Son of Light Horse Harry - James Barnes

At the Academy

Bending over a drawing-board in one of the classrooms, the windows of which looked out on the spreading green of the parade-ground, a young cadet was working with ruler and pencil. So interested was he that he did not notice that the instructor had paused behind him and was looking over his shoulder at his work.

"Very good, Mr. Lee," said the officer; "you have a decided bent for drawing, and should be in the Engineers."

The tall young man straightened himself. "It is the work I like most, sir."

"Keep at it, then." And as he said these words Mr. Gimbrede, the instructor, passed on and the cadet went back to his drawing board.

It was Robert E. Lee's second year at West Point. Already he had attracted the attention of his superiors and instructors by his purposeful energy. So far he had been at the head of his class and not a single demerit appeared against his name. Yet, despite the fact of his being so hard a student, he had lost nothing in popularity with his classmates. He had no intimates, and kept his own counsel, yet many a younger cadet had come to him for advice and help. Discipline was strict in those days, and yet, of course, there were many boyish pranks and escapades indulged in at the Point whose records have not come down to history. But Robert Lee had held aloof from all foolishness. Purpose governed him, and it was only in his letters that went south to Alexandria and to Arlington that he showed that he was getting anything more out of the academy than a record for indefatigable industry and application. But his letters were filled with scraps of information and gossip, clever little sketches of West Point characters, and not a few cartoons of his friends and, perhaps, of the instructors. The remark of the officer who had charge of the drawing-classes had carried with it not only a promise but a prophecy. It was Robert's full intention to be come an engineer, and, barring accidents, he well knew that the prize was in his grasp, for the cadets who graduate with honor are generally assigned to this coveted branch of the service.

But to return to the dim classroom. It was growing late, the sun had already disappeared behind the great wooded hills that tower above the little plateau, and at last the young man laid aside his ruler and placed the drawing-board in the corner. As he stepped from the building into the open air a slight figure, dressed in the tight bell-button coat that is, the same as the cadets wear to-day—came up to him.

"Lee," said a high-pitched voice, "you were at the riding-school this morning; did you notice anything that took place?"

"I heard there were some words between you and the man who rode next to you, but I paid little attention."

"Exactly," the young cadet replied. "It has been going on for some time, , but now we have come to the end of matters. He wants me to fight him. There is no use of beating about the bush. You are from my State; I have come to ask you to be my second."

Lee paused and looked his classmate full in the face.

"You know my sentiments about this sort of thing here."

"Yes," replied the other, "I have heard of them."

"And yet you ask me to second you." "I do, and what is your answer?"

Things were very different in those days, for the duel had not been abolished altogether from the code of social and military life. Even at the academy, meetings had taken place between young men yet in their teens, and officers of high rank had faced one another with the like-to-kill in their eyes over some slight quarrel and angry speech, and even such great men as General Jackson and General Scott, at that time the two leading soldiers of the country, had been with difficulty kept from shooting at each other, and public sentiment was not strong enough to overcome the dictates of the code. To refuse to fight carried with it no small disgrace. To refuse to be second was a great breach of friendship. Lee had more than once expressed himself as being against the duel. He was of a deeply religious nature, and his convictions upon most matters were to him as part of his faith. "Tell me," he said to his friend, "quickly as you can, the history of this trouble."

Without preamble the boy began.

It was the usual story of such quarrels—a slight misunderstanding followed by a studied coldness, and then an act of open hostility that, corning after a series of fancied slights and wrongs, had terminated in the hot words spoken at the end of the day's drill.

Lee listened patiently until the young cadet had finished. Then he spoke quietly and with that peculiar decision that always marked him when he had weighed his thoughts and put them into words, for he possessed, for a soldier, a strangely judicial mind.

"No," he said, "I will not be your second; but let me tell you this: you both are wrong, and "—mentioning the other cadet's name—" he shall apologize. Are you willing to accept it?"

"Certainly," replied the boy; "but so-and-so will not give in. You know his reputation."

