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Chapter
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
R. E. Lee: A Biography

by Douglas Southall Freeman

published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York and London, 1934

The text, and illustrations except as noted, are in the public domain.


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Vol. I
p301
Chapter XVIII

The Building of Fort Carroll

Landing at New Orleans on his way home, Lee came up the Mississippi with his mare, Grace Darling,1 and his orderly, Jim Connally. When his steamer reached Wheeling he left Jim to bring on the horse, and himself "took the cars" for Washington, which he reached on June 29, 1848, after having been absent a year and ten months, almost to the day. In some way he missed the carriage that had been sent to the city for him, but got a horse and rode over to Arlington. As he approached the house, members of the watching family did not recognize him at first, because they were looking for him in the vehicle, but his dog was not deceived. Spec's joyful barking quickly convinced the household that the soldier was back from the wars. A few moments more and he was embracing his loved ones in the hall.

"Where is my little boy?" he asked, after he had greeted the others. Answering his own question, he took up a youngster from the floor and kissed him joyfully. There was a shout of laughter from the other children and signs of acute distress from another little boy, who was proudly dressed for the occasion in a new dress. Truth was, Lee had picked up the wrong youngster! His smallest son and namesake had a guest, Armistead Lippitt, whom the father had mistaken for his own son.2

It was a happy time for the family. "Here I am once again, my dear Smith," he wrote his brother the next day, "perfectly surrounded by Mary and her precious children, who seem to devote themselves to staring at the furrows in my face and the white hairs in my head. It is not surprising that I am hardly recognizable to some of the young ones around me and perfectly unknown to the youngest. But some of the older ones gaze with p302 astonishment and wonder at me, and seem at a loss to reconcile what they see and what was pictured in their imaginations. I find them, too, much grown, and all well, and I have much cause of thankfulness and gratitude to the good God who has once more united us."3 Needless to say, Mrs. Lee was no less grateful, for she had hung on every mail from Mexico, proud of the honors that had come to her husband, thankful for his safety, yet fearful that the next battle would claim him.4

He quickly distributed his gifts and arranged his luggage, including the unopened bottle of whisky that a friend had force on him before he had left for Mexico.5 Not much time was lost in returning to the duties of peace. On the very day of his arrival he sent to the chief engineer another map of the Mexican defenses.6 On July 3 he was assigned to "special duty" in Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Totten's office, an assignment which seemed less unattractive than in 1835, and gave him, besides, the boon of living at home.7 On the 21st of the same month he was again named as a member of the board of engineers for the Atlantic coast defenses, from which board he had been dropped while on duty in Mexico.8 With occasional brief absences — a visit to his sister in Baltimore and another to cousins near Middleburg — he passed the summer at Arlington and in Washington. He worked, during this time, on the last of the Mexican maps, performed miscellaneous office duty,9 and had the pleasure of receiving his brevet commissions for Mexican service. They had been slow in passing through the bureaux, as had been those of all the officers whom the government rewarded in this way. He had not expected too much, nor had he been provoked at the delay. Before he had left Mexico he had discouraged any attempt to gain promotion for him by importuning the President: "I hope my friends will give themselves no annoyance p303 on my account," he had written, "or any concern about the distribution of favors. I know how these things are awarded at Washington, and how the President will be besieged by clamorous claimants. I do not wish to be numbered among them. Such as he can conscientiously bestow, I shall gratefully receive, and have no doubt that those will exceed my deserts."10 He could not have hoped for more than he received — brevet major for Cerro Gordo, brevet lieutenant colonel for Contreras-Churubusco, and brevet colonel for Chapultepec, the commission being issued in each instance as of the date of the battle. After the publication of general orders on August 24, 1848, he was "Colonel Lee," as army usage gave every man the title of his highest brevet.11

Now came a new assignment to duty. The port of Baltimore, Md., had been neglected by Congress in its appropriations for coast and harbor defenses. Between the city and bombardment, in case of hostile attack, stood only old Fort McHenry, famous as inspiring "The Star Spangled Banner," but even then too close to the city to afford it adequate defense. Army engineers had long recommended a new fort on Sollers' Point Flats, and the chief engineer had urged this in 1839, in 1842, and again in 1843. Following a new appeal by Baltimore in 1845 the United States acquired jurisdiction of the flats from the Maryland legislature. Major Cornelius A. Ogden of the corps of engineers laid off the site in 1847 and during the open season of 1848 began the preliminary work.12

To the construction of the fort Lee was assigned on September 13, 1848, and on November 15 he reported for duty in Baltimore, but he could do little more than officially take over the undertaking, as he had to leave almost immediately for Boston with the board of engineers. He was in the latter city by November 18 and remained there until December 1. On his return to Baltimore the state of the work, the weather, and the scarcity of funds, led him to conclude that building operations should be suspended p304 until the spring of 1849.13 He accordingly stayed in Baltimore only a fortnight or so and then went to Washington, before Christmas, to procure maps for the use of the board of engineers.

