Un Vaincu/Chapter 1



In the northeast part of authentic Virginia, where the Chesapeake Bay cuts deeply into the American land, the county of Westmoreland lies like a sort of peninsula between two powerful rivers -- the Potomac[1] and the Rappahannock -- whose slightly barbarous names we will encounter frequently. Their reaches are known for their fertility in this America that seems fertility itself. Initially covered with impenetrable forests, they now produce tobacco and cereals in profusion. But the islands scattered along the river's course still carry centennial maple trees. The hills have preserved the deep shadows of bygone days. No other land succeeds in being, at the same time, richer and more picturesque.

It is in an old mansion settled between the two rivers, on the edge of the woods conquered long ago by the English settlers over the Indian tribes, that, on January 19th, 1807, Robert Edward Lee was born. His family was of English descent. Two hundred years before, one of his ancestors, sent by King Charles II to govern the Province of Virginia, had become attached to the new world and had made it his definite home.

His sons and grandsons had all been public-minded. They were among the leaders of Virginia's aristocracy ; and when, severing the bonds that tied her to ancient Europe -- when America proclaimed herself free -- two of the Lees were among the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, while another member of the family, Arthur Lee, was Ambassador to France, and developed for the young nation a faithful ally.

During the eight years of fighting against the English power, the Lee family was always on the front line. The family spared neither its possessions nor its blood, and gave Washington one of his most useful assistants, Henry Lee.[2]

Outstanding officer of cavalry, Henry Lee assisted his chief constantly in the long and unrelenting fight he pursued without weakening. He remained his intimate friend after the fight ceased. Unfortunately, he died too soon, when his son, Robert -- with whose life we want to acquaint you -- was only 10-years-old.

One might have feared that the lack of paternal authority would be fatal for the education of the child, but Henry Lee had already managed to imprint in his son's young soul respect for truth and absolute loyalty to duty that were to remain the outstanding features of his character.

One never knows how much good a noble example can do. The memory of Washington, the remembrance of a father worthy of the friendship of such a man, watched over the child. He remained truthful, courageous, and kind. In his childhood, he was noticeable for his tenderness towards his mother, and by his passion for physical exercise. This mother, who was a widow, and sick, and missing her two eldest sons who were following their studies far from home, was adopted by Robert if one dare use such a word in such a circumstance. Looking after his mother, helping her in all respects, even those daily home chores that boys usually hate, became the sacred concerns of his youth ; and the valiant hands which would, in ten battles grasp the sword of leadership, devoted themselves to handling the keys of a large household.

At the age of 15, he was strong enough to carry Mrs. Lee in his arms, and from there on, he never failed to render her this service. Nothing could distract him from it.[3]

When the baying of hounds, hunting deer or fox, would ring in the hills along the Potomac, the passionate instinct of the hunter would intoxicate that young head and would send tingles in those long, tireless legs ; and yet Robert Lee remained faithful to the task he had assigned to himself. Every single day, his mother took her walk with him. Now and then, she would protest against what she called his sacrifices, but the young man never accepted to leave her to pursue his pleasures. So much so, that when time had come for him to enter West Point, the American Saint-Cyr, his mother exclaimed with distress, "How can I live without Robert ? He is both son and daughter to me."

In memory of the services General Henry Lee rendered to his country, the State of Virginia took in charge the young man's tuition costs at West Point. From the very beginning, he gained the first rank in his class and kept up this rank during the 4 statutory years. The permanence of his success was due more to the stubbornness of his work, the perseverance of his efforts, than to his intellectual gifts, however remarkable they were.

One of his professors of mathematics[4] said that his main characteristic was to complete and to perfect everything he undertook. " … One of the branches of mathematics he studied with me was Conic Sections, in which some of the diagrams are very complicated. He drew the diagrams on a slate ; and although he well knew that the one he was drawing would have to be removed to make room for another, he drew each one with as much accuracy and finish, lettering and all, as if it were to be engraved and printed… "

Such a sense of duty in his work attracted the esteem of his professors. A completely different set of qualities gained him popularity among his comrades, the evidence of which he discovered in different circumstances of his life.

