A LIFE OF GEN. ROBERT E. LEE.
BY JOHN ESTEN COOKE.
"Duty is the sublimest word in our language."
"Human virtue should be equal to human calamity." LEE. 1876
LEE'S EARLY LIFE.
Robert Edward Lee was born at Stratford, in Westmoreland County, Virginia, on the 19th of January, 1807.
[Footnote 1: The date of General Lee's birth has been often given incorrectly. The authority for that here adopted is the entry in the family Bible, in the handwriting of his mother.]
Before passing to Lee's public career, and the narrative of the stormy scenes of his after-life, let us pause a moment and bestow a glance upon this ancient mansion, which is still standing--a silent and melancholy relic of the past--in the remote "Northern Neck." As the birthplace of a great man, it would demand attention; but it has other claims still, as a venerable memorial of the past and its eminent personages, one of the few remaining monuments of a state of society that has disappeared or is disappearing.
The original Stratford House is supposed, as we have said, to have been built by Richard Lee, the first of the family in the New World. Whoever may have been its founder, it was destroyed in the time of Thomas Lee, an eminent representative of the name, early in the eighteenth century. Thomas Lee was a member of the King's Council, a gentleman of great popularity; and, when it was known that his house had been burned, contributions were everywhere made to rebuild it. The Governor, the merchants of the colony, and even Queen Anne in person, united in this subscription; the house speedily rose again, at a cost of about eighty thousand dollars; and this is the edifice still standing in Westmoreland. The sum expended in its construction must not be estimated in the light of to-day. At that time the greater part of the heavy work in house-building was performed by servants of the manor; it is fair, indeed, to say that the larger part of the work thus cost nothing in money; and thus the eighty thousand dollars represented only the English brick, the carvings, furniture, and decorations.
The construction of such an edifice had at that day a distinct object. These great old manor-houses, lost in the depths of the country, were intended to become the headquarters of the family in all time. In their large apartments the eldest son was to uphold the name. Generation after generation was to pass, and some one of the old name still live there; and though all this has passed away now, and may appear a worn-out superstition, and, though some persons may stigmatize it as contributing to the sentiment of "aristocracy," the strongest opponents of that old system may pardon in us the expression of some regret that this love of the hearthstone and old family memories should have disappeared. The great man whose character is sought to be delineated in this volume never lost to the last this home and family sentiment. He knew the kinships of every one, and loved the old country-houses of the old Virginia families--plain and honest people, attached, like himself, to the Virginia soil. We pass to a brief description of the old house in which Lee was born.
Stratford, the old home of the Lees, but to-day the property of others, stands on a picturesque bluff on the southern bank of the Potomac, and is a house of very considerable size. It is built in the form of the letter H. The walls are several feet in thickness; in the centre is a saloon thirty feet in size; and surmounting each wing is a pavilion with balustrades, above which rise clusters of chimneys. The front door is reached by a broad flight of steps, and the grounds are handsome, and variegated by the bright foliage of oaks, cedars, and maple-trees. Here and there in the extensive lawn rises a slender and ghostly old Lombardy poplar--a tree once a great favorite in Virginia, but now seen only here and there, the relic of a past generation.
Within, the Stratford House is as antique as without, and, with its halls, corridors, wainscoting, and ancient mouldings, takes the visitor back to the era of powder and silk stockings. Such was the mansion to which General Harry Lee came to live after the Revolution, and the sight of the old home must have been dear to the soldier's heart. Here had flourished three generations of Lees, dispensing a profuse and open-handed hospitality. In each generation some one of the family had distinguished himself, and attracted the "best company" to Stratford; the old walls had rung with merriment; the great door was wide open; everybody was welcome; and one could see there a good illustration of a long-passed manner of living, which had at least the merit of being hearty, open-handed, and picturesque. General Harry Lee, the careless soldier, partook of the family tendency to hospitality; he kept open house, entertained all comers, and hence, doubtless, sprung the pecuniary embarrassments embittering an old age which his eminent public services should have rendered serene and happy.
Our notice of Stratford may appear unduly long to some readers, but it is not without a distinct reference to the subject of this volume. In this quiet old mansion--and in the very apartment where Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee first saw the light--Robert E. Lee was born. The eyes of the child fell first upon the old apartments, the great grounds, the homely scenes around the old country-house--upon the tall Lombardy poplars and the oaks, through which passed the wind bearing to his ears the murmur of the Potomac.
He left the old home of his family before it could have had any very great effect upon him, it would seem; but it is impossible to estimate these first influences, to decide the depth of the impression which the child's heart is capable of receiving. The bright eyes of young Robert Lee must have seen much around him to interest him and shape his first views. Critics charged him with family pride sometimes; if he possessed that virtue or failing, the fact was not strange. Stratford opened before his childish eyes a memorial of the old splendor of the Lees. He saw around him old portraits, old plate, and old furniture, telling plainly of the ancient origin and high position of his family. Old parchments contained histories of the deeds of his race; old genealogical trees traced their line far back into the past; old servants, grown gray in the house, waited upon the child; and, in a corner of one of the great apartments, an old soldier, gray, too, and shattered in health, once the friend of Washington and Greene, was writing the history of the battles in which he had drawn his sword for his native land.
Amid these scenes and surroundings passed the first years of Robert E. Lee. They must have made their impression upon his character at a period when the mind takes every new influence, and grows in accordance with it; and, to the last, the man remained simple, hearty, proud, courteous--the _country Virginian_ in all the texture of his character. He always rejoiced to visit the country; loved horses; was an excellent rider; was fond of plain country talk, jests, humorous anecdote, and chit-chat--was the plain country gentleman, in a word, preferring grass and trees and streams to all the cities and crowds in the world. In the last year of his life he said to a lady: "My visits to
Florida and the White Sulphur have not benefited me much; but it did me good to go to the White House, and see _the mules walking round, and the corn growing_."
We notice a last result of the child's residence now, or visits afterward to the country, and the sports in which he indulged--the superb physical health and strength which remained unshaken afterward by all the hardships of war. Lee, to the last, was a marvel of sound physical development; his frame was as solid as oak, and stood the strain of exhausting marches, loss of sleep, hunger, thirst, heat, and cold, without failing him.
When he died, it was care which crushed his heart; his health