Read an Excerpt
A Life of Virtue
By John Perry
Copyright © 2010 John Perry
All right reserved.
Chapter One An American Citizen
Jeb Stuart's arrival was a pleasant surprise for Colonel Robert E. Lee, U.S. Army. Lee was a man of action, more comfortable riding a frontier reconnaissance patrol than shuffling papers, and the chore of filling out a fire insurance application was one he surely enjoyed having interrupted. Lee had known Lieutenant Stuart since his plebe days at West Point seven years earlier when the colonel was commandant there. Usually neither of them would be in the plantation office of the Lee family home on this damp, chilly October morning. Lee's regular cavalry command was in Texas, and Stuart served in Kansas. The lieutenant was visiting Washington to discuss the patented belt attachment for a cavalry sword that he'd sold to the government. Across the Potomac from the capital, Colonel Lee labored at his desk out of a sense of family duty.
Lee had never owned a house in his life, but he'd had a crash course in household financial management since the death of his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis. It was not just any house in his care. This was Arlington, one of the most famous plantations in Virginia, built and owned by the foster son of George Washington, and it was filled with elegant furniture and historic artifacts from Mount Vernon. The estate included 1,100 acres of land, fish hatcheries, vast stands of timber, a sawmill, and nearly two hundred slaves. When Mr. Custis died a widower, he left everything to his only surviving child, Mary, who was Colonel Lee's wife. Grand as the place was, it rested on shaky financial underpinnings. Mr. Custis had a taste for the finest in everything but no head for business. The estate accounts hadn't been balanced in nine years. When he died, no one knew how much money he had or how much he owed. Robert had taken leave from his military command for nearly two years to unscramble the books at Arlington in order to preserve its legacy for his wife and their seven children.
As an experienced senior officer with no day-to-day military responsibilities for the moment, Colonel Lee was tapped occasionally for courts-martial and other temporary duty in and around Washington. Lieutenant Stuart might have come to call that dank Monday morning with another routine assignment, but this matter was far more consequential. Reading the note Jeb handed him, the gracious and hospitable colonel didn't even take time to offer his young friend refreshment and a few minutes' conversation. He said a hasty good-bye to his wife and, still in civilian clothes, rode immediately with Stuart back to Washington. He'd been ordered by Secretary of War John Floyd to report to the War Department at once.
The night before, October 16, 1859, the army arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, had been raided and overrun by fanatic followers of a fire-breathing abolitionist named John Brown. Invaders poured into the unguarded facility and quickly disarmed the few soldiers on duty. By the next day, townspeople and the local militia had surrounded Brown and his men, but the abolitionists were barricaded in the firehouse and heavily armed. They'd also taken hostages, including Lewis Washington, the elderly great-grandnephew of the first president. A company of soldiers from nearby Fort Monroe and marines from Washington were ordered to help the local defenders take back the arsenal, rescue the hostages, and capture the raiders. By Secretary Floyd's reckoning, Colonel Lee was the best available officer to lead this combined force.
John Brown, who also called himself Ossawattamie Brown, got his financial support from abolitionists in Kansas and the New England states. Three years earlier in a raid on Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas, his followers hacked five proslavery citizens to death with swords. He claimed the killings were God's will. After further organizing in Canada, Brown arrived in Harpers Ferry to steal its military weapons and ammunition. His grand plan was to lead a slave revolt and set up an independent homeland for liberated blacks in the Appalachian Mountains. The first step was to round up and arm volunteer guerrillas. Harpers Ferry was a logical place to go for weapons because besides housing the federal arsenal, it was home to a long list of gun and ammunition manufacturers.
Lee and Stuart arrived by train at Sandy Hook, a mile from Harpers Ferry, at ten o'clock that night to meet his command and plan a counterassault. To reduce the risk of shooting a hostage, they waited until daylight to send Stuart to the firehouse door with a white flag. The lieutenant carried a note demanding Brown and his men surrender and promising them safe treatment. Lee was afraid that once Brown read the note, he and his mob might try to fight their way out, kill the hostages, or both. Lee told Stuart not to negotiate. As soon as Brown turned down the offer, Stuart was to give a signal and Lee's troops would storm the firehouse with a dozen marines leading the way. Lewis Washington was more concerned about stopping Brown than he was about saving his own skin. "Never mind us," he yelled from inside. "Fire!"
