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When Lee took his wife and little son from Fort Monroe to Arlington, in November, 1834, he expected to rent a house in Washington, but as he could not find suitable quarters he decided to leave them at Arlington for the winter.1 And there they remained, as their children increased, during the whole of Lee's service in the national capital. It was an arrangement physically taxing on Lee, who rode to and from his office every day except in the very worst weather. For his family it was the most pleasant of lives. Mary Custis's marriage did not make the least difference in her status at home: she remained the "young mistress," the heiress to the estate. Her children were a delight to her parents. Mrs. Custis, whose warm heart, piety, and kindliness impressed Lee more and more as he lived at Arlington, watched ceaselessly over her daughter and her grandchild.2 Mary's father, George Washington Parke Custis, who very soon abandoned his antagonism to her marriage, was an easy-going, indolent man, then fifty years of age. "His features were sharp and irregular, his nose long and thin, and in after years his head was bald. A firmly set mouth and a well-rounded chin were his best features, and indicated a firmness of character which his light-blue and weak eyes seemed to contradict. His cheeks were slightly sunken and gave to his face a somewhat cadaverous appearance, which was hardly improved by the thin side-whiskers he wore. He was careless p130 with his dress, and the visitor to Arlington was often surprised at the shabby-appearing gentleman who appeared to welcome him to so splendid a mansion."3
GEORGE WASHINGTON PARKE CUSTIS, FATHER-IN‑LAW OF R. E. LEEº
Custisa possessed considerable ability, and could both speak and write with fluency and power, but he was at heart a dilettante.º He had never been compelled to work, but he dabbled at the writing of drama, at poetry, at playing the violin, and, later in life, at painting. He was a good student of sound reading and no small culture, but he preferred the society of men to the company of books. All comers were welcome to the Arlington estate, rich and poor alike. At a large spring on the property he subsequently erected a kitchen and other buildings, threw open that part of the grounds to the public, and even went so far as to arrange for a small steamer to bring over the populace of Washington for picnics and frolics. Usually he would come down from the mansion house to the spring, when a party was there, and would play with the children. As a planter Mr. Custis was not successful. Except for sheep raising, which he helped to promote in the United States, he had little interest in farming. He lived off the produce of properties that overseers or tenants operated, and his own Arlington he kept as a park.
His servants were numerous and were fond of him, but otherwise they seem to have been noted only for their laziness. The whole atmosphere of the place was friendly and leisured, but always slightly disordered and neglected.4 Although Mr. Custis professed to be a littérateur at the time of his daughter's marriage, he made no pretense to being a saint. He loved the larger world in which he had all too little a part, and when Washington theatres offered attraction Mr. Custis shook off his indolence and became an enthusiast. He was "amusing himself," Carter Lee had written in 1829, "with beholding and describing Madame Vestris dance. Her manner of saluting the audience particularly strikes him, and he expatiates upon the style with which she elevates her toe higher than her waist and points it deliberately at the spectators."5 When there was jovial company at Arlington, Custis p131 threw most cheerfully into the entertainment — a little theatrically, perhaps, and with some self-consciousness, but hospitably and generously.6 At bottom he was a sincere, kindly gentleman, and he soon had for Lee a respect and an affection that were cordially returned.
The Washington tradition seeped more deeply into the spirit of Lee as he lived among the Arlington relics and heard Mr. Custis talk of the Father of his Country. Across the river he found traditions of another sort and a routine of labor that was pleasant only because his commanding officer made it so. In origin, Charles Gratiot, chief engineer of the army, was French-Louisianan, of the highest social station, and had been one of the young men General Wilkinson had first selected as cadets at West Point, when he had been sent out to win the good-will of the people of Louisiana. With a brilliant career in the army Gratiot had received the thanks of Congress for his conduct during the War of 1812, and as chief engineer he had earned the reputation of being an indispensable officer — a model of the military virtues. "His manners," attested one admirer, "were as child-like, simple and unpretending as his talents were brilliant and cultivated."7 Every project aroused his interest. The welfare of each officer of engineers was his particular charge. Shortcomings on the part of his subordinates he was ready to overlook; their interests he was quick to defend against the rivalries of the line and the neglect of Congress. He had the warm good-will of the corps and when Lee went to Washington he seemed fully entrenched in power, well able to care for himself. "It is useless to waste a man's good wishes on him inasmuch as he never requires them," Lee said, half admiringly, half in jest. He "will seemingly knock his way through life."8
Lee had brought with him from Old Point the clerk who had carried the burden of his accounts and official papers there,9 and with this help he was able to dispose of the correspondence that p132 Gratiot turned over to him. The assistance of this experienced clerk was the more important because Lee complained that his own memory was bad — bad, it would appear, because he could not remember indefinitely every detail of each financial transaction.10 Besides correspondence, he was given some of the odd jobs of the office, the most important of them being the installation of a lithographic press.11
Although Lee usually hurried home in fair weather, he was quick to find his old friends and to enter again into their lives in the spirit of West Point or of Fort Monroe. Joe Johnston was on duty in Washington at the time and shared in Lee's social activities, with more restraint, however, than at Old Point. Under the shadow of the White House, Lee and Johnston had to be more circumspect than had been necessary when Colonel Eustis was in his quarters and the night was waning. One day Lee was riding along Pennsylvania Avenue when he hailed a brother officer on the sidewalk. "Come, get up with me," Lee cried cheerily, and as his comrade was willing, the two proceeded together on the back of the astonished horse. Still most astonished was the Secretary of the Navy when he chanced to see the spectacle. If he informed his brother of the War Department of the undignified behavior of two officers of the army, Lee heard nothing of it, despite numerous prophecies and much chaffing by his comrades.
