Reading the Man Chapters 6-10

The second meeting for our discussion of this book centered on Chapters 6 through 10.

Chapter Six focuses on Lee the father of seven children. During our discussion we had a list of Lee’s children:

George Washington Custis Lee [1832-1913] called “Boo” and later “Custis” by his father
Mary Custis Lee [1835-1918] called “Daughter” by her father
William Henry Fitzhugh Lee [1837-1891] called “Rooney” by his father
Anne Carter Lee [1839-1862] called “Annie” by her father
Eleanor Agnes Lee [1841-1873] called “Agnes” and “Wiggy” by her father
Robert Edward Lee Jr. [1843-1914] called “Rob” by his father
Mildred Childe Lee [1846-1905] called “Precious Life” by her father

“Lee’s instinctive bond with children was clear to everyone who met him. … He was naturally paternal, liked the role, and developed it throughout his life.” [p. 94] Lee was incredibly proud to be a father. He would almost shout with joy after each birth. ” ‘I have got me an heir to my Estates!’ proclaimed the nearly penniless second lieutenant after the birth of his first son. ‘Aye a Boy! To cherish the memory of his Father & walk in the light of his renown!’ The arrival of girls elicited equal jubilation. … All of the children were given affectionate nicknames.” [p. 95] In this chapter, Ms. Pryor also gives us context on 19th Century family life in general. “As industrial and professional careers beckoned in the early 1800s, long-standing patterns of home and work were interrupted, with a greater separation between fathers, who pursued business on the outside, and the women and children who remained at home. Manliness came to be defined less by patriarchal authority than by ambition and achievement. Parenthood from a distance, or on a part-time basis, became the norm, and men’s aspirations for their profession and for their offspring were frequently in competition.” [p. 98] Lee fought against this pattern. “He wanted badly to guide his children, and during his absences he read the popular advice books of the day, frustrated at the difficulty of applying their suggestions ‘to the thousand variations of temper, situation, occasion and opportunity.’ He tried to remain engaged through not-always-welcome advice to his wife and a constant stream of hortatory epistles to the children.” [p. 98] She next has occasion to get into a discussion of 19th Century family planning. “At the age of thirty-eight, Mary Custis Lee ceased bearing children. We do not know exactly why or how this happened, but there is some evidence that it was a conscious decision. The Virginia gentry were becoming aware of the advantages of family limitation by the 1830s. A major treatise on birth control was published the same year the Lees were married, which stressed economic considerations, the health of the mother, the value of each individual child, and the virtues of a manageable family size. Statistics from the time show a sharp drop in marital fertility rates in Virginia for women who had reached age thirty-five, which suggests that they tried to stop producing children when they had delivered what they considered a respectable number.” [p. 99] Lee tried to be involved with his children, even though he was frequently absent. “All of the Lees’ children were evidently named by Mary, and the three eldest, plus ‘Eleanor’ Agnes, were called after venerated members of her family. When he was at home Lee shunned the remote and authoritarian role of paterfamilias and involved himself in a variety of mundane chores having to do with the children’s well-being. In addition to sitting up with sick and injured tots, he was concerned about the state of the girls’ teeth, the purchase of summer clothes, and the youngsters’ eating habits. Though he left the early teaching of the children to his wife, he cared deeply about their education and put quite a bit of effort into finding the best schools, teachers, and curriculum for the older boys and girls. Lee’s interest in education again reflected the trends of his time, for parents of the antebellum period had begun to see their largest aspirations in terms of the success of their offspring. Having no patrimony to ‘settle’ on the children, Lee thought the most important legacy he could leave them was a foundation that would allow them to prosper from their own exertions. Lee had a broad vision of education, which embraced dancing and art alongside calculus, and he encouraged his daughters as well as his sons to challenge themselves.” [p. 103] Lee had definite ideas about parenting, and he wrote lengthy essays on various parental topics. “What strikes one about Lee’s interest in the philosophy of child-rearing is less the innovation of it than the fervor. He left no such treatises on military strategy, engineering technique, or the management of men. His anxiety for raising his children was arguably the central concern of much of his life. As a result, Lee’s letters on the subject of children are among the most complex documents we have, showing his gentle wit and painterly ability with words, but also a side that could be uncomfortably strict and authoritarian.” [p. 104] He may have been strict, but “Lee appears rarely to have punished his children, using instead the specter of disappointing or embarrassing the parents as the worst consequence of misconduct.” [p. 105]

