Chapter 1 of Robert E. Lee
By Emory Thomas
"Robert Was Always Good"
ROBERT EDWARD LEE was the less-than-longed-for fifth child of a mother in
uncertain health and reduced financial straits struggling essentially alone to maintain
the facade of family in a home that was never hers. The infant's fathcr was a war hero
in a war that had been over for a quarter century. He was desperately in debt, in
flight from his creditors, and apparently oblivious to the realities of his fading fame
and absent integrity. Robert had an inauspicious advent, and during his early
childhood his family circumstances got worse.
Harry Lee's life became still less stable. During the spring of 1807 his sister-in-law
Mildred Carter died and became the fourth relative to make special provisions in a
will to exclude him from undue access to the estate. She left almost all of her property
to "my dear sister [Ann] Lee during her life free from the control of her husband
In June, the British warship Leopard fired upon the U.S. ship Chesapeake inflicting
damage and casualties and seizing four alleged British deserters from the American
crew. The incident provoked American ill-will toward Great Britain and prompted
President Thomas Jefferson to confront the crisis with economic sanctions (an
embargo). Lee leaped upon the excuse to vent frenzy upon Jefferson and the
Republican Party. In the autumn of 1808 Lee wrote a vicious diatribe against the
President,A Cursory Sketch of the Motives and proceedings of the Party Which
Sways the Affairs of the Union . . . Published in 1908, Lee's pamphlet brayed:
"Bonaparte rules by the sabre and by the bayonet; the miserable French are his
slaves. Jefferson rules by exiling from the public councils of the state and nation truth,
honour and intelligence.... We are reaching with quick steps the French condition...."
When young Robert was two years old, his father's creditors finally brought "Light
Horse" to bay. On April 24, 1809, Harry Lee took up residence in the
Westmoreland County Jail in Montross, Virginia, imprisoned for his debts. Confined
at night to a twelve- by fifteen-foot cell, Lee was able to go about the courthouse
green during the day. In this same courthouse, Lee had been a "Gentleman Justice,"
and to this place had ridden former President George Washington in 1799 to cast his
vote and throw his decisive weight for Lee's election to Congress. Now "Light
Horse" Harry was an object of derision at the scene of his past triumphs. Not only
was Harry a debtor in Westmoreland County; he served time in the Spotsylvania
County Jail as well.
Harry did not despair. He made use of his enforced leisure to write his war memoirs,
which he planned to publish and sell in order to recover his solvency. And while he
labored away on his memoirs, Lee did not hesitate to write to President James
Madison from "Spots. C. House" to ask for a federal judgeship for his youngest
brother Edmund Jennings Lee. Whatever is the Protestant Christian equivalent of
chutzpah, Harry Lee possessed it in abundance.
While her husband was in jail, Ann Lee seemed to gather strength and will. When her
widower brother-in-law Carter Berkeley offered her and her children refuge with him
and his children at his plantation, Ann declined with genuine thanks. "Mr. Lee in all his
letters, requests I will remain here till his that the negroes may also remain, and that I
should not take any step towards fixing myself elsewhere. . . ," she wrote, and added,
"I gave him a positive promise . . . that I would do so, reserving to myself the right of
choosing my place of residence afterwards...." She concluded, "I feel an
unconquerable inclination to fix myself permanently, be it in ever so humble a manner,
and must indulge myself, in at least making the attempt."
Not only was Ann aware that continuing to live at Stratford was impractical; she also
knew that by the terms of Matilda Lee's will, Matilda's son Henry, now over
twenty-one years old, owned what was left of the place. So, while adhering to her
promise to stay at Stratford during Harry's incarceration, Ann cast about for a new
home for herself and her children.
Harry did not complete his military memoirs in prison. He finally confessed his
absolute insolvency, and what then served as a bankruptcy law offered him release
from jail. Set free on March 20, 1810, Harry returned to Stratford with his
manuscript, which he had had to pledge to his brother Richard to satisfy some of his
debt. While Harry continued to write, Ann continued her quest for some permanent
residence. With or without Harry Lee's consultation, she decided to move to
Alexandria, a town of 7,500 inhabitants across the Potomac River from Washington,
D.C., where her children would benefit from schools and their extended family of
several Lee relatives who lived there.
