Washington and Lee University

The Heart of Lee
Wayne Whipple

IV
CADET TO CAPTAIN

The sex was ever to a soldier kind.—Pope.

THE youth of eighteen who registered at West Point Military Academy in the Summer of 1825 had—thanks to his own ambition and thoroughness—more than usual preparation. The entrance requirements were quite simple, hardly more than “Reading, Writing and Arithmetic,” but he had studied Latin and Greek, besides mathematics and drawing.

Mr. Benjamin Hallowell, the strict Quaker master who had conducted Robert Lee's recent studies, has left on record that “he was never behindhand in his studies, never failed in a single recitation, was perfectly observant of the regulations of the institution; was gentlemanly, unobtrusive, and respectful in his deportment to teachers and fellow-students.”

Also that he did with “a finish and neatness everything he undertook. One of the branches of mathematics he studied with me was conic sections, in which some of the diagrams were very complicated. He drew the diagram on a slate; and although he well knew the one he was drawing would have to be removed to make room for another, he drew each one with as much accuracy and finish, lettering and all, as if it were to be engraved and printed.”

No one realized then that this manifestation of the courteous, good-tempered young man was but the budding of genius.

At that time, drunkenness and other dissipation were found among the cadets. The story of Robert Lee's course there is one of uniformly correct deportment, for he passed through the whole four years without a single demerit. He did not drink with his friends, though nearly every one in those days thought conviviality was necessary in the society of gentlemen. He did not even smoke. When a fellow-student proposed the least infraction of the rules, he declined with a smile so frank and kind as to disarm the natural resentment which such refusals generally arouse among young men.

Robert E. Lee's conduct at the Military Academy was so exemplary that if it had not revealed the heart of a true gentleman, other young men would have shrugged and called him a “prig” or a “snob”—the contemptuous epithets too often misapplied.

Though there was no trace of superciliousness in his manner, Cadet Lee did not wear his heart on his sleeve. Joseph E. Johnston, afterward the great Confederate general, said of their life together at West Point:

We had the same associates, who thought as I did, that no other youth or man so united the qualities that win warm friendship and command respect. For he was full of sympathy and kindness; genial and fond of gay conversation, and even of fun, that made him the most agreeable of companions, while the correctness of his demeanor and language, and attention to all duties, both personal and official, and a dignity as much a part of himself as the elegance of his person, gave him a superiority that every one acknowledged in his heart.

He was the only one of all the men I have known who could laugh at the faults and follies of others so as to make them ashamed without touching their affections.

Another West Point cadet has said of him since:

He never “ran the sentinel post,” did not go off the limits to the “Benny Havens” of his day, nor put “dummies” in his bed to deceive the officer in charge as he made his inspection after “taps,” and at the parades stood steady in line. It was a pleasure to look down the barrel of his gun, for it was bright and clean, and its stock was rubbed so as to resemble polished mahogany.

One of Lee's few intimates at the Academy was young Jefferson Davis, with whom he was later to be so closely associated. The most popular place of “stolen waters” for the cadets was “Buttermilk Falls,” about two miles away, where they used to go and indulge in certain refreshments, liquid and otherwise, purveyed by one Benny Havens, who has become famous in the annals of West Point. Young Lee, Joseph and Albert Sidney Johnston refused to join in any of these clandestine visits to “Benny Havens, Oh”—but Jefferson Davis is said to have gone repeatedly, and to have been court-martialed once for drinking there. While trying to escape a second arrest, Cadet Davis fell over a cliff sixty feet high and was seriously hurt.

In 1828, Robert Lee took the usual vacation of several months at home. His mother had every reason to be proud of her handsome soldier boy. She must have known then that she had not long to live, but she went with him just the same to visit friends and relatives, making the most of her opportunities. This mid-course furlough is the happiest time in the life of many a cadet—indeed, General Grant said, after he had been President of the United States, that this visit to his home and friends, from West Point, was the best time he ever enjoyed, because of the interest every one, especially the young ladies, take in youth dressed in gold lace and gilt buttons. A cousin of young Lee's describes his appearance during this furlough:

The first time I remember being struck with his manly beauty and attractiveness of manner was when he returned home during his course at West Point. He came with his mother and family on a visit to my father's. He was dressed in his cadet uniform of West Point gray with bullet buttons, and every one was filled with admiration of his fine appearance and lovely manners.

