Robert E. Lee”They say you had to see him to believe that a man so fine could exist. Hewas handsome. He was clever. He was brave. He was gentle. He was generousand charming, noble and modest, admired and beloved. He had never failed atanything in his upright soldier’s life. He was born a winner, this RobertE. Lee. Except for once. In the greatest contest of his life, in a warbetween the South and the North, Robert E. Lee lost” (Redmond). Through hislife, Robert E. Lee would prove to be always noble, always a gentleman, andalways capable of overcoming the challenge lying before him. Robert Edward Lee was born on January 19, 1807 (Compton’s). He was borninto one of Virginia’s most respected families. The Lee family had moved toAmerica during the mid 1600’s. Some genealogist can trace the Lee’s rootsback to William the Conqueror. Two members of the Lee family had signed theDeclaration of Independence, Richard Lee and Francis Lightfoot. Charles Leehad served as attorney General under the Washington administration whileRichard Bland Lee, had become one of Virginia’s leading Federalists.
Needless to say, the Lees were an American Political dynasty (Nash 242).
Lee’s father was General Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee. He had been aheroic cavalry leader in the American Revolution. He married his cousinMatilda. They had four children, but Matilda died in 1790. On her death bedshe added insult to injury upon Henry Lee by leaving her estate to herchildren. She feared Henry would squander the family fortune. He was wellknown for poor investments and schemes that had depleted his own family’sfortune (Connelly 5).
Henry Lee solved his financial problems by marrying Robert’s mother AnneCarter, daughter of one of Virginia’s wealthiest men (Nash 242). Henry Leeeventually spent his family into debt. Their stately mansion, StratfordHall, was turned over to Robert’s half brother. Anne Lee moved with herchildren to a simple brick house in Alexandria. Light Horse Harry wasseldom around. Finally, in 1813 he moved to the West Indies. His self-exilebecame permanent, and he was never seen again by his family (Thomas).
Young Robert had other family problems. His mother became very ill. At theage of twelve he had to shoulder the load of not only being the family’sprovider, but also his mother’s nurse. When time came for Robert to attendcollege, it was obvious his mother could not support him financially. Shewas already supporting his older brother at Harvard and three otherchildren in school. In 1824 he accepted an appointment to the United StatesMilitary Academy. During his time at West Point Lee distinguished himselfas a soldier and a student. Lee graduated with honors in 1829 (Nash 245).
His graduation was dampened by a call to the bedside of his ailing mother.
When he arrived home he found his fifty-four year old mother close todeath. A death caused by struggles and illnesses of her difficult life.
Robert was always close to his mother. He again attended to her needs untilher death. On July 10, 1829, Anne Lee died with Robert, her closest son, ather side. Forty years later Robert would stand in the same room and say,”It seems but yesterday” that his beloved mother died (Connelly 6).
While awaiting his first assignment, Lee frequently visited Arlington, theestate of George Washington Parke Custis. Custis was the grandson of MarthaWashington and the adopted son of George Washington. After Martha’s deathCustis left Mount Vernon and used his inheritance to build Arlington in1778. Arlington was set on a hill over looking the Potomac river andWashington D.C. (NPS Arlington House). Custis had only one daughter, MaryAnna Randolph. Mary had been pampered and petted throughout her life. Lee’sCourtship with Mary soon turned serious, before long they were thinking ofmarriage. However, before Robert could propose he was assigned to CockspurIsland, Georgia. Robert returned to Arlington in 1830. He and Mary decided to get married.
The two were married on June 30, 1831(Nash 248). Shortly there after theLees went to Fort Monroe. Mary was never happy here. She soon went back toArlington. Mary hated army life. She would, for the most part, stay atArlington throughout the rest of Robert’s time in the United States Army.
The fact that he was separated from his family, and that he was slow tomove up in rank, left Lee feeling quite depressed a great deal of the time.
Over the next decade Robert became very frustrated by his career and life.
Lee’s life had become a mosaic of dull post assignments, long absences fromfamily, and slow promotion. Lee began to regard himself as a failure (Nash248). Lee was on the verge of resigning from the army all together, when onMay 13, 1946, word came that the United States had declared war on Mexico. The outbreak of war with Mexico provided Lee his first real chance at fieldservice. In January of 1847 he was selected by General Winfield Scott toserve with other young promising officers. These officers included: P.G.T.
Beauregard and George McClellan on his personal staff (Connelly 8). Duringthe Mexican War Lee won the praise and respect of Scott as well as manyother young officers that he would serve with and against later.
As the years passed Mary Lee was left at Arlington. She was left to manageher fathers grand estate, plantation really, by herself. Time had taken itstoll on Mary Lee. She had become an ageing woman, crippled with arthritis,and left alone by her career Army officer’s duty assignments elsewhere(Kelly 39). At the news of his father-in-laws death, Lee was able to takeofficial leave and hurry home. Upon his arrival he was shocked by the stateof his wife’s health. As she herself had written to a friend, “I almostdread his seeing my crippled state”(Kelly 39). Lee was able to extend hisleave indefinitely. He became, in essence, a farmer. He was still able tosome duties in the army. These usually involved dull service such as a seaton a court-martial. However, there was one such duty that proved to be muchmore important. In October of 1859 he was sent to quell John Brown’s bloodyraid at Harpers Ferry (Grimsley). In the nations capital, setting justbelow Arlington, there were heated debates over states’ rights union versesdisunion, and slavery. All the salons of Congress and in the salons andsaloons of the politically charged capital city, there was debate (Kelly 40).
