Washington and Lee University

The Heart of Lee
Wayne Whipple

VI
“FROM PILLAR TO POST”

The soldier's virtue rather makes choice of loss
Than gain which darkens him.—Shakespeare.

ALTHOUGH Colonel Lee had then lived out two-thirds of his days and was already laughing about his white hairs, he was still a young man, in the measure of experience. He hoped to spend the rest of his days in peace and at home, leading the agreeable, useful life of the Virginia “gentleman farmer.”

Unconscious as Colonel Lee was of that likeness, there were a number of points of resemblance between himself and Colonel Washington. The real resemblances were more than such externals as that both lived in beautiful mansions with pillared porticoes overlooking the Potomac—each sightly estate having fallen to his lot by inheritance and the marrying of a wealthy wife; or that the wife of Colonel Lee was the granddaughter of the “agreeable consort” of Colonel Washington—for the Knight of the Nineteenth Century also had won his spurs, like the hero of the Colonial period, by the loftiest physical and moral courage.

The inner likeness between the Master of Mount Vernon and the Man of Arlington shone out through their later careers, when Washington became the leader of what would have been the War of the Rebellion, if it had failed, while Lee became commander-in-chief of a revolution which would now be known as the Third War for American Independence if it had not proved a “Lost Cause.”

Lee was as far in advance of his own age as Franklin was of his time. In matters of the heart he was of the quality of Lincoln without the great Emancipator's eccentricity—and “saving humor.” In face and form, Lee was singularly blessed, possessing the rare and manly expression of his inward beauty and grace, as he became the Sir Galahad of a higher quest than that of the Holy Grail. His heart was so clean and free from any “lurking root of bitterness” that, as he passed through the furnace of affliction, he grew more and more into the likeness of the “Man of Sorrows.” If ever a son of man beheld the Son of Man in His truth and beauty, it was Robert Edward Lee. A New England writer, descended from William Bradford, the Puritan leader of Plymouth, after an earnest study into the life of “Lee the American,” wrote of him: “Lee had one intimate friend—God.”

It was this intimacy shining out, even in his earlier years, that made Robert's very presence, unconsciously, a convicting witness against an elderly “man of the world” whose guest he was, so that the old roué followed the youth to his room, confessed his sins and promised to amend his life. It was his manifest modesty in religious expression, which in another man would have sounded like cant or religiosity, that was accepted from him in sincerity and truth.

In spite of his rueful pleasantries about growing old, Colonel Lee was now in the prime and vigor of his manhood. Not quite six feet in height, he was so erect without and upright within that he seemed much taller. His wavy, jet-black hair was just tinged with gray. His deep hazel-brown eyes were bright and full of animal spirits and humor. His ruddy complexion was indicative of correct life and good health.

As his own father had been solicitous about him, so he saw to it that his boys learned to shoot, ride, swim, and skate. He called them by pet names: Custis was “Boo,” and Fitzhugh, “Rooney.“

Colonel Lee was one of a commission of engineers in Florida the year following his return from Mexico, to inspect the fortifications along the coast and designate sites for new defences there.

Next he was ordered to build Fort Carroll, on Soller's Point, eight miles below Baltimore. This kept him busy three years. Then, in 1852, he was appointed Superintendent of West Point Military Academy. This position was not to his liking, but a good soldier obeys orders. During the three years of his administration there, his brother Smith's son, Fitzhugh Lee, and his own son, Custis, were among the graduates. “Little Phil” Sheridan and “Jeb” Stuart were cadets at this time.

In 1854, while Franklin Pierce was President and Jefferson Davis Secretary of War, two regiments of cavalry were added to the regular army. Albert Sidney Johnston was made Colonel of the Second Cavalry, with Robert E. Lee, Lieutenant-Colonel. After twenty-five years in the Engineer Corps, Colonel Lee was sorry to leave a department in which he had succeeded so thoroughly—but again he obeyed orders. He was exceedingly fond of horses, and this went far to reconcile him to the change.

In the absence of Colonel Johnston, Lee took command of the Second at Louisville, Kentucky. The regiment was removed to Jefferson Barracks, a few miles below St. Louis, where, as Captain Lee, he had accomplished such marvels of river engineering. At “the Barracks” he rendered great service in drilling and organizing recruits.

From St. Louis Lee was sent in command of a detachment to Camp Cooper on Brazos River, Texas, to keep the Indians within bounds, on a wide tract, from the Rio Grande on the south, to the Arkansas river on the north, which has been described as an “extensive territory occupied exclusively by wild animals and Comanche Indians”—ferocious beasts having been mentioned as beings superior to those horrible savages! From this point Lee wrote, on the 12th of April, 1856:

We are on the Comanche Reserve, with the Indian camps below us on the river belonging to Catumseh's band, whom the Government is endeavoring to humanize. It will be uphill work, I fear. Catumseh has been to see me, and we have had a little talk, very tedious on his part, and very sententious on mine. I hailed him as a friend as long as his conduct and that of his tribe deserved it, but would meet him as an enemy the first moment he failed to keep his word. The rest of the tribe (about a thousand, it is said) live north of us, and are hostile. Yesterday I returned his visit, and remained a short time at his lodge. He informed me that he had six wives. They are riding in and out of their camp all day, their paint and ornaments rendering them more hideous than nature made them, and the whole race is extremely uninteresting.

To the ordinary settler in the Southwest, calling a devilish Comanche merely “uninteresting” was “damning him with faint praise.” He wrote of them that Fall:

Those people give a world of trouble to man and horse, and, poor creatures! they are not worth it.”

While out pursuing some savage renegades, he wrote to his wife:

I hope your father continued well and enjoyed his usual celebration of the Fourth of July; mine was spent, after a march of thirty miles on one of the branches of the Brazos, under my blanket, elevated on four sticks driven in the ground, as a sunshade. The sun was fiery hot, the atmosphere like the heat of a hot-air furnace, the water salt—still my feelings for my country were as ardent, my faith in her future as true, and my hopes for her advancement as unabated as they would have been under better circumstances.

For a man who stood ready to give his life for his country, whenever it would do the least good, this was an unusual witness to his absolute loyalty. Could Nathan Hale have said more?

Lee soon had to proceed to Ringgold Barracks as a member of a court-martial. He went there on horseback and the journey lasted twenty-seven days. On September 1st, 1856, the day he left Camp Cooper, he wrote to Mrs. Lee, whose father had been concerned about his being promoted to a brigadier-generalcy recently left vacant:

Do not give yourself any anxiety about the appointment of the brigadier. If it is on my account that you feel an interest in it, I beg you will discard it from your thoughts. You will be sure to be disappointed; nor is it right to indulge improper and useless hopes. It, besides, looks like presumption to expect it.

While at Ringgold Barracks, he commented in a letter home on something he had read in “a stray number of the New York Times,” and added:

In the same paper there are ill-natured strictures upon our regiment. They may suit themselves in everything relating to my services, and whenever they tell me they are no longer required, they will not be obtruded on them.

From this place Colonel Lee passed on to Fort Brown, Texas. In spite of the earnest wish he had expressed years before, he had to spend Christmas away from his family. He wrote to Mrs. Lee on the 29th of December, 1856:

The steamer has arrived from New Orleans, bringing full files of papers and general intelligence from the “States.” I enjoyed the former very much. . . . We are now assured that the Government is in operation, and the Union in existence. Not that I had any fears to the contrary, but it is satisfactory always to have facts to go on. . . .

. . . In this enlightened age there are few, I believe, but will acknowledge that slavery is a moral and political evil in any country. . . . I think it, however, is a greater evil to the white than to the black race. . . . Their emancipation will sooner result from a mild and melting influence than from the storms and contests of fiery controversy. . . .

I hope you had a joyous Christmas at Arlington. . . . Mine was gratefully but silently passed. I endeavored to find some little presents for the children in the garrison, and succeeded better than I had anticipated.

The stores are very barren of such things here, but by taking the week beforehand in my daily walks I picked up, little by little, something for all. Tell Mildred I got a beautiful Dutch doll for little Emma Jones—one of those crying babies that can open and shut their eyes, turn their head, etc. For the other two little girls, Puss Shirley and Mary Sewell, I found handsome French teapots to match cups given them by Mrs. Waite; then by means of knives and books I satisfied the boys.

After dispensing my presents I went to Church; the discourse was on the birth of our Saviour. It was not as simply or touchingly told as in the Bible. By previous invitation I dined with Major Thomas at 2 P.M. on roast turkey, and plum pudding. I had provided a pretty singing bird for the little girl, and passed the afternoon in my room. God bless you all.

Mrs. Lee had already become an invalid. The tender husband, thousands of miles away, attempted, in a letter to comfort and advise her:

Systematically pursue the best course to recover your lost health. I pray and trust your efforts and the prayers of those who love you may be favorably answered. Do not worry yourself about things you cannot help, but be content to do what you can for the well-being of what properly belongs to you. Commit the rest to those who are responsible, and though it is the part of benevolence to aid all we can and sympathize with all who are in need, it is the part of wisdom to attend to our own affairs. Lay nothing too much to heart. Desire nothing too eagerly, nor think that all things can be perfectly accomplished according to our own notions.

Not liking to write gloomy letters home, on his return to Camp Cooper, Colonel Lee seized upon cats as an interesting subject, for Grandfather Custis was a connoisseur in those pets. To his youngest daughter, he wrote:

You must be a great personage now—sixty pounds! I wish I had you here in all your ponderosity. I want to see you so much! Can you not pack up and come to the Comanche country? I would get you such a fine cat you would never look at “Tom” again. Did I tell you “Jim Nooks,” Mrs. Waite's cat, was dead? He died of apoplexy. I foretold his end. Coffee and cream for breakfast, pound cake for lunch, turtle and oysters for dinner, buttered toast for tea, and Mexican rats, taken raw, for supper. He grew enormously and ended in a spasm. His beauty could not save him. . . . But I saw “cats as is cats” in Tarassa, while the stage was changing mules. I left the wildcat on the Rio Grande. He was too savage; had grown as large as a small-sized dog, had to be caged, and would strike at anything that came within his reach. His cage had to be strong, and consequently heavy, so I could not bring it.

While he could humor his father-in-law's taste for cats, Colonel Lee wrote of other matters when occasion demanded. During this long absence his son Fitzhugh was graduated at Harvard, in 1857. Although “Rooney,” as this young man was called at home, had not gone through West Point, General Scott secured for him an appointment as Second-Lieutenant in the army. When the father heard of this he wrote:

You are now in a position to acquire military credit, and to prepare the road for promotion and future advancement. . . . I hope you will be always distinguished for your avoidance of the universal balm, whiskey, and every immorality. Nor need you fear to be ruled out of the society that indulges in it, for you will rather acquire their esteem and respect, as all venerate, if they do not practise, virtue.

A while later he wrote to the son, also in the Far West, on his way to the Pacific:

I cannot express the gratification I felt at the encomiums passed upon your soldiership, zeal, and devotion to your duty. But I was more pleased at the report of your conduct. That went nearer to my heart, and was of infinite comfort to me. Hold on to your purity and virtue. They will proudly sustain you in all trials and difficulties, and cheer you in every calamity.

I was sorry to see from your letter to your mother that you smoke occasionally. It is dangerous to meddle with. You have in store much better employment for your mouth. Reserve it, “Roon,” for its legitimate pleasure. Do not poison and corrupt it with stale vapors, or tarnish your beard with their stench.

Colonel Joseph E. Johnston, being called to Washington to take command of an expedition to Utah, Lieut.-Col. Lee was left in charge at Camp Cooper. He did not remain long chief in command, for his distinguished father-in-law died on the 10th of October, 1857. As the adopted son of the Father of his Country, he had been venerated. He was a “gentleman of the old school,” wealthy and hospitable. He bequeathed to his only daughter, Mrs. Robert E. Lee, the parts of Mount Vernon left to him in Washington's will, besides properties which had descended to him from his grandfather.

