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Being Number One

The Frank O'Reilly Lecture

 

Report edited by Greg Bayne

 

Robert E. Lee-the man-is often eclipsed by Robert E. Lee-the icon. The general created such an impact on his generation, and future generations of Americans, that it is difficult to discern the man from the uniform. Where others will examine Lee's professional military development, I will concentrate on his personal development -his social, spiritual, and emotional development and maturity. We will examine Robert E. Lee's growth from humbled, If not humiliated, origins.

 

 


Birth

 

It is believed that Lee may be related to a branch of the Lee family from Shropshire, though no definite connection has been established. An admirer, W. W. Fontaine, thought he traced Lee's lineage to Robert Bruce. Lee's great-great grandfather, Richard Lee, was educated at Oxford.

 

His father was Light-Horse Harry Lee and he lacked integrity: there is the local story of him borrowing neighbours horses only to sell them-and the slave - sent to retrieve the horses! Due to a scandal, his half-brother, Henry, became the master of Stratford. Henry Lee died March 25, 1818. Lee was only 11.

The Black Harry or Black-Horse Harry scandal broke in 1830, when Lee 23, and fresh out of West Point. Black Harry fled the United States and took refuge in Italy, and then in Paris, where he died in 1837. Lee significantly never named any of his sons, Henry.

 

Youth

 

Ann Carter Lee determined that her husband's overconfidence, recklessness, and ruin would not be imparted to her 19 children. Ann Carter Lee taught children self-denial, self-control, strictest economy, and code of honour. Her view on how to manage boys was: "whip and pray, and pray and whip." Freeman said 'Thanks to Ann Lee, the weakness of the sire became the strength of the son." Lee later said he "owed everything" to his mother. Lee was gifted in mathematics-meticulous with drawings.

 

Lee faced religion with daily prayers in Lee home in Alexandria. They worshiped in the Episcopal Church, Christ Church, in Alexandria. They used George Washington's own Bible, and pew, but surprisingly, Lee was not confirmed in the faith.

 

The Carters were a social family and Lee enjoyed the company of his kin. They playfully gave each other nicknames - older brother, Charles Carter -or Carter-The Captain.

 

Even Ann Carter Lee will start using the name.

 

Lee's first encounter with war was when British Admiral Cockburn occupied Alexandria on August 28, 1814. Lee saw Washington burned from a distance.

 

It can be said that Lee had very little of a traditional childhood. At 13 he had duties for his mother. He attended the horses, and "carded the keys" for apportioning food-supplies.

 

Lee was devoted to his mother taking her for afternoon drives- but warned her that the ride would do no good for health unless she was cheerful.

 

Even though he was the "man", Lee needed to continue his education- his West Point selection was because he strong in mathematics, the cost was achievable, and he was an American legacy-the son of Light Horse Harry Lee. Later in life, lamented getting a military education as the worst mistake of his life.

 

West Point

 

Lee joined March 1, 1824 for the July 1, 1825 Class. The next cadet appointee Joseph E. Johnston. After he had left, Ann Carter Lee lamented, "How can I live without Robert? He is both son and daughter to me."

 

At this time, West Point was23 years old, expanded in 1817. At the preliminary examining board-oral exam easy-20 failed. Cadets had to camp on the plain, 4 hours drill and as part of their duties, learn to dance.

 

The Marquis de Lafayette, on July 2, 1825 wrote of some of the rules. "Cadets forbidden to leave the grounds--drink-smoke-play cards-use tobacco--have visitors on Sunday, study hours, or evenings-no meetings or societies or evening bathing in the Hudson without super's consent. Cadets can't have: cooking utensils-games-novels or plays-can have one periodical with super's approval-no instruments allowed except in one hour of recreation. Barracks: 3-4 to a room. Joint toilet - mirror-washstand and basin-pitcher tin pail-broom-scrubbing brush- regulation gray uniform-4 pairs of white trousers-a blue fatigue jacket-1 pair of blue fatigue trousers-2 silk stocks-cadet cap."

