For Part 1 in this fascinating series, click here.
Lee’s exemplary record at West Point was the stuff of legend. One of Robert’s maxims was that “obedience to lawful authority is the foundation of manly character.” He worked hard at his studies and finished second in his class academically and took top honors in artillery and tactics.
He did not get one demerit in four years… a record rarely equaled. He had numerous friends and enjoyed their company and was known for his sincerity. He enjoyed lively conversation and fun; but always in the context of self-discipline and dignity. The teachings of his godly mother were reinforced at the academy by the powerful preaching of the Rev. Charles P. McIlvaine.
After his graduation in 1829 as a Second Lieutenant, Lee courted the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington. Mary Anne Parke Custis lived at Arlington, a mansion overlooking the Potomac River, surrounded by artifacts and memorabilia of the First President of the United States, George Washington.
Robert E. Lee revered Washington and sought even to model his life and character after him. On top of that, he married Mary in 1830, living for some time at Arlington, his father-in-law’s estate. In the course of time he fathered seven children: four daughters and three sons. His family were devout Christians – especially his wife and daughters, several of whom kept journals and diaries as well as writing letters that revealed their faith and devotion to Christ. Robert E. Lee’s personal correspondence also reveals a keen belief in God’s providential control of life and his reliance on God’s grace.
For the next thirty years Robert E. Lee served in the army as an engineer, staff officer, and cavalry commander. His family could not follow him to all of his postings so he was away from them a great deal of time, a problem that vexed him as well as Mary and the children. Fulfilling his role as father of a growing household was frustrating and difficult through letter writing when he was away from the family. They corresponded continually and their letters make poignant and sometimes melancholy reading.
As an engineer he worked on coastal forts, and along the Mississippi River, as a cavalry officer. He chased Comanche Indians and others in Texas. In 1846, still only a captain after 17 years of peacetime service, he served on the staff of General Winfield Scott in the War with Mexico.
With the American Army in Mexico, the bored but dutiful engineer came into his own as a combat officer. He scouted the enemy lines numerous times, drew maps, positioned artillery, and was indefatigable in all his duties. In his reports, General Scott referred to Captain Lee “as distinguished for felicitous execution as for science and daring.”
After the Captain hid all night under a log in Mexican lines without detection while on a recon of enemy lines, Scott mentioned that Lee’s action “was the greatest feat of physical and moral courage performed by any individual in my knowledge.” He was given a brevet promotion to Lt. Colonel and he was wounded in the final battle at Chapultepec. After the termination of the war, Colonel Lee took leave to visit home.
Lee arrived at Arlington House (his family was still living with his in-laws), after a year’s absence at war; he was overwhelmed by the love and affection of his daughters Mary (13), Anne (9), Agnes (7), and Mildred (2) … and the boys Custis (16), Roony (11), and Rob (4). No one loved children more than Robert E. Lee. He had pet names for all of them and never tired of kissing them, running races and reading books to them. Don’t tell anyone, but he liked to have his feet tickled, and the children loved to oblige him in that.
His son Custis (“Mr. Boo”) soon joined the cadre at West Point, following in his father’s footsteps. In his letters to Custis, Robert encouraged his son, writing about strength, fortitude, industry, firm resolve, courageous heart – all characteristics he himself sought to possess and live by. He encouraged Custis to do his very best, for that is what duty demanded. If he failed, it would not be because of lack of effort or for laziness.
Col. Lee was assigned command of the 2nd U.S. cavalry in Texas but saw virtually no combat action against renegade Comanche’s and gangs of desperadoes. Upon the death of his father-in-law, Lee took an extensive leave and returned to Arlington in 1857 to settle the family estate. Arlington was left to his oldest son and the other two Custis properties to his other two sons. There were so many debts that had been incurred by his profligate father-in-law that Lee spent the rest of his life trying to sort out the will. National events intruded on that effort.
Fifty-four-year-old Col. Robert E. Lee’s crowded hour, which lasted six years, began on the morning of October 17th, 1859. The abolitionist fanatic John Brown had attacked Harper’s Ferry Virginia with a band of terrorists seeking to incite a slave insurrection. The killer was trapped in the engine house, having lost most of his men to the gunfire of hundreds of local citizens who would not understand the modern revulsion concerning firearms.
Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart happened to be at the war office in Washington when a call came in concerning the attack. Stuart volunteered to ride over to Arlington with the request for Col. Lee to take command of whatever troops could be scraped up to settle the matter in Harper’s Ferry. A couple dozen marines and some Maryland militia were immediately sent by train to the hot spot; followed by Col. Lee and Lt. Stuart. Taking immediate command of the situation, Lee secured the area around the hold-up desperadoes and, after negotiations proved fruitless, had Stuart’s men storm the place. All the hostages were saved and the raiders captured or killed. There are those who believe that that action was the psychological tipping point that led directly to secession upon the election of Abraham Lincoln a year later.
Robert E. Lee was a Union man. He had given his entire adult life to wearing the uniform of the United States Army and, as a Whig in politics, decried the excesses of democracy and the rhetoric of secession. Upon the secession of the deep-south states, he was offered by Montgomery Blair, Abraham Lincoln’s Postmaster General and a former military officer himself, command of the army of the United States. He turned down the officer for “I could not draw my sword against my country,” by which he meant his state.
His reaction would be different when called to Richmond and made the same offer by the Commonwealth. In the August speech offering him command, his position was likened to that of the George Washington, a parallel that would be made many more times before his life was over.