Organized in 1749, Alexandria had been peopled in part by Scotch of good station, but had later received Pennsylvania Quakers and native Virginia colonials in such numbers that by 1815 it differed little from the other towns of the Old Dominion.
Despite war, smallpox, building booms, and fires, the kindred plagues of most early American cities, Alexandria had grown. Ships of many flags tied up at its ample wharves. Fishermen brought thither their weighty catches from the lower stretches of the river. Hundreds of hogsheads of tobacco rolled in from nearby plantations and disappeared in the deep holds of ships bound for England. Thirty-four tavern keepers and more than 260 merchants competed sharply for the trade of sailor, farmer, traveller, and resident. Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Quaker, Baptist, and Roman Catholic churches all offered the comforts of religion to the pious, or held the threat of hell above the profligate's head. Justice sat with dignity, for Alexandria had become a part of the District of Columbia in 1791 and was under exclusive federal jurisdiction. A town hall Alexandria boasted, a market place, a Library even, and a jail atop whose chimneys stood grim pikes where once the town had set in lasting warning the heads of slaves who had preached insurrection. In her prosperity the city abandoned wooden building dwellings for enduring brick, but in her thrift she allowed herself few gardens. At some of her corners deep wells rewarded with clear water those who would tug at the complaining windlass. Buried cannon, placed there before the Revolution, marked other crossings. There were oil lamps on the streets, and in each ward the town paid a watchman to go the rounds every night, to cry the hours, and to make the drowsy burgher glad of his shelter by telling him in loud tones how hard the wind was biting. And if fire broke out, was not the Friendship Company ready to race to the flames with its engine? Did not each member of the Sun Company hasten with his two leather buckets and with his two-bushel Osnaburg bag, in which to store salvaged valuables?
To boys a trifle older than Robert, the town held high charm, even though a harsh ordinance of the unyielding city fathers forbade all bandy, ball, and kite-flying in the streets. Down on the waterfront were Jones's Point and the lighthouse, the ships and the flotsam, the landings and the loitering sailors. Northeast of the town were "King George's Meadows," a marshy place of adventure that got its odd name, tradition said, because his Majesty of colonial times had most ungraciously withheld his consent from a prudential bill of the Virginia burgesses for the draining of the flats. The streams were full of fish, and the tall grass sheltered unreckoned rabbits, providentially placed there, as it seemed, for disporting boys.
For elders who scorned the diversions that allured youth, the town had a social life of some dignity. Nearby were Abingdon and Preston, homes of the Alexanders who had given their name to the town. Mount Ida was the seat of Charles Alexander, Jr., who in 1813 claimed the title of Earl of Stirling. Up the river was a new mansion on a commanding hill, with heavy Greek columns on its high portico. Its builder had styled it Arlington, but neither he nor any who visited the hospitable place divined what connotations of sorrow and of strife that name was to have. Down the river was Mount Vernon and, four miles farther on, Gunston Hall, the home of George Mason, the Plato of the Revolution. In the town itself, surrounded by less imposing residences, rose the handsome Carlyle house, built in 1752 and long owned by the family whose patronymic it bore. Its prospective owner, George William Carlyle, had been killed while fighting under
"Light-Horse Harry" Lee at Eutaw Springs.
Ties of blood or of common service joined the Lees to this society. Cousins uncounted lived in Alexandria. One of Henry Lee's brothers, Edmund Jennings Lee, was a luminary of the town. Their sister Mary had married Philip R. Fendall, a local lawyer of much social charm. Out at Ravensworth, in Fairfax County, lived William H. Fitzhugh, distant kinsman but close friend, the broad door of whose ample home was always open to Mrs. Lee and her children. For counsel or for assistance of any sort, Mrs. Lee always turned to Fitzhugh, who admired her both for her character and for her success in keeping up her home on her scant income.
Twenty members of Lee's Legion had enlisted from Alexandria and nearly all of them affectionately remembered their unfortunate commander. Military titles were to be heard every hour on the street. There one might meet Colonel Charles Simms, the mayor, General Daniel Roberdeau, who always wore tight leather breeches, Colonel George Gilpin, the postmaster, Colonel Philip Marsteller, and Colonel Charles Little, who rode in from Denbigh in Fairfax County. Judge Cranch, whose name is familiar to all constitutional lawyers, presided over the United States court and lived on Washington Street.
At intervals that were all too far apart on the calendar of impatient lovers, the socially elect of the town gathered at Gadsby's City Tavern for formal "assemblies." The brilliance of these events was somewhat eclipsed, now that Washington was dead, but the memory of his presence on many a festive evening still lifted the gathering above the commonplace and helped to draw to them, across the new
Potomac "Long Bridge," the families of patrician congressmen, glad enough to escape the mud of the capital's streets and the monotony of its bad boarding-houses.
Somewhat less formal, but written large on the social calendar of the town, were the Masonic celebrations on the two Saint-John's days of the year. The fellowcraft then assembled for a sermon at the Presbyterian church and thereafter marched to John Wise's tavern, where they banqueted fraternally and later threw open their doors for a dance. Rarely was there lack of mirth, for the town did not frown on the spirituous refreshment its many taverns abundantly offered. In fact, if the worst must be told, when the worthy vestry of the Episcopal church supped together at their regular meetings, the wine flowed so freely that it produced a merriment most shocking to the religious sensibilities of the pious new rector, Reverend William Meade. He did not rest him from his protests till he broke up that brotherly supping, to the lasting loss of fellowship, if to the gain of temperance.
