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.
V. Lee's Early Manhood and Career in the United States Army
Of Lee's childhood we have no memorials, except the words of his father, long afterward.
"Robert was always good," wrote General Henry Lee.
[Footnote 1: To C.C. Lee, February 9, 1817.]
That is all; but the words indicate much--that the good man was "always good." It will be seen that, when he went to West Point, he never received a demerit. The good boy was the good young officer, and became, in due time, the good commander-in-chief.
In the year 1811 General Henry Lee left Stratford, and removed with his family to Alexandria, actuated, it seems, by the desire of affording his children facilities for gaining their education. After his death, in 1818, Mrs. Lee continued to reside in Alexandria; was a communicant of Christ Church; and her children were taught the Episcopal catechism by young William Meade, eventually Bishop of Virginia. We shall see how Bishop Meade, long afterward, recalled those early days, when he and his pupil, young Robert Lee, were equally unknown--how, when about to die, just as the war began in earnest, he sent for the boy he had once instructed, now the gray-haired soldier, and, when he came to the bedside, exclaimed: "God bless you, Robert! I can't call you 'general'--I have heard you your catechism too often!"
Alexandria continued to be the residence of the family until the young man was eighteen years of age, when it was necessary for him to make choice of a profession; and, following the bent of his temperament, he chose the army. Application was made for his appointment from Virginia as a cadet at West Point. He obtained the appointment, and, in 1825, at the age of eighteen, entered the Military Academy. His progress in his studies was steady, and it is said that, during his stay at West Point, he was never reprimanded, nor marked with a "demerit." He graduated, in July, 1829, second in his class, and was assigned to duty, with the rank of lieutenant, in the corps of Engineers.
[Illustration: R.E. LEE, AS A YOUNG OFFICER New York D Apololay & Co.]
He is described, by those who saw him at this time, as a young man of great personal beauty; and this is probably not an exaggeration, as he remained to the last distinguished for the elegance and dignity of his person. He had not yet lost what the cares of command afterward banished--his gayety and _abandon_--and was noted, it is said, for the sweetness of his smile and the cordiality of his manners. The person who gave the writer these details added, "He was a perfect gentleman." Three years after graduating at West Point--in the year 1832--he married Mary Custis, daughter of Mr.
George Washington Parke Custis, of Arlington, the adopted son of General Washington; and by this marriage he came into possession of the estate of Arlington and the White House--points afterward well known in the war.
The life of Lee up to the beginning of the great conflict of
1861-'65 is of moderate interest only, and we shall not dwell at length upon it. He was employed on the coast defences, in New York and Virginia; and, in 1835, in running the boundary line between the States of Ohio and Michigan. In September, 1836, he was promoted to the rank of first lieutenant; in July, 1838, to a captaincy; in 1844 he became a member of the Board of Visitors to the Military Academy; in 1845 he was a member of the Board of Engineers; and in 1846, when the
Mexican War broke out, was assigned to duty as chief engineer of the Central Army of Mexico, in which capacity he served to the end of the war.
Up to the date of the Mexican War, Captain Lee had attracted no public attention, but had impressed the military authorities, including
General Winfield Scott, with a favorable opinion of his ability as a topographical engineer. For this department of military science he exhibited endowments of the first class--what other faculties of the soldier he possessed, it remained for events to show. This opportunity was now given him in the Mexican War; and the efficient character of his services may be seen in Scott's Autobiography, where "Captain Lee, of the Engineers," is mentioned in every report, and everywhere with commendation. From the beginning of operations, the young officer seems to have been summoned to the councils of war, and
General Scott particularly mentions that held at
Vera Cruz--so serious an affair, that "a death-bed discussion could hardly have been more solemn." The passages in which the lieutenant-general mentions Lee are too numerous, and not of sufficient interest to quote, but two entries will exhibit the general tenor of this "honorable mention." After
Cerro Gordo, Scott writes, in his official report of the battle: "I am compelled to make special mention of Captain R.E. Lee, engineer. This officer greatly distinguished himself at the siege of Vera Cruz; was again indefatigable during these operations, in reconnoissance as daring, as laborious, and of the utmost value." After
Chapultepec, he wrote: "Captain Lee, so constantly distinguished, also bore important orders for me (September 13th), until he fainted from a wound, and the loss of two nights' sleep at the batteries."
