General Lee's lineage and collateral kindred constitute an array of illustrious characters, but certainly without dispraise of any, and without unduly exalting himself, it can be calmly written down that he was the greatest of all his race. Unaware he was of his own distinction. Unaware also of a common sentiment was each of his people who cherished an individual feeling in the years which followed his public service until the consensus came into open view, where all men saw that all true men honored his name and revered his memory.
Contrast of Lee with other men will not be instituted, because there were indeed others great like himself, and he more than others would deplore a contest for premiership in fame. The most that can be said in any mingling of his name with other illustrious characters has been uttered in the wonderfully felicitous and graphic sentences of Benjamin H. Hill, which may be repeated here, because of their brilliant and true characterization:
"When the future historian shall come to survey the character of Lee he will find it rising like a huge mountain above the undulating plane of humanity, and he must lift his eyes high toward heaven to catch its summit. He possessed every virtue of other great commanders without their vices. He was a foe without hate; a friend without treachery; a soldier without cruelty; a victor without oppression; and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices; a private citizen without wrong; a neighbor without reproach; a Christian without hypocrisy and a man without guile. He was a Caesar without his ambition; Frederick without his tyranny; Napoleon without his selfishness; and
Washington without his reward. He was obedient to authority as a servant, and royal in authority as a true king. He was gentle as a woman in life; modest and pure as a virgin in thought; watchful as a Roman vestal in duty; submissive to law as Socrates; and grand in battle as Achilles."
It will be understood by all who read any biographical sketch of one so eminent as the Southern military leader thus portrayed in Mr. Hill's splendid words, that the facts of his life must sustain the eulogy. Fortunately this support appears even in the cold recital which is here attempted. General Lee was born at Stratford, Virginia, January 19, 1807, and was eleven years old on the death of his chivalric father,
General Henry Lee, the "Light Horse Harry" of the American revolution. In boyhood he was taught in the schools of Alexandria, chiefly by Mr. William B. Leary, an Irishman, and prepared for West Point by Mr. Benjamin Hallowel1. He entered the National military academy in 1825, and was graduated in 1829, without a demerit and with second honors. During these youthful years he was remarkable in personal appearance, possessing a handsome face and superb figure, and a manner that charmed by cordiality and won respect by dignity. He was thoroughly moral, free from the vices, and while "full of life and fun, animated, bright and charming," as a contemporary describes him, he was more inclined to serious than to gay society.
He married Mary Custis, daughter of Washington Parke Custis, and grand-daughter of
Martha Washington, at Arlington, Va., June 30, 1831. Their children were G. W. Custis, Mary, W. H. Fitzhugh, Annie, Agnes, Robert and Mildred.
At his graduation he was appointed second-lieutenant of engineers and by assignment engaged in engineering at Old Point and on the coasts. In 1834 he was assistant to the chief engineer at Washington; in 1835 on the commission to mark the boundary line between Ohio and Michigan; in 1836 promoted first lieutenant, and in 1838, captain of engineers. In 1837 he was ordered to the Mississippi river, in association with Lieutenant Meigs (afterward general) to make special surveys and plans for improvements of navigation; in 1840 a military engineer; in 1842 stationed at Fort Hamilton, New York; and in 1844 one of the board of visitors at West Point. Captain Lee was with
General Wool in the beginning of the
Mexican war, and at the special request of
General Scott was assigned to the personal staff of that commander. When Scott landed 12,000 men south of
Vera Cruz, Captain Lee established the batteries which were so effective in compelling the surrender of the city. The advance which followed met with serious resistance from
Santa Anna at
Cerro Gordo. Here Captain Lee made the reconnaissances and in three days' time placed batteries in positions which Santa Anna had judged inaccessible, enabling Scott to carry the heights and rout the enemy. In his report Scott wrote: "I am compelled to make special mention of Captain R. E. Lee," and the brevet as major was accorded the skillful artilleryman. The valley of
Mexico was the scene of the next military operations, and here Lee continued to serve with signal ability and personal bravery. One act of daring General Scott afterward referred to as" the greatest feat of physical and moral courage performed by any individual in my knowledge pending the campaign." Having participated in the daylight assault which carried the entrenchments of
Contreras, Captain Lee was soon afterward engaged in the battles of
Molino del Rey, gaining promotion to brevet lieutenant-colonel. In the
storming at Chapultepec, one of the most brilliant affairs of the war, he was severely wounded, and won from General Scott, in his official report, appreciative mention as being "as distinguished for execution as for science and daring." After
Chapultepec he was recommended for the rank of colonel. The City of Mexico was next taken and the war ended.
