Short URL for this page:
His record at Saint Louis entitled Robert E. Lee to a good assignment on his arrival in Washington, October 22, 1840, and he doubtless would have received it at once but for the fact that the very conditions that had forced him to leave the West, namely, the lack of government appropriations, prevailed equally in the East. The treasury was almost empty; Federal finances were in chaos. There was talk of a loan to meet current obligations. No construction was in progress except on the coast defenses, which Colonel Totten was anxious to complete speedily. Most of this work was under engineers whom it was not expedient to transfer. Nothing better could be given Lee, therefore, after a month in Washington, than a tour of inspection of three of the forts in the Carolinas, where the constant pounding of the waves was damaging the works or the breakwaters designed to protect them.
The first of the three to be visited by Lee was Fort Macon, situated close to Beaufort, Carteret County, N. C., and designed to cover one of the entrances to the sound that extends, under various names, along nearly the whole of the coast line of that state. Fort Macon was being built when Lee graduated from West Point, and it had received its garrison while he was working under Gratiot at Washington. The site had been continuously subject to encroachment by the sea, and during flood tides, a part of it was overflowed. Examination in 1840 had indicated that strong jetties were necessary on the sea side, and that a dyke would be required to halt the overflow.1 Various repairs were needed, also, on leaky casemates, etc. Lee went to Beaufort about November 7, 1840, and made a close examination of the fort. This p185 convinced him that it needed more protection from the battering Atlantic,2 and he set about devising a method for providing this.
From Beaufort it is likely that Lee went southwestward along the coast for •about 100 miles to the mouth of the Cape Fear River. There he was to make a similar inspection of the breakwaters at Fort Caswell, which had been virtually completed in 1834, but had been injured by the sea the very next year. Sundry repairs and improvements, subsequently made, had not altogether served their purpose. A further small appropriation for additions to the dykes had been authorized but had not become available at the time Lee planned to go there.3
The site of the fort was interesting. It stood on a point of land known as Oak Island, projecting eastward from the mainland, and overlooking the channel, which was entered from the south. Across the channel from Oak Island was Smith's Island, on the southern end of which was Cape Fear. Above Fort Caswell and Smith's Island was the long, wide mouth of the Cape Fear River, leading up to Washington. On a narrow spit between the river and the sea was ground that must have appealed to Lee's eye as an ideal location for a fortification to defend the stream. The time was to come when that site on the eastern spit was to figure much in Lee's mind, for there was to be located Fort Fisher, guardian of the Southern Confederacy's last open port on the Atlantic.
If Lee reached Fort Caswell he had scarcely begun his investigation there when the time came to go home for Christmas.4 After the holidays he drew up his reports on Fort Macon, covering both the repair of the fort and the extension of the jetties. It was March 20 before the last of the drawings to accompany the reports and estimates had been finished.5
p186 By that time an alternative assignment was open, and Lee had a choice of going to New York harbor or returning soon to North Carolina to supervise the improvements on the two forts there. He had not been particularly happy in Carolina, and for that reason alone he doubtless would have elected to go to New York. In a larger sense, there was no comparison between the two posts. Both would involve much routine, but the Carolina forts were of relatively little importance at the time, whereas the works in New York harbor were the most vital of the country's coast defenses.6 Lee quickly decided for New York, but he did not escape all responsibility for Fort Macon,7 and, until June 14, 1842, he likewise remained in official charge of the Saint Louis improvements.8
Reaching New York on the night of April 10, 1841, in a period of very bad weather,9 Lee soon discovered that his task was not as interesting as he had hoped it would be — that it was laborious but technically not difficult. His instructions were to institute somewhat elaborate repairs at Fort Lafayette, and to make various changes in Fort Hamilton, particularly in the parapet, so as to adapt it to barbette guns.10 Both these forts were at "the Narrows," between the upper and the lower bays of New York harbor. Fort Hamilton was on the Brooklyn side, in a somewhat inaccessible location, with Fort Lafayette almost directly under its shadow, though separated from it by a channel. Before he had been in New York a week Lee received instructions to take over, in addition, Batteries Hudson and Morton, two fortifications formerly under state control on Staten Island,11 that were to be modernized p187 and rearmed. Four projects were thus under his superintendence, on either side of the Narrows and in it.
Fort Hamilton had been completed in 1831 and had been a source of much pride at that time to the engineering corps, but it had lacked some essentials even then, and after ten years its condition was bad. Its casemates were damp and leaking. The sea wall had yielded in places to the pounding of the surf.12 Fort Lafayette was also in ill repair, and part of it had virtually to be rebuilt. As no drawings of this fort could be found, either at Governor's Island or in the chief engineer's office in Washington, Lee had to spend a good part of the summer of 1841 in making measurements and in preparing a full set of tracings.13
Because the work at New York gave every promise of extending over a term of years, Lee brought his family to Fort Hamilton a month or so after he was ordered there. He established his wife and children in a house the government had acquired along with the site of Fort Hamilton, though the premises were in so wretched a condition that they had to be renovated before they were habitable.14 The young Lees who descended on the fort now numbered five, for the new baby was of course brought along with the rest. She had been named Eleanor Agnes, but the "Eleanor" was dropped early and she was always known as Agnes.
