J. WALKER McSPADDEN
THE WORLD PUBLISHING CO.
CLEVELAND, OHIO —— NEW YORK, N. Y.
The World Syndicate Publishing Co.
Printed in the United States of America
So much has been written about the great soldiers of the world, that it is a matter of considerable hardihood to attempt to present another volume on the subject in any sense "new." But the Great War has not only brought to the center of the stage a new group of martial figures—it has also intensified and revivified our interest in those of a bygone day. The springs of history rise far back. We can the better appreciate our leaders of today and their problems, by comparing them with the leaders and problems of yesterday. Waterloo takes on a new aspect when viewed from Vimy Ridge.
The present book includes a round dozen of the great soldiers of yesterday and today. The list is about equally divided among British, French, and American leaders, and is confined to the last two centuries. Each man selected is typical of a particular time and task. His life story contains a message of definite interest and value.
In telling these stories, however, in the limits of brief chapters, we have carefully abstained from the writing of formal biographies. Such a treatment would have resulted merely in a rehash of time-worn data beginning "He was born," and ending "He died."
The plan of these stories is to give a personal portrait of the man, using the background of his early life—to trace his career up from boyhood through the formative years. Such data serves to explain the great soldier of later years. Every schoolboy knows, for example, what Washington did after he was placed in command of the Colonial Army—but what he did in the earlier years to deserve this high command is a story not so well known. Yet it is both interesting in itself, and serves to humanize its subject. The stately Washington steps down off his pedestal, and shoulders again his surveyor's tripod of boyhood days, while he invites us to take a tramp through the Virginia wilds.
The writing (and, we hope, the reading) of these life stories brings an especial message. We discover that in each instance the famous soldier was not a pet of Fortune, but was selected for his high and arduous task, because of the training received in his formative years. His peculiar gift of leadership was merely an expression of his indomitable will to forge ahead. He exemplified in his life the Boy Scout motto, "Be Prepared."
BOYS' BOOK OF FAMOUS SOLDIERS
THE YOUNG SURVEYOR
"Turn your guns around on them! Stop them!"
The command was given in peremptory tones to a demoralized group of soldiers. Not waiting for them to carry out his orders, the young officer who gave them leaped from his horse, and with his own hands turned one of the guns upon the advancing foe.
Had it been the Argonne Forest, and the year 1918, it would have been a machine gun that the officer manned. But the time was over a century and a half earlier than this—and the weapon a light brass field-piece, which after being fired once, must be painfully reloaded.
Meanwhile, the redskins came on.
The young officer, whose name has come down to history as George Washington, was trying to stem the tide of defeat. It was the fateful day when old General Braddock of the British army received his first and fatal lesson in Indian warfare. Says an old Pennsylvania ranger who was also in the fray:
"I saw Col. Washington spring from his panting horse, and seize a brass field-piece as if it had been a stick. His look was terrible. He put his right hand on the muzzle, his left hand on the breach; he pulled with this, he pushed with that, and wheeled it round, as if it had been a plaything. It furrowed the ground like a ploughshare. He tore the sheet-lead from the touch-hole; then the powder-monkey rushed up with the fire, when the cannon went off, making the bark fly from the trees, and many an Indian send up his last yell and bite the dust."
Yet this resourceful officer, fighting almost single-handed against certain defeat, was then only a young man a few months past twenty-one. He was displaying the same qualities which were later to make him the commander-in-chief of a Revolution.
George Washington was a typical example of the born leader. He had received no set military training save that which the stern necessity of frontier life forced upon him. Yet at nineteen we find him no less courageous and active when facing the enemy. He had been reared as a farmer boy, with no other intention at first than the successful management of his father's estates in Virginia. But boys in those days had to learn to handle the rifle as readily as the plow, and Washington was no exception to this rule.
Born in 1732 (every schoolboy knows the month and day) at Bridges Creek, Virginia, his first home was a plain wooden farmhouse of somewhat primitive pattern, with four rooms on the ground floor, and a roomy attic covered by a long, sloping roof. But before he was more than able to walk this house burned down, and the family removed to another farm in what was later Stafford County—an attractive knoll across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg.
When George was eleven years old he lost his father, which threw him to a great extent upon his own resources, so far as outdoor life was concerned, although his education was still the care of his mother, who is pictured as a gentlewoman of the old school—one born to command. To her Washington owed many traits, among them his courtliness. In those days, the gentle-bred boys always used very formal language when addressing their elders. And so we find Washington writing to his mother, even after he became of age, beginning his letter with, "Honored Madam," and ending "Your dutiful son."
After his father's death, George Washington made his home for four or five years with his brother Augustine, who lived at the old homestead, now rebuilt, at Bridges Creek; and near there he attended school. It was in no sense a remarkable school, being kept by a Mr. Williams, but it was thorough in the fundamentals, the "Three R's," without going in much for the frills. Some of Washington's exercise books are still preserved, showing in a good round hand a series of "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation."
Such things sound somewhat priggish today; but in those days they were a necessary part of one's education. Washington was probably neither better nor worse than the run of Virginia boys, of gentle stock, in those days—just a good-natured, fun-loving youngster, not especially bright as a scholar, but known as a plodder. One of his early playmates was Richard Henry Lee, who also grew up to be a famous Virginian; and between the two some droll schoolboy letters passed.
Washington was to be, like his father, a Virginia planter; and this may have had something to do with the sort of education he received, which was not very extensive. But along with his early training for farm life there were many echoes of the military, which must have had a lasting influence on the growing lad. His brother, Lawrence, had been a soldier in His Majesty's service, and his stories of campaign life so fired George's imagination that he was for throwing his books away, at fifteen, and going into the navy. He was too young for the army, but Lawrence, who rather encouraged him, told him that he could get him a berth as midshipman.
It is related that the young middy's luggage was actually on board a British man-of-war anchored in the Potomac, when Madam Washington, who all along had been reluctant to give her consent, now withdrew it altogether; and the "dutiful son" was saved from the navy for a larger arena.
The boy was then just turned fifteen, and seems to have rebelled from the humdrum life of the plantation. He was at the restless age, and his naturally adventurous disposition sought a more active outlet. This proved to be surveying—a profession then greatly in demand. There were great tracts of wilderness in Virginia still inhabited by Indians and infested by wild animals, which had never heard the sound of the woodman's axe. These tracts had been included in grants from the King, but their boundaries had never been exactly determined. To make such surveys was a task requiring both skill and courage.
Washington was naturally an exact and painstaking boy. He now applied himself to geometry and trigonometry; and at the ripe age of sixteen was ready to sling his somewhat crude surveyor's instruments across his shoulder and subdue the wilderness. It promised excitement and adventure—and the work was well paid.
Washington was even then a strapping big fellow, tall and muscular, and nearly six feet in height. He afterwards exceeded this height, but at sixteen there were naturally some hollows which remained to be filled out. He is described as having a well-shaped, active figure, symmetrical except for the unusual length of his arms, indicating great strength. His light brown hair was drawn back from a broad forehead, and grayish-blue eyes looked happily and perhaps soberly on the pleasant Virginia hills and valleys. His face was open and manly, set off by a square, massive jaw, and a general expression of calmness and strength. "Fair and florid, big and strong, he was, take him for all in all, as fine a specimen of his race as could be found in the English colonies."
It was at this turning point in his career that Washington was fortunate in finding a friend and protector in Lord Fairfax, whose daughter was the wife of Lawrence Washington. This distinguished old veteran, a long-time friend of the Washington family, took a particular fancy to the young man. They hunted the fox together, and hunted him hard. In those days fox-hunting was no kid glove and pink tea affair. It was one of many perilous outdoor sports that frontier Virginia could afford; and as they hunted, the old English nobleman had opportunity to learn what sort of stuff this young Virginian was made of. He saw that here was a union of sturdy qualities upon which he could rely.
Lord Fairfax then owned, by kingly grant, a vast estate stretching across the Blue Ridge into the untrodden wilderness. Until the estate was properly surveyed, it would be subject to endless lawsuits. We can imagine the following conversation on one of their helter-skelter rides together:
"What are you studying now, George?"
"Humph! Like it?"
"In part—but some of it is stiff."
"What are you going to do with it?"
"Well, sir," hesitated George, "since my mother objects to my going into the navy, I thought I would turn my hand at surveying. There's lots to be done around here."
"The very thing! I think I could use you, myself. When you are ready let me know, and I'll send you over the hill yonder to mark out where Fairfax starts, and where he ends. My cousin George will go with you."
So, in some such fashion it was arranged, and in the spring of 1748, George Fairfax and George Washington set forth on their adventures. The Virginia mountains were just budding forth in the freshness of spring when they started out by way of Ashby's Gap, in the Blue Ridge, entering the valley of Virginia. Thence they worked through the Shenandoah region, crossing the swollen Potomac and surveying the hilly country of what is now Frederick County.
