A Confederate Hero Steeped in Secrets: 9 Surprising Things You Didn’t Know About Robert E. Lee

Lee’s sketch of the Keokuk Rapids below Fort Des Moines. Some of his proposals to improve inland waterways are still in use. National Archives

He was a skilled engineer, improving the national infrastructure

Lee graduated from his West Point class in 1829, second in his class. His high standing and his demonstrated proficiency with mathematics and drawing led him to enter the US Army Corps of Engineers, a prestigious appointment at the time. Engineers did more than design and erect military facilities, although Lee did engage in those activities during his career.

Of equal concern to the young nation was the improvement of navigation on the interior rivers, then the highways on which the produce of the burgeoning Midwest traveled to markets. In 1837 Lee was assigned to supervise the work of improving a port at the western outpost of St. Louis Missouri and to improve the navigational channels of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

Lee applied his engineering ingenuity to the project by devising a system of dikes upriver from St. Louis. The dikes diverted the water into channels which scoured their own deep water basins on the St. Louis side of the Mississippi, creating a deepwater port for the loading and unloading of steamboats. Using the river’s own waterpower to dig a harbor was both faster and cheaper than alternative methods of the day.

Lee also mapped rapids upriver on the Missouri at Keokuk, Iowa, with a mind to developing a channel through the rapids to allow navigation further North during times of relatively low water on the river. Although the channel was moderately successful, not until many years later would further improvements on the river ensure year-round navigation.

Lee’s reputation as an innovative engineer earned him an assignment to Fort Hamilton, in New York and national acclaim as an officer. He also helped to justify the existence of the Military Academy, a frequent target of politicians of the day as an overly expensive luxury.