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

by Douglas Southall Freeman

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

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


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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. IV
Chapter XXVIII

The Pattern of a Life

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After a plaster cast in the Confederate Museum, Richmond.
There he lies, now that they have shrouded him, with his massive features so white against the lining of the casket that he seems already a marble statue for the veneration of the South. His cause died at Appomattox; now, in him, it is to have its apotheosis. Others survive who shared his battles and his vigils, but none who so completely embodies the glamour, the genius, and the graces with which the South had idealized a hideous war. His passing sets a period to the bloodiest chapter in the history of his country.

Yet even in the hour of his death there are omens that the future of the South is to be built not less on hope than on memory. The windows of the chamber do not look to the west but to the sunrise. He is not clad in the uniform of his army but in the wedding garment he bought when he went, all unwillingly, to the marriage feast in Petersburg and found the city of his last defense breathing with new life. Presently, the bells that are tolling his death will bring down from the highlands, like the clans at the sound of the pibroch, a host of those who had followed his standard. For the moment, the first mourners are the students of the college, younger brothers of his veterans, and the children of the schools of the town, abruptly dismissed from their classes when the first note from the church belfry announced his last battle ended.

Tomorrow a slow-footed procession will form to carry his body to the chapel of the college, and the press of the country will be praising his feats as a soldier and his high intellect as a leader, or else, once more, will be branding him a traitor. We who have followed his career through many pages have already discussed these things. Let us speak of them no more, but, ere the silent undertaker screws down the lid of the coffin, let us look at him  p494  for the last time and read from his countenance the pattern of his life.

Because he was calm when others were frenzied, loving when they hated, and silent when they spoke with bitter tongue, they shook their heads and said he was a superman or a mysterious man. Beneath that untroubled exterior, they said, deep storms must rage; his dignity, his reserve, and his few words concealed sombre thoughts, repressed ambitions, livid resentments. They were mistaken. Robert Lee was one of the small company of great men in whom there is no inconsistency to be explained, no enigma to be solved. What he seemed, he was — a wholly human gentleman, the essential elements of whose positive character were two and only two, simplicity and spirituality.

When the nascent science of genetics is developed, Lee will be cited in the case-books along with those who appear in Galton's Hereditary Genius. For his most conspicuous qualities, it may be repeated, were derived in almost equal determinable proportions from his parents and from his grandparents. From his Grandfather Lee, came a sense of system, the power of critical analysis that kept him free of illusion, and, along with these, perhaps, his love of animals. His good looks were an endowment from his maternal grandmother, the "Lowland Beauty" at the sight of whom the grave eyes of George Washington are said to have lighted up. To his Grandfather Carter, Robert E. Lee owed much of the religion in his nature, something of the kindness, his love of family life and his devotion to his kin. "Light-Horse Harry" Lee passed on to his youngest son his fine physique, his aptitude for military affairs, his great intelligence, his daring, his sense of public duty, and the charm of manner that made him so readily a captain. The characteristics of his mother that reappear were her religion, her thrift, her self-control, her social sense, and her patience in adversity. If it seem unscientific, at first glance, to speak with so much assurance of Lee's inherited characteristics, it may be said that the celebrity of his forebears and the diligence of the family genealogists make the facts more apparent than in most cases. Were as much known of other great American families as of the Lees, as much might be said of their descendants.

Fortunate in his ancestors, Lee was fortunate most of all in  p495  that he inherited nearly all their nobler qualities and none of their worse. Genetists will say, perhaps, that this is the explanation of genius — a chance combination of genes. Beyond the frontier that these pioneers have yet crossed lies the fact that at least four generations of the ancestors of Lee, prior to that of his immediate grandparents, had all married well. Back to Richard the immigrant, whose wife's family name is unknown, there was not one instance in which a direct progenitor of Lee mated with a woman of blood and of station below his own. His line was not crossed in a century and a half with one that was degenerating. If blood means anything, he was entitled to be what he fundamentally was, a gentleman.

The first reference to Lee in an extant letter is the significant statement of his father that "Robert was always good and will be confirmed in his happy turn of mind by his ever-watchful and affectionate mother. Does he strengthen his native tendency?"​1 Penned when the boy was ten, this language registered the impression the absent father had formed when Robert was not more than seven years of age. The stamp of character must, then, have been upon him from childhood. When he emerges dimly as a personality, in the later days of his cadet­ship at West Point, many of his essential qualities are apparent. Thereafter, from the time he appears clearly at Cockspur Island and at Fort Monroe, he exhibits every characteristic that later distinguished him. Subsequent change in his character was negligible and is simply the development of the man by challenging circumstance. Of this there can be no question. So consistent is the description of the young lieutenant of engineers, in the early 1830's, alike by those who became his foes and by those who remained his friends, that one need not fear the picture is touched up with the later remembrance of qualities the grizzled General displayed when he had endured the hard ordeal of the War between the States.

