The Hall of Fame for Great Americans at Bronx Community College in New York is a national landmark built in 1901 to honor prominent Americans who have had a significant impact on this nation's history. Bronze portrait busts of Hall of Fame honorees are displayed in a semicircular open-air colonnade overlooking the Harlem River. The list of 102 honorees includes Robert E. Lee. He was among the first twenty-nine Americans represented here, overcoming strong regional opposition.
Here are some notes on Lee as a man from Robert E. Lee by Emory Thomas. Here's a great interview with the author about this book --
January 11, 1807 – Ann Carter Lee has returned to Stratford after a long stay at Shirley following her father’s death. She has no carriage and begs in vain for her husband to send some conyeance. Riding home in frigid weather in an open carriage with three small children, she becomes ill. Ann is expecting a fifth child. On this day, she writes to her sister-in-law, who is also expecting. Ann writes that she has “her truest
assurances that I do not envy your prospects, nor wish to share in them.”
January 19, 1807 – Robert Edward Lee born at Stratford, named for Ann Carter Lee’s two favorite brothers.
April 24, 1809 -- Harry Lee’s creditors had him placed in Westmoreland County jail.
March 20, 1810 -- released from jail, moves to Alexandria. Stratford Hall now belonged to Harry Lee’s oldest son, who had turned twenty-one. During the summer of 1810 the family moved to an apartment in Alexandria, Virginia. Family legend has it that three-year-old Robert returned one last time to the room in the southeast corner of the first floor to say goodbye to the two angel figures at the back of the fireplace.
When war began on June 12, 1812, Lee expressed his opposition to President Madison and the American cause. Went to Baltimore to support a friend who published an antiwar newspaper. On July 28, 1812, a mob attacked Lee and his friends, killing one and leaving several others for dead. One these was Light Horse Harry.
By the following summer Lee had improved sufficiently to secure passage to Barbados, where he hoped to recover his health and his “prospects”. He wandered from island to island seeking health and some way to recover his lost wealth. Wrote regularly to his older son Carter, providing advice and suggestions; mentioned Robert once.
Meanwhile Harry Lee’s health continued to decline. At age sixty-two he suffered from abdominal pains which may have been the result of cancer or the kicks and beatings he suffered in 1812. He left Nassau in the winter of 1818 to return home, but was unable to continue the voyage. He died on Cumberland Island, Georgia, on March 25, 1818. Robert E. Lee visited his father’s grave for the first time while stationed on the Georgia coast in 1862.
Ann Carter Lee shaped young Robert’s character. She made the best of a bad marriage and raised her children in “comfortable” circumstances if hardly splendid or always secure. Ann Lee’s primary source of income was a trust fund established by her father. Normally she received a divided from the Bank of Virginia of twelve to fourteen hundred dollars a year. However, after the War of 1812 the bank fell on hard times, and Mrs. Lee had to make do with half that amount. She still managed to educate her children [sending her oldest son, Carter, to Harvard] and introduce them to life among the Virginia gentry. Anne Lee still had slaves to serve her family, and could travel in her own carriage drawn by her own horses. Despite their lack of money, the Lees had a family name, social connections, and proper training for successful lives.
As a child Robert became accustomed to living with members of his extended family, a house-guest without the stability of an established home. He became reserved and shy, uncomfortable around crowds and strangers. These traits followed him into adult life. Some saw his behavior as aloofness or reserve or dignity. Close friends and family knew him to be warm and personable, but this group always remained small.
Carter graduated in 1819 and opened a law practice in New York City. Smith Lee entered the Navy the following year, which left Robert the only son at home. Ann Lee suffered from tuberculosis which eventually killed her. Lee’s older sister Ann was also sickly and since Mildred was too small to help, Robert took care of his mother and sisters. Robert was “both son and daughter to me,” she wrote. If so, then Ann Lee, the one consistent parental influence in Robert’s life, was both mother and father to him. Robert became his mother’s most enduring legacy.
A committed evangelical Christian, Ann Carter Lee was painfully aware of the sinful nature of human beings. She hoped for her redemption in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the risen Savior. In a letter to Carter at Harvard, she wrote, “Oh! Pray fervently for faith in Jesus Christ. He is the rock of your salvation, and the only security for your resurrection from the grave.”
Robert did not join the church until he was forty-six years old. At that time he was confirmed in the Episcopal Church with two of his daughters. If Robert ever had a “born again” experience, he never shared it with anyone. But he attended church, said his prayers, and grew in wisdom and favor with God and man. If the church had never taught the doctrine of original sin, Lee would have invented it. He understood sin to be absorption with self, and virtue to be serving others. As a young man he adopted a practical ethic: he placed the needs of other people before his own. He refined this practice as an adult. In so doing, he emulated his mother.
Through the assistance of Vice President John C. Calhoun, Robert received an appointment to West Point military academy on March 11, 1824. Very little in life had prepared him for life at West Point. He had lived the past five years with females; he would spend the next four among men. Cadet Lee survived four years at West Point without receiving a single demerit. If he was ever late to class or failed to polish his shoes, no one noticed. His record was rare but not unheard of. In fact five other cadets in the class of 1829 graduated without a demerit. Lee adhered to rules and regulations; he remained in control of himself, proving to himself and others that he could adapt to such an environment and thrive in a small world of schedules and standards.
Lee also matured physically. Although he had tiny feet (size 4 1/2C), he was quite tall for his time, standing five feet eleven inches, and strikingly handsome. Lee adapted a military bearing and posture without being even slightly stiff, and moved with real grace and poise. His eyes were dark brown, sharp and engaging; his black hair was wavy, thick and full. About Lee a fellow cadet remarked, “His limbs, beautiful and symmetrical, looked as though they had come from the turning lathe, his step was elastic as if he spurned the ground upon which he trod.”
Now a brevet 2nd Lieutenant of Engineers, Lee returned to Alexandria in time to be at his mother’s deathbed. By now her tuberculosis was quite advanced, and all anyone could do was make her as comfortable as possible and share a few pleasant words. Ann Lee made her will on July 26, 1829, and died two days later. Later that summer Lieutenant Lee became reacquainted with childhood friends, including Mary Custis, daughter of George Washington Parke Custis.
Called the “child of Mount Vernon”, Mr. Custis had been Martha Washington’s orphaned grandson by a way of a previous marriage. George Washington adopted him, but may have regretted his actions. Blessed with every advantage a young man might wish, Custis seemed determined to squander his good fortune as well as the fortunes of others. George Washington once wrote of Custis’s “almost uncontrollable disposition to indolence in everything that did not tend to his amusements.” When Martha Washington died, Custis inherited 15,000 acres in four large tracts and built Arlington on a plantation overlooking the Potomac. Arlington featured massive Doric columns astride a sixty-foot wide portico, but was much smaller that it appeared. Never a farmer, Mr. Custis left management of his estates to others while he dabbled in paint and wrote bad poetry.
At some time during the summer of 1830, Lieutenant Lee asked Mary Custis to marry him. She agreed, but deferred the decision to her parents. Mr. Custis initially withheld his consent. He had to be concerned about a union with the Lee family with its scoundrels and scandal, and knew that the young lieutenant’s earnings would amount to little. Mr. Custis, who possessed many of Robert Lee’s father’s poor character traits, was short of cash himself. When he finally consented to his daughter’s wishes, his estates were about $12,000 in debt.
As Lee the young husband came to know his new wife, he learned that she was quite unlike him. The sole surviving child of doting parents, Mary Lee was accustomed to having her own way. She tended to center her attention upon herself, and in confronting new situations her first concern was usually how the situation would affect her. She was disorganized in her personal life and notoriously late for just about every occasion. Nor was she especially pretty, in sharp contrast to her husband, who was extremely handsome and seemed important when he entered a room. Still she chided “Mr. Lee” as if he were her servant.
