Son of Light Horse Harry - James Barnes

The Engineer Officer

Lieutenant Lee, at the end of his furlough, was sent to Hampton Roads, Virginia, to assist in carrying on the completion of the extensive fortifications intended for the defence of the Chesapeake. His hard work in his preparatory courses stood him well when it came to facing the sterner curriculum of the school of life. He had ambitions, plenty of them, but the chief one was not so much to demand the approbation of his superiors as to gain, so far as he could, the satisfaction of feeling that he was doing his best at all times. And if genius is "the capacity for taking infinite pains," Robert E. Lee began to show that he possessed this gift at a very early age. Whether upon the bastions, directing the actual work of construction, or poring over the drawings and plans in the office, he brought what was best in him to the task before him. His motto might have been said to be the same as that of the great commander under whom he subsequently served, General Winfield Scott: "Nothing is too small to be despised if it counts in the summing-up of one's duties.

For two years his life was uneventful. Hard work, constant application, good health, and hope spell happiness to any man, and with all these Lieutenant Lee was happy. Of course, he was looking forward to one great day, the day when he should call Mary Custis his wife, and at last, like the good things promised to those who work and wait, the day arrived.

It was June 30, 1831, when neighbors and friends gathered at Arlington to witness the wedding. The fine old place never looked more beautiful. As his nephew, General Fitzhugh Lee, described it, quoting in part his own description: "Old Arlington was in all her glory that night. The stately mansion never held a happier assemblage. Its broad portico and wide-spread wings held out open arms, as it were, to welcome the coming guests. Its simple Doric columns graced domestic comfort with a classic air. Its halls and chambers were adorned with portraits of the patriots and heroes and with illustrations and relics of the great Revolution and of the 'Father of his Country,' and, without and within, history and tradition seemed to breathe their legends upon a canvas as soft as a dream of peace."

The ceremony was performed by the Rev. Mr. Keith, and it is not hard to imagine the picture of the beautiful young bride and the handsome, stalwart young officer of the Engineers standing there as they plighted their troth.

There were gay times that night down in the negro quarters, for the Custises, like the Lees, treated their slaves not like slaves at all, but as if they were wards left to them by fate or the force of circumstances. They neither sold nor bought any of them, and a happier lot of blacks never lived, if the truth be told. Micah, who remembered days long before the Revolution, and who had cooked many times for Washington in the field, played the fiddle until early-morning. Powell, the old soldier, had made another pilgrimage from his backwoods home in order to attend the marriage of the son of his old commander, and many other veterans of the Revolution, also, and younger soldiers in the uniforms they had worn in 1812, were there.

After a short' honeymoon, which was principally spent at Arlington, Lieutenant Lee and his wife returned once more to Hampton Roads, where he took up again his work on the harbor defences. And, as some one has put it in reference to this part of his career, "little did he think that he would soon be studying, twenty-seven years afterwards, how to demolish them."

For four years he pursued his work and lived happily among his friends and neighbors, mostly military men, and then he was ordered to Washington in 1834, and received the appointment of assistant to the chief-engineer of the army.

It was rather an agreeable change, for now he was but a few miles from his old home, and Mrs. Lee was back among her old associates and friends. Once more there were long rambles by the river and long gallops across the country. Robert Lee was a splendid horseman. No one knew better than he did a good horse when he saw one, and no one looked better in the saddle.

There is a little anecdote told of him while he was in Washington which proves that sometimes he could unbend from his dignity, and that he was not above doing things that are generally supposed to go with a more madcap disposition.

He had come from attending a meeting at the house of the chief-engineer, and was about to mount his horse that had been held while waiting for him by a boy in the road, when Captain Macomb stepped up to him.

"It's a fine horse you've got there, Lee," he said, looking at the well-groomed black steed.

"You can have a ride on him any time you like, captain," Lee rejoined.

"Well, you might lend him to me now," said the captain, laughing. "I'm going a short way out in your direction."

Lee's foot was already in the stirrup, and he swung himself into the saddle. "I'll tell you what we'll do," he said, as he gathered up the reins—" we'll both ride him. He's strong enough to carry two. Get up behind."

A few minutes later people passing along the road were surprised to see two officers in uniform astride the same horse, jogging along as if it was nothing out of the ordinary. On Lee's face was not the shadow of a smile, even when he passed by and bowed politely to a party of cabinet officers as they passed the gate of the President's house. A little farther along, however, he touched the big black with his spurs, and Captain Macomb, clinging around his waist and with both of them in roars of laughter, they made a John Gilpin run of it for a mile or so until Captain Macomb slid off at the side of the road.