General Totten — for he had been brevetted brigadier for his service at Vera Cruz — was careful, now as always, to keep his engineers occupied, so he set Lee to finishing the maps he had begun in Mexico City of the routes from that occupied capital to the places the American army had proposed to garrison in case the Mexicans had not accepted peace.14

Soon after these maps were done, Lee was sent off again with the board of engineers to make a study of the lands that should be held as public domain for the construction of fortifications in Florida. The bureau had previously reserved for this purpose all the islands on the coast, and it was now to decide whether any of these could be released. The engineers left Washington early in January, 1849, and by the middle of the month were in Mobile. Thence they made a circuit of the Florida coast from Pensacola all the way to Cumberland Island. It was not a hurried trip, and it must have interested Lee greatly, as it carried him to a country he had never before seen. Unfortunately, none of the letters that he wrote home while making this survey seems to have been preserved.15

While Lee was away his name was associated for the first time with one that was later to stand in dramatic contrast to it. Washington society, private and official, was preparing to give a "National Inaugural Ball" to Taylor and Fillmore. Lee was one of the 230 "managers" and was among the signers of the formal advertisement that announced on February 20, 1849, this "splendid compliment to the illustrious President and Vice-President elect from their fellow-citizens without distinction of party." The published card gave assurance that "the decorations will be in a style of elegance, the supper in a tasteful profusion, hitherto unsurpassed." The interest of Lee's service on this committee, p305 which probably never met, lies in the fact that among its congressional members was "Hon. A. Lincoln, Ill."16

The ball had been held nearly a month when, about April 1, Lee returned from Florida17 and proceeded to Baltimore to resume work at Sollers' Flats. The family moved, also, at a later time, and took up its abode in a residence on Madison Avenue, now numbered 908. It is three storeys and of brick and was then almost new.18 The house was quite pleasant, but the rooms were so small, in comparison with those of Arlington, that Lee averred his own chamber was "hardly big enough to swing a cat in."19 To reach his station Lee had to take a bus daily to the wharf, where two oarsmen met him with a boat. He was rowed to Sollers' Point, and thence, after construction got under way, out to the flats. He had his dinner with a family living on the point.20

His task was in some respects an interesting one, certainly at the outset. The fort was to be built on a shoal about halfway from Baltimore to the mouth of the Patapsco River, and almost in midstream, between Sollers' Point and Hawkins' Point. Lee had to ascertain whether the foundation was solid, and if it was, he had to erect constructing wharves, drive piles, place the granite footings of the fort under water, and, when the surface of the river was reached, proceed in the regular way. He had acquired abundant experience in testing the character of river bottoms while on the Mississippi, and he was soon able to report that a stable, hard surface had been reached forty-five feet beneath the low-water level.21 The work opened up quickly during 1849. He bestirred himself to procure piles for the foundation; abandoning the well started under Major Ogden at Sollers' Point, he dug another. Vigorously he pushed the completion of a scow, a pile driver, and a lighter, laid down the previous year. The building p306 of a powerful crane was undertaken; he commenced the wharves from which the sea walls were to be reared; and he experimented in the laying of concrete under water with a tremie.22

All this required hourly supervision in a summer sun and on a site where it is safe to presume mosquitoes bred abundantly. Late in July Lee developed a fever that probably was malaria, and he wisely sought refuge at Ravensworth. Returning to Arlington, when he began to improve, he remained there by Totten's permission until the end of the first week in August. Then he went back to Baltimore.23 On August 12 he placed his assistant, Captain J. G. Foster,24 in charge at Sollers' Point and took train for Newport, R. I., where he joined his former West Point superintendent, Colonel Thayer, and the other members of the board of engineers in a study of the best location for new barracks, quarters, and a hospital at Fort Adams. Unluckily, Lee's sickness there still dogged him. When Colonel Thayer designated him as one of two engineers to go from Newport to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to confer with a naval board on some problems connected with the drydock, Lee had to ask to be relieved. It was not until the end of August that he returned to Baltimore after the first and only illness prior to 1863 of which there is any record.25 Work then settled into its usual channels at Sollers' Point. By the end of September, when the report-year closed, he was able to record the completion of nearly all the preliminary work and the erection of one hundred feet of the outer constructing wharf. Some $36,000 of the appropriation then remained unexpended, and, for the fiscal year of 1850‑51, $50,000 was requested.26

The routine at Sollers' Point, the whole career of Lee indeed, was threatened about this time by a strange offer. The Cuban revolutionary junta in New York was preparing for a new descent p307 on the island. Some of the leaders had tendered command to General Worth and he had considered resigning his United States commission and organizing the expedition, but he had died before he had made a final decision.27 Then the Cubans had turned to Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jefferson Davis. He was senator at that time, chairman of the committee on military affairs and interested in Cuban affairs. He declined, but urged the committee to go to see Lee. They duly journeyed to Baltimore and asked Lee if he were willing to discuss the matter with them. Lee's martial impulses no doubt were fired by the thought of a campaign in which he would have full opportunity of planning and directing operations. All he had learned in Mexico could be applied. Southern sympathy would be with him, because filibustering against Spanish misrule was regarded as patriotic. Moreover, a strong element in Congress favored the seizure of Cuba. Success would mean ease and glory to the end of his days and perhaps a place as the Washington of Cuban liberty. But before Lee could consider either the comity or the feasibility of the expedition, he balked on a consideration of personal honor: he had been educated as a soldier at public expense; he held a commission in the army of the United States; was it right that he should entertain a proposal from another government while in the service of America? He debated the question and virtually reached his conclusion, but he determined to consult with Davis before deciding whether he would permit the proposal to be opened in detail to him by the junta. He accordingly went to Washington and confidentially discussed the matter. The Mississippi senator was disposed to canvass the chances of military success, but Lee explained that he wanted the judgment of Davis on the ethics of entertaining any offer from a foreign power. Davis's answer is not recorded, but Lee took the strictest view of his duty and declined to consider a proposal.28 Suppose his decision had been to the contrary — what would have happened? The expedition came to disaster; would he have redeemed it, or would he in 1852 have ended his days in front of a p308 Spanish firing squad? His judgment and his sense of duty made the question academic, but it may not be without some psychological significance that Colonel Lee, like his father before him, was attracted by a revolutionary struggle.a

Two brief visits to Washington and Christmas at Arlington seem to have been Lee's only absence from Baltimore during the period from October 1, 1849, to the end of the report-year, twelve months thereafter.29 When the results of the work for that time were assembled the showing was one of which no engineer need have been ashamed. The constructing wharves on two of the fronts of the projected fort had been completed, and a third of the wharf on the third front. All the piles for the wharf on the fourth front and the greater part for that on the fifth had been driven. Over 1200 feet of the wharves were ready. Piles under water for this part of the work numbered 822. The steam pile driver had been employed to start the foundation and the sheet piles for the sea wall on one front, and a machine had been devised for sawing off the foundation piles at a uniform depth under the water. To the other equipment had been added a dredge for levelling the surface of the shoal. This, like the saw, was built on the spot and was operated by the steam engine of the pile driver. A diving bell, too, had been constructed, not to mention a crane and a storehouse. It was anticipated by Lee that with the opening of the spring of 1851 masonry work could be commenced. The unexpended balance of $68,100 he planned to use by June 30, 1851. For the year 1851‑52, $50,000 new money would be required.30 As the work had reached a point where the completion of a fort might be expected, provided enough money was forthcoming, the War Department felt justified in giving a name to this creation of Lee's energy. On October 8, 1850, it ceased to be simply the "fort at Sollers' Point Flats" and became Fort Carroll,31 in honor of Charles Carroll, last surviving signer p309 of the Declaration of Independence, who, at the age of ninety-five, had died in his native Maryland only eighteen years before.

With longer residence in Baltimore, the social life of the Lees became far more active. Colonel Lee's sister Ann (Mrs. William Louis Marshall) was still in the city and her husband had successfully made the change from the pulpit to the bar. Their only son, Louis Henry Marshall, had graduated at West Point in 1849, and in 1850 was on frontier-duty in New Mexico.32 Through Mr. and Mrs. Marshall and through other connections of Lees and Custises, the family on Madison Avenue made many new friends. Colonel and Mrs. Lee attended Calvary Church, close by,33 and were active in the city's social life. When they went out to dinner the children were permitted to sit up and see them depart. Robert Lee the younger retained to the end of his days a lively memory of his father on such occasions — "always in full uniform, always ready and waiting for my mother, who was generally late. He would chide her gently, in a playful way and with a bright smile. He would then bid us good-bye, and I would go to sleep with this beautiful picture in my mind, the golden epaulets and all — chiefly the epaulets."34

The two older girls of the family lived in an ever-widening circle of young misses of their own age. Similarly, the boys were soon at ease in their new environment. The chief difference in the household was the absence of Custis. He was eighteen in 1850, and not unnaturally, in the afterglow of the Mexican War, decided to follow the profession of his father. Lee succeeded in procuring for him from the new Whig administration an appointment "at large" to the Military Academy. Under this appointment, in midsummer, 1850, Custis went to West Point. He had abundant ability, but at first he was somewhat indolent. Lee had to deal tactfully with him in order to arouse in him a determination to excel. That same firm purpose he sought to implant in the hearts of all his sons, and to cultivate it by frequent inquiry and encouragement. "He always insisted that I should get the p310 'maximum,' that he would never be perfectly satisfied with less" — so wrote one of his sons.35

Through all its hopes and discouragements, Lee watched Custis's career at West Point with continuing interest. When the boy had been there ten months, Lee wrote him:

"Your letter . . . which I duly received, has given me more pleasure than any that I now recollect ever having received. It has assured me of the confidence you feel in my love and affection, and with that frankness and candor you open to me all your thoughts.

"So long as I meet with such return from my children, and see them strive to respond to my wishes, and exertions, for their good and happiness, I can meet with calmness and unconcern all else the world may have in store for me. I cannot express my pleasure at hearing you declare your determination to shake off the listless fit that has seized you, and arouse all your faculties into activity and exertion. . . . I do not think you lack either energy or ambition. Hitherto you have not felt the incentive to call them forth. . . . I am very much pleased at the interest taken by the cadets in your success. . . . Prove yourself worthy of their affection. . . . [Fitzhugh's] ambition is still to go to West Point, and thinks there is no life like that of a dragoon. He thinks that he might get through the Academy, though he would not stand as well as Boo [Custis]. I tell him he would get 200 demerits the first year, and that would be an end to all his military resources."36

Steadily thereafter, Custis' academic standing rose, but late in May, 1851, as he approached the end of his first year's work, a vigilant inspector found liquor in the boy's room. Custis had not brought it there; his roommates avowed they had not done so; but all of them were forthwith put under arrest for violation of paragraph 113 of the regulations. Colonel Lee was deeply humiliated and more distressed, perhaps, than by anything that had happened to him since the death of his mother. The loyal classmates of the Virginia cadet sought to save him from prospective p311 dismissal. They offered, if Custis and his roommates were released, to take a pledge for the year not to violate the regulation the arrested youths were accused of breaking.37 Custis refused to accept this favor at the hands of the cadets, and in so doing was upheld by his father. "I am fond of independence," the elder Lee wrote him. "It is that feeling that prompts me to come up strictly to the requirements of law and regulations. I wish neither to seek [n]or to receive indulgence from anyone. I wish to feel under obligation to no one."38 Fortunately, the superintendent of the academy took a just view of the conflicting testimony and, even before Colonel Lee wrote this letter, had approved a mild sentence of eight demerits against Custis.39 The War Department subsequently confirmed this action.

Much relieved by this outcome of what might have been a blight upon the career of his able son, Colonel Lee wrote him this tactful letter:

"Baltimore 3 Aug 1851

"How is it with you, my dearest Mr. Boo? Times are pretty dull in B. — now for Speck, the Parrot & myself. No Mim, no children, no Mrs. Bonaparte, no baby! Still we get along, & at Sollers we hammer on, lustily. This past month, we have been laying stone by means of a Diving Bell. A troublesome operation with awkward, timid men. They are getting somewhat tutored now, & I hope this month to do better. Besides I have overcome many of the difficulties, by contrivances & arrangements to meet them. And you know all difficulties can be overcome by labour & perseverance. I was delighted at the contradiction in your last letter of the slanderous report against the room of those fine cadets Lee, Wood & Turnbull. I could not believe it before, to the extent of the report, & supposed it must have been greatly exaggerated. I am happy to have my impressions confirmed. I trust there will be no cause for even suspicions in future. I know there will be none as far as you are concerned. Your letter also did me good in other respects. It talked of being on the Colour Guard, of being relieved from Post, of taking your ease in your own tent. That sounded well. It assured me of your being released from p312 arrest, of being on duty again, of coming right up to the mark, of no discouragement, no abatement in exertion, or relaxation in will. In a word, of standing up to the rack, fodder or no fodder. That was right. Keep up that spirit, and things will soon come right again. I was very sad before, when I thought of you confined to your room, trailing to meals after the guard, and deprived of the relaxation and enjoyment of your Comrades. It seemed unnatural. I could not realize that such a position was befitting my son. But now things look right again, I am cheered up. I am hopeful. . . . Think always of your devoted father."40

At the end of Custis's second year at the academy approached, Lee wrote him another and a more playful appeal.

"Baltimore, February 1, 1952

"My dear Mr Boo:

"This is not my day for writing to you. It is your mother's turn and she claims the privilege. But being not yet ready to take up the pen, I am merely getting it ready for her. I shall leave her to tell you of domestic events, and will at once jump to what is first in my mind, viz: that only four months have to fly by, you may say, before the June examinations and your furlough. Have you thought of that? Has it ever occurred to your mind that such an event is hastening on with irrepressible speed? Why, man, it will be upon you before you are aware. I must begin to prepare. I must get at my work and try and get through it before that time. . . . You must prepare too. You must press forward in your studies. You must 'crowd that boy Howard.'41 You must be No. 1. It is a fine number. Easily found and remembered. Simple and unique. Jump to it fellow. . . ."42

Custis did. He "jumped to it" with so much ardor that he was soon one of the most promising cadets of the corps and was no longer an object of concern to his father. Colonel Lee, with hope for the future of his eldest son, could devote an untroubled mind p313 to his engineering duties and to the rearing of the younger children. Robert, the junior of the boys, long afterwards gave this picture of his father's efforts:

