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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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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. I
p319
Chapter XIX

West Point Proves to Be No Sinecure

When Lee, on September 1, 1852, succeeded Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Henry Brewerton and became ninth superintendent of the United States Military Academy,1 he found a plant very different from the one he had known in the days of his cadetship. Scarcely any of the old buildings remained. The familiar north and south barracks were gone; the old mess hall was torn down the very year of Lee's return. A small hospital, inadequate by this time, had been reared in 1830. Band barracks had been erected in 1829. The hotel that was being built the year of Lee's graduation had a large new wing. There was a chapel dating from 1835, an academy constructed in 1838, ordnance and artillery laboratories finished in 1842, an observatory and library, the work of 1841, and — most impressive of all — the cadet barracks, just from the carpenters' hammer, a building 360 feet by 60 feet, with a wing 100 by 60 feet, the whole providing 172 rooms, 14 by 22 feet. A fine mess hall was nearing completion.2 Of the old faculty only two remained, W. H. C. Bartlett and Albert E. Church. Both of them had been assistants when Lee had left the academy and both were now full professors, but they were paying for rising fame with multiplying gray hairs. The commandant of cadets was Captain Bradford R. Alden, but he left two months later. His successor was Major Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Robert S. Garnett, who was subsequently to fall in one of the first tragedies of the War between the States. Lee was soon on terms of close friendship with Garnett, who was of an old family from Tidewater Virginia. The instructor in artillery and cavalry was still p320 another Virginian, Major Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.George H. Thomas, later to win fame on the battlefield. The adjutant of the academy, the officer with whom Lee had the most constant and intimate relationship, was young Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Seth Williams, of Maine, brevetted a captain for gallant conduct at Cerro Gordo and soon a staunch admirer of his new chief. When Williams was transferred, a year afterwards, Fitz John Porter took his place — the same Porter against whose corps Lee was to hurl his army at Mechanicsville and at Gaines's Mill.3 The professor of drawing was Robert W. Weir, who was just then coming to distinction. Lee became very fond of him and later sat for a portrait which Weir painted with some understanding. This picture is one of the only two portraits made of Lee before the War between the States.

The work of the institution, Lee found, was on as high a general level as the official personnel. Brewerton had labored steadily during his term of service. Not long before he was relieved he had sought to improve the appearance of the corps on parade,4 had extended instruction in fencing to the fourth class,5 and had ordered the cataloguing of the library. Many of the major building enterprises had been initiated by him. No less an authority than Horace Mann had said in 1849, when serving on the board of visitors: "The committee [on instruction] would express the opinion that when they consider the length of the course and the severity of the studies pursued at the academy, they have rarely, if ever, seen anything that equalled either the excellence of the teaching or the proficiency of the taught."6

But Brewerton had some problems that Lee inherited. Many boys were being sent to the academy without proper preparation, and sometimes when they were dismissed for failure or for misconduct, discipline was impaired because the Secretary of War yielded to political considerations and ordered them restored to duty.7 The curriculum was crowded, and some important subjects were being omitted; but neither Congress nor the War Department had acted on the recommendation of successive boards that the p321 course of study be lengthened to five years.8 The Secretary of War had declared against this change a month before Lee became superintendent.9 Besides all this, the academy lacked a sufficient number of horses. Only forty animals had been available for the cavalry and artillery, and thirty of these had been condemned. Glanders appeared frequently.10 There was great need of a riding school. The hall where the cadets were trained and the horses were given exercise was in dangerous dilapidation, and its abandonment had been urged by the board of visitors, but aside from grant of an initial appropriation of $2000 nothing had been done to remove the risk to cadet and to mount.11

To supplying these and similar needs of the academy Lee had to devote himself from the outset of his administration. At the same time he discharged a daily routine that was usually tedious and sometimes exasperating. His correspondence was heavy and taxing. Records had to be kept and estimates made. The whole administration headed up to the superintendent, and his signature had to be attached even to letters requesting the chief engineer to permit cadets to receive a packet of socks from home.12

Dealings with the "academic board," as the faculty was still called in the regulations, demanded no little diplomacy and patience. Most of the chief instructors were civilians or soldiers who loved the easy, dignified life at West Point and had no desire to leave, but many of the assistants were restive young lieutenants or captains detailed from the staff and line. Lee approved the system that sent these junior officers back to the academy. He argued that it gave them an opportunity for carrying on advanced studies, and that it supplied the army with specialists.13 But the arrangement involved difficulties. Duty at "The Point" was not uniformly desired. A captain might be requested for duty, but would bring influence to bear to avoid assignment. p322 Long correspondence might follow before another was selected. The best that successive superintendents could do to moderate this evil was to recommend two or three officers, in order of preference, hoping to get one or another of them by the time the next session began.14 Many of the instructors were chosen from the artillery. The commander of one or another of these regiments was apt to complain that he was furnishing more than his quota; consequently, an effort had always to be made to equalize the calls among the various units.15 Care had to be taken, also, that the ordnance bureau and the topographical engineers supplied their quotas of instructors, so that the engineer corps would not be crippled by inordinate details.16 Occasionally, too, a number of instructors were relieved at almost the same date, and the faculty had to be patched up in the middle of an academic session.17 Lee learned very early that it was his duty in circumstances of this sort to play for time, but when he discovered that an officer wished to leave, he let him go as soon as possible, affirming that he wanted only willing instructors.18 If members of the faculty found opportunity for advancement, Lee tried to assist them. When Captain George W. Cullum, for example, was suggested as superintendent of the assay office in New York, Lee arranged for Cullum to discharge that service while retaining his position at the academy, and he was disappointed when the Secretary of War withheld his consent.19 In cases where qualified instructors applied for places elsewhere, Lee cheerfully wrote letters of recommendation.20

