A Life of General Robert E. Lee - John Esten Cooke - darmowy ebook

A Life of General Robert E. Lee is a fascinating character study of Lee written by a Civil War veteran who regularly observed the Confederate General in thought and action on the battlefield. John Esten Cooke’s book offers a unique perspective on both Robert E. Lee and the Civil War, using direct quotes of dialogue by the War’s principals (including Lee), official military communiqués and personal letters, all of which brings the man and era alive.

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A Life of General Robert E. Lee

By John Esten Cooke



A Life of General Robert E. Lee by John Esten Cooke. First published in 1871. This edition published 2017 by Enhanced Media Publishing. All rights reserved.


Cover, interior design and editing © Copyright 2017 Enhanced Media Publishing. All rights reserved.


First e-book edition 2017.


ISBN: 978-1-387-18282-4.

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page










Further Reading: Strategy Six Pack 14 - Mark Antony, Two Years Before the Mast, Daniel Boone, David Crockett, A Ride to Khiva and Six Years With the Texas Rangers 1875-1881 (Illustrated)






The name of Lee is beloved and respected throughout the world. Men of all parties and opinions unite in this sentiment, not only those who thought and fought with him, but those most violently opposed to his political views and career. It is natural that his own people should love and honor him as their great leader and defender in a struggle of intense bitterness—that his old enemies should share this profound regard and admiration is due solely to the character of the individual. His military genius will always be conceded, and his figure remain a conspicuous landmark in history; but this does not account for the fact that his very enemies love the man. His private character is the origin of this sentiment. The people of the North, no less than the people of the South, feel that Lee was truly great; and the harshest critic has been able to find nothing to detract from this view of him. The soldier was great, but the man himself was greater. No one was ever simpler, truer, or more honest. Those who knew him best loved him the most. Reserved and silent, with a bearing of almost austere dignity, he impressed many persons as cold and unsympathetic, and his true character was long in revealing itself to the world. Today all men know what his friends knew during his life—that under the grave exterior of the soldier, oppressed with care and anxiety, beat a warm and kindly heart, full of an even extraordinary gentleness and sweetness; that the man himself was not cold, or stiff, or harsh, but patient, forbearing, charitable under many trials of his equanimity, and magnanimous without effort, from the native impulse of his heart. Friend and foe thus today regard him with much the same sentiment, as a genuinely honest man, incapable of duplicity in thought or deed, wholly good and sincere, inspired always under all temptations by that prisca fides which purifies and ennobles, and resolutely bent, in the dark hour, as in the bright, on the full performance of his duty. "Duty is the sublimest word in our language," he wrote to his son; and, if we add that other august maxim, "Human virtue should be equal to human calamity," we shall have in a few words a summary of the principles which inspired Lee.

The crowning grace of this man, who was thus not only great but good, was the humility and trust in God, which lay at the foundation of his character. Upon this point we shall quote the words of a gentleman of commanding intellect, a bitter opponent of the South in the war:

"Lee is worthy of all praise. As a man, he was fearless among men. As a soldier, he had no superior and no equal. In the course of Nature my career on earth may soon terminate. God grant that, When the day of my death shall come, I may look up to Heaven with that confidence and faith which the life and character of Robert E. Lee gave him. He died trusting in God as a good man, with a good life, and a pure conscience."

He had lived, as he died, with this supreme trust in an overruling and merciful Providence; and this sentiment, pervading his whole being, was the origin of that august calmness with which he greeted the most crushing disasters of his military career. His faith and humble trust sustained him after the war, when the woes of the South well-nigh broke his great spirit; and he calmly expired, as a weary child falls asleep, knowing that its father is near.

Of this eminent soldier and man whose character offers so great an example, a memoir is attempted in this volume. The work will necessarily be "popular" rather than full and elaborate, as the public and private correspondence of Lee are not at this time accessible. These will throw a fuller light on the subject; but sufficient material is at the disposal of the writer to enable him to present an accurate likeness of Lee, and to narrate clearly the incidents of his career. In doing so, the aim of the author is to measure out full justice to all—not to arouse old enmities, which should be allowed to slumber, but to treat his subject with the judicial moderation of the student of history.