 

The daily routine was:

Dawn Reveille and roll call

_ hr. Cadet officers inspect the barracks

Dawn to 7: Study mathematics

7-7:30 Mess--no talking - the food was awful and often inedible -many complaints

7:30 Guard mounting

8 am Class parade-roll call-march to class

8-11 Math

11-12 Return to barracks to review lessons

12-1 Read French

1-2 Lunch

2-4 French class

4-dusk Military exercise school of the soldier

Sunset Dress Parade-roll call-dinner-retire to quarters

9:30 Tattoo--roll call-barracks inspection

10 Lights out.

 

Lee's fellow classmates were Albert S. Johnston, Samuel F Heintzelman, Silas Casey, St. George Cooke, Leonidas Polk, Gabriel Rains, and Jefferson Davis. His main academic rival was Charles Mason of New York. Amongst his close friends were Joseph E. Johnston, and John Mackay of Georgia. Overall, Lee found the classes easy. The top 5 cadets are listed in army register as distinguished cadets.

 

In his 2nd year Lee learned everyone can draw. Thomas Gimbrede said "There are only two lines in drawing, the straight line and the curve line. Every one can draw a straight line and everyone can draw a curve line-therefore, everyone can draw." At the end of the 2nd year he second behind Mason and he would remain that way throughout.

 

In his last year he was appointed adjutant, the highest attainment for a cadet.

 

His attempts at perfection were noticeable-cadets called him "Marble Model." J. E. Johnston on Lee's character: "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, and to confirm their respect and sense of his superiority."

 

Lee found confidence to assert himself, though he still had a great deal of self-consciousness and shyness to overcome. He still struck friends and family as a dignified person with gracious, considerate manners. His older brother, Carter, was considered the center of attention and amusement in the family. Lee later articulated the importance of West Point in personal development, when he was superintendent: he wrote that the cadets needed to learn discipline: "I know of no other way ... of inculcating those principles of manliness and honor which are the only safeguard of a soldier."

 

Lee graduated in 1828 second to Charles Mason, and one of six without a demerit.

 

He returned home just in time to nurse his mother. He prepared her medicine, sat by her side. When he left the room, she stared at the door until he returned. Ann Carter Lee died on July 10, 1829, age 56.

 

The Social Young Man

 

Lee loved sunsets and trees, horses, dogs, and cats. He wrote to Traveller in 1868, when he missed him from the Springs, he inquired of his secretary: "How is Traveller? Tell him I miss him dreadfully and have repented of our separation but once, and that is the whole time since we parted."

 

A cousin remembered Lee: "as full of life, fun and particularly teasing, as any of us."

 

Lt. Col. Lee was social and fun in Savannah. Hugh Mercer a West Pant friend, wrote, "Bob Lee, I do not find him at all changed--he runs on just as he used to. He made me laugh very heartily and laughed himself until the tears ran down his face."

 

He made new friends in Savannah, and was smitten with the sisters of his best friend, John Mackay. He was "one of the family" and through Eliza Mackay he learned to flirt and be gallant and perhaps develop the confidence to actually find love eventually elsewhere. Lee teasingly called Eliza Mackay "My Sweetheart" in 1832.

 

He had jokes with sister-in-law, Nanie, in 1835. Lee wrote to Talcott: "...my Sister Nanie was trying to pass me off as her spouse, but I was not going to have my sport spoiled that way, undeceived the young ladies and told them I was her younger brother. Sweet, innocent things, they concluded I was single and I have not had such soft looks and tender pressure of the hand for many years."

 

Lee enjoyed the company of ladies. Mary Custis wrote "No one enjoyed the society of ladies more than himself. It seemed the greatest recreation in his toilsome life."

 

Lee refused the advances of a Texas widow telling Mary: "...when I rose to depart she took me out in her garden to see her corn and potatoes by starlight. But she had waked the wrong passenger. I told her I had no knowledge of horticulture, and took no interest in agriculture in Texas. I have not seen her since."

 

In Love

 

Lee met Mary Anne Randolph Custis during his 1827 leave. Her father was George Washington Parke Custis (grandson of Martha; and adopted son of George Washington).

