Washington and Lee University

The Heart of Lee
Wayne Whipple

III
HIS MOTHER'S SON

With a hand as gentle as woman's.—Longfellow.

BECAUSE of the frequent intermarriages among the “First Families,” most of the “gentry” of the Old Dominion were so related that “a Virginia cousin” became the common phrase for a distant connection. Through this custom the people of influence in the State were merged into a great family, so that the initials “F.F.V.” might have stood for the one First Family of Virginia. Of the first five Presidents of the United States, four of them—Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe—all resided in Virginia, within driving distance of one another!

Therefore, Virginia had a certain right to ask herself:

Was not the Father of his Country and leading Federalist one of US? And the original Democrat with his “Jeffersonian Simplicity”—was he not ours ? Who was “the Father of the Constitution” but our “great, little Madison?” And James Monroe—did he not absorb the Monroe Doctrine, of “America for Americans!” from the very breast of Mother Virginia?

Then why should not the Mother of Presidents and the Father of his Country be conscious of a good claim to be both head and heart of the United States of America?

On all these accounts “Old Virginia” considered herself the organizer and builder, as well as the founder of the nation, by a hereditary, divine and constitutional right.

When Robert E. Lee was born into this great Virginia family, Thomas Jefferson of “Monticello” occupied the President's chair. James Madison of “Montpellier” and James Monroe of “Oak Hill”—all nearer together than “Stratford,” his father's estate, and “Shirley,” his mother's home—were yet to take the helm of state and be among his earlier recollections. Robert was only five when the War of 1812 was declared. As soon as he could understand, he heard British infringements on American rights discussed with deep earnestness, and often with bitterness, for the Second War for Independence was but the continuing of the old struggle for liberty. “Boarding our ships and impressing sailors into the service of England, to make them help fight her battles with Napoleon, is as wicked and unlawful as to break in and rob our homes,” they said in his hearing—“for a man's house is his castle!”

“Stratford House” was filled with family portraits and Colonial furniture, each having its own history and significance. The servants loved to take the dear, earnest little fellow up to the roof, and sit under one of the canopies there to tell him about all the brave gentlemen who were “raised on the place,” while the boy's father told him of the noble knights, “without fear and without reproach,” who bore the name of Lee, with the banner of the Cross, and waged war against the Turk, to wrest from him the Holy Sepulchre.

Much as the tales of Christian chivalry appealed to the little boy, he liked still better to hear of the exploits of his own handsome father and his cousin Richard Henry, with Washington, in the Revolution.

When Robert was four, General Henry Lee removed to Alexandria, between Mount Vernon and the national capital, to educate his growing children. Here the family attended old Christ Church, held doubly sacred because Washington had worshiped there. Besides returning often to “Stratford,” the Lee boy sometimes went with his mother to visit Grandfather Carter at “Shirley.”

After General Henry Lee had gone to the West Indies, hoping against hope, to recover his health, the lad's heart followed the absent father, alone in a distant land. This love for his father and his boyish devotion to Virginia's greatest son, Washington, were soon blended into a passionate patriotism as the devout lad grew to manhood. All this, in its fervent intensity, was poured out upon his native State, of which his father had been a soldier, leader, statesman and governor—especially after that sainted exemplar had taken his journey to—

The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveler returns.

When the tender letters ceased to come, and the little ones were told, in a solemn hush, that they could never see their blessèd father's face again, eleven-year-old Robert took it upon himself to comfort and care for his invalid mother. One of the cousins related of him about this time:

I remember Robert well as a boy at school to Mr. Leary at the Alexandria Academy, and afterward at the school of Mr. Hallowell, when his mother lived next door. I recollect his correct deportment at school and elsewhere, and his attention to his studies.

What impressed me most in my youthful days was his devotion to his mother, who was for many years an invalid. . . . He was her housekeeper, relieved her of all domestic cares, looked after the horses, rode out in the carriage with her, and did the marketing.

Another cousin told of young Robert while he was going to school next door, hoping to fit himself, if possible, to enter West Point:

When he was going to Mr. Hallowell's school he would come out at twelve o'clock, have their carriage gotten, and go with his mother to ride, doing and saying everything to amuse her. When she was sick in bed, he mixed every dose of medicine she took, and nursed her night and day.

Robert was his mother's fourth child. His eldest brother, named Charles Carter, for his mother's father, was at Harvard College. Sydney Smith Lee was in the Naval Academy at Annapolis. Anne, the sister older than himself, was already a partial invalid, and away from home much of the time. The youngest child, Mildred, was too small to be of assistance to him.

As the handsome youth grew taller and stronger, his mother became more feeble and helpless. Most of his time out of school was devoted to her. The neighbors used to tell how he carried her in his arms to and from the old-fashioned family coach. Having placed her within, he arranged the cushions—always chatting gaily and doing his best to cheer and entertain her. Thus Robert became almost his mother's only happiness.

Feeling that the family could not afford to let him go to college, as his brother Carter had done, and since Smith was now in the Navy, Robert determined to be a soldier, like his father and the venerated Washington. Carter was already a practising lawyer, so a friend of the family remarked that Mrs. Lee should be proud and happy to have one son in the State, one in the Navy, and the third in the Army.

The feeble, dependent mother was too unselfish to wish to spoil her noble son's career, so she encouraged him in his ambition to be like his brave father; then he took the necessary steps for entrance at the United States Military Academy.

When her tall stand-by had gone away to the West Point Academy, the heroic little mother exclaimed, with a hopeless sigh:

How can I do without Robert? He is both son and daughter to me!


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