Into his new duties Lee threw himself with the same energy he had displayed at Saint Louis. Employing a little boat known as the Flash, he regularly visited the four forts under repair and in a short time he was able to get results at each place. Much of the bookkeeping and virtually all the engineering he had to do in person, for he had only one clerk for the whole enterprise, and only one foreman at each fort. It was not until late in September that he felt justified in employing a draftsman to copy the drawings he had personally made of Fort Lafayette. Diligent as Lee was, the routine soon became deadening. The old sense of frustration p188 besieged him. Days were so crowded with a multiple of construction details that he had little opportunity for correspondence. The high-spirited letters to Mackay and to Talcott became less frequent. Those that he wrote show youth vanishing and life becoming that of a hard-worked superintendent of indifferent labor. He seemed to be weighted down by the very stones of the forts. During that first summer he left his station only twice — once to visit the Connecticut quarries from which he was getting stone and once to confer in Washington with Colonel Totten.15
Before the end of August, 1841, the repairs were so much advanced that the War Department ordered troops to Fort Hamilton and to Fort Lafayette. The latter work was still much lumbered, and gave the soldiers little room, even when the mechanics who had previously been housed there were moved, at no little inconvenience, to the mainland. Lee himself had to vacate the home his family was using.16 He would have preferred, of course, that the garrisoning of the places had been delayed, but after twelve years in the army he made the best of what he could not prevent and might not change. Having no quarters, he rented a house at $300 a year from James C. Church, having previously received the consent of the chief engineer.17
With the hardest of effort, Lee completed by September 30 the greater part of the work then planned for Fort Hamilton. He closed the open embrasures in the parapet wall, raised the wall, and prepared the terreplein for twenty-three guns. To find sufficient space for this number of guns he had to extend the terreplein •seven feet into the parapets of the northwestern and southeastern faces of the fort. He also stopped the leaks in the casemates on the water front and renewed the floor and ceiling of the magazines. Meantime the drawings of Fort Lafayette had been completed, the trusses of the second floor of that fort had been placed, materials for the construction of the other trusses and for paving p189 one of the batteries had been assembled, and progress had been made in preparing the barbette battery for its armament. Battery Hudson and Battery Morton were completed except for the construction of a few magazines. Lee was much interested in Battery Hudson and believed that it would "prove more powerful in the defense of the passage than any other at the Narrows." He reasoned that it would afford the first fire on an approaching enemy, whom it would force within range of Fort Hamilton and Fort Lafayette. The extension of this battery Lee urged in strong terms on the War Department. Fifty guns, he said, ought to be put into the battery.18
Work continued on a diminished scale until January, 1842, and in March was resumed at all the forts.19 Shot furnaces were provided for Batteries Hudson and Morton, and the former was extended, as Lee had suggested, with provision for thirteen additional guns.20 Lee took up also an appeal that Colonel Totten had previously made for the acquisition of Fort Tompkins, which completely dominated Batteries Hudson and Morton. Having reduced these batteries, the enemy might be able to pass his ships up the Narrows, undisturbed by the fortifications on the opposite side. The chief engineer repeated this plea in his next annual report, but he could not prevail upon Congress to act. All he could do at the time was to have Lee prepare a drawing of Fort Tompkins. The War Department, however, did not let the matter end here. The bureau of engineers was working under a well-considered plan of completing and maintaining a new system of fortifications, and of putting into condition for service such of the old works as could not be speedily superseded. The improvements Lee urged were an essential part of this plan.21
p190 The work at Fort Hamilton and Fort Lafayette during 1842 consisted of a long list of repairs and minor improvements. They were not very difficult, though they called for close supervision. Not a little ingenuity had to be employed, also, in effecting some of the changes. Lee pressed all this as rapidly as he could, in the face of general orders from the chief engineer to reduce expenditures.22 By fall he had Fort Lafayette in good condition and was satisfied with the water front at Fort Hamilton. On the land fronts, he saw much that needed to be done. He kept at the task all summer, with apparently only one absence. That was in April, when he went to Washington and reconciled the accounts of his Saint Louis work with those of the bank, prior to turning over that enterprise to John W. Russell.23
No work being practicable at the Narrows during the winter of 1842‑43, Lee and his family spent that time at Arlington, but by March, 1843, he was back in New York, pushing the repairs as fast as he could in view of Congress's delay in making appropriations.24 Mrs. Lee and the children returned to New York with him, but journeyed homeward again in the early autumn, in order that the sixth baby might be born under its grandparents' roof. The young gentleman made his appearance on October 27, 1843, and was named Robert Edward.25 "He has a fine long nose like his father, but no whiskers," Lee reported to his friend Kayser, in Saint Louis.26
Together with Major J. S. Smith and Captain Henry Brewerton, Lee was sent to West Point during the summer to report on the best location and suitable dimensions of proposed new cadet barracks.27 That pleasant break in the regular course of duty gave Lee his first close view of the changes that had been made p191 at the academy since his own cadet days. The routine repair work of the year — painting and mounting guns at Fort Lafayette, restoring the advanced redoubt, raising walls, paving floors, and waterproofing at Fort Hamilton — was again interrupted, and not so pleasantly, on August 22, by a storm of unparallelled violence that caused several of the slopes at the forts to slide or to collapse. In asking for the authority to repair this damage, Lee urged that the slopes be reduced and that they be resodded. Despite a régime of economy that had called for a curtailment of work in July, these changes had to be approved by the bureau, though the execution of some of them was of necessity deferred until the next season.28
Part of the winter of 1843‑44 was spent in Washington and at Arlington on the unromantic task of verifying and tabulating the government's titles to the lands occupied by the public defenses. Lee came to the capital after January 10, 1844, and on April 15 was ordered back to Fort Hamilton.29 The construction during the season that followed was the simplest and the easiest Lee had directed since he had been assigned to the Narrows. Batteries Hudson and Morton were fenced in and put in condition for service, except for mounting the guns; at Fort Lafayette nothing had to be done except to point up certain masonry and to undertake some painting; at Fort Hamilton work on the slopes was completed, and some decayed woodwork and furring were pulled out and replaced. That was all.30 And a drab labor it was for a man whose whole impulse was to action.
