The comedy of man survives the tragedy of man. — G. K. Chesterton

Son of Light Horse Harry - James Barnes

Gathering Clouds

It was the autumn of 1859. Lee was once more at Arlington. The years since the Mexican War had been passed in strict attention to his military duties, with which he had allowed no side issues to interfere. Immediately after his return to the States, in 1848, he had been employed on the defences being constructed at Baltimore. He had refused the leadership of the Cuban insurrection, offered him by the republican junta, and he had declined also, at first, the offer of the superintendency of the Military Academy at West Point, in 1852. But so convinced were the authorities of the necessity of improving the general condition then existing at the Academy, and so firm was their belief in Lee's abilities, that they insisted upon his reconsidering his decision, and he accepted at last with reluctance. His administration was marked by an improvement in discipline and by the lengthening of the course to five years. While he was at the Academy he had seen his son, Custis, graduate at the head of his class, and his feelings of pride may well be imagined.

In 1855 he had been promoted regularly to be lieutenant-colonel of the 2nd Cavalry. The year I856 found him in western Texas with his regiment, where he served during the Comanche Indian troubles; and he brought about an important meeting which helped to settle matters, with Catumseh, a very troublesome chieftain.

It had been a sad homecoming to Arlington in the fall of 1859; for his father-in-law, Mr. Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington and the adopted son of General Washington, had died at the age of seventy-five, and the family circle was again broken.

Lee was seated on the broad piazza looking out at the river. Across his knees was spread a copy of a Washington paper. He had just finished reading an editorial that had given him much to think about, and his face was sad as he thought, for before him he saw a long vista of trouble and distress. Politically the country was bitterly divided. The question of slavery had been brought so strongly before the minds of the people that they were almost ready to take up arms. The Abolitionists of the North were as rampant in their expressions as the majority of the people of the South were obstinate in their refusal to listen to argument. Lee was not a believer in slavery. His own father had, shortly after the Revolutionary War, written against it at some length, and had described it as "that dreadful evil" which he prophesied would some day rend the country, regretting at the same time that a provision had not been introduced into the Constitution providing gradually for its abolition. Robert E. Lee now saw the warning and wisdom of his father's writing more plainly than he ever had before. A certain radical element of the extreme Abolitionist party was almost openly encouraging the blacks to insurrection. The frightful consequences of this act seemed to have escaped them. John Brown, from Kansas, the half-fanatical pioneer, was in Virginia with his band of followers. The government could not ignore their presence.

The people of the South were demanding their apprehension, and in the paper that Lee had just been reading there was an imperious summons to the authorities to act at once. As he sat there, his mind reaching far into the future and gaining little comfort, Mrs. Lee came from the house and approached him softly.

"A soldier has just ridden out from Washington with this," she said, handing him a long, blue, departmental envelope. "I hoped they would let you rest awhile, but it seems they will not."

Colonel Lee looked up with a smile that ended with a sigh. He opened the envelope, read the order it contained, and handed it to his wife with a long-drawn breath.

"I expected this," he said. "I am ordered to take command of a detachment of marines that is to proceed to Harper's Ferry, where John Brown and his followers have intrenched themselves. I see, far beyond this movement, trouble and distress. God grant it will be averted! God grant it so! But I must go at once."

With a hasty farewell he mounted his horse that had been waiting back of the house, and in a few minutes he was on his way to Washington.

It was by no means an easy task that lay before Colonel Lee. The work required a cool head, experience, and courage; and it was because the authorities knew that Lee possessed these qualifications that they had chosen him. John Brown, with some twenty followers, had occupied Harper's Ferry on the 16th, and for three days had held possession of a group of brick buildings near the bank of the river. The State of Virginia, having called out two companies of militia, was preparing to call out all her citizens to resist invasion, and was ready to declare that a state of war existed. On the 17th, Brown, who had seized the arsenal and armory, had fought a pitched battle with the Virginia militia, in which he had lost most of his men, had two of his sons killed, and he himself had been badly wounded. He had with him at the time a number of citizens whom he had taken prisoners and now held as hostages. When Lee arrived on the 19th with his battalion of marines from the navy-yard at Washington he found Brown barricaded in the engine-house that was surrounded by five or six hundred Virginians and militia, all demanding vengeance against the invader. They did not much relish the presence of the regular troops, for they feared that Brown might be rescued, and they had determined that he should receive short shrift. Lee took in the situation at once. His orders had been to capture Brown, dead or alive, but to take him alive if possible. With him at the time was Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart, of the 1st Cavalry, whom he had met in Arlington while he was on leave of absence. The young officer had asked permission to accompany Lee as a volunteer aide.