"He was always bright and gay with us little folk, romping, playing, and joking with us. With the older children, he was just as companionable, and I have seen him join my elder brothers and their friends when they would try their powers at a high jump put up in our yard [at Arlington]. The two younger children he petted a good deal, and our greatest treat was to get into his bed in the morning and lie close to him, listening while he talked to us in his bright, entertaining way. This custom we kept up until I was ten years old and over. Although he was so joyous and familiar with us, he was very firm on all proper occasions, never indulged us in anything that was not good for us, and exacted the most implicit obedience. I always knew that it was impossible to disobey my father. I felt it in me, I never thought why, but was perfectly sure when he gave us an order that it had to be obeyed. My mother I could sometimes circumvent, and at times took liberties with her orders, construing them to suit myself; but exact obedience to every mandate of my father was a part of my life and being at that time. He was very fond of having his hands tickled, and, what was still more curious, it pleased and delighted him to take off his slippers and place his feet in our laps in order to have them tickled. Often, as little things, after romping all day, the enforced sitting would be too much for us, and our drowsiness would soon show itself in continued nods. Then, to arouse us, he had a way of stirring us up with his foot — laughing heartily at and with us. He would often tell us the most delightful stories, and then there was no nodding. Sometimes, however, our interest in his wonderful tales became so engrossing that we would forget to do our duty — when he would declare, 'No tickling, no story!' When we were a little older, our elder sister told us one winter the ever-delightful 'Lady of the Lake.' Of course, she told it in prose and arranged it to suit our mental capacity. Our father was generally in his corner by the fire, most probably with a foot in either the lap of myself or youngest sister — the tickling going on briskly — and would p314 come in at different points of the tale and repeat line after line of the poem — much to our disapproval — but to his great enjoyment."43

But life in Baltimore was not all enjoyment. Construction did not progress quite so satisfactorily at Fort Carroll in 1850‑51 as in the previous report-year. Lee had some concern over the protection of the foundation piles from worms. The work of the board of engineers interfered with his work and necessitated two journeys — one to Boston in December, 1850, and one to New York in March, 1851. Worse still, the Thirty-first Congress adjourned on March 3, 1851, without making any appropriation for Fort Carroll, and construction had to be reduced, with every prospect that it would have to be halted altogether when the balances from previous appropriations were exhausted. There was a bit of annoyance, also, over the refusal of the government to allow double rations at Fort Carroll.44 None the less, when Lee filed his annual report on October 15, 1851, he was able to record much progress. The constructing wharves were so far advanced that the remaining sections could be completed quickly whenever they were needed. An additional 194 lineal feet of the wharves had been made ready for use. Two hundred and twenty-six wharf piles had been driven, together with 324 sheet piles. For the foundations of the sea wall, 332 piles had been driven and had been cut off fifteen feet below the level of low water. Masonry had been begun, too. Three courses of it, 10 feet wide and 250 feet long, had been raised 6 feet above the foundations. Stone for seven additional courses had been made ready. Nothing was needed, Totten commented, to insure rapid and very satisfactory progress on the fort — except regular appropriations. By economical management and slower operations, $40,600 remained available on p315 September 30, 1851, but this could all be used within twelve months, and nothing had been provided for work thereafter.45

Christmas, 1851, was spent at Arlington, whither, if practicable, the family always repaired at that season. Lee's own account of it was sent in a letter to Custis:

"We came home on Wednesday morning, [December 24]. It was a bitter cold day, and we were kept waiting an hour at Baltimore for the cars, which were detained by the snow and frost on the rails. We found your grandfather at the Washington depot, Daniel and the old carriage and horses. Your mother, grandfather, Mary Eliza, the little people and the baggage I thought load enough for the carriage, so Rooney and I took our feet in our hands and walked over. . . . The snow impeded the carriage as well as us, and we reached here shortly after it. The children were delighted at getting back, and passed the evening in devising pleasure for the morrow. They were in upon us before day on Christmas morning, to overhaul their stockings. Mildred thinks she drew a prize in the shape of a beautiful new doll; Angelina's infirmities were so great that she was left in Baltimore and this new treasure was entirely unexpected. The cakes, candies, books, etc., were overlooked in the caresses she bestowed upon her, and she was scarcely out of her arms all day. Rooney got among his gifts a nice pair of boots, which he particularly wanted, and the girls, I hope, were equally pleased with their presents, books and trinkets.

"Your mother, Mary, Rooney, and I went into church, and Rooney and the twins [who were visitors] skated back on the canal, Rooney having taken his skates along for the purpose. . . .

"I need not describe to you our amusements, you have witnessed them so often, nor the turkey, cold ham, plum puddings, mince pies, etc., at dinner. I hope you will enjoy them again, or some equally as good. . . .

