Boys' Book of Famous Soldiers - J. W. McSpadden


The Leader of a Lost Cause

A gray-haired college president sat talking kindly with a young sophomore who had fallen behind in his studies.

"My boy," he said, "you must study if you ,would succeed. Only patience and industry will prevent your failure here and your failure in after life."

"But, General, you failed," replied the sophomore with an amazing impertinence.

"I hope that you may be more fortunate than I," was the quiet answer.

Literature contains nothing finer than that by way of the retort courteous.

The speaker was Robert E. Lee—the time not many months after the surrender of the Southern army. Many were there to brand him as a "failure," just as this thoughtless sophomore had done, and to all such critics his reply was silence. In the seclusion of a small Virginia college he lived and worked, keeping sedulously out of public affairs, writing and saying nothing about his campaigns. He left to history the final verdict, which has found him, not a failure, but one of the most brilliant soldiers of this or any land.

In Lee's early life and ancestry his nearest parallel is Washington. These two greatest Virginians were born within a few miles of each other, in Westmoreland County. Lee was born just seventy-five years after Washington, (January 19, 1807) and like him was descended of famous lineage. His father, Light Horse Harry Lee, fought by the side of Washington in the Revolutionary War; and it was he who in a memorial address on the great leader coined the immortal phrase: "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."

Still another ancestor, Richard Henry Lee, had been born many years earlier in the same old mansion where Robert Edward Lee first saw the light of day. Richard Lee it was, who was a boyhood friend and confidant of George Washington; and who later became one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

It is not strange, therefore, to find that the career of the first great Virginian profoundly influenced the second. "One familiar with the life of Lee," says Thomas Nelson Page, "cannot help noting the strong resemblance of his character in its strength, its poise, its rounded completeness, to that of Washington; or fail to mark what influence the life of Washington had on the life of Lee. The stamp appears upon it from his boyhood, and grows more plain as his years progress."

The old homestead in which Lee was born deserves some notice on its own account. It was built by Thomas Lee, a grandson of Richard Lee, the emigrant who came to Virginia about the time that Charles I was losing both his crown and his head. While Charles II was still in exile, this same Thomas Lee offered the king a haven in Virginia, which was not accepted.

The original brick structure was destroyed by fire, but the house was rebuilt on the same site during the time of Queen Anne, and it is said that she aided in its reconstruction. This was the ancestral home of the Lees for several generations.

Robert E. Lee, though naturally proud of his lineage, never showed great interest in the family tree. He never had the time or the inclination to study genealogy, and always said that he knew nothing of it beyond the fact that Colonel Richard Lee had come to America during the reign of Charles I. Upon having a family seal and crest made, he apologized for the seeming parade by saying, "I have thought, perhaps foolishly enough, that it might as well be right as wrong." Later, however, when approached on the subject of publishing a family history, he wrote: "I am very much obliged to Mr. —— for the trouble he has taken in relation to the Lee genealogy. I have no desire to have it published, and do not think it would afford sufficient interest beyond the immediate family to pay for the expense. I think the money had better be appropriated to relieve the poor."

Harry Lee, Robert's father, was not only a soldier, but also a man of letters. He loved the classics, and has left memoirs written in spirited vein. He had reached middle life, however, before Robert was born, and passed away when the boy was eleven. It was the mother's influence—and here again we have a parallel with Washington—which was paramount in the early days. She was a Carter, of an equally old and distinguished family, and is spoken of as an amiable and gracious lady.

When Robert was still a child, his family moved to Alexandria, and very shortly his father went away on a trip for his health, from which he never returned. Between the boy and his mother the ties became very close. He was devoted to her, and on her part she said, after he went away to school, "You have been both son and daughter to me."

Long afterward, Lee alludes to this period in a letter to his own son, by way of counsel: "A young gentleman who has read Virgil must surely be competent to take care of two ladies; for before I had advanced that far I was my mother's outdoor agent and confidential messenger."