None of these things meant so much to the town as did its associations with
George Washington. He had been dead more than ten years when the Lee coach brought the family up from Stratford. By the time Robert was old enough to understand something of the spirit of the Father of his Country, Washington had been twenty years in his tomb at Mount Vernon. But he was alive in the hearts of old Alexandrians. Reminders of him were everywhere. In the market place he had drilled his Virginia rangers ere he had set out with Braddock. In the City Tavern hardby he had kept his headquarters and had written out his reports in his swift, neat autograph. To the post office he had often come in person. Many still lived to tell, in Robert's time, how majestically the General had ridden by, and with what gracious dignity he had acknowledged their salutes. In the Masonic Hall he had repeated the ancient responses of the order. The very water of the town was a memorial, for it had been at Washington's instance, while he was a trustee of Alexandria, that the wells at the street-corners had been dug. Doctor James Craik, who had been Washington's physician and his closest friend in Alexandria, might have been seen by Robert, at seven years of age, when the old gentleman was driven in from Vaucluse.
Amid these surroundings, Washington was a part of the life of Robert Lee from earliest childhood. Doubtless his mother remembered and perhaps preserved the letter in which Washington had written Henry Lee his congratulations upon the marriage: "As we are told that you have exchanged the rugged and dangerous field of Mars for the soft and pleasurable bed of Venus," Washington had written, "I do in this as I shall in everything you may pursue like unto it, good and laudable, wish you all imaginable success and happiness." Henry Lee, who had the temerity to jest on one occasion with the pater patriae, had spoken often and reverently of him before he had sailed away. Pride in the friendship of the first citizen of the country had been the consolation of "Light-Horse Harry's" blackest days, and from his exile he was to write of "the great Washington," and was to repeat his old commander's words for the admonition of his son, Charles Carter. The family held fast to this reverence. In the home where Robert was trained, God came first and then Washington.
In Robert's eyes, of course, the centre of the town and of all its traditions was the home on Cameron Street. Over it presided his mother, charged for the rest of her days with the entire care of her five children, their finances, their religious training, and their education. Physically it overtaxed her, but spiritually she was equal to it. Ann Carter Lee was thirty-seven when they moved to Alexandria, and forty when Henry Lee went to the West Indies. Her sister Mildred had died not long after her father and had left her some property that supplemented the income from the trust fund Charles Carter had set up, but the contrast between the rich ease of her girlhood and the adversity of her married life was sharp. Yet it did not embitter her. She continued to love the author of her misfortune. And he, for all his distresses, kept his devotion to her and his high respect for her. In his exile he remembered the anniversary of their marriage, and he sprinkled his letters to Charles Carter Lee with references to her.But she had taken Henry's tragedy to heart, and the reasons for his fall, and she was determined that his grim cycle of promise, overconfidence, recklessness, disaster, and ruin should not be rounded in the lives of her children. Self-denial, self-control, and the strictest economy in all financial matters were part of the code of honor she taught them from infancy. These qualities which were the precise reverse of those his brilliant father had displayed, were inculcated in Robert so early and so deeply by his mother that they became fundamentals of his character. He probably never knew a time when they were not held up before him as great axioms of conduct. Thanks to Ann Lee, the weakness of the sire became the strength of the son. No wonder he was accustomed to say in later life that he "owed everything" to his mother.
Although Robert lived among the Lees, the atmosphere of his home was that of the Carters. His mother corresponded with them, talked of them, and at least once a year endeavored to take her younger children with her on a visit to Shirley, her old home on
James River. It was a gracious place. Built early in the eighteenth century, it had been adorned by each generation of Hills and of Carters, as though they owed it a debt they were eager to discharge with generous interest. The parlors contained rich old furniture, on which the presentments of approving ancestors looked down from gilt frames. In the great hall was a majestic hanging stair; in the dining-room was Charles W. Peale's full-length picture of Washington, a portrait in which one could see the lines that Valley Forge had cut on a face still young, and all the misgiving that a doubtful war had put in honest, anxious eyes. Outside, to the south, was the turbid, silent river. Across the lawn lay the garden with ancient walks and dreamy odors. Here, on successive visits, as he grew older, Robert heard how John Carter had come to Virginia, had acquired much land, had outlived three wives and had died in 1669, leaving a son Robert who had reaped richly where his father had sown. So wealthy did this Robert Carter become, and so widely did his acres spread that he was known as "King" Carter and lived with a dignified luxury befitting his estate. Around the door of the church which he built and furnished at his own expense, the admiring neighbors would wait on the Sabbath until his outriders had arrived and the great coach had rumbled up, and "King" Carter and his family had entered the house of prayer. Then the simpler folks would stamp after, glad enough to bow the knee on the same floor with so fine a gentleman.
Of the twelve children born to "King" Carter while he lived in splendor at Corotoman, his son John inherited perhaps the largest share of the property. He continued to reside at Corotoman and added as much again to his estate by marrying Elizabeth Hill, heiress to the Shirley planation on James River. Their wealthy son, Charles Carter, Robert Lee's grandfather, was reared at Corotoman and brought his first wife there. After her death, Charles Carter married Anne Butler Moore, daughter of Augustine Moore and a descendant of Alexander Spotswood, perhaps the most popular and renowned of the colonial governors of Virginia. With her Charles Carter moved to Shirley, which had become his property. His household was large, for he had eight children by his first marriage, and by his second, thirteen, among them Ann, Robert Lee's mother.
