Gettysburg National Military Park is holding their Battlefield Books series again this winter, and we’re discussing Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters. The book is the product of research that began when Ms. Pryor was given access to a trove of Lee letters found in trunks his daughter left at a bank. The first session considered the first five chapters of the book. We find out thousands of Lee letters have survived. “During the Civil War, when his burden was very great, it must have been a tremendous release, for he writes a note to some member of the family nearly every day.” [p. xvi] Ms. Pryor organizes the book as though it were a series of essays, with each chapter being a separate essay introduced by one or two letters at the beginning and the rest of the chapter devoted to the theme evoked by those introductory letters.
The first chapter begins with a letter that had been torn to pieces but still carefully saved, as if the person who saved it at first wanted to destroy it and then thought better of it and decided it had to be kept. It’s a letter from Samuel Appleton Storrow to his sister, dated September 6, 1821. It’s in the Ethel Armes Papers in the Library of Congress. Storrow was a cousin of R. E. Lee’s mother, Ann Hill Carter Lee, and the letter is a gossipy account of both Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, who was R. E. Lee’s father, and Light Horse Harry’s eldest son, R. E. Lee’s half-brother Henry “Black Horse Harry” Lee. The chapter goes into both men and the disgrace brought onto the family because of them. Light Horse Harry “fought for Virginia’s ratification of the Constitution, championing the opening ‘We the People’ against ‘We the States’ and defending the need for a robust central system and a professional army.” [p. 7] Later in life, he was involved in risky land speculation, and as a result he lost all his money and was thrown in debtors’ prison. As a result of his money problems he even swindled some investors. “For his part, [Thomas] Jefferson spoke openly of the Lee family as ‘those insects.’ ” [p. 16] Black Horse Harry brought disgrace and shame by seducing his wife’s sister while his wife was bedridden. When a dead baby was found on the Stratford property, rumors began circulating he had gotten his sister-in-law pregnant and had murdered the child.
The second chapter covers R. E. Lee’s childhood, which was a hard one, as his mother was forced to depend on family for a place to live and to support her and her children. A number of writers try to connect Lee with his father, claiming his father was a great influence on Lee. “Robert barely knew Light-Horse Harry Lee. Piecing together dated letters and court records, it seems that altogether he spent only about thirty-four months in the company of his father. The most extended periods took place when he was under two and a half, and after Harry was maimed and badly wounded in spirit. In his voluminous correspondence Robert refers to his father only a few times, and some analysts have made much of this. However, he mentions his mother no more, and she was said to be the object of his great affection. It is also true that Robert never named a child after his father–something that has also been raised as an indication of filial ambivalence. Nonetheless, he did not balk at ‘Henry’ as an auxiliary name for his second son, William Henry Fitzhugh Lee. He also urged his brothers to carry on the name (which Smith and Carter did), lightheartedly begging them to do so quickly because he could not ‘defer my claims to it much longer.’ In fact, when Carter finally heeded his suggestion, Robert pronounced it a clear indication that the boy would ‘be good as well as great.’ ” [p. 30] After the Civil War, Lee wrote an introduction to a new volume of his father’s memoirs. The introduction included a biographical sketch of Light Horse Harry. “Robert Lee’s role as biographer seems to have been minimal–he dutifully pasted the pieces together, but never adds personal anecdote or interpretation. He was openly anxious that nothing be included that could cause nay but kindly feelings, and the result is an anodyne narrative.” [p. 32] Another excellent point made in this chapter is the complicated lines of Lee’s family tree. “For decades Lee ancestors had extolled the virtues of intermarriage and blood-related business arrangements. One of the earliest Lee settlers remarked that ‘the first fall and ruin of families and estates was mostly occasioned by imprudent matches.’ Succeeding generations took heed, until the family was as intertwined as a ‘tangle of fishhooks.’ Philip Fendall, one of Ann Lee’s most generous supporters, offers a good example. His first wife was a cousin, Sarah Lettice Lee. After her death, he married Elizabeth Lee, the widow of Philip Ludwell Lee, the heir of Stratford, whose daughter Matilda had been Light-Horse Harry’s ‘divine’ first spouse. Fendall’s third wife was Mary Lee, Harry’s sister. Robert Lee’s immediate family had similarly complex connections. His half sister Lucy married his mother’s brother Bernard Carter, making Bernard simultaneously his uncle and his stepbrother. Bernard and Lucy’s son Charles Carter was both Robert’s first cousin and his nephew. The large family could confuse even the hardiest genealogist and sometimes caused Lee amused frustration. … Despite his light tone, the close extended family had a deep impact on Lee’s life. He would name his children after them, seek their advice on private legal matters, lend them money when he had little to spare, and arrange his social life around their joys and sorrows. He counted on them to be compatible boarding-school roommates for his sons and daughters, to sell him sound horses, deliver notes, hire his slaves, and advance his professional interests. Not surprisingly, the wife he chose was a member of this clan. Lee’s children would also marry cousins, deepening the nearly unfathomable ties.” [p. 34]
Chapter Three considers Arlington and the Custis family. George Washington Parke Custis was Martha Washington’s grandson, and George Washington’s adopted son. “Custis–‘the heir of Washington’–had been raised at Mount Vernon. He dedicated his life to promoting the principles of the American Revolution, and his home [Arlington House] was a virtual shrine to the memory of the nation’s first president.” [p. 40] Custis married Mary Lee Fitzhugh [known as “Molly”] in 1804. “An early opponent of slavery, she personally oversaw its comparatively benign direction at Arlington. Every description throughout her long life reflected the image of a superior person: pious and industrious, but affectionate, welcoming, and above all sympathetic.” [p. 46] The Marquis de Lafayette visited the Custis family at Arlington during his last visit to the United States. “On one visit Washington Custis conversed about a plan for gradual emancipation of the family’s slaves, for Lafayette believed it a barbarous institution, in decline everywhere except the United States, and had gone so far as to request that those slaveholders lining his travel routes not be accompanied by their human property. Custis published a series of fascinating articles based on these conversations, which were well received by the public. Their success encouraged him to begin compiling a similar set of ‘recollections’ about Washington, which were also published serially and won the praise of noted historians.” [p. 50] R. E. Lee would marry the Custis’ daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, and Arlington also became his home. “Washington memories and Washington memorabilia were a part of Robert Lee’s everyday experience. This, and the fact that Lee resembled Washington in certain ways–powerful physical presence, personal reserve, and a near fanatical adherence to self-defined ‘duty’–have led generations of popular writers and even top-flight historians to envision a mystical bond between the two men. In some cases this has gone so far as to be characterized as ‘idolization’ by Lee–a willful modeling of his character around the first president. Pronounced differences of style and temperament between the two men would be disregarded in the desire to forge this link. The legend was extended in the late nineteenth century as Confederate nationalists increasingly used Robert E. Lee to justify their ‘second American Revolution.’ Lee’s moral fiber was perceived as a symbol of southern virtue, and it was augmented by connecting it to Washington’s untarnished greatness. As with many myths, the story has been repeated so many times, each generation of historians citing and reiterating the inaccuracies of the last, that the false assumptions have come to have a life of their own. In ten thousand letter pages Robert Lee mentions Washington fewer than two dozen times. … Never does Lee say he idolizes Washington, or that he hopes to emulate him. The closest Lee came to a conscious association was after the war when he struggled to come to terms with his decision to join the Confederate cause, and cites Washington’s change from British to American allegiance as an example of an earlier crisis of loyalty. But this was after the fact. During those terrible days of 1861 he used Washington’s name quite differently–as justification for maintaining the Union.” [p. 52]
