Washington and Lee University

Camp-Fires of General Lee

CHAPTER V.
ROBERT E. LEE.

ROBERT EDWAR LEE was born at Stratford, Westmoreland county, Virginia, January 19, 1807. He was the son of Henry Lee, who graduated at Princeton College two years before the breaking out of the Revolution, when only eighteen years of age. In 1776, he was made captain of a cavalry company, and the following year served under Washington. Lee became a major, and his legion was one of the most famous in the Revolution. In July, 1779, he captured Paulus Hook (Jersey City), for which he received the thanks of Congress and a gold medal. He was made lieutenant-colonel in 1780, and early in the following year joined General Greene in the Carolinas. The fame and exploits of “Light-Horse Harry” are a part of the history of our country.

After the war Henry Lee was a member of Congress, and in 1791 was chosen governor of Virginia. He commanded the troops sent to quell the Whiskey Insurrection, in 1794. He was appointed by Congress to pronounce the funeral oration on the death of Washington, but, unable to be present, it was delivered by Judge Marshall. He was seriously wounded in 1814 while quelling a riot in Baltimore, and never fully recovered from it. He died in 1818, in Georgia, while on his return from the West Indies.

The first wife of General Henry Lee bore him Henry Lee, celebrated for his literary ability, and a daughter, Lucy. By his second wife he had Charles Carter, Robert Edward and Sidney Smith, and two daughters, Annie and Mildred. Sidney Smith Lee became Commodore Lee of the Confederate navy, and was the father of General Fitz Lee.

Robert Edward Lee entered the Military Academy, at West Point, in 1825. He graduated second in his class, and during the entire four years never received a demerit and was never once reprimanded. On his graduation he was appointed second lieutenant in the corps of topographical engineers, to which branch, then as now, the most distinguished graduates of West Point are assigned. He was employed for several years on the coast defences of the United States. In 1832 he married Mary, daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, and granddaughter of the wife of Washington—a most estimable lady and the possessor of large estates, the most widely known being the Arlington house, in Alexandria county, opposite Washington, and the White house, on the Pamunkey, the scene of Washington's marriage.

Robert Edward Lee was the father of three sons and four daughters—George Washington Custis, William Henry Fitzhugh and Robert Edward, and Mary, Anne, Agnes and Mildred. The first two sons became major-generals, the second son being a graduate of West Point, and the third entered the war as private and was promoted to a staff appointment. In 1836 R. E. Lee was made first lieutenant, and in 1838 captain, of engineers. In 1844 he was a member of the board of visitors to the West Point Academy, and in 1845 a member of the board of engineers.

At the breaking out of the Mexican war, Captain Lee was assigned to the central army in Mexico as chief engineer under General Wool. His services were of the most important nature, and, as is well known, he won the fullest confidence of General Scott, who was quick to recognize his brilliant qualities and selected him as one of his personal staff. He was probably complimented by the commanding officer more frequently than any one else who took part in the war. He became the special favorite of the old hero, who pronounced him the greatest military genius in America.

Captain Lee was twice brevetted for his services in Mexico, and his conduct at Chapultepec led to his appointment (September 1, 1852) to the superintendency of the West Point Academy. He held this position not quite three years, and it was during that period that the course of study was extended to cover five years.

In 1855, Colonel Lee was commissioned lieutenant-colonel full rank in the Second Cavalry. This regiment unquestionably had more officers who afterward became famous than any other regiment ever in the service. Albert Sydney Johnston was colonel; R. E. Lee, lieutenant-colonel; William J. Hardee, senior major; George H. Thomas, junior major; Earl Van Dorn, senior captain, with Kirby Smith the next ranking captain, and with Hood, Fitzhugh Lee, Johnson, Palmer and Stoneman among the lieutenants.

