Chapter VIII. Colonel Lee After the Mexican War

It is probable that Lee would have been well content to remain indefinitely at Baltimore, for his duties there enabled him to be more with his family than had been possible for some years. To his boys and girls he was both a companion and a friend and in their company he took the keenest delight. In fact, he and his wife made their home the center of attraction for all the young people of the neighborhood, and no happier household existed within the confines of their beloved Virginia.

It was not to be expected, however, that an officer of Lee's reputation would be allowed to remain long in obscurity, and in 1852, he was appointed Superintendent at West Point. A wiser selection for this important post could scarcely have been made, for Colonel Lee, then in his forty-sixth year, possessed rare qualifications for the duties entrusted to his charge. He was not only a man whose splendid presence, magnificent physique and distinguished record were certain to win the admiration and respect of young men, but he combined in his character and temperament all the qualities of a tactful teacher and an inspiring leader. Quiet and dignified, but extremely sympathetic, he governed the cadets without seeming to command them and, as at his own home, he exerted a peculiarly happy influence upon all with whom he came into personal contact. Among the cadets during his service at West Point were J. E. B. Stuart, who was to prove himself one of the greatest cavalry leaders that this country has ever produced, and his elder son, Custis Lee, who, improving on his father's almost perfect record, graduated first in his class.

About this time certain important changes were effected in the organization of the regular army, and the popular Superintendent of West Point was immediately appointed Lieutenant-Colonel of the newly formed Second Cavalry, with orders to proceed to Texas and protect the settlers against the attacks of hostile Indians. It was with keen regret that Lee received this assignment, for, though intended as a promotion, it removed him from the corps of engineers to which he had always been attached and obliged him to break all his home ties for what was practically police duty in the wilderness. Nevertheless, no thought of resigning from the army apparently crossed his mind. He soon joined his regiment in Texas, where, for almost three years, he patrolled the country, ruling the Indians by diplomacy or force, as occasion required, practically living in the saddle and experiencing all the discomforts and privations of garrison life at an outpost of civilization.

Almost his only relaxation during this lonely and exhausting service was his correspondence with his wife and children, and his letters to them, written in rough camps and on the march, show that his thoughts were constantly with his home and loved ones. "It has been said that our letters are good representations of our minds," he wrote his youngest daughter from Texas in 1857; and certainly Lee's correspondence, exhibiting as it does, consideration for others, modesty, conscientiousness, affection and a spirit of fun, affords an admirable reflection of the writer.

"Did I tell you that 'Jim Nooks,' Mrs. Waite's cat, was dead?" he wrote one of his girls. "He died of apoplexy. I foretold his end. Coffee and cream for breakfast, pound cake for lunch, turtle and oysters for dinner, buttered toast for tea and Mexican rats, taken raw, for supper! He grew enormously and ended in a spasm. His beauty could not save him.... But I saw 'cats as is cats' at Sarassa.... The entrance of Madame [his hostess] was foreshadowed by the coming in of her stately cats with visages grim and tails erect, who preceded, surrounded and followed her. They are of French breed and education, and when the claret and water were poured out for my refreshment they jumped on the table for a sit-to.... I had to leave the wild-cat on the Rio Grande; he was too savage and had grown as large as a small sized dog. He would pounce on a kid as Tom Tita [his daughter's cat] would on a mouse and would whistle like a tiger when you approached him."

But it was not always in this chatty fashion that he wrote, for in 1856, when the question of slavery was being fiercely discussed throughout the country, he expressed his views on the subject with a moderation and broadmindedness exceedingly rare in those excited times.

"In this enlightened age," he wrote his wife, "there are few, I believe, but will acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any country. I think it, however, a greater evil to the white than to the black race; and while my feelings are strongly interested in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are stronger for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa - morally, socially and physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race and I hope it will prepare and lead them to better things. How long this subjection may be necessary is known and ordered by a wise and merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from a mild and melting influence than from the storms and contests of fiery controversy. This influence though slow is sure."

Such were the views of Robert Lee on this great question of the day, and even as he wrote the country was beginning to notice a country lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, who was expressing almost identically the same opinions in no uncertain terms.

But the calm advice of Lincoln and Lee did not appeal to the hot-heads who were for abolishing slavery instantly at any and every cost. In October, 1859, when Lee was on a short visit to Arlington, John Brown, whose father had once lived with Grant's father, attempted to take the whole matter into his already blood-stained hands. It is a strange coincidence that Lee should have chanced to be in Virginia just at this particular crisis, and still stranger that the errand which had called him home should have related to the emancipation of slaves. But the facts were that Mr. Custis, his father-in-law, had died a few weeks previously, leaving him as the executor of his will, which provided, among other things, for the gradual emancipation of all his slaves. Lee had accordingly obtained leave of absence to make a flying trip to Virginia for the purpose of undertaking this duty, and he was actually making arrangements to carry out Mr. Custis's wishes in respect to his slaves when the news of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry reached Arlington. Word of this reckless attempt to free the slaves by force reached him in the form of a dispatch from the Secretary of War, ordering him to take immediate charge of the United States marines who were being hurried to the scene of action. He instantly obeyed and, with Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart as his second in command, hastened to Harper's Ferry and, directing his troops to storm the engine-house where Brown and his followers had taken refuge, effected their capture almost without striking a blow. Then, after delivering his prisoners to the proper authorities, he completed his work at Arlington and returned to Texas and the rough life of guarding the frontier line.

From this duty he was recalled to Washington in March, 1861, when the Southern States were rapidly forming the Confederacy, the whole country was in wild confusion and the nation was facing the prospect of a terrific civil war.