During their first eighteen months of marriage the Lees spent at least a third of the time apart from one another. This pattern persisted throughout their married life. After the birth of their second child in 1835, Mary Lee experienced a physical collapse which lasted a year. In August of 1836, Robert Lee wrote, “Her nervous system is much shattered. She has almost a horror of crowded places, an indisposition to make the least effort, and yet a restless anxiety which renders her unhappy and dissatisfied.” She recovered somewhat but was never completely well thereafter. Spending a few months with her husband, then stationed at St. Louis, Mary wrote her friend Harriet Talcott in January 1839, “This is quite a large place and I have found some very fine & agreeable people but I am getting too old [she was thirty-one] to form new friends and would rather be among those I know and love.” As time passed she spent more and more of her time with her parents at Arlington.
Robert Lee experienced the frustration of having to manage his financial affairs by way of the mail. Writing that she had dutifully deposited interest from her husband’s invested money, Mary failed to say precisely how much money was involved or into which bank it had been deposited. “You must be very particular dear Mary,” he wrote, “when you deal in money matters.” “You know I cannot draw upon a bank unless I know where the money is, & its exact amount.” Somewhat later Lee had a check returned because of his wife’s carelessness, and he attempted once more to help her understand that she could not simply “give checks on Banks & not have [sufficient funds] to meet them. People may think I am endeavoring to Swindle.”
Only “Spec” the family terrier recognized him after a two-year absence during the Mexican War. Greeting family members in the hall, Lee looked for four-year old Robert and picked up one of Rob’s playmates instead. Whenever possible, Lee was a attentive and involved father, but usually was obliged to parent through his wife by mail. Lee read textbooks on child rearing, but complained, “What I want is to apply what I already know.” “You must not let Rooney run wild in my absence,” he wrote, “and will have to exercise firm authority.” He attempted to compensate for Mary’s shortcomings as a parent. “I am very glad that you are all well and enjoying yourself,” he wrote. “I wish indeed that I was with you, for I fear your vanity has caused you to overburden yourself with children for the purpose of exhibition. Nothing [else] could have induced you to take that fine boy Rob but the pleasure of showing him, & if he is not ‘too good’, is he to blame?”
In two incidents which took place while Captain Lee was in residence at Fort Hamilton near New York City, little Annie somehow injured an eye with a pair of scissors, and eight-year old Rooney sliced off part of two fingers while playing with a straw-cutting machine. Lee used the incident to chide the eldest soon, Custis, then away at school in Virginia. “I hope my dear son,” he wrote, “that this may be a warning to you to…refrain from going where you have been prohibited or have not the permission of your parents or teacher.” Rooney had been told not to leave the yard without permission and warned never to touch the farm machinery. “Notwithstanding all this he did both & you see the fruits of disobedience. He may probably lose his fingers & be ruined for life.”
Little Rob's earliest memories of his father and date from this time (1848-52). Active, strong, and handsome, there was a sense of presence about Robert Lee. Because he was quiet and taciturn in the company of men, and because he followed his own agenda and not that of others, Lee inspired respect. He was shy and concerned about self-control, but these traits only increased his personal magnetism. As Rob recorded, "It began to dawn on me that every one else…held him high in their regard."
Later in life Rob wrote, "I always knew that it was impossible to disobey my father." Lee did work to inculcate in his children his personal philosophy of self-control. But he mingled standards and sternness with less rigid, less orthodox qualities.
Lee the father used playful nicknames for his children. Custis was "Mr. Boo"; Mary was "Daughter"; Fitzhugh was "Rooney"; Anne was ever "Annie"; Agnes was "Wigs"; Robert became "Rob," "Robertus," or "Brutus"; and Mildred was "Precious Life."
Lee encouraged his younger children to jump into bed with him in the morning. Rob remembered that they would then "lie close to him, listening while he talked to us in his bright, entertaining way. This custom we kept up until I was ten years old or older."