In 1855 this regiment was sent to Texas, where for several years it was engaged in continual warfare with the fierce Indian tribes on that exposed frontier. In 1859, Colonel Lee returned to Washington, and was stationed there during the memorable John Brown raid, at Harper's Ferry. He commanded the battalion of marines which were sent to that point, Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart acting as his aid. When they arrived, the insurgents had retreated to the fire-engine house in the armory-yard, where they had barricaded themselves, and had kept up a desultory fire on the town during the afternoon. They had captured Colonel Washington and other citizens, and were holding them as hostages. Colonel Lee immediately surrounded the engine-house with his marines, and the next morning summoned John Brown to surrender, pledging himself to protect him and his men from the fury of the citizens. Brown refused any terms except to march out with his men and prisoners, all with their arms and with permission to leave without being followed, to the second toll-gate, where he promised to release his prisoners. After that he would “take his chances.” Lee would not agree, and at his request Lieutenant Stuart remonstrated with Brown on the folly of his course. It availed nothing, and under the direction of Lee the doom of the engine-house were battered in and the inmates captured. One of the marines was killed and one wounded, while several of the insurgents were killed and wounded, Brown being among the latter. What followed is known to the world. Brown and his three surviving comrades were indicted for conspiracy with negroes to excite insurrection, for treason against the commonwealth of Virginia and for murder. They were found guilty, and hanged December 2, 1859.

Troublous times followed. The flames of civil war were kindling throughout the country. Colonel Lee saw with pain inexpressible that the fiercest and most gigantic struggle of modern times was at hand. He hoped that Virginia would remain in the Union, for he was a thorough believer in States' rights. When she seceded, therefore, he conscientiously believed his duty gave him no choice except to follow her.

No one can fully realize the pain it cost this great and good man to draw his sword in the strife. General Scott argued and plead with him, and showed him the great honors that were sure to come to him if he remained in the Union army; but it was purely a question of conscience with Lee, who would have laid down his life gladly could it have dissipated the black clouds gathering in the sky. In a letter to his beloved sister he said, “With all my devotion to the Union, and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have, therefore, resigned my commission in the army, and, save in defence of my native State, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called upon to draw my sword.”

Respecting Lee's resignation J. William Jones, D.D., contributes a most interesting statement. He says that in obedience to orders to report to the commander-in-chief, in Washington, Lee reached there on the 1st of March, 1861, just three days before the inauguration of President Lincoln. “His hopes for the averting of civil war were doomed to a sad disappointment, and events followed so rapidly that by the middle of April he was compelled to decide whether he would go with the North or with Virginia in the great struggle—whether he would accept the command of the United States armies in the field or ‘share the miseries of his people,’ while he gave up place, fortune and his beautiful home at Arlington to serve his native Virginia. If any influence could have swerved Lee from his purpose, it was his friendship for his commander and his high respect for his opinions. General Scott used all of his powers of persuasion to induce him to adhere to the Union and serve under the ‘old flag,’ and finally Francis Preston Blair (at General Scott's suggestion) was sent by Mr. Lincoln to offer him the supreme command of the United States armies in the field. This statement has been questioned, but the proof is conclusive. Besides the positive testimony of Montgomery Blair, who got it from his father, and of Reverdy Johnson and other gentlemen, who received it from General Scott, I found soon after his death, in General Lee's private letter-book, in his own well-known handwriting, and was permitted to copy, the following letter, which settles the whole question beyond peradventure. Senator Cameron had stated on the floor of the Senate that Lee had sought to obtain the chief command of the army, and, being disappointed, had then ‘gone to Richmond and joined the Confederates.’ Reverdy Johnson of Maryland—himself an ardent Union man—repelled the charge, and thereupon General Lee wrote him as follows:

LEXINGTON, VA., February 25, 1868.

HON. REVERDY JOHNSON, UNITED STATES SENATE, WASHINGTON, D.C.—

MY DEAR SIR: My attention has been called to the official report of the debate in the Senate of the United States of the 19th instant, in which you did me the kindness to doubt the correctness of the statement made by the Hon. Simon Cameron in regard to myself.

I desire that you may feel certain of my conduct on the occasion referred to so far as my individual statement can make you. I never intimated to any one that I desired the command of the United States army, nor did I ever have a conversation with but one gentleman, Mr. Francis Preston Blair, on the subject, which was at his invitation, and, as I understood, at the instance of President Lincoln.

After listening to his remarks I declined the offer he made to me to take command of the army that was to be brought into the field, stating as candidly and as courteously as I could that, though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern States.

