Friday, November 2, 2007
The man who bested R E Lee
In the NFL during the 1970's the Raiders and the Steelers fought for supremacy in the AFC. Their rivalry was a true contest because the teams were evenly matched and they were the best of the best in football. John Madden once said that a rivalry is only good when both teams were good. The same thing can be said about people who are rivals.You already know that this blog is about RE Lee and that name automatically sends images to your head. You think of the white beard, the gray uniform and the engraved sword around his waist.
With that in your brain I put forth the name of Lee's lifetime rival...Charles Mason.Both men were fellow cadets at West Point and fought each other with pens and their abilities rather than with swords. Charles Mason was a New Yorker and Lee was a Virginian so that in itself was a rivalry during the 19th Century. Both men were equal in abilities in all subject areas at West Point but when the graduation came for both men in 1829 Mason was #1 in his class and Lee was #2. How did this happen? How was the great R.E. Lee bested by a Mason? These are the questions that I will try to answer for you in today's blog entry.I have been reading Pryor's book Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through his Private Letters for a while now. In the book Pryor describes the situation between Mason and Lee at West Point but I have been exposed to it before. Like the Steelers versus the Raiders in the 1970's you have to look at the final result of their battles to see who bested who. So to make this long story short lets go inside the numbers.According to West Point records, Pryor and other Lee biographers Charles Mason received 1,995 1/2 out of a possible 2,000 marks in his four years at West Point. Robert Edward Lee earned 1,966 1/2. Mason beat Lee by 29 marks which is pretty good but the close score tells us that both men were very close in intelligence, organization and leadership. Mason's only flaws were in French and drawing because he lost 4 1/2 marks in both subjects. However, scoring as high as Mason did in all the subjects is remarkable and I would argue that he was the best West Point cadet ever. Lee and Mason were tied in Tactics, Artillery and Conduct but Mason surpassed Lee in every other subject.
Lee is famous because he didn't earn a single demerit at West Point meaning that he broke no rules at the Academy. Mason even bested Lee in this area because he didn't earn a single demerit. So who won? The obvious answer is that Charles Mason outperformed Robert E. Lee OVERALL.I will put forth an argument that their rivalry didn't end with their graduation in 1829 but continued throughout their lives. (If I compared this situation to football, Mason has a 7-0 lead over R.E. Lee. I am having so much fun with this blog!) Two years after graduating Mason chose to leave the military and become a patent lawyer. Mason also worked in politics and remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War. He did serve as a copperhead, was opposed to the war itself and he did not support Abraham Lincoln's presidency.In terms of history the average person doesn't know of Charles Mason and if they do they only know that he beat Lee at West Point. I guess Lee ended up beating Mason in that regard because he is ranked as one of the greatest generals in history. Therefore who was better off in the end when you compare their fame? The obvious answer is that Robert E. Lee outperformed Charles Mason OVERALL.Rivalries always include jealousy and this one is not exception. Three years of war made Lee into the legendary "Gray Fox" and his former rival took note of this ability. "General Lee is winning great renown as a great captain, some of the English writers place him next to Napoleon and Wellington. I once excelled him and might have been his equal yet perhaps if I had remained in the army as he did. I sometimes regard his fame as a reproach to myself." Mason is obviously jealous of Robert E. Lee's fame and ability. Maybe he felt that his superiority at West Point wasn't as dominate as he thought? But it is easy to conclude that Mason not only knew that Lee surpassed him in historical fame but that he Mason felt that he would be forgotten to history.
Again I raise the question...do you know who Charles Mason was prior to this blog? If you did do you know of any of his other accomplishments? Most likely you don't and neither did I until I read about it more and searched for more information.Perhaps Mason saw the writing on the wall and he realized that he had barely beaten an man who would hold a higher historical podium than himself. But when I examined the Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Lee by Douglas Southall Freeman I found Lee's four year scores. Freeman used West Point records to reveal Lees grades in all areas. Just because Mason beat Lee that doesn't mean that Lee didn't put up a good fight. After all this was the ultimate rivalry at West Point.Out of 300 possible points in Math R.E. Lee earned 286. 98 1/2 out of 100 in French, Natural Philosophy 295 out of 300, 97 out of 100 in drawing, 293 out of 300 in engineering, 99 out of 100 in chemistry, 199 out of 200 in Geography, Rhetoric and Moral Philosophy, 200 out of 200 in Tactics, 100 out of 100 in Artillery and 300 out of 300 in Conduct. Lee was no slouch and Mason should've had more pride than that because he beat out one of the greatest students in the history of the academy. However, he knew that history would always rank Lee ahead of himself. This fact must have really frustrated the old man until his dying day. Lee was loved and received a high public burial and was worshipped in books and papers from 1870-1882.
One imagines old man Mason reading these with great disdain. Furthermore I wonder how Mason would feel if he knew that the dodge charger in the Dukes of Hazzard was named after General Lee.Besides jealousy another component of a great rivalry is hatred. I found nothing to indicated that Mason hated Lee but if you reread that quote a possibility of that emotion is masked within those words. I guess we may never know if Mason despised Lee but I will keep my eye out for further evidence and post it if possible. I am not downplaying Mason's achievements in life because he had a civil career of some eminence. It is believed that Mason was perhaps the most effective Commissioner in the nineteenth century. As a judge in Iowa territory in he did some great things which were precursors to the Dred Scott decision of the 1850's. He also did some minor things but when you look at them they are as amazing as some of Lee's battlefield victories that he was so jealous of. For a time Mason served as director of the Smithsonian Institution and of the Naval Observatory. Also, he instituted the system which later became the United States Weather Bureau and we know how important that is today!Charles Mason did beat Robert E. Lee in one other thing besides West Point. Lee died in 1870 but Mason outlived his former rival by twelve years when he passed in 1882.
So ended the greatest rivalry in West Points cherished history. (Back to the football theme, Mason outliving Lee and beating him at West Point gave him two touchdowns but I would give Lee three touchdowns for his fame alone. Final Score: Lee 21 Mason 14. I guess the two old men had one more close matchup!)Before I close I wanted to tell you about the men who placed third and fourth in Mason/Lee's class at West Point. William Harford ranked number 3, Joseph A. Smith ranked 4 and James Barnes was fifth. To round out the lives of the top three, William Harford served in various army posts until 1833 after teaching Mathematics at West Point. After leaving the armed forces he took a job as Chief Engineer in New Orleans of the Lake Pontchartrain Canal. He died at his post on January 19, 1836. Ironically, the date of his death is Robert E. Lee's birthday the man who beat him for second place in the West Point class of 1829.
Sources and more information:
Pryor, Elizabeth Brown, and Robert E. Lee. Reading the Man A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Lettters. New York: Viking, 2007.
The class of 1829 can be viewed here from the offical West Point records:
More info. on Lee, Mason and Harford are here: