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
IN FRONT OF RICHMOND.
III. Lee assigned to the Command--his Family at the White House
Lee had up to this time effected, as we have shown, almost nothing in the progress of the war. Intrusted with no command, and employed only in organizing the forces, or superintending the construction of defences, he had failed to achieve any of those successes in the field which constitute the glory of the soldier. He might possess the great abilities which his friends and admirers claimed for him, but he was yet to show the world at large that he did really possess them.
The decisive moment had now arrived which was to test him. He was placed in command of the largest and most important army in the Confederacy, and to him was intrusted the defence of the capital not only of Virginia, but of the South. If Richmond were to fall, the Confederate Congress, executive, and heads of departments, would all be fugitives. The evacuation of Virginia might or might not follow, but, in the very commencement of the conflict, the enemy would achieve an immense advantage. Recognition by the European powers would be hopeless in such an event, and the wandering and fugitive government of the Confederacy would excite only contempt.
Such were the circumstances under which General Lee assumed command of the "Army of Northern Virginia," as it was soon afterward styled. The date of his assignment to duty was June 3, 1862--three days after General Johnston had retired in consequence of his wound. Thirty days afterward the great campaign around Richmond had been decided, and to the narrative of what followed the appointment of Lee we shall at once proceed, after giving a few words to another subject connected with his family.
When General Lee left "Washington to repair to Richmond," he removed the ladies of his family from Arlington to the "White House" on the Pamunkey, near the spot where that river unites with the Mattapony to form the York River. This estate, like the Arlington property, had come into possession of General Lee through his wife, and as Arlington was exposed to the enemy, the ladies had taken refuge here, with the hope that they would be safe from intrusion or danger. The result was unfortunate. The White House was a favorable "base" for the Federal army, and intelligence one day reached Mrs. Lee and her family that the enemy were approaching. The ladies therefore hastened from the place to a point of greater safety, and before her departure Mrs. Lee is said to have affixed to the door a paper containing the following words:
"Northern soldiers who profess to reverence Washington, forbear to desecrate the home of his first married life, the property of his wife, now owned by her descendants.
"A GRAND-DAUGHTER OF MRS. WASHINGTON."
When the Federal forces took possession of the place, a Northern officer, it is said, wrote beneath this:
"A Northern officer has protected your property, in sight of the enemy, and at the request of your overseer."
The resolute spirit of Mrs. Lee is indicated by an incident which followed. She took refuge with her daughters in a friend's house near Richmond, and, when a Federal officer was sent to search the house, handed to him a paper addressed to "the general in command," in which she wrote:
"Sir: I have patiently and humbly submitted to the search of my house, by men under your command, who are satisfied that there is nothing here which they want. All the plate and other valuables have long since been removed to Richmond, and are now beyond the reach of any Northern marauders who may wish for their possession.
"WIFE OF ROBERT LEE, GENERAL C.S.A."
The ladies finally repaired for safety to the city of Richmond, and the White House was burned either before or when General McClellan retreated. The place was not without historic interest, as the scene of Washington's first interview with Martha Custis, who afterward became his wife. He was married either at St. Peter's Church near by, or in the house which originally stood on the site of the one now destroyed by the Federal forces. Its historic associations thus failed to protect the White House, and, like Arlington, it fell a sacrifice to the pitiless hand of war.
From this species of digression we come back to the narrative of public events, and the history of the great series of battles which were to make the banks of the Chickahominy historic ground. On taking command, Lee had assiduously addressed himself to the task of increasing the efficiency of the army: riding incessantly to and fro, he had inspected with his own eyes the condition of the troops; officers of the commissary, quartermaster, and ordnance departments were held to a strict accountability; and, in a short time, the army was in a high state of efficiency.
"What was the amount of the Confederate force under command of Lee?" it may be asked. The present writer is unable to state this number with any thing like exactness. The official record, if in existence, is not accessible, and the matter must be left to conjecture. It is tolerably certain, however, that, even after the arrival of Jackson, the army numbered less than seventy-five thousand. Officers of high rank and character state the whole force to have been sixty or seventy thousand only.
It will thus be seen that the Federal army was larger than the Confederate; but this was comparatively an unimportant fact. The event was decided rather by generalship than the numbers of the combatants.