For the first time in many summers Lee had a little leisure, which the vigilant chief engineer employed in the public service and to Lee's own gratification, by naming him one of the officers to attend the final examinations at West Point31 in June, 1844. The board of visitors had been abolished in 1843, and special commissions of prominent men from the army, named by the President, acted in its stead.32 This assignment lasted more than p192 two weeks, during which time most of the visiting soldiers lodged together, ate together, and became well acquainted with one another. On the board, which convened that year on June 10, were Lee's old cadet commandant, Major W. J. Worth, now a brevet brigadier general, much honored for his conduct of the Seminole campaign; a capable young captain of artillery, Erasmus D. Keyes, whom Lee learned to admire very highly; and above all — physically and in the vigor of his personality — Major General Winfield Scott, who had become the commanding general of the army on the death, two years before, of General Macomb.
This period of association with old "Fuss and Feathers," as he later became known, was a major event in the life of the tired, frustrated engineer. Lee doubtless had met Scott many times in Washington, for the General essayed to be a lion in the society of the capital, where Lee himself was not averse to bowing. The fortnight at West Point, however, was the first time the two ever sat down to a common task, where the intelligence and judgment of each was displayed at its real value, regardless of the differences in their military rank. Lee must have made a very deep impression on Scott, whose influence and good opinion were to become among the strongest forces in Lee's career. Lee did not win Scott's esteem, however, by any sort of sycophancy. On the contrary, Lee nominated and procured the appointment of Captain Keyes as instructor of artillery and cavalry, in the face of Scott's open advocacy of another man. Keyes was enduringly grateful, and even when he was leading a division against Lee's army, eighteen years thereafter, he had not forgotten the former kindness of his antagonist. The two had many frank talks on questions of the day, as they watched the ordeal of the cadets33 that summer of 1844.
Lee meantime was making other Northern friends at his own station, among the garrison officers. John Sedgwick of Connecticut, a West Pointer of the class of 1837, had been on duty at Fort Hamilton as an artillerist in 1842‑43 and had become one of Lee's stoutest admirers, though destined to fall in Spotsylvania County, May 10, 1864, before the rifle of one of his sharpshooters. Still another young soldier who became attached to Lee at this p193 period was a man of high promise, then a second lieutenant of artillery at Fort Hamilton, Henry J. Hunt by name. Lee was then, in Hunt's eyes, "as fine-looking a man as one would wish to see, of perfect figure and strikingly handsome. Quiet and dignified in manner, of cheerful disposition, always pleasant and considerate, he seemed to me the perfect type of a gentleman."34
Lee and Hunt found a ground of friendly understanding in the controversy that shook Saint John's, the little garrison church at Fort Hamilton, of which Lee was a vestryman, though he was not then a communicant.35 The Episcopalians at the fort were much divided in their view of Puseyism, the high-church theology of the day, promulgated at Oxford by Edward Bouverie Pusey. As Lee was reticent during the time the discussion rose to an excited climax, every effort was made to trap him into a declaration, pro or con, on high church and the "real presence" in the Eucharist. Lee became amused at the feline character of the controversy. On a certain evening, when the argument was very catty, one of the disputants went even further than usual in trying to draw him into the debate. Lee turned to Lieutenant Hunt, with much assumed gravity: "I am glad," said he, "to see that you keep aloof from the dispute that is disturbing our little parish. That is right, and we must not get mixed up in it; we must support each other in that. But I must give you some advice about it, in order that we may understand each other: Beware of Pussyism! Pussyism is always bad, and may lead to unchristian feeling; therefore beware of Pussyism!" His warning and his inflection sharpened the point of his little pun: there was less discussion of Puseyism around the post and less pussyism. Lee's own views were never revealed to the curious amateur theologians of Fort Hamilton.36 He was, however, in practice and in faith, definitely "low church" all his life.
With the approach of cold weather in the late months of 1844, Colonel Totten, the chief engineer, ordered Lee to Washington to act once more as office assistant.37 It was, of course, pleasant to Lee to get back to Arlington with his family and no less p194 pleasant to escape a winter of tempests in the harbor of New York. It was a thrifty arrangement, also, from the standpoint of Colonel Totten, for it helped him to utilize the slack season of at least two of his assistants. During the winter he could employ Lee in the office, and when it was warm enough for Lee to begin operations in New York it was beginning to get too torrid on the Gulf of Mexico for efficient work there. Totten accordingly could summon from Mobile a brilliant young lieutenant named George L. Welcker to take up the duties Lee laid down.38
Lee went to Washington about December 22, 1844, in time for the family to have Christmas at Arlington, but he soon found that the work assigned him under Colonel Totten's economical arrangement was much the same as that in which General Gratiot had first schooled him in the dark, restless months of 1834‑35. Lee wrote wearily of it to his old friend, Jack Mackay: "Could you see my list of correspondents among whigs, democrats, congressmen and officers, you would [not] wonder at my horror at the sight of pen, ink and paper, and with what perfect disgust I pick up my hat between 4 and 5 P.M. with the firm determination of doing nothing until the next morning, except to go home, eat my dinner, play with the little Lees and rest. At 8 next morning I am again in the saddle to go through the same routine."39
It was so grim a battle with officialdom that Lee could not have been sorry when orders came on March 31, 1845, to return to Fort Hamilton. But his labors at the Narrows during the season of 1845 constituted, if possible, as dull a routine as that at engineering headquarters. No new work was undertaken at Batteries Hudson and Morton. Only a few guns had to be mounted at Fort Lafayette. The renovation of the magazines was deferred because of the possibility they might be needed in case of war with England over Oregon, or with Mexico over Texas. Even at Fort Hamilton, where some trouble arose with the contractor regarding the delivery of stone, nothing more exciting had to be done than to p195 repair quarters, cut two posterns, excavate a ditch through the covert way, and the like.40
The gray round of this uninteresting life was brightened somewhat in September, 1845, by an appointment as a member of the board of engineers for the Atlantic coast defenses. This honor came to Lee in part because he had the leisure for the duties, and in part because of his general attainments as an engineer. His special knowledge of New York harbor made him a particularly desirable member of the board at a time when it was to make a special analysis of the fortification of that port, the improvement of which the Secretary of War regarded as the work most needed for the better defense of the country.41 Without being relieved of his assignment at the Narrows, Lee was to join with his brother officers of the board in studying the best method of fortifying Sandy Hook, in examining the entire defensive system of New York, and in forming a project for occupying the site of old Forts Tompkins and Richmond. The board was, in addition, "to extend a reconnaissance over all the country which an enemy must cross in making an attack by land, and to indicate in a full report the position and nature of such land defenses (if any) as it would be desirable to erect in time of war."42 This was a fascinating assignment, and the more so as it meant association with some of the best men of the corps of engineers — Colonel Thayer, Lee's old superintendent at West Point, Major John Lind Smith, a senior in the service, and Major Richard Delafield, who had just been relieved as head of the military academy.
