Robert E. Lee: A Story and a Play
By Ruth Hill
THE STORY OF ROBERT E. LEE
ONCE upon a time in beautiful Virginia there lived a little boy named Robert Edward Lee. It was in the days before the Civil War when, if we may believe all we hear, all the women were charming, and all the men were gentlemen.
The boy's father was one of the most gallant of the gentlemen, for he was Light Horse Harry of Revolutionary War fame. He it was who said of Washington, “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Mr. Lee did not realize, then, how many people would apply this same remark to his own son.
No doubt little Robert got in and out of as many scrapes as any other active little boy, but all the time he was hard at work learning to control his temper. I started to say he was learning to be a gentleman, but that was something he did not have to learn. A gentleman he was by nature, as the Lees of Virginia had been for generations.
He did not have a very happy boyhood. His father died when Robert was only eleven. His mother was an invalid and Robert was the one who did all the thoughtful little things that mean so much when one is sick. He would race home from school to take her out to ride. He would arrange all the pillows carefully and then tell her everything amusing he could think of, because he said unless she was cheerful the ride would do her no good.
In her last illness he nursed her day and night. If Robert left the room, she kept her eyes on the door until he returned, but she never had long to wait.
A YOUNG SOLDIER
When the time came for Robert to choose a profession, he decided to be a soldier. He prepared himself for West Point. His teacher said that everything Robert started to do, he finished beautifully, even if it were only a plan drawn on his slate.
When the time came, he received his appointment to West Point through Andrew Jackson, who was greatly taken by the appearance of this straightforward young man.
At West Point he graduated second in his class, and better than that, he never received a demerit all the time he was there.
Right after graduation, he was made second lieutenant of Engineers and for some time he was busy looking after our coast defenses.
Two years afterwards he married. Who do you suppose the bride was? The granddaughter of Washington's stepson. Robert and Mary Park Custis had played together as children. She was an heiress, while Lieutenant Lee was poor, but that did not lessen her pride in her husband.
Some years later, after he had been made Captain, the Mississippi River threatened to flood St. Louis. General Scott was asked for help and he sent Captain Lee. “He is young,” Scott wrote, “but if the work can be done, he can do it.”
The city government grew impatient because they thought the young engineer was not working fast enough. They withdrew the money they had voted to spend on the work, but this did not stop Captain Lee. All he said was “They can do as they like with their own, but I was sent here to do certain work, and I will do it.” And he did it.
Feeling in the city ran high, riots broke out, and it was said that cannons were placed ready to fire on the working force. But Lee kept calmly on to the end, and his work still stands today. Just as when he was a boy, anything he began, he finished beautifully.
THE MEXICAN WAR
Later, when the Mexican War broke out, of course Captain Lee was sent to the border. You know what sort of country that is, how easy it is for Mexicans to hide in the mountains, and how hard it is for Americans to find them.
So successful was Lee as a scout, however, that first he was made major, then lieutenant-colonel, and finally colonel, all in one year. General Scott declared years afterward that Lee was the very best soldier he had ever seen.
Early in the war, he started out with a single Mexican guide whom he forced to serve at the point of a pistol. The Americans had received a report that the Mexicans had crossed the mountains and were near, ready to attack. Lee started out to find how near the Mexicans really were.
Soon Lee and his frightened guide came upon tracks of mules and wagons in the road. This would have satisfied many scouts, but Lee determined to press on until he reached the pickets of the enemy.
To his surprise he found no pickets, but he saw large camp-fires on a hillside not far away. By this time, his guide was ready to die of fright and begged Lee to return. But he was not quite satisfied and rode forward. Soon he saw what carried out the report he had heard of the mountain side covered with the tents of the Mexicans, for there it gleamed white in the moonlight. Still riding on, he heard the loud talking and usual noises of a camp. But by this time he discovered that what others had taken for tents were,—well what do you suppose? Why, nothing but sheep!