Under these circumstances there seems to have been no difficulty in obtaining a long leave of absence for Colonel Lee from his Texas post.

Among Mr. Custis's bequests were a large number of slaves who were to be set free after five years from the testator's death. The mansion at Arlington was left to Mrs. Lee during her life, to go at her death to the grandfather's namesake, her eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee. With characteristic devotion, the young man when he heard of it in California, before his father could prevent it, deeded that grand estate to Robert E. Lee, who promptly but delicately declined to accept the gift.

Colonel Lee remained in the East until the Summer of 1859, and then returned to his post in Texas. He was recalled from there early in October of that year. He was “relieved” in a double sense, for the duties among the Comanches were irksome, though he performed them with faithfulness and without complaint.

Directly after Colonel Lee's return to Arlington, Secretary of War Floyd called on him to lead a detachment of marines to Harper's Ferry, where John Brown, a violent abolitionist and religious fanatic who had been engaged in antislavery skirmishes and killings in Kansas, had induced a number of negroes and white men to join him, and had taken possession of the United States Arsenal in that village, expecting slaves and antislavery whites would flock to him there.

Colonel Lee and his men surrounded the arsenal, where he found that Brown had taken several citizens of Harper's Ferry prisoners and was holding them as hostages against an attack. Lee sent Lieut. J. E. B. Stuart, who had volunteered to accompany him, with a flag of truce to call for the surrender of John Brown and his fellow conspirators.

Brown refused, and demanded permission for his men to march out with their arms. This absurd proposal was emphatically refused by Colonel Lee. Then Brown threatened to kill his prisoners, leading citizens of the town, among whom was Colonel Lewis Washington, a grand-nephew of the first President, who shouted out:

Never mind us—fire!

Stuart then raised his hand, giving the preconcerted signal, and Lee's marines rushed into the arsenal and forced the door of the engine room before Brown's men could slay the white prisoners.

In February of the next year, Colonel Lee returned again to Texas as commander and wasted many weeks trying to catch a cunning Mexican bandit, named Cortinas. While he was there it was expected that he would be elevated to the rank of Brigadier-General. Instead of this Secretary Floyd promoted his cousin, Joseph E. Johnston, over Lee and others who ranked Johnston. Colonel Lee, instead of being indignant at this, wrote:

I rejoice in the good fortune that has come to my old friend, Joe Johnston, for while I should not like, of course, that this should be taken as a precedent in the service, yet so far as he is concerned, he is in every way worthy of promotion, and I am glad that he has received it.

Extreme abolitionists in the North “made a martyr” of John Brown. Some of them expressed themselves in speeches which were so downright sacrilegious that they shocked and enraged the South. A novel, “Uncle Tom's Cabin,” written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, had been published serially years before, in “The National Era.” The story was afterward printed in book form and a half-million copies were sold. That fiction inflamed the mind of the North against slavery. This also was bitterly resented by the Southern people who believed slavery to be unjust though there were certain ministers who favored it as a “divine institution,” because Noah had cursed his son Canaan, the father of the black people of Africa. Of course, Robert E. Lee looked upon these clerical advocates of slavery with disfavor. It was such mistaken champions of slavery, in Church, in State, as well as among the people, who confused the mind of the North so that millions of people to this day believe that the South entered the Civil War to perpetuate it.

Colonel Lee, now returned in command of the Department of Texas, with headquarters at San Antonio, looked on in sorrow as he read in tardily received newspapers and the long-delayed letters of the coming break. To one of his sons he wrote from his department headquarters:

My little personal troubles sink into insignificance when I contemplate the condition of the country, and I feel as if I could easily lay down my life for its safety. But I also feel that it would bring little good.

Not long after this, he wrote again:

Major Nichols thinks the Union will be dissolved in six weeks. If I thought so, I would return to you now. I hope, however, the wisdom and patriotism of the country will devise some way of saving it, and that a kind Providence has not turned the current of His blessings from us. . . .