That night before taps were sounded Lee had found opportunity to talk with the challenger, a fiery-tempered young Southerner who afterwards became a general and was known for his dashing impetuosity. To his surprise, his peaceful overtures were not well received, and Lee was considerably disheartened. He found no opportunity to report his unsuccess, and he disliked intensely the idea of having to acknowledge his failure. Besides, it rankled him that he should not have been able to respond to a request that generally, in those days, was acceded to at once. Still, he had moral courage enough to stand by his word, despite the consequences. He tossed a great deal that night as he thought matters over, and he took little comfort in the thought that he had done his best. The next morning, as the cadets marched to mess-hall, he noticed the two young men standing near together as the line broke up to go to the tables. They were back to back. Lee passed quite close to them. Whether it was a sudden inspiration or not it can never be told, but as he paused for just a second at their side he said two words, "Shake hands."

The young fellow who the day before had disdained all offers of compromise turned, in a half-startled way. Before he had realized probably what he was doing the elder extended his hand; the other lad took it. Then, with the rattle of the wooden chairs, they sat down back to back. The same afternoon Lee met his friend who had asked him to be his second. They strolled up towards the battery together.

"Well," said the younger man at last, "it's settled."

"I hope so," Lee replied.

"But yet one thing," went on his companion. "Will you tell me how you did it?"

Lee's dark brows contracted, a puzzled expression came into his brown eyes. "I don't know," he said. "That is, I couldn't tell you if I tried."

And, to tell the truth, he never analyzed for himself the peculiar effect his personality had upon those with whom he was thrown in close association. It was not his power of argument, for in argument he indulged but little. It was the gift of impressing his earnestness upon others and the unconscious insistence of his beliefs in what was right and wrong. It is from the example set by men that lessons are most surely taught.

Time went on. The days were spent in the routine life of work of brain and body that composes the early existence of the would-be soldier. There was little play for the cadets in those days. Their exercise were drills or rides out into the country. There was little time devoted to sport or recreation, and holidays, in the sense that we understand them, were unknown. Many times did the young cadet think of the long afternoons along the banks of the Potomac, and when on some occasions he used to see the wild geese winging their V-shaped flight southward in the fall, he longed for wings to take him there also, and he remembered the time, almost three years before, when he had stood with Mary Custis and expressed this thought out loud. But he had little time for dreaming. He had gone through, without a break, the successive line of promotion; he never yet had been reported for tardiness or lack of neatness, and there appeared not a single demerit as yet against his name. No one was surprised when he received the honor of being appointed cadet-adjutant in his fourth year, the highest post of honor that the future officer can look forward to during the years of his undergraduate life. As he faced his battalion there was no straighter back or better figure than his among the two hundred.

Lee's class, which was graduated in 1829, numbered forty-six, and in the ranking of graduation he stood second. The "star" men as they stood in order, were: Charles Mason, New York; Robert E. Lee, Virginia; William H. Harford, Georgia; Joseph A. Smith, Pennsylvania; James Barnes, Massachusetts. Immediately Lee received his appointment as second-lieutenant in the Engineer Corps of the United States army. Only once had he been home on furlough from the Military Academy in the four years, but now he was given the usual freedom, and he hastened home at once. It was a sad home-coming, for his mother, so long an invalid, was failing rapidly. Only a short time after he had reached Alexandria she passed away, but happy in the pride she held in her sons, and proud of the reward that had come to her (the result, in a great measure, of her teachings), the knowledge of the honorable positions they had taken in the world.

[Illustration] from Son of Light Horse Harry by James Barnes


Robert passed a good deal of his time at Arlington. He had found Mary Custis changed a little in appearance, and certainly when she had first seen him in his uniform it was more than admiration that shone in her eyes. When he left for the North it was understood that they were engaged to be married, although no announcement was then made to that effect. Mary's father, G. W. P. Custis, was the grandson of Mrs. Washington, and the adopted son of the great general. She was the heiress, as we have said before, of the estates of her father, and perhaps, at that time, the wealthiest unmarried woman in Virginia; but had she not had a penny to her name the attraction would have been the same for the young soldier, and with her beauty and his grace and charm they were said to be the handsomest couple that had ever stood together in the ballroom, or sat beside each other at the long table in the dining-hall at Arlington.