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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
p140
Chapter IX

Youth Conspires Against a Giant

Delay in procuring some of the instruments forced Lee to postpone his start for the Mississippi in the summer of 1837. Despairing finally of getting delivery, he left on two days' notice for Philadelphia, to make the purchases there. Later he received authorization, if he could not find what he wanted in the Quaker City, to travel to New York.1 He set out with Second Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Montgomery C. Meigs, a young engineer of twenty-one, who had graduated at West Point in the class of 1836. Meigs was a Georgian by birth and later became quartermaster-general of the United States army during the War between the States. He it was, also, who superintended the erection of the capitol dome in Washington.

The two went to Pittsburgh, where they were lucky enough to find a new steamer bound for Saint Louis. Aboard this craft they went down the Ohio to Louisville. There the vessel obligingly waited while Lee looked over the equipment that Captain Shreve had ordered for work on the rapids. Two "machine boats" for raising stone were nearly complete, and a small steamer for towing them was almost ready. Lee directed that the vessels be brought on to Saint Louis under a captain and crew whom he engaged for that purpose. With the assurance that all work on the boats would be finished in four or five days, and that they would then follow him to the Mississippi, Lee set out from Louisville, counting himself fortunate, as he put it, to have "a clean state room and clean boat the whole way." He arrived at Saint Louis August 5, and, with introductions from General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Gratiot, soon made some desirable acquaintances.2

p141 Saint Louis did not impress him at first. "It is," said he, "the dearest and dirtiest place I was ever in. Our daily expenses about equal our daily pay."3 In a later letter he said: "I make an exception in favor of the pretty girls if there are any here, and I know there are, for I have met them in no place, in no garb, in no situation, that I did not feel my heart open to them like a flower to the sun."4

This closing note of gaiety was somewhat forced, for in his letters home there was constant thought of Mrs. Lee and of her heavy responsibility in rearing the children alone. He wrote her in the tones of a troubled and inexperienced father: "The improved condition of the children, which you mention, was a source of great comfort to me; and as I suppose, by this time, you have all returned to Arlington, you will be able to put them under a proper restraint, which you were probably obliged to relax while visiting among strangers, and which that indulgence will probably render more essential. Our dear little boy seems to have among his friends the reputation of being hard to manage — a distinction not at all desirable, as it indicates self-will and obstinacy. Perhaps these are qualities which he really possesses, and he may have a better right to them than I am willing to acknowledge; but it is our duty, if possible, to counteract them and assist him to bring them under his control. I have endeavored, in my intercourse with him, to require nothing but what was in my opinion necessary or proper, and to explain to him temperately its propriety, at a time when he could listen to my arguments, not at the moment of his being vexed and his little faculties warped by passion. I have also tried to show him that I was firm in my demands, and constant in their enforcement, and that he must comply with them; and I let him see that I look to their execution, in order to relieve him as much as possible from the temptation to break them. Since my efforts have been so unsuccessful, I fear I have altogether failed in accomplishing my purpose, but I hope to be able to profit by my experience. You must assist me in my attempts, and we must endeavor to combine the mildness and forbearance of the mother with the sternness p142 and, perhaps, unreasonableness of their father. This is a subject on which I think much, though M[image ALT: an underscored blank] may blame me for not reading more. I am ready to acknowledge the good advice contained in the text-books, and believe that I see the merit of their reasoning generally; but what I want to learn is to apply what I already know. I pray God to watch over and direct our efforts in guarding our dear little son, that we may bring him up in the way he should go. . . . Oh, what pleasure I lose in being separated from my children. Nothing can compensate me for that; still I must remain here, ready to perform what little such I can, and hope for the best."5

In a word, he was lonesome and homesick. He was exasperated, also, by the non-arrival of the boats from Louisville. "They are the greatest people for promising and not fulfilling, that I ever saw. Never hesitate to undertake anything but completing, is another matter. So you will see instead of being nearly done with our examinations here, we have not commenced them."6 When the boats at last reached Saint Louis, the river was still eight or ten feet above low water, but on the rapids it was reported to be at the lowest. So Lee packed off his force as soon as possible, intent on making a survey of the upper rapids, which were approximately 150 miles above Saint Louis.

