Washington and Lee University

Robert E. Lee and His Children
Virginia Louise Lee

CHAPTER III
YOUNG ADULT AND CAREER

Duty, Honor, Country

West Point Motto

At the time of Robert E. Lee's arrival at West Point1 the academy had only been in existence twenty-three years, and it was not the model of efficiency and trimness that it is today.2 Then it had only four ugly buildings, two dormitories, one academic building, and a long mess-hall, all four made uglier by the application of stucco. The food was in keeping.

The superintendent of the academy at the time was Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, a martinet who had done much to raise the standards of instruction and the level of discipline.3

The first year's work consisted mainly of instruction in mathematics and French, with some military drill when the weather was good. The first semi-annual examinations in January showed Robert Lee tied with three classmates in mathematics and fifth in French, third in conduct. In the second examinations, in June, he stood third in his class, and because of academic excellence combined with general merit—no demerits—he was placed on the list of “distinguished cadets,” an honor accorded the first five students in each class.4

Infantry drill and artillery practice occupied most of the summer and as upper classmen, when classes resumed in September, Robert's group undertook more advanced mathematics, calculus, analytical and descriptive geometry and difficult conic sections. French was continued, and drawing was added; there were hours for infantry drill and artillery practice as well. Robert became an assistant professor of mathematics and welcomed the extra ten dollars a month that it brought.

At the end of the second year he stood second in his class and was kept on the list of distinguished cadets. This earned him a furlough which he spent in the Virginia fashion visiting his kinspeople all over the state. Escorting his proud mother, the young cadet created quite a stir among the girls. Firm and erect, without the false stiffness so often assumed by men affecting to be military, with an elastic step, his handsome face crowned with curling dark hair, modest and deferential, he was a model of perfect manhood, with manners to match. Dressed in his grey uniform with white bullet buttons, a collar so high it touched the tips of his ears, and a tall leather cap, with a plume, a cord and a gilt medallion, he was the center of admiration.

The third year marked a change in his curriculum. Mathematics was dropped and scientific studies that were entirely new to him were added. Drawing was continued and enlarged to include landscape and topography, but chemistry and natural philosophy—the modern physics—became his major studies. Military subjects such as tactics and artillery practice were continued.

At mid-term examinations he made an excellent showing, standing number two in natural philosophy, third in chemistry and fourth in drawing. He also had more time for independent reading during the latter half of this third year.5 In June he stood second in his class again, just below Charles Mason of New York.

At the beginning of the final year the coveted position of adjutant of the corps was awarded the cadet who had achieved academic excellence, and who had the finest military bearing and the best record in drill. It was considered the highest honor a cadet could attain.6 For 1828–29 Robert E. Lee was named adjutant of the cadet corps. The selection was greeted with acclaim as he was popular both with cadets and professors.

The only other Virginian to survive the rigors of the previous three years was Joseph E. Johnston, the son of his father's comrade in arms.7 Johnston, nicknamed “The Colonel,” says of him as a cadet

We had the same intimate associates, who thought as I did, that no other youth or man so united the qualities that win warm friendship and command high respect. For he was full of sympathy and kindness, genial and fond of gay conversation, and even of fun, while his correctness of demeanor and attention to all duties, 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.8

Johnston was perhaps the closest friend that a man of Lee's temperament and dignity could ever have, and it is said that ever afterward when they met they would fall upon each other with the affectionate demonstrations of schoolboys.9

The last year at the academy was the hardest and the one for which all else had been merely preparation. Engineering was Lee's favorite subject and he gave it more interest and enthusiasm than he had any other of his work. All the technical military training was included in the last year, together with other chemistry courses, one on the science of war, and a comprehensive survey of geography, history, ethics and moral philosophy, covering in one crowded course all the other subjects a soldier should know but could not learn in other departments.

In the semi-annual examinations for the last year Robert was second again, and in the final examinations in June, 1829, this was his class standing.10 Out of his entering class of eighty-seven, only forty-six had lasted the four years. For four years he had been a distinguished cadet, had never received a single demerit, and therefore, in accordance with school policy, as class leader he was allowed to select his branch of service. He chose the Engineer Corps.