When the marines marched into the little village, Lee found the Virginians about to make an onslaught on the engine-house. He at once asserted his right to take command, and stated that the affair was no longer in the hands of Virginia, but in the hands of the federal authorities; that he had his orders, and should carry them out. It was a critical moment. A clash then between the State forces and those representing the national government might have borne dire consequences. The people, afraid that Brown and his companions would be taken from them, did not like to give up their hope of wreaking immediate vengeance; but Lee was firm; he would brook no interference. A plan of attack was quickly arranged, and the marines, some armed with axes and crowbars, were divided into three detachments, and at a given signal they rushed upon the engine-house and battered down the doors. There was a short, fierce fight at the entrance, and then they swarmed through, young Lieutenant Stuart at their head. Immediately he recognized a tall figure with a great, waving mass of iron-gray hair towering up from a broad, high forehead. A marine was drawing back a bayonet at the old man's breast when Stuart caught his shoulder. An instant later John Brown was a prisoner.

The Virginians, who had watched the scene as idle spectators, now rushed down from all sides about the little band of blue-coated marines. Furious cries and imprecations arose. Loud were the demands to hang Brown at once. The task of capturing him appeared an easy one beside that of saving his life. Lee needed now all his coolness; and with that rare gift of his of impressing others, his men caught the spirit of their chief and held themselves together, calm and collected. They forced their way slowly through the howling mob, disdainful of oaths, imprecations, and flying missiles, and lodged old John Brown in a place of safety. Never did Lee feel so thankful as when this had been accomplished, and never had the effect of discipline and good leadership been proved so clearly, for had one shot been fired by the much-harassed marine guard, there would have been great troubles to follow. The State of Virginia was so thoroughly upset that her preparations to resist invasion continued long after Brown was hanged, as he was at Charlestown, Virginia, on December 2d.

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

The prisoners that Lee took at Harper's Ferry were turned over to the United States district attorney, and Lee returned to Washington. Almost immediately afterwards he received orders to join his command, which was then in Texas, and here he remained until he received a summons to return to Washington, in February, 1861. It was a sad time indeed for him; the distressful vision that he had seen so many times before his eyes was working towards a reality. He saw plainly now that the bitterness of political feeling had grown to such an extent between North and South that judgments were warped, passion had entered into speech and writings and action. Lee was torn between two feelings—his allegiance to his country and his allegiance to his native State.

His feelings are best shown in his own words, so we might well quote here a letter written to his son at just this time; about it there is nothing that is not hopeful, it has the ring of outspoken honesty, yet in not a line does he attempt to influence his son's political views; he leaves him to make his own decision, as his conscience might direct. And so he writes:

"As an American citizen I take pride in my country, her prosperity and her institutions, and would defend any State if her rights were invaded. But I can anticipate no greater calamity for my country than a dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation. I hope, therefore, that all constitutional means will be exhausted before there is a resort to force. Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. . . . Still, a union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me. I shall mourn for my country and for the welfare and progress of mankind. If the Union is dissolved and the government disrupted, I shall return to my native State and share the miseries of my people, and, save in defence, mill draw my sword on none."

There was one man who was more anxious than all others to influence Lee's decision; that was his old commander, General Scott. He knew of Lee's close and heartfelt devotion to Virginia, the State that was also his own. He knew of Lee's love for his birthplace and his early home, his sense of allegiance to the commonwealth to whose early history his ancestors had contributed so much and in whose kindly soil they rested in their graves. But General Scott knew also, as no other man did, the value of that calm mind and ready brain, the courage of that bold heart, and the balance of that well-ordered intellect. Resourcefulness, experience, force, judgment, and decision, all were there, and that peculiar something also that all great military leaders have had in all past ages—the power of unconsciously impressing the weight of their character and determination upon others, and the magnetism that forces men to follow where they lead.