In Chapter Four we look at Lee’s West Point years. “Government records tell us that Robert Lee of Virginia attended West Point from July 1825 to July 1829; that he graduated second in a class of forty-six, with no demerits for misconduct; that from his second year he was a staff sergeant and in his final year Adjutant of the Corps of Cadets, the highest honor at the academy. He was also tapped in 1826 to be an assistant professor of mathematics, an indication of his superior abilities in that field.” [p. 56] Notice that for all the honors, Lee was second in his class, not first. “Lee was crowded at all times from below and was never able to best his nemesis, Charles Mason–a taciturn but prodigiously talented New Yorker, who won perfect scores in every math, chemistry, philosophy, and engineering course he took, as well as flawlessly performing at artillery and tactics. In multiple courses Lee received 299½ out of a possible 300. Mason consistently achieved 300. Like Lee, he departed West Point without a single demerit. After graduating first in the class, Mason left the army and had a distinguished career as a federal judge and the commissioner of patents.” [p. 60] While Lee and Jefferson Davis were at the academy together, they were not friends then. “Lee’s friendships show a predilection for comrades who came from the slave states, and especially those whose fathers had fought in the Revolutionary War. Joe Johnston was among them, his father Peter having served with Light-Horse Harry in Lee’s Legion. Hugh Mercer, though a year older, was another kindred spirit with Virginia antecedents, and another son of the Revolution: his grandfather was the great General Hugh Mercer, whose life was lost at the battle of Princeton. Dick Tilghman of Maryland, a descendant of Washington’s aide-de-camp Tench Tilghman, was also a favorite compatriot. Lee’s best friend–and the one with whom he maintained close relations after West Point–was ‘Jack’ Mackay of Savannah, who also claimed a heritage of patriot action. Lee was friendly with others whose names would be linked to his–P.G.T. Beauregard, Leonidas Polk, Albert Sidney Johnston–but his mainstays were Mackay, Mercer, Tilghman, and Joe Johnston, all top scholars who generally avoided trouble and saved their ‘raisins’ (as money was popularly called).” [pp. 64-65]
Chapter Five takes us to Lee’s marriage to Mary Anna Randolph Custis. “As an only child, Mary was an important heiress. Her expectations included thousands of acres of prime Virginia land, nearly 200 slaves, and the beautiful seat at Arlington. In addition, William Fitzhugh had sired no children, and his vast property was left to his widow Anna Maria during her lifetime and then to his niece, Mary Custis. She was also Martha Washington’s granddaughter, and the Mount Vernon tradition was her birthright. Quite simply, there were few in the United States that could claim a place in society of equal rank. Robert Lee, for all his personal qualities and historic family ties, could not hope to match this. He had a share in some land in the Blue Ridge Mountains–the remnants of Light-Horse Harry’s folly–and a few slaves, but nothing that would compare to the Custis patrimony.” [p. 78] Thanks to Light Horse Harry and Black Horse Harry, the Custis’ had some reservations about the match, but Lee and Mary were able to overcome them. Mary, having been an only child, was no shrinking violet. “Mary was certainly Robert’s intellectual and cultural equal, and his superior in social rank. She read four newspapers a day and was used to conversing with the leading figures of the nation, who had shared the family table since she was a child. She had grown confident in this environment, where her opinions were respected. She also came from a long line of spirited Custis women who had been tough and durable enough to challenge male authority. Her mother had lobbied effectively for both religious and social reform, and she counted some incipient feminists among her acquaintances, including Robert’s younger sister. She saw few reasons to follow unquestioningly her husband’s lead in matters where she trusted her own judgment.” [p. 85]
The discussion of these five chapters was very good. A number of participants identified items that were new to them, even though they had done plenty of reading about Robert E. Lee. Additionally, we felt Light Horse Harry Lee was what we would call today an adrenaline junkie. He craved the excitement, which is why when there was no prospect of a war he engaged in risky land speculation and gambling. The influence of his father and of Washington have been overstated in many histories. His mother was more influential in his life than both his father and Washington had been.
Pryor has crafted a masterly done picture of Lee. Anyone who seeks to understand Lee must read this book. More chapters to follow.