On nights when the weather was too inclement for the journey home, or the roads were too heavy, Lee often joined a "mess" at Mrs. Ulrich's, a boarding house where Joe Johnston and James H. Prentiss and other army men resided, together with one or two Cabinet officers and a number of congressmen.12 It was a more expensive life than Lee's thrifty nature approved, and when a change in the army regulations reduced the allowance for rations, he vainly sought a transfer to another post.13
Except for this expense and the dull duties assigned him, Lee enjoyed the life of Washington and of the Arlington neighborhood. p133 All his social impulses were aroused by it. "Your humble servant . . .," he confided to Talcott, "has returned to a state of rejuvenesency . . . and has attended some weddings and parties in a manner that is uncommon. My brother Smith was married on the 5th inst. and the Bride I think looked more beautiful than usual. We kept agoing till Sunday and last night I attended a Bridal party in Alexandria. . . . I will only tell [Mrs. Talcott] that my Spirits were so buoyant last night, when relieved from the eyes of my Dame, that my Sister Nanie was trying to pass me off as her spouse, but I was not going to have my sport spoiled that way, undeceived the young ladies and told them I was her younger brother. Sweet, innocent things, they concluded I was single and I have not had such soft looks and tender pressure of the hand for many years."14 Affairs of this nature were some compensation for a routine that made Lee exclaim — in the language of many a soldier of the same rank — "What a pity it is a man is a poor lieutenant."15 Occasionally he gave a dinner, to which he invited some of his army friends. For one such affair, set at 4 P.M., he called five young officers. "There will be one room devoted to the gentlemen," he wrote John Macomb, "and those who can sleep three in a bed will find 'comfortable accommodations.' "16
The round of office work was pleasantly broken in the spring of 1835. The boundary between Ohio and the territory of Michigan was then in dispute. An armed clash between the two neighbors seemed not unlikely. Talcott had previously been employed in making a survey of the line in controversy, and in May, 1835, he was directed to make new observations to answer the rival contentions. "His old-time and able assistant, Lt. R. E. Lee of the Corps of Engineers" — in that gentleman's own bantering announcement to Mrs. Talcott — "will join him forthwith for same duty." The mission was not expected to take more than one month, but it occupied the entire summer. It involved a number of interesting calculations and it carried Lee to the Great Lakes, p134 which he had never seen before. The tour of duty added little, however, to his equipment for the duties that lay ahead.17
Early in October, Lee got back to Washington and hastened on to Ravensworth, where the family was visiting. He found Mrs. Lee ill in bed. Her second baby, a girl, who had been named Mary, had been born that year. The mother unfortunately got a pelvic infection of some sort, which the physicians attributed to overexertion on her part. Lee regarded her condition as serious and he removed her to Arlington the day after his return. She suffered acutely until two abscesses that had formed on her groin broke. Then she began to mend, though very slowly. It was the beginning of 1836 before she was able to walk about again.18 The children got the whooping-cough as their mother grew better — "whooping, coughing, teething, etc. and sometimes all three together," in the language of the despairing father. Whereupon, Mrs. Lee, not to be outdone by her youngsters, contracted mumps.19 As the summer of 1836 came on, her improvement was more rapid. Lee then took her to one of the mineral springs of Virginia, where she was able to resume her normal life except for a slight lameness. When he brought her back in the autumn he was himself much worn down by work and worry. "I never saw a man so changed and saddened," a cousin recorded.20
Lee's duties during these difficult months confined him closely to the office of the chief engineer, with no outside assignment except one inspection at Fort Washington.21 He would have tried p135 to escape from it, by prevailing on General Gratiot to give him a post elsewhere, had Mrs. Lee's condition permitted him to leave her.22 Hearing all the department gossip23 and witnessing many of the controversies among his superior officers,24 he was drawn into the campaign to procure more consideration for the Engineers' Corps at the hands of Congress.25 His efforts at lobbying, which were not very successful, deepened his dislike of politicians. "Oh! we have been horribly, shamefully treated," he wrote Jack Mackay. He was temporarily buoyed up a bit, later in the year, by interest in Texas's struggle for independence and by the promotion he tardily received on September 21, 1836, when he was made first lieutenant.26 But the routine of the office continued to chafe him and made him restive. Talcott had quit the army for private engineering earlier in 1836 and Lee had almost been tempted to resign with him. If he should himself surrender his commission, he said, he would do so with less regret,27 now that Talcott was out. In February, 1837, Lee wrote him:
"You ask what are my prospects in the Corps? Bad enough — unless it is increased and something done for us, and then perhaps they will be better. As to what I intend doing, it is rather hard to answer. There is one thing certain, I must get away from here, nor can I consent to stay any longer than the rising of Cong[ress].