Prior to this formal beginning of Lee's work on the Mississippi, the activities of the Federal Government for the improvement of navigation had been confined chiefly to the removal of snags, caused by trees, or parts of trees, that fell into the stream and became imbedded in its soft bottom. These were an endless danger to steamboats, for the vessels then in use were lightly planked and had no bulkheads. When one of them ran into submerged timber, it usually filled at once and sank in the channel. To be "snagged" had a definite and unhappy meaning on the river. Captain Shreve had devised a method of removing snags, and sometime prior to 1830 had invented a "snag boat" for this purpose. From that time onward, when the water was low enough to permit, Shreve and his assistants or substitutes scoured long stretches of the river searching for snags. In good seasons p143 one steam "snag boat" would remove more than 2000. In addition, axemen employed by the engineers worked on the banks of the Mississippi and felled trees on the banks that were doomed to be washed away by the current. The engineers and the people along the river were divided as to the wisdom of this. Some maintained that it simply added new material for snags. Where this feeling was strong, the engineers had sometimes to suspend their labor.7 Beyond this, when Lee set out from Saint Louis for the rapids, little had been done for the improvement of the river. At Cumberland Island, on the Ohio, a dam had been constructed to save a situation somewhat similar to that at Saint Louis.8 As for the Des Moines rapids and the mouth of Rock River, Captain Shreve had made examinations and had concluded that a perfect channel could be cut through both.9 That was all.

Lee, therefore, was doing pioneer work on the river, and he had some of the experience of the pioneer. As engineers and their helpers came to the lower rapids, near the mouth of the Des Moines River, their steamboat ran on the rocks, nor could they budge her at that stage of the water.10 Instead, therefore, of examining the upper rapids first, they accepted circumstance and with their boat as a base made their surveys of three or four miles of the river. "Then," Lee explained later, "[we] found an empty log house in which we placed our men and eatables which so completely filled its single apartment that Meigs and myself took up our blankets and walked a short mile to the City of Des Moines composed of the worst kind of a small log cabin which contained the Proprietor and the entire population. Here we were kindly received and all accommodated with the softest Puncheon on the floor."

"How much I could tell you," Lee went on, "of this same city, its puncheons, dwellings and inhabitants, but I must look to my limits. In this way we progressed to the head [of the lower rapids] where we found plenty of house room at the Des Moines p144 Garrison. We then moved to the Upper Rapids, being obliged to leave our steamboat behind[,] and commencing at its head, worked downwards in the same manner, but with more comfort, as we found a better class of people and better accommodations, besides having the whole range of an old steamboat or two sunk on the rocks, whose upper decks were out of the water. I assure you we were not modest, but fell without difficulty into the manners of the country, and helped ourselves to everything that came our way. And now I think of it, we were the only lawful squatters in that region, and perhaps alone had authority to be there. I need not tell you what a beautiful country it is and I think at some time, some future day, must be a great one. You would scarcely recognize it. Villages have sprung up everywhere and some quite pretty ones too. Stephenson, between Rock Island and the mouth of Rock River — Quincy, Burlington, etc. were the most thriving. Some ten years hence, many that I saw will be even Smaller than they are now — while others will have grown into cities. If you can tell me which these last will be, I will make your fortune. The formation of a good channel through these rapids will be of immense advantage to the country, and great anxiety seems to be felt on the subject."11

The wrecked steamer was a somewhat unstable base, for the lower deck was submerged and great holes had been cut in the cabin floor for the removal of the engines, but the staterooms were dry and afforded much better quarters than were to be found ashore. The surveyors left her in the morning and, at the end of the day, came back to her, and if they were so minded, could sit on her deck and fish for blue catfish, with which to enlarge their menu.12

The survey of the upper rapids convinced Lee that a channel could be cut without great difficulty.13 By the end of September the survey was completed and the party was able to descend to the lower rapids on a steamer bound that way. They found a great encampment of the Chippewa Indians at the Des Moines rapids, awaiting the usual distribution of gifts. Lee did not tarry, for an p145 unexpected rise in the river had floated their own steamer, the one that had gone ashore when they first ascended the stream. With all his men and equipment Lee went back to Saint Louis, easy in his mind as to the upper rapids but puzzling over the engineering problem presented at the lower rapids. He was in Saint Louis by October 11, somewhat lonesome and anxious for the company of his wife and children, but better pleased with the city and ready to make his examination of the sand bars that threatened the complete ruin of the harbor of Saint Louis.14

The main current of the Mississippi, strengthened by the waters of the Missouri, at that time flowed rapidly along the Illinois shore for several miles below the juncture of the two rivers. Then the main current was deflected toward the Missouri side and ran to the west of Cascarot Island, which was a little more than four miles above the upper end of Saint Louis. Below Cascarot Island, the stream narrowed into a gorge and was as deep as fifty-three feet. Southward the river spread out again until it was about 1500 yards wide, at a point about two miles above the city. Here the current began to divide. Part of it continued along the Missouri shore; part was thrown against the opposite Illinois shore, where it wore away the bank. The tendency of the current on the Missouri side was to diminish and on the Illinois side to deepen. Between the two shores an island had been thrown up in the middle of the river, years before Lee came West. This island was about 500 yards across and about a mile long. Above it a long shoal was gradually extending itself upstream. The lower end of the island extended downstream until it was nearly opposite the centre of Saint Louis. It was covered in 1837 with a thick growth of flourishing cottonwood trees and was known as Bloody Island, because it was the ground usually chosen for duels.

