Destined to be one of the most illustrious graduates of West Point, a young Virginian awaited assignment in the mid-summer of 1829 to his first tour of duty in the Army. The recent honor of finishing second in the Academy class of 1829 had been forgotten in his intense grief over the death of his mother on July 10. This sad disruption of his mother's home at Georgetown, in the District of Columbia, soon led him to a temporary sojourn with his friends and relatives in Fauquier County, Va. Here Brevet Second Lt. Robert E. Lee received, on August 11, his first official orders from Brig. Gen. Charles Gratiot, Chief of Engineers, that he must "by the middle of November next, report to Maj. Samuel Babcock of the corps of Engineers for duty at Cockspur Island, in the Savannah River Ga."
The assignment to Cockspur Island, at the mouth of the Savannah, must certainly have held little allure for the young lieutenant of Engineers. The undertaking to build a fort on this marshy and isolated island was then of comparatively recent origin. The commanding officer on the island, Major Babcock, had begun his preliminary surveys in December of the previous year, and the project had been suspended in June 1829 for the hot months, while he was on leave in the North. A stupendous task yet awaited the superior and his youthful subordinate. But orders were to be obeyed, and, on September 27, Lieutenant Lee notified General Gratiot that he would remain in Fauquier County until late in October, when he would depart for Savannah.