A Letter to His Son
Arlington House, April 5, 1852
My dear son:
I am just in the act of leaving for New Mexico. My fine old regiment has been ordered to that distant region, and I must hasten to see that they are properly taken care of. I have but little to add in reply to your letter of March 26. Your letters breathe a true spirit of frankness; they have given myself and your mother great pleasure.
You must study to be frank with the world. Frankness is the child of honesty and courage. Say just what you mean to do, on every occasion, and take it for granted that you mean to do right. If a friend asks a favor, you should grant it, if it is reasonable; if not, tell him plainly why you cannot; you would wrong him and wrong yourself by equivocation of any kind.
Never do a wrong thing to make a friend or keep one; the man who requires you to do so is dearly purchased at the sacrifice. Deal kindly but firmly with all your classmates; you will find it the policy which wears best. Above all, do not appear to others what you are not.
If you have any fault to find with any one, tell him, not others, of what you complain; there is no more dangerous experiment than that of undertaking to be one thing before a man’s face and another behind his back.
We should live, act, and say nothing to the injury of any one. It is not only for the best as a matter of principle, but it is the path of peace and honor.
In regard to duty, let me, in conclusion of this hasty letter, inform you that nearly a hundred years ago there was a day of remarkable gloom and darkness — still known as “the dark day” — a day when the light of the sun was slowly extinguished, as if by an eclipse.
The Legislature of Connecticut was in session, and as its members saw the unexpected and unaccountable darkness coming on, they shared in general awe and terror. It was supposed by many that the last day — the day of judgment — had come. Some one, in the consternation of the hour, moved an adjournment.
Then there arose an old Puritan legislator, Davenport, of Stamford, and said that, if the last day had come, he desired to be found at his place doing his duty, and therefore moved that candles be brought in, so that the House could proceed with its duty.
There was quietness in that man’s mind, the quietness of heavenly wisdom and inflexible willingness to obey present duty. Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things like the old Puritan. You cannot do more; you should never wish to do less. Never let your mother or me wear one gray hair for any lack of duty on your part.
Your affectionate father,
R. E. LEE.
to G.W.Custis Lee.
The Year Was 1780
The year was 1780 and the American Revolution wasn’t going well for the Americans in the South. British forces captured Charleston and 5,400 American troops garrisoned there. During the siege, South Carolina Governor John Rutledge managed to escape and when word reached the British General Cornwallis, he sent Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton to chase Rutledge and troops under Colonel Abraham Buford who were escorting him to North Carolina. Tarleton’s men caught up with Buford’s troops near the Waxhaws District six miles south of the North Carolina state line, as Governor Rutledge continued north. Buford’s men put up a brief fight during which Tarleton’s horse was shot from under him. As the American troops began to surrender, Tarleton’s men, thinking he had been killed began renewed their attack on the surrendering Americans. More than one hundred men were killed outright and perhaps another hundred died of their wounds shortly after.
Up to that point, most thought that the South was going to remain loyal to Britain, but the Waxhaws Massacre became a rallying point for the rebels, with “Tarleton’s Quarter” becoming synonymous with “no mercy.”
The divisions in the South were apparent in the Battle of King’s Mountain, which was fought between two American forces–Tories under the command of Major Patrick Ferguson, and the “Overmountain Men,” American frontiersmen from what is now Tennessee and parts of Virginia. The Americans surrounded the Tories and this time it was they who gave “no quarter” to the surrendering Tory troops. Eventually American officers were able to reign in the troops and the battle was over. The defeat was a turning point in the Revolution in the South and forced General Cornwallis to retreat further south.
To the north, a British spy was captured with correspondence revealing that Benedict Arnold, who had recently been given command of West Point, planned to surrender it to the British. When news that the spy had been caught reached Arnold, he fled to the safety of a British ship and became a brigadier-general for the British, siding with them for the remainder of the war.
There was trouble in England as well. In 1778 a Catholic Relief Act had been passed, which reversed some of the Penal Laws of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. It allowed Roman Catholics to join the armed forces with an oath amenable to Catholics and gave them the ability to hold longer leases on land. It also ended the requirement that a Catholic distribute his lands evenly among his sons upon his death. The Catholic Relief Acts weren’t popular with some Protestants though and in 1780 Lord George Gordon established the Protestant Association in 1780. In June of that year an estimated 60,000 people marched on the House of Commons demanding the Relief Acts be repealed. The huge crowd turned violent and a week of rioting left two hundred and ninety people dead, and devasted Roman Catholic churches and related buildings, as well as the homes of prominent Catholics and supporters of the legislation. Troops had to be called in to end the rioting. Twenty-five of the leaders of the riot were hanged, but Gordon was found “not guilty” of treason.
May 19th was a dark day in New England–literally. A low-lying dark cloud that at times had a yellow and at times reddish hue descended on New England and was noted from Maine to as far south as New Jersey. It was darkest around northeastern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire and Maine, where it became so dark that candles needed to be lit to see. The cause is thought to have been a combination of low clouds that mixed with smoke and ash from a forest fire, but at the time it wasn’t known and the event caused panic for many.