Lee, as the junior officer, was made recording officer of the board, and, as it pursued its study, he filed frequent reports of its proceedings, which, of course, were confidential in character.43 While his part in the deliberations probably was not predominant, it added to his equipment as an engineer. At Fort Pulaski, at p196 Fort Monroe, and at the Narrows, he had learned to build to repair forts. Now he was to study how to locate them.
The winter of 1845‑46 was the one period of Lee's service at Fort Hamilton, above all others, when he would most have wished, for personal reasons, to be at Arlington. Custis, who was now thirteen, was sent back to Virginia for his schooling.44 Mrs. Lee was pregnant again and wanted to be with her mother and to have the baby born at home. Lee naturally desired to attend her in the ordeal. But it could not be arranged. He had to remain near New York to discharge his duties on the board of engineers.
During the last week of November, Mrs. Lee packed up, made ready to leave, and began her farewell visits to her friends. Her actual departure was delayed a short time because of an accident to the second boy, William Henry Fitzhugh, who already was nicknamed Rooney. This adventuresome young man, being of the mature age of eight, climbed into the hayloft in the absence of the family and succeeded in cutting off the tips of two of his fingers while experimenting with the chopping knife. For some days it was doubtful whether the ends of the digits would reknit where the doctor sewed them back. "He may probably lose his fingers and be maimed for life," Lee wrote Custis. "You cannot conceive what I suffer at the thought." For several nights the father sat by the lad's bedside lest Rooney should disturb the dressing or break the ligatures while tossing in his sleep.45 As a man and as a parent, Lee was singularly sensitive to personal beauty and always seems to have had an inward shuddering at any deformity. Fortunately, in this case, Rooney's fingers were saved and he grew up to manhood physically as magnificent as his father. It pleased Lee, however, to pretend that this youngster was ugly. He described him to Henry Kayser as a "large heavy fellow," who required a "tight rein," a "big, two-fisted fellow with an appetite that does honor to his big mouth."46 He never jested about the looks of his daughters, whom nature had slighted in that respect while favoring their brothers.
p197 When the family went to Arlington, after Rooney was well enough to travel, Lee was left for as lonesome a time as he had known since 1839 at Saint Louis. His distress, he wrote Mrs. Lee, had communicated itself to the servants. "I do not know," he said, whether it was your departure or my sombre phiz which brought Miss Leary out on Sunday in a full suit of mourning. A black alpaca trimmed with crape and a thick row of jet buttons on each sleeve, from the shoulder to the wrist, and three rows on the skirt, diverging from the waist to the hem; it was, however, surmounted by a dashing cap with gay ribbons."47 His chief companion was the family's little black-and‑tan terrier Spec, son of Dart, whom Lee had picked up one day in the Narrows, where it was supposed she had fallen from a passing ship. Dart's tail and ears had been cropped, but Lee would not permit her puppy to be treated in this way. Spec was duly grateful and insisted on going regularly to church with the family. Now that his master was alone, he spent his time with Lee in the office,48 whenever he could.
But Lee was not always in his office. He had to visit New York every day, probably to attend meetings of the board of engineers, and he chose to make the journey on horseback, alternating his mounts Jerry and Tom.49 He found New York very cold in January, with sleighs in the place of wheeled vehicles. Among the sleighs was a large one named "Oregon," about which he wrote: "I did not learn how many passengers it carried. But they went 'the whole or none.' The girls returning from school were the prettiest sight; held on each others laps with their bags of books and smiling faces. Indeed there was no lack of customers at sixpence a ride, and you might be accommodated with a lady in your lap in the bargain. Think of a man of my forbidding countenance having such an offer. But I peeped under her veil before accepting and though I really could not find fault either with her appearance or age, after a little demurring preferred giving her my seat. I thought it would not sound well if repeated in the latitude of Washington, that I had ridden down p198 B. D. [Broadway] with a strange woman in my lap."50 He showed like caution in all his dealings with the fair sex. It will be recalled that he had assured Jack Mackay in 1834, "I would not be unmarried for all you could offer me,"51 and he never changed his mind or his morals. The dramatic skill of Fanny Kemble had enchanted him as a young married man,52 and when he was around thirty-five he confided to Henry Kayser, "You are right in my interest in pretty women — it is strange that I do not lose it with age. But I perceive no diminution."53 It was, however, no more than "interest."