Young Robert had a friendly multitude of close Carter cousins, for hundreds, literally, were descended from the twelve children of "King" Carter. Charles Carter's record of twenty-three by two wives was rivalled by that of his first cousin, Robert, or "Councillor" Carter, whose single marriage yielded the sixteen children that appear in the charming Journal of their blue-stockinged tutor, Philip Fithian. Kinsmen were joined in marriage until the lines are at some points confused. The prime family characteristic of geniality and friendliness seemed to be accentuated with each new generation. The size and endogamy of the Carter tribe made it socially self-contained. Every true Carter liked everybody, but most of all he liked his kinspeople. Often and joyfully they visited one another. Of journeying and letter-writing and the exchange of family news, the years brought no end. It was at Shirley, amid the infectious laughter and the kindly chatter of his cousins, that the youthful Robert developed early the fondness for the company of his kin that was so marked in his maturity.
While Robert instinctively adopted the social attitude of the Carters, he was too young to observe in childhood — if, indeed, he ever realized — this most remarkable fact about his mother's family: The males of the Carter stock did not often aspire to public life or shine in it, but the women of the blood of "King" Carter, when they married into other lines, became the mothers and grandmothers of a most extraordinary number of distinguished men.
Robert Carter the first, "King" Carter, had five daughters.
The eldest of the five, Elizabeth, had a daughter of the same name who married William Nelson, president of council of Virginia. Their son, Thomas Nelson, was a signer of the Declaration and a man of high patriotism. By a second marriage, this granddaughter of Robert Carter became the wife of George Nicholas and was mother of a treasurer of Virginia and grandmother of a governor, Edmund Randolph.
Judith, the second daughter of Robert Carter, married Mann Page of Gloucester. Among the descendants of this union were a governor and many men of station.
Still another of Robert Carter's daughters, Anne, married Benjamin Harrison and was mother of a son of the same name, Governor of Virginia and signer of the
Declaration of Independence. Another of her sons was a brigadier-general in the Revolutionary army, and a third was president of the state senate. This same Anne Carter Harrison was grandmother of one President of the United States, William Henry Harrison, and great-great-grandmother of another President, Benjamin Harrison.
Mary, fourth daughter of Robert Carter, chose George Braxton as her husband. Their son was Carter Braxton, publicist and signer of the Declaration.
The fifth daughter of "King" Carter was Lucy, who became the wife of Henry Fitzhugh, progenitor of distinguished Virginians not a few.
The families into which these daughters granddaughters of "King" Carter were married in the eighteenth century were among those, to be sure, from which the leaders of an aristocratic society would naturally spring. But that society was fairly large by the time of the Revolution. It is hard to believe that pure chance should have made the five daughters of Carter the ancestresses of three signers, three governors, and two Presidents. Again, although the families with which the blood of the daughters of the Carter stock was blended, by these various marriages, were socially of equal distinction, this fact can be established: outside the branches that formed the Carter connection, none of them produced more than the average number of men of superior intellect and achievement. Inexplicable as it may seem in the present limited knowledge of genetics, one is almost forced to conclude that there was something in the stock of the Carters that bred greatness through the female side, or else that something in the dealings of the Carter mothers with their sons inspired successive generations to high endeavor. The Alexandria boy who played on the lawn of Shirley, during his mother's visits, was wholly unconscious of it but his possession of his mother's blood, in descent from Robert Carter, was the best endowment for greatness that he could have had in the Virginia of his day. In some subtle way, he was advantaged in the contests of men because his mother was of the Carters of Corotoman.
By those same Carters at Shirley, as by his mother in his own home, Robert saw exemplified a very simple, straightforward loyalty to family, to church, and to God. This was traditional with the Carters, though only one of them, it seems, could ever have been called a religious fanatic. In the daily walk of Charles Carter, Robert's grandfather, revealed religion and noblesse oblige were blended without any thought of creed or system. Owning perhaps 25,000 acres of land and a multitude of servants, Charles Carter rode in a great coach with postillions, but he abhorred waste, and in his will wrote, "I earnestly request my family and friends that they do not go into mourning or wear black clothes, and this whim I expect they will gratify me in, as I always thought the custom absurd and extravagant answering no good purpose that I know of." In the belief that his second wife would outlive him, he stated that he considered the £3000 due her under her marriage settlement as "too small a pittance for so valuable a woman she having been every moment of her life a most agreeable, dutiful, and affectionate wife." He accordingly left her a life-interest in Shirley and the nearby estates.
If crops were a failure on James River, when the season had been favorable on his Rappahannock plantations, he hauled great caravans of corn across the peninsulas and sold it at the normal price to those who needed it. His agent in England had standing orders to give to the hungry of London a certain percentage of the proceeds of the Carter tobacco, because he held that there were not enough poor people in Virginia to call forth the measure of charity he felt he should dispense. One of his many farms he placed at the disposal of a clergyman to whom he was attached, stipulating at the last that the minister's widow should remain undisturbed on the land during her lifetime. Similarly, he enjoined his executors not to foreclose a mortgage he held on the farm of friends at Malvern Hills — a name destined to suggest something not akin to kindness in the life of his grandson. "From the mansion of hospitality," read one obituary published not long after Charles Carter's death on June 28, 1806, "his immense wealth flowed like the silent stream, enlivening and refreshing every object around." Another friend wrote: "In him the poor have lost their best friend, and of him it might be truly said that he was a father to the fatherless and a husband to the widow — the appeal of the wretched always was effectually attended to by him."
The same spirit showed itself in Robert's godfather, Robert Carter. Having abandoned agriculture because of his dislike of
slavery, Robert Carter became interested in medicine while nursing one of his sons who had sustained a physical injury. His religion and his art were as one. Both were illuminated in a letter of advice he wrote his children in October, 1803, when he was about to sail for Europe to further his medical education. In intimate, affectionate terms, he exhorted his boys and girls to heed the word of God, to obey the ten commandments, to believe the New Testament, to avoid strong drink, and to be kind to their servants, of whom it was not likely they could be rid. Robert Carter's religion was of the sort that lives and thrives in friendly, family talk. The extant letter addressed him by Robert E. Lee's mother displays characteristically both the love and the unfeigned faith of the Carters:
Stratford October 1st — 1805 —
I hope my dearest Brother has not supposed that his illness has caused me less affliction than his other friends from my not having expressed it to him, for I must ever believe my regret to be more poignant than any other persons, our Parents excepted —
But having been so often an invalid, I imagine myself adequate to judging the feelings of those in a similar situation, and nothing at those periods excited more painful sensations than letters of condolence from affectionate friends.