It was a rough and hazardous trip lasting over a month, but one that left them fit and seasoned woodsmen. They had learned what it was to shift for themselves; to defend themselves against prowling beasts in an untrodden wilderness; to swim swollen currents; to be wet and cold and hungry; to come suddenly upon a war party of Indians, who would not have scrupled to kill them, had the savages known that these two youths were plotting and dividing up the hunting grounds which they claimed as their own.
That all these things were a part of their experience we note from jottings made briefly but methodically by Washington in his diary of the trip. As to the survey itself, a Virginia title attorney remarked, many years afterward, that in clearing up old titles the lines surveyed by Washington were more reliable than any others of their day.
Lord Fairfax was so pleased with its results that he procured for his protege an appointment as public surveyor. It was his induction into three years of hard frontier life, which was the finest possible schooling to him, for his later career as soldier. We find him writing to a friend:
"Since you received my letter of October last, I have not slept above three or four nights in a bed, but after walking a good deal all the day, I have lain down before the fire upon a little hay, straw, fodder, or a bearskin, whichever was to be had, with man, wife, and children, like dogs and cats; and happy is he who gets the berth nearest the fire. Nothing would make it pass off tolerably but a good reward. A doubloon is my constant gain every day that the weather will permit of my going out, and sometimes six pistoles."
This would indicate that he was a thrifty lad, honestly pleased with honest earnings—and no mere adventurer.
About this time, a company was formed, called the Ohio Company, for the purpose of opening a trade route through northern Virginia and Maryland. George Washington's two elder brothers, Lawrence and Augustine, were interested in the 'enterprise'; and they naturally called in their young surveyor brother to consultation. The project sounded fascinating, but presented many elements of danger. The French were becoming more and more active, and making warlike preparations to seize and hold all the western frontier. In order to develop and hold this land against the French and their Indian allies, it was necessary to place the work in the hands of a military leader.
George Washington was at this time only nineteen years old, but fully grown—a man of powerful physique, hardened and seasoned by his outdoor life. Despite his youth and lack of military experience, the Ohio Company secured for him the appointment of adjutant general of this district. Washington at once placed himself under several military officers of his acquaintance, among them a Major Muse, and soon acquired at least the rudiments of warfare, the manual of arms. The broader school of tactics he was to acquire for himself in the field of experience.
An interruption to his military career came in the illness of his brother Lawrence. A voyage to the West Indies was determined upon, for the invalid, and George accompanied him—on the young man's first sea voyage, and of which he has left us entertaining glimpses in his ever-faithful diary. But after a winter in the South Seas, Lawrence grew worse and was brought home to die. George, though only twenty, was made one of the executors to the estate, Mount Vernon, which became henceforth his home.
Shortly afterward, we find George Washington given still higher office, but one which entailed heavy responsibilities. The newly appointed governor of the state, Robert Dinwiddie, growing uneasy at the constant reports of alliances between the French and Indians, determined to send a commissioner to the French commander, to ask by what right he was building forts in English dominions; and also to treat with the Indians, in the way of counter proposals against the French.
It was a hazardous mission, and one which also involved tact, diplomacy, and a first-hand knowledge of the wilderness. But we are not much surprised to find Washington, at twenty-one, given the commission of major and sent on this undertaking.
Leaving Williamsburg with a little company of six, he set out on a cross-country trip by horseback, of more than a thousand miles. The details of this adventurous journey make interesting reading, but cannot find place in this necessarily brief story. They reached an Indian village near where the city of Pittsburgh now stands, then turned south to the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers where dwelt a friendly tribe of Indians. Thence they went to Fort le Boeuf, where the French commander received the Virginia major politely, entertained him, but tried at the same time to win his Indian friends away from him.
The return journey was terrible. The horses had become so weak that they were useless except as light pack animals. The little party struggled along on foot. Washington with one companion went on ahead. It was the dead of winter, but when they reached the Ohio River, they found that instead of its being frozen solid, as they had hoped, it was a turbulent mass of tossing cakes of ice.
"There was no way of getting over," writes Washington in his journal, "but on a raft, which we set about, with but one poor hatchet, and finished just after sun-setting. This was a whole day's work; we next got it launched, then went on board of it, and set off; but before we were half-way over, we were jammed in the ice in such a manner that we expected every moment our raft to sink and ourselves to perish. I put out my setting-pole to try to stop the raft, that the ice might pass by, when the rapidity of the stream threw it with so much violence against the pole, that it jerked me out into ten feet of water; but I fortunately saved myself by catching hold of one of the raft-logs. Notwithstanding all our efforts, we could not get to either shore, but were obliged, as we were near an island, to quit our raft and make to it. The cold was so extremely severe that Mr. Gist had all his fingers and some of his toes frozen, and the water was shut up so hard that we found no difficulty in getting off the island on the ice in the morning, and went to Mr. Frazier's."
Here they succeeded in procuring horses, and in a few days more, Major Washington handed in his report to the Governor at Williamsburg.
This report stirred the Virginia House of Burgesses to action. It showed that the whole western frontier was imperilled. One of Washington's recommendations, that a fort be built at the fork of the Ohio, was put into effect at once; and a Captain Trent was sent out with some woodsmen to begin its construction. But before the fort was completed a force of French descended upon it and captured it. Near its site they themselves built a larger one, which they called Fort Duquesne—the site of the later city of Pittsburgh.
This action on the part of the French was equivalent to a declaration of war. It was really the beginning of the Seven Years' War between England and France, for the control of America—a drama in which Washington was to have no little part.
When news of the French move reached the Governor, he sent Washington, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, and a small armed force against the invaders. The men were mostly half-trained militia whom Washington had been drilling for some such emergency. They were raw soldiers, but hardy fellows, who thoroughly believed in their young commander. He himself, although but twenty-two, was a seasoned campaigner of the wilderness. Now he was essaying his first trial as a soldier.
His men marched to a point about half-way to Fort Duquesne, blazing a road for other troops to follow, and constructing a fort to serve as a base of supplies. There he sent out scouts to reconnoitre. They reported an advancing party of French who were ready to attack any English whom they might encounter. Washington did not wait for them to attack. He decided to attack first. Taking a force of about forty men he made a night march in the pelting rain, to surprise the enemy. It reminds us of his later famous exploit at Trenton.
"The path," he wrote, "was hardly wide enough for one man. We often lost it, and could not find it again for fifteen or twenty minutes, and we often tumbled over each other in the dark."
However, at daybreak on this May day of 1754, they reached the camp of their Indian allies; who in turn took them with stealthy tread to the hollow where lay the French—waiting to ambush the colonists. But it was their turn to be surprised, and they quickly sprang to their feet and grasped their weapons.
Washington gave his men the order to fire—the first of many such orders that were to come in the stormy days of two successive wars—and in a sense this was the opening gun. A lively but brief skirmish followed. The French lost their commander, Jumonville, and nine others. The English lost only one man, killed, and two or three wounded. The remainder of the French, twenty-two in number, were taken prisoners.
The affair made a great stir, and was the forerunner of extended hostilities. Washington foresaw the results immediately, and set his men to constructing a fort which was called Fort Necessity. He had won his first battle and it greatly inspired his troops. Writing afterwards to his brother, Lawrence, he said: "I heard the bullets whistle; and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound."
Their fort, however, was well-named. For presently the French and Indians marched down upon them, nine hundred strong, and as Washington had, all told, but three hundred poorly equipped men, they were compelled to surrender. The terms of surrender were liberal enough, permitting the English to return home with their light arms.
Thus did Washington's first campaign come to a somewhat inglorious close. He tendered his resignation, and may have felt humiliated over his defeat; although the House of Burgesses passed a vote of thanks to him and his staff, "for their bravery and gallant defense of their country." But later when Governor Dinwiddie requested him to head another regiment against Fort Duquesne, Washington politely declined. He had not received sufficient support in the first venture to warrant another such attempt.
The next stage in the French and Indian War—and likewise in Washington's military development—was the arrival of General Braddock with two regiments of seasoned troops from England. Braddock was an old campaigner of forty years' experience, who had long since learned all that was to be taught about the art of warfare.
"He'd teach those French a lesson—and as for the Indians—stuff and nonsense!"
Braddock's arrival made a great stir in the colonies. It was the first sign of real help from the Mother Country. The governors of four or five of the colonies met him at Alexandria. It was near Mount Vernon, and the young retired officer watched the preparations with keenest interest. He could not help contrasting this splendid equipment with the scanty packs which his own men had carried.
Much to his delight, he was invited by General Braddock to join his staff as an aide-de-camp, a post which Washington joyfully accepted. Braddock had heard something of the Virginia colonel even before leaving England; and was not so much honoring this colonial officer, as immeasurably strengthening his own good right arm—if he had only had the discernment to know it. As results showed, Braddock did not need his heavy cannon nearly so much as he needed an insight into wilderness ways.
Just before Braddock started west on his ill-fated expedition, he conferred at Fredericktown, Maryland, with the Postmaster General of Pennsylvania, a strong, practical man, who was to obtain some greatly-needed horses and wagons for his artillery and supplies. This man, a middle-aged and rather plain sort of fellow—and the youthful Virginia colonel whom he may have met then for the first time—possibly attracted very little attention in the gaudy military array. But American history could ill have spared either Benjamin Franklin or George Washington.