Early in the new year (1846) word came from Arlington that the new baby had arrived — a girl, who was named Mildred Childe, after Lee's younger sister in Paris.54 She was the seventh child, and the last, born when her father was thirty-nine and her mother thirty-eight. Her coming made the girls of the family number four. Custis, the oldest boy, was then in his fourteenth year, Mary was eleven, Rooney was nearing nine (and very penitent about the chopping knife), Annie was six and a half, Agnes was five, Robert was two and a half — and Mildred was in her cradle. The brood had almost doubled since he had left Saint Louis, and his responsibilities to it had increased even more, because his children were growing older. Lee always considered that his wife was lenient with the new generation, and though harsh discipline was wholly contrary to his nature, he felt that he must take a hand in the rearing of the youngsters, his boys particularly. It was about this time, when Custis was beginning to do battle with algebra, that Lee started the long series of letters in which he sought to give his sons guidance, help, admonition, and counsel in their careers. For years his messages to his boys were full of solemn preachments, adorned with monitory instances, and in one case with a story that the revered Horatio Alger might have coveted for his pages.55 "I do not think," he p199 said, "I ever told you of a fine boy I heard of in my travels this winter. He lived in the mountains of New Hampshire. He was just thirteen years of age, the age of Custis. His father was a farmer, and he used to assist him to work on the farm as much as he could. The snow there this winter was deeper than it has been for years, and one day he accompanied his father to the woods to get some wood. They went with their wood-sled, and, after cutting a load and loading the sled, this little boy, whose name was Harry, drove it home while his father cut another load. He had a fine team of horses and returned very quickly, when he found his father lying prostrate on the frozen snow under a large limb of a tree he had felled during his absence, which had caught him in his fall, and thrown him to the ground. He was cold and stiff, and little Harry, finding that he was not strong enough to relieve him from his position, seized his axe and cut off the limb and rolled it off of him. He then tried to raise him, but his father was dead and his feeble efforts were all in vain. Although he was far out in the woods by himself, and had never before seen a dead person, he was nothing daunted, but backed his sled close up to his father, and with great labor got the body on it, and placing his head in his lap, drove home to his mother as fast as he could. The efforts of his mother to reanimate him were equally vain with his own, and the sorrowing neighbors came and dug him a grave under the cold snow, and laid him quietly to rest. His mother was greatly distressed at the loss of her husband, but she thanked God who had given her so good and brave a son. You and Custis must take great care of your kind mother and dear sisters when your father is dead. To do that you must learn to be good."56 The choice of such a story as this for the admonition of a lad was itself a commentary on the simplicity of the sire. It was only when the boys became young men that Lee slowly dropped his moralizing and came to rely more on the effects of his personal relationship with his sons.
Mildred made her appearance when Lee had been at the Narrows nearly five years. He had done much to improve the forts during that time, and had learned no little about the location of coast and harbor defenses. His logic had sharpened Colonel p200 Totten's appeal for the better fortification of New York. A practical method had been suggested by him for procuring the sites of Forts Richmond and Tompkins, which were the property of the state of New York. The United States owned old Fort Gansevoort, far up the harbor. Buildings had sprung up around the fort. It was quite useless for defense; why not acquire Tompkins and Richmond by trading Fort Gansevoort, which New York could readily divide into lots and sell? This proposal, as far as is known, originated with Lee, and it was now about to be adopted by slow-moving congressmen, stirred by the reflection that New York might have been captured if the Oregon controversy had led to war with England.57
Superintending dull repair work at the Narrows, sharing in the plans of the board of engineers, and contributing a few suggestions for the better defense of New York were, when all was said, a scant return for five of the most valuable years of Lee's life. He was burdened, too, with the unpleasant details of much accounting, some of it especially obnoxious. Subscription to a newspaper had provoked correspondence. A mistake that led him to draw pay twice for May and June, 1845, was readily accepted by his superiors as no more than a mistake, but it distressed him profoundly. "It has caused me more mortification," he wrote the adjutant-general, "than any other act of my life, to find that I have been culpably negligent where the strictest accuracy is both necessary and required."58
Lee was settling down, in short, to another year of the formalized p201 routine of an army engineer when word reached Washington on April 7, 1846, that the Mexican Government had again refused to receive the American minister, John Slidell, who was returning to the United States. On May 9 dispatches were received from Brevet Brigadier-General Zachary Taylor, announcing that his forces and the Mexicans had clashed on April 25, near the Rio Grande, in territory over which President Polk claimed a title. On May 11 Polk laid the facts before Congress, which declared war two days later. Meantime, unknown to the administration, Taylor had met a force of Mexicans at Palo Alto on May 8, and again at Resaca de la Palma on May 9, and had defeated it. Twenty thousand volunteers were soon called for from the Southern states. All the talk in Washington was of preparations, appointments, and expeditions. The line officers, of course, expected to be sent to Mexico as soon as a plan of operations was determined upon. But the engineers, especially those in charge of work at the forts — would they be given duty in the field? Nobody knew anything of any one's prospective assignments except that General Scott had overplayed his hand, was in disfavor, and had been forced to eat humble-pie in a letter which he had composed in answer to one from the Secretary of War, received, as Scott wrote, "at about 6 P. M. as I sat down to take a hasty plate of soup." Excited as the country was, it chuckled over that soup. Lee could only wait and, like all soldiers, hope for a part in the campaign the administration was feverishly, if unmethodically, planning.59 If he were left at Fort Hamilton he might as well reconcile himself to the certainty that he would grow old, unregarded in a corps that would assuredly give preference to the engineers who distinguished themselves in war. They would have fame; he would have slippers and old age on the p202 porch at Arlington, as merely another retired army officer. But if he were sent to Mexico and had a chance . . .
