America First—100 Stories from Our History by Lawton B. Evans

Robert E. Lee

ROBERT E. LEE was the son of General Henry Lee, a hero of the Revolution, known as "Light Horse Harry." He was born in Virginia. He was no more than a mere boy, when his father died, leaving him to the training of a devoted mother. When Robert was not at school, he spent his time with her, helping her to keep house, taking her out to ride in the old family coach, and reading aloud the books she liked to hear.

Some days, however, he spent in hunting, of which he was very fond. Then he would ride all day with his hounds, or tramp for hours through the woods looking for game. In this way, he developed the splendid strength that never failed him in his after life.

When he was eighteen years old, he went to West Point to be trained as a soldier. He was there for four years, and never received a demerit. He was a model cadet. His clothes were always clean and well cared for. His gun, belt, and sword were as bright as they could be polished. His lessons were studiously prepared. So good a record did he make that he graduated second in his class.

Like many great men, Lee was always gentle, generous, and good. He was simple in his habits, never using tobacco nor any intoxicating liquors. Upon one occasion, a lady gave him a bottle of whisky to use, if he "ever needed it." Lee took it with him through the Mexican War, and then sent it back to his friend, saying, "I have gotten along very well without it, and am returning it to you, for I have never found that I really needed it."

Lee served as a Captain of Engineers during the War with Mexico. It was his duty to make roads and bridges, to plant big guns, to draw maps, and to direct the marches of the fighting men. He was with General Scott in all the big battles, and was of such assistance that that General said, "Lee is the greatest soldier I have ever known."

In after years, General Scott said, "If I knew that a battle was to be fought for my country, and the president were to say to me, 'Scott, who shall be my commander?' I would say 'Robert E. Lee! Nobody but Robert E. Lee.'

In Mexico, while the battle of Cerro Gordo was raging, Captain Lee heard the cries of a little girl, and, following the sound, found a Mexican drummer-boy badly wounded, and lying on the ground with a big Mexican soldier, who had been shot, fallen on top of him. Lee stopped, had the Mexican thrown off the boy's body, and the little fellow taken to a place of safety.

His small sister stood by, her eyes full of tears, her hands crossed over her breast. Her feet and arms were bare, and her hair hung down in a long plait to her waist. She looked up into the kind face of Captain Lee, and said, in her own language, "I am very grateful, kind sir. May God bless you for saving my brother."

Once, on a long march, a part of Scott's army had lost its way. General Scott sent seven engineers to guide the men into the right road. They had to cross a huge bed of lava and rocks. Six of the engineers came back, and said they could not get across. Captain Lee, however, on foot, and alone, pressed on through darkness and danger, and brought the men out in safety. General Scott said, "It was the greatest feat done by any one man during the war."

When the Civil War came on, Lee resigned from the United States Army to fight for Virginia and the South. He was offered the chief command of the Union forces, if he would remain in the service of the United States. He said to Mr. Blair, who came to offer him this command,

"If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South, I would give them all up to save the Union, but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native State?"

After the war had been going on for nearly a year, Lee became the commanding General of all the Confederate Army. His soldiers were devotedly attached to him, and had supreme confidence in his ability. They referred to him affectionately as "Marse Robert."

On one occasion, General Lee placed himself at the head of a body of Texas troops, and, waving his sword, ordered them to follow him into battle. The situation was critical, and Lee wanted to save the day.

But the soldiers would not move. They cried out, "Lee to the rear! Lee to the rear." One of his Generals rode up and, taking his horse by the bridle, said, "General Lee, there are Georgians and Texans here willing to charge, but unwilling to see you in danger. If you will go back, we will go forward."

To this Lee replied, "You are brave men, and do not need me"; and, turning his horse's head, he rode back of the charging lines.

An old soldier relates that one day he was in the trenches, when a big gun was ready to be fired. Lee came in, and walked about, asking after the men and speaking words of cheer. Approaching the big gun, he asked an officer to fire it that he might see the result. The officer hesitated, and said,

"If I fire this gun, the enemy will return the fire at once in great force. Some of us will be killed, but that does not matter so long as you are not here. You might get hurt. If you will retire out of danger, I shall fire it as long as you order, but I beg you not to have it fired while you are here."

Lee was greatly touched by this devotion, and did not insist upon the big gun going into action while he was present.

General Lee ever felt kindly toward Union soldiers. He never called them "the enemy," but always spoke of them as "those people." Once, he remarked about the Northern troops, "Now, I wish all those people would go home and leave us to do the same."

A lady, who had lost her husband in the war, spoke in sharp terms of the North, one day, to General Lee. He said gently, "Madam, do not train up your children as foes of the Government of the United States. We are one country now. Bring them up to be Americans."

Throughout his life, he had but one purpose, and that was to do his duty. He often said, "Duty is the sublimest word in the English language," and, in accordance with this belief, he regulated his great life upon what seemed to him to be the only course he ought to pursue at the time.

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