General Robert E. Lee
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
The year 1825 marks an era in American history. To this time the opinions and political principles growing out of the War of Independence had prevailed in the government of the nation. Now, the Revolutionary leaders had all at length fallen and the political opinions of these early times had grown dim in the heat of recent controversy. New dispositions and tastes had arisen among the people; new political issues confronted the voter and the statesmen ; new methods prevailed in politics, and the old party names had been reduced to a jargon in the fierce conflict of political debate. The United States had grown into a full-fledged, vigorous nation, whose development had surpassed anything hitherto known in history. After a campaign of greatest political animosity and excitement, in which five different parties sought to elect their favorite to power, the younger Adams was raised to the Presidency. The last of his race, he represented the waning ideas and failing political philosophy of the days subsequent to the Revolution. Alone, with his supporters in a minority in both houses of Congress, he sought to keep peace in the troubled political household. Sharing with him the duties and honors of power was John C. Calhoun, the eloquent son of South Carolina. In the recent canvass, he had been chief of one of the factions that had opposed the election of Mr. Adams. As -a. consequence, conflicting opinions and interests prevailed, and a series of stormy debates arose in Congress which only served to stir more deeply the troubled waters of political discord. The house divided against itself could not stand; and after four years of most unsatisfactory rule, Mr. Adams returned to the home of his fathers and retired from public life. Thus ended the first era under the Constitution, and a new one began under the fierce fire of a controversy that was never settled, until two resolute men met at Appomattox April 9th, 1865.
In September of the year in which Adams was inaugurated, a handsome boy entered the U. S. Military Academy at West Point. He was a young cadet from Virginia, who was destined to take a most important part in the history of his native State. Tall, erect, well formed and with more than ordinary beauty, he was soon a favorite in that seminary of soldiers. He gave himself to his work with rare zeal and enthusiasm, and graduated in 1829 with high honors, as second in a class of forty members. This talented. youth was Robert E. Lee, the son of Light-Horse Harry Lee of Revolutionary fame. Descended from one of the best families of Virginia, he inherited some of the noblest traits of character; and these were united with most remarkable personal beauty and most dignified manly bearing. Few men have had equal ability to win and hold the respect and loyal homage of so large a circle of friends. Robert Lee entered the U. S. Army as Second Lieutenant of Engineers in July, 1829. From the start he was employed' in the most important duties of his corps. From 1837 to 1841 he was Superintending Engineer of harbor improvements on the Mississippi River. In 1845 he was detailed to aid in establishing a boundary line between Ohio and Michigan. All these labors he performed with dispatch and to the full. satisfaction of his superior officers. In rank he had risen by natural promotion to Captain of Engineers as early as 1838.
In 1847, when General Scott took command of the chief operations against the capital of Mexico, he placed Captain Lee. upon his staff. A warm friend-ship grew up between them, which was only broken when clouds of civil war were gathering thick and the trusted friend of the venerable commander resigned his commission to join the marshaling armies of his native State at Richmond. It is needless to say that. Captain Lee became conspicuous in the campaign that ended with the capture of the capital of Mexico. For distinguished professional service and for gallant conduct all along their march, he was promoted to the office of Colonel and was looked upon in the army as a fit and possible successor to the great Commanderin-chief. In 1852, as a recognition of his high abilities and distinguished success, he was placed over the Military Academy at West Point, which position he held with credit for three years, showing no less ability as an executive officer and instructor than he had shown in the various duties to which a soldier's life had already called him. For several years following 1855 he served as Colonel on the Texas border, a period of his life as barren of results as the mission on which he was sent was useless. Being on leave of absence in 1859 he was sent out with the State militia that went to Harper's Ferry to quell the John Brown Insurrection. Mr. Lee had entertained from early life a profound reverence for the Constitution and a sacred love for the Union. These noble sentiments were only equalled by a life-long devotion to the state of Virginia and her prosperity. Probably, high regard for one's native land, deeply abiding patriotism and thorough zeal for American institutions never found a more welcome abiding place than in the heart of this handsome, talented son of the Old Dominion. In 1861 he was summoned home to Washington to assist his venerable friend in preparations for the defense of the Capitol. He entered at once into the closest relations of intimacy with General Scott. The aged leader freely revealed to him all his plans, together with the purposes of the administration. And there can be no doubt that the knowledge thus gained before General Lee resigned his position was very damaging to the Union cause in the first campaign of the war. It is now admitted that the War Department had decided to bestow upon General Lee the command of the national troops and that Mr. Lincoln had sent a messenger to make an informal offer of this position to him. According to General Lee's own statement after the war, this offer was declined. We may well believe that this great-hearted man went through a fierce struggle in deciding which way to turn in those dark days. We know that his heart clung to the Union ; we know that all the associations of his life prompted him to remain loyal to the Union cause and to his aged friend, General Scott ; we know also that his loyalty to Virginia was stronger than all, and led him to the turning-point of an already distinguished career. In the letter by which he tendered his resignation to General Scott, occur these significant words : " My resignation would have been presented at once, but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from the service to which I have devoted all the best years of my life and all the ability which I possessed.
"Save in defense of my state, I never desire to draw my sword." In a letter of the same date to his sister, after reviewing the political chaos into which the South had been plunged by the secession of the Cotton States ; after protesting against their folly and stating that he had used all his personal influence to keep Virginia in the Union, he adds : "I had to meet the question whether I would take part against my native state. With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and the duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children and my home." What an illustration is this of a conflict of the highest and noblest sentiments of the heart ! No one can read these words without honoring the man, hero as he was, bound down by the tide of irresistible circumstances.
It is not our purpose to trace further the life of this distinguished soldier. His eminent services to the Southern Confederacy ; his unrivalled success as a great military leader, the dazzling splendor of his long campaigns are a matter of history. No rehearsal of that fierce struggle between the sons of the North and those of the South can be made, without paying distinguished honor to the name and military genius of Robert E. Lee. Environed round with stronger forces and larger resources he was at last driven to bay after inflicting many an ugly wound upon his adversaries. There at Appomattox on that April day, when the great leaders met the hero of the Southern cause with a great sorrow at his heart, made as manly a surrender as he had fought a long and exhausting fight.
At the close of the war he was made President of Washington College, at Lexington, Va. On October twelfth, 187o, he died in the quiet days of peace, after he had seen his native State wheel into line in the era of reconstruction. He had followed her and her cause into the field, he had waged an honest warfare in her defense, and even the enemies of the Southern cause concede the purity of his motive, the sterling worth of his character, and the depth and fervor of his religious convictions. He was a brave and patriotic man. And since the surrender, in which the half starved remnant of his shattered army did not acquiesce, magnanimous foes have vied with admiring friends to do honor to the name of Robert E. Lee.