Your return to America was one of the events I anticipated the greatest happiness from. That happiness is destroyed by your ill health, but I hope my beloved Brother it will soon be realized by your complete recovery.
I wish so anxiously to see you, that trifling difficulties shall not prevent my being gratified as soon after Mr. Lee's return from the upper Country, as we can make arrangements for the journey, and I implore my Heavenly Father, that I may find you, my best beloved Brother daily progressing in health!
DR. ROBERT CARTER
Via City Point.
As in this letter, so in every other expression of her religious life, Ann Lee was typically a Carter. Henry Lee himself held to no creed but he paid tribute to the nobility of his wife's faith: "Your dearest mother," he wrote to one of his sons, "is singularly pious from love to Almighty God and love of virtue, which are synonymous; not from fear of hell — a base, low influence." At home there were prayers, and on Sunday attendance on the Episcopal church of Alexandria, later known as Christ Church, where the solemn words of Holy Writ were made the more impressive because they were read from George Washington's own Bible, within the walls where his pew still stood intact.
When Robert was seven the war that his father had opposed before his departure for the West Indies had been in progress nearly two years. Robert's half-brother Henry was commissioned major of the 36th Infantry and was ordered to the Canadian border. Ere long, the boy's ears caught the report of artillery — the first time that baleful sound had ever reached him. He was told that the town was celebrating because word had come from Lake Erie that Lieutenant Perry had "met the enemy and they are ours." The next year the rumble of guns had a more ominous pitch. This time the people did not smile. Instead, they blanched, for British ships were in the Potomac and were fighting with the fort below Alexandria. On August 28, 1814, Admiral Cockburn's squadron appeared off the unarmed, undefended town. Immediately surrendered by her mayor, Alexandria was put under heavy contribution before the war-vessels sailed down the river again. It is likely that Robert was kept indoors or was sent into the country while the redcoats were in the city streets, but during that same humiliating campaign, if he had looked, he might have seen the smoke rising from the
capitol which the British had set afire in Washington. A grim early memory it was for a soldier's son, destined to be a soldier himself!
Before the war was over, the time had come for Robert to begin his formal education. His first books doubtless were opened to him by his mother, who had instructed him thus far in everything else. A little later he was sufficiently advanced in the rudiments to be sent away to the family school. For the Carters were so numerous and so intimate that they maintained two schools for their children, one for girls at Shirley and one for boys at Eastern View, Fauquier County, the home of Mrs. Henry Lee's sister, Elizabeth Carter, who had married Robert Randolph. It is not known when Robert went to Eastern View, or how long he stayed there. The setting was among the rolling, grass-covered hills where the Robin Hood of the Confederacy, John S. Mosby, was to execute Lee's orders in later years. Robert's schoolmates were boy-cousins of his own age. The sons of Robert and Elizabeth Carter Randolph — Beverley, Robert, and Charles Carter — were too old for the instruction given at Eastern View.
Not all of Robert's first reactions to school were favorable. Character, the essential quality of the man, was discernible already in the boy. From his self-imposed exile, his father wrote of him, "Robert was always good, and will be confirmed in his happy turn of mind by his ever-watchful and affectionate mother. Does he strengthen his native tendency?" But at Eastern View, away from the daily discipline of his mother, he became a trifle headstrong, after the manner of the imperious Lees. When he came home, perhaps for a holiday, this was observed by his careful mother, who mentioned it with sisterly frankness to Mrs. Randolph when she wrote to thank her for her kindness to the lad. Mrs. Randolph replied that she had always found Robert "a most engaging child," not difficult to handle, but that if he had become so, the only advice she could give was that which she applied with her own boys — to "whip and pray, and pray and whip."
The life of the family changed somewhat during the years Robert probably was at Eastern View. For a time the finances of Mrs. Lee had been less strained. In 1813 she had been able to visit Long Branch and had purchased a new carriage. By 1816, and perhaps a little earlier, the family had moved from Cameron Street to a house on Washington Street at the corner of Princess. From this home, in 1816, the oldest of Ann Carter Lee's children, Charles Carter Lee, started for Harvard, which his father for some reason preferred at the time to his own alma mater, Princeton, and to William and Mary, where Henry had been a student. Carter remained at Cambridge three years and graduated second in the class of 1819. Apparently he was supported while there by an allowance from his mother. Not long after Carter left, the elder Henry Lee's letters told of his plans to return home. Ill or better, he was determined to come back to his own state. But months passed, and no ship was available. Finally, Lee wrote that he would sail for
Savannah, Ga., and would attempt to procure passage thence to Virginia. The next news was that Robert's father had been stricken mortally on the voyage and had been put ashore at Dungeness, Cumberland Island, Ga., the property of the daughter of his old commander, General Greene. He had refused to be operated upon when the physician had urged it as a means of saving his life. "My dear sir," he had said, "were the great Washington alive, and here, and joining you in advocating it, I would still resist." Babbling something about his son Carter, he had died at Dungeness, March 25, 1818. The details of his passing were not known to the family until the next autumn.
