Washington and Lee University

Robert E. Lee and His Children
Virginia Louise Lee

CHAPTER VIII

Now we see through a glass, darkly.

I Corinthians 13:12

We have seen how Robert E. Lee was the fortunate inheritor of two complementary legacies, the intellect and charm of the Lees and the piety and prudence of the Carters. Both contributed a strong constitution, physical beauty and a tradition of service. The Carger gregariousness was strong in him and when grown he enjoyed nothing better than to visit his numerous kinfolk to indulge in small talk. The over-optimism of “Light-Horse Harry” Lee was muted in him to a sanguine, but realistic nature.

Under normal circumstances he might have lived out his life as a Virginia country gentleman, in a pleasant round of farming, hunting, and visiting, and, being intellectually gifted, perhaps dabbling in politics or literature.

Having Harry Lee for a father obviated any such possibility, for his tragic life also brought tragedy to the son. Deprived of a father's support and guidance, Robert early came under the close supervision of his mother, who, in any case, as a Carter would have taught him to be economical and self-denying. Even more strongly motivated by her husband's weakness in these areas, she impressed them on Robert until they became a fundamental part of his character. A devout Christian, she laid the basis for his great spirituality and sincere, practical faith. Almost alone, the young boy assumed responsibilities far beyond his years, subordinating his cheerful, almost merry, nature to the serious task of caring for a sick mother and managing a poverty-stricken home. A disintegrated home, and adult responsibilities, left very little of a normal boyhood for him to enjoy.

But always Robert Lee cherished the memory of his father. Pride in the accomplishments of “Light-Horse Harry” Lee was not diminished by his acknowledgement of Henry Lee's failings. Indeed his whole life may be said to be an act of filial love and devotion, for Robert's efforts to achieve perfection and restore former glory to the name of Lee were not prompted by any spirit of family or personal conceit but was his way of demonstrating loyalty to a father he loved and respected and pitied. That he had the Virginian pride in his name and family cannot be doubted, and unconsciously it may have influenced him in more than he realized since it was note mere vanity of ancestry; it was a profound awareness of blessings bestowed, carrying with it the obligation of service to one's God and fellowman, and a duty to do one's very best. His lineage stressed this obligation, his father and mother had reiterated it.

As a young man and more sensitive to his father's and brother's shortcomings, he determined to profit by their mistakes and in the flush of youthful idealism united to family loyalty, perhaps he became a little too sternly moralistic. A man of strong passions and positive temperament, he had to firmly discipline himself to meet his self-imposed high standards. Even so, aiming for perfection himself, he never demanded it of others, for as available testimony shows, although he was a model cadet at West Point, he was no prig, and was very popular. In whatever circles he moved he was always warmly admired and respected. One aspect of his character often overlooked was his ever present sense of humor. Evidences of it may be found in all of his letters, for basically sanguine and warm-hearted, he had a child-like gayety that was always just beneath the surface. It was this quality which made him such a pleasant companion to his children and gave to him so much joy when in their company.

Marriage to Mary Custis, a woman often ill, and very religious like his mother, strengthened his self-control and the spiritual side of his nature. The children of that marriage brought to Robert E. Lee the greatest happiness of his life, and in his letters to them reveal to us how noble was his character and how fortunate they were to have such a father.

In the light of his parenthood we can see that Robert E. Lee, as his mother had with him, impressed on his children the Lee and Carter family heritage of duty to God and man, more by example than words. All of his children were active in church affairs and attained a reputation for charity and good works. The practical lessons of his boyhood days were not forgotten for he taught them thrift and self-denial in material things, and warned by the unhappy results of his father's improvidence, arranged for their welfare in the event of his death. Enjoyment of outdoor life and sports he transmitted to both boys and girls, and unusual (sic) for that day, the Lee daughters participated in both when their health permitted. Deprived of a father and a normal family life, he endeavored to see that no such gap occurred in his children's lives despite a career that often kept them apart. His multitudinous letters, letters his mother had insisted he learn how to write, were the means he employed to replace his physical presence. In them he sought to instill the discipline and self-control he feared his too lenient wife, and doting grandparents, might not demand of his wilful, high-spirited children. Yet in them the tender love and care he felt for them is also apparent, and a sincere interest in the most minute detail of their lives. At times, he may have felt somewhat guilty that like his father he was not with them to guide and supervise their upbringing in person.

The somber lessons he learned from his lonely childhood and his father's life tended to make him take his fatherhood too seriously and at first he was more the stern moralist than the loving father. His innate sensitivity and tenderness, plus time and experience and an increasing religiosity, could not long sustain a role so alien to his nature and he became the understanding, tolerant, loving father his children had always been wise enough to see underneath the strict exterior.

With his sons Robert E. Lee was much more exacting than with his daughters. Bearing the family name, he expected much of them, and wanted them to aim, as he had, for perfection even if they did not attain it. He accepted them as individuals and when war came whatever they chose to do would have found favor with him if it was sincerely done in good conscience. All three of them proved to be worthy sons of such a father, conscientious, sincere, humble, and pious, admired and respected by those who knew them. With them he had a fine reciprocal relationship as the transactions regarding Arlington bear witness. How much he was loved and what a success he was as a father is best depicted in the book offered as a testimony to the beauty of his life and character by his son, Robert E. Lee, Jr., Letters and Recollections of Robert E. Lee.

With his daughters Lee was much more indulgent. From his mother he had learned to enjoy women's company, and he enjoyed his daughters as well as loved them. The condition of his wife's health brought them even closer and they often accompanied him on social affairs and vacations. Toward them he extended a charm and courtesy rarely found and while they were rather headstrong and somewhat spoiled they were never rude or disobedient.

All of the Lee children exhibited the Christian love and charity of their father, the sense of responsibility to God and others that was his in such a marked degree, the same ability to accept much or make do with little that makes him such a difficult aristocrat to understand, and all had inherited the Lee intelligence.

Their family life was marred by the separations the father's profession entailed, but in spite of them theirs was a close-knit family. The separations only served to bind them closer and to make him love his children all the more. That he was such a remarkable father even under these conditions is a further testimony to the greatness of his character. The Virginia society of their day was primarily a rural one and its favorite custom was to travel around visiting one's relatives. As practically everyone was related to each other, there was no dearth of places to visit. It was this habit which makes it so difficult to chronicle the comings and goings of the Lee daughters, even without the excuse of a war. As a friendly, kin-loving Carter, Robert Lee enjoyed this custom as much as anyone, but his career also denied him the opportunity to thus circulate and retain contact with his larger family circle, a joy and a sense of family which every Virginian keenly felt. Separation must have been doubly lonely for a man from such a background, cut off from the social rounds he found so pleasant and separated from his own immediate family.

But when he was at home with the family lived an almost ideal existence. Parents who shared a deep, sincere love, children dearly loved and loving and respecting those parents, an open, happy home with friends or relatives always arriving or departing, usually pets of some kind about the house, banter and teasing and small talk, much humor and tenderness between all members, this was the home life and love and security that Robert E. Lee had missed as a child and experienced only sporadically as an army officer. In a life full of hardships, uncertainty, separations, and disappointments, it was what he desired above all else. No wonder the few short years at Lexington were among his happiest for here at last he had come home to stay. And no wonder the children of Robert E. Lee, as well as the whole world, considered him an ideal father. Having taken his heavenly Father as his model, he could not have been anything less.


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