I went directly from the interview with Mr. Blair to the office of General Scott, and told him of the proposition that had been made to me, and my decision.

Upon reflection after returning to my home, I concluded that I ought no longer to retain any commission I held in the United States army, and on the second morning thereafter I forwarded my resignation to General Scott.

At the time I hoped that peace would have been preserved, that some way would have been found to save the country from the calamities of war, and I then had no other intention than to pass the remainder of my days as a private citizen.

Two days afterward, upon the invitation of the governor of Virginia, I repaired to Richmond, found that the convention, then in session, had passed the ordinance withdrawing the State from the Union, and accepted the commission of commander of its forces, which was tendered me. These are the simple facts of the case, and they show that Mr. Cameron has been misinformed.

I am, with great respect, your obedient servant,

R. E. LEE.

“It will be seen from this letter that no sooner had Colonel Lee received and rejected this proposition, which tendered him rank far beyond what he could hope for by siding with the Confederates, he went immediately to his friend General Scott and told him all about it. The last interview between Scott and Lee was a very affecting one. The veteran begged Lee to accept the offer of Mr. Lincoln, and not to “throw away such brilliant prospects’ and ‘make the great mistake of his life.’ Lee expressed the highest respect for General Scott and for his opinions, repeated what he had said to Mr. Blair—that, while he recognized no necessity for the state of things then existing, and would gladly liberate the slaves of the South, if they were his, to avert the war, yet he could not take up arms against his native State, his home, his kindred, his children. They parted with expressions of warmest mutual friendship, and General Lee returned to Arlington.

“The night before his letter of resignation was written he asked to be alone, and while his noble wife watched and prayed below he was heard pacing the floor of the chamber above or pouring forth his soul in prayer for divine guidance. About three o'clock in the morning he came down calm and composed and said to his wife,

“‘Well, Mary, the path of duty is now plain before me. I have decided on my course. I will at once send my resignation to General Scott.’

“Accordingly, he penned the following letter:

ARLINGTON, VA., April 20, 1861.

GENERAL: Since my interview with you on the 18th instant I have felt that I ought not longer to retain my commission in the army. I therefore tender my resignation, which I request you will recommend for acceptance. It would have been presented at once but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted the best years of my life and all the ability I possessed.

During the whole of that time—more than a quarter of a century—I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors and the most cordial friendship from my comrades. To no one, general, have I been much indebted as to yourself for uniform kindness and consideration, and it has always been my desire to merit your approbation. I shall carry to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, and your name and fame will always be dear to me.

Save in defence of my native State, I never again desire to draw my sword. Be pleased to accept my most earnest wishes for the continuance of your happiness and prosperity, and believe me most truly yours,

R. E. LEE.

LIEUTENANT-GENERAL WINFIELD SCOTT,

Commanding United States Army.

“The newspapers of the South, and especially of Richmond, were very bitter against General Scott for not siding with Virginia, his native State, in the contest; but General Lee always spoke of his old friend in terms of high respect, while regretting that he did not see it to be his duty to come with his State. Soon after he took command of the Virginia forces a friend called to see him one day, accompanied by his five-year-old boy, a sprightly little fellow, whom the general soon had dandling on his knee. Soon the father asked Henry,

“‘What is General Lee going to do with General Scott?’

“The little fellow, who had caught the slang of the times, at once replied,

“‘He is going to whip him out of his boots.’

“General Lee's voice and manner instantaneously changed, and, lifting Henry down, he stood him between his knees, and, looking him full in the face, said with great gravity,

“‘My dear little boy, you should not use such expressions. War is a serious matter, and General Scott is a great and good soldier. None of us can tell what the result of this contest will be.’

“All through the war he was accustomed to speak of General Scott in the kindest terms, and a short time before his own death I heard him in a company of gentlemen at Lexington, Va., pay a warm tribute to the memory of his old friend and esteemed commander. General Scott was even more demonstrative in his expressions of admiration and friendship for Lee. His despatches and official reports from Mexico were filled with the warmest commendations of his favorite engineer officer. Of his services during the siege of Vera Cruz, General Scott wrote:

“‘I am compelled to make special mention of Captain R. E. Lee, engineer. This officer greatly distinguished himself at the siege of Vera Cruz.’