The death of Henry Lee meant financial relief, rather than otherwise for his family, but it was not mourned the less on that account. Despite his failure to practise all that he preached, his sons honored his memory and cherished his sayings. Perhaps certain of the qualities of Robert Lee may have been strengthened by the exhortations his father addressed to Carter in letters the family took care to preserve:
"I would rather see you unlettered and unnoticed, if virtuous in practice as well as theory, than see you the equal in glory to the great Washington."
"Fame in arms or art, however conspicuous, is naught, unless bottomed on virtue."
"It is hard to say whether too much eating or too much drinking most undermines the constitution."
"Cleanliness of person is not only comely to all beholders, but is indispensable to sanctity of body. Trained by the best of mothers to value it, you will never lose sight of it."
"Many lads . . . fall into another habit which hurts only themselves and which certainly stupefies the senses — immoderate sleeping."
"You know my abhorrence of lying, and you have been often told by me that it led to every vice and cancelled every tendency to virtue. Never forget this truth and disdain this mean and infamous practice."
"Self command . . . is the pivot upon which the character, fame and independence of us mortals hang."
"Avoid debt, the sink of mental power and the subversion of independence, which draws into debasement even virtue, in appearance, certainly, if not in reality. 'A man ought not only to be virtuous in reality, but he must always appear so,' thus said to me the great Washington."
". . . Avoid all frivolous authors, such as novel writers, and all skeptical authors, whether religious, philosophic, or moral."
"The rank of men, as established by the concurrent judgment of ages stands thus: heroes, legislators, orators, and poets. The most useful and, in my opinion, the most honorable is the legislator, which so far from being incompatible with the profession of law, is congenial to it. Generally, mankind admire most the hero; of all, the most useless, except when the safety of a nation demands his saving arm."
These pathetic admonitions were rendered the more impressive on Robert's mind when he was old enough to realize that Henry Lee had written them, from his sorrowful exile, in the spirit of Wolsey's "Mark but my fall and that that ruined me."
Although Robert was only eleven when his father died, responsibility was soon to fall heavily on his straight young shoulders. His sister Ann, to whom he showed special devotion, continued sickly and sometimes required medical attention in Philadelphia. Mrs. Lee was slowly slipping into chronic invalidism. Carter returned from Cambridge in 1819 but opened his law office in Washington, and was not much at home to aid in the management of the household. The next year President Monroe gave a midshipman's commission in the navy to Smith, who went to sea. The duties of an only son and of a daughter as well fell on Robert. Besides attending to the horses, he "carried the keys," in a now-forgotten Virginia phrase, and apportioned the food-supplies of the family. When free from his lessons he often accompanied his mother if she drove out during the afternoon. In case she was in low spirits, he admonished her that the drive would not do her good unless she were cheerful. On cold days, when the chill from the Potomac crept into the vehicle, he sometimes pulled out his jackknife and pretended to keep out the wind by stuffing paper into the cracks.
This attendance upon his mother continued until Robert left Alexandria. More than anything else, perhaps, his filial attention to her was the prime obligation of his youth, precisely as care for an invalid wife was to be one of the chief duties of his mature years. The man who was to order Pickett's charge at Gettysburg got part of his preparation for war by nursing sick women. The self-command that his mother had inculcated from his babyhood was confirmed at the bedside. Yet his association with his mother did not make the boy effeminate, though it gave him a love for the company of women. He stayed at home uncomplainingly when his mother required his attendance, but when he was free he delighted to swim in the Potomac, to share in the sports of the neighborhood boys, with his cousin and playmate, Cassius Lee, or to follow the chase all day in the rolling country behind Alexandria.
If Robert had a longer holiday he spent it at Chatham, or at Ravensworth with the Fitzhughs, or at Stratford with his brother Henry, who, about the time Robert was ten, married Anne McCarty of Westmoreland County. The dates of his visits to the old home of the Lees are not known, but he must have gone there not infrequently, because in later life he cherished clear memories of a place of which he could have had only the vaguest impressions before the family moved to Alexandria.
The great brick mansion-house, Stratford Hall, had been built about 1730, in the form of a large B. Below was a half-cellar with small windows. The principal apartments were on the floor above, reached by long steps. Over all was a high attic under a shingle roof. From the two wings, corridors ran to a central hall, some thirty feet square, with bookcases in panelled walls. Here were the portraits of the earlier Lees.
Robert not only explored every corner of the house, but heard all the myths that were told him about the greater glories of an earlier Stratford — how it had boasted a hundred chambers, with four outbuildings of fifteen rooms each, how its stables had stalls for five score horses, how it had been burned in the days of Thomas Lee, how the East India Company had rebuilt it in tribute to that worthy, and how from the privy purse Queen Caroline herself had made a gift for reconstruction. None of this was true except that George II probably granted the distressed proprietor a few hundred pounds. The house the boy visited was, in reality, the only one that ever stood on the site, but the fanciful stories formed a respected tradition, real in every detail to Robert. As he sat in the hall, he must have seen the ghosts of his ancestors. When he walked along the winding way that led through the vast, affrighting garret to promenades framed on the roof around the central chimneys, he must surely have heard the scraping of the fiddles in the band that the builder of Stratford was reputed to have kept at the call of his daughters, while they took the air or danced with their suitors in the hall.
In front of the mansion-house, where the none-too-fertile fields of Westmoreland stretched away, the widespreading lawn was dotted with oaks and poplars. On one side of the greensward was a grove of sugar-maples, past which a driveway curved up to the entrance. Flanking the central building was the garden. Toward the Potomac were open fields and then woodland, through which a lane led to a high bluff, whence there was a long sweep of shining waters. Set off from each corner of the residence were four smaller brick structures, to which Robert Edward Lee must have been a frequent visitor, especially the kitchen, with a fireplace like a dragon's mouth, hot and steaming, but with the lure of sweet odors. Beyond the outhouses, to the left as one approached the mansion from the highway, were the large brick stables, where horses were forever stamping, and hens were always scratching and clucking. It was a realm of endless marvels for a boy of ten.
