Golden Nuggets from U. S. History

The Blue Quill Series
Concord Learning Systems


Robert E. Lee, the man and the myth

See also: Declaration of Independence: Whose idea was it?

The strong, healthy boy, Robert Edward Lee, born to General Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, III, and Ann Hill Carter Lee on January 19, 1807 was the last Lee born at Stratford Plantation to survive to maturity. Robert E. Lee spent fewer than four years there but his later boyhood visits to Stratford and to Shirley, his mother's family home near Richmond, left lasting impressions.

After the death of his idol George Washington in December, 1799, "Light Horse Harry's" fortunes began to decline. The support of a family of six, disastrous land speculations, and the loss of exports to England reduced him to financial poverty. As Robert was learning to walk, his father was carried off to debtor's prison in Montross. However, with characteristic courage, from a 12-by-15 foot prison cell, Harry wrote his "Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States," still the standard text on that portion of the Revolutionary War. When the book was finished in 1810, the family moved to Alexandria, where a new but modest life was made possible by a legacy from Ann's father. Harry's eldest son, Henry IV, became master of Stratford.

"Light Horse Harry's" last years were marred by sorrow and pain. Internal injuries, received when he was beaten by a mob as he defended a friend in a melee over freedom of the press in Baltimore, kept him in constant physical pain. He sought relief in the warm climate of the West Indies but when his health continued to decline, Harry attempted to return home. He died on Cumberland Island, Georgia, in 1818 at the home of the daughter of his former commander and friend, General Nathanael Greene.

As sometimes happens in distinguished families, one member seems to fall heir to the best qualities of the previous generations with few of the flaws. So it was with Robert. From both the Carters and the Lees he inherited a handsome countenance. From his father came rare physical strength and endurance. The sense of duty that Harry had learned from George Washington was vividly imparted to his son. Even "Light Horse Harry's" difficulties with money seemed to have produced positive traits in Robert, who throughout his life was meticulous and prudent in all financial matters. But none of the inherited qualities exceeded Robert's inherent virtues of devotion to his family, to his country, and his proud loyalty to his home state of Virginia.

Ann Hill Carter Lee's gentleness was inherited by Robert, and his loving care of his ailing mother was a great comfort in her later life. With his father and elder brothers away, and his mother and sisters in failing health, 12 year old Robert had become head of the household. On cold afternoons, when his mother was well enough, young Robert would stuff paper in the cracks of the carriage to block the wind and take her driving. Years later, when he left for West Point, Ann Lee wrote to a cousin, "How will I get on without Robert? He is both a son and daughter to me."

Robert's choice of a military career was dictated by financial necessity. There was no money left to send him to Harvard, where his older brother Charles Carter Lee studied. The circumstances led to an appointment to West Point where he led the Cadet Corps in 1829 and graduated second in his class. In four years he received not a single demerit and became one of the most popular cadets at the institution.

On June 30, 1831, while serving as Second Lieutenant of Engineers at Fort Monroe, VA, he married Mary Ann Randolph Custis of Arlington. Mary was the only daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Washington and grandson, through the adopted daughter, of George Washington. Robert shared his father's reverence for General Washington and that bond served as an inspiration throughout Lee's life. The couple moved to Arlington, the Custis house across the Potomac from the capital, onto land which later became Arlington National Cemetery.

At the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846, Robert was ordered to Mexico as a supervisor of road construction. His skills as a cavalryman in reconnaissance, however, soon captured the attention of General Winfield Scott, who came to rely on him for his sharp military expertise. It was in Mexico that Lee learned the battlefield tactics which served him so well in coming years. In spite of his flawless performance as an engineer and his brilliance as an officer, promotions came slowly. His assignments were lonely and difficult, and he found the separation from his family hard to bear. His love of Mary and his ever-increasing brood of children were the mainstays of his life.

Following the Mexican campaign he returned to work on military defenses around Baltimore. In 1852 he was appointed Superintendent of West Point, serving three years and becoming one of the most popular commandants in the history of the Academy. In April 1855 he was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the Second Cavalry and among his duties during the next four years was fighting Indians in Texas.

In October 1859 he commanded a contingent of marines, including young Lieutenant James Ewell Brown (J.E.B.) Stuart, on a mission to Harper's Ferry, Va., (now W. VA) to suppress an insurrection led by abolitionist John Brown. Brown and his supporters had captured a U.S. military armory and were awaiting an uprising of slaves to start a rebellion. Brown refused to surrender, and the marines stormed the building resulting in a battle leaving three locals, two of Brown's sons, and twelve others dead. Brown was sentenced to death and his attempt to start a rebellion had failed.

By now Lee was a military veteran of thirty years and had witnessed the tumultuous political events swirling about him on the issue of slavery. He had witnessed the consequences of the 1820 Missouri Compromise, the turmoil in Texas in 1846, and the horrible divisiveness brought about over the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1850. His life had been imbued with the lessons of his uncle and Founding Father Richard Henry Lee who had written in 1759, "...Africans ...were equally entitled to liberty and freedom by the great law of nature," and the act of his principle hero, George Washington, who's last will had freed slaves at Mount Vernon.

But he had also witnessed the creeping separation between North and South over the issue of states rights in general, especially tariffs as they were applied to export of farm products, mainly cotton and tobacco. The South had experienced, one administration after another, side with, or capitulate to northern Representatives and Senators who sought favorable tariffs in northern ports and more restrictive tariffs at southern ports. Northern congressmen did not trust Southerners to abide by tariff laws and therefore rammed through new laws requiring products be shipped as far as New York for export. Southerners were faced with stiff competition from the Carribean islands and cost became a major concern. Southerners also were faced with additional cost of imported goods in excess of cost in the North because trade treaties stipulated that imports were to arrive into northern ports and southern states had to pay transportation cost from those ports. Furthermore, as part of national defense, congress had established standing military installations in all eastern ports and used the navy and marines to enforce tariffs, custom laws, and to assert federal control over domestic shipping.

Southerners in congress never fully grasped the debate strategies and diversionary tactics used by northern politicians. Whenever well intentioned southern members arose to debate tariffs and states rights, opponents countered with arguments against slavery. Southerners ignored slave arguments as though northerners were wasting their own time. The vast majority of southerners were concerned about tariff laws, infringement on states rights, and other arrogant practices of the federal government, especially the activities of federal troops in southern ports. When talk of secession arose in 1860 President James Buchanan responded by filling all Cabinet vacancies with northerners and sending the warship, Star of the West, to Fort Sumter, South Carolina, with reinforcements.

The situation which evolved and produced Robert E. Lee's enduring fame was one he would have avoided if possible. The Army of the United States had been his life's work for 32 years, and he had given it his very best. On April 18, 1861, he was finally offered the reward for his service.

On the eve of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, through Francis Blair who had succeeded Jefferson Davis as Secretary of War, offered Lee command of the Union Army. There was little doubt as to Lee's sentiments. He was completely opposed to secession and considered slavery evil. His views on the United States were equally clear -

"no north, no south, no east, no west," he wrote, "but the broad Union in all its might and strength past and present."

Blair's offer forced Lee to choose between his strong conviction to see the country united in perpetuity and his virtuous responsibility to family, friends, and his native Virginia. A heart-wrenching decision had to be made. Searching for an answer during a long night at Arlington, he finally came downstairs to Mary. "Well Mary," he said calmly, "the question is settled. Here is my letter of resignation." He could not, he told her, lift his hand against his own people. He had "endeavored to do what he thought was right," and replied to Blair that "... though opposed to secession and a deprecating war, I could take no part in the invasion of the Southern States." He resigned his commission and left his much beloved Arlington to "go back in sorrow to my people and share the misery of my native state."

Philosophos Historia


[American historians love to rewrite history. The reason is not clear but their revisions are often detrimental to the South and to political and social conservatives. To see what we mean, read "Admiring U.S. Grant more, Robert E. Lee less."]


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