A few words will terminate this preface. The volume before the reader was begun in 1866. The writer first, however, informed General Lee of his design, and had the honor to receive from him in reply the assurance that the work "would not interfere with any he might have in contemplation; he had not written a line of any work as yet, and might never do so; but, should he write a history of the campaigns of the Army of Northern Virginia, the proposed work would be rather an assistance than a hinderance."

As the writer had offered promptly to discontinue the work if it were not agreeable to General Lee, this reply was regarded in the light of an assurance that he did not disapprove of it. The composition was, however, interrupted, and the work laid aside. It is now resumed and completed at a time when the death of the illustrious soldier adds a new and absorbing interest to whatever is connected with his character or career.



The Lees of Virginia spring from an ancient and respectable family of Essex, in England.

Of some members of the family, both in the Old World and the New, a brief account will be given. The origin of an individual explains much that is striking and peculiar in his own character; and it will be found that General Lee inherited many of the traits of his ancestors, especially of some eminent personages of his name in Virginia.

The family pedigree is traced back by Lee, in the life of his father, to Launcelot Lee, of London, in France, who accompanied William the Conqueror to England. After the battle of Hastings, which subjected England to the sway of the Normans, Launcelot Lee, like others, was rewarded by lands wrested from the subdued Saxons. His estate lay in Essex, and this is all that is known concerning him. Lionel Lee is the next member of the family of whom mention is made. He lived during the reign of Richard Coeur de Lion, and, when the king went on his third crusade, in the year 1192, Lionel Lee raised a company of gentlemen, and marched with him to the Holy Land. His career there was distinguished; he displayed special gallantry at the siege of Acre, and for this he received a solid proof of King Richard's approbation. On his return he was made first Earl of Litchfield; the king presented him with the estate of "Ditchley," which became the name afterward of an estate of the Lees in Virginia; and, when he died, the armor which he had worn in the Holy Land was placed in the department of "Horse Armory" in the great Tower of London.

The name of Richard Lee is next mentioned as one of the followers of the Earl of Surrey in his expedition across the Scottish border in 1542. Two of the family about this period were "Knights Companions of the Garter," and their banners, with the Lee arms above, were suspended in St. George's Chapel in Windsor Castle. The coat-of-arms was a shield "band sinister battled and embattled," the crest a closed visor surmounted by a squirrel holding a nut. The motto, which may be thought characteristic of one of General Lee's traits as a soldier, was, "Non incautus future."

Such are the brief notices given of the family in England. They seem to have been persons of high character, and often of distinction. When Richard Lee came to Virginia, and founded the family anew there, as Launcelot, the first Lee, had founded it in England, he brought over in his veins some of the best and most valiant blood of the great Norman race.

This Richard Lee, the princeps of the family in Virginia, was, it seems, like the rest of his kindred, strongly Cavalier in his sentiments; indeed, the Lees seem always to have been Cavalier. The reader will recall the stately old representative of the family in Scott's "Woodstock"—Sir Henry Lee of Ditchley—who is seen stalking proudly through the great apartments of the palace, in his laced doublet, slashed boots, and velvet cloak, scowling darkly at the Puritan intruders. Sir Henry was not a fanciful person, but a real individual; and the political views attributed to him were those of the Lee family, who remained faithful to the royal cause in all its hours of adversity.