Some time during the summer of 1810, Ann, Harry, and their four children left
Stratford and moved into a small house at 611 Cameron Street in Alexandria. Henry
(IV) remained behind, master of what remained of his mother's plantation. The place
did not prosper, but Henry did win election to represent Westmoreland County in the
Virginia General Assembly.
Family legend has little three-year-old Robert returning one last time to his mother's
room where he was born and spent much time (at the southeast corner of the ground
floor) to bid goodbye to the two angels represented in iron at the back of the
One of the last things Harry Lee did before leaving Stratford (or one of the first things
he did after settling in Alexandria) was to conceive with Ann their sixth child.
Catherine Mildred (called Mildred) arrived February 27, 1811.
By this time the family (Ann, Harry, Carter, Ann, Smith, Robert, and Mildred) had
moved again, to the townhouse owned by William Fitzhugh, a distant relative, at 607
Oronoco Street. The move of only a few blocks placed the Lees still very much in
the center of town and within what was almost a compound of homes owned by Lee
Harry Lee filled much of his time in Alexandria writing his memoirs and playing the
role of military hero. He may have become something of a bore to his friends and
acquaintances. Finally, in the fall of 1811, Lee completed his work, and in 1812
Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States appeared in
print. The book did offer a more or less accurate narrative of the Revolutionary War
in the South along with some anti-Jefferson cant. It did not sell well, however.
Americans had a contemporary war with England to confront that year. Fresh from
his chronicle of the last war with England, Harry Lee was ambivalent about the War
of 1812. Lee the good Federalist deplored Anglo-American enmity; Lee the good
patriot cared deeply for his country, no matter who the enemy was or which party
was attempting to prosecute the conflict.
On June 18, 1812, President James Madison received from Congress a declaration
of war upon Great Britain. On July 28, Light Horse Harry Lee became an ironic
casualty of that war.
Lee went to Baltimore for reasons still obscure and while there he contacted a friend,
Alexander C. Hanson, who edited a fiercely partisan Federalist newspaper, the
Baltimore Federal Republican. Hanson had written and published some bitter rhetoric
in condemnation of the war and the Madison administration. The editor's editorials
provoked a patriotic fury among some of his fellow Baltimoreans, who destroyed
Hanson's printing press and wrecked his office. Hanson then adjourned to
Georgetown, printed another edition of the Federal Republican, brought his paper
back to Baltimore, and circulated more anti-war, anti-Republican prose. This time
the enraged patriots assembled before Hanson's home/office with firearms on the
night of July 27.
. Inside the house were Hanson, twenty-one of his friends, and Light Horse Harry
Lee. The old revolutionary took command. He barricaded the house and issued
weapons and orders to his garrison.
Outside Hanson's house the crowd became a mob. Exchanges of gunfire left one
member of the mob dead and another wounded; Hanson and his friends were still
Then Maryland Militia troops appeared in the street and negotiations began. The
solution which seemed best at the time was to place Hanson and his comrades in
protective custody. So Harry Lee once more moved into a this time in defense of his
friend, his politics, and civil liberties.
On July 28, members of the anti-Hanson mob whipped themselves and others into
another frenzy. Meanwhile the Maryland militiamen dispersed, and only the jailer
stood between the mob and its intended victims. At dark the mob broke into the
building. Lee ordered his cohorts to kill each other and so spare themselves death at
the hands of the mob. But the men demurred and chose to take their chances at
The mob made short work of breaking into the large cell. The victims fought for their
lives, and indeed about half of the Hanson band were able to escape serious injury.
The "patriots" killed one man outright and beat eleven others severely. Harry Lee was
one of eight men believed dead and piled on top of each other outside the jail. And
when the beatings stopped, mutilations began.