Robert Lee obtained his first schooling at the old academy in Alexandria, then taught by a Mr. Leary, who remained always his good friend. Later he attended a better known school, conducted by a strict Quaker, Benjamin Hallowell—Brimstone Castle, the boys called it, solely on account of the color of the brick walls. Hallowell himself was rarely if ever brimstone in character, though he could be stern enough on occasion. He "thee'd" and "thou'd" in the most orthodox style, and decried all warfare. Despite his pacifist teaching, however, young Lee's earliest ambition was to become a soldier. It was in his blood.

He was fond of outdoor sports, especially hunting and horseback riding. His lifelong fondness for horses brings to mind the same trait in Grant, his later antagonist. In his older days Lee would tell with enthusiasm how as a boy he had followed the hunt, not infrequently on foot, for hours over hill and valley without tiring. Again he wrote: "I know the pleasure of training a handsome horse. I enjoy it as much as any one." His famous steed, "Traveller," was known throughout the Army of Virginia, during the War, and the sight of him caused many an eye to grow moist as he followed riderless the remains of his beloved master to their last resting place.

At the Hallowell school, Lee chiefly excelled in mathematics, a study which was later to be of great value to him, in the engineers' corps of the army. Hallowell paid a tribute to his pupil after the latter became famous, saying: "He was a most exemplary student in every respect."

One could wish, however, that instead of such idle compliments, the schoolmaster had really searched his memory and given us some personal anecdotes of Lee at school. There is actually very little on record about his early life. He seems to have grown into an attractive and likeable boy, studious, somewhat reserved, and by no means remarkable. One kinswoman writes: "I have often said since he entered on his brilliant career that, although we all admired him for his remarkable beauty and attractive manners, I did not see anything in him that prepared me for his so far outstripping all his compeers."

Lee's older brother, Sydney, had already entered the navy, and Lee himself decided upon the army, as his choice of profession. At the age of eighteen he applied for a cadetship at the Military Academy at West Point, and received it direct from President Andrew Jackson himself. There is a tradition that when Lee presented himself before the hero of New Orleans, that doughty Tennessean looked him over from head to foot, then passed him on with the terse comment, "You'll do!"

And Robert Lee did. In college he made a record that shines to this day. He was given the coveted cadet adjutancy of his corps. He graduated second in a class of forty-six. And he did not receive a single demerit during his entire college career—for rusty gun, or cap on the floor, or late at drill, or twisted belt,—or any of the hundred and one things that are the bane and stumbling block of the West Pointer's existence. Such a record seems almost too good to be true, and one is tempted to wish for at least one escapade to enliven the narrative!

Yet Lee was by no means a prig. Even his detractors of later years never accused him of that. He was popular with his fellows and fond of the give-and-take of the drill ground. His ability to make and hold friends was one of the outstanding traits of his whole life. His men who followed him through the "Lost Cause" fairly idolized him.

General Joseph E. Johnson, another Southern leader, was a classmate of his at 'West Point, and gives us this description of him there. "We had the same intimate associates, who thought, as I did, that no other youth or man so united the qualities that win warm friendship and command high respect. For he was full of sympathy and kindness, genial and fond of gay conversation, and even of fun, while his correctness of demeanor and attention to all duties, personal and official, and a dignity as much a part of himself as the elegance of his person, gave him a superiority that every one acknowledged in his heart. He was the only one of all the men I have known that could laugh at the faults and follies of his friends in such a manner as to make them ashamed without touching their affection for him."

Lee graduated from West Point with the Class of '29, and the rank of second lieutenant of engineers. His first important move after leaving , school was to choose for wife Mary Custis, daughter of George Washington Parke Custis of Arlington, the last branch of the Washington family. Here again the fates linked up the names of Washington and Lee. The two homes at Arlington and Mt. Vernon were only a few miles apart on the Potomac, and as a final link in the chain we find, years after, at the close of his life, Lee giving his last efforts to building up Washington College, which was to be known thereafter as Washington and Lee.