We will not narrate again in detail here the oft-told story of Braddock's Defeat—how he insisted on marching across the mountains and valleys of Pennsylvania, as though on parade—with banners flying, fifes shrilling, and drums beating. It was a brave display, and such as the old General was accustomed to, in Europe. It would undoubtedly put the French and their skulking allies to instant flight!
Against such a method of warfare Washington raised his voice of counsel, but in vain. The grizzled veteran brushed him aside. Washington was for rapid marching, with scouting troops deployed on ahead.
"But this prospect," he writes, "was soon clouded, and my hopes brought very low indeed, when I found that, instead of pushing on with vigor, without regarding a little rough road, they were halting to level every molehill, and to erect bridges over every brook, by which means we were four days in getting twelve miles."
A few days before Braddock reached the vicinity of Fort Duquesne, Washington had fallen sick of a fever, and had barely recovered strength enough to rejoin the command. But the slow progress to which he refers, enabled him to do so before the attack—though he was still far from well.
As he rode up to meet the general, he could not help but admire the beauty of the scene. The troops had crossed a ford on the Monongahela, about fifteen miles from the fort, and now marched in close formation along its winding bank, as though on dress parade. But his admiration of the display only intensified his sense of danger—the sixth sense of every woodsman. He begged his general to scatter his forces somewhat, or at least send scouts ahead. But Braddock rebuked him angrily for presuming to teach English regulars how to fight.
Suddenly the sound of firing was heard at the front, although no attacking party could be seen. The soldiers had marched straight into an ambush, as Washington had feared. With whoops and yells the Indians commanded by a few French were firing from behind every rock and tree. The regulars were thrown into confusion. This type of warfare was new to them. They did not know how to answer it. The front ranks recoiled upon the others, throwing all into wild turmoil.
Washington at once threw himself into the fight—counselling, persuading, commanding. A company of Virginians, previously sneered at as "raw militia," spread themselves out as a protecting party of skirmishers. The English officers, also, be it said, displayed the utmost bravery in trying to rally their men. The general, as though to atone for his headstrong folly, seemed everywhere at once. He had two horses shot from under him, before receiving wounds in his own body, which were to prove mortal.
It was all over in a comparatively short time. The troops which had so proudly marched, with arms glittering in the sun, were put to rout by an unseen foe. That they were not almost annihilated was due to the presence of Washington and the Virginians. They fought the enemy in kind, and protected the fugitives until some sort of order could be restored.
Washington it was who collected the troops and rescued the dying general. He it was who led them back to meet the reinforcements under Dunbar. And he it was who laid the remains of Braddock in the grave, four days later, and read the burial service above him.
Again had the young soldier to taste the bitter dregs of defeat—but it was salutary, and a part of the iron discipline which was making him into the future leader.
That he had not lost any prestige by this experience, but rather gained thereby, is shown by the call that came urgently to him, soon after, to take command of all the forces of Virginia. He did not want the command, but felt that after such a vote of confidence he could not decline it. And so for three years more he struggled on, a general without an army, to protect the western frontier of Virginia against invasion. In April, 1757, he wrote:
"I have been posted for more than twenty months past, upon our cold and barren frontiers, to perform, I think I may say, impossibilities; that is, to protect from the cruel incursions of a crafty, savage enemy a line of inhabitants, of more than three hundred and fifty miles in extent, with a force inadequate to the task."
In the winter of 1758 his health broke down completely, and he feared that it was permanently impaired. He resigned his commission and retired to Mount Vernon for a much-needed rest.
Thus closes the first and formative period of Washington's life—the period with which the present brief sketch is chiefly concerned. As we read of those years of adventure and hardship from an early age, we realize that here was being hammered into shape upon the anvil of circumstance a very special weapon for some great need. Washington was not an accident. He was a fine example of what special training can do for the boy who does his bit with all his might. And because he was better fitted for the task than any other man in America, we find him, a few years later, chosen to lead the colonist forces against mighty England. A pen picture of him at the time, from the diary of James Thacher, a surgeon in the Revolution, deserves repeating:
"The personal appearance of our commander-in-chief is that of a perfect gentleman and accomplished warrior. He is remarkably tall—full six feet—erect and well-proportioned. The strength and proportion of his joints and muscles appear to be commensurate with the pre-eminent powers of his mind. The serenity of his countenance, and majestic gracefulness of his deportment impart a strong impression of that dignity and grandeur which are peculiar characteristics; and no one can stand in his presence without feeling the ascendancy of his mind, and associating with his countenance the idea of wisdom, philanthropy, magnanimity, and patriotism. There is a fine symmetry in the features of his face indicative of a benign and dignified spirit. His nose is straight, and his eyes inclined to blue. He wears his hair in a becoming cue, and from his forehead it is turned back, and powdered in a manner which adds to the military air of his appearance. He displays a native gravity, but devoid of all appearance of ostentation. His uniform dress is a blue coat with two brilliant epaulets, buff-colored underclothes, and a three-cornered hat with a black cockade. He is constantly equipped with an elegant small-sword, boots and spurs, in readiness to mount his noble charger."
In this description, somewhat fulsome in its praise, we can read between the lines the confidence and affection which inspired his troops during all the trying days of the Revolution.
Washington has suffered much at the hands of his biographers. They have over-praised him, with the result that many readers of today have come to regard him as scarcely human—a sort of demi-god. But one or two more recent biographers have had the courage and conviction to tear aside the mask, and we can, if we will, see Washington the man—quick-tempered at times, perhaps profane in the heat of battle, fond of display and good living in his hours of ease—but also a man to be trusted in every crisis, cool, courageous, resourceful—a strategist who made the ablest generals that England could send over against him, suffer by comparison.
And when the great fight was won, and the last of their proud generals, Cornwallis, had grudgingly yielded up his sword—it is pleasant to think of Washington writing about it to—whom do you think?—a white-haired old man now ninety years of age, who had given the young surveyor his first start in life. Lord Fairfax was an old Tory, an unreconstructed English gentleman of the old school, who drank the King's health religiously every day at dinner. It must have been with mixed feelings, therefore, that he heard of Cornwallis's surrender. But pride in his protege must have conquered. We can imagine him as lifting his glass with trembling fingers to another toast:
"Here's to George Washington!"
And to that toast grateful America will ever respond.
IMPORTANT DATES IN WASHINGTON'S LIFE
1732. February 22. George Washington born. 1747. Left school. 1748. Became a surveyor. 1753. Sent by Governor Dinwiddie on a mission to the French. 1754. Appointed lieutenant-colonel and sent against the French and Indians. 1755. Joined General Braddock's staff with rank of colonel. 1757. Resigned his army commission. 1759. Married Martha Dandridge Custis. 1775. Appointed commander-in-chief of American forces, in Revolution. 1781. Receives surrender of Cornwallis. 1788. Became first President of the United States. 1797. Ended second term as President. 1799. December 14. Died at Mt. Vernon.
THE MAN WHO "CAME BACK"
"Can a man 'come back'?"
This is a question one frequently hears nowadays; and the answer is, more often than not, a shrug of the shoulders. For the man who has once failed—or even passed his first chance of success—is not considered seriously in this busy day and time. He is a "down-and-outer"; he cannot "come back."
But there are exceptions to every rule, and one of the most striking ones in all history, to the above adage, is furnished by the man who led the Union forces to victory in the American Civil War, and later achieved the presidency.
Here was a man who, at forty, was generally regarded as a failure, a ne'er-do-well. But for the accident of war he would in all likelihood have ended his days "unwept, unhonored, and unsung." We have a picture of this middle-aged man, clerking for his younger brothers in a country store, at eight hundred dollars a year, and day by day sinking further into the slough of despond.
He was of little real value to the store, at even that meager salary. He was no good at driving bargains or at palavering with the trade. He tried to keep out of sight as much as possible among the boxes and shelves. His clothing was poor and shabby, his hair and beard long and unkempt. The brand of failure was stamped all over him.
Yet this was the man who in five short years was to become the most famous military leader of his day.
The life story of Ulysses Simpson Grant abounds in strange paradoxes. If ever a man was made the plaything of fate, it was he. His career has even persuaded some writers into the belief that he was "the Man of Mystery."
His father, Jesse Grant, was a self-taught man, who is said to have received but six months actual schooling in his life. He was all the more determined that his son, Ulysses, should have the education that he lacked. We find him intervening more than once to drive the boy contrary to the latter's wishes—but to his later good. The father was tall, about six feet, rugged and aggressive, making friends and enemies with equal readiness. Ulysses' mother, however, was quiet, self-possessed, and patient—qualities which she afterwards gave the boy. Jesse Grant said of her in later years: "Her steadiness and strength of character have been the stay of the family through life."
