the policy of secession from the Federal Union.

But the Federalism of “Light-Horse Harry”Lee was not of this extreme Opposition type. The friend of Washington could not bestow his sympathies upon England in the day of her attack upon our merchant-marine. Nor could Lee forget the battle in behalf of the Federal Constitution, wherein he had touched elbows with Madison. “Our friendly sympathies never lost their force,” Said Madison afterwards concerning Lee. A commission as Major-General in the army in Canada was the President’s tribute to Lee’s skill and loyalty.The latter prepared to draw sword in his country’s behalf, but grievous disaster came to him through chivalrous aid offered in defence of a personal friend. Hanson, the editor of a Federalist paper in Baltimore, had heaped bitter words upon the Administration and the war-measure of Congress. His attacks stirred up the Republicans of Baltimore to fierce anger. The evening of June 20, 1812, saw Hanson’s press and printing-house destroyed by a mob. Lee made a journey to Baltimore and there found Hanson preparing to issue the paper, printed now in Georgetown and forwarded. Hanson made a fortress of his house, and boldly announced that he would assert the freedom of the press. About twenty friends stood with him as garrison to the stronghold. Among these were General Lingan and Colonel Lee. July 27th, the mob stationed a cannon in front of the building, and the beleaguered garrison surrendered to the Mayor. The jail building wherein
they took refuge was attacked the following night; the doors were beaten down in the fierce struggle that ensued. General Lingan was slain and Colonel Lee received the wounds that, six years later, terminated his life. Through the agency of President Madison, he was enabled to reach Barbadoes in the summer of 1813, and in the West Indies he lingered until February, 1818. The climate of these islands revived his waning strength. In the midst of great sufferings he continued to write with regularity to his son Charles Carter Lee, then at Harvard. These letters are full of tender affection for his wife and children; they contain repeated injunctions to his eldest son to “cherish truth and abhor deception.” He advised the reading of “history and ethical authors of unrivalled character.” Of John Locke he said: “Do not only study, but consult him as the Grecians did the Delphic oracle.” Francis Bacon he described as “wonderfully instructive; though of cowardly,despicable character.” Among the English poets, he gave the palm to Pope: “He is worthy of universal applause, far superior to Milton, as his Iliad compared with Paradise Lost evinces.”

As a writer of tragedy, Lee placed Sophocles upon the same plane with Shakespeare. Of Lucretius, the Roman poet, he made this affirmation: “If I had not partly read him, I never could have believed there ever lived a man who was in judgment an atheist.”

The military hero he termed the “most useless” member of the human race, “except when the safety of a nation demands his saving arm.” Such heroes as Alexander and Caesar he admired for “mental excellency,” but could not “applaud the object for which they wasted human life.” Hence, his three heroes were Hannibal, Frederick the Great, Wellington; Hannibal he described as “first of antiquity in cabinet and field.”

In the last letter of all, he thus summed up his creed:

My dear Carter, what is happiness? Hoc opus, hic labor est? Peace of mind based on piety to Almighty God, unconscious inno-
cence of conduct, with good-will to man; health of body, health of
mind, with prosperity in our vocation; a sweet, affectionate wife: mens sana in corpore sano; children devoted to truth, honour, right, and utility, with love and respect to their parents; and faithful and warm-hearted friends, in a country politically and religiously free;—this is my definition.

After long suffering the dying man turned his face homeward. But his strength bore him up only until he reached Cumberland Island on the coast of Georgia. There were his last hours soothed by the daughter of his old commander, General Greene; there did he enter into rest, March 25, 1818, and there do the magnolias still stand guard over his grave.

The love of the father in affliction turned often to his son Robert. To Carter he wrote a year before his death: “Robert was always good, and will be confirmed in his happy turn of mind by his ever-watchful and affectionate mother. Does he strengthen his native tendency?” To that mother, now an invalid in Alexandria, was Robert left as the only guardian. Full of all gentleness and tenderness was Anne Carter Lee; full of all thoughtfulness and devotion was the young son of eleven summers, who became the head of the household when his father died. The elder brother Carter was still at Harvard; Sidney Smith Lee had entered the navy; one sister was an invalid in Philadelphia, and the other was younger still than Robert. A man’s part in life was thus assigned to the boy, and nobly did he bear himself. The Alexandria Academy furnished ample instruction for mind and morals. But the moulding hand of the mother was giving shape to that moral character which stands yet in our annals unrivalled for earnestness and self-sacrifice. The domestic duties connected with the house were laid upon him; the office of chief nurse was his. Thus did the lives of mother and son approach the parting of the ways, when they might no longer meet their duties with hand resting in hand. The young man’s heart turned toward his father’s calling, and it was decided that he should seek admittance to the Military Academy at West Point.