It will be seen that Richard Lee, the first of the Virginia Lees, was an ardent monarchist. He came over during the reign of Charles I, but returned to England, bequeathing all his lands to his servants; he subsequently came back to Virginia, however, and lived and died there. In his will he styles himself "Richard Lee, of Strafford Langton, in the County of Essex, Esquire." It is not certainly known whether he sought refuge in Virginia after the failure of the king's cause, or was tempted to emigrate with a view to better his fortunes in the New World. Either may have been the impelling motive. Great numbers of Cavaliers "came over" after the overthrow of Charles at Naseby; but a large emigration had already taken place, and took place afterward, induced by the salubrity of the country, the ease of living, and the cheapness and fertility of the lands on the great rivers, where families impoverished or of failing fortunes in England might "make new settlements" and build on a new foundation. This would amply account for the removal of Richard Lee to Virginia, and for the ambition he seems to have been inspired with, to build and improve, without attributing to him any apprehension of probable punishment for his political course. Very many families had the first-named motives, and commenced to build great manor-houses, which were never finished, or were too costly for any one of their descendants to possess. The abolition of primogeniture, despite the opposition of Pendleton and others, overthrew all this; and the Lees, like other families, now possess few of the broad acres which their ancestors acquired.

To return, however, to Richard Lee. He had already visited Virginia in some official capacity under the royal governor, Sir William Berkeley, and had been so much pleased with the soil and climate of the country, that he, as we have said, emigrated finally, and cast his lot in the new land. He brought a number of followers and servants, and, coming over to Westmoreland County, in the Northern Neck of Virginia, "took up" extensive tracts of land there, and set about building manor-houses upon them.

Among these, it is stated, was the original "Stratford" House, afterward destroyed by fire. It was rebuilt, however, and became the birthplace of Richard Henry Lee, and afterward of General Robert E. Lee. We shall speak of it more in detail after finishing, in a few words, our notice of Richard Lee, its founder, and the founder of the Lee family in Virginia. He is described as a person of great force of character and many virtues—as "a man of good stature, comely visage, enterprising genius, sound head, vigorous spirit, and generous nature." This may be suspected to partake of the nature of epitaph; but, of his courage and energy, the proof remains in the action taken by him in connection with Charles II Inheriting, it would seem, in full measure, the royalist and Cavalier sentiments of his family, he united with Sir William Berkeley, the royal governor, in the irregular proclamation of Charles II in Virginia, a year or two before his reinstallment on the English throne. He had already, it is reported on the authority of well-supported tradition, made a voyage across the Atlantic to Breda, where Charles II was then in exile, and offered to erect his standard in Virginia, and proclaim him king there. This proposition the young monarch declined, shrinking, with excellent good sense, from a renewal, under less favorable circumstances, of the struggle which terminated at Worcester. Lee was, therefore, compelled to return without having succeeded in his enterprise; but he had made, it seems, a very strong impression in favor of Virginia upon the somewhat frivolous young monarch. When he came to his throne again, Charles II graciously wore a coronation-robe of Virginia silk, and Virginia, who had proved so faithful to him in the hour of his need, was authorized, by royal decree, to rank thenceforward, in the British empire, with England, Scotland, and Ireland, and bear upon her shield the motto, "En dat Virginia quartam."

Richard Lee returned, after his unsuccessful mission, to the Northern Neck, and addressed himself thenceforward to the management of his private fortunes and the affairs of the colony. He had now become possessed of very extensive estates between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers and elsewhere. Besides Stratford, he owned plantations called "Mocke Neck," "Mathotick," "Paper-Maker's Neck," "War Captain's Neck," "Bishop's Neck," and "Paradise," with four thousand acres besides, on the Potomac, lands in Maryland, three islands in Chesapeake Bay, an interest in several trading-vessels, and innumerable indented and other servants. He became a member of the King's Council, and lived in great elegance and comfort. That he was a man of high character, and of notable piety for an age of free living and worldly tendencies, his will shows. In that document he bequeaths his soul "to that good and gracious God that gave it me, and to my blessed Redeemer, Jesus Christ, assuredly trusting, in and by His meritorious death and passion, to receive salvation."

The attention of the reader has been particularly called to the character and career of Richard Lee, not only because he was the founder of the family in Virginia, but because the traits of the individual reappear very prominently in the great soldier whose life is the subject of this volume. The coolness, courage, energy, and aptitude for great affairs, which marked Richard Lee in the seventeenth century, were unmistakably present in the character of Robert E. Lee in the nineteenth century.