When Mary Custis became Mrs. Robert E. Lee there was some disparity in their fortunes. She was the heiress of the Custis estate, while he was drawing only the meager pay of a second lieutenant. But such was her pride and confidence in him, that she turned her back on money and decided to live on her husband's income. It was harsh training for a time, but it fitted her to become a real helpmeet for him; and in the rigorous days of the Civil War she was glad that she had learned, early to "do without."

One of Lieutenant Lee's first assignments in the engineering corps was the construction of harbor defenses in Hampton Roads. As he labored to make these as strong as possible, he little dreamed that it would be his problem, a quarter of a century later, to study how he might demolish them.

From Hampton Roads he was transferred to Washington, and made assistant to the chief engineer—an agreeable change as it brought him close to his wife's home. Mounted on a favorite steed he could easily "commute" back and forth between office and home. On one occasion it is related that he invited a brother officer, Captain Macomb, out home for the night, and as the latter had no mount, Lee took him up behind himself, and down Pennsylvania Avenue they went, saluting other officers whom they encountered, with great glee. That was one time when a commutation ticket was good for two.

Five years after graduation he had worked up to a first lieutenancy, and two years more found him a captain. In 1835 he was appointed on a commission to fix the boundary line between Michigan and Ohio. A few months later he was detailed to make an important study of the Mississippi River and Valley with a view to determining how to prevent the annual overflows with their consequent damage to property. His researches were chiefly along the upper river at Illinois. It is said that while there he was struck with the enormous potential energy of the current, and reported that if a dam were constructed at a certain place, a great storehouse of power would be possible. This was long before the day of the dynamo, by which such power could be harnessed. Many years later, however, his dream came true, at the place he had indicated,—the great power dam nearly a mile long blocking the "Father of Waters" for the first time in his tumultuous career, at Keokuk, Iowa.

Farther down stream, above St. Louis, he began a system of river improvements which aroused no little opposition among property owners. The dispute that arose was one of the first things which brought the name of Robert E. Lee to public attention. But despite the short-sighted protests of some citizens of St. Louis, Lee went quietly ahead and carried the work through to the permanent betterment of the city. "I was sent here to do certain work, and I shall do it," was his terse comment.

When he had completed his work on the Mississippi, he was sent to New York to complete the harbor defenses at Fort Hamilton—down at the gateway of the city. He had been made captain of engineers by this time, and was looked upon as one of the ablest men in his like of work, in the army.

It was not long before his mettle was to be tested in actual warfare. The trouble with Mexico which had been smouldering for several years at length burst into flame. After the first victories along the border under General Zach. Taylor, a campaign from the sea was undertaken, under General Winfield Scott, who landed at Vera Cruz. The purpose was to march overland to the capital, reducing the country as they went; and to make this possible the army engineers were in demand. They answered the call gladly, for the spirit of adventure ran high, and every army officer welcomed the chance to see active service.

In the corps of engineers we find several names destined to become famous—Lee, Beauregard, McClellan, Foster, Tower, Stevens, Totten, and others; while Grant was attached to the commissary of the same army. It was in effect a training school for the great drama of a few short years later.

Captain Lee was placed on the personal staff of General Scott, and given supervision of important road and bridge building. In a letter to his wife, dated Rio Grande, October 11, 1846, he writes: "We have met with no resistance yet. The Mexicans who were guarding the passage retired on our approach. There has been a great whetting of knives, grinding of swords, and sharpening of bayonets ever since we reached the river."

This was written while serving with General Wool in northern Mexico. He took part in the battle of Buena Vista, his first engagement, and was then summoned to Vera Cruz by Scott. That doughty old General and former commandant at West Point had all along shown a great partiality for Lee; and in the campaign which was to follow, we find him constantly writing of his, young staff officer in glowing terms. One such incident is typical.