The young master of Stratford at that time could have had little in common with his half-brother Robert. Henry Lee the fourth was later called "Black-Horse Harry" or "Black Harry," both to describe his conduct and to distinguish him from "Light-Horse Harry," his father. Born the year the Philadelphia convention met, he was twenty years older than Robert. He had been to the College of William and Mary in 1808, though there is no record of his graduation. His father's facility for composition, somewhat accentuated, he had inherited, and he was developing a deep, partisan interest in politics. as the rich member of the family, he must have seemed an awesome person to Robert, but he had about him then little to suggest the passionate tragedy that was to wreck his career.
As visits and pleasure were interspersed with hard work for Robert, he developed rapidly in physique and in character, and by the time he was thirteen he had learned all that could conveniently be taught him at home and at Eastern View. Accordingly, by 1820, possibly before that year, Robert entered the Alexandria academy. This had been established about 1785, and had been privileged to list Washington as one of its first trustees. Occupying a one-story brick house on the east side of Washington Street, between Duke and Wolfe, the school was made free to all Alexandria boys after January, 1821. Here Robert met at their desks the boys with whom he had played in the fields, and here he came under the tutelage of William B. Leary, an Irishman for whom young Lee acquired enduring respect.
For approximately three years Robert studied the rudiments of a classical education under Mr. Leary. He read Homer and Longinus in Greek. From Tacitus and Cicero he became so well-grounded in Latin that he never quite forgot the language, though he did not study it after he was seventeen. Late in life, he expressed deep regret that he had not pursued his classical course further. In mathematics he shone, for his mind was already of the type that delighted in the precise reasoning of algebra and geometry.
By the end of 1823, and perhaps earlier, he had completed the course of study at the Alexandria academy. What should he do next? It was a question not easily answered. He could not continue to follow cultural study and settle down as a country-gentleman, after the manner of his ancestors, because he did not have money for the education, much less the land on which to live in leisure. He possessed no aptitude for public utterance and no taste for the law. Although a moral, high-minded boy and an attendant upon Christ Church, deeply if indirectly influenced by Reverend William Meade, he had never presented himself for confirmation and he probably never gave a thought to the ministry. There is no record that he ever debated the possibilities of a medical career, despite his contact with the sick and his growing skill in nursing. What, then, should he do?
While this question was being debated, Henry Lee wrote a book that may have contributed in an unexpected way to the answer. In 1822, Judge William Johnson of the Supreme Court of the United States published in two volumes his Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathanael Greene, a work in which he pointed out various errors and exposed what he regarded as false claims in "Light-Horse Harry" Lee's Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department. There probably was no animus on Johnson's part toward Lee, but some of his criticisms were severe. Henry Lee the younger felt that his father's honor and military reputation had been assailed, and he wrote in reply a book of more than 500 pages under the title The Campaign of 1781 in the Carolinas; with Remarks Historical and Critical on Johnson's Life of Greene It is more than likely that Johnson's charges and the preparation of Henry Lee's reply were both discussed in Alexandria, and that an hereditary fondness for a career of arms was thereby strengthened in Robert. His brother Smith had gone into the navy: why should not Robert go to the United States Military Academy at West Point and be a soldier? His love of mathematics would help; his education would cost him nothing. By this process of reasoning, it would appear, Robert E. Lee decided to become a soldier. He lived to see the time when he considered that decision the greatest mistake of his life, though he then had behind him all his military achievements from
Vera Cruz to Petersburg.
The age-limits for admission to West Point were fourteen to twenty years, for boys who were at least four feet, nine inches, free of physical defects, able to read and write well, familiar with arithmetic, and willing to sign articles to remain five years in the army, including the four years of cadetship. Robert could meet all these requirements, if he could have the good fortune to be named one of the 250 cadets for whom the government made provision. The appointments were at the pleasure of the President, on the nomination of the Secretary of War, who at that time followed no rule respecting their geographical distribution. Nine Virginians had been appointed in 1822. Six more had been named in 1823, but thirty-six applications had then been rejected. In an effort to satisfy as many as he might, the secretary, John C. Calhoun, was lavishly accepting nominations, beyond Monroe's term of office; but the number did not suffice even then, and the scramble was keen. Robert's age and his mother's circumstances were such that he could not afford to wait on a chance appointment. He must either begin soon as a soldier, or turn immediately to something else. It consequently was decided in the family circle that he should make personal application to the Secretary of War. But who would introduce him to that august personage? The duty fell to the family's counsellor, William H. Fitzhugh of Ravensworth, whose kindness had not weakened in all the years of the Lees' residence in Alexandria. He wrote Secretary Calhoun as follows:
Ravensworth Feb 7th 1824.
My dear Sir,
I cannot permit the young gentleman, who will hand you this letter, to make his intended application, without carrying with him, such testimony in his behalf, as a long & an intimate acquaintance with himself and his family, justify me in giving. He is the son of Genl. Henry Lee, with whose history, you are, of course, acquainted; and who (whatever may have been the misfortune of his latter years) had certainly established, by his revolutionary services, a strong claim to the gratitude of his country. He is the son also of one of the finest women, the State of Virginia has ever produced. Possessed, in a very eminent degree, of all those qualities, which peculiarly belong to the female character of the South, she is rendered doubly interesting by her meritorious & successful exertions to support, in comfort, a large family, and to give to all her children excellent educations.