 

She was born October 1, 1808 (22 months after Lee). Freeman wrote of her "Her features were aristocratic but they were not beautiful." At their earliest meeting, Mary cautioned Lee to write discreetly-others including her mother read her letters, especially if they came from men. In 1831 Lee returned to Arlington to continue his courtship. Whilst Lee read aloud in the hall a Sir Walter Scott novel. Mrs. Custis said, "Mary, Robert must be tired and hungry; go into the dining-room and get him some lunch." Lee followed her into the dining room, and with fruitcake for his dish, Lee proposed.

 

Marriage

 

They married on June 30, 1831. Smith Lee was the best man, and he had 5 groomsmen.

 

The Rev. Reuel Keith presided. Lee was nervous and unromantic, he felt like he was once again at the blackboard at West Point. Lee said the minister "had few words to say, though he dwelt upon them as if he had been reading my Death warrant, and there was a tremulousness in the hand I held that made me anxious for him to end." He wrote to Eliza Mackay and commiserated "If I could ... tell you what a powerful fine thing it is to stand up before the Parson with all eyes bent on you (except one pair) he mournful and solemn as if he were reading your funeral service. A man feels of so much, and I am sure, he could not add to the stillness of the scene though he were dead."

 

Lee quickly learned about the mysteries of marriage. His partner was not perfect, and he often teased or poked fun at Mary. Mary had an untidy appearance, which was dogma for Lee. Her hair became so snarled, she impulsively cut it off. She was a poor housekeeper being negligent might be considered a compliment under the circumstances.

 

Mary was often forgetful and habitually late. Lee apologized for his wife: "Tell the ladies, that they are aware that Mrs. L. is somewhat addicted to laziness and forgetfulness in her Housekeeping. But they may be certain she does her best, or in her Mother's words, 'the Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak."' Mary called him: "Mr. Lee" and ordered him about, even after the war when he was a demigod, she bossed him and he obliged her. Mary did not hesitate to argue or disagree with Lee, she was considered plain-spoken and had fiery opinions. Mary didn't suffer fools, she said the officers and wives at Fort Monroe, "rather stupid."

 

Children

 

Lee once met a man who had 24 children. He said "it was the prettiest sight I have seen in the West, and perhaps in my life." Lee dearly loved children, and it wouldn't be long before he started a family of his own.

 

George Washington Custis Lee born on September 16, 1832 at Fort Monroe, Va.

 

In 1837 Lee teased that Custis was the man of the house: "I shall leave my family in the care of my eldest son , who will take them over the mountains somewhere this summer...."

 

He was also willful. In 1837 Lee said

"Our dear little boy seems to have among his friends the reputation of being hard to manage-a distinction not at all desirable, as it indicates self-will and obstinacy. Perhaps these are qualities which he really possesses, and he may have a better right to them than I am willing to acknowledge; but it is our duty, if possible, to counteract them and assist him to bring them under his control .... his little faculties warped by passion."

 

Lee wrote to Custis in 1852: "You must press forward in your studies. You must 'crowd that boy Howard.' You must be No. 1. It is a fine number. Easily found and remembered. Simple and unique. Jump to it fellow."

 

He was top of class in 1854 and followed his father into engineers and into the Confederacy. At VMI he taught Civil and Military Engineering and in 1871 he became president of Washington College. He died February 18, 1913 at Ravensworth. Age 83.

 

Mary born July 12, 1835 at Arlington. Nicknamed "Daughter."

 

After the birth, Mrs. Lee was ill with pelvic infection, and could not walk until 1836.

 

Lee took care of everyone: "whooping, coughing, teething, etc. and sometimes all three together." He compared Mary to his garden: "But the brightest flower there blooming is my daughter. Oh, she is a rare one, and if only sweet sixteen, I would wish myself a cannibal that I might eat her up." She was considered "wholly devoid of fear" She was tall, strong, and loved the outdoors. She traveled extensively.

 

She was the only daughter to escape Lee's possessive hand.

 

She died November 22, 1918. Age 83.

 

William Henry Fitzhugh Lee born May 31, 1837. Nickname "Rooney"

 

Lee wrote to Mackay: "I am the father of three children ... so entwined around my heart that I feel them at every pulsation."