We shall conclude our notice of the family by calling attention to that great group of celebrated men who illustrated the name in the days of the Revolution, and exhibited the family characteristics as clearly. These were Richard Henry Lee, of Chantilly, the famous orator and statesman, who moved in the American Congress the Declaration of Independence; Francis Lightfoot Lee, a scholar of elegant attainments and high literary accomplishments, who signed, with his more renowned brother, the Declaration; William Lee, who became Sheriff of London, and ably seconded the cause of the colonies; and Arthur Lee, diplomatist and representative of America abroad, where he displayed, as his diplomatic correspondence indicates, untiring energy and devotion to the interests of the colonies. The last of these brothers was Philip Ludwell Lee, whose daughter Matilda married her second cousin, General Henry Lee. This gentleman, afterward famous as "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, married a second time, and from this union sprung the subject of this memoir.



This celebrated soldier, who so largely occupied the public eye in the Revolution, is worthy of notice, both as an eminent member of the Lee family, and as the father of General Robert E. Lee.

He was born in 1756, in the county of Westmoreland—which boasts of being the birthplace of Washington, Monroe, Richard Henry Lee, General Henry Lee, and General Robert E. Lee, Presidents, statesmen, and soldiers—and, after graduating at Princeton College, entered the army, in 1776, as captain of cavalry, an arm of the service afterward adopted by his more celebrated descendant, in the United States army. He soon displayed military ability of high order, and, for the capture of Paulus's Hook, received a gold medal from Congress. In 1781 he marched with his "Legion" to join Greene in the Carolinas, carrying with him the high esteem of Washington, who had witnessed his skillful and daring operations in the Jerseys. His career in the arduous campaigns of the South against Cornwallis, and the efficient commander of his cavalry arm. Colonel Tarleton, may be best understood from General Greene's dispatches, and from his own memoirs of the operations of the army, which are written with as much modesty as ability. From these it is apparent that the small body of the "Legion" cavalry, under its active and daring commander, was the "eye and ear" of Greene's army, whose movements it accompanied everywhere, preceding its advances and covering its retreats. Few pages of military history are more stirring than those in Lee's "Memoirs" describing Greene's retrograde movement to the Dan; and this alone, if the hard work at the Eutaws and elsewhere were left out, would place Lee's fame as a cavalry officer upon a lasting basis. The distinguished soldier under whose eye the Virginian operated did full justice to his courage and capacity. "I believe," wrote Greene, "that few officers, either in Europe or America, are held in so high a position of admiration as you are. Everybody knows I have the highest opinion of you as an officer, and you know I love you as a friend. No man, in the progress of the campaign, had equal merit with yourself." The officer who wrote those lines was not a courtier nor a diplomatist, but a blunt and honest soldier who had seen Lee's bearing in the most arduous straits, and was capable of appreciating military ability. Add Washington's expression of his "love and thanks," in a letter written in 1789, and the light in which he was regarded by his contemporaries will be understood.

His "Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department" is a valuable military history and a very interesting book. The movements of Greene in face of Cornwallis are described with a precision which renders the narrative valuable to military students, and a picturesqueness which rivets the attention of the general reader. From these memoirs a very clear conception of the writer's character may be derived, and everywhere in them is felt the presence of a cool and dashing nature, a man gifted with the mens aequa in arduis, whom no reverse of fortune could cast down. The fairness and courtesy of the writer toward his opponents is an attractive characteristic of the work, which is written with a simplicity and directness of style highly agreeable to readers of judgment.

After the war General Henry Lee served a term in Congress; was then elected Governor of Virginia; returned in 1799 to Congress; and, in his oration upon the death of Washington, employed the well-known phrase, "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." He died in Georgia, in the year 1818, having made a journey thither for the benefit of his health.

General Henry Lee was married twice; first, as we have said, to his cousin Matilda, through whom he came into possession of the old family estate of Stratford; and a second time, June 18, 1793, to Miss Anne Hill Carter, a daughter of Charles Carter, Esq., of "Shirley," on James River.

The children of this second marriage were three sons and two daughters—Charles Carter, Robert Edward, Smith, Ann, and Mildred.  



Robert Edward Lee was born at Stratford, in Westmoreland County, Virginia, on the 19th of January, 1807.

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 today. 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 today 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 center 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 moldings, 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 was perfect.



Of Lee's childhood we have no memorials, except the words of his father, long afterward.

"Robert was always good," wrote General Henry Lee.

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.

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 defenses, 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 reconnaissance 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 Contreras and Cherubusco, 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 defenses 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'élite 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.



Lee found the country burning as with fever, and the air hot with contending passions. The animosity, long smoldering between the two sections, was about to burst into the flame of civil war; all men were taking sides; the war of discussion on the floor of Congress was about to yield to the clash of bayonets and the roar of cannon on the battle-field.

Any enumeration of the causes which led to this unhappy state of affairs would be worse than useless in a volume like the present. Even less desirable would be a discussion of the respective blame to be attached to each of the great opponents in inaugurating the bitter and long-continued struggle. Such a discussion would lead to nothing, and would probably leave every reader of the same opinion as before. It would also be the repetition of a worn-out and wearisome story. These events are known of all men; for the political history of the United States, from 1820, when the slavery agitation began, on the question of the Missouri restriction, to 1861, when it ended in civil convulsion, has been discussed, rediscussed, and discussed again, in every journal, great and small, in the whole country. The person who is not familiar, therefore, with the main points at issue, must be ignorant beyond the power of any writer to enlighten him. We need only say that the election of Abraham Lincoln, the nominee of the Republican Party, had determined the Gulf States to leave the Union. South Carolina accordingly seceded, on the 20th of December, 1860; and by the 1st of February, 1861, she had been followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. The struggle thus approached. Military movements began at many points, like those distant flashes of lightning and vague mutterings which herald the tempest. Early in February Jefferson Davis, of Mississippi, was elected President of the Confederate States, at Montgomery. On the 13th of April Fort Sumter surrendered to General Beauregard, and on the next day, April 14, 1861, President Lincoln issued his proclamation declaring the Gulf States in rebellion, and calling upon the States which had not seceded for seventy-five thousand men to enforce the Federal authority.

Tip to this time the older State of Virginia had persistently resisted secession. Her refusal to array herself against the General Government had been based upon an unconquerable repugnance, it seemed, for the dissolution of that Union which she had so long loved; from real attachment to the flag which she had done so much to make honorable, and from a natural indisposition to rush headlong into a conflict whose whole fury would burst upon and desolate her own soil. The proclamation of President Lincoln, however, decided her course. The convention had obdurately refused, week after week, to pass the ordinance of secession. Now the naked question was, whether Virginia should fight with or against her sisters of the Gulf States. She was directed to furnish her quota of the seventy-five thousand troops called for by President Lincoln, and must decide at once. On the 17th of April, 1861, accordingly, an ordinance of secession passed the Virginia Convention, and that Commonwealth cast her fortunes for weal or woe with the Southern Confederacy.

Such is a brief and rapid summary of the important public events which had preceded, or immediately followed, Lee's return to Washington in March, 1861. A grave, and to him a very solemn, question demanded instant decision. Which side should he espouse—the side of the United States or that of the South? To choose either caused him acute pain. The attachment of the soldier to his flag is greater than the civilian can realize, and Lee had before him the brightest military prospects. The brief record which we have presented of his military career in Mexico conveys a very inadequate idea of the position which he had secured in the army. He was regarded by the authorities at Washington, and by the country at large, as the ablest and most promising of all the rising class of army officers. Upon General Winfield Scott, Commander-in-Chief of the Federal Army, he had made an impression which is the most striking proof of his great merit. General Scott was enthusiastic in his expressions of admiration for the young Virginian; and with the death of that general, which his great age rendered a probable event at any moment, Lee was sure to become a candidate for the highest promotion in the service. To this his great ability gave him a title at the earliest possible moment; and other considerations operated to advance his fortunes. He was conceded by all to be a person of the highest moral character; was the descendant of an influential and distinguished family, which had rendered important services to the country in the Revolution; his father had been the friend of Washington, and had achieved the first glories of arms, and the ample estates derived from his wife gave him that worldly prestige which has a direct influence upon the fortunes of an individual. Colonel Lee could thus look forward, without the imputation of presumption, to positions of the highest responsibility and honor under the Government. With the death of Scott, and other aged officers of the army, the place of commander-in-chief would fall to the most deserving of the younger generation; and of this generation there was no one so able and prominent as Lee.