After graduating each cadet was granted a two months furlough, so the honor student hastened home to his ailing mother. Her health had deteriorated so much that she had gone to stay at Ravensworth, the Fitzhugh home in Fairfax. Little more than a month later this dearly loved mother died. In her last days, as in his youth, Robert was his mother's nurse. He mixed every dose of medicine she took and never left her but for a short time; even then she would keep her eyes on the door until he returned.11

She had suffered long and cheerfully, she had carried the entire burden of her family on her frail shoulders, her happy girlhood had been extinguished by want and worry but she lived long enough to see her eldest son a successful lawyer, her second son progressing in the navy, her daughter Ann married to a minister, her other daughter well taken care of, and her youngest son an honor graduate of West Point, equipped to follow his father's profession. This must have pleased her but more important to her was the knowledge that though the profession was the same how different in character was the son from the father. She had lived to accomplish what she considered her main duty in life, to develop the best in her children so they would not repeat the weaknesses of the father at the same time that they kept his heritage of patriotism, duty and Christian example.

It must have been with a great deal of relief as well as satisfaction that Anne Carter Lee closed her eyes that July day, her favorite child with her to the last.12

The remainder of Robert's furlough was spent in settling his mother's estate and in the usual round of visiting. Often he went to Arlington to call on his childhood friend Mary Custis, who had grown into quite a belle and was much admired by the Lee family, especially Robert's brother Carter. Numerous suitors sought the hand of the vivacious, attractive heiress to Arlington, among them Sam Houston, but from childhood she had preferred Robert Lee to all others. In 1824, when sixteen, she had watched as the Marquis de Lafayette made one of his triumphal parades in the home town of his old ally, Washington. The son of another comrade that he had much admired and respected, “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, was a marshal for that parade.

The Alexandria Gazette said of his reception: “Saturday was a beautiful day—the gathering of troops, the sound of martial music, the delighted children, all gave the appearance of preparations highly pleasing, for it was that of joy and gratitude.”13 Along the line of the march ladies waved handkerchiefs from the windows to welcome one who was almost their own, but Mary Custis had eyes only for the seventeen year old marshal as he rode by, erect and handsome.

Friendship had ripened into love, although Mary's father, George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Washington and adopted son of George Washington, did not look with favor upon the romance. He was proud of his title, The Child of Mount Vernon, and his aim was to make Arlington a new Mount Vernon. It was filled with relics and treasures from Washington's home and he liked nothing better than to relate to all and sundry stories of his life there and anecdotes of Washington. He dispensed hospitality with a lavish hand in order to exhibit these treasures and have an audience for himself. He was a dilettante, and wrote poetry and drama, played the violin, and painted. But he was not a successful planter. He liked to entertain and be entertained. He liked the friendly, leisurely pace his position and wealth gave him and he desired the same sort of life for his only child, his treasured daughter Mary.

He had nothing against Robert Lee personally, it was just that the financial instability of his father and the poor prospects of an army lieutenant did not seem suitable for a girl brought up with every luxury and convenience and heiress to great estates herself.

Arlington, situated on the Virginia hills opposite Washington and overlooking the Potomac, an object of attraction to all visitors because of its historical associations and hospitality, was one of those estates. The mansion was conspicuous for its large portico and heavy columns. It was surrounded by groves of stately trees except in front where the hill sloped gracefully downward to the low lands bordering the river. Mrs. Custis was very fond of flowers and had beautiful gardens to the side and rear of the house. The house itself was large and airy, always full of chattering guests and happy companionship. His wife's home became a happy home for Robert E. Lee; here he always came back from tours of duty and here Mrs. Lee always returned to have her children born under its roof. All the children except Custis were born at Arlington. When duty precluded the family from accompanying him, they remained there and Arlington became as much home to the young Lees as it had been to their mother.14

Mary's mother was very fond of Robert and she and her sister, Mrs. Lawrence Lewis of Woodlawn, became allies of the young couple.

In the midst of his courtship orders came for the new lieutenant to report for his first assignment. He had hoped that it would be somewhere in Virginia, near enough to visit Arlington, but it was for duty at Cockspur Island, Georgia, a God-forsaken spot in the Savannah River.15 The main project at Cockspur was to locate and subsequently construct a heavy fort on an island that had a very doubtful foundation. Lt. Lee spent most of his time in mud and water up to his armpits, for he always participated actively in the strenuous work himself and was not merely a supervisor. The only happy aspect of his first assignment was that he could go into Savannah and visit his friend of West Point days, Lt. Jack Mackay, and his delightful family, which included three attractive sisters. But he did not forget the girl waiting at Arlington. In the summer he went home to Virginia and continued his wooing.

Back again in Georgia the plans were not working out, so construction had to be delayed for a season. This necessitated Lt. Lee being idle and as there were too few engineer officers as it was, he was transferred to where his talents could be put to use. In April, 1831, he received orders to report to Old Point Comfort, Virginia.16


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