"I had received no letter from you when I left Baltimore, nor shall I get any till I return, which will be, if nothing happens, tomorrow a week, 5th January, 1852. You will then be in the p316 midst of your examinations. I shall be very anxious about you. Give me the earliest intelligence of your standing, and stand up before them boldly, manfully; do your best, and I shall be satisfied."46

The driving of piles and the laying of stone continued, as the weather permitted, in the spring of 1852, with Lee more than ever confined to the fort because of a change of assistants late in March.47 Some time had to be spent, also, in arranging for the care and preservation of old Fort Covington, the site of which had been declared a nuisance.48

Work was progressing regularly,49 when on May 28, Lee received the following letter from Totten, dated at Washington on the 27th:

"You will prepare yourself to transfer the operations now under your charge temporarily to Lieut. [W. H. C.] Whiting, in order that you may proceed to West Point towards the close of the month of August and on the 1st of September next relieve Capt. [Henry] Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Brewerton of the Superintendency of the Military Academy, and of the command of the post of West Point, Capt. Brewerton to succeed to duty at Fort Carroll."50

This was a surprise, and not a pleasant one to Lee. Of course, p317 the superintendency of West Point was an honor, one of the few "plums" of the hard-worked engineer service. The superintendent was the titular head of a considerable command and the centre of a very pleasant society. He had a handsome house, and usually was left at the post for three or four years. In Lee's case the family would be able to see more of Custis, who was still a cadet at the academy. Service there would be heart-warming contrast to the mosquitoes and the discomfort of Sollers' Point. But Lee did not stop to weigh these advantages. He felt that he lacked experience for the position and he did not believe he could fulfill the expectations that Totten would have of him. Accordingly he wrote that same day an acknowledgment of the order:

"I learn with much regret the determination of the Secretary of War to assign me to that duty, and I fear I cannot realize his expectations in the management of an Institution requiring more skill and experience than I command.

"Although fully appreciating the honor of the station, and extremely reluctant to oppose my wishes to the orders of the Department, yet if I be allowed any option in the matter, I would respectfully ask that some other successor than myself be appointed to the present able Superintendent."51

The bureau must have given consideration to Lee's request, for it was June 8 before an answer was sent to him. It was official and positive: his letter had been received and the chief engineer had to decline to change the assignment.52 That was all, though doubtless Totten's reply had behind it a feeling that modesty alone had prompted Lee's application, which was not to be regarded too seriously. Lee apparently made no further reference to the new post until July 1. Then he wrote that he gathered from the letter of the 8th that he would not be relieved of the order assigning him to West Point, and if he were not, he requested that provision be made for the detail of the necessary officers for the ensuing academic year. Promptly enough came back the bureau's answer this time: "The department saw no p318 reason, and anticipated none for changing the order assigning him to West Point."53

That ended it. Lee began to prepare for the change, while keeping the work at the fort briskly under way. After a single trip to Washington at the end of July,54 he completed his annual financial statement, and on August 21 announced to the department that he had turned over all balances to his assistant, Lieutenant W. H. C. Whiting, whom he was to meet again in very different circumstances. The final settlements were submitted at the same time, and on August 23, 1852, he set out for West Point. His concluding reports told of progress in the building of the sea walls and of a commencement in filling the coffer with concrete.55

Although he did not dream it at the time, this was the last engineering work Lee was ever to do for the United States. He had been at Sollers' Point three years and five months, and during that time he had carried the work through all is vexing stages, economically, expeditiously, and stably.56 As Totten had written, all that was needed for its satisfactory completion was money. The work had not been especially interesting after the initial difficulties had been overcome. It gave Lee nothing that enlarged his knowledge of the art of war, unless it may have been that this experience with the slow and troublesome construction of stone forts of the old type unconsciously operated to make him still more an advocate of earthworks.


The Author's Notes:

1 This mare, which was regarded at Arlington as Lee's war horse, is difficult to identify. He mentions no Grace Darling in his published letters from Mexico.

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2 R. E. Lee, Jr., 4‑6; R. E. Lee to Smith Lee, June 30, 1848; Jones, L. and L., 58‑59; date from extract in R. E. Lee, Jr., 4.

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3 R. E. Lee to Smith Lee, June 30, 1848, loc. cit.

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4 Mrs. Lee to Mrs. L. M. Stiles, Vienna, Austria, MS., Nov. 1, 1847, copy of which Mrs. Frank Screven has generously given the writer.

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5 Jones, 169.

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6 Lee to Totten, MS., June 29, 1848; Eng. MSS., 1018.

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7 Engineers' Orderly Book, vol. 3, p514; also MS., A. G. O.; cf. R. E. Lee to Custis Lee, May 17, 1858: "[Bureau duty] is not altogether agreeable. But it makes you acquainted with the routine of duty. Brings you in contact with the high officials of the Government, and causes your deserts to be appreciated" (Jones, L. and L., 93).

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8 Ibid., 504; MS. A. G. O., 238, with 60-L-61.

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9 R. E. Lee, Jr., 5; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, Sept. 27, Nov. 8, Nov. 10, 1848, vol. 16, pp243, 292, 295; Lee to Totten, MS., Oct. 1, Nov. 6, Nov. 7, 1848; Eng. MSS., 1038‑39, 1047.