After three years at home, Lee finally had to return to full time Armyduty. He was posted in Texas. While Lee was in Texas the controversy overstates’ rights grew worse. On January 21, 1861 five Southern Senate membersannounced before a packed audience in the Senate galleries that theirrespective states had seceded. With that, each gathered their things anddeparted. Soon Texas seceded too, and Lee was ordered home to Washington,to report to the Army’s ranking officer, General Winfield Scott. Leearrived at Arlington on March 1st. He now faced a very momentous personaldecision. After the firing on of Fort Sumpter, the first shots of the CivilWar, Lee was offered command of the Federal Army by Abraham Lincoln. Leewas offered command of an army that was charged with the duty of invadingthe South. A south that included Virginia, a Virginia that Lee truly loved.
On the morning of April 19th, Lee returned from nearby Alexandria with newsthat Virginia to had seceded. The Lees had their supper together. Lee thenwent, alone, to his upstairs bedroom. Below, Mary listened as he paced thefloor above, then heard a mild thump as he fell to his knees in prayer.
Below, she also prayed (Kelly 41).
Hours later he showed her two letters he had written. In one he resignedhis commission in the United States Army. In the other, he expressedpersonal thoughts to General Scott. Later, his wife would write: “Myhusband has wept tears of blood over this terrible war, but as a man ofhonor and a Virginian, he must follow the destiny of his State” (Kelley 41).
Only two days after his resignation from the United States Army, Leetravelled to Richmond to accept his commission as a General in theConfederate army J. Davis-Papers). Lee’s impact was felt immediately on theconfederacy. As a seasoned military strategist, he brought the mostcomprehensive, technologically advanced knowledge of warfare to bearagainst his own former army (Nash 257). General Lee’s first campaign in what was to become West Virginia was not agreat success. Command of the Eastern Army was divided between the hero ofFort Sumpter, P.G.T. Beauragard, and Joseph Johnston who together won thefirst big battle of the East, Bull Run. Thus Joseph Johnston was in commandwhen George B. McClellan started his march on Richmond. When Johnston wentdown with wounds it was easy for Davis to replace him with General Lee. Leeimmediately took charge and attacked, trying to make up for his numberswith audacity. He drove the Union army back about 25 miles, but was unableto destroy it in a series of continuous battles known as the Seven DaysBattle.
In September of 1862, McClellan attacked Lee at the Battle of Antietam.
McClellan attacked Lee but failed to break his lines. Lee, realising thathe was in a dangerous position and far from his supplies, retreated andtook up a defensive position behind the Rappangonnock River in northernVirginia. Here General Ambrose E. Burnside, who succeeded McClellan,attacked Lee in December at the Battle of Fredricksburg and met a bloodyrepulse. As the year of 1862 closed, Lee had given the Confederacy itsgreatest victories and had become an idol of the Southern people (Comptons).
Lee’s Greatest victory was the Battle of Chancelorsville in May of 1863.
Lee was faced with a larger army led by fighting Joe Hooker. Lee and hismost trusted lieutenant, General “Stonewall” Jackson, divided their forcesand through a forced march around General Hooker fell on his exposed flank,rolling it up, and defeating the Union forces yet again (Brinkley 404).
After Chancellorsville, Lee started an offensive movement he hoped wouldwin the war, an invasion of Pennsylvania. This led to the greatest landbattle in the Western Hemisphere, Gettysburg. The Army of Northern Virginialed by Lee, and the Army of the Potomac led by General George Meade,hammered each other for three days. On the 3rd day of battle General Leehoping to end the war ordered the great frontal assault popularly known asPickett’s Charge. The attack was a huge failure (Brinkley 405). Lee blamedonly himself.
For the next two years, Lee commanded an Army that was poorly supplied andgetting increasingly smaller. Lee had to go on the defensive. He inflictedheavy losses on Grant at the battles of The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, andCold Harbor (Brasington).
By April 9th 1865 Lee had no choice but to surrender to Grant. Lee metGrant at Appomatox Courthouse. As Grant walked in the meeting room, wearinga dusty privates uniform, he must have been humbled by the man who rose togreet him. Lee was wearing a noble grey uniform with a polished sword athis side. Grant and Lee then decided on the terms of the surrender. Leeasked Grant if his soldiers could keep their horses. Grant answered, “Iinsist upon it.” As Lee rode back to his camp, Confederate troopssurrounded him saying, “General are we surrendered? They vowed to go onfighting (Nash).
After the war many men came to Lee and said: “Let’s not accept this resultas final. Let’s keep the anger alive.” Lee answered by saying, “Make yoursons Americans.” When the war was lost Robert E. Lee took a job aspresident of Washington College, a College of forty students and fourprofessors. Over his time he had trained thousands of men to be soldiers,and had seen many of those thousands killed in battle. Now he wanted toprepare forty of them for the duties of peace (Redmond).
————————————————————————Works CitiedBrasington, Larry, The American Revolution-an HTML project.
Brinkley, Alan, American History. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995.
Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia. Computer Software. Compton’s NewMedia,Inc,1994.
Connelly, Thomas L. The Marble Man. New York: Knopf, 1977.
Davis, Jefffers, The Papers.http://www.ruf .edu/~pjdavis/lee/htm, 11/6/97.
Grimsley, Wayne. “The Differences Deepen.” Starkville, MS, 11 Nov. 1997.
(Class lecture delivered at Mississippi State University.)Kelly, Brian. Best Little Stories From The Civil War. Charlottesville, VA:Montpelier Publishing, 1996.
Nash, Roderick, and Graves, Gregory. From These Beginnings. New York:HarperCollins, 1995.
National Park Service. Http://www.nps.gov/gwmp/arl_hse.html., 11/6/97.
Redmond, Louis. He Lost a War and Won Immortality.
Http://www-scf.usc.edu/~herron nva.html, 11/6/97.
Thomas, Emory. Robert E. Lee.