 

Lee said of Rooney " a large heavy fellow" who needed a "tight rein" because he was a "big, two-fisted fellow with an appetite that does honor to his big mouth." Rooney was adventuresome, he sliced off the tips of 2 fingers. Lee wrote to Custis: "He may probably lose his fingers and be maimed for life. You cannot conceive what I suffer at the thought." He graduated from Harvard and spent 2 years in the U.S. Army. He was a farmer at White House on the Pamunkey. He was the youngest major general in the CSA.

 

After the war he was Virginia State Senator for 4 years-then U.S. Congress in 1887.

 

Died at Ravensworth, October 15, 1891. Age 54.

 

Annie Carter Lee "Annie" born June 18, 1838.

Nicknamed "Raspberry".

 

Lee boasts to Mackay: "do you know how many little Lees there are now? It is astonishing with what facility the precious creatures are dressed up for the return of their Papa! I am sure to be introduced to a new one every Christmas. They are the dearest annuals of the season...." Annie was one of Lee's favourites. Annie at age 3, blinded herself in the left eye with a pair of scissors.

 

Lee expected uniform cheerfulness. When Annie and a friend from Georgia prepared to part, they cried. Lee admonished them, "No tears at Arlington. No tears!"

 

She died of typhoid fever age 23 at a sulphur spring in North Carolina in October 20, 1862. Lee was driven to tears: "I cannot express the anguish I feel at the death of my sweet Annie."

 

Eleanor Agnes Lee "Agnes" born February 27, 1841.

 

Lee beamed and jested: "Among the things that then distracted my attention was the arrival of another little Lee, whose approach, however long foreseen, I could have dispensed with for a year or two more. However, as she was in such haste to greet her Pa, I am now very glad to see her." She was the prettiest of the Lee girls but the least forward. Agnes sometimes shocked, "She became very quiet and pensive in after life. I do not recall hearing her laugh." Some people took Agnes quiet for "haughtiness and reserve." She died in Lexington, October 15, 1873-2 years after her father- aged 32.

 

Robert E. Lee, Jr. born on October 27, 1843. Nickname: Robertus or Bertus.

 

Lee returned from Mexico and immediately asked, "Where is my little boy?" Scooped up a youngster and kissed him-Lee had picked up the wrong child. Lee described Rob: "He has a fine long nose like his father, but no whiskers." Whilst West Point Lee pretended that Rob was a cadet too. He purchased him bedding and equipment at had a ceremony of inspecting his quarters. In the end, Lee advised son to stay away from soldiering, "Tell Robert I cannot advise him to enter the army. It is a hard life, and he can never rise to any military eminence by serving in the army."

 

He died in 1914. Age 71.

 

Mildred Childe Lee born February 10, 1846.

Lee's favorite daughter. Nicknamed "Life."

She loved to play piano, and loved animals, particularly cats.

 

Lee wrote her from Texas: "I have no cat, nor have I heard of one in this country. You will have to send me a kitten in your next letter .... My rattlesnake, my only pet, is dead."

 

Lee loved Mildred: "She is my lightbearer; the house is never dark if she is in it."

 

Mildred was domineering and opinionated. Lee in Lexington: " rules her brother and my nephews with an iron rod, and scatters her advice broadcast among the young men of the College .... The young mothers of Lexington ought to be extremely grateful to her for her suggestions to them as to the proper mode of rearing their children."

 

Lee chided Mildred for her poor handwriting: "We held a family council over . It was passed from eager hand to hand and attracted wondering eyes and mysterious looks. It produced few words but a great deal of thinking .... I have therefore determined to put ft carefully away till you return, seize a leisure day, and get you to interpret it."

 

Lee still refers to Mildred as "his little girl" in 1867. Captain Buford disagreed: "Why, General, you called her your 'little girl,' and she is a real chunk of a gal!" Lee nursed Mildred through typhoid fever in 1868, her hair fell out. Mildred loved her father: "To me he seems a Hero-and all other men small in comparison!"

 

Mildred couldn't replace Lee with a husband, "Most women when they lose such a Father, replace it by husband and children-I have had nothing."

 

Mildred died in New Orleans, March 27, 1905. Age 59.

 

Faith

 

Lee lived a moral, righteous life. Lt. Henry J. Hunt remembered Lee: "as fine-looking a man as one would wish to see, of perfect figure and strikingly handsome. Quiet and dignified in manner, of cheerful disposition, always pleasant and considerate, he seemed to me the perfect type of gentleman." Lee was "low church" in practice and faith, but his life was marked by events that questioned his faith and belief.

 

His Mother-in-law, Mrs. Mary Custis, died April 1853, age 65. Lee was shocked and wrote, "The blow was so sudden and crushing, that I yet shudder at the shock and feel as if I had been arrested in the course of life and had no power to resume my onward march." Lee consoled his wife with religious sentiments: "May God give you strength to enable you to bear and say 'His will be done.' She has gone from all trouble, care and sorrow to a holy immortality, there to rejoice and praise forever the God and Saviour she so long and truly served. Let that be our comfort and that our consolation. May our death be like hers, and may we meet in happiness in Heaven."

 

On July 17, 1853 he was confirmed with his daughters, Mary and Annie at Christ Church in Arlington. The Right Reverend John Johns, Bishop of Virginia said "Colonel Lee, if you make as valiant a soldier for Christ as you have made for your country the Church will be proud of you as your country is now."

 

Preparation for war

 

Lee faced the growing crisis with his typical mildness and composure.

 

On Secession he wrote to Custis, January 23,1861: "As an American citizen, I take great pride in my country, her prosperity and institutions, and would defend any State if her rights were invaded. But I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union .... I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation .... 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 will draw my sword on none."

 

Lee wrote to his sister, Make Williams, January 22, 1861, "If a disruption takes place, I shall go back in sorrow to my people and share the misery of my native state, and save in defense there will be one soldier less in the world than now."

 

Lee was on the brink of the greatest crisis of his life, and the defining moment of his career.

 

Lee not only married Mary Custis, he married Arlington, and became the steward of the Washington ethos. Through heraldry and history he realized his sire's military talents and strengths (as well as the reality of his pecuniary difficulties). He was a child of the Revolution, and steeped in the military influences of George Washington and Light Horse Harry Lee. If anything, his father's enforced poverty, provided a negative stimulus that made Lee thrifty, and extremely careful in spending public funds.

 

Martial obligation did not mean martial ardor. Henry J. Hunt recalled Lee in Mexico: "He was a peace-maker by nature." Lee had learned diplomacy, and that would help juggled wounded egos through the crisis. Erasmus Keyes wrote of Lee in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry: "Of all the hundreds of Southern men with whom I have been intimate, and Robert E. Lee were the fairest in their judgment of Northern men. I will not deny that the presence of Lee, and the multiform graces that clustered around him, oftentimes oppressed me, thought I never envied him, and I doubt if he ever excited envy in any man. All his accomplishments and alluring virtues appeared natural to him, and he was free from the anxiety, distrust and awkwardness that attend a sense of inferiority, unfriendly discipline and censure."

 

Lee could be ambitious and focused: As Lee taught his son, Custis in 1852: "You must 'crowd that boy Howard.' You must be No. 1. It is a fine number. Easily found and remembered. Simple and unique. Jump to it fellow."

 

In 1863, Lee would do just that--crowd that boy Howard--at Chancellorsville and be Number One."

 

Born into a prestigious family

 

Pecuniary circumstances compelled him to enter the military despite showing little interest in being a soldier. Lee thrived in the rigorous environment of the army engineers. He was restrained and dignified in the society of men, but felt more comfortable in the company of ladies. He grew spiritually at the insistence of his wife, and with the assistance of his children. He grew emotionally to caring from caring for an invalid mother to caring for an invalid wife and a brood of seven children. He loved, cherished, and missed his family whenever he was separated from them. He found solace and pleasure in their company, and they became the bedrock of his existence. Lee's family became a haven for Robert E. Lee-a retreat from bureaucracy and a pillar of strength to sustain him in the field. Lee brimmed with great humanity, compassion, humor, and wit-the combination of which would see him through the greatest tragedy in American history: the American Civil War. Lee well understood the weight of destiny in 1861-his coat of arms bears the inscription: Non Incautus Futurus-Not Unmindful of the Future. Now, Lee matured was ready to confront that future.