There’s only one thing more disconcerting that waking up and hearing strange noises in the night. Waking up and finding a stranger in your bed is worse. Even if it’s only a small child.
One of my favorite anecdotes of any Civil War general deals precisely with that situation. Like many other Civil War generals, this one got his first taste of battle in the Mexican-American War. That war, fought between 1846 and 1848, was like a training ground for many of the West Point graduates. For a brief period of time, they all fought side by side, only to fight against each other thirteen years later.
It was in August 1846 when it happened. He was on his way to the war, travelling aboard a steamer. The passengers consisted of 66 mules, quartered in the “Ladies Saloon,” a young soldier’s wife journeying to the front to find her husband, her little daughter, and my general, who at that point was a captain. He and the soldier’s wife had neighboring cabins in a section of the boat labeled, in gold letters, “Ladies Private Apartments.” The sole three human passengers reached their cabins by passing under a sign “Gentlemen Not Admitted.” That the future general was allowed to sleep there was probably an exception to give more room to the mules.
One night, the little girl apparently used the head and wandered back to the wrong cabin.
The future general wrote about it in a letter to his family the following day. “I was dreaming of you all last night & thought [our] daughter was in the bed with me & I was wondering how she should be so small when lo & behold when I awoke in the morning and found it was little Agnes. But I did not see that precious Mildred [one of his daughters].”
There’s no additional information about little Agnes and her mother; they remain unidentified and lost to history. But I’ve often wondered if Agnes, who was probably a teenager during the Civil War, ever remembered the incident and realized she had spent half a night in the arms of the now-famous general.
The general was Robert E. Lee, but it could have also been Ulysses S. Grant, Nathan Bedford Forrest, or George Gordon Meade for all it matters. The point is that none of those men were made of wax or marble; they were flesh and blood, like us. When they were at home, their children slept in their beds, and at least once, in the morning, one of them returned a lost, sleeping girl to her mother.
Literature on point
Emory M. Thomas, Robert E. Lee: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995) p. 113.
Robert E. Lee to Mary Custis Lee, August 13, 1846, Lee Family Papers, Mss1L51c50, Virginia Historical Society.Read More
The Mississippi as the key to commerce
Even if the Civil War never happened, and even if Robert E. Lee never became president of Washington and Lee University, we would still probably know him today. He changed American history not only as a general and university administrator, but as an engineer. His most celebrated engineering feat? He made the Mississippi River navigable.
Let’s put that feat into perspective.
If you were a Midwest farmer in the 1830s, you’d need to find people to buy your harvest. Who would that be? Certainly not the folks from the next farm over. Before the era of the railroad, canals and inland waterways were the main types of transportation for transferring produce to the places where people needed them the most: the cities. As farmers moved further west, the Mississippi played an increasingly significant role. As Michael Korda wrote, “The great river that Indians called the ‘Father of the Waters’ was then America’s most important path of trade and communication, linking the grain of the Northwest and the cotton of the upper Mississippi with the thriving port of New Orleans…. It is hard to exaggerate the importance of these problems in the age before decent roads or railways existed in what is now the Midwest – goods in bulk moved by river or did not move at all.”
St. Louis was the major harbor for the Midwest. But that suddenly changed in the 1830s. Changing currents began to deposit silt in the St. Louis harbor, choking it and blocking shipping.
Robert E. Lee tames the Mississippi
The army sent Lee to St. Louis in 1837 to solve the problems. Lee had been working with the Army Corps of Engineers since graduating second in his class at West Point in 1829.
Lee’s genius was his ability to work with the river, not against it. Better than digging out a harbor is go to upstream and figure out how to lay new switches and alter the current. Lee figured out a way to let the water do the hard work. Directly upstream, he constructed two dykes off the points of the mile-long Bloody Island, blocking the current on the Illinois side and diverting it to St. Louis. By the end of the construction season, the channel to the harbor had already deepened by seven feet, allowing boats to enter again.
As Michael Korda notes, this engineering feat would have earned Robert E. Lee fame and the gratitude of the Midwest even if it weren’t for his military achievements. He opened the Mississippi to hundreds of steamboats and made the Midwest the granary of North America. That is a fitting tribute for today. January 19 is Robert E. Lee’s birthday.
What do you think the country’s greatest engineering feat was? I’ll vote for putting men on the moon.
Literature on point:
Douglas Southall Freeman, R. E. Lee (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons 1934)
Michael Korda, Clouds of Glory: The Life of Robert E. Lee (Harper 2014)Read More