Riding into the herders' camp, he learned that the Mexicans had not yet crossed the mountains, so he galloped back to his own camp with this important news,—much to the relief of his guide.
At another time he set out in darkness in the midst of a terrible tropic storm, across lava beds where Mexicans lurked. By carrying an important message, he forced the Mexicans to retreat. Seven officers were sent on the same errand, but all except Lee returned without delivering the message. General Scott called it the bravest act of the whole war.
A story which shows how Lee kept right on doing anything that he knew was right, is told of him when he was in Mexico. He had been ordered to take some marines and make a battery to be, manned by them afterwards. The sailors did not like to dig dirt and swore. Even their captain said his men were fighters, not moles. Lee simply showed his orders and made them keep on. When the firing began, the marines found their trenches very useful. The captain apologized to Lee saying, “I suppose after all, your work helped the boys a good deal. But the fact is, I never did like this land fighting—it ain't clean.”
After the fall of Mexico when the American officers were celebrating with a banquet in the palace, a health was proposed to the gallant young captain of engineers who had found a way for the army into the city. Then they noticed that Lee was not there, so one of them went in search of him.
At last Lee was found in a faraway room, hard at work studying a map. When his friend asked him why he was not at the banquet, he pointed to his work. Then his friend told him that was just drudgery and that some one else could do it just as well.
“No,” said Lee, “No, I am only doing my duty.”
A RETURNED HERO
After the war with Mexico, Lee was one of the most popular war heroes. The Cubans tried to get him to lead them in a revolution against Spain. They offered him far more money then he could receive here, but he thought it dishonerable to accept service in a foreign army when he held a United States commission.
Three years later he was made superintendent of West Point. When he learned of his new position, he wrote just what we might expect of him. He said he was sorry to learn that the Secretary of War had decided on him, because he was afraid that he did not have skill and experience enough.
As a matter of fact, he made a highly successful superintendent. One day when Lee was out riding with his son, they caught sight of three cadets who were far out of bounds, and were going farther just as fast as they could. After a moment Lee said, “Did you know those young men? But no, if you did, don't say so. I wish boys would do what is right; it would be so much easier for all parties.”
After three years' service at West Point, Lee was made lieutenant-colonel in a new cavalry regiment, intended to keep peace in the South Western territory which had been taken over from Mexico. His time was spent in fighting Indians.
He happened to be in Washington at the time of the famous John Brown raid and he was sent to end it. Lee captured John Brown and then turned him over to the civil authorities. If it had not been for Lee, John Brown and his party would have been lynched. In talking with a friend afterwards, Lee said, “I am glad we did not have to kill him, for I believe he is an honest, conscientious old man.”
THE CIVIL WAR
Day by day the feeling between the Northern and Southern states grew more bitter. Lee thought both sides were somewhat in the wrong but he kept right to his military duties. He said a soldier should not dabble in politics.
At last the break came for Lee when Virginia decided to leave the union. Can't you just imagine how the heart of Lee was torn? Here he was an officer in the United States army, and yet his beloved Virginia was no longer to be a part of the nation.
It is said that he was offered the position of Commander-in-Chief of the United States forces if he would remain loyal to the union, but he could not turn his back upon Virginia. It was not as if he had felt bitterly against the North. It was not as if he felt strongly on the slave question. As a matter of fact he had freed his own slaves before. He wanted peace but since Virginia had decided to withdraw from the union and so needed him, he was not the man to fail her.
We still remember how he refused to take command in Cuba because he was a United States officer. Now he was obliged to resign his commission, but he said he hoped never to draw his sword again except in defence of his native state.
As soon as it was known that Lee had retired from the United States army, the Governor offered him the position of Commander-in-Chief of the forces of Virginia.
The president of the Virginia convention gave him his commission saying, “Sir, we have by this unanimous vote expressed our convictions that you are at this day, among the living citizens of Virginia, first in war, and we pray God that it may soon be said of you that you are first in peace, and when that time comes you will have gained the still prouder distinction of being first in the hearts of your countrymen.”