Finally some local physicians came to the scene and secured permission to carry off
the dead. At first they were convinced that Lee would soon die and reported his
death as fact. Miraculously Lee endured. Eleven days later, he could speak. And late
in the summer Lee was able to leave Baltimore and return to his family in Alexandria.
He was mangled, however, and he never completely recovered.
For some time Lee had sought to leave the country for the sake of his health, physical
and fiscal. Now he intensified his efforts, and early in the summer of 1813 he
managed to secure passage to the Barbados. One of his political enemies, Secretary
of State James Monroe, made it possible for Light Horse Harry to emigrate to the
empire of Lee's former and present enemies.
Robert was six years old when his father boarded a ship at Alexandria and sailed
away down the Potomac. Harry Lee maintained the fiction that this was a temporary
separation from his family; when his health and "prospects" improved he would return
from his sojourn south, gather his family, and live in a style he had only pretended in
the past. When he thought about it, Robert probably believed some of his father's
pipe dream, which became part of the Lee family lore. "
Hindsight confirms that Lee never returned. He wandered from island to island
seeking health and some way to wealth. He wrote letters to his wife; but his letters to
Carter, oldest son of his second family, are his most revealing. In them he displayed
the breadth of his mind and learning; he discoursed on Socrates, John Locke, Francis
Bacon, Tacitus, Xenophon, Caesar, Polybius, Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Lucretius,
Marcus Aurelius, Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, Hannibal, Roger Bacon, John Milton,
and many more thinkers, writers, and poets from ancient times to his own. Only a
man of significant learning could have paraded so many sages before his son.
Harry Lee's favorite poet was Alexander Pope. In his journal he copied some lines
from Pope which he thought described his wife:
So unaffected, so composed a mind, So firm, yet soft, so strong, yet so refined,
Heaven as its purest gold, by tortures toy'd. Calmly he looked on either life and here
saw nothing to regret, and there to fear.
These are brave words, and Harry likely did believe them. For all his obvious flaws,
he was certainly no coward.
Harry had many maxims andmuch advice for his son Carter, too. It all seems sound,
if only the counsel had come from someone other than Harry Lee. Because it did
come from Harry LeeLee, the advice sounds at least ironic; at most like that of
Polonius in Hamlet-do as I say, not as I do or have done. "Avoid debt," Harry
preached, "the sink of mental power and the subversion of independence, which
draws into debasement every virtue, in appearance certainly, if not in reality." To
Carter, Harry Lee held up Frederick the Great, who "early habituated himself to
keep his wants within his means, and this habit became confirmed as he grew up, and
adhered to him till his death." Still lacking "means" himself, Harry the father wrote his
son, "If any debts hang on you, tell me the amount, and I will enable you to deliver
yourself from a state abhorrent to a noble mind and sure to degrade the most
chosen." Surely Harry wrote from experience; but just as surely he never made good
his good intentions to send his son money.
Robert knew nothing of his father's letters to his older brother until much later in his
life. He was too young at the beginning of Harry Lee's self-imposed exile to
remember much about his father. And Harry did not know much about Robert,
except that he had once been a happy, good boy. To Carter, the father wrote,
"Robert was always good, and will be confirmed in his happy turn of mind by his ever
watchful and affectionate mother. Does he strengthen his native tendency?" This was
Light Horse Harry Lee's sole mention of Robert and the earliest written reference to
the boy which now "always good . . . happy turn of mind."
Speculation and some fragments of family lore are only clues to Robert's childhood.
He learned the Episcopal catechism before he learned to read, and he said it to the
Rector of Christ Church, Alexandria, future Bishop of Virginia. The catechism and
other early lessons Robert learned from his mother. Ann Lee taught piety; her life was
a lesson in loyalty. Robert left his mother to attend schools at Eastern View in
Fauquier County where Carter boys studied, at Shirley, perhaps, and in Alexandria.