"I should have made a desperate effort last spring, but Mary's health was so bad I could not have left her, and she could not have gone with me. I am waiting, looking and hoping for some good opportunity to bid an affectionate farewell to my dear Uncle Sam, and I seem to think that said opportunity is to drop in my lap like a ripe pear, for d–––––l a stir have I made in the matter and there again I am helped out by the talent [of procrastination] I before mentioned I possessed in so eminent a degree. You may think it remarkable that a man of my standing should not have been sought after by all these companies for internal improvements, p136 but I assure you they have never even consulted me as to their best measures. Well if people are so negligent of their own interests, they can't blame me for it."28
There was ebb and flow in his spirits for the next few years. In one letter he would joke merrily; in the next there would be ill-concealed depression. A sense of frustration was slowly stealing over him, and as Mrs. Lee came back to health he took refuge in his home life. "The country looks very sweet now," he said in the spring of 1836, "and the hill at Arlington covered with verdure, and perfumed by the blossoms of the trees, the flowers of the garden, Honey-suckles, yellow jasmine, etc. is more to my taste than at any other season of the year. But the brightest flower there blooming is my daughter. Oh, she is a rare one, and if only sweet sixteen, I would wish myself a cannibal that I might eat her up. As it is, I have given all the young ladies a holyday, and hurry home to her every day."29
"THE BEAUTIFUL TALCOTT,"
HARRIET RANDOLPH TALCOTT, NÉE HACKLEY,
WIFE OF CAPTAIN ANDREW TALCOTT, LEE'S IMMEDIATE SUPERIOR AT FORT MONROE
After a painting, made about 1832 by Thomas Sully, and now in Virginia House, Richmond.
His opportunity came at last. General Gratiot was a native of Missouri, very proud of the fact, and vastly interested in the development of the Mississippi. He had kept there one of his p138 best officers, Captain Henry Shreve, in charge of the force that had been clearing snags from the bed of the river. Shreve had done very well,37 but now a situation developed that called for further action: the ever-changing Mississippi was cutting a new channel on the Illinois side of the river and was throwing up a bar opposite Saint Louis. Another bar was forming in the stream from a point opposite the middle of the city as far down as its southern limits. The river commerce of Saint Louis was in danger of complete destruction. In 1836 Congress made an appropriation of $15,000, "with which to build a pier to give direction to the current of the river near St. Louis." Shreve thereupon drafted a plan for the pier but found that it was too late to begin work in 1836. He figured, also, that the appropriation would have to be increased by at least $50,000.38 Congress voted this amount. As a further improvement on the upper Mississippi the lawmakers provided money with which to cut a shipway through the rapids of the Mississippi near the Iowa-Missouri boundary. Shreve was something of an expert on snag removal and was active, but he manifestly could not superintend work along the whole of the Mississippi, the Red River, and the Missouri. In 1836 the work at Saint Louis had to be delayed because Shreve was occupied elsewhere and no other engineer was available. Lee was familiar with all this in 1837, knew the difficulties of the work, and sensed the loneliness of life so far from his home. But he was disgusted with official Washington and the spirit that prevailed there. So, as he subsequently confided, "I volunteered my services . . . to get rid of the office in W[ashington] and the Genl. at last agreed to my going." . . . "I was cognizant of so much iniquity in more ways than one that I feared for my morality, at no time strong, and had been trying for two years to quit."39 In his usual bantering style, he insisted to Mackay, a few months after he reached the West: "I will briefly tell you that they wanted a skillful engineer on the upper Mississippi and Missouri and sent me. You know I p139 was heartily sick of the duties of the office and wished to get away. The Genl. has gratified me. I also had a desire to see this Country, so I was gratified again."40