It is common knowledge that sport in England is greatly appreciated, and that physical training is dutifully practiced. The English have imported their predilections in America, where they have taken root, particularly in Virginia, which was colonized at first by noblemen still used to wearing the plated armor and heavy arms of their times.

It is much more important in America than in France to be a good walker, a good swimmer, a good rider. His great height, his muscular strength, and the quality of his horsemanship made of Robert Lee the champion of his comrades. They admired him more for his fast 12-hour walks than for the perfection of his geometrical figures. Were they completely wrong? You will discover that Robert Lee served his country with his strong limbs as well as with his science and with his heart.

Be that as it may, masters and students shared a common feeling -- that of esteem. Esteem for his rectitude and for his character. It was known that this great walker never drank wine or liquor, which was rare in those days ; this dauntless rider never swore ; this strong fighter was gentle, kindly, always ready to help. To masters and students, the slightest assertion of Robert Lee was considered an oath.

In a military institution, where it is absolutely necessary to train young men to the rigorous discipline they will be submitted to later on, it is customary to punish the

Boissonnas, Un Vaincu, 1875 (page 27 crop).jpg

saint-augustin. (p. 9.)

slightest encroachment on rules. And yet, it was discovered, when young Lee left the school in 1829, that a bad mark -- even for a mishap -- had never been associated with his name. This was a good omen for the future.

He was stationed at Cockspur Island, near Savannah. He was 22, and as sub-lieutenant in the Engineers, he was entering his active life. West Point is on the Hudson River, in the State of New York. The direct road from there to Savannah, in the State of Georgia, passed by his home. You can imagine the joy mother and son experienced at seeing one another after 4 years of separation. Unfortunately, that joy was to be disrupted.

Mistress Lee had at her service an old coachman whom Robert, as a small boy, had loved as one loves those who bring the great joys of one's childhood. It was Natty who had given him the reins to hold the first time. Natty had trained his first pony. Natty had been mingled with all his childhood, and Robert was looking forward to the joy the old servant would feel at seeing his charge wearing a uniform. Alas, poor Natty was seriously ill when his young man arrived ; he was coughing and suffering cruelly.

"What can we do for Natty," Robert asked the doctors. They considered the patient fatally ill. Only a softer climate would, perhaps, bring him some comfort. The decision was promptly taken. The young lieutenant succeeded in bringing his mother to accept the sacrifice of their reunion, and without delaying, he left, taking poor Natty to Georgia, near St. Augustine in Florida, named the Cannes of America.

There, he personally looked after him with all the care the most ingenious solicitude could invent. The illness was the stronger, but when old Natty expired, it was in the arms of his young master.

We will pass briefly over the first years of Robert Lee's career. Later on, as it comes into light, we will follow it step by step.

First in Savannah, next in Fort Hamilton, Robert Lee was in charge of following -- or directing -- military engineering. Everywhere, he had the satisfaction of succeeding. As in West Point, his method was to neglect nothing, so as to perfect his job. For him, work was something different from a necessity of existence or a means to arise professionally. It was a manly task that needed to be scrupulously accomplished. He gave the proof that he understood thus his career, when in 1831 was presented to him a most natural occasion of leaving his military status. He married Miss Mary Custis, granddaughter of Washington's widow, and heiress to most of the fortune of the great man. Young Mistress Lee[5] brought her husband the beautiful land of Arlington on the banks of the Potomac ; and that of the White House[6], both famous for having been the residence of America's hero.

The books, the furniture -- what the Americans call the relics of Washington -- were part of the precious components of the heirloom and made of these two properties, places of pilgrimage for travelers of all nations.

It seems that it would have been pleasant for the young officer to spend his life in those beautiful estates, with a beloved wife, and to enjoy peacefully everything an immense fortune could give him. If the temptation arose -- and it must have -- it was defeated by the realization that work -- real work -- alone brings dignity to a life and is one of the duties no one has the right to evade.

  1. Potomac : River of the Swans.
  2. Henry Lee nicknamed "Lighthorse Harry".
  3. When she writes this book, Lucie Boissonnas is 35. She has TB already, from which she would die at the age of 37. She has 4 sons and 2 daughters.
  4. Benjamin Hallowell of Alexandria.
  5. She died in 1872.
  6. On the Pamunkey River.