At the time of Ulysses' birth (April 27, 1822) the family were living at Point Pleasant, Claremont County, Ohio. But when he was still an infant they removed to Georgetown, a few miles away, where the father established a tannery. At this time the town was little more than a clearing hewed out from the virgin forest. Wood was plentiful and cheap, and for this reason, Mr. Grant bought a tract of land and set up his tannery.
Ulysses, or "Lys" as the neighbors called him, was the oldest of six children—three boys and three girls. As soon as Ulysses was old enough, his father started him to school. There were no public schools in those days, so he went to a school maintained by private subscription and taught by a man named John White.
White had his own notions about a curriculum, and one of the most important was discipline. On top of his desk always reposed a bundle of good husky switches—except at frequently recurring times when they were beating a tattoo on some hapless scholar's back. It was his boast that he often used up a whole bunch in a single day. However, his school was no different from many another of the time. Beatings were taken as a matter of course. "Spare the rod and spoil the child!"
Ulysses went to this school until he was fourteen, and mastered the elementary studies. Between whiles he helped his father at the tannery or on the farm. The tannery work he always hated. But outdoor work, particularly with horses, he delighted in. At seven years of age he drove a team with all the skill of a man; and it was said that when he could scarcely walk he could ride horseback. The story is told of him that at a county fair, where a prize of five dollars was offered to any one who could stick on a trick pony, Ulysses won it after several other boys had got thrown helter-skelter. He flung his arms around the pony's fat neck, and stuck on, though as he afterward said: "That pony was as round as an apple."
He tells another amusing story of himself, in these early days. He greatly coveted a young colt owned by a neighboring farmer, and after teasing his father, the latter tried to buy it for him. But he offered only twenty dollars for the colt, and the owner wanted twenty-five. After some dickering without any result, the boy went to the owner with this message, which he delivered all in a breath:
"Father says I may offer you twenty dollars; and if you won't take that, I am to offer you twenty-two and a half; and if you won't take that for your colt, I am to pay you twenty-five dollars."
"It would not take a Connecticut farmer to tell what was the price paid for the colt," he added afterward when telling the story.
This little incident, while amusing, reveals a trait in his character which persisted all through life. He was the soul of candor. He called a spade a spade. And he never could bargain.
Another early trait revealing itself in later years was something that, in his Memoirs, he calls a superstition. It was a dislike to turn back when once started on a journey. If he found himself on the wrong road, he would keep going until he came to some branching road rather than turn aside. This habit was destined to make some of the generals on the other side, in the Civil War, somewhat uncomfortable. They found that he never quit.
Thus grew up the boy, Ulysses Grant. He was not considered particularly bright at school, but he was a plodder, going along keeping his own counsel. He could not talk readily, even in a small company, and was hopeless when it came to "speaking a piece" on Friday at the school. But he was a sturdy, outdoor boy, by this time remarkably proficient with horses. At the age of fifteen he had explored the back country for miles roundabout.
His father, however, had never lost sight of the fact that the boy was to get a good schooling—and frequently brought up the subject, to "Lys's" discomfort. The lad was not especially keen for any more books. But the opportunity came—just as others were to come, to shape the whole course of young Grant's life.
The son of a neighbor had received an appointment to West Point, but had failed to pass the entrance examinations. Jesse Grant immediately wrote to the Congressman of the district, in behalf of Ulysses, although the two men were on opposite political sides and had quarreled bitterly: "If you have no other person in view and feel willing to consent to the appointment of Ulysses, you will please signify that consent to the Department."
Ulysses got the appointment, despite the political feud, and it is pleasant to note that the two men healed their differences and became good friends again.
The boy received news of his appointment without much enthusiasm. He would much rather be a horse trader, he told his father. But the latter was determined—and Ulysses went.
Nor did his appointment please others in the village, who thought the boy dull. One man meeting Mr. Grant in the street, said bluntly: "I hear that your boy is going to West Point. Why didn't our Representative pick some one that would be a credit to the district?"
This ill-natured speech may have been inspired by the fact that political feeling ran high at that time; and Jesse Grant as a staunch Whig and Northerner had made a good many enemies.
Ulysses was coached for West Point at an academy at Ripley, Ohio, conducted by William Taylor, and passed his entrance examinations with fair grades. His best study was mathematics. He entered at the age of seventeen.
It took young Grant many a long day to accustom himself to the Military Academy. The hazing encountered by every Freshman he didn't seem to mind, so the older men soon let him alone. But the drill and the dress! To this farm lad it was deadly. These were the days of the "ramrod" tactics of Winfield Scott—the starch and stock and buckram days of the army. "Old Fuss and Feathers" his critics called him, but with all his love of pomp and circumstance Scott was a splendid soldier, whether on the drill ground, or in the face of the enemy. Nevertheless, to Grant it was a constant trial, at first. He felt like a fish out of water. General Charles King thus speaks of him:
"Phlegmatic in temperament and long given to ease and deliberation in all his movements at home, this springing to attention at the tap of the drum, this snapping together of the heels at the sound of a sergeant's voice, this sudden freezing to a rigid pose without the move of a muscle, except at the word of command, was something almost beyond him. It seemed utterly unnatural, if not utterly repugnant. Accustomed to swinging along the winding banks of the White Oak, or the cow-paths of the pasture lot, this moving only at a measured pace of twenty-eight inches, and one hundred and ten to the minute, and all in strict unison with the step of the guide on the marching flank or at the head of column, came ten times harder than ever did the pages of 'analytical' or the calculus.
"Grant had no sense of rhythm. He had no joy in martial music. The thrill and inspiration of the drum and fife, or the beautiful harmonies of the old Academy band were utterly lost on him. In all that class of 1843, it may well be doubted if there lived one solitary soul who found there less to like or more to shrink from, than this seventeen-year-old lad who, thanks to the opportunities and to the training there given them, was in less than a quarter of a century to be hailed as the foremost soldier of more than two millions of men in the Union blue."
But this was only one of the Grant paradoxes—the contradictions which were to mark his strange career.
Life at West Point was not all hardship, however. In his quiet way Grant made a few warm friends. On account of his initials he was promptly nicknamed "Uncle Sam," which was soon shortened to "Sam." He excelled in two widely different courses—mathematics and horsemanship. We have already noticed his early skill with, and love for horses. Now it was to stand him in good stead. He was assigned, during one year, to a particularly intractable young horse—a big, raw-boned sorrel, named York. One of York's tricks was to rear and throw himself backward with his rider. But in Grant he found his master, and the steed not only grew tractable, but developed under his rider's training into a famous jumper. Horse and rider are vividly described by General James B. Fry, in his Reminiscences:
"The class, still mounted, was formed in line through the center of the hall. The riding master placed the leaping bar higher than a man's head and called out, 'Cadet Grant!' A clean-faced, slender, blue-eyed young fellow, weighing about one hundred and twenty pounds, dashed from the ranks on a powerfully built chestnut-sorrel horse, and galloped down the opposite side of the hall. As he turned at the farther end and came into the stretch at which the bar was placed, the horse increased his pace and measuring his stride for the great leap before him, bounded into the air and cleared the bar, carrying his rider as if man and beast had been welded together. The spectators were breathless."
"Sam" Grant graduated from the Military Academy in July, 1843, one of thirty-nine out of a class that had originally numbered one hundred. Among his classmates were Sherman, Thomas, Meade, Reynolds, and other soldiers later known to fame. It cannot be said, however, that his entry into the army was auspicious. He was still by no means reconciled to the idea of being a soldier. He had not received the assignment he had coveted, the Dragoons; and moreover his health was poor. He was troubled with a persistent cough which indicated weak lungs—but thanks to his life in the open and horseback riding he escaped a possible attack of consumption.
After a three months' furlough visiting his father's home, now at Bethel, Ohio, he reported for duty at the Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis, as a second lieutenant in the infantry. The best horseman in his class had to walk!
But there were compensations. Outside of duty, Grant could always procure a mount; and about five miles away from the Barracks—just an easy canter—was the home of his college chum and roommate, Lieut. Frederick T. Dent. The Dents had a big, hospitable country place, and they speedily made Fred's friend feel at home. One member of the family who had heard much about "Sam" Grant from her brother's letters, long before Grant appeared in person, was Julia Dent now a charming girl of seventeen. It was not long before her friends began teasing her about "the little lieutenant with the big epaulets"—and while she laughed and blushed she didn't seem to mind.
The little round of social gayeties, however, was of brief duration. Trouble with Mexico was brewing, and in 1844 relations had become so strained that an "Army of Observation," as it was called, was assembled under General Zachary Taylor, old "Rough and Ready," on the border. Grant's company was ordered to join this army, on the briefest notice. The young lieutenant had time only for a brief leave-taking with the Dents, and one member in particular, but her final message meant all the world to him.
In March of the next year, Congress sanctioned the annexation of Texas, and trouble with Mexico began in earnest. History records the rapid course of events which made up the Mexican War. We can only notice the events which directly concern the career of Grant. His company was a part of the expeditionary force of three thousand men destined to see active service on the border.
