Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, On Leave at Arlington Plantation But Hoping to Return to Active Duty, Reports to the Army and General Scott His Location

A rare letter of Lee in the service of the United States on the eve of the Civil War

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On November 11, 1857, Robert E. Lee reached Arlington. His father-in law had just died, and Lee found his wife ill – she scarcely able to move about the house, and, though she was only forty-nine, aging very rapidly. Overnight, and without warning, he had to face the fact that his wife...

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Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, On Leave at Arlington Plantation But Hoping to Return to Active Duty, Reports to the Army and General Scott His Location

A rare letter of Lee in the service of the United States on the eve of the Civil War

On November 11, 1857, Robert E. Lee reached Arlington. His father-in law had just died, and Lee found his wife ill – she scarcely able to move about the house, and, though she was only forty-nine, aging very rapidly. Overnight, and without warning, he had to face the fact that his wife had become an invalid. That was enough to add the deepest gloom to his return. Lee soon found that Mr. Custis’s will had put a heavy burden on him. He had been named one of the four executors, and as the others failed to qualify, he had to discharge all the duties of settling a troublesome estate under a complicated testament. He applied for two months’ leave soon after he reached home, and before that expired he got an extension to December 1, 1858, by which time he hoped to be able to rejoin his regiment.

So Lee settled down in the winter of 1857‑58 to become temporarily a farmer – with scant equipment, little money, many debts, and indifferent help. He soon became restless and unsettled regarding his future. He felt that he was at the crossroads. Should he stay in the army, or was it his duty to resign and devote himself to Arlington, on which $10,000, exclusive of the payment of the debts, would have to be spent? His labor was aggravating and the results doubtful. Arlington was far more difficult to administer than West Point or a fort under construction. The rain interfered, and agrarian discontent, which was as general then as thereafter, overtook him in mid-summer. “I am getting along as usual,” he wrote Rooney in August, “trying to get a little work done and to mend up some things. I succeed very badly.” Later in the year, two of his daughters were ailing. He had to play the nurse, while attending to the farm, but he contrived to do both and still kept in contact with the army, which he clearly hoped one day to rejoin.

Major Irwin McDowell was on General John Wool’s staff during the Mexican-American War. By the conflict’s end, McDowell had become the Assistant Adjutant General for the Army. Between 1848 and 1861, McDowell also served as a staff officer to higher-ranking military leaders, particularly General Winfield Scott, who was seeking Lee’s return to the active duty in the army.

Autograph letter signed, Arlington, October 1, 1858, to McDowell, giving him (and Scott) contact information so they could reach him. “I have the honor to report that my address for the current month will be Arlington, near Alexandria, Virginia.” He signs as Lt. Col. of U.S. Cavalry.

In December 1858 Lee obtained an extension of his leave from the army. He returned to the U.S. service in 1860, but resigned in 1861 to join the Confederate forces.

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