The Life of Robert E. Lee for Boys and Girls
By J. G. De Roulhac Hamilton and Mary Thompson Hamilton
YEARS OF PEACE
AFTER the hard service of the Mexican campaign, Lee found the greatest enjoyment in the peaceful years at home which followed it. He was in the prime of life and still kept his youthful activity and beauty. He was five feet, eleven inches in height, although he always seemed taller, and weighed one hundred and seventy-five pounds. His hair, which curled slightly at the ends, had always been jet black, but was now very slightly touched with gray. His clear, direct eyes were hazel; his face was clean-shaven except for a closely clipped mustache. He carried himself superbly and well deserved the reputation of being the handsomest man in the army. Fifteen years later, Stonewall Jackson said Lee's was “the most perfect animal form” he had ever seen. He was rarely, if ever, sick, and was full of gayety and high spirits, especially when with his children. He was never tired of romping and joking with them, and, even in the early morning, he had the two younger children climb into his bed for a story-telling hour. During these years he formed a close friendship with his children which lasted through his life. He was vitally interested in their education and insisted that he would not be satisfied with anything less than the highest standing. He was always ready to help with a difficult lesson in mathematics or Latin, not by finding the answer or reading the lesson, but by guiding the children to win victory for themselves.
He was no less interested in their physical education. He made his sons stand erect and he saw that they learned to ride, shoot, swim, coast, and skate. His son Robert tells how he himself was encouraged by his father to take care of his own room, which was inspected just as the rooms of the West Point cadets were. His father gave him a gun and offered him a reward for every crow scalp he would bring in, advancing to him enough money to get powder and shot. The boy expected to make a fortune, and this hope was increased when he killed two crows very soon after he got the gun. He showed them to his father with much pride and told him that he would soon be able to repay the loan. His father's eyes twinkled, and he smiled, but he said nothing. The son tried, as he says, “hard and long,” but never killed another crow. A letter from Lee to his son Custis, or “Boo” as he called him, shows his feeling for his children.
Baltimore, May 4, 1851.
My dearest Son:—
Your letter of the 27th ultimo, which I duly received, has given me more pleasure than any that I now recollect having ever received. It has assured me of the confidence you feel in my love and affection, and with what frankness and candor you open to me all your thoughts.
So long as I meet with such return from my children, and see them strive to respond to my wishes, and exertions, for their good and happiness, I can meet with calmness and unconcern all else the world may have in store for me. I cannot express my pleasure at hearing you declare your determination to shake off the listless fit that has seized upon you, and arouse all your faculties into activity and exertion. The determination is alone wanting to accomplish the wish. At times the temptation to relax will be hard upon you, but will grow feebler and more feeble by constant resistance. The full play of your young and growing powers, the daily exercise of all your energies, the consciousness of acquiring knowledge, and the pleasure of knowing your efforts to do your duty, will bring you a delight and gratification far surpassing all that idleness and selfishness can give. Try it fairly and take your own experience. I know it will confirm you in your present resolve to “try and do your best,” and if that does not recompense you for your devotion and labor, you will find it in the happiness which it brings to father and mother, brothers and sisters, and all your friends. I do not think you lack either energy or ambition. Hitherto you have not felt the incentive to call them forth. “Content to do well,” you have not tried “to do better.” The latter will as assuredly follow the effort as the former. Every man has ambition. The young soldier especially feels it. Honor and fame are all that he aspires to. But he cannot reach either by volition alone, and he sometimes shrinks from the trials necessary to accomplish them. Let this never be your case. Keep them constantly before you and firmly pursue them. They will at last be won. I am very much pleased at the interest taken by the cadets in your success. Surely it requires on your part a corresponding return. They desire to see you strive, at least, to gratify their wishes. Prove yourself worthy of their affection. Hold yourself above every mean action. Be strictly honorable in every act, and be not ashamed to do right. Acknowledge right to be your aim and strive to reach it. I feel, too, so much obliged to you for the candid avowal of your feelings. Between us two let there be no concealment. I may give you advice and encouragement and you will give me pleasure.
. . . . . . . .
His [Rooney's] anxiety is still to go to West Point, and thinks there is no life like that of a dragoon. He thinks he might get through the Academy, though he would not stand as well as Boo. I tell him he would get two hundred demerits the first year, and that there would be an end of all his military aspirations.
. . . . . . . .
Devotedly, your father,
R. E. LEE.
Lee was fond of reading and was familiar with Scott's poems and other works, but his life was so filled with action and responsibility that he had little time to read and so could hardly be called a reading man. The family was much at Arlington and found much brightness and happiness in the life there. In the following letter, Lee describes Christmas there, a typical Christmas of the old South:—
ARLINGTON, 28th December, 1851.
We came on last Wednesday morning. It was a bitter cold day, and we were kept waiting an hour in the depot at Baltimore for the cars, which were detained by the snow and frost on the rails. We found your grandfather at the Washington depot, Daniel and the old carriage and horses, and young Daniel on the colt Mildred. Your mother, grandfather, Mary Eliza, the little people, and the baggage, I thought load enough for the carriage, so Rooney and I took our feet in our hands and walked over. We looked for the Anne Case, in which to get a lift to Roop's Hill, but congratulated ourselves afterwards that we missed her, for she only overtook us after we had passed Jackson City, and was scarcely out of sight when we turned up the Washington turnpike. The snow impeded the carriage as well as us, and we reached here shortly after it. The children were delighted at getting back, and passed the evening in devising pleasure for the morrow. They were in upon us before day on Christmas morning, to overhaul their stockings. Mildred thinks she drew a prize in the shape of a beautiful new doll; Angelina's infirmities were so great that she was left in Baltimore and this new treasure was entirely unexpected. The cakes, candies, books, etc. were overlooked in the caresses she bestowed upon her, and she was scarcely out of her arms all day. Rooney got among his gifts a nice pair of boots, which he particularly wanted, and the girls, I hope, were equally well pleased with their presents, books, and trinkets.
Your mother, Mary, Rooney, and I went to church, and Rooney and the twins skated back on the canal (Rooney having taken his skates along for the purpose), and we filled his place in the carriage with Miss Sarah Stuart, one of M's comrades. Minny Lloyd was detained to assist her mother at dinner, but your Aunt Maria brought her and Miss Lucretia Fitzhugh out the next day, and Wallace Stiles and his brother arriving at the same time, we had quite a tableful.
The young people have been quite assiduous in their attentions to each other, as their amusements have been necessarily indoors; but the beaux have successfully maintained their reserve so far, notwithstanding the captivating advances of the belles. The first day they tried skating, but the ice was soft and rough, and it was abandoned in despair. They have not moved out of the house since. To-day the twins were obliged to leave us, and when the carriage came to the door, Minny Lloyd and Sarah Stuart reluctantly confessed that their mamas ordered them to return in the first carriage. We have only, therefore, Wallace and Edward Stiles, and Miss Lucretia Fitzhugh in addition to our family circle.
I need not describe to you our amusements, you have witnessed them so often, nor the turkey, cold ham, plum-puddings, mince-pies, etc., at dinner. I hope you will enjoy them again, or some equally as good.
The weather has been bitter cold. I do not recollect such weather (I can only judge by my feelings) since the winter of 1835. I have not been to Washington yet, but will endeavor to get over to-morrow. I am writing this to mail then. The family have retired, but I know I should be charged with much love from every individual were they aware of my writing, so I will give it without bidding. May you have many happy years, all bringing you an increase of virtue and wisdom, all witnessing your prosperity in this life, all bringing you nearer everlasting happiness hereafter. May God in His great mercy grant me this my constant prayer.
I had received no letter from you when I left Baltimore, nor shall I get any till I return, which will be, if nothing happens, to-morrow a week, 5th January, 1852. You will then be in the midst of your examination. I shall be very anxious about you. Give me the earliest intelligence of your standing, and stand up before them boldly, manfully; do your best, and I shall be satisfied.
