Read an Excerpt
Robert E. Lee
Lessons in Leadership
By Noah Andre Trudeau
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2009 Noah Andre Trudeau
All rights reserved.
A First Family of Virginia
There was military glory in Robert E. Lee's makeup, along with conflicting impulses of responsibility and recklessness, determination and overconfidence, integrity and duplicity, and honorable behavior and imprudence. Not in conflict were leadership, charisma, and a constant fear of failure. Most of the dark side came from his father, Henry Lee III, known, thanks to his mounted exploits during the Revolutionary War, as "Light Horse Harry." Harry Lee was a widower and governor of Virginia when he met and courted Miss Ann Hill Carter, whose family controlled 25,000 choice acres along the James River below Richmond. He was thirty-seven and she twenty. Everyone hoped that fame and fortune had been joined; what no one expected was that ahead of these newlyweds was a life of disappointment, separation, and broken promises.
Harry Lee was both unlucky and unwise. It was expected that he would live in a manner suited to a genuine war hero and offspring of one of the FFVs (First Families of Virginia). This he attempted to do through a series of investments that promised high returns but only delivered red ink. Instead of chasing foxes, Harry Lee found himself dodging creditors, even spending time in jail when he ran out of running room. Public knowledge of his failings was made evident when first Ann's father and then several of her wealthy relatives arranged their wills so that she—and not husband Harry—would have access to Carter family wealth.
Still, the evidence is that Ann was devoted to Harry, who was faithful to her. He brought three children with him from a previous marriage; his union with Ann Carter would eventually add six more. The fifth came along on January 19, 1807. For his name Ann turned to those of two of her favorite brothers—Robert and Edward Carter.
Robert Edward Lee was all of six years old when Harry Lee left the family for the Caribbean in search of better prospects, never to return. The father kept in touch through a series of letters to Ann's oldest son, Charles Carter Lee. In one of these notes is preserved the first written mention of child number five. "Robert was always good," Harry informed Charles, "and will be confirmed in his happy turn of mind by his ever watchful and affectionate mother."
When news of Harry Lee's death reached Ann and the kids (Robert was eleven) the family was living in northern Virginia. In time the dead father's shadow would touch Robert Edward with a strange affection. Near the end of his own life, with many clamoring for him to write his memoirs of tumultuous times, Robert Ed-ward Lee instead threw himself into editing a new edition of his father's Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States. Noticeably missing from the son's précis of his father's life were any of the social embarrassments or financial distresses that forced Ann (raised in a world of sheltered leisure) to manage her own household with a constant eye on the bottom line.
With his father gone, and his two older brothers settled into career tracks away from the family's home in Alexandria, Virginia, Robert Edward became the man of the house. His already close-knit ties with his mother grew even closer, especially as he nursed the increasingly frail Ann through periods of sickness. In the process something of her own strong faith and acceptance of God's will transferred to her son-caregiver. In later life, when a particular stratagem either succeeded or failed, Lee would quickly get past any emotional baggage with the observation that it was all God's will.
Somehow Robert Edward found the time for his education—first with a tutor at his aunt's estate, then in the newly established Alexandria Academy. Another small piece of the Lee trail emerged from this period in the form of an evaluation by one of his academy teachers, William B. Leary. "In the various branches, to which his attention has been applied, I flatter myself that his information will be found adequate to the most sanguine expectations of his friends," wrote Leary. "With me he has read all the minor classics, in addition to Homer and Longinus, Tacitus and Cicero. He is well versed in arithmetic, Algebra and Euclid."
At the time of his sixteenth birthday, it became incumbent on Robert Edward to seek a career. Modest family finances and one brother just through college ruled out that avenue. Because of his father's bad choices and indebtedness, there was no plantation to manage. However, thanks to his father's notable military record there was a built-in recommendation for a Lee to attend West Point. Robert Edward never explained why he settled on that course. Emory Thomas summarizes the consensus of Lee biographers with the observation that "no one can know how enthusiastic Robert was or was not at the time."
Even though he was Harry Lee's son, it was not a given that Robert Edward would be accepted, so his family took care to pull every string. Congressman R. S. Garnett invoked Light Horse Harry and insisted that the young Lee "has strong hereditary claims on the country." From older brother and lawyer Charles Carter Lee came assurances that "his disposition is amiable, & his morals irreproachable." A letter finally arrived for Robert Edward from Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, containing good and bad news. The good was that young Lee had been accepted to West Point; the bad was that because of the very large number of applicants he could not be admitted until July 1, 1825—a year's delay.
In confirming his acceptance, Robert E. Lee emerges from the shadows with the first letter known to be in his handwriting:
I hereby accept the appointment to the station of a Cadet in the service of the United States, with which I have been honnoured [sic] by the President.
The above is the declaration of consent which my letter of appointment instructs me should accompany my acceptance.
I remain with the highest respect, Sir
Your most obliged & most obedient servant
R.E. LeeCHAPTER 2
West Point in 1825 was a specialty school with an emphasis on engineering. Courses in science and mathematics dominated the curriculum, with the military arts (formation drills, basic tactics, and strategic planning) coming in a distant second. The one foreign language required of the students was French, the language of the most important texts of military science and engineering. Even though most West Point graduates of the time could not speak or write French, almost all could read it.
Since an officer in the field might well be expected to produce accurate topographic sketches, another associated discipline that found its way onto Lee's schedule was freehand drawing, with an emphasis on the human figure. The good-humored Frenchman who taught the course assured his class (all sophomores) that anyone could master the art. "There are only two lines in drawing, the straight line and the curve line," he proclaimed. "Every one can draw a straight line and every one can draw a curve line—therefore every one can draw."
Missing from the various courses of instruction, routines, and ceremonies that took place on the campus was anything to engender a special allegiance to the United States of America. This had nothing to do with regional political pressures or biases, and everything to do with the fact that in 1825 the United States of America was very much a work in progress that had yet to transcend sectional boundaries. More than one Lee biographer has pointed out that a law textbook in limited circulation while Lee was matriculating agreed with the contention that the individual states had a constitutional right of secession. There's no evidence that Lee ever saw this textbook; however, it can't be ruled out that such ideas circulated in the general conversation. As a distinguished American statesman would observe some thirty-six years in the future, the Union at this time "was a sentiment, but not much more."
It was into this environment that Robert E. Lee arrived in June 1825, just one member in an entry class numbering 107. The students were first assigned to tents that had been erected on a plain known as Camp Adams. Each cadet was subjected to an oral entrance exam and something of his character was also evaluated. The eighty who passed this initial screening received rooms in the stone dormitories called the North and South Barracks. Just to the west of the South Barracks was the two-story academic building where most of the classes were held. Add a mess hall and the world that would be home to Robert E. Lee for the next four years was complete.
For the rest of that first summer, the plebes (eventually joined by their upperclassmen) were put through military drills and learned the code of behavior expected of gentlemen at West Point.
It was the good fortune of this entry class of 1825 that they arrived in the midst of the tenure of superintendent Lieutenant Colonel Sylvanus Thayer. Himself a graduate and a veteran of the War of 1812, Thayer had been brought in to upgrade the school in 1817. During his term, standards of instruction improved and discipline became a watchword. Even though the basic teaching format was rote memory, there is little doubt that the young men who completed the four years emerged extremely well-schooled in the military arts.
All that could be said of Lee up until this time was that he fit in. There was nothing in his demeanor that marked him as any different from any of the other civilians beginning the process of becoming soldiers. That soon began to change. Lee showed himself to be a superior student by finishing his initial term standing third in his class. Equally impressive, his demerit count (issued for rule infractions) stood at zero. As a result he was named a cadet staff sergeant, a singular honor for a first-year man. Lee's academic performance for his sophomore year was equally impressive and he ranked second this time around with the demerit count still zero. Thanks to these accomplishments, Lee was allowed a furlough—his first opportunity to visit home in two years.
There was a bittersweet quality to his family reunion. His mother's health, never the best, had, if anything, worsened. Nevertheless, she made a number of family visits with her son, whose spiffy cadet uniform caught the admiring eyes of several female cousins, one of whom later wrote of Lee's "manly beauty and attractiveness of manner." It was during a visit to the home of Edward Carter Turner in Fauquier County (Ann Lee's extended family) that Robert renewed his acquaintance with his cousin Mary from Arlington.
Mary Anne Randolph Custis was the only surviving child of George Washington Parke Custis, Martha Washington's grandson and the adopted son of George Washington. Accounts of her at this time describe a young woman whose slight frailty and modest beauty were more than offset by her vivaciousness, wit, and intelligence. There's no evidence of any special attraction between Robert and Mary, but that would soon change. Lee's furlough ended much too quickly and he returned to West Point.
Once again hard work paid off. Lee ended the season ranked number two, for which he received appointment as cadet adjutant, the highest status for a student. It was in his fourth and final year that Lee and his classmates were given a course in military engineering. Taught under that heading were lessons in temporary field fortifications, permanent fortifications, artillery science, grand tactical, as well as civil and military architecture. When this season came to a close, Lee, still second in his class, saw his name published on a special list of distinguished cadets. This in turn entitled him the right to select the branch of service he wanted for his first assignments. Lee chose the Engineer Corps.