Among the places visited by the young cadet was stately “Arlington,” where he met the charming Miss Custis whom he had known ever since she was a “sweet little girl.” “Mary of Arlington” would have been more hard-hearted than human if she could have resisted the tender glances of this soldier “youth with his heart in his eyes”—such an earnest young man with such a full heart and such deep eyes!

Robert Lee had a special reason to remember this time as the happiest in his life, when he returned to the Military Academy for the final year, the accepted lover of the daughter of Washington's adopted son, the granddaughter of Martha Washington and sole heiress of the great Custis estates—but family and estates were of small moment in Robert Lee's eyes compared with the love of the “dearest little girl in the world.”

On his return he received that coveted honor among cadets—the appointment as Adjutant of the Battalion. His standing as a student was second in a class of forty-six.

The motto on the shield of the Academy was, “Duty, Honor, Country,“—these three, but the “greatest of these” was Duty in the eyes of Robert E. Lee—not that he loved Honor or Country less, but Duty more.

The first duty to which Lieutenant Lee was assigned was in the Engineer Corps, at Fort—usually called “Fortress”—Monroe, Virginia. Soon after his arrival there, he was summoned to “Ravens worth,” a great estate in Fairfax County, where his mother lay dying. He cared for her tenderly, never leaving her bedside till the end came.

Much as he revered the memory of his father, he said, in later life, in almost the very words of Abraham Lincoln:

All I am I owe to my mother.

Still, after both father and mother had “passed into the skies,” Lieutenant

Lee did not spend his time in repining. He was already too devout a Christian to rebel against the decree of his real and loving Father above. Besides, life in him was young, and hope and faith were fresh and strong. He seemed to have developed an intenser affection for his living kindred and friends. A near relative wrote of a visit from him soon after his mother died:

I remember being for some time with him at my grandfather Randolph's. . . . I think it was the Fall after he graduated. The house was filled with the young people of the family, of both sexes. He was very much matured since I had seen him, splendid looking, as full of fun, and particularly of teasing, as any of us.

Although we all admired him for his remarkable beauty and attractive manners, I did not see anything in him that prepared me for his so far out-stripping all his compeers. The first time this idea presented itself to me was after my marriage. We were all seated round the table at night, Robert reading. I looked up and my eye fell upon his face in perfect repose, and the thought at once passed through my mind:

You certainly look more like a great man than any one I have ever seen.

The same idea presented itself to me as I looked at him in Christ Church, Alexandria, during the same visit.

Robert E. Lee's past had gone with the life of his beautiful, devoted mother. His future was to be interwoven with that of Mary Custis, to whom he was married two years after his graduation, in the lordly mansion at Arlington, overlooking the Potomac and the city of Washington.

Here is the modest newspaper account of that event, on which a Sunday paper today would lavish column after column: “Married, June 30, 1831, at Arlington House, by the Rev. Mr. Keith, Lieutenant Robert E. Lee, of the United States Corps of Engineers, to Miss Mary A. R. Custis, daughter of G. W. P. Custis, Esq.”

In spite of the brevity of this announcement there was a gay and brilliant company in the spacious rooms of Arlington that happy night, among the portraits of patriots and heroes, quaint Colonial furniture and other relics from Mount Vernon—of Martha Washington, the bride's great-grandmother, as well as of the Father of his Country.

It was not the fashion in those days to go away on wedding journeys, so the young bride and groom spent the rest of the lieutenant's leave of absence in nuptial festivities among their near relatives and friends. Then the happy benedict returned to Old Point Comfort to help fortify Hampton Roads.

At the end of four years Lieutenant Lee was commissioned to aid in marking out a boundary line between Ohio and Michigan. After this he was employed as a clerk in the engineering department at Washington. He was now enabled to live at Arlington, where that courtly gentleman, his father-in-law, was glad to keep his only daughter as long as possible.

Lee was promoted to the First-Lieutenancy in 1836. During these early years of their married life three children were born. The first was named George Washington Custis Lee for his mother's father. The happy young father told of taking this baby boy out to play in the snow. The little fellow dropped behind, and Lieutenant Lee, looking back, saw him with shoulders squared and chin up, mimicking his movements, even to stretching his little fat legs in an attempt to step in his footprints.

“When I saw this,” said the fond father, “I said to myself,” ‘It behooves me to walk very straight, when this fellow is already following in my tracks!’”