The young gentleman, whom I have now the pleasure of introducing to you, as a candidate for West-point, is her youngest son. An intimate acquaintance, & a constant intercourse with him, almost from his infancy, authorize me to speak in the most unqualified terms of his amiable disposition, & his correct and gentlemanly habits. He is disposed to devote himself to the profession of arms. But his final determination on this subject, must, of course, depend on the result of his present application, and you will find him prepared to acquiesce in whatever decision, circumstances may require you to make in his case. Next, however, to promising him the commission, which he asks, the greatest favor you can do him will be to tell him promptly if you think the obstacles to his success are insurmountable. His own age (eighteen I believe) and the situation of his mother require that he should lose no time in selecting the employment to which his future life is to be devoted.
Accept my dear Sir the assurance of the very great respect with which
W. H. FITZHUGH
Robert presented this letter in person. A strange interview it must have been between the man who was soon be the "father of nullification" and the boy who, in maturity, was to carry the burden of the bloody struggle that was, in a sense, the unescapable consequence of the application of that doctrine. Calhoun could not have failed to be impressed by the young Lee and probably told him that if he produced suitable recommendations, they would be considered. The boy promptly filed an endorsement from Wm. B. Leary, his teacher, but as this was clothed in rather general terms, Robert presented another and more specific statement to this effect.
"Robert Lee was formerly a pupil of mine. While under my care I can vouch for his correct and gentlemanly deportment. In the various branches, to which his attention has been applied, I flatter myself that his information will be found adequate to the most sanguine expectations of his friends. With me he has read all the minor classics in addition to Homer & Longinus, Tacitus & Cicero. He is well versed in arithmetic, Algebra & Euclid. In regard to what he has read with me I am certain that when examined he will neither disappoint me or his friends.
W B LEARY"
Robert must also have had an intimation from some sources that his chances would be better if he had the backing of some members of Congress. As a resident of the District of Columbia he had, of course, no representation, but the Lees were traditionally of Westmoreland and had never formally quit the county. Robert or some member of the family, accordingly invoked the help of Congressman R. S. Garnett, who wrote Calhoun as follows:
Feb 16 1824
I beg leave to recommend to your favorable attention, Master Robert Lee who is desirous to be placed in the Military academy as a cadet. He is a son of the late General Henry Lee and has strong hereditary claims on the country. I am not able to state what proficiency he has made in his studies, but testimonials will be exhibited by him in relation to this subject, that I presume will prove satisfactory. He is about 18 years of age, and of excellent disposition. If he can obtain the appointment he desires, I have no doubt that he will justify the expectations which his recommendations would authorize
R S GARNETT
C. F. Mercer, congressman from a part of Virginia immediately adjacent to the district, also wrote a general letter of endorsement which Henry Lee, or some interested friend, took the trouble to circulate among senators and members of the House of Representatives. This was dated from the Senate, as though it had originated there. Of its signers, George Tucker, like Mercer and Garnett, was a member of the House from Virginia. James Barbour was senator from Virginia and was to succeed Calhoun as Secretary of War. Richard H. Johnson, then senator from Kentucky, later became Vice-President under Van Buren. Henry Johnson, senator from Tennessee, soon resigned to become Governor of Louisiana. The other Tennessee senator, Wm. Kelly, likewise signed, as did David Holmes, a native of Virginia, and spokesman for Mississippi in the upper house. Their joint letter read:
Feb. 23d 1824
We beg leave to recommend to your favorable consideration Mr Robert Edward Lee, a son of the late Genl. Henry Lee of Virginia as an applicant for admission to the military academy at West Point.
The assurances which we have received of the talents and attainments of this young gentleman apart from the regard we feel for the military services of his deceased father, induces us to hope that the gratification of his wishes may prove compatible with the rules which you have deemed it proper to establish for the admission of cadets into the academy.
We are, Sir
Your Obt. Servt.
Endorsement by five senators and three representatives was certain to be weighty, especially when given the son of a Revolutionary officer, who had fought in Secretary Calhoun's native South Carolina.
This helpful paper was supplemented by a letter of a more personal character from Robert's older brother Charles Carter in these terms:
"I enclose you a letter from my youngest brother, who is an applicant, as you know, for a place at the Military Academy. Permit me to add, by way of a supplement to his statement, what it would have been unbecoming in him to have averred, but what I hope I may be excused for alledging, [sic] viz: that his intellect is seems to be a good one, that he appears to be sufficiently inclined to study, that his disposition is amiable, & his morals irreproachable. I can adduce no other merits on which to rest his claims to the preferment he seeks at your hands, unless perhaps the revolutionary services of the father should obtain some favour for the son.
"I had rather have taken any other opportunity than the present to assure you of the sincere respect & esteem of Sir,
Your most obedient & humble servant
C. C. LEE.
Alexa. Feby. 28th 1824
To J. C. Calhoun Esqr."
Henry Lee added his influence in behalf of Robert with a longer letter, in which the claims of the boy were based in large part on his father's military service:
"My brother Robert E Lee has applied to you for the appointment of a Cadet
I know of no principle of rational selection, that should exempt him from the hazards of a fair competition upon the ground of personal advantages and mental qualifications, (for which he is well prepared) but the just and admitted one of refering to the services of the Father in estimating the claims of the Son. In the case of the late Genl. Lee it was confessed by Mr. Monroe that the title of his offspring to national patronage ceteris paribus was emminently strong; and on the principle here suggested, he appointed my brother Smith a Midshipman in 1820, against a force of competition and a weight of previous application, as great at least as those which now exist.
"On this principle I beg leave to rest the claims of Robert. To a person of your enlarged sentiments, and accurate knowledge of our national history it would be unnecessary to enumerate the exertions of my father in the cause of this country, or to trace the grand and beautiful process of morality, by which the orphans of publick benefactors, become the children of the State.