The young man who graduated West Point in 1829 had yet to reveal the qualities that later generations would indelibly associate with Robert E. Lee. That he was a superior student is clear. He also possessed what would today be termed strong people skills. A classmate—friend, fellow Virginian, and future Civil War general Joseph E. Johnston—declared 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, even 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 eloquence of his person, gave him a superiority that every one acknowledged in his heart." Other classmates, taking a more direct tack, dubbed Lee the "Marble Model" for his good looks and military bearing.
How all these attributes and all this practical knowledge would survive contact with the real world remained to be seen.CHAPTER 3
Engineer and Father
Immediately upon returning home, Robert E. Lee resumed his duties as caretaker for his fifty-six-year-old mother. Something she said when he first left home for West Point speaks to the deep relationship the two shared. "How can I live without Robert?" she asked, "He is both son and daughter to me." This made her death, coming little more than a month after he arrived, especially painful. Many years later Lee would still recall the intimate details of her passing as if it had just taken place. While still awaiting his first engineer assignment, he assisted his older brother Carter in the settlement of their mother's estate. He also began his courtship of cousin Mary Custis, who was soon writing in her diary of the "worldly young gentleman who flattered my vanity & pleased me in spite of myself." Then orders arrived directing U.S. Army Lieutenant Robert E. Lee to report to Savannah, Georgia.
This was the first in a succession of postings that eventually brought him to the attention of his superiors and marked him as a young officer to watch. It also began a pattern of assignments beset by delays and lack of funding, which often resulted in his moving on before the job was done. While in South Carolina (1829–31), he was involved in the difficult work of constructing a powerful masonry fortress (soon named Fort Pulaski) in the midst of a treacherous marsh fully exposed to the ravages of coastal storms. From late 1831 until late 1834, Fort Monroe on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula was Lee's assigned station. There he worked on rehabilitating rundown sections of the bastion and learned a bit about navigating the minefield of conflicting lines of authority: the engineers versus the infantry/artillery.
For three years (1834–37) Lee was in Washington as assistant to the chief of the Engineer Department. It was not an especially challenging job; when he wasn't chasing after distant project managers to clear up their bookkeeping, Lee was experiencing firsthand how the power of patronage could skew choice assignments away from the most talented. Then, in 1837, Lee was sent to Missouri, where the fickle Mississippi River was slowly but surely silting up the river port of St. Louis. Although not trained in fluid mechanics, Lee devised an ingenious, practical, and cost-effective scheme that utilized a series of man-made dikes built mid-stream to redirect the river current. These changes accomplished the hard work of scouring the St. Louis port basin and reopening the passageway for business traffic. At the same time some of his crews were blasting a channel through a series of rapids upstream to facilitate shipping movement. Neither job had been completed when Lee was moved again in 1840 to the New York City area, though his accomplishments were sufficient to merit promotion to captain.
From his headquarters in Fort Hamilton, Lee directed work on four military installations under construction in the area of today's Verrazano Narrows Bridge. These tasks kept him busy through 1846. During this period Lee acquired confidence in his ability to solve complicated problems, showed a willingness to—in contemporary parlance—think outside the box, and further polished his growing reputation within the army.
Overlaying all this professional activity was his personal life. On June 30, 1831, Lee married Mary Custis of Arlington and began a lifelong relationship with the woman he sometimes called Molly or Mana. They were a study of contrasts. He was vigorous, robust in health, well-organized, routine oriented, and thrifty. She was vergng on indolent, often sickly, usually disorganized, unpredictable, and used to a life where little was denied her. They were apart more often than together—he at some distant post, she often forsaking their maison de jour for the comforts of the Custis family mansion in Arlington. Yet there is no evidence that either ever sought release from the other.
It was a family blessed with children: George Washington Custis Lee in 1832, Mary Lee in 1835, William Henry Fitzhugh Lee ("Rooney" to most, though Lee himself preferred "Fitzhugh") in 1837, Anne Carter Lee in 1839, Eleanor Agnes Lee in 1841, Robert E. Lee Jr. in 1843, and Mildred Childe Lee in 1846. For his part, Lee was an attentive and dutiful, if often physically distant, head of the family. He corresponded with all his children and his letters reveal a mingling of stern responsibility with warm affection not often associated with the later figure of statues and portraits.
Excerpted from Robert E. Lee by Noah Andre Trudeau. Copyright © 2009 Noah Andre Trudeau. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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.