The personal relations of Lee with General Scott constituted another powerful temptation to decide him against going over to the Southern side. We have referred to the great admiration which the old soldier felt for the young officer. He is said to have exclaimed on one occasion: "It would be better for every officer in the army, including myself, to die than Robert Lee." There seems no doubt of the fact that Scott looked to Lee as his ultimate successor in the supreme command, for which his character and military ability peculiarly fitted him. Warm personal regard gave additional strength to his feelings in Lee's favor; and the consciousness of this regard on the part of his superior made it still more difficult for Lee to come to a decision.



It is known that General Scott used every argument to persuade Lee not to resign. To retain him in the service, he had been appointed, on his arrival at Washington, a full colonel, and in 1860 his name had been sent in, with others, by Scott, as a proper person to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Brigadier-General Jessup. To these tempting intimations that rapid promotion would attend his adherence to the United States flag, Scott added personal appeals, which, coming from him, must have been almost irresistible.

"For God's sake, don't resign, Lee!" the lieutenant-general is said to have exclaimed. And, in the protracted interviews which took place between the two officers, every possible argument was urged by the elder to decide Lee to remain firm.

The attempt was in vain. Lee's attachment to the flag he had so long fought under, and his personal affection for General Scott, were great, but his attachment to his native State was still more powerful. By birth a Virginian, he declared that he owed his first duty to her and his own people. If she summoned him, he must obey the summons. As long as she remained in the Union he might remain in the United States Army. When she seceded from the Union, and took part with the Gulf States, he must follow her fortunes, and do his part in defending her. The struggle had been bitter, but brief. "My husband has wept tears of blood," Mrs. Lee wrote to a friend, "over this terrible war; but he must, as a man and a Virginian, share the destiny of his State, which has solemnly pronounced for independence."

The secession of Virginia, by a vote of the convention assembled at Richmond, decided Lee in his course. He no longer hesitated. To General Scott's urgent appeals not to send in his resignation, he replied: "I am compelled to. I cannot consult my own feelings in this matter." He accordingly wrote to General Scott from Arlington, on the 20th of April, enclosing his resignation. The letter was in the following words:


GENERAL: Since my interview with you, on the 18th instant, I have felt that I ought not longer to retain my commission in the army. I therefore tender my resignation, which I request you will recommend for acceptance. It would have been presented at once but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted all the best years of my life, and all the ability I possessed.

During the whole of that time—more than a quarter of a century—I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors and the most cordial friendship from my comrades. To no one, general, have I been as much indebted as to yourself for uniform kindness and consideration, and it has always been my ardent desire to merit your approbation. I shall carry to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, and your name and fame will always be dear to me.

Save in defense of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword. Be pleased to accept my most earnest wishes for the continuance of your happiness and prosperity, and believe me, most truly yours,


Commanding United States Army.


In this letter, full of dignity and grave courtesy, Lee vainly attempts to hide the acute pain he felt at parting from his friend and abandoning the old service. Another letter, written on the same day, expresses the same sentiment of painful regret:


ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA, April 20, 1861.

MY DEAR SISTER: I am grieved at my inability to see you ... I have been waiting "for a more convenient season," which has brought to many before me deep and lasting regret. Now we are in a state of war which will yield to nothing. The whole South is in a state of revolution, into which Virginia, after a long struggle, has been drawn, and, though I recognize no necessity for this state of things, and would have forborne and pleaded to the end for redress of grievances, real or supposed, yet in my own person I had to meet the question, whether I should take part against my native State. With all my devotion to the Union, and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have, therefore, resigned my commission in the army, and, save in defense of my native State, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword.