Rob also recalled that his father enjoying "having his hands tickled, and, what was still more curious, it pleased and delighted him to take off his slippers and place his feet in our laps in order to have them tickled." In the evening Lee told stories as his younger children tickled his feet. If they became so absorbed in the story that they neglected their task, Lee stopped to declare, "No tickling, no story!'
With the older children Lee ran family races and entered high-jumping competitions at the standard he set up in the yard. He played with his children and when he kissed them, he kissed them on their mouths. Lee involved himself in his children's activities— maybe to discover vicariously elements of the childhood he had missed while "carrying the keys" and caring for his mother in his own youth. Whatever the source, Lee was certainly a loving parent, filled with good intentions.
Lee always enjoyed the company of bright young women, and during this period of his life he began in earnest what became a lifelong relationship with Martha Custis Williams – "Markie." She was Mary Lee's first cousin and also a distant cousin of his own. Their correspondence had begun in 1844, and Lee had gone to great pains to secure and send to Markie her father's sword belt after his death in Mexico at the Battle of Monterey. Markie was an orphan, eigh¬teen years younger than Lee. During the winter of 1852 she moved her belongings to Arlington and lived with Daughter (Mary) in the northwest bedroom.
Friendship with Markie was important to Lee because he could be open and honest with her. In her company, real or imagined, he was most himself. They would write one another regularly for twenty-six years, until weeks before his death. In the spring of 1851 Lee wrote to her:
“You have not written to me for nearly three months. And I believe it is equally as long since I have written to you. On paper, Markie, I mean, on paper. But oh, what lengthy epistles have I indited to you in my mind! Had I any means to send them, you would see how constantly I think of you. I have followed you in your pleasures, & your duties, in the house & in the streets, & accompanied you in your walks to Arlington, & in your search after flowers. Did you not feel your cheeks pale when I was so near you? You may feel pale Markie, You may look pale; You may even talk pale; But I am happy to say you never write as if you were pale; & to my mind you always appear bright and rosy.”
Meanwhile concerns about his children continued to occupy his mind. Custis’s qualifications and Lee’s influence proved sufficient to secure an appointment at large at West Point for the seventeen-year old “Mr. Boo” in July of 1850. Life as a plebe was anything but easy, and when his son complained of feeling melancholy, his father wrote once again to his son, and once again revealed his own philosophy:
Shake off those gloomy feelings. Drive them away. Fix your mind & pleasures upon what is before you.... All is bright if you will think it so. All is happy if you will make it so. Do not dream. It is too ideal, too imaginary. Dreaming by day, I mean. Live in the world you inhabit. Look upon things as they are. Take them as you find them. Make the best of them. Turn them to your advantage.
Sad thoughts, Lee observed, "will sometimes come over us. . . . They are the shadows to our picture. They bring out prominently the light & bright spots. They must not cover up all. They must not hide the picture itself." Use the shadows, Lee advised, "as a medium through which to view life correctly."
Most of the time Lee took his own advice. He made the best of whatever was and refused to take himself or his troubles too seriously.
Nevertheless, Lee told Mary Custis, "God punishes us for our sins here as well as hereafter. He is punishing me for mine through my children. It is there I am most vulnerable, most sensitive." At this juncture Lee was a troubled, frustrated parent. He obviously cared deeply about his children; but as they grew older, he confronted his increasing incapacity to control their lives.
Robert Lee flirted with many women and formed special friendships with some of them. However, he was scrupulous about informing his wife of his flirtations and friendships. He seems to have been very careful to keep his relationships with women to verbal exchanges and nothing more.
In 1832 Robert Lee began an extended mock love affair with Harriet Talcott, the wife his friend Andrew Talcott. Apparently an attractive and witty young woman, Lee called her “my beautiful Talcott” and “Talcott, My Beauty,” often including messages to her in letters to Andrew Talcott. To his friend Mackay he confessed a preference “in favor of the pretty girls…I have met them in no place, in no garb, in no situation that I did not feel my heart open to them, like the flower to the sun.” In one of the parties following his brother Smith’s wedding, his new sister-in-law introduced Robert to some late arrivals as her spouse. “But I was not going to have my sport spoiled in that way,” wrote Lee. He “undeceived the young ladies & they concluded that I was single, & I have not had such soft looks & tender pressures of the hand for many years.” Lee confided to his friend Henry Kayser in 1845, “You are right in my interest in the pretty women, & it is strange I do not lose it with age. But I perceive no dimunition.”
