By Sarah Becker
Robert E. Lee, the fifth child of Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light-horse Harry” Lee and his second wife Ann Hill Carter, was born January 19, 1807. Of noble descent, he spent his babyhood at Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County, Virginia. The family moved to Alexandria to escape financial reverses.
Young Robert’s education included both the Alexandria Academy and Benjamin Hallowell’s school. Lee attended the latter briefly to study mathematics. He attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point because it was free.
Lee’s decision to opt for a military career was sustained in part by his deceased father’s friendship with the Marquis de Lafayette, “an invaluable Revolutionary War ally.” In 1824 President James Monroe, also a Revolutionary War veteran, invited Lafayette to participate in a triumphal United States tour. General Lafayette, a Frenchman, arrived in New York in August 1824 and Robert E. Lee’s Alexandria Boyhood Home was among the acknowledged sites.
“That [General Henry] Lee was a man of letters, a scholar who ripened under a truly classical sun, we have only to turn to his work on the southern war,” George Washington Parke Custis wrote, “his 1808 Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States.”
Robert E. entered West Point in 1825; was listed as a “Distinguished Cadet,” and graduated second in his class in 1829. His rank: second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. His assignment: Georgia’s Ft. Pulaski.
It was from Ft. Monroe that Lee courted his wife, Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter; George Washington Parke Custis’ daughter Mary Anna Randolph Custis. General George Washington died before Lee’s birth, but Robert E. valued his father and General Washington’s colonial legacy. Lee married Mary Custis in 1831 and together they lived, on and off, with her parents at Arlington House.
In 1836 Texas, an American-inhabited Mexican colony, formally declared its “eternal political separation” from Mexico. Nine years later Mexico preliminarily agreed to recognize Texas as an independent Republic. Discussions ended when Mexico discovered the United States preferred annexation.
“The Republic of Texas has made known her desire to come into our Union, to form a part of our Confederacy and enjoy the blessings of liberty secured and guaranteed by our Constitution,” President James K. Polk said in his March 4, 1845 Inaugural Address. Polk, a Tennessean, shared President Andrew Jackson’s penchant for expansion.
“I regard the question of annexation as belonging exclusively to the United States and Texas,” Polk continued. “Foreign powers do not seem to appreciate the true character of our government. Our Union is a confederation of independent States, whose policy is peace…To enlarge its limits is to extend the dominions of peace over additional territories and increasing millions.”
“To Texas the reunion is important, because the strong protecting arm of our Government would be extended over her, and the vast resources of her fertile soil and genial climate would be speedily developed, while the safety of New Orleans and of our whole southwestern frontier…would be promoted by it,” Polk concluded.
The Mexican government objected to Polk’s Address. But, to no avail. Magazine editor John L. O’Sullivan’s newly published phrase Manifest Destiny was formula. “Our manifest destiny to overspread the continent….”
In theory, Texas was admitted to statehood on June 23, 1845. The State’s territorial status was soon forgotten. The Missouri Compromise line of 1820 was not. Tensions between Northerners and Southerners, abolitionists and slave-owners continued to intensify.
Finally American and Mexican troops clashed, militarily along the Nueces River near Matamoros. “In my message at the commencement of your present Congressional session, the state of relations between the United States and Mexico, the causes which led to the suspension of diplomatic intercourse between the two countries in March 1845, and the long continued and un-redressed wrongs and injuries committed by the Mexican government on citizens of the United States in their persons and property were briefly set forth,” President Polk wrote in his war-hungry Message to Congress on May11, 1846.
The United States, at President Polk’s request, declared “WAR has broken out” on May 13, 1846. Congress, in turn, authorized the President “to employ the militia, naval, and military forces of the United States and to call for fifty thousand volunteers.” Captain Robert E. Lee, a staff officer, wrote his will on August 31, 1846 then traveled to San Antonio to join the fight.
Not all Americans shared Polk’s enthusiasm for war. James Russell Lowell of the Boston Courier wrote in opposition to the Mexican War. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, for reasons of slavery, advocated American defeat. Massachusetts-er Henry David Thoreau chose to spend time in jail rather than financially contribute to war.
“I did not for a moment feel confined and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar,” Thoreau wrote in his essay Civil Disobedience. Volunteers had to “furnish their own cloths, and, if cavalry, their own horses.” Arms were provided “at the expense of the United States.”
Lee demonstrated his tactical talent early. Virginia-born Winfield Scott, Commander of the Gulf expedition in Mexico, ordered 9,000 men reassembled for an assault on the city of Vera Cruz. Captain Lee joined General Scott’s expeditionary force at Brazos.
On March 4, 1847 General Scott’s land force disembarked near Vera Cruz. Allegedly “the most powerful fortress of the time,” the city was bombarded and taken on March 29. Lee was “deeply impressed by the effectiveness of the guns, the first he had ever aimed at an enemy.”
“Their fire was terrific, and the shells thrown from our battery were constant and regular discharges, so beautiful in their flight and so destructive in their fall,” Lee wrote. “My heart bled for the inhabitants. The soldiers I did not care so much for, but it was terrible to think of the women and children.”
Scott’s soldiers left Vera Cruz on April 8, 1847. With Lee’s assistance, the force again defeated the Mexican army at Cerro Gordo (April 18), at Jalapa (April 19) and Puebla on May 15. General Scott commended Captain Lee for his leadership, especially at Cerro Gordo.
Lee was fearless. Mexico City was successfully seized, the War victoriously wound down, and Lee was thrice recommended for promotion. The United States signed the peace Treaty of Guadaloupe Hildalgo on February 2, 1848; a treaty which granted the United States more than 500,000 square miles of new territory, including the future states of California, Nevada, and Utah; most of New Mexico and Arizona, and parts of Wyoming and Colorado. Texas was conceded and America, because of the expanded territory, finally became transcontinental.
George Washington Parke Custis, on February 22, 1848 in prideful celebration, sent his son-in-law Robert E. the sword his grandfather, General George Washington gifted him in 1799. It was “the only sword that Washington ever presented in his life-time, and with his own hand, to a human being.” Two of General Washington’s surviving battle swords are on display at Mount Vernon until May 30.
Lee returned to Washington, to Arlington House on June 29, 1848. Battlefield-tested he became superintendent of West Point in 1852, the same year Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin.