Our Collection

At the Institute’s core is the Gilder Lehrman Collection, one of the great archives in American history. More than 70,000 items cover five hundred years of American history, from Columbus’s 1493 letter describing the New World to soldiers’ letters from World War II and Vietnam. Explore primary sources, visit exhibitions in person or online, or bring your class on a field trip.

Lee, Robert E. (1807-1870) to John MacKay

High-resolution images are available to schools and libraries via subscription to American History, 1493-1943. Check to see if your school or library already has a subscription. Or click here for more information. You may also order a pdf of the image from us here.

Gilder Lehrman Collection #: GLC03324 Author/Creator: Lee, Robert E. (1807-1870) Place Written: Fort Hamilton, New York Type: Autograph letter signed Date: 30 January 1846 Pagination: 4 p. : address : docket ; 25 x 20 cm

Written as Captain of Topological Engineers working on the defenses of New York City harbor. Written in a playful manner typical of his other letters to MacKay, a close friend. Lee worries about MacKay's lingering illness and hopes the warm Gulf air may improve his health. He discussed at length a recent snowfall and the festive atmosphere of the city. He comments merrily on the ladies and a sleigh ride down Broadway in a large "omnibus" sled where he offered a woman his seat rather than his lap since, "it would not sound well if repeated in the latitude of Wash[ingto]n that I had been riding down B[road].W[ay] with a Strange woman in my lap." He then discusses his family. Lee mentions the possibility of war with Mexico but concedes that they will do nothing but talk. Lee and MacKay met and became friends as cadets at West Point.