The assignment of Lee for this enterprise was dated April 6,41 and permission was given him to purchase the instruments necessary for the surveys,42 but he was not immediately dispatched, probably because Mrs. Lee was expectant. While Lee waited, General Gratiot went to Saint Louis, and personally made an inspection of the work to be done there. Gratiot promised the mayor of the city, John F. Darby, to send him a competent engineer, but did not mention Lee's name.43 He was in high spirits at the prospect of a change in his drab, uninteresting duties and immeasurably relieved at the improvement in Mrs. Lee's health. His wife was very well, he reported to Talcott. "Her little limb is as ugly as ever, though she still thinks his nose is to subside, his mouth contract, eyes to open, hair to curl, etc. etc. and in fact to become a perfect beauty. I shall leave my family in the care of my eldest son [Custis, aged 5], who will take them over the mountains somewhere this summer, and his grandmother along with them."44 A new and stimulating period of his life was about to open, and he sensed it.
1 Lee to Talcott, MS., Nov. 28, 1834; Talcott MSS. (VHS). No members of Lee's immediate family were then residing in Alexandria. His sister Mildred had married Edward Vernon Childe in 1831 and had gone away. Most of her later life was spent in Paris.
2 Bishop Meade wrote of her: "For good sense, prudence, sincerity, benevolence, unaffected piety, disinterested zeal in every good work, deep humility and retiring modesty, I never knew her superior" (Brock, 162).
3 Karl Decker and Angus McSween: Historic Arlington, 36.
4 Ibid.; B. J. Lossing: Arlington House, Harper's Magazine, September, 1853, p433, containing some interesting contemporary sketches of Arlington; recollections of Jim Parke, former slave, given E. A. Chase, Washington Star, Nov. 4, 1927, pt. 7.
5 Carter Lee to Hill Carter, MS., March 11, 1829; Carter MSS.
6 Cf. the account of Smith Lee's wedding-party in E. J. Lee, 410; cf. Mrs. Powell, 243.
7 J. F. Darby, Personal Recollections (cited hereafter as Darby), 226.
8 Lee to Talcott, MS., Oct. 1, 1834; Talcott MSS. (VHS). Lee in 1831 had joined with the rest of the corps in procuring a portrait of Gratiot for West Point (Lee to Talcott, MS., Dec. 6, 1832; Talcott MSS. (VHS)).
9 Long, 35.
10 Lee to Talcott, MS., Nov. 28, 1834; Talcott MSS. (VHS) ". . . my memory is so bad that I could not trust to it." Cf. same to same, MS., Nov. 9, 1835, loc. cit.: ". . . my memory, which you know is wretched."
11 R. E. Lee to Engineer's office, MS., April 4, 1835; Eng. MSS., 405.
12 Long, 36‑37.
13 Lee to Engineer's office, MS., March 1835; Eng. MSS., 405.
14 Lee to Talcott, MS., Feb. 10, 1835; Talcott MSS. (VHS); Lee to Mackay, MS., February, 1836; Elliott MSS.; cf. E. J. Lee, 409‑10.
15 Lee to Talcott, MS., May 8, 1935; Talcott MSS. (VHS).
17 Talcott's orders were sent him May 16, 1835, Lee to Mrs. Talcott, MS., May 16, 1835; Talcott MSS. (VHS); Lee to Talcott, MS., May 16, 1835; Talcott MSS. (F). Cf. same to same, MS., May 8, 1835; Talcott MSS. (VHS); Lee to Engineer's office, MS., June 1, 1835, Albany, N. Y.; Eng. MSS., 415. Talcott's report on the previous survey is in Ex. Docs., 1st sess., 23d Cong., vol. 6, p497. The Ohio petition is in Ibid., 4, 243. The chief engineer's report is in Ibid., 2d sess., 23d Cong., 1, 111. The official correspondence of 1835, between the United States mediators and the parties to the quarrel was printed as Ex. Doc. No. 6, 1st sess., 24th Cong. On Nov. 25, 1835, Lee wrote Talcott congratulating him on the acceptance of his observations. The only question still at issue, Lee said, had been disposed of by Talcott in the "most proper manner, and it is a fine thing to afford a good bone to our politicians" (Talcott MSS. (VHS). On Feb. 13, 1836, Lee told Talcott that it must be gratifying to him "to find such agreement in your results" (Talcott MSS., VHS).
18 Her symptoms and progress are set forth at length in her MS. letter of Nov. 21, 1835, to Mrs. Talcott, and Lee to Talcott, MS., Oct. 7, Oct. 12, Oct. 21, Oct. 24, Nov. 9, Nov. 17, Nov. 18, Nov. 25, Dec. 19, 1835; Feb. 13, May 5, May 23, June 22, 1836; Talcott MSS. (VHS). It was during this illness (Lee to Talcott, MS., Nov. 25, 1835) that Mrs. Lee got her hair in such a tangle that she cut it off. See supra, p108.
19 Lee to Talcott, MS., May 23, June 22, 1836; Talcott MSS. (VHS).
20 Quoted in Long, 31.
21 Lee to Engineer's office, MS., Jan. 4, 1836; Eng. MSS., 438.
22 Lee to Talcott, MS., Feb. 2, 1837; Talcott MSS. (VHS).
23 Cf. Lee to Talcott, MS., Oct. 12, 1835; Talcott MSS. (VHS).
24 Cf. Lee to Talcott, MS., Nov. 25, 1835; Talcott MSS. (VHS).
25 Lee to Talcott, MS., Feb. 13, 1836; Talcott MSS. (VHS).
26 U. S. A., Order No. 46, Nov. 1, 1836. For his interest in Texas, see Lee to Talcott, MS., May 23, 1836; Talcott MSS. (VHS).
27 Lee to Talcott, MS., Feb. 13, June 9, June 22, 1836; Talcott MSS. (VHS).
28 Lee to Talcott, MS., Feb. 2, 1837; Talcott MSS. (VHS).
29 Lee to Talcott, MS., May 5, 1836; Talcott MSS. (VHS).
30 Lee to Talcott, MS., Feb. 2, 1837; Talcott MSS. (VHS).
31 Lee to Talcott, MS., May 5, 1836; Talcott MSS. (VHS).
32 Lee to Talcott, MS., Jan. 14, 1837; Talcott MSS. (VHS).
33 Lee to Talcott, MS., Feb. 2, 1837; Talcott MSS. (VHS). The same idea of an "annual" had been mentioned in Lee to Talcott, MS., Nov. 17, 1834; loc. cit.
34 The date of the birth is given in Brock, 163.
35 "I am the father of three children . . . so entwined around my heart that I feel them at every pulsation" (Lee to Mackay, MS., Oct. 12, 1837; Elliott MSS.).
36 Lee mentioned in a letter he wrote Talcott, June 22, 1836, that he had only twice been absent from the office otherwise than from necessity; Talcott MSS. (VHS).
37 For a typical early report on his work and methods, see Ex. Docs., 1st sess., 22d Cong., vol. 1, pp90‑93.
38 Stella M. Drumm: "Robert E. Lee and the Improvement of the Mississippi River," Missouri Historical Society Collections, vol. 6, No. 2, February, 1929, p159. The writer is indebted to Miss Drumm for many courtesies in helping him procure material on this period of Lee's career.
39 Lee to Mackay, MS., June 27, 1838; Elliott MSS.
40 Lee to Mackay, MS., Oct. 12, 1837; Elliott MSS. Miss Mason, op. cit., 31, quoted Captain May as saying that Lee was assigned on the recommendation of General G. W. Jones and General Henry Dodge. It is possible that these gentlemen knew Lee through his work on the Ohio-Michigan boundary, but there is no confirmation of May's statement. Page (Lee, Man and Soldier, 21) is almost certainly wrong in saying General Winfield Scott recommended him. Scott had troubles enough of his own at that time, for he was facing a congressional inquiry into the failure of his Indian campaigns.
41 Gratiot to Lee, MS., April 6, 1837, Letters to Officers of Engineers, vol. 6, 233.
42 Lee to Talcott, MS., April 8, April 28, 1837; Talcott MSS. (VHS).
43 Darby, 226‑27.
44 Lee to Talcott, MS., June 29, 1837; Talcott MSS. (VHS).
a A portrait of G. W. P. Custis as a young man, based on an 1804 miniature, could once be seen on a page at the Lee Boyhood Home Museum. The website has vanished, the house having been sold and returned to private use; the Lee-Jackson Foundation that had managed the site saw fit to discontinue it. Then a few years later, with the continuing shrinkage of the Web, the foundation's entire website disappeared.
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