Lee assumed his routine in financial matters with confidence, after so many years of dealing with the War Department. His instinctive care in expending public funds had commended him to his superior officers and had helped to advance him in the army. The poverty of his youth had thus proved an advantage to him. His thrifty impulses were never stronger than at West Point. When an optimistic adventurer proposed to dig for buried treasure p323 at West Point, Lee wanted to stipulate that half go to the post-fund of the academy.21 In trying to replace the poor horses at the institution, Lee delayed buying in winter because of the shortage of stabling and the high cost of forage, and then he bargained for surplus animals left behind when the cavalry recruiting barracks were transferred from Carlisle, Pa., to Saint Louis, Mo.22 He had to complain of certain unserviceable saddles the cadets were using, but, he said to the quartermaster-general, "I do not wish to expend a dollar more than necessary for the purpose, and if you think no other saddles can with propriety be furnished the cadets, they must do without them."23 Even the expenses of the members of the board of visitors were subjected to close scrutiny. He was loath to pay the stated mileage allowance to a board member who was then in the east but claimed California as his home. When the board was overcharged for lodgings and food at West Point, Lee refused to pass the warrant approved by its secretary and referred the item to the War Department.24

While Lee was adjusting himself to his routine, his family was settling itself in the superintendent's house. Agnes and Annie remained in Virginia for at least a part of the winter, but the other children came with their mother to West Point.25 The family horses were brought from Arlington, as was some of the furniture,26 so that the household was quite comfortable. Living expenses were high, because the superintendent had to do much official entertaining, but fortunately, soon after he entered on his duties, Lee was assigned according to his brevet rank, with higher pay and allowances.27 Every social pleasure was sharpened by the knowledge that Custis was nearby. The boy, who had shaken off his sloth and was rising rapidly in his class, usually came home on Saturday afternoon for a call, accompanied by one or more of the other cadets. "It is the only time we see him," Lee p324 explained to one of his absent daughters, "except when the Corps come under my view at some of their exercises, when my eye is sure to distinguish him among his comrades and follow him over the plain."28

During these early days of Lee's service, the life of the academy flowed on without incident. Early in October he made up his recommendations for new plant extensions. He asked $2000 for a new wharf, a small sum for additional conduits to bring water to the cadet barrack, and an appropriation for fencing and enclosing the grounds, always a matter of importance to one who, like himself, was a lover of order. Of major improvements he suggested a range of officers' quarters and stables for horses then without shelter. He also renewed the appeal for a riding hall. A little later he asked if the $3000 appropriated for study rooms for the professors might not be used to build small additions to the professors' houses, with the idea of adding a second story to the rooms when more funds were forthcoming. In this way the studies could be provided and the professors' small houses could ultimately be enlarged.29 Before the end of the year Lee was able to forward plans for the new riding school, modelled after that at Saumur.30

The first serious breach of discipline that had to be reviewed by Lee occurred while these plans for the riding school were being prepared. A cadet reported sick one day in November, but was suspected of having subsequently slipped away and gone to New York. When inquiry was made by the commandant, the officer of the subdivision, a cadet lieutenant, refused to testify whether the suspect had been present when he inspected quarters. Lee was much disturbed by the discovery of such a state of affairs. The lieutenant's behavior, he said, was "highly reprehensible and destructive of the confidence reposed in cadet officers. If taught to practice such conduct here, they may learn to practice it in the army, which would put an end to its discipline and usefulness." He believed the lieutenant should be court-martialled, but, he added — in language he was to use many times in reporting the lapses of cadets — "should the department think [that] a milder p325 course would not correct this evil," he recommended the lieutenant's dismissal from the institution. The heaviest penalty that could have been imposed by a court-martial would have been dismissal, and a lighter penalty was much more apt to be inflicted. Consequently, the suggestion of outright dismissal without a court was exceedingly serious for a lieutenant then in his last year. As for the cadet who had been attracted by the lights of New York, Lee wrote Totten that if the charges were true the boy had "abused the indulgence of the Secretary of War, violated the confidence of the surgeon, and outraged the discipline of the Academy." He continued: "It is painful to be compelled to expose such conduct, but I know of no other way of correcting it, or of inculcating those principles of manliness and honour which are the only safeguard of a soldier." He accordingly recommended a searching inquiry to determine where the boy was on the day of his alleged absence.31

All this was the course of a sympathetic soldier who understood boys, yet was determined to stiffen discipline he was surprised to find lax. Happily for the cadet officer in question, the issue did not have to be followed through. After a few days' reflection, the lieutenant repented of his refusal to answer questions, and told what he knew of the affair. Thereupon Lee promptly suggested that the boy be reprimanded in orders and deprived of his appointment, but that other proceedings against him be dropped. Lee held to his opinion that, if guilty, the lad who had slipped off should be given the fullest punishment, though he reported that cadets were going to New York without permission more frequently than had been supposed. Without further word to the bureau of engineers, he set himself to breaking up this practice. He must have been successful, for there is no reference, in all his correspondence as superintendent, to another instance of the same sort.32