. . . Feeling the aggressions of the North, resenting their denial of equal rights to our citizens, . . . I am not pleased with the course of the “Cotton States,” as they term themselves. In addition to their selfish, dictatorial bearing, the threats they throw out against the “Border States,” as they call them, if they will not join them, argues little for the benefit or peace of Virginia, should she determine to coalesce with them. While I wish to do what is right, I am unwilling to do what is wrong, either at the bidding of the South or the North.

During the years of Lee's banishment the famous “Dred Scott” decision was rendered, in 1857, by Chief-Justice Taney of the United States Supreme Court. This recognized the property rights of slaveholders as upheld by the Constitution. For the North to consider it fair to enter any Southern State, to force slaveholders to free their slaves, was considered about as rank a piece of injustice as if soldiers from Georgia or a group of Southern States, which have taken an advanced stand on prohibition, should enter Pennsylvania, with an armed force, to coerce its inhabitants to enact prohibition and practise temperance! The people of Pennsylvania would fight to the bitter end against such an invasion of their rights—not because they believe in drunkenness but in their right to deal with such a question in their own way and at their own convenience. It may be properly objected that this comparison may not be parallel, yet by its recognition of slaves as property and of slavery as an institution, the Constitution of the United States was more in favor of the South than with the Keystone State in this assumed case.

While Lee was in Texas, Abraham Lincoln rose like Saul, head and shoulders above the people, and went up and down the State of Illinois debating with Senator Stephen A. Douglas, and proclaiming that the country could not exist, “half slave and half free.” Many an enlightened Southern man agreed with Mr. Lincoln and Colonel Lee that slavery was a cancer in the body politic, but he believed in the right of the South to its own opinion as to how the black ulcer should be removed. Was he to blame for believing that this could be done better by Southern legislation under a Constitution (like that adopted by the Confederate States) so that it should not be ruinous, nor a disaster to the country? Lincoln's election, by a minority of the Northern people, was regarded ominous to the South. The whole country began to realize that the “irrepressible conflict” was at hand.

The fires of secession were now at white heat. South Carolina went out of the Union, with colors flying, December 20th, 1860. By the 1st of February, 1861, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas—six other States in the so-called “Cotton Belt”—had followed. On February 4th, delegates from all these States except Texas, met in Montgomery, Alabama, to organize a confederation of States. Lee's friend, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, was elected President. These delegates believed that the Southern States were driven out of the Union by the tyranny of the North.

Instead of slavery being the “chief corner stone” of the Confederacy, these delegates recognized it as an inherited evil and provided for its gradual uprooting. It had been made a “stone of stumbling” to both North and South.

In February, 1861, Robert E. Lee was instructed to “report to the commander-in-chief at Washington.” This order was significant. The Virginia Colonel reached the national capital the first of March, just in time to witness Abraham Lincoln's inauguration.

If ever a man was between two fires it was Robert E. Lee, during the six weeks he spent at home—those first crucial days of Lincoln's administration. The familiar Scriptural query and command, “Choose ye whom ye will serve!” rang in his ears with haunting iteration.

“My country, right or wrong,” was Captain Decatur's motto. “Right or wrong?” No, Duty never demands that a man do wrong.

No one can say with truth that Robert E. Lee was not a great lover of his country. His devotion to Virginia was akin to his love for his own family. His father, who had been her governor, had thus expressed the intensity of his love for her: “Virginia is my country, her will I obey, however lamentable the fate to which it may subject me.”

No one was more far-seeing in those trying times than Colonel Lee. He saw that his beloved State, with Arlington, and the estates of his kindred all over the “Old Dominion,” would be laid low by invasion of the armies of the North. He felt that a decision akin to that of Washington was now forced upon him. He afterward said of this crisis:

We had, I was satisfied, sacred principles to maintain, and rights to defend, for which we were in duty-bound to do our best, even if we perished in the endeavor. . . . You cannot barter manhood for peace, nor the right of self-government for life or property. . . . Let us then oppose constancy to adversity, fortitude to suffering, and courage to danger, with the firm assurance that He who gave freedom to our fathers will bless the efforts of their children to preserve it.