I know you will blame me, but you must think as kindly of me as you can, and believe that I have endeavored to do what I thought right. To show you the feeling and struggle it has cost me, I send a copy of my letter to General Scott, which accompanied my letter of resignation. I have no time for more.... May God guard and protect you and yours, and shower upon you every blessing, is the prayer of your devoted brother,



The expression used in this letter—"though I recognize no necessity for this state of things"—conveys very clearly the political sentiments of the writer. He did not regard the election of a Republican President, even by a strictly sectional vote, as sufficient ground for a dissolution of the Union. It may be added here, that such, we believe, was the opinion of a large number of Southern officers at that time. Accustomed to look to the flag as that which they were called upon to defend against all comers, they were loath to admit the force of the reasoning which justified secession, and called upon them to abandon it. Their final action seems to have been taken from the same considerations which controlled the course of Lee. Their States called them, and they obeyed.

In resigning his commission and going over to the South, Lee sacrificed his private fortunes, in addition to all his hopes of future promotion in the United States Army. His beautiful home, Arlington, situated upon the heights opposite Washington, must be abandoned forever, and fall into the hands of the enemy. This old mansion was a model of peaceful loveliness and attraction. "All around here," says a writer, describing the place, "Arlington Heights presents a lovely picture of rural beauty. The 'General Lee house,' as some term it, stands on a grassy lot, surrounded with a grove of stately trees and underwood, except in front, where is a verdant sloping ground for a few rods, when it descends into a valley, spreading away in beautiful and broad expanse to the lovely Potomac. This part of the splendid estate is apparently a highly-cultivated meadow, the grass waving in the gentle breeze, like the undulating bosom of Old Atlantic. To the south, north, and west, the grounds are beautifully diversified into hill and valley, and richly stored with oak, willow, and maple, though the oak is the principal wood. The view from the height is a charming picture. Washington, Georgetown, and the intermediate Potomac, are all before you in the foreground."

In this old mansion crowning the grassy hill, the young officer had passed the happiest moments of his life. All around him were spots associated with his hours of purest enjoyment. Each object in the house—the old furniture and very table-sets—recalled the memory of Washington, and were dear to him. Here were many pieces of the "Martha Washington china," portions of the porcelain set presented to Mrs. Washington by Lafayette and others—in the center of each piece the monogram "M.W." with golden rays diverging to the names of the old thirteen States. Here were also fifty pieces, remnants of the set of one thousand, procured from China by the Cincinnati Society, and presented to Washington—articles of elaborate decoration in blue and gold, "with the coat-of-arms of the society, held by Fame, with a blue ribbon, from which is suspended the eagle of the order, with a green wreath about its neck, and on its breast a shield representing the inauguration of the order." Add to these the tea-table used by Washington and one of his bookcases; old portraits, antique furniture, and other memorials of the Lee family from Stratford—let the reader imagine the old mansion stored with these priceless relics, and he will understand with what anguish Lee must have contemplated what came duly to pass, the destruction, by rude hands, of objects so dear to him. That he must have foreseen the fate of his home is certain. To take sides with Virginia was to give up Arlington to its fate.

There is no proof, however, that this sacrifice of his personal fortunes had any effect upon him. If he could decide to change his flag, and dissolve every tie which bound him to the old service, he could sacrifice all else without much regret. No one will be found to say that the hope of rank or emolument in the South influenced him. The character and whole career of the man contradict the idea. His ground of action may be summed up in a single sentence. He went with his State because he believed it was his duty to do so, and because, to ascertain what was his duty, and perform it, was the cardinal maxim of his life.



No sooner had intelligence of Lee's resignation of his commission in the United States Army reached Richmond, than Governor Letcher appointed him major-general of the military forces of Virginia. The appointment was confirmed by the convention, rather by acclamation than formal vote; and on the 23d of April, Lee, who had meanwhile left Washington and repaired to Richmond, was honored by a formal presentation to the convention.