This early development of character, like everything else that relates to Lee as an individual, is easily understood. Despite the ill-health of the mother and her unhappiness during her pregnancy, he had a strong and normal nervous system that was invigorated  p496  by a simple outdoor life. Although there is no evidence that Mrs. Ann Lee had any secret dread that her son would develop the recklessness of his father, there is abundant proof that, with tactful wisdom, she inculcated in him from childhood the principles of self-control. From earliest adolescence he had upon him the care of his mother. George Washington, the embodiment of character, was his hero, made real and personal in the environment of Alexandria. At West Point his ambition to excel in his class led Lee to subject himself willingly and with a whole heart to a discipline that confirmed every excellence he had acquired at home. Physically more developed than most of the cadets, he had from the outset a better appreciation of what the training of the academy was designed to accomplish. All his early assignments to engineering duty were of a sort to impose responsibility. These circumstances did not destroy his sunny exuberance of spirit, but they set his character so early and so definitely that it did not change with years or woes.

Whether it was at the Des Moines Rapids, or during his superintendency of West Point, or in the president's house at Washington College — wherever he was in full four decades when the burden of battle was not on him — an old acquaintance would have observed little difference in his daily outlook, his nature, or his manners. Only in four particulars was the man who went to that last vestry meeting at the Episcopal church in Lexington unlike the lieutenant who bantered the "Beauti­ful Talcott" at Old Point in the moments he was not watching the contractors who might circumvent the government. His buoyant bearing had given way to a calmer cheerfulness, which might have been the case with any man who has bridged the chasm that divides the twenties of life from the sixties, even though no river of blood had flowed through the chasm. Again, the natural dignity of his person had settled into a more formal reserve, not because he had become less simple in heart or less approachable in manner, but because his conception of his duty to promote peace and national unity compelled him to put a wall between him and those who might have stirred unhappy memories and would certainly have kept open the old wounds of fratricidal war had he permitted them to talk of war. Even then it is quite likely that some of  p497  those who knew him after the war mistook their reverence for his reserve. He was changed, also, in that, after 1865, he put out of his heart the military career that long had fascinated him. All the misgivings he had felt before the war regarding the pursuit of arms were confirmed by five years at Lexington. He spoke his conviction, as always, when he told young Professor Humphreys that the great mistake of his life had been in pursuing the education of a soldier, and he was not jesting in his encomium to General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ewell on the delights of a civil life.​2 It was not by chance that he failed to keep in step with the superintendent of V. M. I. when the two walked together at the head of the column of cadets.

These things apart, any one who had worked with him on the wharf at Saint Louis would have felt at home in his office in Lexington and would have found him the same man in the habits of life, in the steady routine, and in the simplicity of spirit that were his very ego. He rose early and cheerfully and had his private devotions. If he was away from home, he would write his domestic letters before breakfast. At the meal hour he would appear promptly, with greetings to all and with gentle, bantering reproaches for his always tardy wife. Were his food the sumptuous fare of bounti­ful Arlington, he would enjoy and praise each dish, eating with heartiness; but when he sat down to the plain diet of the first hard days at Lexington he showed the same relish and made no complaint.

Family worship over, he would go to work immediately, neatly dressed and with the whitest of linens, but never ostentatiously apparelled. In his labor he was swift and diligent, prompt and accurate, always systematic and instinctively thrifty. His ambition was in his labor, whatever its nature. He did not covet praise. Blushing to receive it, he assumed that others would blush when he bestowed it, and he spared what he thought were their feelings, though no man was quicker to appreciate and, at the proper time, to acknowledge the achievement of others. Place and advancement never lured him, except as promotion held out the hope of larger opportunity and better provision for his family. Even then he was meticulous regarding the methods he would employ to  p498  further himself financially, and he would never capitalize his name or draw drafts on the good opinion of friends or public. Yet he had all his life the desire to excel at the task assigned him. That was the urge alike of conscience, of obligation, of his regard for detail, and of his devotion to thoroughness as the prime constituent of all labor. He never said so in plain words, but he desired everything that he did, whether it was to plan a battle or to greet a visitor, to be as nearly perfect as he could make it. No man was more critical of his own performance because none demanded more of himself. The engineer's impulse in him was most gratified if something was to be created or organized, but if it concerned another's happiness or had a place in the large design of worth-while things, he considered the smallest task proper to perform. Only the useless was irksome.

He endured interruption of his work without vexation. Rarely was he embarrassed in his dealings with men. He met every visitor, every fellow-worker, with a smile and a bow, no matter what the other's station in life. Always he seemed to keep others at a judicious distance and did not invite their confidences, but he sought as a gentleman to make every right-minded person comfortable in his presence. With a tact so delicate that others scarcely noticed it, when he was busy he kept conversation to the question at issue, and he sought to make his interviews brief; but even so, his consideration for the sensibilities of others cost him many a precious hour. Wrangles he avoided, and disagreeable persons he usually treated with a cold and freezing courtesy. Should his self-control be overborne by stupidity or ill-temper, his eyes would flash and his neck would redden. His rebuke would be swift and terse, and it might be two hours or more before he was completely master of himself. Whoever visited him meantime would perhaps find him irascible, though sure to make amends. Exacting of his subordinates, he still reconciled himself often to working with clumsy human tools. Resentments he never cherished. When he found men unworthy of his confidence, he made it his practice to see them as little as possible and to talk to them not at all. Silence was one of his strongest weapons. During the war he summarized his code when he wrote these words on a scrap of paper that nobody saw until after his death:


"The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman.

"The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly — the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light. The gentleman does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He can not only forgive, he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be but the past. A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others."3

Lee sought to conclude his work by early afternoon, even if that compelled him to set a late hour for the meal. When dinner was done he was glad of a brief period of relaxation and sometimes of a little sleep, usually upright in his chair. Then he sought his daily exercise in a ride on his horse. He delighted to have a companion, and if he had one, he talked of pleasant topics. Riding alone, which he often did, he would close his mind to the difficulties of the day and to the problems of the morrow and would soothe himself with the discovered beauties of the countryside. Nothing of a physical nature gave him the same thrill as a glowing sunset. Usually, on these rides, he paid his calls on the sick and on strangers, as diligently as if had been the parson of their town. This he regarded as one of his social duties, and he discharged it not only with willingness but also with satisfaction. Whether his ride included social calls or simply carried him to a given objective, he was always on the alert for children and he never passed them without a greeting, and, usually, a chat.

His return home, like all his other movements, was according to a precise schedule. Unless a sudden storm detained him, he would be at his door promptly at dusk, and would soon be ready for his light evening meal — "tea" as the family called it. The  p500  hours then belonged to Mrs. Lee, to his children, and to his guests. He would read to them or converse cheerfully until bedtime, which was usually after 10 o'clock. When he retired to his own room he had his evening prayers and was soon asleep. His quarters at Lexington were always as neat as if he were still a cadet at West Point, but the only suggestion of the soldier was the army pistol that hung in its holster by the head of his bed. After Mrs. Lee's invalidism afflicted her, he rarely went out to social affairs. Before that time he sometimes attended her to parties or to dinners, where he preferred the company of women to that of men, and that of the daughters to the mothers'. Always his address was dignified, but to young girls it was often bantering. Nothing delighted him more than gently to tease some blushing young beauty. He had neither high wit nor quick repartee, though occasionally he essayed a pun; but his smile, his manners, and his quick understanding made him socially irresistible. His conversation, however, never turned to forbidden topics, nor was there in it anything suggestive or of double entente. In all his letters, and there are several thousand of them, as in all his reported conversation, and there are countless anecdotes of him, no oath or vulgarism appears. He was clean-minded, though definitely and unfeignedly attracted to intelligent, handsome women.

Leaves and furloughs during his army service and vacations after the war found him ready to travel, not to distant lands but to the spas of Virginia or, better still, to the houses of congenial friends. Most of all did he relish a round of visits to his own kin, with whom he delighted to talk of the doings of their relatives. Chatter of this sort never bored him. Naturally sociable and devoted to his countless cousins, he sympathized with all their distresses and rejoiced in their little triumphs. Rarely was he too busy, when time allowed of his writing at all, to chronicle every wedding, every birth, every journey, every sickness, for the information of his family correspondents. At home, in his earlier periods of leisure, he shared in the sports of his sons, and to the end of his life he gave to each of his daughters a measure of courtly attention fitted to the temperament and age of each of them.