The old general, with the infirmities of his great age growing thick upon him, his ponderous, unwieldy body ailing from disease, and his mind embittered by his many personal quarrels (and, if the truth may be told, petty hatreds), yet saw clearly that to lose the services of Robert E. Lee would be to lose, as he expressed it to Mr. Lincoln, more than the services of fifty thousand men.

There were few people in the North, or outside of his own State of Virginia, who knew who was the colonel of the 2d Cavalry. They had read Lee's name in despatches, true enough, along with many others that they had forgotten, but the people at large would have been astonished if they had known that Mr. Lincoln, after a long interview with General Scott, had requested Mr. Francis Preston Blair to see Lee and persuade him, yes, to tempt him, to remain loyal, by the offer of the command of the Northern armies that it was soon expected would be put in the field. Never at the time did Lee mention this remarkable interview that was held in Washington, and it was not until three years after the war was over that it was made public. Mr. Blair used all the arguments that he could think of, and then frankly told the reason that he had sought the meeting, and offered Lee, in the name of the President of the United States, the highest military honor in the possession of the national government. Lee listened courteously to all of Mr. Blair's remarks, and the depth of his feeling plainly showed in his tone and in his words as he replied:

"My appreciation, sir, of the extreme honor that you might wish to confer upon me is great, my gratitude is humble; but I must state, candidly and openly, that I could not accept the command of any army to be put in the field for such purposes as will ultimately be necessary. I am opposed, most strongly, to secession, and I deprecate with all my soul any movement that would tend to war; but everything within me, my conscience, my belief, my sympathies, my affections, and my sense of right and justice as I see it, would prevent me from taking part in an invasion of the Southern States."

When Lee had finished, Mr. Blair for a long time remained silent; then he put one question: "Will you go see General Scott?" he asked. "Certainly," Lee replied. "I will go to him at once."

Immediately following this interview, Lee repaired to General Scott's office. He found the old warrior seated in an enormous arm-chair, a great mountain of ponderous flesh, with his gray, lion-like head sunk into the broad shoulders that had once been so erect and soldierly. Scott greeted Lee warmly, as he always had done. He motioned him to be seated near him, and during the talk that followed more than once the old general's dim eyes filled with tears, not of anger, but of sorrow; for he perceived that it would be impossible to alter Lee's decision. It was not those two almost insurmountable obstacles in character that he had to deal with, a strong will or a bitter prejudice, both of which may be overcome or broken down, but it was the firm, unswerving belief in the rectitude of his own judgment, the soulful conviction and self-approval of a spiritual mind.

Lee had made his own decision and met the trying ordeal before him with the heroic spirit of self-sacrifice. Scott parted from him, saddened and grieved, but yet with all his affections reaching out towards his friend whose friendship he never lost.

So, two days later, on the same day as Secretary of War Cameron received Lee's resignation, dated Arlington, April 20, 1861, General Scott received the following epistle:

"GENERAL,—Since my interview with you on the 18th instant I have felt that I ought no 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 the best years of my life and all the ability I possess. During the whole of that time, more than a quarter of a century, I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors and a most cordial friendship from my comrades. To no one general have I been as much indebted as to yourself for uniform kindness and consideration. 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 shall always be dear to me. Save in the defence 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,


It must have been with thronging memories of the past, and bitter doubts and fears for the future, that Robert E. Lee signed his name. People who at that day, in the bitterness of their feelings, denounced as traitors those who (deciding to the best of their conscience, judgment, and ability) chose to remain true to their own States, when they forsook the national federation, must respect and admire Lee in the moment of his soul's trial and bitter anguish.

Immediately upon the secession of Virginia, Lee was summoned to Richmond, and was there tendered the position of major-general in command of the forces of the State, a title that he later relinquished for that of commander-in-chief of the armies of the Confederacy. The son of Light Horse Harry had made his judgment as he believed his father would have made it had he been alive, and over the old and well-fought battle-grounds where Henry Lee had led his ragged followers, resisting the invasion of the people from whom he had descended, and fighting also those of his own countrymen who, under the name of Tories, bore allegiance to the crown, Robert E. Lee was to march and fight against men of his own blood and faith, and the military fame of his great father was to dim in the lustre that the son was to gather to the name of Lee.