To acquire the necessary mathematical training he spent one winter at the school of Benjamin Hallowell in Alexandria. Concerning those days of preparation, Mr. Hallowell has thus left testimony:

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 subservant of the rules and regulations of the institution; was gentlemanly, unobtrusive, and respectful in all his deportment to teachers and his fellow-students. His specialty was finishing up. He imparted a finish and a neatness, as he proceeded, to everything he undertook.

The diagrams which he drew on a slate in the study of conic sections were made “each one with as much accuracy and finish, lettering and all, as if it were to be engraved and printed.” Another side of his character is revealed to us in the home-life of those last months with his mother. At twelve o’clock each day he hastened from the school-room to her side. In his arms he bore her to the cushions of the carriage, and sought ever to cheer her during the drive. “He nursed her night and day. If Robert left the room, she kept her eyes on the door till he returned.” The hours of watching grew longer after he entered West Point in 1825. Each summer he hastened from the Hudson to Alexandria, in the uniform of grey adorned with white bullet-buttons. During his entire cadet life the mother was still spared to watch his growth in beauty of person and in winsomeness of manner, as he continued to increase, if possible, in depth of moral character.

No breach of discipline nor any neglect of duty was ever charged against him during his years of study in the Academy. No unbecoming word ever fell from his lips; but speech and action indicated always that he lived as under his great Taskmaster’s eye. He attained the position of adjutant of battalion, and was graduated second in his class. Manliness, true and noble, was stamped upon the form and the face of the second lieutenant of engineers who hastened to the waiting mother at the close of his four years’ course. She was granted only time to smile upon him with a mother’s pride in her best-beloved child. In July, 1829, she passed away.

On Virginia’s coast, in the construction of the military defences of Hampton Roads was Lieutenant Lee’s first service rendered to the Federal Government. It was fitting that Virginia should receive benefit from his first labours, for more than their due share had the people of the Southern States contributed to furnish Lee the training offered at the Military Academy. For the most part, it was tax-money from the South that had reared and equipped the halls at West Point; even in the third decade of this century Southern commerce was furnishing sixteen and a half millions of the twenty-three million dollars revenue gathered for the use of the Federal Government.

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


The evening of June 30, 1831, marked the union in marriage of Robert E. Lee with Mary Randolph Custis, daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, and great-granddaughter of Martha Custis, the wife of General Washington. On the Virginia bank of the Potomac stood Arlington, the home of the Custis household, uplifted on stately Doric pillars. At the base of the lofty bluff in front of the mansion swept the broad river; from the porch could the observer watch the stream disappear toward Alexandria in the distance, while just across the water could one look down upon the city of Washington and her massive Hall of Legislation, Unto this home had Mr. Custis removed his family from Mount Vernon in 1802. As the seat of generous hospitality was Arlington known under the régime established by the heads of the Custis line. Mary Custis was the only surviving child when she gave her hand to the talented young lieutenant. The wedding-scene was enacted before the household altar. The portraits and relics brought as a heritage from Mount Vernon bore witness from the walls to the sacred ceremonial in the right-hand drawing-room. Never upon any man of spirit more high and rare, “and true to truth and brave for truth,” nor upon a woman of queenlier grace, of loftier mould, had those Washington memorials looked down, than the bridal pair which they saw that night in June at Arlington.

Six fair bridesmaids and attendant groomsmen formed the inner circle around the contracting pair. A band of relatives and friends looked on while the ritual of the Episcopal Church declared them man and wife. Then followed the festivities, in which the colony of Africans had bountiful share. Faithful to every vow in the coming days of peace did this couple remain; faithful throughout the time of terror from war, and faithful even unto death.

Through the marriage with the heiress of Arlington was Robert E. Lee ultimately ushered into the position of patriarch over Virginian plantations and their adherent servants, Arlington itself and the White House farms on the Pamunkey River. This same year, 1831, saw the beginning of the Abolitionist assault, under Garrison’s leadership, against the institution of slavery in the Southern States. Mr. Custis himself was a believer in gradual emancipation, and left provision in his will that his servants should become freedmen a certain number of years after his own demise. As executor, Robert E. Lee carried out that provision to the very letter, and, in 1862, sent these manumitted servants with passes through his own military lines into the Northern States. Throughout life he was the gentlest and most indulgent of masters to his African retainers. We are told that one of the earliest duties laid upon himself by the young commissioned officer was to take his mother’s negro coachman, a consumptive, to the mild climate of Georgia, and there to provide tender nursing until the end came.

From 1829 until the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846, Lee passed his days in the quiet labours that fall to the lot of an army engineer. When we look into the details of his work and the faithfulness shown in its performance, we see the growing greatness of the man. Devotion to his public duties was the foremost characteristic of the official; strong affection for his family shone in all his words and deeds. The care and exactness of the early schooldays marked his attention to the minute and seemingly unessential parts of his labour. He loved children and young people; he was modest and unaffected in forming estimates of his own capacity. A quiet humour and hidden satire gave zest and colouring to his correspondence and familiar intercourse with friends.