Among the officers with Lee in Mexico were
A. S. Johnston,
P. G. T. Beauregard,
Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson,
James Longstreet, Loring,
Hunt, Magruder, and Wilcox, all of whom seemed to have felt for him a strong attachment. Reverdy Johnson said he had heard General Scott more than once say that his "success in Mexico was largely due to the skill, valor and undaunted energy of Robert E. Lee."
Jefferson Davis, in a public address at the Lee memorial meeting November 3, 1870, said: "He came from Mexico crowned with honors, covered with brevets, and recognized, young as he was, as one of the ablest of his country's soldiers." General Scott said with emphasis: "Lee is the greatest military genius in America." Every general officer with whom he personally served in Mexico made special mention of him in official reports. General Persifer Smith wrote: "I wish to record particularly my admiration of the conduct of Captain Lee, of the engineers--the soundness of his judgment and his personal daring being equally conspicuous."
General Shields referred to him as one" in whose skill and judgment I had the utmost confidence."
General Twiggs declared" his gallantry and good conduct deserve the highest praise," and Colonel Riley bore "testimony to the intrepid coolness and gallantry exhibited by Captain Lee when conducting the advance of my brigade under the heavy flank fire of the enemy."
In the subsequent years of peace Lee was assigned first to important duties in the corps of military engineers with headquarters at Baltimore, from 1849 to 1852, and then served as superintendent of the military academy at West Point until 1855, when he was promoted brevet lieutenant-colonel and assigned to the Second cavalry, commanded by Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston This remarkably fine regiment included among its officers besides Johnston and Lee,
Thomas, VanDorn, Fitz Lee,
Kirby Smith, and
Stoneman, later distinguished in the Confederate war. With this regiment Lee shared the hardships of frontier duty, defending the western frontier of Texas against hostile Indians from 1856 until the spring of
1861. In October, 1859, he was at Washington in obedience to command, and fortunately so, as during his visit occurred the John Brown raid. President Buchanan selected him to suppress the movement, which he did with prompt vigor, after giving the proper summons to Brown to surrender. Returning to Texas, he was in command of the department in 1860 and early in 1861, while the
Southern States were passing ordinances of secession, and with sincere pain observed the progress of dissolution. Writing January 23, 1861, he said that the South had been aggrieved by the acts of the North, and that he felt the aggression and was willing to take every proper step for redress. But he anticipated no greater calamity than a dissolution of the Union and would sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation. He termed secession a revolution, but said that a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets had no charms for him. "If the Union is dissolved and the government disrupted, I shall return to my native State and share the miseries of my people; and save in defense will draw my sword on none."
About a month later Lee was summoned to Washington to report to General Scott and reached the capital on the 1st of March, only a few days before the
inauguration of Lincoln. He was then just fifty-four years of age, and dating from his cadetship at West Point had been in the military service of the government about thirty-six years. He had reached the exact prime of maturity; in form, features, and general bearing the type of magnificent manhood; educated to thoroughness; cultivated by extensive reading, wide experience, and contact with the great men of the period; with a dauntless bravery tested and improved by military perils in many battles; his skill in war recognized as of the highest order by comrades and commanders; and withal a patriot in whom there was no guile and a man without reproach. Bearing this record and character, Lee appeared at the capital of the country he loved, hoping that wisdom in its counsels would avert coercion and that this policy would lead to reunion. Above all others he was the choice of General Scott for the command of the United States army; and the aged hero seems to have earnestly urged the supreme command upon him. Francis P. Blair also invited him to a conference and said, "I come to you on the part of
President Lincoln to ask whether any inducement that he can offer will prevail on you to take command of the Union army." To this alluring offer Lee at once replied courteously but candidly that though "opposed to secession and deprecating war he would take no part in the invasion of the Southern States." His
resignation followed at once, and repairing to Virginia, he placed his stainless sword at the service of his imperiled State and accepted the command of her military forces. The commission was presented to him in the presence of the Virginia convention on April 23, 1861, by Mr. Janney, the president of that body, with ceremonies of great impressiveness, and General Lee entered at once upon duties which absorbed his thought and engaged his heart. The position thus assigned confined him at first to a narrowed area, but he diligently organized the military strength of Virginia and surveyed the field over which he foresaw the battles for the Confederacy would be fought. As late as April 25 he wrote, "No earthly act would give me so much pleasure as to restore peace to my country, but I fear it is now out of the power of man, and in God alone must be our trust. I think our policy should be purely on the defensive, to resist aggression and allow time to allay the passions and permit reason to resume her sway."