The address of President Janney was eloquent, and deserves to be preserved. Lee stood in the middle aisle, and the president, rising, said:

"MAJOR-GENERAL LEE: In the name of the people of our native State, here represented, I bid you a cordial and heart-felt welcome to this hall, in which we may almost yet hear the echoes of the voices of the statesmen, the soldiers, and sages of by-gone days, who have borne your name, and whose blood now flows in your veins.

"We met in the month of February last, charged with the solemn duty of protecting the rights, the honor, and the interests of the people of this Commonwealth. We differed for a time as to the best means of accomplishing that object, but there never was, at any moment, a shade of difference among us as to the great object itself; and now, Virginia having taken her position, as far as the power of this convention extends, we stand animated by one impulse, governed by one desire and one determination, and that is, that she shall be defended, and that no spot of her soil shall be polluted by the foot of an invader.

"When the necessity became apparent of having a leader for our forces, all hearts and all eyes, by the impulse of an instinct which is a surer guide than reason itself, turned to the old county of Westmoreland. We knew how prolific she had been in other days of heroes and statesmen. We knew she had given birth to the Father of his Country, to Richard Henry Lee, to Monroe, and last, though not least, to your own gallant father, and we knew well, by your deeds, that her productive power was not yet exhausted.

"Sir, we watched with the most profound and intense interest the triumphal march of the army led by General Scott, to which you were attached, from Vera Cruz to the capital of Mexico. We read of the sanguinary conflicts and the blood-stained fields, in all of which victory perched upon our own banners. We knew of the unfading luster that was shed upon the American arms by that campaign, and we know, also, what your modesty has always disclaimed, that no small share of the glory of those achievements was due to your valor and your military genius.

"Sir, one of the proudest recollections of my life will be the honor that I yesterday had of submitting to this body confirmation of the nomination, made by the Governor of this State, of you as commander-in-chief of the military and naval forces of this Commonwealth. I rose to put the question, and when I asked if this body would advise and consent to that appointment, there rushed from the hearts to the tongues of all the members an affirmative response, which told with an emphasis that could leave no doubt of the feeling whence it emanated. I put the negative of the question, for form's sake, but there was an unbroken silence.

"Sir, we have, by this unanimous vote, expressed our convictions that you are at this day, among the living citizens of Virginia, 'first in war.' We pray to God most fervently that you may so conduct the operations committed to your Charge that it may soon be said of you that you are 'first in peace,' and when that time comes you will have earned the still prouder distinction of being 'first in the hearts of your countrymen.'"

The president concluded by saying that Virginia on that day entrusted her spotless sword to Lee's keeping, and Lee responded as follows:

"MR. PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN OF THE CONVENTION: Profoundly impressed with the solemnity of the occasion, for which I must say I was not prepared, I accept the position assigned me by your partiality. I would have much preferred had your choice fallen upon an abler man. Trusting in Almighty God, an approving conscience, and the aid of my fellow-citizens, I devote myself to the service of my native State, in whose behalf alone will I ever again draw my sword."

Such were the modest and dignified expressions of Lee in accepting the great trust. The reply is brief and simple, but these are very great merits on such an occasion. No portion of the address contains a phrase or word denunciatory of the Federal Government, or of the motives of the opponents of Virginia; and this moderation and absence of all rancor characterized the utterances of Lee, both oral and written, throughout the war. He spoke, doubtless, as he felt, and uttered no expression of heated animosity, because he cherished no such sentiment. His heart was bleeding still from the cruel trial it had undergone in abruptly tearing away from the old service to embark upon civil war; with the emotions of the present occasion, excited by the great ovation in his honor, no bitterness mingled—or at least, if there were such bitterness in his heart, he did not permit it to rise to his lips. He accepted the trust confided to him in terms of dignity and moderation, worthy of Washington; exchanged grave salutations with the members of the convention; and then, retiring from the hall where he had solemnly consecrated his life to his native Commonwealth, proceeded at once to energetic work to get the State in a posture of defense.