Younger women offered Robert Lee the zest and excitement Mary Lee seemed to lack. He pursued relationships through the mail, asserting a certain amount of influence and control over the lives of his young female friends. For instance, “Markie” Williams might write to ask his advice about where to send her younger brother to school. However much frustration he felt in marriage to Mary Lee, with younger women his opinions seemed to matter and his words were appreciated. At the same time, he continued to love Mary and did nothing to jeopardize his marriage. Robert remained a faithful spouse and a warm, sensitive man at the same time.
Every morning at 5:00 A.M. Lee’s adjutant, Walter Taylor, brought him all the messages and letters directed to the commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee read each one, made notes on them and returned the letters to Taylor as quickly as possible. On one particular day, shortly before the Battle of Fredericksburg, Taylor turned and left as he usually did. However, on this day he remembered a matter he had not mentioned to Lee and returned to the tent. When Taylor opened the flap he found Lee on his knees with his face on the cot, weeping almost uncontrollably. As it happened, one of the letters directed to Lee, one from a place called Warrenton Springs, North Carolina, brought sad news about his daughter Annie. This daughter, who had been attending a women’s seminary preparing for the mission field, who had been with her father when he publicly professed his faith in 1853, had just died of cholera. Lee had just read a number of letters in Taylor’s presence, including the one that carried this shattering news, without changing his expression. Yet in privacy he poured his heart out in grief.
Lee then wrote to his wife, informing her of Annie’s death.
Mary, it is sure that we cannot attend this funeral. I have given them instructions to proceed with the funeral. I have often prayed that this cruel war would be over soon and our family circle could resume unbroken. But God has decreed otherwise as now our precious Annie has been removed from our presence. In the midst of this tragic stroke, will you join me in giving praise to God for of our seven children he has taken the one we know was ready to meet him. It remains for us to prepare to join her with him and to bring our other children with us.
Reduced from crutches to a wheelchair, Mary Lee's physical infirmity took an increasing toll upon her disposition and judgment. From time to time Robert Lee seemed to feel obliged to offer her thoughtfulness lessons. "You forget how much writing, talking & think¬ing I have to do," he wrote in March 1863, "when you complain of the interval between my letters. You lose sight also of the letters you receive." A few months later he wrote, "I see though you are relapsing into your old error, supposing that I have a superabundance of time & have only my own pleasures to attend to. You do not recollect that after an absence of some days, that matters accumulate formidably, & that my attention is entirely engrossed in public business. I am unable therefore... to write to you..."
In December 1863 Lee received a note at headquarters signed by two girls who described themselves as “your little friends”. They asked that Private Cary Robinson of the 6th Virginia be released on furlough. to spend his Christmas with them. In return for granting their request, the pair of young ladies promised a payment of “thanks and love and kisses.”
From Richmond the commanding general addressed his "two little friends":
I rec'd…your joint request for permission to Mr. Cary R to visit you on Xmas, and gave authority for his doing so, provided circumstances permitted. It gave me pleasure to extend to him the opportunity of seeing you, but I fear I was influenced by the bribe held out to me, and will punish myself by not going to claim the love and kisses promised. You know the self denial this will cost me. I fear too I shall be obliged to submit your letter to Congress, that our legislators may know the temptations to which poor soldiers are exposed, and in their wisdom devise some means of counteracting its influence. They may know that bribery and corruption is stalking boldly over the land, but may not be aware that the fairest and sweetest are engaged in its practice.