I had no other guide, nor had I any other object than the defence of those principles of American liberty upon which the constitutions of the several States were originally founded; and unless they are strictly observed, I fear there will be an end to republican government in this country.

The “Cotton States” already in secession, recognizing the leadership of Virginia, sent a commission to Richmond to urge that State to go with them and make her capital theirs.

The firing on Fort Sumter, on the 13th of April, and President Lincoln's call for troops to invade the South precipitated Virginia's action. No doubt old General Scott was aware of the struggle going on in the heart of Lee and suggested to the new administration that a word in time might save the greatest military genius of the country for Northern arms. At all events, President Lincoln sent Francis P. Blair to offer Robert E. Lee the chief command of the United States Army, thinking this would appeal to his ambition as well as the common instinct of self-preservation.

But Colonel Lee replied simply to Mr. Blair: “If I owned four million slaves, I would cheerfully sacrifice them to the preservation of the Union, but to lift my hand against my own State and people is impossible.”

Blair reported his failure to tempt Lee, but General Scott could not give it up yet. He seized upon an occasion to persuade his former friend to accept the highly flattering offer. Colonel Lee, though he saw rule on one hand and ruin on the other, replied to his old general that he must resign:

I am compelled to; I cannot consult my own feelings in the matter.

Virginia, on the 17th of April, passed the ordinance of secession. The interview with Scott was on the 18th. All that day and the next—the day the Massachusetts troops passed through Baltimore on their way to invade the Southern States, of which Virginia would be the first to be attacked—Robert E. Lee pondered over the step which he feared was inevitable. If he could not consult his ambition, his financial welfare, or even his personal preference, what could he consider?

Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language,” he had written to his own son. Duty to what—to whom? He went up to his room and walked the floor for hours. The duty to his family was plain. The duty to his State—that larger family embracing his kindred, the family traditions, was not that the higher obligation? . . .

Soldiers were already on their way from the North. The President had called for them to march against the South. They would begin to attack, burn, frighten, insult in Virginia—and Arlington, his own home, would be a “shining mark” singled out for bayonet and torch. Should he—could he—lead such men in an invasion of his native State? They might spare Arlington and Stratford House for his sake, if he were their commander-in-chief. And “White House” on the Pamunkey, one of the homes of his wife, where George and Martha Washington were married—they might let that house stand for its century-old associations. But there were the homes associated with the memory of his mother—“Shirley,” where she was born, “Ravensworth,” where she died—and the estates of his kindred, neighbors and friends—could he lead a Northern army to drive out his own people and destroy their homes? Monstrous! Did the invaders' uniforms make their quarrel just? If a squad of police turned housebreakers should he give them right of way in his own house?

Yes, the State is greater than the family. He had no right to save himself and his, and betray the State. But the whole Country—is that not, in the same way, greater than the State? “Ay, there's the rub! . . .”

But that “Rail-Splitter” with the motley crew he called his Cabinet, backed by abolitionists and other haters of the South—did they constitute the country of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and many other Fathers—his Country? “No, a thousand times no!”

It would do no good to die for such. But his blessed little invalid wife, his darling children. What kind of a man would he be not to stand up for and defend them? Were not the other wives and children of Virginia—of the whole South—just as dear to their husbands and fathers and friends?

There was a long silence. Then a pleading voice was heard, in prayer—God is above all—over Country, over State, over family. What does the Word say? Ah, here it is! St. Paul's First Letter to Timothy, fifth chapter, eighth verse:

But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.

How clear it was! How could he have doubted. God had spoken peace to his soul in the stormy tempest. He went to his desk and wrote to the Hon. Simon Cameron, Secretary of War:

Sir:—I have the honor to tender the resignation of my commission as Colonel of the First Regiment of Cavalry. Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

R. E. Lee.

Then he went down stairs, with a calm smile on his noble face, and said gently to his anxious wife:

Well, Mary, the question is settled.


Return to The Heart of Lee