At intervals habitual cheerfulness was marred by a sense of  p501  failure. This was most apt to overtake him when he was absent from home on long tours of military duty, for his simple nature made him dependent on his wife and children. Separated from them he often suffered loneliness and sometimes acute nostalgia. On occasion, and particularly during the difficult period when he was struggling to settle Mr. Custis's estate and to repair Arlington in 1857‑59, this sense of frustration came upon him even at home. Then he would wonder why he did not advance more rapidly in the army and would puzzle himself to know how he could make adequate provision for his daughters, none of whom, in his heart of hearts, he wished to be married. These were the most unhappy times of his life, except perhaps those of his occasional illnesses. When sick, he would have few words even for his family, and was more than apt to lose his grip upon himself or in dealing with others.

This was the pattern of his daily life. There is every reason to believe it was the mirror of his own soul. Those who look at him through the glamour of his victories or seek deep meaning in his silence will labor in vain to make him appear complicated. His language, his acts, and his personal life were simple for the unescapable reason that he was a simple gentleman.

Simple and spiritual — the two qualities which constitute the man cannot be separated. The strongest religious impulse in his life was that given him by his mother. After that, in youth, he probably came most under the indirect influence of Reverend William Meade, later bishop, the clergyman who did more than any one else to restore the Protestant Episcopal Church in Virginia from the ruin that had overtaken it during and after the American Revolution. Mr. Meade was rector in Alexandria for only eighteen months and then at a time when Robert was too young to heed his sermons; but he preached there often during Robert's youth and his spirit dominated the Episcopal Church in Virginia. He was a picturesque personality, one of the prophets of his generation. Holding to the beauti­ful forms of his faith, Mr. Meade breathed into its worship an evangelism as ardent as that of the younger American denominations. In his eyes, religion concerned itself equally with acts and with beliefs. No reformer was ever more uncompromising in his denunciation of cards or  p502  more unyielding in opposition to the old habit the barons of the Northern Neck had of staging races and of backing their horses with their dollars. None excoriated the stage with warnings more sulphurous than did Mr. Meade. Had he been sent to idolatrous Israel, he could not more solemnly have proclaimed the day of the vengeance of the Lord or have portrayed more darkly the fearsome punishment visited on the sinner for his hardness of heart. Yet he spoke "comfortably to Jerusalem." He gave the promise of forgiveness to the repentant, pictured glowingly to the faithful the bliss of hard-won Heaven, and somehow planted in the hearts of the dominant class in that section of the Old Dominion a religion of simplicity, vigor, and sincerity.

It is a singular fact the young Robert Lee was not prompted by the exhortations of Mr. Meade or of like-minded clergymen to submit himself to confirmation. The reason cannot be surmised, unless it was that the theology of his youth had a vehemence and an emotionalism alien to his nature. He was content until he was past forty-five to hold to the code of a gentleman rather than to the formal creed of a church. The experiences of the Mexican War, the gentle piety of the Fitzhughs at Ravensworth, the example and death of Mrs. Custis, the simple faith of Mrs. Lee, and, more immediately, the purpose of his daughters to enter into the full fellow­ship of the church induced Lee in 1853 to renew his vows. After that time, first his sense of dependence on God for the uprearing of his boys during his long absences from home, and then the developing tragedy of the war, deepened every religious impulse of his soul.

And what did religion imply for him as he sent Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pickett's men up Cemetery Ridge, as he rode to the McLean house, as he read of Military District No. 1, and as he looked down from the chapel platform at the scarred faces and patched garments of his students?

To answer that question is to employ the terms of a theology that now seems to some outworn and perhaps archaic. It was, however, the credo of a man who met the supreme tests of life in that he accepted fame without vanity and defeat without repining. To understand the faith of Robert E. Lee is to fill out the picture of him as a gentleman of simple soul. For him as for  p503  his grandfather, Charles Carter, religion blended with the code of noblesse oblige to which he had been reared. Together, these two forces resolved every problem of his life into right and wrong. The clear light of conscience and of social obligation left no zone of gray in his heart: everything was black or white. There cannot be said to have been a "secret" of his life, but this assuredly was the great, transparent truth, and this it was, primarily, that gave to his career its consistency and decision. Over his movements as a soldier he hesitated often, but over his acts as a man, never. There was but one question ever: What was his duty as a Christian and a gentleman? That he answered by the sure criterion of right and wrong, and, having answered, acted. Everywhere the two obligations went together; he never sought to expiate as a Christian for what he ahead failed to do as a gentleman, or to atone as a gentleman for what he had neglected as a Christian. He could not have conceived of a Christian who was not a gentleman.

Kindness was the first implication of religion in his mind — not the deliberate kindness of "good works" to pacify exacting Deity, but the instinctive kindness of a heart that had been schooled to regard others. His was not a nature to waste time in the perplexities of self-analysis; but if those about him at headquarters had understood him better they might often have asked themselves whether, when he brought a refreshing drink to a dusty lieutenant who called with dispatches, he was discharging the social duty of a host or was giving a "cup of cold water" in his Master's name. His manner in either case would have been precisely the same.