On April 29, 1864, veterans of Longstreet’s First Corps passed in review for General Lee and a crowd of ladies and gentlemen. "No one who was present could ever forget the occasion," claimed one officer. Lee and his staff entered the one-hundred-acre field through large square gateposts, spurred their mounts up a knoll, and halted beneath a panoply of tall oak trees. A bugle sounded, and Confederate cannon boomed in salute. Lee removed his hat, and the ranks of infantrymen echoed with shouts, while flagbearers waved battle-scarred colors. "Sudden as a wind, a wave of sentiment” remembered one officer, "seemed to sweep the field. Each man seemed to feel the bond which held us all to Lee. There was no speaking, but the effect was that of a military sacrament, in which we pledged anew our lives."
Lee, Longstreet, and their staffs rode along so closely they could see each man's face. A chaplain asked Colonel Charles Venable of Lee's staff: "Does it not make the General proud to see how these men love him?" "Not proud," replied Venable, "it awes him."
Just before Appomattox, E. Porter Alexander suggests that Lee disband the army so the men could scatter “like rabbits” and take up a guerrilla war. Lee responds that he fears anarchy more than the Yankees.
“Suppose I should take your suggestion & order the army to disperse & make their way to their homes. The men would have no rations & they would be under no discipline. They are already demoralized by four years of war. They would have to plunder & rob to procure subsistence. The country would be full of lawless bands in every part, & a sstate of society would ensue from it which would take the country years to recover. Then the enemy’s cavalry would pursue in the hopes of catching the principal officers & wherever they went there would be fresh rapine & destruction.
And as for myself, while you young men might afford to go to bushwhacking, the only proper & dignified course for me would be to surrender myself & take the consequences of my actions.”
Occasion in June 1865 when Robert Lee attended a Sunday service at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, just across the street from the state capitol in Richmond. As soon as the rector delivered the invitation to come forward to the communion rail, a tall, well-dressed black man stood up and walked forward to the rail. According to one witness, “Its effect on the communicants was startling, and for several moments they retained their seats in solemn silence and did not move, being deeply chagrined at this attempt to inaugurate the ‘new regime’ to offend and humiliate them. The rector was evidently embarrassed as well.
Then someone else stood, walked to the rail and knelt beside the black man. Quietly others followed his example and came forward. The redeemer was, of course, Robert E. Lee. Once again Lee’s actions were far more eloquent than anything he ever spoke or wrote.
When the Civil War ended, one of the first letters he wrote was to “Markie” Williams. Markie had offered to go with him to Europe, but Lee graciously declined:
There is nothing my dear Markie that I want, except to see you, & nothing that you can do for me, except to think of me & love me. It would require you to become a Fairy & turn what you touched to Gold to take me to Europe, but I would not desire you to change your nature for my benefit. I prefer you remaining as you are ----
Lee spent the last five years of his life as President of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. After the builders completed the college chapel he moved his office from the administration building to the chapel basement. He also began non-compulsory chapel services every morning. At 7:15 A.M. the former commander of the Army of Northern Virginia would always be seen on the front left pew.
Lee liked to refer to the four ministers of the community who attended as his chaplain's corps. J. William Jones, pastor of Lexington Baptist Church who later wrote an excellent biography of Lee, had been the senior chaplain in Longstreet's Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. The eulogy he preached at Lee’s funeral remains one of the most powerful sermons I have ever read. The Methodist pastor [NAME] was also a very powerful expositor. During his twenty-nine years at Lexington Presbyterian Church, Dr. William S. White had the privilege to disciple a number of notable men, one of them being Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.
The fourth member of the group was William Nelson Pendleton. A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Pendleton had been a Confederate brigadier general and served for three years as Lee’s chief of artillery. He now served as pastor of the Episcopal church in Lexington that Lee and his family attended.
Lee established a rotating system which allowed each one to preach there. He said to them, "Gentlemen, I honor the distinctives of your ecclesiastical bodies and expect you to honor them in your ministries. But from this chapel you will preach only the gospel, and that is the purpose of it; for if any man leaves here without being a Christian gentleman, I have failed, and they cannot be a gentleman without first becoming a Christian, so you will preach the gospel."