So, at the age of fifty-four, after thirty-two years of service in the United States army, Lee accepted the command which he felt to be his duty.
For four years, the life of General Lee was a part of all men's history. You know how he took charge of raw recruits and in two months had sixty trained regiments ready for the service of his state. You know how hard it was for the South to get arms and ammunition. General Lee called upon all the citizens to give up all the guns they owned and saw that factories turned out as much ammunition as possible.
I don't have to tell you of Lee's victories and defeats, because you have read of them all.
He had not only to fight with the Northern armies but he had also to battle against home sickness and measles (measles during the Civil War were no joke) in his own camp.
Because the Southern States were fighting for their separate rights, the feeling of independence was particularly strong among the Southern officers, and General Lee was sometimes seriously hindered by not having his orders carried out.
Then came the last terrible years and months of the war when the South could not get food or clothes or shoes for her army. But the men inspired by Lee, continued to fight bravely on. They knew that their general was not feasting while they starved; for often one cold sweet potato would be all that General Lee would have for a meal.
You can see how great an influence Lee had on the army, by the words that would pass from mouth to mouth before a battle. “Remember, General Lee is looking at us.”
Before one of the later battles of war, Lee was reviewing the troops. “These,” said one of the officers, “Are the brave Virginians.”
Without saying a word, Lee removed his hat and rode the length of the line. One man said it was the most eloquent speech he had ever heard.
A few minutes later as the men advanced to the charge one of the youngest called out, “Any man who would not fight after what General Lee said is a blame coward!”
During battle, Lee seemed not to know the meaning of fear. His officers were forever telling him to keep out of danger. On one occasion he was so determined to fight in the front of the battle, they had to refuse to advance until he went back. He said one time in his quiet vein of humor, “I wish some one would tell me what my place is on the battlefield, I seem never to be in it.”
Another time, he was seen to advance in the midst of firing, stoop, and pick something up. He was replacing a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest.
Finally with all supplies cut off, General Lee saw all further fighting was useless, and he accepted arrangements for surrender. One of his officers told him that history would blame him for surrendering. He replied that it did not matter if he knew it was right.
So at the courthouse at Appomattox, Lee proved himself as great as ever he had been in victory. It is easy enough to be great in the midst of victory, but the truly great man is the one who remains great in spite of defeat. That is the test.
General Grant was so much touched by the bravery and suffering of the Southern army that by his orders no salutes of joy were fired.
After signing the articles of surrender, Lee came out of the courthouse, looked up for a moment at the Virginia hills for which he had fought so bravely, struck his hands together just once in agony, then mounted his confederate grey horse, Traveller, and rode calmly away.
As he rode, he passed in view of his men,—as many as remained of them. News of the surrender had spread, so they were standing about in dejected groups, when they caught sight of Lee. For a moment they forgot hunger and defeat and let out a mighty shout. Then they crowded around their former commander kissing his hands through their tears.
“Men,” he said, “we have fought through the war together. I have done my best for you. My heart is too full to say more.”
THE COLLEGE PRESIDENT
The Lees' beautiful home, Arlington, across the river from Washington, had been used as headquarters for the Union Army during the war. The country home they owned had been burned.
The family was now living at Richmond, and General Lee went to join them there. You can imagine how glad they were to see each other after their long and terrible separation.
But Lee was not allowed the peaceful home life for which he longed. Callers of every class crowded the house.
One morning an Irishman who had fought on the Northern side came with a basket of provisions, and insisted upon seeing General Lee. The servant could not put him off, so when the General appeared, Pat said to him, “Sure, sir, you're a great soldier, and it's I that knows it. I've been fighting against you all these years, and many a hard knock we've had. But, General, I honor you for it, and now they tell me you are poor and in want, and I've brought you this basket. Please take it from a soldier.”
Lee, of course, thanked him for it and told him that although he himself was not in need there were poor soldiers in the hospital who would be glad to be remembered by so generous a foe.