“In his report of Cerro Gordo he mentions several times the efficient service which Captain Lee performed, and says,

“‘This officer was again indefatigable during these operations in reconnaissances as daring as laborious and of the utmost value. Nor was he less conspicuous in planning batteries and in conducting columns to their stations under the heavy fire of the enemy.’

“In his official report of the final operations which captured the City of Mexico, General Scott declares Captain Lee to have been ‘as distinguished for felicitous execution as for science and daring,’ I and says again, “Captain Lee, so constantly distinguished, also bore important orders from me (September 13) until he fainted from a wound and the loss of two nights' sleep at the batteries’ When, soon after General Scott's return from Mexico, a committee from Richmond waited on him to tender him a public reception in the capitol of his native State, he said, “You seek to honor the wrong man. Captain R. E. Lee is the Virginian who deserves the credit of that brilliant campaign.’

“General William Preston of Kentucky says that General Scott told him that he regarded Lee ‘as the greatest living soldier in America,’ and that in a conversation not long before the breaking out of the war General Scott said with emphasis,

“‘I tell you that if I were on my death-bed to-morrow, and the President of the United States should tell me that a great battle was to be fought for the liberty or slavery of the country, and asked my judgment as to the ability of a commander, I would say with my dying breath, Let it be Robert E. Lee.’

“I have been allowed to copy the following autograph letter of General Scott, which illustrates this point:

HEADQUARTERS OF THE ARMY, May 8, 1857.

HON. J. B. FLOYD, SECRETARY OF WAR—

SIR: I beg to ask that one of the vacant second lieutenancies may be given to W. H. F. Lee, son of Brevet Colonel R. E. Lee, at present on duty against the Comanches.

I make this application mainly on the extraordinary merits of the father, the very best soldier I ever saw in the field; but the son is himself a very remarkable youth, now about twenty, of a fine stature and constitution, a good linguist, a good mathematician and about to graduate at Harvard University. He is also honorable and amiable, like his father, and dying to enter the army. I do not ask the commission as a favor, though if I had influence I should be happy to exert it in this case. My application is in the name of national justice, in part payment (and but a small part) of the debt due to the invaluable services of Colonel Lee.

I have the honor to be, with high respect, Your obedient servant,
WINFIELD SCOTT.

“In a public address delivered in Baltimore soon after the death of General Lee, Hon. Reverdy Johnson said that he ‘had been intimate with General Scott, and had heard him say more than once that his success in Mexico was largely due to the skill, valor and undaunted energy of Lee. It was a theme upon which he (General Scott) liked to converse, and he stated his purpose to recommend him as his successor in the chief command of the army. I was with General Scott in April, 1861, when he received the resignation of General Lee, and witnessed the pain it caused him. It was a sad blow to the success of that war in which his own sword had as yet been unsheathed. Much as General Scott regretted it, he never failed to say that he was convinced that Lee had taken that step from an imperative sense of duty. General Scott was consoled in a great measure by the reflection that he would have as his opponent a soldier worthy of every man's esteem, and one who would conduct the war upon the strictest rules of civilized warfare. There would be no outrages committed upon private persons or private property which he could prevent.’

“A prominent banker of New York who was very intimate with General Scott has given me a number of incidents illustrating Scott's high opinion of Lee. On one occasion a short time before the war this gentleman asked him in the course of a confidential interview,

“‘General, whom do you regard as the greatest living soldier?’

“General Scott at once replied,

“‘Colonel Robert E. Lee is not only the greatest soldier of America, but the greatest soldier now living in the world. This is my deliberate conviction from a full knowledge of his extraordinary abilities; and if the occasion ever arises, Lee will win this place in the estimation of the whole world.’

“The general then went into a detailed sketch of Lee's services and a statement of his ability as an engineer, and his capacity not only to plan campaigns, but also to command large armies in the field, and concluded by saying,

“‘I tell you, sir, that Robert E. Lee is the greatest soldier now living; and if he ever gets the opportunity, he will prove himself the greatest captain of history.’