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


Until 1834, Lee remained at Hampton Roads. Then, as assistant to the chief engineer of the army, he was busy with office-work in Washington until 1837. During this period he dwelt at Arlington, and his handsome figure drew much attention as the gallant horseman passed daily along Pennsylvania Avenue. In the summer of 1837, Lee was placed in charge of the work of improving the navigation of the Mississippi River at St. Louis. In the following year he was advanced to the grade of Captain of Engineers. In this first period of prolonged absence from his family and his Virginia friends, we find him beginning to write those letters that lay bare the deep affection burning in the heart of the husband, the father, and the friend. To a cousin, in 1838, he wrote concerning the coat-of-arms of the Lee family, and assigned as reason for the inquiry: “I begin in my old age to feel a little curiosity relative to my forefathers.” At the same time he declared that he was “on the lookout for that stream of gold that was to ascend the Mississippi, tied up in silk-net purses! It would be a pretty sight, but the tide has not yet made up here.”

To his wife, then at Arlington with her three children, George W. Custis, Mary Custis, and William Henry Fitzhugh, he wrote as follows in 1839:

You do not know how much I have missed you and the dear children, my dear Mary. To be alone in a crowd is very solitary. In the woods I feel sympathy with the trees and birds, in whose company I take delight, but experience no interest in a strange crowd. I hope you are all well and will continue so, and therefore must again urge upon you to be very prudent and careful of those dear children. If I could only get a squeeze at that little fellow turning up his sweet mouth to “Keese Baba.” You must not let him run wild in my absence, and will have to exercise firm authority over all of them. This will not require severity or even strictness, but constant attention and an unwavering course. Mildness and forbearance, tempered by firmness and judgment, will strengthen their affection for you, while it will maintain your control over them.

In 1839, the chief engineer offered Lee a position as instructor at West Point in the proposed work of building up a skilled corps of sappers and miners for the army. But Lee, in a most courteous reply, begged permission to leave the position “to abler hands” because of “an apprehension of being unable to realise your expectations.” To a friend concerning the same theme he confesses his lack of

The taste and peculiar zeal which the situation requires; nor can I see what qualifications I possess that render me more fit for this duty than others. or that in the least would counterbalance the want of those that I have mentioned. My attention has never been directly given to this branch of the profession, though I presume (unless I am too old to learn) a sufficient knowledge of it might in a short time be attained, and the opportunity which you hint at of becoming acquainted with the practice of the European schools, besides that of learning other matters, I confess, would be very agreeable. But there is an art in imparting this knowledge, and in making a subject agreeable to those that learn, which I have never found that I possessed.

In 1841, we find Captain Lee in military charge of New York Harbour, with headquarters at Fort Hamilton. There he remained until the war with Mexico, in 1846, called him to the field of battle. His work in the harbour kept him continuously busy. He declined to act as executor of the Carter estate because lack of time would render him “guilty of injustice to the legatees.” Further he said: “My private affairs have suffered ever since I have been in the army from the impracticability of my attending to them. I am at no time master of my movements, and my whole time is engrossed by my duties.” General Henry J. Hunt has borne testimony that Lee was then “as fine-looking a man as one would wish to see, of perfect figure and strikingly handsome. Quiet and dignified in manner, of cheerful disposition, always pleasant and considerate, he seemed to me the perfect type of a gentleman.”

To his brother Carter, August 17, 1843, he sent this message: “. . . I can be content to be poor with the knowledge of being able to pay my debts and that no one has a just claim upon me that I cannot meet. But I cannot bear to enter into engagements without the certainty of being able to fulfil them.” Concerning the proposed increase of the army, he thus expressed himself in June, 1845:

In the event of war with any foreign government I would desire to be brought into active service in the field with as high a rank in the regular army as I could obtain, and if that could not be accomplished without leaving the Corps of Engineers I should then desire a transfer to some other branch of the service and would prefer the artillery. I would, however, accept no situation under the rank of field-officer.

Crowded with high purposes, with work and with study were these early years of Robert E. Lee. A grave dignity marked his bearing. Strong passion dwelt within him, but it was kept well under control; humour would ofttimes breakthrough the outward reserve, and then was the soldier genial and his conversation charming. General Meigs gives us a glimpse of Lee during the engineering days on the Mississippi as “A man then in the vigour of youthful strength, with a noble and commanding presence, and an admirable, graceful, and athletic figure. He was one with whom nobody ever wished or ventured to take a liberty, though kind and generous to his subordinates, admired by all women and respected by all men. He was the model of a soldier and the beau ideal of a Christian man.”


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