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.
IX. Lee in 1861
At this time--April,
1861--General Lee was fifty-four years of age, and may be said to have been in the ripe vigor of every faculty. Physically and intellectually he was "at his best," and in the bloom of manhood. His figure was erect, and he bore himself with the brief, somewhat stiff air of command derived from his military education and service in the army. This air of the professional soldier, which characterized generally the graduates of West Point, was replaced afterward by a grave dignity, the result of high command and great responsibilities. In April, 1861, however, he was rather the ordinary army officer in bearing than the commander-in-chief.
He had always been remarkable for his manly beauty, both of face and figure, and the cares of great command had not yet whitened his hair. There was not a gray hair in his head, and his mustache was dark and heavy. The rest of his face was clean-shaven, and his cheeks had that fresh, ruddy hue which indicates high physical health. This was not at that time or afterward the result of high living. Of all the prominent personages of his epoch. Lee was, perhaps, the most temperate. He rarely drank even so much as a single glass of wine, and it was a matter of general notoriety in the army afterward, that he cared not what he ate. The ruddy appearance which characterized him from first to last was the result of the most perfectly-developed physical health, which no species of indulgence had ever impaired. He used no tobacco then or afterward, in any shape--that seductive weed which has been called "the soldier's comfort"--and seemed, indeed, superior to all those small vices which assail men of his profession. Grave, silent, with a military composure of bearing which amounted at times, as we have said, to stiffness, he resembled a machine in the shape of a man. At least this was the impression which he produced upon those who saw him in public at this time.
The writer's design, here, is to indicate the personal appearance and bearing of General Lee on the threshold of the war. It may be said, by way of summing up all, that he was a full-blooded "West-Pointer" in appearance; the _militaire_ as distinguished from the civilian; and no doubt impressed those who held official interviews with him as a personage of marked reserve. The truth and frankness of the man under all circumstances, and his great, warm heart, full of honesty and unassuming simplicity, became known only in the progress of the war. How simple and true and honest he was, will appear from a letter to his son, G.W. Custis Lee, written some time before:
"You must study," he wrote, "to be frank with the world; frankness is the child of honesty and courage. Say just what you mean to do on every occasion, and take it for granted you mean to do right. If a friend asks a favor, you should grant it, if it is reasonable; if not, tell him plainly why you cannot: you will wrong him and wrong yourself by equivocation of any kind. Never do a wrong thing to make a friend or keep one; the man who requires you to do so, is dearly purchased at a sacrifice. Deal kindly, but firmly, with all your classmates; you will find it the policy which wears best. Above all, do not appear to others what you are not. If you have any fault to find with any one, tell him, not others, of what you complain; there is no more dangerous experiment than that of undertaking to be one thing before a man's face and another behind his back. We should live, act, and say, nothing to the injury of any one. It is not only best as a matter of principle, but it is the path to peace and honor.
"In regard to duty, let me, in conclusion of this hasty letter, inform you that, nearly a hundred years ago, there was a day of remarkable gloom and darkness--still known as 'the dark day'--a day when the light of the sun was slowly extinguished, as if by an eclipse. The Legislature of Connecticut was in session, and, as its members saw the unexpected and unaccountable darkness coming on, they shared in the general awe and terror. It was supposed by many that the last day--the day of judgment--had come. Some one, in the consternation of the hour, moved an adjournment. Then there arose an old Puritan legislator, Davenport, of Stamford, and said that, if the last day had come, he desired to be found at his place doing his duty, and, therefore, moved that candles be brought in, so that the House could proceed with its duty. There was quietness in that man's mind, the quietness of heavenly wisdom and inflexible willingness to obey present duty. Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things, like the old Puritan. You cannot do more, you should never wish to do less. Never let me and your mother wear one gray hair for any lack of duty on your part."
The maxims of this letter indicate the noble and conscientious character of the man who wrote it. "Frankness is the child of honesty and courage." "Say just what you mean to do on every occasion." "Never do a wrong thing to make a friend or keep one." "Duty is the sublimest word in our language ... do your duty in all things ... you cannot do more." That he lived up to these great maxims, amid all the troubled scenes and hot passions of a stormy epoch, is Lee's greatest glory. His fame as a soldier, great as it is, yields to the true glory of having placed duty before his eyes always as the supreme object of life. He resigned his commission from a sense of duty to his native State; made this same duty his sole aim in every portion of his subsequent career; and, when all had failed, and the cause he had fought for was overthrown, it was the consciousness of having performed conscientiously, and to his utmost, his whole duty, which took the sting from defeat, and gave him that noble calmness which the whole world saw and admired. "Human virtue should be equal to human calamity," were his august words when all was lost, and men's minds were sinking under the accumulated agony of defeat and despair. Those words could only have been uttered by a man who made duty the paramount object of living--the performance of it, the true glory and crown of virtuous manhood. It may be objected by some critics that he mistook his duty in espousing the Southern cause. Doubtless many persons will urge that objection, and declare that the words here written are senseless panegyric. But that will not affect the truth or detract from Lee's great character. He performed at least what in his inmost soul _he_ considered his duty, and, from the beginning of his career, when all was so bright, to its termination, when all was so dark, it will be found that his controlling sentiment was, first, last, and all the time, this performance of duty. The old Puritan, whose example he admired so much, was not more calm and resolute. When "the last day" of the cause he fought for came--in the spring of 1865--it was plain to all who saw the man, standing unmoved in the midst of the general disaster, that his sole desire was to be "found at his place, and doing his duty."
From this species of digression upon the moral constituents of the individual, we pass to the record of that career which made the great fame of the soldier. The war had already begun when Lee took command of the provisional forces of Virginia, and the collisions in various portions of the Gulf States between the Federal and State authorities were followed by overt acts in Virginia, which all felt would be the real battle-ground of the war. The North entered upon the struggle with very great ardor and enthusiasm. The call for volunteers to enforce obedience to the Federal authority was tumultuously responded to throughout the entire North, and troops were hurried forward to Washington, which soon became an enormous camp. The war began in Virginia with the evacuation and attempted destruction of the works at
Harper's Ferry, by the Federal officer in command there. This was on the 19th of April, and on the next day reinforcements were thrown into
Fortress Monroe; and the
navy-yard at Norfolk, with the shipping, set on fire and abandoned.
Lee thus found the Commonwealth in a state of war, and all his energies were immediately concentrated upon the work of placing her in a condition of defence. He established his headquarters in the custom-house at Richmond; orderlies were seen coming and going; bustle reigned throughout the building, and by night, as well as by day, General Lee labored incessantly to organize the means of resistance. From the first moment, all had felt that Virginia, from her geographical position, adjoining the Federal frontier and facing the Federal capital, would become the arena of the earliest, longest, and most determined struggle. Her large territory and moral influence, as the oldest of the
Southern States, also made her the chief object of the Federal hostility. It was felt that if Virginia were occupied, and her people reduced under the Federal authority again, the Southern cause would be deprived of a large amount of its prestige and strength. The authorities of the Gulf States accordingly hurried forward to Richmond all available troops; and from all parts of Virginia the volunteer regiments, which had sprung up like magic, were in like manner forwarded by railway to the capital. Every train brought additions to this great mass of raw war material; large camps rose around Richmond, chief among which was that named "Camp Lee;" and the work of drilling and moulding this crude material for the great work before it was ardently proceeded with under the supervision of Lee.
An Executive Board, or Military Council, had been formed, consisting of Governor Letcher and other prominent officials; but these gentlemen had the good sense to intrust the main work of organizing an army to Lee. As yet the great question at Richmond was to place Virginia in a state of defence--to prepare that Commonwealth for the hour of trial, by enrolling her own people. It will be remembered that Lee held no commission from the
Confederate States; he was major-general of the Provisional Army of Virginia, and to place this Provisional Army in a condition to take the field was the first duty before him. It was difficult, not from want of ardor in the population, but from the want of the commonest material necessary in time of war. There were few arms, and but small supplies of ammunition. While the Federal Government entered upon the war with the amplest resources, the South found herself almost entirely destitute of the munitions essential to her protection. All was to be organized and put at once into operation--the quartermaster, commissary, ordnance, and other departments. Transportation, supplies of rations, arms, ammunition, all were to be collected immediately. The material existed, or could be supplied, as the sequel clearly showed; but as yet there was almost nothing. And it was chiefly to the work of organizing these departments, first of all, that General Lee and the Military Council addressed themselves with the utmost energy.
The result was, that the State found herself very soon in a condition to offer a determined resistance. The troops at the various camps of instruction were successively sent to the field; others took their places, and the work of drilling the raw material into soldiers went on; supplies were collected, transportation found, workshops for the construction of arms and ammunition sprung up; small-arms, cannon, cartridges, fixed and other ammunition, were produced in quantities; and, in a time which now seems wholly inadequate for such a result, the Commonwealth of Virginia was ready to take the field against the Federal Government.