I have the honour to be
with perfect respect Sir,
Your very obt. & very humble Servant
6th March 1824."
Calhoun had before him numerous applications from Virginia and was being importuned in behalf of new candidates every few weeks. Robert could only wait and hope, because he had now brought to bear all the influence his family could exert. Finally there came notice from the War Department: As of March 11, Robert was appointed to West Point, but owing to the long list of applicants, he could not be admitted until July 1, 1825. That entailed a year's delay but it meant opportunity then!
Doubtless there was much excitement in the mind of the boy, and doubtless, too, he made several drafts before he concluded his letter of acceptance which, for all his care, did not escape one error of spelling. It is the earliest letter in his autograph now extant.
"I hereby accept the appointment to the station of a Cadet in the service of the United States, with which I have been honnoured by the President.
"The above is the declaration of consent which my letter of appointment instructs me should accompany my acceptance.
"I remain with the highest respect, Sir
Your most obliged & most obedient Servant
R. E. LEE
Alexa. April 1st 1824
to The Honble J. C. Calhoun"
Mrs. Lee's consent, in the simple terms of the army regulations, was written at the top of her son's letter in this language:
"As the surviving Parent of Robert E. Lee I consent to his signing articles, binding himself to serve as a Cadet five years, to be computed from the time of his joining the Military Academy.
ANN H. LEE"
It is a singular fact that the next appointee of Calhoun, after the date on which Lee and one other boy were named, should have been
Joseph E. Johnston. Oddly enough, also, the first letter of
Jefferson Davis that has survived the years is one in which he, like Lee, acknowledged and accepted an appointment from Calhoun to the military academy.
The very atmosphere of Alexandria seemed to lend itself to martial affairs after Robert learned that he would be admitted to the military academy. Greece was struggling for liberty, and all the intellectuals of the Potomac were much interested in the contest. Soon they had promise of a sensation closer at hand: Lafayette was coming! "America's Friend," now an old man, was revisiting the scenes of his greatest adventure. He was, of course, to make a pilgrimage to Mount Vernon and would walk the streets of Washington's city. All that the little town could offer, of hospitality and display, was put forth for the venerable marquis when he arrived in October, 1824. On Washington Street, which is 100 feet wide, the city erected a triple arch, north of King Street. The central span over the roadway was sixty-eight feet. Each sidewalk had a lesser arch of eighteen feet. In the direction of Lafayette's approach, this greeting was blazoned: "Welcome LaFayette! A Nation's Gratitude Thy Due." On the opposite face of the main arch was a quotation from one of his speeches: "For a Nation to Be Free, It is Sufficient That She Wills It." Atop the arch, as a crowning touch of realism, Colonel Mountford, father of the Alexandria Museum, placed a live eagle from the city's collection. On the great day, the bird obligingly spread its wings just at the moment the city's guest was passing beneath. At least it was so reported.
For no family in the town was Lafayette's visit more interesting than for the Lees. The marquis had not forgotten the brilliant cavalryman of Washington's army, who was only a year and a half his senior. Hearing that the widow of his comrade was residing in Alexandria, he made a call on the morning of October 14, 1824, when Robert doubtless saw him. That contact of his youth was one of the many that bound the boy in spirit to the Revolution.
The very day before Lafayette called, a young Quaker named James Hallowell had brought his bride to Oronoko Street, where he proposed to open a boys' school in the house adjoining that of the Lees. For a while he had no pupils. Then it was discovered that he was a man of unusual ability and of much skill in teaching. About January 1, 1825, Robert Lee's chum, Cassius, son of Edmund Jennings Lee, was sent by his father to Mr. Hallowell.
Perhaps it was on the basis of Cassius's report that the family began to talk of giving Robert a few months under the new dominie. The boy had not been in school for a season; he naturally was "getting rusty" on his mathematics. Would it not be well to have him refurbish that subject and prepare himself somewhat ahead on the more advanced mathematics he was to study at West Point? Robert entered in February, 1825, and remained with Mr. Hallowell until he was ready to set out for West Point. The charges were $10 a quarter, no small item to a widow who had to count costs carefully, but the expense was justified. Hallowell was ambitious and as his students were still few in number, he was able to give the boy intimate and close instruction. Robert responded to Hallowell's full satisfaction. "He was a most exemplary pupil in every respect," Hallowell wrote long after. "He was never behind time at his studies; never failed in a single recitation; was perfectly observant of the rules and regulations of the institution; was gentlemanly, unobtrusive, and respectful in all his deportment to teacher and his fellow-students. His specialty was finishing up. He imparted a finish and a neatness, as he proceeded, to everything he undertook. One of the branches of mathematics he studied with me was Conic Sections, in which some of the diagrams are very complicated. He drew the diagrams on a slate; and although he well knew that 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." The early, earnest lessons in self-control were yielding results.
On March 17, 1825, unknown to him, Robert's name was read out at the military academy as a member of the incoming class. Soon thereafter he must have started to acquire the leather trunk and all the clothing and equipment called for in the precise regulations of West Point — from "2 prs. of Monroe shoes" to "1 foul-clothes' bag, made of ticken." When June came, all was ready, but his mother was bewildered: "How can I live without Robert?" she asked, "he is both son and daughter to me." Loath he was to leave her, but he was then past eighteen, very well grown, and anxious to try the reputed hard classes and stern discipline of the military academy. He set out while
Abraham Lincoln was battling for the rudiments of an education in the Indiana backwoods. Three-year-old Ulysses Grant was then toddling about his father's farm in Clermont County, Ohio.
Taken From Robert E. Lee by Douglas Southall Freeman, Chapter II. I have edited for length and style.