Un Vaincu/Chapter 2

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We pick up again a few years later with Robert Lee as a Captain, engineering in St. Louis, State of Missouri, the operations that were to regulate the course of the Mississippi.

This beautiful river, 6,000 kilometers long [1] crosses the whole territory of the Union and serves as principal commercial route between 10 states.[2] It is stupendously wide, sprinkled with islands, cut with rapids, irregular in its flow. It presents great difficulties to navigation.

Upstream from St. Louis, which was in old days, one of France's most important settlements, the Mississippi threatened to leave its bed and furrow another one. It would then have gone so far from the city that the latter would have lost all its commercial importance. Long and skillful works constrained the river to remain between its ancient banks, saved the city from ruin, and acquired for Captain Lee the reputation of a first-class engineer.

But, if work took so large a share of the young man's life, it did not absorb it entirely. Arlington received as frequent visits as the long distances permitted, and during the separations, the most tender concern never ceased to keep a watchful eye on a distant family. The Captain, returning to his post in St. Louis, writes : “You do not know how much I have missed you and the children, my dear Mary… If I could only get a squeeze at that little fellow turning up his sweet mouth to ‘keese Baba !’ You must not let him run wild in my absence, and will have to exercise firm authority over all of them. This will not require severity, or even strictness, but constant attention, and an unwavering course. Mildness and forbearance, tempered by firmness and judgment, will strengthen their affection for you, while it will maintain your control over them”

The Captain was all the more entitled to give advice because he had, to the highest level, a natural gift for education. To an almost feminine tenderness, he added the firmness that springs from a strong feeling of justice. Deeply imbued by everything noble, Robert Lee had in him what was necessary to communicate his passion.

It is said that to convince, one must be convinced. Cold moral lessons never improve anybody ; but one does not resist long to the contagion of good practiced with conviction and simplicity.

The visits to Arlington were precious moments. If the father kept in his heart the tender picture of his “little fellow,” the “little fellow,” and later on, his brothers and sisters, had a deep admiration for the great officer who, once at home, seemed to belong to them entirely. The Captain, however, was sometimes obliged to go to Washington.[3] He would only come back in the evening and his first care was to question the children on their use of the day. Often, alas, there was some mischief to report, but, in America as in Europe, it seems that the witnesses of misdeeds are more easily scandalized than their perpetrators. When the question, “What have you done today,” provoked an accounting of some mischief accomplished by a brother or a sister, “I don′t want to know what your brother has done,” the Captain would interrupt. I want to know what you have done,” and the tell-tale, ashamed, would become silent. Each child having given his account of the day, the father would begin making his own. He considered that his evening belonged to his children, and even when urgent work would oblige him to spend his night finishing it, he didn′t dream of shortening their pleasure.

War epics or travel experiences, fine deeds, described with enthusiasm, joyous tales answered by peels of laughter filled the happy evenings at Arlington. Sometimes, a youngster would confess he hadn′t finished his school work. Books and notebooks would immediately appear on the family table, the Captain would help solve the difficulties, and, after making sure lessons were learned and tasks finished, the usual entertainment would be resumed.

Captain Lee took his responsibility as an educator very seriously. His eldest, son, Custis, followed him one winter day for a long walk in the snow. His hand was nestled in his father’s hand, but gradually his hand slipped out and the child walked behind. After a few moments, the Captain looked back and saw Custis, holding himself straight, head high, trying to imitate all his father’s movements. The child was making great efforts to lay his small feet exactly in the long footprints of the Captain. “When I saw this,” said the General, “I said to myself, ‘It behooves me to walk very straight, when this fellow is already following in my tracks.”

Three sons and four daughters were born in Arlington. They all received the same care and were enveloped in the same tenderness. Their father was their only professor for riding and swimming. He remained their most intimate friend, and day after day knew how to adjust his teaching and advice to their age.

We will end our quotations with a few lines from a letter written to his eldest son, becoming a young man.

After a few precepts such as : “Never do wrong to gain or keep a friend. Whoever would give himself for that price, would not be worth the sacrifice you would make for him… don’t appear different than you are…” he adds, “As for the feeling of duty, let me give you an example : One day almost a hundred years ago, the sky became so dark that the light of the sun seemed completely out. It is still called “la journee noire”[4]. The congress of Connecticut was deliberating, and as gradually the unexpected and frightening darkness increased, the congressmen shared the general terror. Many of them thought and said that doomsday had arrived, and someone suggested to close the meeting.

“But an old Puritan[5] spoke up and said that if really the last day had arrived, he wanted to be found at his post doing his duty. for that he requested that lights be brought so that the assembly may continue its work. A great calm reigned in the soul of this man, the calm of divine wisdom, and he was possessed by the inflexible will to do his duty. The word duty is the most sublime of our language. Do it in all circumstances like the old Puritan. You can′t do much more, never allow yourself to do less. See to it that not a single of our hairs turns white through your fault.[6]

None of Captain Lee′s advice -- none of his words -- were lost for his children. His sons, though quite young, were going to accomplish what they thought was their duty on the battlefields ; and his daughters were going to devote themselves in hospitals with the same simple courage.

  1. Including the Missouri.
  2. Written in 1875.
  3. Arlington is separated from Washington by the width of the Potomac.
  4. Journee noire: The black day.
  5. Davenport de Stamfort.
  6. I failed finding the original text of Lee′s letter to his son. The text is therefore a translation into English of the French text which was a translation from English into French. How did my grandmother know of this text ? Perhaps directly from one of Lee’s daughters, with whom she had contacts.