Lee had undertaken alone an all-night exploration of a desolate, lava tract called the Pedre gal, which had been shunned by scouts and troopers alike. It was treacherous country, difficult to traverse, and possibly infested by the enemy. General Scott writes: "I had despatched several staff officers who had, within the space of two hours, returned and reported to me that each had found it impracticable to penetrate far into the Pedregal during the dark.

Captain Lee, having passed over the difficult ground by daylight, found it just possible to return to San Augustin in the dark, the greatest feat of physical and moral courage performed by any individual, in my knowledge, pending the campaign."

Another General, P. F. Smith, also bears tribute to this and other such feats: "I wish partially to record my admiration of the conduct of Captain Lee, of the Engineers. His reconnaissances, though pushed far beyond the bounds of prudence, were conducted with so much skill that their fruits were of the utmost value—the soundness of his judgment and personal daring being equally conspicuous."

At Vera Cruz Lee had the pleasure of meeting his older brother, from whom he had long been separated. This was Lieutenant Sydney Smith Lee, who had entered the Navy before Robert went to West Point. Now for the first time the brothers, sailor and soldier, fought side by side. But it was with mixed feelings that Robert Lee passed through this experience. He was brave enough on his own account, but he constantly trembled for Sydney! He had placed a battery in position to reduce the town, and thus describes the ensuing action:

"The first day this battery opened Smith served one of the guns. I had constructed the battery, and was there to direct its fire. No matter where I turned, my eyes reverted to him, and I stood by his gun whenever I was not wanted elsewhere. Oh! I felt, awfully, and am at a loss what I should have done had he been cut down before me. I thank God that he was saved. He preserved his usual cheerfulness, and I could see his white teeth through all the smoke and din of the fire."

When the soldiers moved inland, after capturing Vera Cruz, the sailors were left behind, and Lee had to bid his brother farewell.

The records of the six months' campaign in Mexico contain many references to Lee's skill and bravery. He was then forty years old, in the hey-dey of his vigor. He would remain in the saddle from dawn to twilight, if necessary, and never shirked a duty. No wonder that Scott was proud of him and came to rely upon him more and more.

"At Chapultepec," he writes, "Captain Lee was constantly conspicuous, bearing important orders till he fainted from a wound and the loss of two nights' sleep at the batteries."

The campaign certainly showed that Lee was a soldier and the son of a soldier. He was repeatedly cited for meritorious conduct, and was brevetted major, lieutenant colonel, and colonel in rapid succession. This proved not merely his bravery, but his ability in planning engagements and discovering the weak points of the enemy—features which he was to turn to such remarkable account in many famous battles of the Civil War.

When peace with Mexico was declared, Lee was given a welcome furlough, and went back to Arlington to visit his wife and children. He had been so constantly away from home, that he failed to recognize his youngest son, whom he had left an infant. And it is said that he himself was first recognized by a faithful dog.

His son and namesake, R. E. Lee, in his "Recollections," speaks of his father's love for animals. He once rescued a dog that was near drowning in the "Narrows," and it became his devoted follower through life. In a letter home he writes (one of many such references), "Cannot you cure poor Spec? (his dog). Cheer him up! Take him to walk with you—tell the children to cheer him up." We have already spoken of his favorite horse, "Traveller." After the great War, during which horse and rider were inseparable, Lee wrote a description and tribute to his equine friend which must appeal to every true lover of horses.

Lee's two elder sons held true to the family traditions by both entering West Point. Lee himself was presently sent there by the government as Superintendent—just twenty-three years after he had graduated. He served in this capacity for three years, then was given an assignment to the cavalry, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. For the next five years his duties took him into several states, chiefly in the West and Southwest. It was an unsettled time on the Border, both from the Mexicans at the South, and the Indians in the West, and constant (police duty was necessary. It was arduous and lacked the thrill of a real campaign, but in any event, it kept Lee from growing rusty as a soldier. Unconsciously to him and to his Government, it was shaping him and fitting him for the great drama just ahead.