While this case was being decided, Lee was engaged in a study of the printed regulations of the school, preparatory to the publication of a new edition.33 In this way he familiarized himself with the modifications adopted during the twenty-three years he p326 had been away from West Point. Without any overnight revolution or even a shakeup in personnel, he began to tighten up on discipline and on academic standards. His first step was to make the midyear examinations mean more to the cadets. Prior to 1849 the regulations had provided that only members of the fourth (freshman) class could be dismissed for failure to pass the January examinations. Cadets in the other classes were not dismissed or required to repeat the course if, in June, they made good their any deficiency. In 1849 the rule had been modified and the academic board had been given authority to dismiss at midterm any cadet who failed, regardless of the class to which he belonged. Until Lee's time, however, this new rule had never been applied to members of the first (senior) class. In the earliest examinations held after Lee became superintendent three cadets of the graduating class failed on engineering, and their case was brought before the academic board. Had their deficiency been in any other subject the board might have given them until June to regain their standing. But engineering had a certain sacrosanctity. First-classmen failing in it had been dismissed, as Lee subsequently explained, "on the very eve of graduation." The board deliberated and then voted to dismiss the three men who had fallen behind. One of them carried his case to Washington and precipitated a correspondence in which Lee vigorously defended the action of the board. Politics proved more potent than high scholarship. The young man was returned and, in the class of 1853, was duly graduated. He did not attain to distinction in the army.34

A case of this sort, where the board was overridden by the Secretary of War, was most destructive of discipline, as in 1849 the visitors had pointed out.35 But Lee made no protest. After two score years in the army,a obedience to constituted authority had become so deeply implanted that it was almost a part of his religion. He found the secretary, C. M. Conrad, very much disposed to sacrifice morale to save a friend, and he was compelled to explain and defend measures in which he should have had the p327 support of the secretary as a matter of course; but he met each inquiry with the same patience, the same tact.36

It must, none the less, have been with inward satisfaction that, on March 4, 1853, Lee saw Conrad retire, and a new secretary take the oath. The change marked the transfer of the government from Lee's own party to the Democrats, but it brought a personal friend to the head of the department, under a President who knew something of war at first hand. The new President was Franklin Pierce, whom Lee had often seen in Mexico, notably on that never-to‑be‑forgotten night in the pedregal in front of Padierna. The incoming secretary was Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jefferson Davis. From the very hour that Davis assumed office, reversals of the superintendent of the military academy virtually ceased. Himself a West Pointer, the secretary understood that discipline at the academy could be no stronger than the faith of the War Department in the discretion of the superintendent. Lee's troubles were accordingly reduced. On the foundation of old friendship, new confidence and respect between himself and Davis were built up so stoutly that all the strains of the War between the States could not overthrow them.

Very soon after Davis became his chief, Lee faced his first emergency as superintendent. One of the surgeons was absent and the other overworked himself in attending an unusual number of ill cadets. Lee suddenly found himself with a hospital full of sick boys, a disabled doctor — and nobody to administer treatment. He forthwith ordered Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Gustavus W. Smith to New York with instructions to find a competent man and to send him to the Point on the next train. Smith met with no success. Conditions gateway worse. Thereupon, Seth Williams was dispatched to the city, but even he failed to find a practitioner who would come to West Point and attend the sick cadets until the absent surgeon could return. Happily, Doctor Robert A. Murray of the army medical corps, then in New York, got another physician to look after his patients and hurried up to the academy. Lee learned his lesson, and thereafter if one of his surgeons was away he endeavored to get a substitute at once. It was sheer good fortune p328 that none of the boys died while the school was without doctors.37

If death spared West Point, it came that spring of 1853 to Arlington. Mrs. Custis' health had long been uncertain38 and she had been very loath to be separated from her daughter and her grandchildren. Lee was distressed that she had to be denied the company of those she loved, and he urged Mrs. Lee to stay with her in the autumn of 1852, but later he thought it imperative that the children be under the discipline of their own parents.39 Suddenly, in April, 1853, came word that Mrs. Custis was very ill. Mrs. Lee started for Arlington at once, only to find, on her arrival, that the gracious mistress of the estate was already dead. Somewhat contrary to every one's expectations, Mrs. Lee sustained the shock courageously, comforted no little by the fact that she had arrived in time to see her mother's remains and to make the funeral arrangements.40 It was the first death in the family, barring that of "Black-Horse Harry," since the Lees had been married, and it grieved the son-in‑law almost as deeply as it did the daughter. For years, Lee had called Mrs. Custis "Mother," and he gratefully owned, "She was to me all that a mother could be, and I yield to none in admiration for her character, love for her virtues, and veneration for her memory." To Mrs. Lee he wrote:

"May God give you strength to enable you to bear and say 'His will be done.' She has gone from all trouble, care and sorrow to a holy immortality, there to rejoice and praise forever the God and Saviour she so long and truly served. Let that be our comfort and that our consolation. May our death be like hers, and may we meet in happiness in Heaven."41

To Markie Williams he said: "The blow was so sudden and crushing, that I yet shudder at the shock and feel as if I had been p329 arrested in the course of life and had no power to resume my onward march."42