Those were happy years in the life of the young couple. Lieutenant Lee was also fortunate in his associates in the national capital. Among the officers of his “mess” there, was a lieutenant familiarly called “Colonel” Joseph E. Johnston.

Two years later, as Captain Lee, he was ordered to St. Louis to perform a great engineering feat. The Mississippi, in its “unvexed” course, had a vexatious way of changing its channel without much warning, to the keen annoyance of those who were doing business on its banks. Just at this time the experts apprehended that the river was about to turn aside and go through Illinois, thus leaving St. Louis and many miles of river front in Missouri high and dry.

So the little Eden at Arlington was broken up when Benedict Lee was sent to the then “Far West” to put the “Father of Waters” in a “strait-jacket!” He went right to work, but the authorities of the town, impatient at what they considered slow work, and believing the thing an impossibility, withdrew their part of the appropriation to pay for such a job. As Captain Lee had received no further instructions from the government, he kept on as though nothing had happened, saying calmly:

They can do as they like with their own, but I was sent here to do certain work, and I shall do it.

Riots broke out in St. Louis, and a mob of superstitious people thought that young army captain was “flying in the face of Providence” in presuming to divert the course of one of the greatest rivers in the world from the way it wanted to go. So they threatened to drive away the ridiculous captain and his crew. But the work was finished and Captain Lee was found to have rendered a great service not only to St. Louis and Missouri, but also to the whole country, by improving the navigation of the Upper Mississippi.

Lee's correspondence at this time reveals his kindness and humor. In a letter to a cousin in Alexandria, he put his son Fitzhugh, whom he had nicknamed “Rooney,” against all comers in the baby race:

I wish you could undeceive her (“my cousin Philippa”) on a certain point, for, as I understand, she is laboring under a grievous error. Tell her that it is farthest from my wish to detract from any of the little Lees, but as to her little boy being equal to “Mr. Rooney”—it is a thing not even to be supposed, much less believed, although we live in a credulous country where people stick at nothing, from a coon story to a sea-serpent!

To Mrs. Lee he wrote:

You do not know how I miss you and the children, my dear Mary. In the woods I feel sympathy with the trees and birds, in whose company I take delight, but experience no pleasure in a strange crowd. I hope you are all well and will continue so; and therefore must again urge you to be very prudent and careful of those dear children. If I could only get a squeeze at that little fellow turning up his sweet mouth to “keeze Baba!”

Here is another letter showing the heart-hungry officer's deep love of childhood, though not of his own flesh and blood:

A few evenings since, feeling lonesome, . . . I got a horse and took a ride. On returning through the lower part of the town, I saw a number of little girls all dressed up in their white frocks and pantalets, their hair plaited and tied up with ribbons, running and chasing each other in all directions. I counted twenty-three nearly the same size. As I drew up my horse to admire the spectacle, a man appeared at the door with the twenty-fourth in his arms.

“My friend,” said I, “are all these your children?”

“Yes,” he said, “there are nine more in the house, and this is the youngest.”

Upon further inquiry, however, I found that they were only temporarily his, and that they had been invited to a party at his house. He said, however, he had been admiring them before I came up, and just wished that he had a million of dollars and that they were his in reality.

I do not think the eldest exceeded seven or eight years old. It was the prettiest sight I have seen in the West, and perhaps in my life.

Recalled to Washington in 1840, Captain Lee had two more years with his precious little family—there were four children then—Custis, Mary, Fitzhugh and Annie—before he was sent, in 1842, to Fort Hamilton, opposite Staten Island, to improve the defenses of New York Harbor. The years he spent here were memorable and happy because he was able to have his wife and children with him.

One day while crossing “the Narrows” he saved a poor little black-and-tan terrier from drowning, and took her home to the children. This dog lived long enough to show her gratitude to the kind officer who had rescued her, by leaving him her dear little puppy, which the family named “Spec.” Once after the wife and children had all gone home to Arlington for a visit, Captain Lee wrote to them from the fort:

I am very solitary, and my only company is my dog and cats. But “Spec” has become so jealous now that he will hardly let me look at the cats. He seems to be afraid that I am going off from him, and never lets me stir without him. Lies down in the office from eight to four without moving. . . . I catch him sometimes sitting up looking at me so intently that I am for a moment startled.


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