For three months after the declaration of war that "if" hung in his mind. Ruefully he went over to Governor's Island and wistfully he said farewell to the men bound for Mexico.60 Returning, he found his work at the fort duller now than ever, because Kearny was advancing on Santa Fe, Taylor was gathering troops at Camargo for a march on Monterey, and Santa Anna had slipped through the blockade at Vera Cruz, inwardly mocking the Americans who connived at his entry in the belief that he would be willing to make a favorable peace. Then on August 19, 1846, Lee got the letter he was hoping to receive — orders from the chief engineer to turn over his work at the Narrows to Major Richard Delafield, to proceed, via Washington, to San Antonio de Bexar, Texas, and to report to Brigadier General John E. Wool for service in Mexico.61 Twenty-one years after he had entered West Point, opportunity had come to Captain Lee of the engineers.
1 Rept. Chief Eng. Army, 1839‑40, Ex. Docs., 2d sess., 26th Cong., vol. 1, p104. For earlier reports, see successive reports of the chief engineer in vol. 1, of the Ex. Docs., 1st sess., 22d Cong., p77; 2d sess., 22d Cong., p87; 1st sess., 23d Cong., p52; 2d sess., 23d Cong., p109; 1st sess., 24th Cong., p102.
2 Lee to the chief engineer; MS., Beaufort, N. C., Dec. 9, 1840; Eng. MSS., 273.
3 Rept. Chief Eng. Army, 1839‑40; Ex. Docs., 2d sess., 26th Cong., vol. 1 p105. For earlier reports on Fort Caswell, see the report of the same officer in the first volume of the Ex. Docs., 1st sess., 24th Cong., p102; 2d sess., 24th Cong., p190; 2d sess., 25th Cong., p310; 3d sess., 25th Cong., p182; 1st sess., 26th Cong., p166.
4 Lee to Mackay, MS., March 18, 1841; Elliott MSS. There are no letters by Lee from Fort Caswell and no reports on that work; consequently there is no certainty that he went there. In one of his letters from Fort Macon, however, he stated his intention of going on to Fort Caswell and to Fort Moultrie to examine the breakwaters. Available evidence does not show that he visited Fort Moultrie.
5 Lee to chief engineer, MS., Jan. 7, Jan. 22, Feb. 22, 1841; Eng. MSS., 280, 286, 293; chief engineer to Lee, MS., Jan. 9, Feb. 23, March 20, 1841; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 8, pp267, 296, 349.
6 Lee to Mackay, MS., March 18, 1841; Elliott MSS.
7 Chief engineer to Lee, MS., March 2, 1843; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 10, p188; same to same, March 22, 1843, ibid., vol. 10, p238.
8 Lee to chief engineer, MS., Feb. 11, 1841; Eng. MSS., 291; chief engineer to Lee, MS., Feb. 23, 1841, loc. cit., vol. 8, p295; chief engineer to Lee, MS., April 5, 1841, ibid., vol. 8, p392; same to same, MS., April 28, 1841, ibid., vol. 8, p421; same to same, MS., May 29, 1841, ibid., vol. 8, p458; same to same, MS., June 4, 1841, ibid., vol. 8, p465; same to same, MS., July 3, 1841, ibid., vol. 8, p496; same to same, MS., July 30, 1841, ibid., vol. 8, p528; Jan. 18, 1842, ibid., vol. 9, p279; same to same, ibid., April 6, 1842, ibid., vol. 9, p409; ibid., June 14, 1842, ibid., vol. 9, p503; same to same, MS., Dec. 28, 1842, ibid., vol. 10, p119.
9 Lee to Talcott, MS., April 11, 1841; Talcott MSS. (VHS); Lee to chief engineer, MS., April 12, 1841; Eng. MSS., 310.
10 Lee's instructions, April 2, 1841; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 8, p373; cf. same to same, ibid., vol. 8, 396.
11 Chief engineer to Lee, April 12, 1841, loc. cit., vol. 8, p400; Lee to chief engineer; Eng. MSS., 313.
12 For progress on Fort Hamilton, see Rept. Chief Eng. Army in the first volume of the Ex. Docs. of the following: 2d sess., 21st Cong., p92; 1st sess., 22d Cong., p76; 1st sess., 23d Cong., p51; 3d sess., 25th Cong., p181; 1st sess., 26th Cong., p162; 2d sess., 26th Cong., p102.
13 Lee to chief engineer, MS., April 30, 1841; Eng. MSS., 317; chief engineer to Lee, MS., May 3, 1841; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 8, p425; same to same, May 28, 1841, ibid., vol. 8, p456; Lee's MS. monthly reports, May-August, 1841.
14 Lee to chief engineer, MS., Sept. 21, 1841; Eng. MSS., 400.
15 His visit to Connecticut was after April 20, and his trip to Washington was in June; Lee to chief engineer, MS., May 7, June 12, June 12, June 15, 1841; Eng. MSS., 320, 336; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, June 15, 1841, vol. 8, p475.
16 Lee to chief engineer, MS., Aug. 26, 1841 (two letters); Eng. MSS., 379, 380; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, Aug. 30, 1842, vol. 9, p22.
17 Lee to chief engineer, MS., Sept. 9, 1842; Eng. MSS., 531. Generous investigation of Brooklyn directories and tax returns by H. M. Lydenberg and other officials of the New York Public Library, and by the Municipal Reference Library, has failed to locate the house Lee rented.
18 Lee's MS., Annual Report for 1841 (dated Oct. 18, 1841); Eng. MSS., 413; MS. Report for 1842, loc. cit., and Ex. Docs., 3d sess., 27th Cong., vol. 1, pp239‑40.
19 Lee to chief engineer, MS., Dec. 7, 1841, Jan. 8, 1842; Eng. MSS., 434, 450; chief engineer to Lee, MS., Dec. 10, 1841, Jan. 13, 1842; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 9, pp204, 256.
20 Lee to chief engineer, MS., Sept. 30, 1841, March 23, 1842, Aug. 10, 1842; Eng. MSS., 403, 473½, 523; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, April 6, 1842, vol. 9, p409.
21 Chief engineer to Lee, MS., Jan. 3, 1843; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 9, p252; Lee to chief engineer, MS., Jan. 5, 1842; Eng. MSS., 448. Rept. Chief Eng. Army, 1841‑42; Ex. Docs., 3d sess., 27th Cong., vol. 1, pp227, 240.
22 Lee to chief engineer, MS., July 19, 1842; Eng. MSS., 513.
23 Lee to chief engineer, MS., April 4, June 17, July 19, Oct. 7, 1842; Eng. MSS., 477, 503, 513, 545; Ex. Docs., 3d sess., 27th Cong., vol. 1, pp239‑40. Lee had much difficulty in closing his accounts because the holders of some of his checks were slow in presenting them for payment. As late as March 19, 1843, he still had a balance, concerning the disposition of which he consulted the bureau (Lee to the chief engineer, Eng. MSS., 586).
24 Lee to chief engineer, MS., Dec. 1, 1842, Jan. 15, Feb. 1, March 1, March 16, July 24, 1843; Eng. MSS., 558, 568, 573, 581, 584, 618; chief engineer to Lee, MS., Jan. 7, 1843; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 10, p130.
25 Brock, 164.
26 Kayser MSS., quoted in Drumm, op. cit., 169.
27 Chief engineer to Lee, MS., June 29, 1843; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 10, p447; Lee to chief engineer; Eng. MSS., 610.
28 Rept. Chief Eng. Army, 1842‑43, Ex. Docs., 1st sess., 28th Cong., vol. 1, p99 ff.; Lee to chief engineer, MS., Aug. 23, 1843; Eng. MSS., 623; chief engineer to Lee, MS., Aug. 30, 1843; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 11, p67.
29 Chief engineer to Lee, MS., Dec. 19, 1843, Jan. 10, 1844, April 15, 1844, loc. cit., vol. 11, pp287, 337, 489.
30 Rept. Chief Eng. Army, Senate Docs., 2d sess., 28th Cong., vol. 1, p171.
31 Lee to chief engineer, MS., May 30, 1844; Eng. MSS., 678.
32 Senate Docs., 1st sess., 29th Cong., vol. 1, p275.
33 Keyes, 188‑89.
34 Hunt in Long, 66‑67.
35 The Daughters of the Confederacy in 1922 placed a tablet in Lee's honor in this church. Richmond (Va.) Evening Dispatch, April 12, 1922; 30 Confederate Veteran, 163.
36 Hunt in Long, 67‑68.
37 Markie Letters, 8.
38 For Welcker, see Cullum, op. cit., No. 842. See also chief engineer to Lee, MS., Nov. 28, 1844; Engineers' Orderly Book, vol. 3, p393; Lee to chief engineer, MS., Dec. 4, 1844; Eng. MSS., [file no. missing]; chief engineer to Lee, MS., March 31, 1845; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 13, p51.
39 Lee to John Mackay, MS., March 18, 1845; Elliott MSS.
40 Rept. Chief Eng. Army, Senate Docs., 1st sess., 29th Cong., vol. 1, pp245‑46. For the stone contract, see Lee to chief engineer, MS., April 29, 1845; Eng. MSS., 753; chief engineer to Lee, MS., May 3, 1845; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 13, p93; Lee to chief engineer, MS., May 24, May 28, 1845; Eng. MSS., 761 and 763. Lee visited the Connecticut quarries May 27.
41 For the views of the Secretary of War on the importance of the New York defenses, see Senate Docs., 1st sess., 29th Cong., vol. 1, pp200‑201.
42 Engineers' Orderly Book, Sept. 8, 1845, vol. 3, pp408‑9.
43 Lee to chief engineer, MS., Nov. 2, 1845; Eng. MSS., 800; same to same MS., Aug. 6, 1846; Eng. MSS., 864; chief engineer to Lee, MS., May 6, 1846; MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 14, p195.
44 As early as March, 1842, Lee had been debating where Custis should be schooled. Lee to Mrs. A. M. Fitzhugh, MS., March 5, 1842; Duke Univ. MSS.
45 R. E. Lee to Custis Lee, Nov. 30, 1845; Jones, L. and L., 37‑39; Lee to H. S. Kayser, Oct. 15, 1845; Kayser MSS., Drumm, loc. cit., 169; W. H. F. Lee to Custis Lee (with R. E. Lee as amanuensis), MS. copy, Dec. 18, 1845; Taylor MSS. For a note of these papers, see Bibliography.
46 Kayser MSS., Drumm, loc. cit., 169.
47 R. E. Lee to Mrs. Lee, Jan. 14, 1846; Fitz Lee, 30.
48 R. E. Lee to Mrs. Lee, Jan. 18, 1846; R. E. Lee, Jr., 7.
49 R. E. Lee to W. H. F. Lee, March 31, 1846; Jones, L. and L., 39‑40; Jones, 371.
50 Lee to John Mackay, MS., Jan. 30, 1846; Elliott MSS.
52 Ibid. and same to same, MS., Jan. 23, 1833; Elliott MSS.
53 Kayser MSS., loc. cit.
54 The date of her birth is not given in family records, but the time of Mrs. Lee's departure from Fort Hamilton and Lee's reference in his letter of March 31, 1846, to "that little baby you have got to show me (Jones, L. and L., 39‑40) fix the time as the very end of 1845 or early in 1846.