The house on Oronoco Street was certainly home for a time. But Ann Lee moved
about. In the spring of 1816, she wrote Carter, "I expect to live in Mr. Charles Lee's
[Harry's brother] house and only wait Mrs. Alexander's removal from it, to take
possession: which she says will be next week." That summer she instructed Carter to
write to her at Fauquier Court House.
Robert grew accustomed to going about and getting along with members of his
extended family. He grew accustomed also to being a houseguest and learned early
to live without the stability of a permanent home. Paradoxically, however, Robert
was a reserved, shy young man, and he never relished crowds or strangers very
much. His shyness led some people to think him aloof, however "correct" his
behavior. Still others would later confuse Robert's reserve with a sense of presence,
a dignity of destiny. With warm friends and close family, he was warm and close; yet
the houseguest syndrome persisted in Robert and sent enigmatic signals to those who
did not know him well.
When Robert was eight years old, in 1815, his oldest full brother Carter left the
fatherless family to attend Harvard College. Carter was Ann and Harry Lee's first
son, after all, and consequently the chief repository of the family's advantages and
The principal source of income for Ann Lee and her children was the trust fund
established by her father Charles Carter in his will Most of this money was in the
form of stock in the Bank of Virginia, which yielded $1,210 annually, and this sum
represented over half of Ann's income. In 1816, however, the Bank of Virginia
joined generally hard economic times and reduced its dividend drastically.
Ann had to write Carter at Harvard and ask him to reduce his expenses as much as
possible. She informed him that she could not afford for him to come home for the
summer vacation in 1816 and also admitted that she had had to "trespass" upon
Carter's college fund in order to survive.
"Previous to the war ," she explained, "the dividend was $1,440 annually;
since that period, $1,It is now $605." Ann insisted, "I am lessening my expense in
every have sent off two of the servants, Sebrey and William, and when I leave home,
shall hire out I fear the next sacrifice must be the horses...."
The mother made a game of deciding what would compose dinner. As she wrote to
We have very seldom more than one dish on the table, of meat, to the great
discomfort of my young Ladies and Gentlemen, whom you know have various It
requires a length of time every night, to determine what shall be brought next morning
from As there is to be but one dish, all cannot be pleased: Ann [now sixteen] prefers
fowls, but they are so high, that they are sparingly dealt in; and if brought to table,
scarcely, a back, falls to Smith [now almost fourteen] and Robert's [now nine] share,
so that they rather not be tantalized with the sight of them; and generally urge the
purchase of veal; while Mildred [now five] is as solicitous, that whortleberries or
cherries should compose our dinner.
These were straitened circumstances, but hardly dire straits; the Lees were not
prosperous, but neither were they hungry.
However much Ann Lee and her four remaining children visited within the Lee and
Carter families, they seldom seem to have returned to Stratford to visit Ann's stepson
and the children's half brother, Henry Lee, IV. Henry served in the War of 1812 as a
staff officer with the rank of major and returned to his estate to find it dilapidated
indeed. In 1817, though, Henry's prospects improved when he married very well. His
bride was Ann McCarty, who was an orphan and quite wealthy. This latest Ann Lee
brought considerable charm and ample cash to Stratford} and for a time these Lees
lived again in style. Ann McCarty Lee also brought her younger sister Elizabeth
("Betsy") McCarty to Jive at Stratford, and the Westmoreland County Court made
Henry Lee Betsy's guardian.
In 1818 Ann and Henry rejoiced in the birth of a daughter, and at least this branch of
the fragmented Lee family seemed secure once more. But Henry Lee, IV, continued
out of touch with his namesake in the West Indies and his stepmother and half siblings
in Virginia. If surviving letters are any index, Harry Lee seems to have focused his
attention upon Carter. And none of Henry's newfound wealth found its way to
Alexandria to help his father's second family.''
Meanwhile Harry Lee's health remained precarious, and during the late winter of
1818 he decided to return home to die. He spoke of recovering his health and
making another new start at age sixty-two; but he probably did not believe this
bravado. Lee blamed his pain upon the Baltimore mob. He suffered in his lower
bladder, maybe a tumor, maybe some connection with the kicks and beating he had
endured in 1812.