For slowly but surely the North and the South were drifting apart. At first the discussion had been political, but now it was growing more and more personal and bitter. The disputed questions were slavery and States' Rights. A preliminary cloud in the sky was the fanatical raid of John Brown, who, in 1859, tried to stir up the negroes of northern Virginia against their masters. This raid was promptly crushed at Harper's Ferry, and Lee with his regiment of cavalry assisted in restoring order, but though "John Brown's body lay a'mouldering in the grave, His soul went marching on."

While many Southerners did not own slaves and did not believe in slavery, the question of States' Rights found them with undivided front. Had not this doctrine been expressly implied in the Federal Constitution? Had not this right been invoked more than once in the North—by the staunch State of Massachusetts, for example, as early as 1809, and as lately as 1842? Thus they reasoned, and when matters at last reached a breaking point in 1861, the Southern States, following South Carolina's lead one by one, felt that they were acting only within their recognized rights.

The actual call to arms brought a heart-breaking time to many homes. In some it actually parted father and son, or brother and brother. While it created no such chasm in the Lee family, it brought to Robert E. Lee the bitterest and most trying decision of his whole life.

Lee had loved his country. He had served her faithfully for thirty-two years. His actions rather than his words had proved his entire devotion, but the words too were not lacking, as references to his letters will show. One such glimpse of his heart is seen in a letter written from Texas, in 1856. In telling his wife about his Fourth of July celebration, he says: "Mine was spent after a march of thirty miles, on one of the branches of the Brazos, under my blanket, elevated on four sticks driven in the ground, as a sunshade. The sun was fiery hot, the atmosphere like a blast from a hot-air furnace, the water salt, still my feelings for my country were as ardent, my faith in her future as true, and my hope for her advancement as unabated, as they would have been under better circumstances."

When finally the choice had to be made, between State and Nation, Lee was sore beset. He had no interest in the perpetuation of slavery. His views all tended the other way. "In this enlightened age," he wrote, "there are few, I believe, but will acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil." He had already set free his own slaves, and was in favor of freeing "all the slaves in the South."

But when it came a question of deserting his own State, his beloved Virginia, the problem was far more difficult. "All night nearly he paced his chamber," says Thomas Nelson Page, "often seeking on his knees the guidance of the God he trusted in. But in the morning light had come. His wife's family were strongly Union in their sentiments, and the writer has heard that powerful family influences were exerted to prevail on him to adhere to the Union side. 'My husband has wept tears of blood,' wrote Mrs. Lee to his old commander, Scott, who did him the justice to declare that he knew he acted under a compelling sense of duty."

Lee had no illusions as to the sternness of the contest, and the sacrifices that he with all others would have to make. His own beautiful home lay just across the river from Washington. He must have seen with prophetic vision how it would be seized by the Federal Government and held for other purposes—an act of confiscation that was only partially atoned for half a century later. He knew also that Virginia being a border State would bear the brunt of war.

"I can contemplate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union," he wrote in January. And in April that dissolution came.

Nor did the fortunes of the War itself swerve him from the belief that in serving his State, he was doing his highest duty. After it was over and he had gone into the retirement of work in Washington College, we find him writing to General Beauregard as follows:

"I need not tell you that true patriotism sometimes requires men to act exactly contrary at one period to that which it does at another—and the motive which impels them—the desire to do right—is precisely the same. History is full of illustrations of this. Washington himself is an example." (Here he invokes the example that had been his guiding star since early boyhood.) "He fought at one time against the French under Braddock, in the service of the King of Great Britain. At another he fought with the French at Yorktown, under the orders of the Continental Congress, against him. He has not been branded by the world with reproach for this; but his course has been applauded."

While Lee was wrestling with his momentous decision, a further temptation was placed in his path, which he thrust aside. He was offered the high post of commander-in-chief of the Union forces. This offer came at a suggestion from Scott that "Colonel Lee would be worth fifty thousand troops to our side"; and although Lincoln had never met him, he was glad to accede to the suggestion. Lee quietly remarked in declining the honor, "I stated as candidly and courteously as I could, that, though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern States."