R. E. Lee.
In spite of the close intimacy between Lee and his children, he maintained the strictest discipline. He expected to be obeyed and he was obeyed. His feelings and motives are well shown in the following letter to his wife:—
Our dear little boy seems to have among his friends the reputation of being hard to manage—a distinction not at all desirable, as it indicates self-will and obstinacy. Perhaps these are qualities which he really possesses, and he may have a better right to them than I am willing to acknowledge; but it is our duty, if possible, to counteract them, and assist him to bring them under his control. I have endeavored, in my intercourse with him to require nothing but what was, in my opinion, necessary or proper, and to explain to him temperately its propriety, and at a time when he could listen to my arguments and not at the moment of his being vexed and his little faculties warped by passion. I have also tried to show him that I was firm in my demands and constant in their enforcement and that he must comply with them, and I let him see that I look to their execution in order to relieve him as much as possible from the temptation to break them.
He also required from his children persistent labor at their tasks, punctuality, and devotion to duty. “Duty, then,” he said, “is the sublimest word in our language,” and no man ever lived a life more in accord with a principle than Lee's was with this. In every relation, in every problem of life, the difficulty lay only in seeing where duty lay; its performance when once seen was certain. This devotion to duty was the keynote of Lee's whole life.
In 1849 Lee was sent with a number of other engineers to Florida to examine the coast defenses and to recommend locations for new ones. His next work was the construction of Fort Carroll at Seller's Point, eight miles below Baltimore. This constant choice of Lee for fortification work was the highest possible praise of his ability in his profession. Indeed, it was thought by those in authority in the army " that no officer of the Corps of Engineers had a quicker eye to grasp the military requisites of a situation and make the best possible provision for its defense." This work kept him in Baltimore for three years. It was pleasant to be near his sister again, and he and his wife soon gained great popularity there, and both made many close friends. It was at this time that Lee was selected by the Cuban Junta of New York to take command of a revolutionary military force in an effort to secure Cuban independence from Spain. This offer carried with it both a high salary and high rank, and Lee gave it careful consideration. He discussed it with his friend, Jefferson Davis, then Senator from Mississippi, but finally came to the conclusion that having been educated for the service of the United States, he had no right to decide to serve in the army of another power while he still held his commission. And, as always, having found the course he believed to be right, he followed it, and declined the offer.
In 1852 he was appointed superintendent of the United States Military Academy. His administration lasted three years and was notably successful. He had not desired the post and had protested against his assignment to it, but after he went there he devoted every ability and every energy to his task. His aim was to be in personal touch with all the cadets, and to this end each Saturday night found a number with him for supper. Their shyness, evident at first, soon wore off under the influence of Lee's charm of manner and his heartfelt cordiality. Among the cadets at this time were his son Custis, who led the class of 1854, and his nephew, Fitzhugh Lee.
General Oliver O. Howard tells of Lee's habit at this time of spending as much time as he could with the cadets who were on the sick-list, and expresses the admiration he formed for Lee whom he came to know while he was himself a cadet and in the hospital. General John B. Schofield says that Lee was the personification of dignity, justice, and kindness, and was respected and admired as the ideal of a commanding officer.
In spite of the many pleasant things about his service at West Point, the responsibilities weighed heavily upon Lee, and he felt great relief as well as some regret when he was transferred.
Some of the cadets at West Point under Lee who later became prominent were D. M. Gregg, Oliver O. Howard, J. B. McPherson, John M. Schofield, Thomas H. Ruger, George D. Ruggles, Philip H. Sheridan, J. W. Sill, T. L. Vinton, and A. S. Webb, all generals in the Federal Army; and Robert H. Anderson, E. P. Alexander, John B. Hood, Fitzhugh Lee, G. W. C. Lee, Stephen D. Lee, Thomas M. Jones, John R. Chambliss, L. L. Lomax, William D. Fender, and J. E. B. Stuart, generals in the Confederate Army. Among the instructors at this time were Robert S. Garnett, commandant of cadets, and Edward Kirby Smith, both of whom became Confederate generals.
Return to The Life of Robert E. Lee for Boys and Girls