In his own home Lee could be as merry as the next one upon occasion, and the rarest of these times were when he was visited by either of his brothers. Charles Carter Lee, the eldest, who had been graduated from Cambridge, always lent an atmosphere of merriment and enjoyment to any gathering at which he might be present, and between the brothers there existed the most loving intimacy and companionship. General Fitzhugh Lee gives a little sketch of Charles Carter that presents him picturesquely before us:

"His social qualities were of the highest order, his humor inimitable; his classic wit flowed, as clear as the mountain-stream, from a well-stored mind. He was a boon companion and the first guest invited to the banquet; around him all clustered, and from his vicinity peals of laughter always resounded. His speeches, songs, and stories are marked traditions in the family to-day. Gifted with a most retentive memory, and being a great reader, especially of history, his recollection of all he had read made him a most instructive and agreeable companion. Every subject received its best treatment from his genius. He was thoroughly conversant with Biblical literature, and had been known to maintain the leading part in discussions of the Bible with a roomful of ministers whose duty it was to expound it. In every drawing-room his presence was most warmly welcomed. At every festive board his song or speech was hailed with enthusiastic greeting. He was clever, generous, liberal, and free-hearted. When paying visits with his brothers and the three often went together—should wine happen to be offered, Smith and Robert, with their usual abstemiousness, would decline; Carter, however, would accept, remarking, 'I have always told these boys that I would drink their share of wine, provided they would keep me generously supplied.' He wrote, too, with beauty and fluency of expression, and once said to his brother Robert: 'The government employs you to do its fighting; it should engage me to write your reports. I admit your superiority in the exercise of the sword and in planning campaigns. I am, however, as you know; the better writer of the two, and can make my pen mightier than your sword after the battle is over. We could thus combine and be irresistible.'"

But the life of the soldier who serves his country, even in times of peace, is liable to sudden changes of residence. He may be, without warning, ordered from a comfortable home and pleasing surroundings to precarious work and hardship on the frontier. Even the engineers were not exempt from these enforced changes, and in June, 1837, Lieutenant Lee was ordered to report to the Department of the Mississippi to help in building the levees and jetties in process of construction on the banks of the great river. Only two years before that he had made a short trip into what was then the Northwest, for he had been appointed astronomer of a commission that laid the boundary-line between Ohio and Michigan. Now, however, this last duty entailed a somewhat longer separation from his family. It was no easy work that fell to his lot, for not only did he have to help keep the waters of the great stream within bounds, but he had to overcome certain prejudices of the shore inhabitants, and once or twice riots were narrowly averted.

In 1838 Lee was made captain of Engineers, and subsequently he came to the East and was stationed at Fort Hamilton, near New York City, where he was soon at work upon the defences. His life was tranquil and only filled with the duties of his position, duties to which he brought all of his intelligence and devotion. And so matters ran along until z 846. He had been appointed a visitor to West Point in 1844, and had earlier refused the offer of a professorship at that institution, preferring to keep more in touch with the active side of his profession.

But now a great change was to come into his life. He was to face scenes that called for the display of those military gifts that afterwards gained for him a name as one of the first soldiers this country has produced.

War was brewing along the Texan frontier. In fact, it had practically been declared by Mexico in June, 1845. James K. Polk, of Tennessee, was then President of the United States, and he and the party that he represented had declared in favor of the annexation of Texas, that had but lately thrown off, in a gallant war, the yoke of Mexico, and concluded a treaty with the United States in April, 18 44. General Zachary Taylor was down in the Rio Grande with an army of about four thousand men. It was "touch and go," to use the expression, whether war would take place or not. But at last the final clash came. Shots were exchanged and hostilities commenced on April 24, 1846. All available officers in every branch of the service received orders that gave them but short time for preparation before they would have to hasten to the scene of action. In the early fall of 1846 Captain Lee joined the staff of General John E. Wool, who had been placed in command of a body of troops in Texas, most of them volunteers, a hurriedly organized force sent to assist General Taylor in his invasion of Mexico from the north. Lee found himself associated with many men with whom, years afterwards, he was subsequently to share privation and hardship, the joys of victory and the sorrows of defeat.