By the middle of March they had reached the Rio Grande, and pitched camp opposite the city of Matamoras. Their army was far from its base of supplies and in a country swarming with the enemy. Before war was formally declared, two officers who were caught outside the camp were killed, and two whole companies captured.
There was no railroad, and General Taylor was compelled to send a considerable force back twenty-five miles for supplies. On the third of May the returning troops encountered a much larger force of Mexicans. A battle followed which continued after sundown. During the night the Mexicans retreated, but were found further on, in a much stronger position. They awaited the Americans on the far side of a pond, their position being further fortified by logs and branches of trees.
The captain of Grant's company was temporarily absent, and it fell to Grant to lead their advance. By this time the bullets were humming merrily, but he directed his men to deploy to one side and approach through thicker woods. At last they reached a clearing near the head of the pond, and he ordered a charge. They captured the position immediately in front of them, and made a few prisoners, including one colonel. The engagement all along the line had been too brisk for the Mexicans, and they broke and ran, leaving a considerable quantity of guns and ammunition.
As for the little lieutenant, it was his first battle, and first command of a company, and he had reason to feel satisfied with the day's work.
As one result of the engagement, the Americans now crossed the river, and became an Army of Invasion. And now that war had actually begun, volunteers began to flock to the standard. The ensuing months of that year were packed with incident and no little danger. In August, Grant was made quartermaster and commissary of the regiment—a position of responsibility which he held until the army was withdrawn.
Although Grant's duties were now such as to withdraw him from active fighting, he was not the man to take advantage of the fact. The lively battle at Monterey bears witness of this. After a hard encounter on the outskirts of the city, the Americans stormed it from the north and east, and began to drive the Mexicans out, street by street. But when the citadel was in sight, the commanding officer, Colonel Garland, found to his dismay that they were short of ammunition.
"We must have ammunition at once," he announced to his men. "Who will volunteer to ride back with the message? I do not wish to detail any one, as it is extra hazardous."
At once, Lieutenant Grant stepped forward and saluted.
"I will go, Colonel," he said.
"You are just the man. If anybody can ride through, you can. But hurry."
And Grant did. Crouching low on his mustang like an Indian, he dashed down the bullet-swept streets, made the open, and delivered his message to General Twigg.
The Mexican War was marked by the political rivalry of two American Generals, one of whom was destined to win the highest honors in the gift of his country—General Zachary Taylor, old "Rough and Ready," and General Winfield Scott, "Fuss and Feathers." Both were able leaders, though totally unlike in their methods. Taylor cared nothing for personal appearance or etiquette. He worked in close contact with his men. Scott, on the contrary, was fond of display, and issued his orders through his staff officers.
Scott was now given supreme command of the Mexican campaign, and summoned all the regular troops for an invasion by way of Vera Cruz—the scene of a later landing, in very recent years. Taylor was left with only the volunteers, but he utilized them at Buena Vista to such good effect that at the next election old "Rough and Ready" became President of the United States—the very thing that his political foes at Washington had tried to prevent, by giving Scott the supreme command.
Grant's company, with other regulars to the number of eight thousand men, landed at Vera Cruz, and early in April began its perilous march into the interior. Roads had to be built and bridges constructed, and the army engineers toiled night and day. Among them were two young West Pointers, George B. McClellan and Robert E. Lee. Thus it was that Grant and Lee first came to know each other, in the wilds of Mexico.
By the middle of May they had reached Puebla, which they captured easily. But the army needed supplies, and Quartermaster Grant was sent out with an escort of one thousand men to forage the surrounding country. They filled their wagons and returned safely. This jaunt delighted Grant's soul. It was far better than bringing up the rear on a dusty line of march. In one of his letters home he writes:
"I have been delighted with the Mexican birds. Their plumage is superlatively splendid. They beat ours in show, but to my mind do not equal them in harmony. I have written this letter with my sword fastened to my side, my pistols within reach, not knowing but that the next moment I may be called into battle."
It is an odd coincidence, that at a later day we find another soldier—destined to lead his country's armies to victory in a far mightier conflict—using the soil of Mexico as a training ground. That soldier was John J. Pershing.
One other exploit of Grant's in the Mexican campaign must be mentioned, as it was not only daring, but it also revealed his resourcefulness.
During the attack upon Chapultepec, Grant noticed that one of the two main routes, the San Cosme road, was flanked by a small mission church surmounted by a belfry. He reasoned that if they could mount a howitzer in the belfry, that section would be made mighty uncomfortable for the Mexicans. He went at once to his superior officer, explained his plan, and secured a detail of men with one gun. The gun had to be taken to pieces, but with it in hand they compelled the priest to open the church doors to them, mounted the steps to the belfry, reassembled the gun, and it was soon beating a lively tattoo down upon the backs of the astonished Mexicans.
For this "gallant conduct at Chapultepec," as the official citation read, Grant won his brevet of captain.
With the signing of the treaty of peace, Grant came home on furlough, and in August, 1848, was married to Julia Dent. He took his wife to his father's home, and was made much of by his admiring townsmen. His father was inordinately proud of "my Ulysses," now a captain and cited for gallantry in action. In the darker days that were to follow, he looked back to this time as the very pinnacle of his son's greatness.
That there were darker days, and many of them, must be chronicled in any true sketch of Ulysses S. Grant. He was to taste the very dregs of humiliation and despair. He was to see these same admiring friends turn from him one by one, with a sneer, or reproachful shake of the head.
For days of peace were at hand—long days of barrack routine and enforced idleness. To Captain Grant these days coming after the excitement of Mexico were at first welcome, then speedily grew tedious. He had always hated the humdrum life of the drill ground. Now he was shifted, after a few months, to a camp at San Francisco. The distance was so great, travelling as they did by way of the Isthmus of Panama (this was long before the railroads), that he could not take his wife with him. His slender pay also would not admit of it.
Life in all the army camps was free and easy. Liquor flowed freely, and drunkenness was unfortunately common. Grant like others, drank, but not to excess. With him, however, one glass was sufficient to flush his face and render his walk unsteady. It was not long before the life at this far-removed western camp began to tell upon him. He quarreled with his commanding officer, and finally resigned from the service.
He had to borrow money in order to return home, a long and painful journey by way of New York, and it was a discouraged, broken-looking man who greeted his wife and his parents. This was the summer of 1854. Captain Grant was then only thirty-two, but it already seemed as though the best and only valuable part of his life was behind him. The recent conquering hero, with his dashing uniform and epaulets, had become a somewhat seedy-looking individual with shoulders prematurely stooped, and shuffling gait.
The word speedily went round the village, with many a nod and wink:
"Told you so! Went up like a rocket; came down like a stick."
His wife, however, had not lost her confidence in him. Through all the trying days that were to follow, she remained staunch and loyal. She persuaded her father to let her have a sixty-acre tract of land, near St. Louis. There she brought Ulysses and their children, and there he began life anew, as a plain farmer.
He built with his own hands a log house of four rooms, with chimneys at each end, and wide fireplaces. With grim humor he called the place, "Hard-scrabble." But he liked the place. He liked the freedom of it, with his horses and other live stock. Despite its hardships he welcomed it as an escape from the petty exactions of military life.
Nevertheless, he could not make it pay. He did not have sufficient capital or bodily strength to succeed. An attack of chills and fever, in 1858, put the finishing touch to this episode, and he sold his stock and farm the following spring.
During the ensuing few months he moved from pillar to post, trying various ventures and succeeding with none. The fates seemed against him. In St. Louis, whither he had drifted, he was regarded with open scorn as, what we would now designate, a "down-and-out." One reason for his poor success lay in the fact that he was a Northerner, and the city was seething with talk of secession. The clouds of Civil War were already gathering, and men began to distrust each his neighbor.
At this juncture his father, who seems rather to have turned against him also, came to his relief. He offered Ulysses a position in his leather business, now in charge of the younger boys. Ulysses thankfully accepted, although the pay was only fifty dollars a month. He brought his wife and boys to Galena, where at any rate he was sure of having a roof over his head.
"The brothers found him of no earthly account at driving bargains, or tending store," says General Charles King. "He could keep books after a fashion and do some of the heavy work in handling the miscellaneous stock."
Another soldier, who became his devoted follower in the later days, had his first sight of Grant at this down-at-the-heels period. "I went round to the store," he says; "it was a sharp winter morning, and there wasn't a sign of a soldier or one that looked like a soldier about the shop. But pretty soon a farmer drove up with a lot of hides on his sleigh, and went inside to dicker, and presently a stoop-shouldered, brownish-bearded fellow, with a slouch hat pulled down over his eyes, who had been sitting whittling at the stove when I was inside, came out, pulling on an old light-blue soldier's overcoat. He flung open the doors leading down into the cellar, laid hold of the top hide, frozen stiff it was, tugged it loose, towed it over, and slung it down the chute. Then one by one, all by himself, he heaved off the rest of them, a ten minutes' tough job in that weather, until he had got the last of them down the cellar; then slouched back into the store again, shed the blue coat, got some hot water off the stove and went and washed his hands, using a cake of brown soap, then came back and went to whittling again, and all without a word to anybody. That was my first look at Grant, and look at him now!"