The first commencement of Lee's superintendency came not long after the death of Mrs. Custis. He had reorganized the battalion according to the height of the cadets,43 and he had tried to provide a new dress cap, though in this he had not been successful.44 No man could have been otherwise than proud of the four companies he presented the board of visitors when those functionaries arrived on June 1.45 The graduating class of fifty-three men contained many fine boys. At its head was John B. McPherson, doomed to fall in 1864 near Atlanta. The lad who graduated "No. 2" was William R. Boggs, subsequently a Confederate brigadier and chief of staff to Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.E. Kirby Smith. Far down the list and inconspicuous in the class was a sharp-faced youngster known to his comrades as "Phil" Sheridan. And still nearer the bottom was a blond young giant of fine military mien but somewhat negligent in his studies, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.John B. Hood. Beginning on June 2, these youthful soldiers, along with the others, were examined before the board, and on June 16 they were formally graduated, with an address by Kenneth Rayner, a former Whig congressman from North Carolina.46 The board concluded its deliberations soon thereafter and forwarded a report in which the academy and its administration were warmly praised. The extension of the course to five years was again approved.47

After commencement, summer leave — in the sequence that seemed more logical to third-classmen than any syllogism in the book! At Lee's coming there had been some question whether those cadets who entered in September were entitled to a leave of absence the second July following. Lee argued that they were, as otherwise they would get no leave during the whole of their cadetship. "I think [summer leave] a benefit," he said in words for which all West Pointers will thank him. "It is a great gratification. p330 Its prospect holds out encouragement to better behavior; and its enjoyment has a tendency to enlarge their ideas, ameliorate many contracted notions, and renders them more happy and contented during the rest of the course."48 What Lee preached, he practised. On July 5 he left West Point for a vacation in Virginia. During his absence, the acting superintendent was Captain George W. Cullum, who held to Lee's policies rigidly and, on his own account, opened war on trespassers.49

During this vacation occurred an important event in the life of Lee. In early boyhood he had been drilled in his catechism by Reverend William Meade.50 From his youth he had been moral and for years he had lived in the spiritual atmosphere Meade had created in northern Virginia. Lee's correspondence does not content the echo of a liaison, the shadow of an oath, or the stain of a single obscene suggestion. He had always been religious in the deeper sense of the word — as his mother's son he could hardly have been otherwise — but he had not joined any church. He attended service regularly, though even at West Point he frequently nodded during the sermon, much to the amazement of his youngest son.51 Prayer was a part of his life. As he grew older all his religious impulses were deepened, and he felt an increasing dependence on the mercy of a personal God. It is probable that the Mexican War, the death of Mrs. Custis, and his sense of responsibility for so many young men, brought the great questions of faith closer to him. More particularly, as both Mary and Annie were now of an age to be confirmed, Lee decided that he ought also to submit himself formally to the Christian faith. There is nothing to indicate any sudden spiritual upheaval. Rather, his decision reflected a progression of religious experiences, though it is plain from a later reference in a letter about Robert, that he believed in conversion, in the nineteenth-century use of the word.52 On July 17, 1853, soon after he reached Arlington, he and the two daughters, kneeling together, were confirmed at the p331 chancel of Christ Church, Alexandria, by Right Reverend John Johns, Bishop of Virginia. Tradition has it that Bishop Johns said to him, "Colonel Lee, if you make as valiant a soldier for Christ as you have made for your country the Church will be as proud of you as your country now is."53 His vows were not lightly taken. The religious note that was always strong in his private correspondence, after the outbreak of the Mexican War, became increasingly the dominant one of his life.

His vacation over on August 27, Lee had comparative quiet at the academy until almost the end of the year. To Lee's regret, Seth Williams was transferred in September;54 and to his annoyance, glanders reappeared in the stables during the same month. The always troublesome estimates for the next fiscal year, together with his recommendations for improvements, had to be forwarded in October. Lee asked $5000 for betterments to the professors' houses, $20,000 for officers' quarters, $6500 for a second story to the overcrowded hospital, and $18,000 for the much-needed riding hall.55

With little besides these things to disturb him, and only a series of gunnery tests to stir his professional interest,56 Lee had a bit more leisure time for his family life. In particular, he devoted himself to his youngest son, who had now reached the age where paternal influence was needed in his training. Lee began to consort more with the lad, and frequently took him with him when he went out for his daily exercise. He insisted that the boy learn to ride in the dragoon style with long stirrups and no posting, and he required him to keep his pony at a trot until he had become hardened to that gait. To encourage Robert in neatness, he purchased for him the bedding and room equipment of a cadet and regularly went through the ceremony of inspecting Robert's quarters. He was at equal pains to have the youngster taught to skate and to swim. His son's progress in study and in sport was a delight to the father.57

p332 What Lee did with his own boy, for the development of discipline, he continued to do in different ways for other men's sons under his care. In July, at the instance of the academic board, the Secretary of War had approved a change in the regulations concerning demerit. Previously, a cadet could not be dismissed for "deficiency in conduct" until he had accumulated 200 demerits in twelve months. Now this extreme penalty could be imposed if 100 demerits remained against a cadet at the end of six months. Lee's idea was that many cadets allowed their demerits to pile up during the early months of a session, when the day of reckoning seemed far distant. Let the cadet know that he would have to face his record within six months, assured of dismissal for 100 demerits, and he would be more careful from the outset. So Lee reasoned and so the secretary ordered. Beneficial effects were soon apparent. The end of the first six months was to show only two fourth-class cadets liable to be sent home for having more than 100 demerits.58

All was proceeding peacefully when the commandant came to Lee and reported that on the night of December 16, 1853, a trio of third-class cadets had been absent from barracks from twelve o'clock until five, and that two fourth-class men had been away for an hour. The fourth-class men had liquor in their possession when they returned, and one of them, as well as one of the third-class men, was in citizen's clothes. It was a gross violation of the regulations. The men had been caught red-handed and had acknowledged their act. Bad as the infraction would have been in any case, it was rendered worse by the fact that among the offenders was Fitz Lee, the superintendent's nephew and son of his beloved brother Smith Lee. Fitz had entered the academy in 1852 and had not distinguished himself for scholarship or good conduct, but this was the first time he had been in serious trouble. Colonel Lee resolved his embarrassment by the simple expedient of declining to be embarrassed. He reported Fitz along with the rest and recommended the dismissal of all the culprits from the academy, or their trial before a court-martial.59 The only points p333 in Fitz's favor were that he had been in uniform and had not had liquor on him. And neither point seemed likely to weigh against the uncontroverted fact that he had gone out of bounds at night.

But in his youth, as always, Fitz Lee had the ability to make friends who would stand by him in trouble. He had not won the plaudits of his professors, but he had the affection of his classmen. They were distressed at the prospect that he and his fellow-prowlers would be sent home. Bemoaning this, all the members of the third class revived that odd West Point custom that had been invoked in 1851 when Custis had been put under arrest. They offered, if the superintendent would relieve the trio of charges against them, to pledge themselves for the remainder of the session not to commit the offense of which their comrades were accused. Lee forwarded the tender of this pledge to Colonel Totten. Said he: "The subject being beyond my control, I have only to refer it to you, and although in a military point of view I consider this kind of convention between the authorities and the corps irregular, and that the oath which each member takes upon receiving his warrant a sufficient guarantee for his effort to perform his duty, yet I believe experience has shown the happiest results from these specific pledges and I therefore recommend it to your favorable consideration."60 Jefferson Davis passed on the paper and declined to accept the pledge for the third-class men, inasmuch as the fourth class made no pledge for its members, who were equally culpable. The case went to court-martial, which put stiff punishment on Fitz Lee and two of his comrades. The two fourth-class men were allowed to resign.61

Light-hearted Fitz Lee did not regard his narrow escape very seriously. Because he then had 197 demerits he was required to remain at West Point during July and August,62 while most of his classmates were on leave. Wearying of this dull life he slipped out of camp with another cadet about twelve o'clock one night and did not return until 2:30. He was caught and placed under arrest, with every prospect of ending speedily and ingloriously his career as a cadet. Colonel Lee could only forward the papers and p334 recommend a court-martial.63 Again, and unanimously, all Fitz's classmates then at the academy offered to make a pledge not to commit his offense during the academic year. When the rest of the class returned the pledge was made unanimous, and in the third class all but two members proffered a like pledge for Fitz's companion in misadventure. The superintendent must have hesitated, but with the pledges in hand he finally wrote Totten: "Under all the circumstances of the case, I therefore recommend that the pledges be accepted, the charges be withdrawn, and that the cadets be released from arrest."64 This time the secretary authorized acceptance of the pledges, and Fitz Lee was saved for the cavalry corps of the Army of Northern Virginia and for a long life of varied public service.

In the interval between Fitz Lee's escapades, his uncle was called upon to decide the case of another young cadet destined to even greater fame in another sphere. This young man was known to his comrades as "Curly" Whistler and he was registered at West Point as James A. Whistler, but in later years he styled himself James McNeill Whistler. The boy who entered West Point in July, 1851, was as erratic as the mature artist ever showed himself to be. Many and odd were the tales his classmates remembered of him — how he was witty but a dreadful horseman, and how he accepted proudly the West Point code of honor, but announced that he would not associate with men who talked of battles at dinner.65

Lee seems first to have come in official contact with this odd soldier when Whistler's mother, the fine Scotswoman whose later portrait was one of her son's greatest works, applied for a brief leave for "Curly" in order that he might come to New York and bid her farewell, as she was leaving for Europe. Lee granted permission, somewhat against his practice, though he was very explicit as to when Whistler had to report again for duty.66

The next spring Whistler developed rheumatism, with symptoms that suggested possible tuberculosis. He received the best attention the academy hospital offered, but he was in such poor p335 condition when Mrs. Whistler returned from Europe in May that Lee acquainted her with the facts on her arrival, apologizing for having to forward her such bad news.67 The boy had to be given sick-leave soon thereafter, and could not attend the class examinations. During the summer he mended, and on August 28, 1853, he reported again and took the examinations. He was 37 in mathematics, 13 in French, significantly 1 in drawing, and in general standing 32. Lee hastened to notify Mrs. Whistler with the cheering announcement: "He will accordingly resume his position in his class, as if he had been present at the last examination, and prosecute the studies of its course."68

But "Curly" began to pile up demerits very fast and disdained uninteresting subjects of study. In June, 1853, he was quizzed on chemistry, of which he was a most indifferent student. Asked to discuss silicon, he started out boldly enough: "I am required to discuss the subject of silicon. Silicon is a gas —"

The examiner broke in: "That will do, Mr. Whistler."69

And it did. Very soon "Curly" was pronounced deficient in chemistry, and for that and other shortcomings was dismissed from West Point. He appealed from the decision of the academic board and asked for a re-examination in chemistry, instancing two fellow classmen who had even poorer records in chemistry than he, but had not been dismissed. To this Lee forwarded an answer that deserves to be quoted in full, both because it illustrates Lee's methods of dealing with the boys in his care, and also because it marked a turning-point in the career of Whistler. The letter was to General Totten and was dated July 8, 1854.70

I have recd today the application of Cadet James A. Whistler for another examination in Chemistry, referred to me on the 6th Inst. It is true as stated by him, that his proficiency on first going over the course, entitled him to be transferred from the lowest to the next section, which was accordingly done on the commencement of the review of the course, viz.: on 25 March. It is also true that although his recitation marks on review were not as good as before, still his average mark for the whole time p336 was 2.2, and that for the whole time he received 130.6, a higher mark thatº any of those pronounced deficient; and higher than two of those pronounced proficient, viz.: Cadets Hill and Pease, whose marks respectively were 129.8 and 125.4. During the review of the course however, Cadet Whistlers were 59.1, whereas Cadet Hills were 66.1 and Cadet Pease 58.1, showing that the two latter were improving, while the former was retrograding. It is also true as stated by Cadet W. I am sorry to say, that he passed a poor examination, and that by the Academic Board it was considered a complete failure, and that although his marks were better than those with whom he was classed, they could not in justice separate him from them and the vote for his deficiency was unanimous. — Cadets Hill and Pease on the contrary passed very satisfactory examinations. The subjects given him (Cadet W.) as to the others, though simple, were selected as involving the principles of Chemistry, separated in the course, with a view that he might shew his proficiency, of which there was doubt in the mind of his Instructor. I regret to say therefore that I know of no claim he has for a re-examination over any others that have come before the Board.

"In reference to his amount of demerit, I know of no grounds for his belief in the practicability of its reduction, except the indulgence that has hitherto been extended to him. From the period of his return from sick leave on the 28th Augt '53 to 31 Decr. the demerit recorded against him, amounted to 136, which under the present Regn. on the subject would have required his discharge, except that not having committed any grave offences, and other considerations, I was enabled to remove 39, which reduced his amount below 100. Finding after Jany. that he was not more careful in his conduct, and fearing he might expect similar relief in June, I took occasion to caution him on the subject. On taking up the conduct roll in June, I found he was again over the limit, and as I extended to some others in the same position, though not to the same extent, the priviledge of reconsidering their demerit, I again reconsidered his. After removing from the record book every report for which I could find any plea, and all that were favourably endorsed by the reporting p337 officers, and reducing his demerit by 25, it was still 21 over the prescribed limit and now stands from the 1 Jany. to 15th June 121. I can therefore do nothing more in his behalf, nor do I know of anything entitling him to further indulgence — I can only regret that one so capable of doing well should so have neglected himself, and must now suffer the penalty.

"The application of Cadet Whistler is herewith returned."


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FACSIMILE, FROM LEE'S LETTERBOOK AS SUPERINTENDENT OF THE UNITED STATES MILITARY ACADEMY, EXPLAINING WHY "CADET WHISTLER," LATER THE DISTINGUISHED ARTIST JAMES McNEILL WHISTLER, SHOULD NOT BE READMITTED TO WEST POINT. THE AUTOGRAPH IS THAT OF LEE'S CHIEF CLERK
Courtesy of the Librarian of the United States Military Academy.º

The War Department sustained Lee, and Whistler left the service, but in after years he had no grudge against West Point, and least of all against Lee. He always spoke with fiery admiration of his former superintendent.71

Still another youngster who later attained to a measure of fame gave Lee a bit of trouble during the months he was learning the strange and inscrutable ways of cadets. Large and splendid Archibald Gracie, Jr., a New York boy who held a cadetship from New Jersey, decided one day at review that it would be amusing to tread on the heels of the cadet in the file ahead of him. Around the field they tramped, Gracie indulging himself in this sport. When the cadet in front of him, fuming furiously, swore, sotto voce, that Gracie was going to get a drubbing, Gracie laughingly answered, "Not from you."

The offended cadet, Wharton Green, was as good as his word. After the review was over he started a fight on the very parade ground itself, and was giving Gracie the worst of it when the instructor in fencing came up and stopped the battle. Green stalked off at once; Gracie remained and, when questioned, gave his name and class. When asked who his antagonist was, Gracie answered, "You will have to ask him, for I'm no informer." He was of course placed under arrest, as fighting on the parade ground was a dire offense.

The next morning Lee was sitting in his office when Green entered. "Colonel Lee," he began, "Mr. Gracie was yesterday reported for fighting on the parade ground, and the 'other fellow' was not."

Yes sir, and I presume you are 'the other fellow.' "

"I am, sir, and I wish to submit the case in full for your consideration. Don't you think it very hard on him, Colonel, after p338 getting the worst of the fracas, to have to take all of the penalty incident?"

"Admitted," said Lee. "what then?"

"Simply this, sir. Whatever punishment is meted out to him, I insist on having the same given to me."

"The offense entails a heavy penalty," Lee reminded him.

"I am aware of the fact, Colonel, but Mr. Gracie is not entitled to a monopoly of it."

With a kindly smile Lee answered, "No, sir; you will get neither report nor penalty for this, and neither will Mr. Gracie get the latter. I will cancel the report. Don't you think, Mr. Green, that it is better for brothers to dwell together in peace and harmony?"

Young Green was equal to the occasion. "Yes, Colonel," he said squarely, "and if we were all like you, it would be an easy thing to do."

As soon as Gracie heard of Green's manful act, he wrung his hand in gratitude and from that day onward the two were warm friends.72 Perhaps the memory of Lee's action may have been one reason why, some eleven years after, when Lee incautiously stepped upon the parapet of the Petersburg defenses, where he would have received a bullet on the instant, Gracie, then a gallant Confederate brigadier, quietly placed himself between Lee and the enemy.


The Author's Notes:

1 Cullum, 421; 1 Cent. U. S. M. A., 236; Ex. Docs., 2d sess., 32d Cong., vol. 2, p163; MS. Letter Book of the Superintendent of West Point, Sept. 1, 1852, p283. This last, which is the principal source on Lee's administration at West Point, is cited hereafter as WPLB, with the date and page.

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2 Boynton, 254 ff.; Ex. Docs., 2d sess., 33d Cong., vol. 1, part 2, pp155‑57. The old barracks had been condemned by the board of visitors in 1849 as "utterly unfit for occupation" (Ex. Docs., 1st sess., 31st Cong., vol. 1, p142).

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3 Boynton, 314 ff.; Lee to S. Cooper, MS., Aug. 29, 1853; Lee to Totten, MS., Sept. 1, 1853, WPLB, 47, 49.

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4 By barring the display of watch guards, chains, seals, etc. 2 Cent. U. S. M. A., 109.

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5 2 Cent. U. S. M. A., 109.

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6 Ex. Docs., 1st sess., 31st Cong., vol. 1, p250.

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7 Ibid., 236, 240.

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8 See board of visitors reports in Ex. Docs., 2d sess., 31st Cong., vol. 1, p272; ibid., 1st sess., 32d Cong., vol. 1, p367; Ex. Docs., 2d sess., 32d Cong., vol. 2, p171.

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9 Report of Secretary C. M. Conrad, July 30, 1852, Senate Doc. 98, 1st sess., 32d Cong.

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10 Ex. Docs., 1st sess., 31st Cong., vol. 1, p239; Lee to Totten, Sept. 15, 1853, WPLB, 51.

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11 Ex. Docs., 1st sess., 31st Cong., vol. 1, p259; ibid., 2d sess., 31st Cong., vol. 1, p273; ibid., 1st sess., 32d Cong., vol. 2, part 1, pp368‑69; ibid., 2d sess., 32d Cong., vol. 2, p171.

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12 E.g., WPLB, 1852, p284 ff.

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13 Lee to Totten, MS., July 28, Dec. 9, 1854; WPLB, 125, 157.

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14 Cf. case of Captain E. K. Smith, Lee to Totten, MS., Sept. 8, Nov. 8, 1852; WPLB, 285, 298; cf., also, pp298, 300‑301, 312.

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15 Lee to Totten, MS., Jan. 7, 1854; WPLB, 83.

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16 Same to same, MS., Jun. 27, 1854; WPLB, 115.

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17 E.g., the proposed relief of Major G. H. Thomas and two other officers in April, 1854; Lee to Totten, MS., April 13, April 21, 1854; WPLB, 99, 101.

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18 Case of Lieutenant Chapman, Lee to Totten, MS., Jan. 9, 1854; WPLB, 85.

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19 Lee to Totten, MS., Oct. 28, 1853; Lee to Cullum, MS., Nov. 4, 1853; WPLB, 64, 66.

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20 Lee to Charles King, MS., Nov. 26, Dec. 13, 1853; WPLB, 72‑73, 77.

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21 Lee to Totten, MS., June 21, 1853; WPLB, 34.

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22 Lee to Totten, MS., March 21, Sept. 27, Oct. 5, Oct. 8, 1853; WPLB, 11, 53, 57, 59.

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23 Lee to T. S. Jesup, Q. M. G., MS., March 17, 1853; WPLB, 10‑11.

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24 Lee to Totten, MS., June et seq., 1854; WPLB, 111, 115, 129.

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25 R. E. Lee to Annie Lee, Feb. 25, 1853; R. E. Lee, Jr., 14‑15.

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26 Cf. Lee to Mrs. Lee, Aug. 20, 1855; E. J. Lee, 434.

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27 MS. A. G. O., vol. 8, Nov. 16, 1852; S. O., 197. It was not until after the act of June 12, 1856, that the superintendent had the local rank of colonel, regardless of his regular rank (2 Cent. U. S. M. A., 111). Captain Brewerton, in his time, had spent $6000 in addition to his pay in meeting the unescapable expenses of the superintendency.

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28 R. E. Lee to Annie Lee, Feb. 25, 1853; R. E. Lee, Jr., 15.

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29 Lee to Totten, MS., Sept. 20, Oct. 9, Dec. 29, 1852; WPLB, 287, 293, 310‑11.

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30 Lee to Totten, MS., Dec. 31, 1852; WPLB, 311.

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31 Lee to Totten, MS., Nov. 30, 1852; WPLB, 301.

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32 Same to same, MS., Dec. 9, 1852; WPLB, 303.

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33 Lee to Totten, MS., Jan. 24, Feb. 14, March 4, 1853; WPLB, 317, 324‑25, p5.

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34 Lee to Totten, MS., Feb. 15, Feb. 21, 1853; WPLB, 325‑26 and p1 (new volume).

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35 Ex. Docs., 1st sess., 31st Cong., vol. 1, pp236, 240.

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36 Cf. Lee to Conrad, MS., Oct. 4, 1852, Feb. 10, 1853; WPLB, 289, 322‑23.

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37 Lee to G. W. Smith, MS., March 12, 1853; WPLB, 9; Lee to Seth Williams, MS., March 14, 1853; ibid., 9; Lee to Totten, MS., Oct. 17, 1853; ibid., 62. For information concerning the presence in New York of Doctor Murray the writer is indebted to Colonel S. J. Morris, U. S. M. C., assistant to the surgeon general.

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38 Lee to Hill Carter, MS., Jan. 25, 1840; Shirley MSS.; Markie Letters, 29.

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39 R. E. Lee to Mrs. G. W. P. Custis, MS., Dec. 20, 1852, Huntington Library; Markie Letters, 29.

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40 Mrs. Wm. Fitzhugh to Mrs. Abby Nelson, April, 1853; Va. Mag. of History and Biography, 35, 22‑23. Mrs. Custis died April 23. She was then 65. Cf. William Burke to Mrs. Lee, MS., May 8, 1853; Duke Univ. MSS.

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41 Brock, 162; R. E. Lee, Jr., 18‑19.

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42 June 23, 1853; Markie Letters, 31.

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43 2 Cent. U. S. M. A., 109.

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44 Lee to Totten, MS., March 15, 21, April 1, April 20, 1853; WPLB, 9‑10, 13, 17, 22. Later in the year Lee proposed that a black welt instead of a black stripe be put on the "riding pantaloons" of the cadets, as the stripe was soon worn off by the sabre. Lee to Totten, MS., Sept. 15, 1853; WPLB, 52.

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45 Senate Docs., 1st sess., 33d Cong., vol. 2, p180.

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46 Ibid., Lee to Daniel Goodenow, MS., June 13, 1853; WPLB, 30‑31; 2 Cent. U. S. M. A., 110.

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47 Senate Docs., 1st sess., 33d Cong., vol. 2, pp180, 182.

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48 Lee to Totten, MS., March 25, April 1, 1853; WPLB, 14; Lee to G. Dean, May 24, 1853, ibid., 28.

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49 Lee to Totten, MS., July 5, 1853. For date of his return, see Lee to Stephen Lee, Aug. 30, 1853, ibid., 48.

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50 J. E. Cooke: Life of General Robert E. Lee (cited hereafter as Cooke), 18.

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51 R. E. Lee, Jr., 12.

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52 See infra, p410, note 19.

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53 Information courteously supplied from the records of Christ Church, Alexandria, Va., by the rector, Reverend William Jackson Morton, D. D. Cf. Packard, 155‑56.

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54 Supra, p320.

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55 Lee to Totten, MS., Oct. 8, 1853; WPLB, 57. On Oct. 12, 1853, Lee forwarded Captain Cullum's estimate of the cost of a 300‑foot pontoon bridge and train (Lee to Totten, MS., WPLB, 60).

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56 Lee to Totten, MS., Sept. 15, 1853, Jan. 20, Nov. 20, 1854; WPLB, 51, 86, 150.

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57 R. E. Lee, Jr., 11‑13.

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58 Lee to Totten, MS., June 22, Dec. 19, 1853, Jan. 9, 1854; WPLB, 35‑36, 78‑79, 84. For the rule, see Regulations for the Military Academy. . . . New York, 1853, § 72, p23.

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59 Lee to Totten, MS., Dec. 19, 1853; WPLB, 79.

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60 Lee to Totten, MS., Dec. 28, 1853; WPLB, 79.

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61 Lee to Totten, MS., Jan. 7, 1854, Sept. 1, 1854; WPLB, 82, 125; S. O. 6, A. G. O., Jan. 16, 1854.

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62 G. W. Cullum to Totten, MS., July 18, 1854; WPLB, 122.

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63 Lee to Totten, MS., July 24, 1854; WPLB, 122‑23.

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64 Lee to Totten, MS., July 28, Sept. 1, 1854; WPLB, 125, 132.

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65 E. R. and J. Pennell: Life of James McNeill Whistler (sixth edition), 22‑23.

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66 Lee to Mrs. Anna M. Whistler, MS., Sept. 28, 1852; WPLB, 288‑89.

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67 Lee to Mrs. A. M. Whistler, MS., May 26, 1853; WPLB, 29.

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68 Same to same, Aug. 31, 1853, MS.; WPLB, 49.

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69 Pennell: op. cit., 22.

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70 WPLB, 120‑21.

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71 Pennell, loc. cit.

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72 W. J. Green, Recollections and Reflections, 87‑90.


Thayer's Note:

a And so the text reads; but Lee entered the army when he became a cadet in 1825 — only 28 years before, not 40. The source of the error, I suspect, is a curious one. Just briefly, Freeman's mind may have alighted on "stone" rather than "score". A stone is 14 pounds — which would make the right figure — and the mistake was made.


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