In Chapter Seven we look at Robert E. Lee the engineer. “West Point was for many years the only academic institution in the United States that stressed mathematical and scientific training. Higher education in the early nineteenth century was still thought to be a process of memorizing classic literature, or studying ancient languages and history, with only the slightest nod to practical application. Harvard did not require students to have even a passing knowledge of arithmetic before 1802, and until 1835 West Point was the only school in America that offered a degree in engineering. West Point also pioneered the American teaching of such subjects as architecture, geology, astronomy, and mineralogy, and Thayer weighted examination points to favor the more exacting technical subjects. It was a measure of Robert Lee’s ability that hew as chosen in his second year at the academy to be an assistant professor of mathematics, for his fellow professors were in the forefront of the nation’s nascent scientific endeavors. If important books were unavailable in English, West Point faculty translated them or wrote their own, and these works became the basis for the study of engineering in many other academic institutions. As colleges slowly adopted similar courses, they hired graduates of the military academy to teach and direct them. Both Harvard and Yale, for example, selected West Pointers to head their first schools of engineering, founded nearly four decades after the academy opened its doors. When Robert E. Lee was commissioned in the Corps of Engineers in 1829, he was as prepared as anyone in the country to embrace the new field of ‘technology’–a word just introduced into the common vocabulary that same year.” [p. 113] One of Lee’s earliest assignments was to save St. Louis from the ravages of the Mississippi River’s eroding its banks and depositing silt to create obstacles for ships going to and from the port of St. Louis. Because of the complex nature of the project, Congress’ failure to properly fund the project, and his subsequent reassignment, Lee was not the one to actually save St. Louis, though he laid the groundwork for the eventual success.

The next two chapters discuss Robert E. Lee the slave owner. She begins the chapter with two excerpts from the diary of Martha Custis Williams [known as “Markie”], who was Lee’s wife’s cousin, regarding treatment of slaves, and they’re followed by a letter from Lee to Mr. A. E. L. Keese, dated 24 April 1858, in which Lee identifies several slaves who have run off and whose whereabouts he has discovered. He offers $10 each for the capture and return of these runaway slaves. Most of the chapters are devoted to the Arlington slaves. “Nor were the slave children exempt from labor. Mrs. Lee admonished Annie to ‘keep the children at work’; a little black boy made shade for Markie by holding an umbrella over her head in the garden; others amused the Lee babies, gathered black walnuts, or brought dishes into the house. The servants at Arlington did not gain a reputation for carrying out these responsibilities with a will. Robert Lee was openly disdainful of the slaves’ competence, and others affirmed his criticism. Annie Lee regaled a schoolmate with stories of the ‘laziness of Arlington,’ and Lee counseled his wife not to expect much of the servants, since it was ‘almost useless to attempt improvement, or to resist the current that has been so long settling against industry & advancement.’ Even sympathetic Molly Custis remarked on the insubordination of the servants.” [p. 128] Some people will claim Lee was some sort of abolitionist or egalitarian, both of which are completely untrue. One of the things claimed in support of that is that Lee taught the Arlington slaves how to read. He did not, though he was aware of it. He doesn’t appear to have had any choice. “Three generations of Arlington women taught the slaves rudimentary reading and writing, laced with scriptural wisdom. Former slaves remembered gathering in a little back room to learn their ABCs, along with such childhood hymns as ‘Little Drops of Water.’ Results seem to have been mixed. Robert Lee did not think black people were ‘as capable of acquiring knowledge as the white man is,’ but noted that some of the servants ‘learned to read and write very well.’ Some extant letters from former Arlington slaves bear out the latter assessment, showing a high degree of literacy. Nonetheless, the teachers sometimes railed against the poor motivation or disappointing progress of their students. Annie Lee ruefully noted that her pupils did not ‘do us, their masters teachers I mean, much credit.’ That little slip may have been one explanation for the uneven learning, since the presence of the master, even in the benevolent guise of teacher, could be intimidating. Then there was the fact that the ‘teachers’ were untrained girls.” [p. 132] In her diary, Mary Chesnut wrote of how rich southern white men live in the same household with their wives and their [slave] concubines, and that mulatto children exist in every household. Arlington was not different. “George Washington Parke Custis may also have fathered mulatto children. As a young man, both before and after his marriage, Custis began to free a few of his female slaves and their mulatto offspring, in at least one case bestowing land along with liberty, and causing even the Congressional Record to note that he showed ‘something perhaps akin to a paternal instinct’ in so doing. These were the only slaves he freed before his death. One of the families, named Syphax, who allegedly stemmed from a relationship between Custis and Mount Vernon slave Airrianna Carter, stayed on the Arlington property, despite a Virginia law requiring freedmen to move out of the state. … Demographics uphold the evidence of miscegenation at Arlington. It is thought that 9 to 11 percent of the South’s population was mulatto between 1850 and 1860, and some scholars put the figure as low as 7.7 percent. The inventory taken at G. W. P. Custis’s death, and the 1860 census for Arlington, show that more than 50 percent of the slaves, and all of the free people living on the property, were of mixed race. … There is no evidence that Lee himself indulged in sexual activity with the slaves, but certainly he was aware of it.” [pp. 138-139] Ms. Pryor also gets directly into the claims of Lee being antislavery. “The tradition that Robert E. Lee was opposed to slavery has become part of the mythology that surrounds him. … It is true that Lee seems to have detested the institution, but it was not the depravity of slavery that colored his disdain. … Lee’s political views on the subject are remarkably consistent. He thought slavery was an unfortunate historical legacy, an inherited problem for which he was not responsible, and one that could only be resolved over time and probably only by God. As for any injustice to the slaves, he defended a ‘Christian’ logic of at least temporary black bondage. … Perhaps more telling than words were Lee’s actions in support of slavery. He continued to participate in the system and distance himself from antislavery arguments up to and during the Civil War. … In 1856 and as late as July 1860, he expressed a willingness to buy slaves. Those blacks who were in his possession were frequently traded away for his own convenience, regardless of the destruction it caused to the bondsman’s family. He ignores injustice to the slaves and defends the rights of the slaveholder in both his 1841 and 1856 letters to his wife, and he continued to uphold laws that constrained blacks well after the war. During the brief time that Lee had authority over the Arlington slaves, he proved to be an unsympathetic and demanding master. … Eve taking into account the notions of his time and place, it is exceedingly hard to square these actions with any rejection of the institution. … What Lee disliked about slavery was its inefficiency, the messiness of its relationships, the responsibility it entailed, and the taint of it.” [pp. 144-145] As to Lee’s personal experience as a slave owner, it began on the death of his mother in 1829. “Ann Lee left thirty slaves to Robert and his brothers. Since he had just graduated from West Point, in theory his inheritance could have been seen as a basis for launching a new life. However, it is clear that from the outset Lee saw his servants as an uncomfortable stewardship. … Once given his share, he did not know how to employ his new property. Social pressure and family ties did not allow him to sell them, and Lee resented the care and ‘useless trouble’ that the blacks required.” [pp. 147-148] He tended to rent his slaves out to others. “Sometimes Lee hired slaves to his brothers or cousins–others he gave to slave dealers to be auctioned off. He particularly chose the latter course after he took over the management of his father-in-law’s estate in 1857, finding the hiring system a good source of revenue, but also a way of getting troublemakers out of the way.” [p. 149]

