The Childhood of Civil War General Robert E. Lee

Most history books show pictures of Robert E. Lee as an aging man with white hair and a beard. It’s almost impossible to imagine that this man was once a child. Like everyone else, the famous American Civil War general did have a boyhood, though it was not always happy.

The Lee Family Heritage

The potential for Robert E. Lee to be a great man started before his birth. Robert’s father, Henry Lee, served in the cavalry during the American Revolution. Henry impressed his general so much that he said Henry had “come out of his mother’s womb a soldier.” After the war, Henry served in the Continental Congress and encouraged his home state of Virginia to ratify the Constitution. By the nineteenth century, however, things started to go wrong for Henry Lee. He made bad investments and ended up in a debtor’s prison for a year.

His wife Ann Carter Lee gave birth to her son Robert in 1807, shortly before her husband’s imprisonment. She already had several children, and admitted to a friend that she did not want another child. Later on, however, when her husband left the family for the West Indies and never returned, Robert became her favorite.

Robert E. Lee Grows Up

Robert comforted his mother in her husband’s absence. He did household chores and served as a nurse to his ill sister and his mother. Though obedient to his mother, like most boys his age Robert enjoyed swimming and playing sports with his cousins. He especially loved tricking foxhunters by following hounds on foot. He became so good at taking shortcuts to find the foxes that when the adults arrived, Robert was already there. Even at a young age, Robert understood how to use geography and the element of surprise to his advantage—skills that would one day make him a great general.

Though Robert didn’t have a father, he did create a father image for himself. When the family moved to Alexandria, Virginia, http://www.alexandriava.gov/historic/default.aspx Robert and his siblings often visited President George Washington’s adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis. Custis told the children stories about Washington and showed them Washington’s pistols and uniforms. Though Washington had died many years earlier, the people of Alexandria cherished their connection to the former hero. Washington’s career may have partly inspired Robert to pursue a military career, but in reality there was little money available for him to go to college. Luckily, he had family connections that helped him get one of the 250 spots available for the West Point cadets.

Robert At West Point

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point had many rules, and Robert was one of the few cadets who followed them. Others, like Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy, partied and drank on a regular basis. Robert was a serious student who graduated second in his class. He was not a snob, however, and made close friends at West Point. His friend Joseph E. Johnson remembered that Robert “was the only one of all the men I have known that could laugh at the faults and follies of his friends in such a manner as to make them ashamed without touching their affection for him, and to confirm their respect.” His military training and the ability to positively influence others would come in handy when the U.S. Civil War broke out.

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