Such was the manner of man who was soon chosen to lead the Confederate armies. Let us pause for a final picture of the man himself, from a composite by men who knew him.

In physique Lee was every inch a man. He stood five feet eleven inches in height, weighed 175 pounds, and there was not an ounce of superfluous flesh on him. He was "as fine-looking a man as one would wish to see," said General Hunt, "of perfect figure and strikingly handsome." General Meigs added: "Lee was a man then in the vigor of youthful strength, with a noble and commanding presence, and an admirable, graceful, and athletic figure." General Preston remarked that he had "a countenance which beamed with gentleness and benevolence." J. S. Wise said, "I have seen all the great men of our times, except Mr. Lincoln, and I have no hesitation in saying that Robert E. Lee was incomparably the greatest looking of them all." And Alexander H. Stephens, when he saw Lee for the first time, and talked of the newly-born Confederacy, was moved in his enthusiasm to say: "As he stood there, fresh and ruddy as a David from the sheepfold, in the prime of manly beauty and the embodiment of a line of heroic and patriotic fathers and worthy mothers, it was thus I first saw Robert E. Lee. . . . I had before me the most manly and entire gentleman I ever saw."

Lee's fame as a general of the first rank has survived the over-enthusiastic eulogies of his friends and the first caustic comments of his foes. His strategy has come to be recognized as of the highest order. To begin with, he had to build his army "from the ground up," but ended by having one of the most perfect fighting machines in the history of warfare. His men obeyed him with a devotion that was almost idolatrous. He suggested the uniform of quiet gray on account of its protective coloring and against all the army traditions of ages, that an army should march into action in gaudy and glittering attire. It was not until the great World War of a later century, that wise military leaders followed his example and dressed their troops as inconspicuously as possible.

It is not the province of this short sketch to trace General Lee's campaigns step by step to the final meeting with Grant at Appomattox. Army after army was sent to meet him from the North's far greater resources, only to be baffled or defeated in the South. And it was not until he forsook his successful tactics of the defensive, and assumed the offensive on his invasion of Pennsylvania, that he encountered serious defeat at Gettysburg.

But, after all, the great foe to whom his troops had finally to succumb, was General Starvation. The resources of the South were literally exhausted.

"My men are starving," said Lee tersely to Grant; and back of them lay a suffering land that had literally been "bled white."

It was indeed a bitter lesson that the South had learned, but the verdict of history is that it was salutary. The Union was greater than any State or any group of States. It had required a War to rectify that fatal flaw in the Constitution, but out of the fires of that terrible conflict was fused a Union "strong and great," that should be far better fitted to withstand the shock of Time.

Since that bygone day when Lee laid aside his sword forever, and his men went straggling back to their plowshares, America has become engaged in two other wars. And among the first to respond to the bugle call and line up behind "Old Glory" have been the sons and grandsons of that staunch line of Gray—the men who followed Lee.

If the souls of great soldiers ever come back to earth, we can imagine no finer picture than the Leader of a Lost Cause again looking up to the Stars and Stripes and pledging it his silent allegiance. We can seem to see him on his familiar gray charger at the head of his forces, fighting again for his beloved country. We can seem to hear his voice ringing in command:

"On, men of Virginia! On, men of the South! We are Americans all!"

Important Dates in Lee's Life

1807. January 19. Robert Edward Lee born.
1825. Entered West Point.
1829. Graduated second in his class. Made second-lieutenant in engineers.
1831. Married Mary Custis.
1838. Appointed captain.
1845. Joined General Scott's staff in Mexico.
1848. Made colonel for gallant conduct.
1852. Appointed superintendent of West Point.
1855. Appointed lieutenant-colonel of cavalry, in service against Indians.
1861. Made general in Confederate Army.
1865. Surrendered to Grant.
1865. Accepted presidency of Washington College, Virginia.
1870. October 12. Died at this college.