There was fear that as the current wore away the Illinois shore beyond Bloody Island, the stream on the Saint Louis side would become so shallow that the harbor would be ruined. Bloody p146 Island, however, was not so serious in itself as in the condition it helped to create. The old channel of the Mississippi, below the city, had kept to the Missouri bank, but for a number of reasons — chiefly, perhaps, because of the diversion of water by Bloody Island — this channel had slowly filled in after about 1818, and a large shoal had formed opposite the lower end of the town. This shoal crowded in toward the Missouri side, narrowed the channel, and choked the entrance to it at the downstream end. At length it became known as Duncan's Island, and its area of some 200 acres was covered, like Bloody Island, with cottonwood trees. The current seemed to be adding new shoals below Duncan's Island.


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Simultaneously, the island itself was increasing in area. At the time of Lee's arrival it was nearly a mile in length and almost half as wide. From the upper end of this island the water was getting more and more shallow in the direction of Bloody Island. The prospect was that Saint Louis, having lost the old channel by the encroachment of Duncan's Island on the Missouri side, would be cut off altogether from deep water by the formation of a bar that would join the two islands. Graphically, the situation was about as shown above,15 disregarding, for the moment, the dykes marked with the letters A, B, etc.

What could be done to save the harbor? That was the question to which Lee now devoted himself. The first essential was an accurate map. Getting the finances of his enterprise in hand, and organizing his forces,16 he rented the second floor of a warehouse on the levee as his office and sent out parties on either side of the river to make the surveys and to do the triangulations. The actual p147 drafting of the map he put under the direction of Meigs. The surveying he handled in person, with the assistance of J. S. Morehead, his steamboat captain, and Henry Kayser of Saint Louis, employed for the purpose.17 As the survey revealed the depth of the water and showed what the current was doing, Lee developed his plan for utilizing the current to wash away Duncan's Island and the other sand bars. Shreve had previously devised a scheme, in part, and Gratiot himself had studied the problem closely.18

Lee's solution, which was quickly reached, was an adaptation of what both Gratiot and Shreve had proposed.19 The whole plan, as presented in a formal report to General Gratiot, on December 6, 1837,20 was very simple: From the Illinois shore, a long dyke was to be run to the head of Bloody Island, with the object of diverting the waters of the river to the western, or Saint Louis side of the island. The line of this dyke is marked A-B on the sketch printed above. The face of the island beyond the dyke was to be revetted (A-C), so that it would not be washed away by the force of the current. At the foot of Bloody Island another dyke was to be made (D-E) in order to throw the full force of the current against the head of Duncan's Island and against the shoals that were forming between that and Bloody Island. Lee confessed that the construction of these dykes would be "attended with great difficulty." The total cost was estimated at $158,554.21 He wanted to talk over the whole project with Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Talcott and he was debating in his mind whether he was right in proposing to start the dyke at the head of Bloody Island. However, he was satisfied that the obstacles to navigation could be removed, and that the work was well worth while in order to stimulate the growing commerce of Saint Louis, in which he was now much interested.22

By the time this report was finished in 1837, it was too late to attempt to do anything in execution of the plan that winter. Lee accordingly procured permission to return to Washington, disbanded his party, laid up the steamboat on the Ohio, made contract for building another, for the next year, ordered four new p148 flatboats, and with Meigs started eastward over the Cumberland Road, via Wheeling. At Frederick, they struck the new Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, though the cars had to be drawn by horses for a part of the distance. It was Lee's first journey by train, his first contact with the transportation that was to play so weighty a part in the strategy of his campaigns.23 He probably got home about Christmas.

Lee parted from Meigs when they reached Washington and was not again fortunate enough to have him as an assistant, but he was always affectionately remembered by the younger man, even when war divided them. Lee was then, Meigs wrote long after, "in the vigor of youthful strength, with a noble and commanding presence, and an admirable, graceful and athletic figure. He was one with whom nobody ever wished or ventured to take a liberty, though kind and generous to all his subordinates, admired by all women, and respected by all men. He was the model of a soldier and the beau ideal of a Christian man."24

Lee spent the rest of the winter of 1837‑38 partly on leave at Arlington and partly on duty in the engineer's office in Washington.25 Early in the spring he began to make arrangements and to assemble his supplies. For experience had shown him that at Saint Louis he could procure little beyond labor and raw material, and that even in Washington some of the things that he needed were unprocurable. He had to order drawing instruments from Europe to take the place of Talcott's, which he had borrowed the previous year. Tracing paper had to be sent him from Washington when he required it, later in the season.26 Domestic preparations had to be made, also, because this time Mrs. Lee and the three children were to accompany him.27

Shortly after March 25,28 the family set out for Pittsburgh. Arriving there, they had to wait for a week to get a steamboat down the Ohio to Louisville. A week was quite enough. "I must p149 say," Lee had to confess, "that [Pittsburgh] is the darkest, blackest place I ever put foot in. Even the snow, milk and everything intended by nature to be white, not excepting the rosy cheeks of the pretty girls, partake of its dingy nature, and I am afraid my complexion is ruined."29 From Pittsburgh the family descended the Ohio on a steamer. There had been intermittent rain and snow over the whole journey thus far and it continued till Louisville was reached. "Our journey," Lee chronicled, "was as pleasant as could be expected in a country of this sort. . . . The boys stood it manfully and indeed, improved on it, and my Dame, taking advantage of frequent opportunities for a nap, and refreshed as often by the good viands of the West (it would make your mouth water if I was to dilate upon the little roast pigs and sausages) defied the crowding, squeezing and scrambling. You know these little disagreements are to be met with at all times and in all countries, and are not worth mentioning, but as they form in part the pleasure of the trip."30

At Louisville, where they stopped, they were most kindly received, being invited to a wedding and enjoying much hospitality. In Cincinnati, Lee made some purchases of furniture, which was put aboard the steamboat Moselle for shipment to Saint Louis. Luckily, the family did not embark on the same craft, for it was blown up in a disastrous accident, and Lee's belongings, as he put it, took "a very different course from the one projected."31 On May 1, Mrs. Lee and the children got their first view of Saint Louis, but as they found the rooms Lee had engaged for them had been otherwise disposed of, it was June 1 before they were finally placed in comfortable quarters, with meals at the home of Doctor William Beaumont, an army surgeon and the leading professional man of the town. The Beaumonts had three young children who gleefully joined the little Lees in play suited to the great river. "As drumming was the mania at Old Point, riding and driving at Arlington, so, steamboating is all the rage here. They convert themselves even into steamboats, ring their bells, raise their steam (high pressure), and put off. They fire up so frequently, and keep on so heavy a pressure of steam" — as Lee p150 himself veraciously reported — "that I am constantly fearing they will burst their boilers."32

Lee was very happy to have his family so pleasantly situated, as he expected his work up the Mississippi would require his absence from Saint Louis often and for long periods. Instead, he remained for the most of the season in the city, for reasons that did not spell satisfaction. On May 14 there arrived at Saint Louis Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Horace Bliss, who was to be Lee's assistant for the year.a With him Bliss brought from Louisville the steamer and the flatboats that Lee had ordered the previous winter.33 Lee planned to put Bliss in immediate charge at the Des Moines rapids, and dispatched him up the river on May 19 with some of the boats and a force of men. These were to be reinforced as soon as the river was low enough for work to begin. At that time the Mississippi was five feet above low water and was falling, but it went down so slowly that Bliss and his men spent weeks in waiting. Toward the end of July the gauge was so low that Lee believed blasting could be undertaken in a few days, and he sent up additional men from Saint Louis — only to be faced by a swift and unexplained rise that carried the stream to twelve feet and more above low water. Lee held his force at the rapids until the lateness of the season and the slow decline of the waters convinced him that nothing could be done. He therefore laid off his men and was about to abandon the project for the year — when the river fell as rapidly as it had risen. It was enough to make a man damn the Mississippi and all its vagaries! Calling up a small improvised personnel, Lee set it to work on September 20 cutting out rock at a particularly troublesome point on the west side of the Illinois chute of the lower rapids.34 The drills showed a flint surface of an inch or two in thickness. Below this were eighteen to twenty inches of limestone, and then a decayed siliceous or slaty stone which eroded very rapidly when exposed to the current. The men blasted the rock away in great blocks weighing a ton or more and then removed it on their flatboats, but they had scarcely cleared away the point they had attacked — some 408 p151perches of stone — when cold weather came, on October 10. Lee once again reduced force and tried to carry on with the hardiest of the men, whose wages he more than doubled. The weather was too severe even for them. On the night of October 16 there was a quarter of an inch of ice, and the next day it snowed. The men simply could not endure the chilly water. Reluctantly Lee had to close the year's activities, with only twenty working days to his credit. What had been done during that time had not improved navigation perceptibly but it had convinced Lee, more than ever, that a good channel through the rapids could be made.35

Lee made several journeys to the falls during the season and he personally directed the last attempt, but most of his time he spent on the Saint Louis project.36 Keeping the complicated finances of the undertaking well in hand,37 he made war on the sand bars. With the money available he could not construct both the dykes during 1838, so he started the one intended to relieve the worst situation, directly in the harbor of the town. He reasoned that the dyke he proposed to build from the foot of Bloody Island would throw the heaviest current against the head of Duncan's Island, and would deepen both the old channel next the Missouri shore and the sand-choked channel between Bloody Island and Duncan's Island, as will appear from an examination of the map on p146.

In accordance with this plan, before the end of June, the river being then eleven feet above low water, Lee started the dyke close to the downstream end of Bloody Island, on the side nearest Saint Louis. Two rows of piles were driven from twelve to seventeen feet into the bed of the river, with a space of forty feet between the rows. This space was filled with sand and small stone, raised well above the water level. On both the outer faces of the dyke, brush was dumped into the river until it extended thirty to forty feet beyond the piles, with an exterior slope of three to one. The brush was then anchored with stone, in the expectation that sand would soon fill in all the open spaces.

Although the river continued high until September, Lee pushed p152 the construction of the dyke, and before the season was over he had run it so far downstream that the lower end was opposite Market Street, a distance of approximately 2500 feet, or virtually the whole length contemplated under the plan of 1837.

As the dyke was lengthened Lee anxiously watched to see if it would have the effect he anticipated. It was the first large design he had ever undertaken, and into it he had put all the reasoning of which he was capable, and all the knowledge he had been able to acquire. Daily he studied the force of the current; almost hourly he turned his eyes to Duncan's Island. The current, as if repenting its whimsicalities, rushed obligingly down. The mud of the island, expecting no such onslaught, began to wash rapidly away. By the end of the construction season, 700 feet of the island had disappeared. Not only so, but the channel across the bar between Bloody Island and Duncan's Island, below the foot of the dyke, had been deepened seven feet. The old channel had been much improved, and on the Illinois side the eighteen-foot channel had been filled in until it was only eight feet deep. When boats once more could reach the lower part of the city there was as much rejoicing among the merchants as there was in the heart of the young engineer. The confidence of Saint Louis people was restored, and a building boom began. In his annual report Lee wrote with modest conservatism of what had been accomplished, but in his private correspondence he showed himself convinced that the harbor could be saved and all the problems solved if the height of the lower end of the dyke were increased and the projected dyke above Bloody Island were constructed.38

To that upper dyke, though he did not know when he would have sufficient funds for constructing it, Lee gave much thought. During the previous winter the shoal above the head of Bloody Island had stopped the ice, which thereupon formed a barrier across the head of the island. This in turn had thrown both water and late ice to the east of the island. The channel on the Illinois side had accordingly been deepened still farther, and more stream-flow had been diverted from the Missouri side. The proposed dyke at the head of the island was more necessary than p153 ever. But how could the dyke withstand the pressure of the winter's ice if the barrier were drawn on a straight line from the Illinois shore to the headº of Bloody Island? Lee had foreseen this difficulty the previous year, but the alternative was the expensive one of starting the dyke much higher upstream, near an old dry slough, so as to present a slanting face to the ice. The cost of this had made Lee hesitate in 1837. Now he saw the necessity in sharper terms. As he studied his problem he reasoned that the longer slanting dyke would run through shallow water, whereas the dyke he had originally planned perpendicular to the Illinois shore had to cross a twenty-foot channel. The expense of the longer dyke would not, therefore, be greater than the first estimates, if proper economy were shown in its construction. Lee accordingly proposed the change in his annual report, frankly stating that the dyke designed the previous year might not be permanent.39 He proceeded also to procure drawings and to award a contract for a steam pile-driver.40 The old and the new proposals for dykes stood in the relation to each other shown in the plan on this page. The single line represents the first and the double line the second proposed dyke.41


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The season continued favorable, and the interest of Saint Louis p154 in the project remained high. As Congress had delayed appropriations for harbor improvement, citizens of the town had advanced $15,000 to prevent a suspension of the enterprise. When Congress adjourned on July 9, 1838, without allowing any money for Saint Louis, the mayor and the citizens authorized Lee to spend the balance of the fund they had raised. This action, as might have been expected in any municipality at any time, became an issue in local politics. Lee found himself, for the first time, the subject of contention between factions and in the press. The Whig newspaper, The Missouri Republican, charged that the state's Democratic congressmen had been negligent in seeking an allotment from Congress for the improvement of the river. The Argus replied that Lee himself had stated that enough was available to complete the programme for the year. The Republican replied with some skepticism. Controversy developed, during which Lee very carefully avoided taking sides. "The character of the Superintendent," The Republican admitted, "forbids the idea that he would make such a declaration for electioneering purposes, in fact, we believe he deported himself throughout our election as every government officer should, but as very few at this day do, taking no part in the contest."42

Lee's interest in his work, and the success of his labors won much praise. "Since the commencement of the work in May last," one informed correspondent said in The Republican, "it has been prosecuted with great activity, and with unexpected dispatch, when the character of the locality, the scarcity of laborers, and other difficulties are considered. I have been much gratified by a personal inspection of the works; and during my visit I observed the ingenious manner in which the Superintendent had taken advantage of the late rise of the river, which, though it caused a suspension of operations for three weeks, yet in consequence of dispositions previously made, it has caused a deposit of much alluvion about the dyke, to the manifest saving of many thousand cords of stone."43 At a "public improvement meeting" on September 29, Montgomery Blair moved a resolution endorsing Lee's "energy and skill," urging appropriations by Congress and recommending, p155 if the Federal Government did nothing, that the municipality act.44

Acting on the authorization given by the city and approved by General Gratiot, Lee made the most of the remainder of the city's fund and began construction of the upper end of the slanting dyke45 that was to run from the Illinois shore to the head of Bloody Island. Two rows of piles were industriously driven for a part of the way down this dyke, but cold weather came early in November and the river was so filled with running ice that it was not possible to fill all the space between the rows with stone.46

During the months of this active work at Saint Louis, Lee's sense of frustration was diminished by the consciousness that he was achieving something. He found continuing delight in his children and unfailing interest in the country.47 The election excitement was a novelty to him.48 He was even amused by the manner in which he grew thin from his exertions: "I am fast wasting away," he gaily admitted, "and there is but little left now but nose and teeth."49 The strain of the work, however, must have been severe, and if there was less of frustration in his heart, there was less of the old exuberance of spirit and more of resentment. At least once during the summer he broke out — partly because of the obstacles he had to overcome in performing his work and partly because of an injustice that had been done his friend, Jack Mackay. He wrote:

"The manner in which the army is considered and treated by the country and those whose business it is to nourish and take care of it, is enough to disgust every one with the service, and has the effect of driving every good soldier from it, and rendering those who remain discontented, careless and negligent. The instance that you mention in your own person of the authorities at W[ashington] listening to the miserable slander of dirty tergiversators50 p156 and then acting on such filthy ex-parte evidence, is an insult to the Army, and shows in what light its feelings are estimated, and its rights sacrificed at the shrine of popularity. . . .

"I wish all [the work] were done and I was back in Virginia. . . ."51

He was in this state of mind when he received notice that he had been commissioned captain of engineers, as of August 7, 1838.52 Lee was gratified, of course, but not quite sure the outcome would be for the best. "I do not know," said he, "whether I ought to rejoice or not . . . as in all my schemes of happiness I look forward to returning to some quiet corner among the hills of Virginia where I can indulge my natural propensities without interruption, and I suppose the more comfortably I am fixed in the Army, the less likely I shall be to leave it. As, however, one great cause of my not putting these schemes in execution arises from want of money, I shall in the meantime handle with pleasure the small addition arising from what the Genl. calls 'the tardy promotion.' "53 As promotion went in those days of a small army, his new rank was not "tardy," certainly as compared with his former advancement. He had been brevet second lieutenant from July 1, 1829, to July 19, 1832; he had been second lieutenant from that date until November 21, 1836; but he had been lieutenant only one year and eight months. It was, however, to be more than eighteen years before he received further promotion, except by brevet.

Lee was well within the facts in saying he could "handle with pleasure" the additional pay of his new grade, for not long after he had completed most of his financial statements and had filed his reports on the season's work,54 he was given an intimation p157 that he might expect a fourth baby in the early summer of 1839. The prospect was not inviting: his family was increasing more rapidly than his income.

As his work lightened, his unhappiness diminished and his state of mind became easier, but late in December, 1838, he received one of the worst shocks of his whole life. Ever since his early years at Old Point he had enjoyed the affectionate encouragement of General Charles Gratiot, whom he regarded as a most capable officer and a gentleman of unchallengeable integrity. To Lee's bewilderment and to his profound distress there came news that Gratiot had been dismissed from the service of the United States for refusing to account for certain public funds. The General claimed that the money in dispute was due him as commissions and allowances; the Treasurer disputed this; the case went to the President, who decided against Gratiot. And when the engineer still refused to yield, the President ordered his name dropped from the roster of the army. The Secretary of War was not unfriendly to Gratiot. In clearing the General's books, the secretary ordered all his accounts opened anew and settled on the most liberal terms, and he directed that if Gratiot were found to owe the Government money, suit for it should be entered against Gratiot in the Missouri courts. But that did not change the grim fact that the chief engineer was out of the service, disgraced. "It came upon me like a thunderclap," Lee said in acutest grief, "and I was as little prepared for such an event as I would have been for the annihilation of the city of Wash. by an earthquake, and indeed I now can scarcely realize it. . . . Nothing has distressed me so much [for] many years, and indeed, separated as I am from a knowledge of the facts, and all ability to extend relief or assistance, with rumor daily crying out the worst; I believe the news of his death would have been less painful to me. Nor when I call to mind his zeal and integrity in the discharge of his duties, with such of the circumstances as have come to my knowledge, and the indulgences shown to others having lesser claims, can I either comprehend or account for a result that has deprived the country of so valuable an officer, or the Army of so worthy a member."55 Lee was not a man to desert a disgraced friend. He p158 conferred with the General's brothers, who lived in Saint Louis, and later he attended the hearing of the government suit. On his next visit to Washington he collected papers and data the General desired in his defense, but it was to no purpose: Gratiot retained Lee's affection and good opinion, but he ended his days as a clerk in the general land office in Washington. Lee concluded that "from some cause either real or imaginary [Gratiot's] removal from the Bureau was determined on, and that the situation of his accounts was taken advantage of, as the means, and that the dismissal was upon the true issue."56 In Gratiot's place, Colonel Joseph G. Totten was named,57 an officer of whom Lee had seen little, and one who had no personal interest in the project Lee was directing. It was several years before Lee had the same intimate standing with Colonel Totten that he had enjoyed with General Gratiot.

While the Gratiot affair was still a fresh wound, Lee closed his accounts and formally ended his work for the year. He was free, then, to go home, but it was already January 5, 1839, and all navigation was closed on the river. His only means of getting back to Arlington would be to ride overland, and that, of course, was not practicable with three children, and with his wife in a delicate condition.58 They were forced, therefore, to remain at Saint Louis. It was the first winter they had been away from Arlington since 1834.59


The Author's Notes:

1 MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 6, pp291, 292, 295, 301, 307; Lee to Mackay, MS., Oct. 12, 1837; Elliott MSS. Double rations were allowed him (Engineers' Orderly Book, July 10, 1837, vol. 3, p206).

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2 Lee to Talcott, MS., Saint Louis, Aug. 15, 1837; Talcott MSS. (VHS); Darby, 227.

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3 Lee to Talcott, MS., Aug. 15, 1837; Talcott MSS. (VHS).

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4 Lee to Mackay, MS., Oct. 12, 1837; Elliott MSS.

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5 Lee to Mrs. Lee, Oct. 16, 1837; Jones, 368‑69.

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6 Lee to Talcott, MS., Aug. 15, 1837; Talcott MSS. (VHS).

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7 Rept. Chief Eng. Army, Senate Docs., 2d sess., 21st Cong., p96; report of same officer, Ex. Docs., 2d sess., 22d Cong., vol. 1, p114; Ibid., 1st sess., 23d Cong., vol. 1, p102; Ibid., 1st sess., 24th Cong., vol. 1, p163.

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8 Rept. Chief Eng. Army, 2d sess., 23d Cong., vol. 1, p152 ff.

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9 Report of H. M. Shreve in Rept. Chief Eng. Army, ibid., vol. 1, p297 ff.

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10 M. C. Meigs, quoted in Long, 41.

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11 Lee to Talcott, MS., Oct. 11, 1837; Talcott MSS. (VHS).

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12 Meigs in Long, 41‑43.

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13 Cf. William Salter: Life of James W. Grimes, 320‑21.

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14 Meigs in Long, 42; Lee to Talcott, MS., Oct. 11, 1837 (loc. cit.). Meigs stated that Lee returned "about the end of October" to the lower rapids, but the date of the letter to Talcott, which was written from Saint Louis, indicates an error of approximately one month. For Lee's more favorable view of life as an army engineer in Saint Louis, see Mrs. Lee to Mrs. F. D. [Mary Archer] Goodwin, MS., Nov. 2, [1837], copy of which was generously given the writer by Miss Mary H. Goodwin of Williamsburg, Va.

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15 Detailed map in Lee's report, Doc. 298, Ex. Docs., 2d. sess., 25th Cong.

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16 MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 6, pp320, 327, 328, 332, 354, 369; Darby, 228.

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17 Meigs in Long, 42; names on the map, loc. cit.

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18 Drumm, loc. cit., 159; Darby, 226.

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19 Professional Memoirs, Corps of Engineers, vol. 9, No. 46, p362.

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20 Doc. 298, loc. cit.

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21 Lee's report, quoted in Saint Louis Missouri Republican, June 23, 1838.

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22 Doc. 298, loc. cit., p4; Lee to Talcott, Nov. 18, 1837; Oct. 3, 1838.

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23 Long, 42; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, Dec. 6, 1837; vol. 6, p387; Jan. 3, 1838; vol. 6, p398; March 19, 1838; vol. 6, p419.

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24 Meigs in Long, 44.

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25 Lee to Mackay, MS., June 27, 1838; Elliott MSS.; Lee to chief engineer, Feb. 28, 1838, Eng. MSS., 12.

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26 Lee to chief engineer, MS., Jan. 15, 1838; Eng. MSS., 3; Lee to Talcott, MS., March 29, 1838; Talcott MSS. (VHS); MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 6, 442.

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27 Lee to Talcott, MS., March 17, 1838; N. Y. Historical Society.

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28 Lee to Engineer's office, MS., March 25, 1838; Eng. MSS., 16.

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29 Lee to Mrs. Andrew Talcott, MS., May 29, 1838; Talcott MSS. (VHS).

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30 Lee to Mrs. Talcott, MS., May 29, 1838, loc. cit.

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31 Ibid.

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32 Lee to Mrs. Talcott, MS., May 29, 1838; Talcott MSS. (VHS).

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33 Lee to Engineer's office, MS., May 18, 1838; Eng. MSS., 27.

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34 Lee's report for 1838 on the improvement of the Mississippi, Ex. Docs., 3d sess., 25th Cong., vol. 1, p223 ff.; Lee to Talcott, MS., Oct. 3, 1838; Talcott MSS. (VHS).

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35 Lee's report for 1838, loc. cit.; Lee to Mackay, MS., Oct. 19, 1838; Elliott MSS.

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36 The proposed improvement of the Missouri he was glad to turn over to Captain Shreve, MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, July 16, 1838, vol. 6, p460.

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37 MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 6, pp425, 434, 446, 467, 469, 477, 492, 493, 494, 495, 503, 508, 514, 517, 520, 523, 531, 534, 540, 544; vol. 7, pp14, 21.

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38 Lee's report for 1838, loc. cit., pp236‑38; Lee to Talcott, MS., Oct. 3, 1838; Talcott MSS. (VHS).

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39 Lee's report for 1838, loc. cit.; Lee to Talcott, MS., Oct. 3, 1838, loc. cit.

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40 MS. Letters to Engineers, vol. 6, 441, 537; Eng. MSS., 59.

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41 The location of the upper end of the projected slanting dyke is only approximate.

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42 Missouri Republican, July 23, Oct. 2, 1838.

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43 "Viator" in Missouri Republican, Sept. 13, 1838.

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44 Missouri Republican, Oct. 1, 1838.

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45 This structure is indifferently styled "dyke," "pier," and "dam" in the contemporary reports.

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46 Rept. Chief Eng. Army 1838‑39; Ex. Docs., 1st sess., 26th Cong., 1, 199‑201.

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47 Lee to Mrs. H. Hackley, MS., Aug. 7, 1838; Talcott MSS. (VHS): "My little Milly can walk across the floor alone."

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48 Ibid. Cf. R. E. Lee to C. F. Lee, Aug. 20, 1838; Jones, L. and L., 33.

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49 Lee to Mrs. H. Hackley, MS., loc. cit.

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50 It is curious that Lee here employed almost precisely the epithet Jefferson had used in speaking of Lee's father. See supra, p116.

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51 Lee to Mackay, MS., June 27, 1838; Elliott MSS.

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52 A. G. O., G. O. 23, MS., July 12, 1838; cf. A. G. O., Order 46, MS., Nov. 1, 1838, U. S. War Dept. MSS.

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53 Lee to Mrs. H. Hackley, MS., Aug. 7, 1838; Talcott MSS. (VHS).

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54 His first financial statements went off on Oct. 10, 1838 (Lee to Engineer's office, MS., Oct. 10, 1838; Eng. MSS., 59). His reports were dated Oct. 24, 1838 (loc. cit.). He stated in his report on the improvement of the Missouri River (Ex. Docs., 3d sess., 25th Cong., vol. 1, p235) that because of the delay in receiving instructions, two snag boats from the lower Mississippi could not be used on the Missouri, where the water was low, and that as only half the appropriation was available in 1838, work had been deferred until 1839. He wrote Talcott on Jan. 1, 1839, that only the "Island accounts" remained to be finished before the year's work was done (Talcott MSS. (VHS)).

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55 Lee to Talcott, MS., Jan. 1, 1839; Talcott MSS. (VHS).

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56 Lee to Talcott, MS., May 18, 1839; cf. same to same, MS., April 15, 1839; Talcott MSS. (VHS).

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57 Cf. Letters to Officers of Engineers, Dec. 17, 1838; vol. 7, p13.

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58 Lee to Talcott, MS., Jan. 1, 1839; Talcott MSS. (VHS); chief engineer to Lee, MS., Jan. 18, 1839; Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 7, p42.

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59 Lieutenant J. M. Scarritt, who had worked with Lee during the year, was ordered to Florida, where peace had come in a war that Lee had reprobated because of the treatment of the natives. Lee had regarded the employment of Indians against the Seminoles as a "cruel and unwise policy." Lee to Engineer's office, MS., Dec. 19, 1838; Eng. MSS., 74; to Mackay, MS., Oct. 12, 1837; Elliott MSS.


Thayer's Note:

a Horace Bliss had graduated from West Point seven years before Lee, and in the normal course of things ought to have been Lee's superior and not the other way round; but Bliss had left the army in 1836 and was thus a civilian on this military project. His last rank in the army had been First Lieutenant (Cullum, No. 290).


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