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10 R. E. Lee to unnamed correspondent [probably Mrs. Lee], April 8, 1848, Jones, L. and L., 57.

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11 A. G. O., G. O. 47, Aug. 24, 1848; acknowledged in Lee to A. G., Nov. 4, 1848; MS. A. G. O., 413-L-48.

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12 Rept. Chief Eng. Army, Ex. Doc., 3d sess., 27th Cong., vol. 1, p243, ibid., 1st sess., 38th Cong., vol. 1, pp102‑3, Ex. Docs., 1st sess., 29th Cong., vol. 1, p251; Ex. Docs., 1st sess., 30th Cong., vol. 1, p608; cf. 1 Md. Hist. Mag., 32.

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13 MS. A. G. O., Engr. order No. 22; Lee to Totten, MS., Dec. 1, Dec. 13, 1848; Eng. MSS., 1045; Totten to Lee, MS., Dec. 19, 1848; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 16, p349; same to same, MS., Dec. 23, 1848; loc. cit., vol. 16, p354; same to same, MS., Dec. 30, 1848; loc. cit., vol. 16, p362.

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14 Lee to Totten, MS., Dec. 30, 1848; Eng. MSS., 1050.

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15 Lee to Totten, MS., Dec. 30, 1848; Eng. MSS., 1051; Totten to Lee, MS., Jan. 16, 1849; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 16, p383; same to same, MS., March 19, 1849; loc. cit., vol. 16, p476.

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16 Washington National Intelligencer, Feb. 20, 1849, p4, col. 2.

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17 Markie Letters, 22‑23; Lee to Totten, MS., May 21, 1849; Lee's Letterbook of Sollers' Point.

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18 R. E. Lee, Jr., 11. The exact date of this move is not available. It may not have been until the autumn of 1849. For information as to Lee's residence the writer is indebted to Miss Mary N. Barton, reference assistant of the Enoch Pratt Library, Baltimore, Md.

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19 Packard, 158.

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20 R. E. Lee, Jr., 10.

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21 Lee to Totten, MS., May 21, 1849; Eng. MSS., 1062; Ex. Docs., 1st sess., 31st Cong., vol. 1, p227.

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22 Lee to Totten, MS., May 5, June 1, June 25, July 16, 1849; Eng. MSS., 1060, 1063, 1065, 1066; Totten to Lee, MS., June 22, 1849, containing instructions for the use of the tremie; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 17, p81.

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23 Lee to Totten, MS., July 26, July 31, Aug. 7, 1849; Eng. MSS., 1067, 1068, 1069.

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24 For Foster, see W. R. Livermore: John Gray Foster in Professional Memoirs, Corps of Engineers, vol. 11, pp249‑52; New York Times, Sept. 3, 1874.

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25 Lee to Totten, MS., Aug. 10, Aug. 21, Aug. 28, 1849; Eng. MSS., 1070, 1073, 1074; Totten to Lee, MS., Aug. 11, Aug. 24, 1849; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 17, 173, 195. The report of the engineers on the Fort Adams project was forwarded Totten on Dec. 15, 1849 (cf. Totten to Lee, MS., Dec. 17, 1849; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 17, p329).

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26 Lee to Totten, MS., Sept. 1, 1849; Eng. MSS., 1075; Ex. Docs., 1st sess., 31st Cong., vol. 1, p217.

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27 A. J. Gonzales: Manifesto on Cuban Affairs (New Orleans, 1853), p6.

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28 W. F. Johnson, History of Cuba, vol. 3, pp38‑39; Davis, Lee Memorial Address, Nov. 3, 1870; 7 Rowland, 283. The date of this episode cannot be fixed definitely, but it probably was late in 1849. The command was subsequently offered to General Quitman. See F. E. Chadwick: The Relations of the United States and Spain, 230.

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29 Lee to Totten, MSS., Nov. 3, Dec. 1, 1849, Jan. 9, Feb. 1, March 1, April 4, May 1, June 4, July 10, July 22, Aug. 23, Aug. 24, Sept. 1 and Oct. 3 (annual report), 1850; Eng. MSS., 1077, 1079, 1081, 1084, 1085, 1086, 1087, 1088, 1089, 1090, 1093, 1094, 1095, 1096; Totten to Lee, MS., Nov. 6, Dec. 24, 1849, Aug. 26, 1850; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 17, pp262, 334; vol. 18, p70.

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30 Ex. Docs., 2d sess., 31st Cong., vol. 1, p355.

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31 Totten to Lee, MS., Oct. 9, 1850; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 18, p121.

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32 E. J. Lee, 342. Mrs. Marshall's health was still poor (R. E. Lee to Smith Lee, June 30, 1848, Fitz Lee, 50).

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33 For this information the writer is indebted to Matthew Page Andrews of Baltimore.

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34 R. E. Lee, Jr., 11. Some details of the social activities of the family are given in Mrs. R. E. Lee to Mrs. A. M. Fitzhugh, MS., n. d. [1849?], March n. d., 1850, and Dec. 12, 1850; Duke Univ. MSS.