Lee left Nassau in early March 1818. However, his pain became so intense that he
had to go ashore at Cumberland Island, Georgia, and seek refuge at Dungeness, the
home of his Revolutionary comrade Nathanael Greene. Greene was dead; but his
daughter Louisa and her husband James Shaw took Lee into their home and did what
they could to make him comfortable. They summoned a surgeon, William Barnwell,
from the U.S. Navy ship John Adams which was at nearby St. Marys. Barnwell,
however, could offer little help and less hope for Lee.
Harry Lee spent the last two weeks of his life at Dungeness, growing each day more
feeble. His pain became so intense that he bellowed and abused those who tried to
care for him. On March 24 he finally became silent, and at about six o'clock on the
evening of March 25, 1818, Light Horse Harry Lee died. 18
The Shaws continued their hospitality and buried Lee in the family cemetery at
Dungeness. Officers and men from the John Adams rendered military honors at the
burial on March 26, and letters informed family members in Virginia.
Robert was barely eleven years old when he learned that his father had died. He saw
his father's grave for the first time in 1862, forty-four years later. Sigmund Freud
once said that the most important day in a man's life is the day his father dies. This
may be true; but in the life of Robert Lee, the death of his father requires some
interpreting and analysis.
When did Light Horse Harry Lee die for his son Robert? Did he "die" that day in
May 1813 when he left his family? Did he "die" when Robert learned the sad news
from Cumberland Island in the spring of 1818? Or did Harry Lee "die" some time
later in Robert's life, when the son reflected upon the life of his father and decided
what sort of man he had been?
In one way or another, Robert attempted throughout his life to come to terms with his
father's memory. In 1832, Robert had to read his half brother Henry's vicious
Observations on Writings of Thomas Jefferson in which Henry sought to laud Light
Horse Harry at the expense of Jefferson. In 1837, at age thirty, Robert conducted
some research on his genealogy and undertook to reproduce the Lee coat of arms. In
1862, he spent a few moments at his father's grave. And near the end of his life, in
1868, Robert edited a new edition of his father's Memiors which printed the series of
letters to Carter from the West Indies and included a biographical sketch.
In his introductory "life" of his father, Robert avoided unpleasantnesses and repeated
the old family euphemisms. Light Horse Harry suffers no financial distress in his son's
biographical sketch, spends no time in jail, and moves to Alexandria "for the purpose
of educating his children." Only his father's mysterious resignation from the
Continental Army provoked serious questions. By this time Harry Lee's son knew
more than he wanted to know about petty jealousy and envy within an officer corps.
So Robert Lee invented excuses for his father. He was "enfeebled by ill health." He
"must have known what Burke has impressed upon mankind, that it is 'in the nature
and constitution of things for calumny to accompany triumph.' " Therefore General
Lee concluded of Lieutenant Colonel Lee, "It is probable that some domestic trouble
was mingled with those already mentioned, and that the disease of his body was
aggravated by care and anxiety of mind."
What Robert Lee really wanted to do at this late stage of his life was to write his own
memoirs. Instead, he re-edited his father's memoirs. Of course there were reasons
for this: many of his reports and wartime papers were scattered or lost; his brother
Carter urged him to undertake the task he did; and he did not wish to reopen very
fresh wounds by writing what others might perceive to be apologia. Nevertheless,
within two years of his own death, Robert Lee was still trying to lay his father to rest.
During the last year of his life, Robert went for the second and final time to visit Harry
Lee's grave. No one can know how much he knew about his father's failures or when
he knew what. Robert had to know more than he wrote; his relationship with his
father remained unresolved. Harry Lee never did "die" for his son Robert.
What Robert Lee was likely trying to do was to make this enigmatic man who
conditioned so much of his life live and reveal himself. As it was, Robert could only
learn essentially negative lessons from Harry Lee. The father continued to remind the
son that fortune is fickle, that fame and failure can cohabit, and that the stability of
family and status is fragile indeed.
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