Equally was his religion expressed in his unquestioning response to duty. In his clear creed, right was duty and must be discharged. "There is," he wrote down privately for his own guidance, "a true glory and a true honor: the glory of duty done — the honor of the integrity of principle."​4 He probably never summed up this aspect of his religion more completely than in that self-revealing hour before he started to meet General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant, when he answered all the appeals of his lieutenants with the simple statement: "The question is, is it right to surrender this  p504  army? If it is right, then I will take all the responsibility."​5 It was a high creed — right at all times and at all costs — but daily self-discipline and a clear sense of justice made him able to adhere to it.

Humility was another major implication of his religion. So lofty was his conception of man's duty to his Maker and to his neighbors, so completely did his ambition extend, all unconsciously, into the realm of the spirit, that he was never satisfied with what he was. Those who stood with him on the red field of Appomattox thought that his composure was due to his belief that he had discharged his full duty, and in this they were partially correct; but he always felt, with a sincerity no man can challenge, that he had fallen immeasurably short of his ideal of a servant of God. "So humble was he as a Christian," wrote Mrs. Lee on the day of his death, "that he said not long ago to me he wished he felt sure of his acceptance. I said all who love and trust in the Savior need not fear. He did not reply, but a more upright and conscientious Christian never lived."6

Born of this humility, this sense of unworthiness in the sight of God, was the submission to the Divine will that has so often been cited in these pages to explain his calmness in hours that would have wrecked the self-control of lesser men. There was nothing of blind fatalism in his faith. Resignation is scarcely the name for it. Believing that God was Infinite Wisdom and Eternal Love, he subjected himself to seeming ill-fortune in the confidence that God's will would work out for man's good. If it was a battle that had been won, to "Almighty God" he gave the glory; if it was a death that had brought grief to the family, he reminded his wife that their "Heavenly Father" knew better than they, and that there was eternal peace and sure reunion after life. Nothing of his serenity during the war or of his silent labor in defeat can be understood unless one realizes that he submitted himself in all things faithfully to the will of a Divinity which, in his simple faith, was directing wisely the fate of nations and the daily life of His children. This, and not the mere physical courage that defies danger, sustained him in battle; and this, at least equally with his sense of duty done, made him accept the  p505  results of the war without even a single gesture of complaint.

Of humility and submission was born a spirit of self-denial that prepared him for the hardships of the war and, still more, for the dark destitution that followed it. This self-denial was, in some sense, the spiritual counterpart of the social self-control his mother had inculcated in his boyhood days, and it grew in power throughout his life. He loved the luxury that wealth commanded. Had he been as rich as his Grandfather Carter, he would have lived in a style as hospitable. Fine horses and handsome clothes and lavish entertainments would have been his; Arlington would have been adorned, and his daughters would have enjoyed travel and the richest comfort. But Arlington was confiscated, its treasures were scattered, each stage of his sacrifice for the South brought him lower and lower in fortune until he was living in a borrowed tenant house and his wife was husbanding the scraps from a pair of trousers a farmer's wife had made for him. His own misfortunes typified the fate of the Confederacy and of its adherents. Through it all, his spirit of self-denial met every demand upon it, and even after he went to Washington College and had an income on which he could live easily, he continued to deny himself as an example to his people. Had his life been epitomized in one sentence of the Book he read so often, it would have been in the words, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me." And if one, only one, of all the myriad incidents of his stirring life had to be selected to typify its message, as a man, to the young Americans who stood in hushed awe that rainy October morning as their parents wept at the passing of the Southern Arthur, who would hesitate in selecting that incident? It occurred in Northern Virginia, probably on his last visit there. A young mother brought her baby to him to be blessed. He took the infant in his arms and looked at it and then at her and slowly said, "Teach him he must deny himself."7

That is all. There is no mystery in the coffin there in front of the windows that look to the sunrise.

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The artist was the late Edward V. Valentine, who had taken measurements and had modelled a bust of Lee during the lifetime of the General.

The Author's Notes:

1 Henry Lee to Charles Carter Lee, Feb. 9, 1817, Henry Lee's Memoirs, 65.

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2 See supra, p363.

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3 Jones, 163. It is not known whether this and several other written notes in General Lee's military valise were original with him or had been copied from some little-known books that he had read.

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4 Jones, 145.

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5 See supra, p121.

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6 Meade Letter, loc. cit.

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7 Packard, 158.

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Page updated: 31 Oct 13