We may add here the statement of the Hon. Reverdy Johnson, that 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."
For these services Lee received steady promotion. For meritorious conduct at Cerro Gordo, he was made brevet major; for the same at
Churubusco, brevet lieutenant-colonel; and, after Chapultepec, he received the additional brevet of colonel--distinctions fairly earned by energy and courage.
When the war ended, Lee returned to his former duties in the Engineer Corps of the U.S.A., and was placed in charge of the works, then in process of construction, at Fort Carroll, near Baltimore. His assignment to the duty of thus superintending the military defences of Hampton Roads, New York Bay, and the approaches to Baltimore, in succession, would seem to indicate that his abilities as engineer were highly esteemed. Of his possession of such ability there can be no doubt. The young officer was not only thoroughly trained in this high department of military science, but had for his duties unmistakable natural endowments. This fact was clearly indicated on many occasions in the Confederate struggle--his eye for positions never failed him. It is certain that, had Lee never commanded troops in the field, he would have left behind him the reputation of an excellent engineer.
In 1855 he was called for the first time to command men, for his duties hitherto had been those of military engineer, astronomer, or staff-officer. The act of Congress directing that two new cavalry regiments should be raised excited an ardent desire in the officers of the army to receive appointments in them, and Lee was transferred from his place of engineer to the post of lieutenant-colonel in the Second Cavalry, one of the regiments in question. The extraordinary number of names of officers in this regiment who afterward became famous is worthy of notice. The colonel was
Albert Sydney Johnston; the lieutenant-colonel, R.E. Lee; the senior major,
William J. Hardee; the junior major,
George H. Thomas; the senior captain, Earl Yan Dorn; the next ranking captain, Kirby Smith; the lieutenants, Hood, Fields, Cosby, Major, Fitzhugh Lee, Johnson, Palmer, and
Stoneman, all of whom became general officers afterward on the Southern side, with the exception of Thomas, and the three last named, who became prominent generals in the Federal army. It is rare that such a constellation of famous names is found in the list of officers of a single regiment. The explanation is, nevertheless simple. Positions in the new regiments were eagerly coveted by the best soldiers of the army, and, in appointing the officers, those of conspicuous ability only were selected. The Second Regiment of cavalry thus became the _corps d'elite_ of the United States Army; and, after Albert Sydney Johnston, Robert E. Lee was the ranking officer.
Lee proceeded with his regiment to Texas, remaining there for several years on frontier duty, and does not reappear again until 1859.
Such was the early career in the army of the soldier soon to become famous on a greater theatre--that of a thoroughly-trained, hard-working, and conscientious officer. With the single exception of his brief record in the Mexican War, his life had been passed in official duties, unconnected with active military operations. He was undoubtedly what is called a "rising man," but he had had no opportunity to display the greatest faculties of the soldier. The time was coming now when he was to be tested, and the measure of his faculties taken in one of the greatest wars which darken the pages of history.
A single incident of public importance marks the life of Lee between 1855 and 1861. This was what is known to the world as the "John Brown raid"--an incident of the year 1859, and preluding the approaching storm. This occurrence is too well known to require a minute account in these pages, and we shall accordingly pass over it briefly, indicating simply the part borne in the affair by Lee. He was in Washington at the time--the fall of 1859--on a visit to his family, then residing at Arlington, near the city, when intelligence came that a party of desperadoes had
attacked and captured Harper's Ferry, with the avowed intent of arming and inciting to insurrection the slaves of the neighborhood and entire State. Lee was immediately, thereupon, directed by President Buchanan to proceed to the point of danger and arrest the rioters. He did so promptly; found upon his arrival that Brown and his confederates had shut themselves up in an engine-house of the town, with a number of their prisoners. Brown was summoned to surrender, to be delivered over to the authorities for civil trial--he refused; and Lee then proceeded to assault, with a force of marines, the stronghold to which Brown had retreated. The doors were driven in, Brown firing upon the assailants and killing or wounding two; but he and his men were cut down and captured; they were turned over to the Virginia authorities, and Lee, having performed the duty assigned him returned to Washington, and soon afterward to Texas.
He remained there, commanding the department, until the early spring of 1861. He was then recalled to Washington at the moment when the conflict between the North and the South was about to commence.