Chapter Ten discusses Robert E. Lee the warrior and his participation in the Mexican War. A good tidbit here is that Lee was part of a drinking and dining society among the army officers in Mexico called the Aztec Club, “and there Lee mingled with Lieutenants Beauregard, McClellan, and Grant and Captains Joseph Hooker, Phil Kearny, and J. B. Magruder.” [p. 171] Ms. Pryor also discusses the lessons Lee learned in that war. “Scott also gave Lee a chance to learn the art of military maneuver from a master. Scott won with smaller forces on unfamiliar territory by overturning the old belief that the key to victory was to throw massed forces into the enemy with little but raw courage as a tactic. The tricks he used–superior intelligence based on reconnaissance; striking at the political heart of the enemy; imaginative use of the terrain; surprise; flexibility and agility–would become hallmarks of a new kind of warfare.” [p. 173] But there were also things Lee didn’t learn. “Armaments had begun to change at this time, though it was a transitional period. Smoothbore muskets had not yet given way to the more precise and longer-range rifles that would alter the battlefield landscape from 1861 to 1865. From his engineering vantage point Lee did not have close exposure to the developments in ordnance that would make it such a critical factor over the next few years. Nor did Lee truly lead men in the Mexican War. He was adept at guiding forces over roads he had constructed, but the command of large-scale movements was not part of his job in this conflict. In fact, he never had full responsibility for any field force, and supervised only a handful of junior men. Neither did he learn what it was to lose a battle or order a retreat.” [p. 175] I did notice a contradiction in the text. On page 169 she tells us Lee earned two brevet promotions during the Mexican War, while on page 186 she says he received three brevet promotions during that war. Which is right? In her article on Lee for the online Encyclopedia Virginia, Ms. Pryor says he received two brevet promotions. In his American National Biography article on Lee, the eminent military historian Russell Weigley identifies three brevet promotions for Lee during the Mexican War. The National Park Service has the count at three brevet promotions for Lee during the Mexican War. Douglas Southall Freeman lists Lee’s brevet promotion to major, a brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel, and a brevet promotion to colonel. So it looks as though three brevet promotions is correct.

We had another good discussion of this section of the book. A number of people identified various facts they hadn’t previously known and also identified context of life in the 19th Century they appreciated having.



  1. Ryan Quint · · Reply

    Cullum’s Register also identifies three brevets. One for Cerro Gordo, one for Contreras/Churubusco, and one for Mexico City.

    1. Thanks, Ryan.

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