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35 R. E. Lee, Jr., 14.

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36 R. E. Lee to G. W. C. Lee, May 4, 1851; J. G. de R. and Mary T. Hamilton: Life of Robert E. Lee for Boys and Girls, 68.

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37 For a description of this part of the West Point "code of honor," see infra, p333.

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38 R. E. Lee to G. W. C. Lee, MS., copy, June 22, 1851; Lee MSS.

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39 MS. Records, U. S. Military Academy, June 7, 1851, for which reference the writer is indebted to the kindness of Lieutenant C. E. Byers, acting adjutant.

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40 Facsimile in New York Times, April 14, 1918, sec. VII, p5.

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41 The beloved O. O. Howard, later major general, U. S. V., whom Lee was subsequently to meet in battle.

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42 Reprinted in Richmond Examiner, May 10, 1864, p2, col. 5, after the text in "a New York Paper," which took it from the original found at Arlington by the Federals.

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43 R. E. Lee, Jr., 9‑10.

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44 Lee to Totten, MSS., Nov. 4, Nov. 5, Nov. 28, Nov. 30, 1850, Jan. 6, Feb. 8, March 3, March 17, April 12, April 22, May 9, June 6, July 12, Aug. 6, Sept. 6, Oct. 2, 1851; Eng. MSS., L. 1100, 1001, 1103, 1004, 1109, 1112, 1114, 1115, 1118, 1120, 1121, 1123, 1126, 1132, 1133, 1136, 1142, 1144; Totten to Lee, MSS., Feb. 27, March 21, June 10, July 15, Aug. 8, 1851; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 18, pp291, 332, 455, 501, 554. The meeting of the board of engineers in Boston was to consider the defense of Portsmouth, N. H.

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45 Ex. Docs., 1st sess., 32d Cong., vol. 1, p351. For the date of filing the annual report, see Totten to Lee, MS., Oct. 21, 1851; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 19, p86.

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46 R. E. Lee to G. W. C. Lee, Dec. 28, 1851; Jones, L. and L., 76‑77; an abbreviated text in Hamilton, op. cit., 71.

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47 Lee to Totten, MSS., Nov. 5, Dec. 4, 1851, Jan. 14, Feb. 2, March 1, April 6, 1852; Eng. MSS., 1149, 1152, 1157, 1159, 1161, 1163. To this period belongs the famous "duty letter," in which General Lee is credited with saying to his son, "Duty is, then, the sublimest word in our language." The letter, which contains much advice to Custis, is supposed to have been written from Arlington, April 5, 1852. All the internal and the little external evidence available leave no doubt that the letter is a forgery, probably concocted for his own amusement by some New England soldier who was stationed at Arlington during the war and chanced upon some of Lee's letters to his sons. There is a possibility, though no more than a possibility, that the sentence on "duty" may have occurred in some letter of Lee's, but the chances are much stronger that the forger was echoing Kant's "Duty! thou sublime and mighty word." The whole case against the authenticity of the letter is set forth in two papers, "The Forged Letter of General Robert E. Lee," by Charles A. Graves, presented to the Virginia Bar Association at the annual meetings in 1914 and 1915. These papers appear in the annual Reports of the Association (vol. 27, pp. 176‑215; vol. 28, pp299‑315) and were separately reprinted. On Nov. 1, 1917, Professor Graves wrote a third article on the subject for The New York Times. This was republished in the Report of the bar association for 1917‑18 (vol. 30, pp288‑91) and was issued as a four-page reprint.

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48 Totten to Lee, MSS., April 7, April 15, 1852; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 19, 207, 215; Lee to Totten, MS., April 20, 1852; Eng. MSS., 1166.

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49 Lee to Totten, MS., May 5, 1852; Eng. MSS., 1167.

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50 Totten to Lee, MS., May 27, 1852; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 19, p259.

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51 Lee to Totten, May 28, 1852. The date of this letter is supplied from Totten to Lee, June 8, 1852, MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 19, p263. The original of the letter has disappeared from the United States archives, and is not at West Point. The text is quoted from White, 47‑48.

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52 Totten to Lee, June 8, 1852, loc. cit.

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53 Lee to Totten, MS., July 1, 1852; Eng. MSS., 1176; Totten to Lee, MS., July 3, 1852, MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 19, p293.

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54 Lee to W. H. C. Whiting, MS., July 31, 1852; Lee's Sollers' Point Letter Book.

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55 Lee to Totten, MSS., July 10, July 31, Aug. 21 (2), 1852; Eng. MSS., 1177, 1183, 1184, 1185; Totten to Lee, MS., July 29, 1854; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 19, p319.

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56 For the state of work virtually as Lee left it, see Ex. Docs., 2d sess., 32d Cong., vol. 1, p152.


Thayer's Note:

a For further details, see Kendall's History of New Orleans, p170.


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