The Only Man to Beat Robert E. Lee in an Even Fight

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2012-2013, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the October 2012 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

There are some who consider Robert E. Lee the greatest military leader of the Civil War. But Ulysses S. Grant beat Robert E. Lee, which calls into question the claim that Lee was the greatest military leader of the Civil War. However, that wasn’t an even fight, and even if detractors of Lee and admirers of Grant refuse to admit that it wasn’t an even fight, it doesn’t change that fact. Nevertheless, there was someone who did beat Robert E. Lee in an even fight, and that person was Charles Mason.

Lee graduated second in the West Point Class of 1829. Mason finished first, which means that Mason beat Lee in an even competition. Some other notable members of the Class of 1829 are Joseph E. Johnston (number 13), Theophilus Holmes (another Confederate general, who graduated third from the bottom), and John F. Kennedy (number 14, although not the John F. Kennedy who was the 35th U.S. President). Mason finished with a total of 1,995.5 points out of a possible 2,000; Lee finished with 1,966.5 points, 29 points less than Mason or about 1.5% behind him. Both Lee and Mason had no demerits, as did three other members of the Class of 1829. Since Mason graduated from the U.S. Military Academy ahead of Lee, why have we not read about the illustrious military career of Charles Mason? The reason is that Mason did not have a military career, which is not to say that Mason did not have a distinguished career.

Charles Mason

Mason was born in Onondaga County, New York on October 24, 1804. After graduating from West Point, he taught engineering there for two years and then resigned from the army to attend law school in New York City. Mason practiced law for two years and then worked for the New York Evening Post on its editorial staff, eventually serving as Acting Editor. In 1836 he moved to Wisconsin Territory, and a year later he married Angelica Gear. The couple lived on a farm near Burlington and had three daughters. Iowa, which had been part of Wisconsin Territory, became a separate territory in 1838, and President Martin Van Buren appointed Mason Chief Justice of the Iowa Territory Supreme Court. Mason’s first decision was his most famous. Citing the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Mason ruled that a Missouri slave named Ralph, who had been sent to Iowa by his master, was not required to return to slavery. This ruling is contrary to the Dred Scott Decision, which came almost 20 years later. Mason remained on the Iowa Supreme Court for nine years, up to and for a short time after Iowa became a state. Subsequently Mason was appointed U.S. Commissioner of Patents, was elected to the Iowa State Board of Education, and founded a patent law firm.

Charles Mason’s tombstone

During the Civil War, Mason became a Peace Democrat. Although he opposed secession and slavery, he asserted that the constitutional rights of the southern states must be protected. Mason disagreed with almost all of Abraham Lincoln’s policies and used the Dubuque Herald, a Democratic newspaper, to give voice to his Copperhead beliefs in a series of anonymous letters signed simply “X.” He once stated that the Union “can never be perpetuated by force of arms and that a republican government held together by the sword becomes a military Despotism.” Mason was the Democratic candidate for governor of Iowa twice, in 1861 and 1867, and was defeated both times. After his second gubernatorial loss, Mason withdrew from prominence, but remained active for the rest of his life in local affairs in his home city of Burlington. On February 25, 1882, at the age of 77, the man who finished ahead of Robert E. Lee at West Point died in obscurity at his farm.

Charles Mason wrote in his diary in 1864, “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.” Because of Mason’s career choices, we can never know if that would have happened, and it may be that some people view Mason as a person who never fulfilled the great promise he showed at the U.S. Military Academy. But this is an unfair judgment of someone who lived a varied and productive life and contributed to society in a number of ways. It can be argued that a different quote by Charles Mason sums up his life better, and this quote also applies to the person who finished second to Mason at West Point. Reflecting on the turbulent years during and shortly after the Civil War and his part in those years, Mason wrote in his diary, “I played the game of life at a great crisis and lost. I must be satisfied.”