55 Among the earliest of these letters is that of Nov. 30, 1845, to Custis, and that of March 31, 1846, to Rooney; Jones, L. and L., 37‑40.
56 Lee to W. H. F. Lee, March 31, 1846; Jones, 370.
57 Appeals for fortifying Staten Island had been made by the chief engineer for several years. Cf. report for 1840‑41; Senate Docs., 2d sess., 27th Cong., vol. 1, p120. The final summing up is in the report for 1845; Senate Docs., 1st sess., 29th Cong., vol. 1, p248. For Congress' authorization to acquire the Staten Island site under act of Aug. 8, 1846, see Ex. Docs., 1st sess., 30th Cong., vol. 1, p607. The first proposal by the chief engineer to exchange Fort Gansevoort for the forts on Staten Island appears in his report for 1841‑42, Ex. Docs., 3d sess., 27th Cong., vol. 1, p241.
58 N. Towson, paymaster-general, to R. Jones, adjutant-general, Feb. 12, 1846, with enclosures; A. G. O. MS., File 32, T 46. For the correspondence over the newspaper subscription, see chief engineer to Lee, MS., July 12, 1845, loc. cit., vol. 13, p234; Lee to chief engineer, MS., Aug. 6, 1845; Eng. MSS., 780. For his monthly reports, quarterly reports (noted as Q) and returns, see Lee to chief engineer, May 1, 1841; Eng. MSS., 319, June 2, 1841; Eng. MSS., 330, July 5, 1841 (Q), 347; July 13, 1841, 355; July 13, 1841 (Q), 356; Aug. 9, 1841, 373; Sept. 10, 1841, 393; Oct. 11, 1841 (Q), 407; Nov. 11, 1841, 424; corrected ibid., Nov. 19, 1841, No. 429; Nov. 2, 1841 (Q), 340;º Dec. 9, 1841, 435; Jan. 10, 1842 (Q), 449; Jan. 28, 1842 (Q), 455; Feb. 4, 1842, 456; Feb. 28, 1842, 463; March 14, 1842, 468; April 2, 1842, 474½; April 22, 1842 (Q), 485; May 7, 1842, 491; June 9, 1842, 501; July 11, 1842 (Q), 508; July 22, 1842 (Q), 514; Aug. 5, 1842, 522; Sept. 8, 1842, 530; Oct. 14, 1842 (Q), 549; Nov. 4, 1842, 554, corrected (p201)ibid., Nov. 12, 1842, 556; Dec. 1, 1842, 558; Jan. 2, 1843 (Q), 566; Feb. 1, 1843, 573; March 1, 1843, 581; April 4, 1843 (Q), 590; May 2, 1843, 597; June 5, 1843, 606; July 7, 1843 (Q), 613; Aug. 2, 1843 (Q), 621; Sept. 4, 1843, 627; Oct. 5, 1843 (Q), 632; Oct. 24, 1843 (Q), 647; Nov. 2, 1843, 650; Dec. 4, 1843, 654; Dec. 30, 1843 (Q), 658; May 1, 1844, 675; June 6, 1844, 681; July 11, 1844, 691; July 11, 1844 (Q), 692; July 30, 1844 (Q), 697; Aug. 6, 1844, 700; Aug. 21, 1844 (Q), 701; Sept. 12, 1844, 705; Oct. 12, 1844 (Q), 707; Nov. 2, 1844, 713; Jan. 1, 1845 (Q), 727; Feb. 1, 1845, 731; March 1, 1845;º May 1, 1845, 754; May 6, 1845 (Q), 756; May 24, 1845, 761; June 3, 1845, 764; July 5, 1845 (Q), 772; Aug. 6, 1845, 780; Sept. 6, 1845, 784; Dec. 3, 1845, 803; Jan. 10, 1846 (Q), 808; Feb. 2, 1846, 814; April 7, 1846 (Q), 828; May 2, 1846, 832; May 25, 1846, 838; June 1, 1846, 843; Aug. 8, 1846, 864.
59 An admirable account of these preliminaries of the Mexican War will be found in G. L. Rives: The United States and Mexico, vol. 2, p128 ff., cited hereafter as Rives.
60 His duties with the board of engineers had continued through the winter, but activities at Fort Hamilton, suspended during the cold months, were not resumed until May 19, owing to the fact that scarcely any of the appropriation had been left at the close of the previous year's operations (chief engineer to Lee, MS., May 6, 1846, MS. Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 14, p165; Lee to chief engineer, MS., May 19, 1846; Eng. MSS., 835; Rept. Chief Eng. Army, 1844‑45, loc. cit., p247). With new funds provided under an act of May 21, Lee began a programme of the usual sort — repairs, remodelling, and waterproofing. He made still another journey into Connecticut to procure stone (chief engineer to Lee, MS., May 21, 1846, loc. cit., vol. 14, p109; Lee to chief engineer, MS., July 9, 1846; Eng. MSS., 851; chief engineer to Lee, MS., July 11, 1846, loc. cit., vol. 14, p318; Lee to chief engineer, MS., Aug. 8, 1846; Eng. MSS., 864). For his farewell to the departing troops, see Markie Letters, 19‑20.
61 Chief engineer to Lee, MS., Aug. 17, 1846, loc. cit., vol. 14, p386; Orderly Book, vol. 3, p465; A. G. O., Aug. 25, 1846, S. O. 80. Lee was notified Aug. 21, 1846, that as his separation from the board of engineers was considered temporary, he should turn over to Major Delafield for the present the records of the board of engineers (chief engineer to Lee, loc. cit., vol. 14, p392). For Delafield, see Cullum, No. 180.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
Robert E. Lee
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY if its URL has a total of one *asterisk. If the URL has two **asterisks, the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use. If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 4 Dec 17