The Life of Gen. Robert E. Lee, For Children, In Easy Words
By Mary L. Williamson


A Young Engineer.

IN 1829, when twenty-two years old, Robert entered the Engineer Corps of the United States, and thus became Lieutenant Lee.

Lieut. of Engineers.

It is the duty of these engineers in time of peace, to plan forts, to change the course of rivers which make sand-banks at wrong places, and to do other work of the same kind. Lieutenant Lee was sent at once to Hampton Roads, in Virginia, to build strong works, not dreaming that in after years it would be his fate to try to pull them down.

Lieutenant Lee was married on the 30th of June, 1831, to Mary Custis, who was the great-granddaughter of Mrs. Washington, and the only child of George Parke Custis, the adopted son of Washington. She lived at a fine old place on the Virginia bank of the Potomac River, called Arlington. At this time Lieutenant Lee was very handsome in face and tall and erect in figure.

Two years after his marriage he was sent to the city of Washington. This change was pleasant to him, for he was then near the home of his wife.


In 1837 he was sent to St. Louis to find means to keep the great Mississippi River in its own bed. It was a hard task, but he at last forced the mighty river into the channel he wished. While at work, some men, who did not know what great things he could do, tried to drive his workmen away, and even brought up cannon. Lee did not mind them, but went on with his work, and soon had the great river to flow in the right place.

From St. Louis he was sent to New York to plan and build new forts to protect that great city. He was now a captain of engineers, and was soon to try the horrors of war.

In 1846, a war broke out between the United States and Mexico. “Engineers are of as much use to an army as sails to ships.” They have to make roads and bridges, to plant big guns and draw maps, and guide the men when going to fight.

At first, Captain Lee was sent to join General Wool, in the north of Mexico. Not long before the battle of Buena Vista (Bwā´-na-vees-t), General Wool sent Lee to see where Santa Anna, the general of the Mexicans, had placed his army. News had come that he was not far off.


Lee rode, with only one man to guide him, into the mountains. After he had been riding for some hours, he saw on a hill-side the smoke of fires, and objects which he thought were tents. He went on, in a very cautious way, till he had gotten quite near. Then, he saw the white objects were only flocks of sheep and herds of cattle and mules on the way to market. He found out from the men driving them that Santa Anna had not crossed the mountains, and then went back to his friends, who thought that they would never see him again.

Though he had ridden forty miles that night, he rested but three hours before taking a troop of horsemen and going far into the mountains to find out just where Santa Anna had gone with his army.

Soon after this brave deed, Captain Lee was sent to join General Scott in the south of Mexico. He was put to work at Vera Cruz (Vā-rä-krōōs), a large town on the coast. There was a high wall, with strong forts around Vera Cruz. General Scott wished to take this city from the Mexicans. So Captain Lee had to plant big guns and build forts; and to do this he worked night and day.

As they were short of men, he was told to take some sailors from a man-of-war to help with the work. These men began to complain loudly. “They did not enlist to dig dirt, and they did not want to work under a landlubber anyhow.” Their captain said to Lee, “The boys don’t want any dirt to hide behind; they want to get on the top, where they can have a fair fight.” Lee quietly showed his orders, and told the old “salt” he meant to carry them out, and pushed on the work ‘mid curses both loud and deep.

Just as the work was done, the Mexicans began to fire their guns at that point, and these brave sons of the sea were glad enough to hide behind the “bank of dirt.” Not long after, their captain met Captain Lee and said, “I suppose the dirt did save some of my boys. But I knew that we would have no use for dirt-banks on shipboard, that there what we want is a clear deck and an open sea. And the fact is, Captain, I don’t like this land fighting anyway; it ‘dint clean.

Vera Cruz was taken by General Scott in two weeks’ time. Then the men went on over hills and vales, till they came to the strong fort on Cerro Gordo. Captain Lee then found a way to lead the Americans to the rear of the Mexicans, who soon broke and fled.

While this battle was raging, Captain Lee heard the cries of a little girl, and found by the side of a hut a Mexican drummer boy. His arm had been badly hurt and a large Mexican, who had been shot, had fallen on him. Captain Lee stopped, had the big Mexican thrown off of the boy, and the little fellow moved to a place of safety.

His little sister stood by. Her large black eyes were streaming with tears, her hands were crossed upon her breast, and her hair in one long plait reached to her waist. Her feet and arms were bare. She was very thankful to Captain Lee for saving her brother.

The Life of Gen. Robert E. Lee, For Children, In Easy Words 10


In a letter to his son from this place, he says: “I thought of you, my dear Custis, on the 18th in the battle, and wondered, when the musket balls and grape were whistling over my head, where I could put you, if with me, to be safe. I was truly thankful you were at school, I hope, learning to be good and wise. You have no idea what a horrible sight a battle-field is.”

From Cerro Gordo, they went on fighting battles until they came to the large and rich city of Mexico.

On this march, Captain Lee was always at the front to guide the men. Once, when one part of General Scott’s army had lost its way, General Scott sent seven engineers to guide it into the right road. They had to cross a huge, rough bed of lava and rock. Six of them went back to camp, saying that they could not get across; but, Captain Lee pressed on in the dark, alone and on foot, and brought the men out in safety. General Scott once said that it was the greatest feat done by any one man during the war.

There were many battles fought, but at last the city of Mexico was taken by General Scott. In after years, this great man was heard to say that his great success in Mexico was largely due to the skill and valor of Robert E. Lee, and that he was the best soldier that he ever saw in the field.

In the midst of all this fighting, his boys were ever in his thoughts. This is a part of what he wrote to his son Custis on Christmas-Eve, 1846:

“I hope good Santa Claus will fill my Rob’s stocking to-night; that Mildred’s, Agnes’s, and Anna’s may break down with good things. I do not know what he may have for you and Mary, but if he leaves you one-half of what I wish, you will want for nothing. I think if I had one of you on each side of me, riding on ponies, I would be quite happy.”

Not long after, he wrote to his boys thus:

“The ponies here cost from ten to fifty dollars. I have three horses, but Creole, is my pet. She is a golden dun color, and takes me over all the ditches I have yet met with.”

When the war was at last ended, in 1848, Captain Lee went home for a short rest, after which he was sent to West Point, as the Superintendent of the Academy from whose walls he had gone forth twenty-three years before. His duty was to watch over the studies and training of the boys who would one day be officers in the army.

Corps (kōre), a body of troops.
Of´ficer, one who has charge of soldiers.
Lävả, melted matter flowing from a volcano.
Fēat, a great deed.
Lieuten´ant (lutĕn´ant), an officer next below a captain.

Tell me—

When Robert became Lieutenant Lee.
Whom he married.
Where he was sent in 1837.
What war broke out in 1846.
About a great feat performed by Captain Lee.
Where he was sent in 1848.


Return to The Life of Gen. Robert E. Lee, For Children, In Easy Words