Fort Hamilton, N.Y.
30 Jany 1846

Upon my word John MacKay it was a high thing your going off without telling a man good bye, or even giving him a chance to see you, now was it not? I went up to your quarters the day after your departure & would not credit a raw irish girl I met who told me you were gone, especially as she said you had gone North; but having satisfied myself that you had vacated the premises I pursued you to the American. There I could gain no tidings of you, but the next time I went to the City, I went to Dr Mowers office who told me the whole story. I am glad however you reached home Safely & happily, but I think that night you were tossing about in the Gulf Stream, your conscience must have pinched you sorely for your treatment of me. When I come to Savannah I will make a struggle to tell you farewell before leaving, even though you may be as far as Sedgebank. But that appears a sore subject to me John MacKay. I am truly grieved at the failure of your Crop. What can be done to retrieve your losses? Do any thing rather than be discouraged, so long as you determine to hold your plantation. For it is ruinous to hold it & have to support it. If however you recover your health you can well spare the money, & laugh at John Jacob Astor with his millions of revenue. You must be very careful not to jeopardize it. Dr Mower regretted your leaving N.Y. very much. He said he was very sanguine of making a perfect cure of you if you Could have staid. I hope that you are still improving & that the fine weather of the Spring will restore you. We are certainly making an approach to Spring here, though it is any thing but fine weather. We had a very deep snow some 10 or 12 days ago, over 10 inches on a level, followed by severe cold & high Norwester for two or three days. This banked up the snow in parts of the road higher than the fences & during the Continuance of the wind rendered them almost impassible. After it Subsided, it required 2 or 3 days to open the roads, [2] which had to be done by excavating with shovels. Then we had fine sleighing, but the last three or four days, have been mild & rainy. The snow on the hills & the exposed parts of the roads has given place to mud, stones & ruts & [inserted: in] the valleys & lanes is cut into deep holes & trenches, so that you cannot get along on wheels or runner. Lu[c]kily I was enabled to bring my work home with me yesterday, which will give me employment for some weeks. But it was a joyous time while the Sleighing lasted, & you may depend it was made the most of. Day & Night the bells were going. And those bitter cold nights the young women Kept it up till 10 & 12 O'Clock. During its height I went up Broadway to witness it. There was not a wheel carriage to be seen, but a rushing Stream of sleighs of all sizes & descriptions flying in both directions. The corners of all cross streets into B.W. were crowded with Spectators. The men hurrahing, the women laughing & the boys Screaming with delight. There were some beautiful turn outs of Sleighs & horses. I have never Seen Such fine horses in N.Y. & the Variety of the Sleighs & richness of the furs were beyond any anticipation. But the ladies with their Smiling faces & gay dresses exceeded all. Some of the Omnibus sleighs were very large. I was in one that Carried 50 people. It was drawn by 8 horses. There were many of this Size & one belonging to the Same line Carried 75. Kip & Brown I was told was building one, to be out the [inserted: next] day, that would carry 250. There was one called the Oregon, drawn by 18 horses, all driven in hand by one man on a seat about 10 ft above them & on a platform behind him there was a full band of music. I did not learn how many passengers it carried. But they went "the whole or none." The girls returning from school were the prettiest sight; piled on each others laps with their bags of books & laughing faces. Indeed there were no lack of customers at sixpence a ride, & you might be accommodated with a lady in your lap in the bargain. Think of a man of my forbidding Countenance John MacKay having such an offer. But I peeped under her veil before accepting & though I really Could not find fault either with her appearance or age, after a little demurring preferred giving her [3] my seat. I thought it would not Sound well if repeated in the latitude of Washn that I had been riding down B.W. with a strange woman in my lap. What might my little sweethearts think of it, Miss Harriet H. among the number. Upon reflection I think I did well, for though you know I am charmed when I get one of the dear creatures on my Knee, yet I have my fancies in this as in other things. I found however I was looked upon as such a Curmudgeon by my fellow passengers that I took the first opportunity to leave them. I drove out our ladies here several times, & my little horse fairly flew over the road. I am now all by myself. Mrs. Lee & the children have all gone to Arlington. I am very solitary, but that I am kept so constantly at work I should feel it more keenly. Rooney's fingers had healed before he left me. I wanted very much to keep at least him, but did not know what to do with him when I was in N.Y. I heard from them to night. They are all very well & Mrs. C. uncommonly well. They have had some brilliant balls & parties in Washn. The last was given by Mr. Buchanan at [illegible] Saloon. There were about 1200 persons present & was quite a magnificent affair. Mrs. Matilda M. was there & I am sure no one Could have been more beautiful. I am very glad to Hear that your Mother & Sisters are well. Do remember me kindly to them. Has Mrs S. got to Savannah yet? I have been wanting to write to her but did not know where to direct. I hope she will stay in Cass all the winter by herself.
I suppose you will not be disturbed till Spring. The attention & time of Congress is so entirely absorbed with these War Speeches, that they cannot think of the wants of the country. They will do nothing else I think but talk. I hope indeed that you may spend the remainder of the winter home & enjoy yourself with your friends. I am very glad that Mrs. Huger is so well. I saw her once in Phila. before her marriage. I shall never forget her sweet eyes. Is she is [sic] pretty now as she was then? There is no Army news. Col: Bankhead has gone on to W. to stir up his Brevet. Have you Seen the Memorial to Congress from the Army of Occupation (Corpus Christi) on that Subject. I am told it was written by Hitchcock. It is signed by Twiggs, Hitchcock, [4] Payne, Jack Monroe, & Some few of the Supt field officers & a great many Capts. & Lts. Their object is to have the matter settled by Legislation, which it might to be; but I am Sorry that they did not Confine themselves to their arguments, for although they disclaim all personalities, yet the whole tone & Spirit is aimed at Genl. Scotts letter of 17 Oct. to Genl. Taylor. How often Officers of the Army injure their Cause in this way. I am so tired John Mackay that I can hardly hold a pen as you have discovered before this. I am forced to bid you good night. Remember me to my long friend Bob, your brother Wm, to the Mercers & believe me always yours
RE Lee

Fort Hamilton
N.Y. 31 Jay

[address leaf]
Captain John Mackay
U.S. Topcal Engineers

Order a CopyCitation Guidelines for Online Resources