With the death of President Lincoln, feeling in the North against the South took new life. Friends of Lee began to fear for his safety.
One day a confederate soldier in a tattered uniform called upon the general saying he was speaking for four other fellows around the corner who were too ragged to come to the house. They offered their loved general a home in the mountains where they would guard him with their lives. Lee thanked them with tears in his eyes, but he said he could not live the life of an outlaw. He gave them some of his clothes and the soldier went back to his friends around the corner.
Because of Mrs. Lee's poor health, it became necessary to leave Richmond. A friend offered them a country house near Cartersville in Cumberland county. But people followed him even here. An English nobleman offered him an estate abroad, but Lee would not leave Virginia now that she needed him more than ever.
He received all sorts of offers of money, of land, of stock if he would allow business companies just to use his name. He was offered the presidency of an insurance company at a salary of $50,000 a year. He said he could not accept because he knew nothing about the insurance business. “But General, you will not be expected to do any work; what we wish is the use of your name.”
“Don't you think,” said General Lee, “that if my name is worth $50,000 a year, I ought to be very careful about taking care of it?”
As one of his daughters said, “They are offering my father everything but the only thing he will accept,—a chance to earn honest bread while engaged in some useful work.”
That speech made to a trustee of Washington College, brought Lee the offer of presidency of the college at a salary of $1,500 a year. At first Lee would not accept, because he was afraid that because he was still a prisoner on parole it might hurt the college to have him as its head. When the trustees told him what an honor it would be to the college to have his name connected with it, he finally accepted.
On his old war horse, Traveller, he rode into Lexington alone to take up his college duties. At first he was met with a reverent silence, but soon his old soldiers broke out into their far-famed rebel yell.
He took his oath as president on October 2, 1865, and from then until his death, he devoted himself to the needs of the college. When he took charge there were only four professors and forty students. Don't you think most men who had been commanders-in-chief would have considered it beneath their dignity to accept a position like that?
He put every student on his honor. If he found that a student was getting no good from the college, and that his influence might be bad on the others, the student was given the chance to leave instead of being expelled. Even as the college grew bigger, Lee knew every student personally, and even most of his marks.
Lee was still pursued by offers of large salaries for the mere use of his name. To one of these he replied what he might have said to all, “I am grateful, but I have a self-imposed task which I must accomplish. I have led the young men of the South in battle. I have seen many of them die on the field ; I shall devote my remaining energies to training young men to do their duty in life.”
The trustees of Washington College wanted to give him as a home, the house erected for him as president. But he insisted that the building be kept by the college, he said he could not allow himself or his family to be a tax on the college.
Because of poor health, Lee went South during his last winter. While he was gone, the trustees voted to give his family three thousand dollars a year.
But this, like everything else, Lee refused. After Lee's Southern trip, it was hoped that he had regained his health, for he took up his college duties with such energy.
On the morning of September 28, 1870, General Lee was at his desk promptly as usual. In the afternoon he went to a business meeting of the Church officers. A steady rain was falling and the air was chilly. He presided at the meeting, sitting in the cold, damp church. When it was announced that the minister's salary had not been raised, Lee said he would pay what was lacking.
Tea was waiting for him when he came home. He stood up as if to say grace, but he could not speak. When the doctor came, he told Lee he would soon be up again riding his favorite gray, but Lee only shook his head. Then later in his delirium, he showed his mind had wandered back to the battlefields, for once he said, “Strike the tents.” And again speaking of one of his favorite officers who had been killed in the war, he said, “Tell Hill he must come up.”
Then at last Lee passed peacefully away from all battlefields.
One time a young student was called to the president's office and was told gently that only patience and industry would prevent the failure that would otherwise certainly come to him.
“But, General, you failed.”
“I hope that you may be more fortunate than I,” was the quiet answer.
But it was only the General's great modesty that made him consider himself a failure. What greater success could come to any man than to be always a Christian and always a gentleman?
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