But in all likelihood there would not have been another chance to "look" at him, had not the great Civil War broken out. It was to prove in his case that what seemed failure was merely lack of opportunity.
When South Carolina seceded and the call for troops came, the stoop-shouldered clerk in the hide store began to straighten up. The call to arms put new life in his blood. He felt his old confidence returning. He refused a local captaincy, after he had demonstrated what he could do in drilling recruits, saying: "I have been in the military service fourteen years, and think I am competent to command a regiment."
He went to Springfield, Illinois, and offered his services, and after some delay was given a desk in the adjutant-general's office. It was not long before he proved his efficiency, and his advice was sought more and more by the Governor, in organizing the State Guards. When the 21st regiment was mustered into service, he was made its colonel. He had put his foot on the first rung of the ladder of success.
The 21st, like other bodies of volunteers, was a loosely-knit, unruly set of men. They took military life as a huge picnic, but speedily got over that attitude—under Grant. On their first long hike, it is said that their canteens were filled with whiskey, instead of water—until Grant went through on a personal tour of inspection, and ordered every canteen emptied out on the ground. The way he took hold of that regiment and licked it into shape opened the eyes of Governor Yates and his staff. In two months it was the best drilled regiment in the State; and when President Lincoln wrote to the Governor asking suggestions for promotions, Grant's name headed the list. He was made a Brigadier-General.
The story of the Civil War and Grant's great part therein belong to a longer chronicle than this. Step by step this stern, quiet soldier fought his way up, winning his country's battles and his own as well. In the full tide of war he found himself—and better still his country discovered him. He was never after to prove recreant to his trust.
"We will fight it out along this line if it takes all summer," is one of his typical remarks, and one most often quoted. It was toward the last of the hard-fought war, when the Southern forces under Lee were doing their utmost to fend off the inevitable. Grant, now the commanding General of the Union forces, was still putting into practise the quiet, bull-dog qualities that had led his armies to victory.
Then came the final dramatic scene at the historic surrender at Appomattox. Lee had come to discuss terms with him, and now stood awaiting his arrival, erect, courtly, handsome—the typical Southern gentleman that he was. Down the road came riding a gaunt-looking man, with the familiar stoop-shoulders, and mud-bespattered trousers and boots. It was the general-in-chief on his way to greet his beaten foe!
The two men looked each other in the eye, then clasped hands like old friends. Grant recalled the days of the Mexican campaign, and was surprised that Lee knew so much about him in those days. He wanted to talk old times, and Lee himself brought up the subject of surrender.
Grant took his seat at a table and wrote out the simple and generous terms which allowed officers and men to return to their homes, on giving their word not to take up arms against the United States government again.
Lee's fine, dignified features softened as he read the terms—so much more magnanimous than he had dared to hope.
"My men are nearly starving," he began—
"What do you need?" interrupted Grant; and gave instant orders that the defeated army should be supplied with rations.
"Tell the boys to go home and go to work," he said.
That was Grant.
IMPORTANT DATES IN GRANT'S LIFE
1822. April 27. Ulysses Simpson Grant born. 1839. Received appointment to U. S. Military Academy, West Point. 1843. Graduated. 1845. Went as second-lieutenant to join Taylor's forces in Mexico. 1848. Brevetted captain for gallantry. 1848. Married Julia T. Dent. 1854. Resigned his army commission. 1861. Re-entered army at outbreak of Civil War. Commissioned colonel, then brigadier-general. 1863. Made major-general. 1864. Given supreme command of the Union forces, with rank of lieutenant-general. 1866. The grade of general created for first time, and conferred on him. 1868. Elected President. 1885. July 23. Died at Mt. McGregor, New York.
THE LEADER OF A LOST CAUSE
A gray-haired college president sat talking kindly with a young sophomore who had fallen behind in his studies.
"My boy," he said, "you must study if you would succeed. Only patience and industry will prevent your failure here and your failure in after life."
"But, General, you failed," replied the sophomore with an amazing impertinence.
"I hope that you may be more fortunate than I," was the quiet answer.
Literature contains nothing finer than that by way of the retort courteous.
The speaker was Robert E. Lee—the time not many months after the surrender of the Southern army. Many were there to brand him as a "failure," just as this thoughtless sophomore had done, and to all such critics his reply was silence. In the seclusion of a small Virginia college he lived and worked, keeping sedulously out of public affairs, writing and saying nothing about his campaigns. He left to history the final verdict, which has found him, not a failure, but one of the most brilliant soldiers of this or any land.
In Lee's early life and ancestry his nearest parallel is Washington. These two greatest Virginians were born within a few miles of each other, in Westmoreland County. Lee was born just seventy-five years after Washington, (January 19, 1807) and like him was descended of famous lineage. His father, Light Horse Harry Lee, fought by the side of Washington in the Revolutionary War; and it was he who in a memorial address on the great leader coined the immortal phrase: "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."
Still another ancestor, Richard Henry Lee, had been born many years earlier in the same old mansion where Robert Edward Lee first saw the light of day. Richard Lee it was, who was a boyhood friend and confidant of George Washington; and who later became one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
It is not strange, therefore, to find that the career of the first great Virginian profoundly influenced the second. "One familiar with the life of Lee," says Thomas Nelson Page, "cannot help noting the strong resemblance of his character in its strength, its poise, its rounded completeness, to that of Washington; or fail to mark what influence the life of Washington had on the life of Lee. The stamp appears upon it from his boyhood, and grows more plain as his years progress."
The old homestead in which Lee was born deserves some notice on its own account. It was built by Thomas Lee, a grandson of Richard Lee, the emigrant who came to Virginia about the time that Charles I was losing both his crown and his head. While Charles II was still in exile, this same Thomas Lee offered the king a haven in Virginia, which was not accepted.
The original brick structure was destroyed by fire, but the house was rebuilt on the same site during the time of Queen Anne, and it is said that she aided in its reconstruction. This was the ancestral home of the Lees for several generations.
Robert E. Lee, though naturally proud of his lineage, never showed great interest in the family tree. He never had the time or the inclination to study genealogy, and always said that he knew nothing of it beyond the fact that Colonel Richard Lee had come to America during the reign of Charles I. Upon having a family seal and crest made, he apologized for the seeming parade by saying, "I have thought, perhaps foolishly enough, that it might as well be right as wrong." Later, however, when approached on the subject of publishing a family history, he wrote: "I am very much obliged to Mr. —— for the trouble he has taken in relation to the Lee genealogy. I have no desire to have it published, and do not think it would afford sufficient interest beyond the immediate family to pay for the expense. I think the money had better be appropriated to relieve the poor."
Harry Lee, Robert's father, was not only a soldier, but also a man of letters. He loved the classics, and has left memoirs written in spirited vein. He had reached middle life, however, before Robert was born, and passed away when the boy was eleven. It was the mother's influence—and here again we have a parallel with Washington—which was paramount in the early days. She was a Carter, of an equally old and distinguished family, and is spoken of as an amiable and gracious lady.
When Robert was still a child, his family moved to Alexandria, and very shortly his father went away on a trip for his health, from which he never returned. Between the boy and his mother the ties became very close. He was devoted to her, and on her part she said, after he went away to school, "You have been both son and daughter to me."
Long afterward, Lee alludes to this period in a letter to his own son, by way of counsel: "A young gentleman who has read Virgil must surely be competent to take care of two ladies; for before I had advanced that far I was my mother's outdoor agent and confidential messenger."
Robert Lee obtained his first schooling at the old academy in Alexandria, then taught by a Mr. Leary, who remained always his good friend. Later he attended a better known school, conducted by a strict Quaker, Benjamin Hallowell—Brimstone Castle, the boys called it, solely on account of the color of the brick walls. Hallowell himself was rarely if ever brimstone in character, though he could be stern enough on occasion. He "thee'd" and "thou'd" in the most orthodox style, and decried all warfare. Despite his pacifist teaching, however, young Lee's earliest ambition was to become a soldier. It was in his blood.
He was fond of outdoor sports, especially hunting and horseback riding. His lifelong fondness for horses brings to mind the same trait in Grant, his later antagonist. In his older days Lee would tell with enthusiasm how as a boy he had followed the hunt, not infrequently on foot, for hours over hill and valley without tiring. Again he wrote: "I know the pleasure of training a handsome horse. I enjoy it as much as any one." His famous steed, "Traveller," was known throughout the Army of Virginia, during the War, and the sight of him caused many an eye to grow moist as he followed riderless the remains of his beloved master to their last resting place.
At the Hallowell school, Lee chiefly excelled in mathematics, a study which was later to be of great value to him, in the engineers' corps of the army. Hallowell paid a tribute to his pupil after the latter became famous, saying: "He was a most exemplary student in every respect."