“In May, 1861, this gentleman and another obtained a passport from General Scott to go to Richmond to see if they could do anything to promote pacification. In the course of the interview General Scott spoke in the highest terms of Lee as a soldier and a man, stated that he had rejected the supreme command of the United States army, and expressed his confidence that Lee would do everything in his power to avert war, and would, if a conflict came, conduct it on the highest principles of Christian civilization. He cheerfully granted the passport, and said,

“‘Yes, go and see Robert Lee. Tell him for me that we must have no war, but that we must avert a conflict of arms until the sober second thought of the people can stop the mad schemes of the politicians.’

“In the interview which these gentlemen had with General Lee he most cordially reciprocated the kindly feelings of General Scott, and expressed his ardent desire to avert war and his willingness to do anything in his power to bring about a settlement of the difficulties. But he expressed the fear that the passions of the people, North and South, had been too much aroused to yield to pacific measures, and that every effort at a peaceful solution would prove futile. Alluding to Mr. Seward's boast that he would conquer the South in ‘ninety days,’ and to the confident assertions of some of the Southern politicians that the war would be a very short one, General Lee said with a good deal of feeling,

“‘They do not know what they say. If it comes to a conflict of arms, the war will last at least four years. Northern politicians do not appreciate the determination and pluck of the South, and Southern politicians do not appreciate the numbers, resources and patient perseverance of the North. Both sides forget that we are all Americans, and that it must be a terrible struggle if it comes to war. Tell General Scott that we must do all we can to avert war; and if it comes to the worst, we must then do everything in our power to mitigate its evils.’

“Alas that the wishes and aspirations of these two great soldiers could not have been realized! Men will differ as to whether Scott or Lee was right in the course which each thought proper to pursue on the only great question which ever divided them, but all must admire that pure friendship which neither time nor circumstances could break.”


Colonel Lee resigned his commission April 20, 1861, and proceeded at once to Richmond, where he offered his services to Virginia. Governor Letcher immediately conferred on him the rank of major-general, and he was given charge of the force that the Legislature authorized for the defence of the State.

General Lee began without delay the task of organizing this force and of preparing for the invasion that was certain to come. This was a most difficult work, but it was accomplished with consummate skill and success.

Virginia seceded April 17, and joined the Confederacy May 8. General Lee was ordered to retain command of the Army of Virginia until the military organization of the Confederacy was completed. He was made a general in the regular army, ranking next to Sidney Johnston. The Federal forces at Fortress Monroe were heavily reinforced, Alexandria was occupied in the latter part of May, and, soon after, General McClellan with a strong column entered West Virginia. The first conflict of any moment was at Great Bethel, between Yorktown and Hampton, on the 10th of June, where a column of Federals numbering five thousand men, with artillery, was defeated by a force of eighteen hundred infantry and six pieces of artillery. Other engagements followed, and finally, July 21, took place the battle of Bull Run, ending in the utter rout and overthrow of the Union army and their turbulent flight to the entrenchments of Washington. But everything went wrong for the Confederates in West Virginia. The people were strongly Union in sentiment, and McClellan pushed matters with such vigor and ability that he became the most popular general in the Federal army, and soon after succeeded to the supreme command.

General Garnet, the Confederate commander, having been killed, General Lee was ordered to West Virginia to assume command of the army in that region. This was his first service in the field during the civil war. He displayed caution, skill and true generalship; but the operations in West Virginia had little effect on the progress of the war, and therefore it is not necessary to follow them in detail.

In the fall of 1861 the efforts of the Federal government were directed chiefly against the Southern coast, and General Lee was ordered to Charleston and to take command of the coast department. The repeated failures of the Union attempts to make any real impression in that section during the years that followed attest the skill and thoroughness with which Lee performed this duty.

General Lee was made commander-in-chief of the Confederate armies March 13, 1862. He retained the position, however, but a few months. General McClellan, with his enormous and admirably-disciplined army, landed on the Peninsula in May and began his campaign against Richmond. During the terrible struggle at Seven Pines, as has already been told, General Johnston was severely wounded. Naturally enough, General Lee succeeded him, and thenceforward directed all the movements of the Confederate army in Virginia to the close of the war.

The history of the campaign in the Peninsula has already been told.


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