The Confederate government in May, 1861, employed his splendid talent for organization, an advantageous employment, indeed, but one that kept him from that command in the field for which he was eminently qualified. Subsequently the expeditions in the West Virginia campaign were attended with such peculiar disadvantages that General Lee had the mortification of observing a sudden and unjust waning of his reputation. Thus his service in the field for which he was best fitted was still further postponed, and he spent the winter of 1861 in command of the department of Georgia, South Carolina and
Florida, to which he was assigned by President Davis, giving his talents as an engineer to organization of a system of coast defense. From these duties he was called in March, 1862, to become the military adviser of the President, a position in which he gave constant attention to the movements of the enemy as well as to the Confederate means of defense, and was in readiness to assume any duty that might be assigned.
The severe wounding of
General J. E. Johnston, at the battle of
Seven Pines, and the illness of General G. W. Smith, next in rank, brought to him the command of the army of Northern Virginia, which he immediately led to successive victories over the great armies of
Pope, Burnside and Hooker, attaining for himself, in a few months, a fame for generalship which spread over the world.
His subsequent career throughout the Confederate struggle was distinguished by his regard for the humane usages of war; his exhibition of great military skill; a spirited personal courage, as well as that nerve of leadership that impelled him to give battle whenever he saw an opportunity to strike an effective blow; a courteous bearing toward his officers and a tender concern for the welfare of the men in line; an untiring attention to details and an unexcelled devotion to duty. All these characteristics and much more were made apparent as the war wore on to its disastrous end.
The details which establish his reputation as a military genius are to be found in all the books which have been written on the
Confederate war. Referring to them for special information we pass on to see him at
Appomattox, nobly yielding himself and his army when resistance was no longer possible, and then departing for his home, to refuse offers of place that would bring profit and high civil position, and finally turning his glorious life into channels of beneficent influence.
With clear insight into all the merits of the cause for which he drew his sword in 1861, he wrote on January 5, 1866: "All that the South has ever desired was that the Union as established by our fathers should be preserved, and that the government as originally organized should be administered in purity and truth." Six months later he wrote: "I had no other guide, nor had I any other object than the defense 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 of Republican government in this country."
He lived only a few years after the fall of the
Confederacy, and those years were nearly all spent in service as president of the Washington-Lee college. The anxieties of his military life had changed his hair to gray, but he was still in vigorous health. His nearest friends alone saw that his sympathy for the misfortunes of his people became a malady which physicians could not remove. With sincere purpose to observe his parole, and, after all military operations had ceased, to lend his influence fully to peace, he carefully avoided all things which would irritate the people in power. Rigidly preserving his convictions, as he felt he must do, he nevertheless promoted the restoration of harmony among the people of the whole country. Thus his life passed until he was suddenly seized with sickness on the 28th of September, 1870, at his home in Lexington, and on Wednesday morning, October 12th, he died in the Christian's faith, which he had all his life confessed. Demonstrations of sorrow as sincere as they were imposing manifested the great love of his own people in the South, but these exhibitions also extended into the North, and from the European press America learned how highly the eminent Confederate was esteemed abroad. "The grave of this noble hero is bedewed with the most tender and sacred tears ever shed upon a human tomb. A whole nation has risen up in the spontaneity of its grief to render the tribute of its love." His name will lure his countrymen to revere truth and pay devotion to duty, and until the nation ceases to be free the glory of his character will be cherished as priceless national treasure. [From Confederate Military History]