One could wish, however, that instead of such idle compliments, the schoolmaster had really searched his memory and given us some personal anecdotes of Lee at school. There is actually very little on record about his early life. He seems to have grown into an attractive and likeable boy, studious, somewhat reserved, and by no means remarkable. One kinswoman writes:
"I have often said since he entered on his brilliant career that, although we all admired him for his remarkable beauty and attractive manners, I did not see anything in him that prepared me for his so far outstripping all his compeers."
Lee's older brother, Sydney, had already entered the navy, and Lee himself decided upon the army, as his choice of profession. At the age of eighteen he applied for a cadetship at the Military Academy at West Point, and received it direct from President Andrew Jackson himself. There is a tradition that when Lee presented himself before the hero of New Orleans, that doughty Tennessean looked him over from head to foot, then passed him on with the terse comment, "You'll do!"
And Robert Lee did. In college he made a record that shines to this day. He was given the coveted cadet adjutancy of his corps. He graduated second in a class of forty-six. And he did not receive a single demerit during his entire college career—for rusty gun, or cap on the floor, or late at drill, or twisted belt,—or any of the hundred and one things that are the bane and stumbling block of the West Pointer's existence. Such a record seems almost too good to be true, and one is tempted to wish for at least one escapade to enliven the narrative!
Yet Lee was by no means a prig. Even his detractors of later years never accused him of that. He was popular with his fellows and fond of the give-and-take of the drill ground. His ability to make and hold friends was one of the outstanding traits of his whole life. His men who followed him through the "Lost Cause" fairly idolized him.
General Joseph E. Johnson, another Southern leader, was a classmate of his at West Point and gives us this description of him there. "We had the same intimate associates, who thought, as I did, that no other youth or man so united the qualities that win warm friendship and command high respect. For he was full of sympathy and kindness, genial and fond of gay conversation, and even of fun, while his correctness of demeanor and attention to all duties, personal and official, and a dignity as much a part of himself as the elegance of his person, gave him a superiority that every one acknowledged in his heart. He was the only one of all the men I have known that could laugh at the faults and follies of his friends in such a manner as to make them ashamed without touching their affection for him."
Lee graduated from West Point with the Class of '29, and the rank of second lieutenant of engineers. His first important move after leaving school was to choose for wife Mary Custis, daughter of George Washington Parke Custis of Arlington, the last branch of the Washington family. Here again the fates linked up the names of Washington and Lee. The two homes at Arlington and Mt. Vernon were only a few miles apart on the Potomac, and as a final link in the chain we find, years after, at the close of his life, Lee giving his last efforts to building up Washington College, which was to be known thereafter as Washington and Lee.
When Mary Custis became Mrs. Robert E. Lee there was some disparity in their fortunes. She was the heiress of the Custis estate, while he was drawing only the meager pay of a second lieutenant. But such was her pride and confidence in him, that she turned her back on money and decided to live on her husband's income. It was harsh training for a time, but it fitted her to become a real helpmeet for him; and in the rigorous days of the Civil War she was glad that she had learned early to "do without."
One of Lieutenant Lee's first assignments in the engineering corps was the construction of harbor defenses in Hampton Roads. As he labored to make these as strong as possible, he little dreamed that it would be his problem, a quarter of a century later, to study how he might demolish them.
From Hampton Roads he was transferred to Washington, and made assistant to the chief engineer—an agreeable change as it brought him close to his wife's home. Mounted on a favorite steed he could easily "commute" back and forth between office and home. On one occasion it is related that he invited a brother officer, Captain Macomb, out home for the night, and as the latter had no mount, Lee took him up behind himself, and down Pennsylvania Avenue they went, saluting other officers whom they encountered, with great glee. That was one time when a commutation ticket was good for two.
Five years after graduation he had worked up to a first lieutenancy, and two years more found him a captain. In 1835 he was appointed on a commission to fix the boundary line between Michigan and Ohio. A few months later he was detailed to make an important study of the Mississippi River and Valley with a view to determining how to prevent the annual overflows with their consequent damage to property. His researches were chiefly along the upper river at Illinois. It is said that while there he was struck with the enormous potential energy of the current, and reported that if a dam were constructed at a certain place, a great storehouse of power would be possible. This was long before the day of the dynamo, by which such power could be harnessed. Many years later, however, his dream came true, at the place he had indicated,—the great power dam nearly a mile long blocking the "Father of Waters" for the first time in his tumultuous career, at Keokuk, Iowa.
Farther down stream, above St. Louis, he began a system of river improvements which aroused no little opposition among property owners. The dispute that arose was one of the first things which brought the name of Robert E. Lee to public attention. But despite the short-sighted protests of some citizens of St. Louis, Lee went quietly ahead and carried the work through to the permanent betterment of the city. "I was sent here to do certain work, and I shall do it," was his terse comment.
When he had completed his work on the Mississippi, he was sent to New York to complete the harbor defenses at Fort Hamilton—down at the gateway of the city. He had been made captain of engineers by this time, and was looked upon as one of the ablest men in his line of work, in the army.
It was not long before his mettle was to be tested in actual warfare. The trouble with Mexico which had been smouldering for several years at length burst into flame. After the first victories along the border under General Zach. Taylor, a campaign from the sea was undertaken, under General Winfield Scott, who landed at Vera Cruz. The purpose was to march overland to the capital, reducing the country as they went; and to make this possible the army engineers were in demand. They answered the call gladly, for the spirit of adventure ran high, and every army officer welcomed the chance to see active service.
In the corps of engineers we find several names destined to become famous—Lee, Beauregard, McClellan, Foster, Tower, Stevens, Totten, and others; while Grant was attached to the commissary of the same army. It was in effect a training school for the great drama of a few short years later.
Captain Lee was placed on the personal staff of General Scott, and given supervision of important road and bridge building. In a letter to his wife, dated Rio Grande, October 11, 1846, he writes: "We have met with no resistance yet. The Mexicans who were guarding the passage retired on our approach. There has been a great whetting of knives, grinding of swords, and sharpening of bayonets ever since we reached the river."
This was written while serving with General Wool in northern Mexico. He took part in the battle of Buena Vista, his first engagement, and was then summoned to Vera Cruz by Scott. That doughty old General and former commandant at West Point had all along shown a great partiality for Lee; and in the campaign which was to follow, we find him constantly writing of his young staff officer in glowing terms. One such incident is typical.
Lee had undertaken alone an all-night exploration of a desolate, lava tract called the Pedregal, which had been shunned by scouts and troopers alike. It was treacherous country, difficult to traverse, and possibly infested by the enemy. General Scott writes: "I had despatched several staff officers who had, within the space of two hours, returned and reported to me that each had found it impracticable to penetrate far into the Pedregal during the dark. . . . Captain Lee, having passed over the difficult ground by daylight, found it just possible to return to San Augustin in the dark, the greatest feat of physical and moral courage performed by any individual, in my knowledge, pending the campaign."
Another General, P. F. Smith, also bears tribute to this and other such feats: "I wish partially to record my admiration of the conduct of Captain Lee, of the Engineers. His reconnaissances, though pushed far beyond the bounds of prudence, were conducted with so much skill that their fruits were of the utmost value—the soundness of his judgment and personal daring being equally conspicuous."
At Vera Cruz Lee had the pleasure of meeting his older brother, from whom he had long been separated. This was Lieutenant Sydney Smith Lee, who had entered the Navy before Robert went to West Point. Now for the first time the brothers, sailor and soldier, fought side by side. But it was with mixed feelings that Robert Lee passed through this experience. He was brave enough on his own account, but he constantly trembled for Sydney! He had placed a battery in position to reduce the town, and thus describes the ensuing action:
"The first day this battery opened Smith served one of the guns. I had constructed the battery, and was there to direct its fire. No matter where I turned, my eyes reverted to him, and I stood by his gun whenever I was not wanted elsewhere. Oh! I felt awfully, and am at a loss what I should have done had he been cut down before me. I thank God that he was saved. He preserved his usual cheerfulness, and I could see his white teeth through all the smoke and din of the fire."
When the soldiers moved inland, after capturing Vera Cruz, the sailors were left behind, and Lee had to bid his brother farewell.
The records of the six months' campaign in Mexico contain many references to Lee's skill and bravery. He was then forty years old, in the hey-dey of his vigor. He would remain in the saddle from dawn to twilight, if necessary, and never shirked a duty. No wonder that Scott was proud of him and came to rely upon him more and more.
"At Chapultepec," he writes, "Captain Lee was constantly conspicuous, bearing important orders till he fainted from a wound and the loss of two nights' sleep at the batteries."
The campaign certainly showed that Lee was a soldier and the son of a soldier. He was repeatedly cited for meritorious conduct, and was brevetted major, lieutenant colonel, and colonel in rapid succession. This proved not merely his bravery, but his ability in planning engagements and discovering the weak points of the enemy—features which he was to turn to such remarkable account in many famous battles of the Civil War.
When peace with Mexico was declared, Lee was given a welcome furlough, and went back to Arlington to visit his wife and children. He had been so constantly away from home, that he failed to recognize his youngest son, whom he had left an infant. And it is said that he himself was first recognized by a faithful dog.
His son and namesake, R. E. Lee, in his "Recollections," speaks of his father's love for animals. He once rescued a dog that was near drowning in the "Narrows," and it became his devoted follower through life. In a letter home he writes (one of many such references), "Cannot you cure poor Spec? (his dog). Cheer him up! Take him to walk with you—tell the children to cheer him up." We have already spoken of his favorite horse, "Traveller." After the great War, during which horse and rider were inseparable, Lee wrote a description and tribute to his equine friend which must appeal to every true lover of horses.
Lee's two elder sons held true to the family traditions by both entering West Point. Lee himself was presently sent there by the government as Superintendent—just twenty-three years after he had graduated. He served in this capacity for three years, then was given an assignment to the cavalry, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. For the next five years his duties took him into several states, chiefly in the West and Southwest. It was an unsettled time on the Border, both from the Mexicans at the South, and the Indians in the West, and constant police duty was necessary. It was arduous and lacked the thrill of a real campaign, but in any event, it kept Lee from growing rusty as a soldier. Unconsciously to him and to his Government, it was shaping him and fitting him for the great drama just ahead.
For slowly but surely the North and the South were drifting apart. At first the discussion had been political, but now it was growing more and more personal and bitter. The disputed questions were slavery and States' Rights. A preliminary cloud in the sky was the fanatical raid of John Brown, who, in 1859, tried to stir up the negroes of northern Virginia against their masters. This raid was promptly crushed at Harper's Ferry, and Lee with his regiment of cavalry assisted in restoring order, but though
"John Brown's body lay a'mouldering in the grave. His soul went marching on."
While many Southerners did not own slaves and did not believe in slavery, the question of States' Rights found them with undivided front. Had not this doctrine been expressly implied in the Federal Constitution? Had not this right been invoked more than once in the North—by the staunch State of Massachusetts, for example, as early as 1809, and as lately as 1842? Thus they reasoned, and when matters at last reached a breaking point in 1861, the Southern States, following South Carolina's lead one by one, felt that they were acting only within their recognized rights.
The actual call to arms brought a heart-breaking time to many homes. In some it actually parted father and son, or brother and brother. While it created no such chasm in the Lee family, it brought to Robert E. Lee the bitterest and most trying decision of his whole life.
Lee had loved his country. He had served her faithfully for thirty-two years. His actions rather than his words had proved his entire devotion, but the words too were not lacking, as references to his letters will show. One such glimpse of his heart is seen in a letter written from Texas, in 1856. In telling his wife about his Fourth of July celebration, he says: "Mine was spent after a march of thirty miles, on one of the branches of the Brazos, under my blanket, elevated on four sticks driven in the ground, as a sunshade. The sun was fiery hot, the atmosphere like a blast from a hot-air furnace, the water salt, still my feelings for my country were as ardent, my faith in her future as true, and my hope for her advancement as unabated, as they would have been under better circumstances."
When finally the choice had to be made, between State and Nation, Lee was sore beset. He had no interest in the perpetuation of slavery. His views all tended the other way. "In this enlightened age," he wrote, "there are few, I believe, but will acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil." He had already set free his own slaves, and was in favor of freeing "all the slaves in the South."
But when it came a question of deserting his own State, his beloved Virginia, the problem was far more difficult. "All night nearly he paced his chamber," says Thomas Nelson Page, "often seeking on his knees the guidance of the God he trusted in. But in the morning light had come. His wife's family were strongly Union in their sentiments, and the writer has heard that powerful family influences were exerted to prevail on him to adhere to the Union side. 'My husband has wept tears of blood,' wrote Mrs. Lee to his old commander, Scott, who did him the justice to declare that he knew he acted under a compelling sense of duty."
Lee had no illusions as to the sternness of the contest, and the sacrifices that he with all others would have to make. His own beautiful home lay just across the river from Washington. He must have seen with prophetic vision how it would be seized by the Federal Government and held for other purposes—an act of confiscation that was only partially atoned for half a century later. He knew also that Virginia being a border State would bear the brunt of war.
"I can contemplate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union," he wrote in January. And in April that dissolution came.
Nor did the fortunes of the War itself swerve him from the belief that in serving his State, he was doing his highest duty. After it was over and he had gone into the retirement of work in Washington College, we find him writing to General Beauregard as follows:
"I need not tell you that true patriotism sometimes requires men to act exactly contrary at one period to that which it does at another—and the motive which impels them—the desire to do right—is precisely the same. History is full of illustrations of this. Washington himself is an example." (Here he invokes the example that had been his guiding star since early boyhood.) "He fought at one time against the French under Braddock, in the service of the King of Great Britain. At another he fought with the French at Yorktown, under the orders of the Continental Congress, against him. He has not been branded by the world with reproach for this; but his course has been applauded."
While Lee was wrestling with his momentous decision, a further temptation was placed in his path, which he thrust aside. He was offered the high post of commander-in-chief of the Union forces. This offer came at a suggestion from Scott that "Colonel Lee would be worth fifty thousand troops to our side"; and although Lincoln had never met him, he was glad to accede to the suggestion. Lee quietly remarked in declining the honor, "I stated as candidly and courteously as I could, that, though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern States."
Such was the manner of man who was soon chosen to lead the Confederate armies. Let us pause for a final picture of the man himself, from a composite by men who knew him.
In physique Lee was every inch a man. He stood five feet eleven inches in height, weighed 175 pounds, and there was not an ounce of superfluous flesh on him. He was "as fine-looking a man as one would wish to see," said General Hunt, "of perfect figure and strikingly handsome." General Meigs added: "Lee was a man then in the vigor of youthful strength, with a noble and commanding presence, and an admirable, graceful, and athletic figure." General Preston remarked that he had "a countenance which beamed with gentleness and benevolence." J. S. Wise said, "I have seen all the great men of our times, except Mr. Lincoln, and I have no hesitation in saying that Robert E. Lee was incomparably the greatest looking of them all." And Alexander H. Stephens, when he saw Lee for the first time, and talked of the newly-born Confederacy, was moved in his enthusiasm to say: "As he stood there, fresh and ruddy as a David from the sheepfold, in the prime of manly beauty and the embodiment of a line of heroic and patriotic fathers and worthy mothers, it was thus I first saw Robert E. Lee. . . . I had before me the most manly and entire gentleman I ever saw."
Lee's fame as a general of the first rank has survived the over-enthusiastic eulogies of his friends and the first caustic comments of his foes. His strategy has come to be recognized as of the highest order. To begin with, he had to build his army "from the ground up," but ended by having one of the most perfect fighting machines in the history of warfare. His men obeyed him with a devotion that was almost idolatrous. He suggested the uniform of quiet gray on account of its protective coloring and against all the army traditions of ages, that an army should march into action in gaudy and glittering attire. It was not until the great World War of a later century, that wise military leaders followed his example and dressed their troops as inconspicuously as possible.
It is not the province of this short sketch to trace General Lee's campaigns step by step to the final meeting with Grant at Appomattox. Army after army was sent to meet him from the North's far greater resources, only to be baffled or defeated in the South. And it was not until he forsook his successful tactics of the defensive, and assumed the offensive on his invasion of Pennsylvania, that he encountered serious defeat at Gettysburg.
But, after all, the great foe to whom his troops had finally to succumb, was General Starvation. The resources of the South were literally exhausted.
"My men are starving," said Lee tersely to Grant; and back of them lay a suffering land that had literally been "bled white."
It was indeed a bitter lesson that the South had learned, but the verdict of history is that it was salutary. The Union was greater than any State or any group of States. It had required a War to rectify that fatal flaw in the Constitution, but out of the fires of that terrible conflict was fused a Union "strong and great," that should be far better fitted to withstand the shock of Time.
Since that bygone day when Lee laid aside his sword forever, and his men went straggling back to their plowshares, America has become engaged in two other wars. And among the first to respond to the bugle call and line up behind "Old Glory" have been the sons and grandsons of that staunch line of Gray—the men who followed Lee.
If the souls of great soldiers ever come back to earth, we can imagine no finer picture than the Leader of a Lost Cause again looking up to the Stars and Stripes and pledging it his silent allegiance. We can seem to see him on his familiar gray charger at the head of his forces, fighting again for his beloved country. We can seem to hear his voice ringing in command:
"On, men of Virginia! On, men of the South! We are Americans all!"
IMPORTANT DATES IN LEE'S LIFE
1807. January 19. Robert Edward Lee born. 1825. Entered West Point. 1829. Graduated second in his class. Made second-lieutenant in engineers. 1831. Married Mary Custis. 1838. Appointed captain. 1845. Joined General Scott's staff in Mexico. 1848. Made colonel for gallant conduct. 1852. Appointed superintendent of West Point. 1855. Appointed lieutenant-colonel of cavalry, in service against Indians. 1861. Made general in Confederate Army. 1865. Surrendered to Grant. 1865. Accepted presidency of Washington College, Virginia. 1870. October 12. Died at this college.