Standing at the open firehouse door, Brown considered the ultimatum and then insisted on making a counterproposal. With that, Stuart waved his hat, Lee's units moved forward, and in less than five minutes the scuffle was over. John Brown was wounded by a sword and captured. Five of Brown's men died, but all thirteen hostages escaped unhurt. Lee sent the survivors under guard to Charleston, the county seat, for trial and filed his report, calling the incident a minor matter. He described Brown and his followers as "rioters" and Brown himself as "a fanatic madman."
Brown was convicted of high treason and murder and sentenced to hang. Northern abolitionists immediately anointed him "Saint John" and "Saint Just," claiming that "John Brown has twice as much right to hang Governor Wise [of Virginia] as Governor Wise has to hang him." The governor feared there might be riots in Harpers Ferry on December 2, the day that Brown was to be executed in Charleston, and he petitioned the federal government for protection. Lee returned to Harpers Ferry commanding more than three thousand marines and state militiamen, determined to keep the peace by a show of force. The rumors turned out to be false, and the armed rabble-rousers never showed. After Brown was hanged at 11:30 that morning, there was really nothing for the soldiers to do. Lee drilled the men in target practice to keep them occupied until they left town on December 12.
Lee finally got the paperwork at Arlington under control and, on February 10, 1860, headed for San Antonio to lead the Department of Texas. It was frankly a boring assignment, even if it was a departmental command. He missed his family, missed his beloved Virginia, and may well have wondered what the future held in store. Robert Edward Lee had been a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army for thirty-one years by then, twenty-three of them as a captain of engineers. At long last he'd been promoted to lieutenant colonel, but the chance for further advancement seemed slim. Three lieutenant colonels and nineteen colonels were ahead of him in line for a general's star. How long could he wait? Perhaps it was time to resign his commission and turn to managing Arlington, taking care of his disabled, arthritic wife, and spending time with the children who grew up while he was away on military assignment for years on end.
The election of Abraham Lincoln later that year put an end to whatever hope Lee had of living the life of a country squire. South Carolina, loudly unhappy for decades with the federal government's position on states' rights, had threatened to secede from the Union if Lincoln was elected. Two Democrats—Vice President John C. Breckinridge and Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois—ran in the national election, along with the Constitutional Union Party candidate, John Bell. In this four-way contest, Lincoln carried the new Republican Party to its first nationwide victory. Four days later South Carolina called for a convention to consider secession, and on December 20 the state declared itself separated from the United States. Texas started rumbling about seceding as well.
On January 23, 1861, Colonel Lee wrote a long letter to his son Custis, musing on the widening rift between North and South:
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. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation.... Secession is nothing but revolution.... 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.... 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 defense, will draw my sword on no one.
The night before, he had shared the same thought with his dear Markie—Martha Custis Williams, a cousin by marriage and a favorite correspondent: "There is no sacrifice I am not ready to make for the preservation of the Union save that of honour.... I wish for no other flag than the 'Star spangled banner' and no other air than 'Hail Columbia.' I still hope that the wisdom and patriotism of the nation will yet save it."
On February 1, 1861, Texas seceded from the Union and four days later joined the Confederate States of America, a growing list of disaffected states that claimed a constitutional right to form a new sovereign nation. Texas was the seventh member of the group, which since South Carolina seceded the previous December had already added Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana. The day Texas joined, Virginia, to Lee's relief, voted to stay with the Union. But suddenly, Colonel Lee and the Department of Texas were U.S. soldiers on alien land. On February 19, Lee's superior, General David Emanuel Twiggs, surrendered his command to Confederate representatives in San Antonio and left the state. Twigg's headquarters forwarded an order to Lee to report in person to General in Chief Winfield Scott in Washington. Lee arrived home on March 1, four days before Lincoln was inaugurated, and within days the new president signed Lee's commission as a full colonel.
By then he had already been offered a commission as a general in the Confederate army. Though there is no record of Lee's reply to the Confederates, historian Douglas Southall Freeman suggests, "It is probable that he ignored the offer. He owed allegiance to only two governments, that of Virginia and that of the United States." And allegiance to one would soon mean fighting against the other.
The Lees had been in Virginia since 1641, four generations before the American Revolution. Not only had Colonel Lee's father-in-law grown up in George Washington's household, but Lee's father had fought beside Washington as a hero during the War of Independence. The Lees had been wed head, hand, and heart to Virginia for two centuries and to the United States as long as it had existed. Robert reflected a historic legacy: a career army officer, loyal and brave; a soldier and citizen who placed his duty above everything else. He was descended from generals, governors, crusaders, and royal counselors, born in the same room as two cousins who signed the Declaration of Independence.
Yet now, to uphold the honor of his convictions, Colonel Robert E. Lee would have to surrender his allegiance to the same nation that the Declaration announced and justified to the world. The nation Lee had served and defended all his life.
Chapter Two Light Horse Legacy
The Lees were originally a Norman family. One of the first notable soldiers in the line was Launcelot de Léga, who invaded England with William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. His descendant Lionel de Lee rode with Richard the Lionheart on the Third Crusade in 1191. Beginning ten years later, a line of nine Lees served as sheriffs of Shropshire into the seventeenth century. The family likely had an estate in Essex called Strafford Langton or Stratford Langton.
The first Lee in the New World was Richard Lee. Before crossing the Atlantic, he already knew the colonies as well as any Englishman. He served as secretary of the colony of Virginia and a member of the king's Privy Council, which managed the colony's affairs. Within a year after his arrival in 1641 he and his wife, Anne, received a thousand-acre plantation in York County that Lee named Paradise. He brought indentured servants with him, eventually releasing them from their obligations and giving them land. He then returned to England for another group of adventurers. An acquaintance described Richard Lee as "a man of good Stature, comely visage and generous nature." In time his holdings included stores, warehouses, ocean-going trade ships, and agricultural land.
A faithful royalist, Lee kept a low profile after King Charles I was executed and Oliver Cromwell took the reins of power four years later in 1653. Lee befriended the king's son in exile, offering support in exchange for a new royal commission should Charles II ever ascend the throne. When Cromwell died and the monarchy was restored, Lee became a great favorite at court. He returned to London from the New World almost every year, and brought back indentured servants who became free settlers. By 1659, his tobacco crop alone was worth £2,000 annually, roughly equivalent to $400,000 today. At his death in 1664 he owned 20,000 acres of land, half a dozen homes, and a fortune in ships, crops, and livestock.
He also owned chattel slaves. Tobacco, introduced to England by Virginia traders, had become hugely popular and profitable. It was a very labor-intensive crop, requiring work for which the average indentured servant had neither the stamina nor the inclination. Seeing how West Indian planters had thrived using African slaves, Americans soon followed suit. In 1625 there were twenty-five African slaves in Virginia; by 1671 there were two thousand.
In keeping with the English tradition of primogeniture, Richard Lee left most of his riches to his oldest son, John. When John died a bachelor, the family fortune passed to the second son, Richard, who served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, the first deliberative body in America.
Young Richard found his life in danger during Bacon's Rebellion in 1676 when Nathaniel Bacon, a wealthy planter, led a revolt against the colonial governor. Governor William Berkeley refused to escalate a long-simmering conflict with the Indians that had grown into a series of bloody skirmishes with deaths on both sides. Furious at Berkeley's inaction, Bacon gathered a posse and demanded a commission to attack the Indians from the burgesses—including Lee—at gunpoint. The rebellion ended after Bacon died from dysentery a few months later, though by then he had burned the capital at Jamestown, including the governor's house, and held Lee captive for seven weeks.
When Richard died at his Mount Pleasant Plantation in 1714, he left a daughter and five sons, the fifth of which, Henry, was born in 1691. Henry's third and youngest son, also Henry, was born in 1729 and followed his grandfather into the Virginia House of Burgesses. Young Henry's next oldest brother, Thomas, became the first native-born governor of Virginia, and in the 1730s he built an imposing, austere-looking mansion in Westmoreland County that he named Stratford after the ancestral family home in Essex. Of Thomas's children, the eldest, Philip Ludwell Lee, would one day inherit Stratford, and the next two, Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot, would become the only brothers to sign the Declaration of Independence.
Henry meanwhile settled his family at Leesylvania Plantation where his first son, the third Henry, was born in 1756, one of 173,000 white residents in Virginia that year alongside 120,000 blacks, almost all of them slaves. The growth of the institution of slavery and of the black population concerned the House of Burgesses, which described it in a petition to the king as "a trade of great inhumanity" that should be stopped. But even as they asked George III to permit colonial laws forbidding the slave trade, they admitted that "some of your Majesty's subjects may reap emoluments from this sort of traffic." With ever-increasing acreage devoted to tobacco, indigo, and cotton—all high-labor cash crops—slaves were a huge business. Outside of England, the biggest volume was controlled by Northern traders through their operations in Boston, Massachusetts, and Bristol, Rhode Island. These men had no interest in seeing their healthy profits disappear.
Excerpted from LEE by John Perry Copyright © 2010 by John Perry. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.