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Biography of Robert Edward Lee

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    They say you had to see him to believe that a man so fine could exist. He

    was handsome. He was clever. He was brave. He was gentle. He was generous

    and charming, noble and modest, admired and beloved. He had never failed at

    anything in his upright soldier’s life. He was born a winner, this Robert

    E. Lee. Except for once. In the greatest contest of his life, in a war

    between the South and the North, Robert E. Lee lost” (Redmond). Through his

    life, Robert E. Lee would prove to be always noble, always a gentleman, and

    always capable of overcoming the challenge lying before him.

    Robert Edward Lee was born on January 19, 1807 (Compton’s). He was born

    into one of Virginia’s most respected families. The Lee family had moved to

    America during the mid 1600’s. Some genealogist can trace the Lee’s roots

    back to William the Conqueror. Two members of the Lee family had signed the

    Declaration of Independence, Richard Lee and Francis Lightfoot. Charles Lee

    had served as attorney General under the Washington administration while

    Richard 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 a

    heroic cavalry leader in the American Revolution. He married his cousin

    Matilda. They had four children, but Matilda died in 1790. On her death bed

    she added insult to injury upon Henry Lee by leaving her estate to her

    children. She feared Henry would squander the family fortune. He was well

    known for poor investments and schemes that had depleted his own family’s

    Henry Lee solved his financial problems by marrying Robert’s mother Anne

    Carter, daughter of one of Virginia’s wealthiest men (Nash 242). Henry Lee

    eventually spent his family into debt. Their stately mansion, Stratford

    Hall, was turned over to Robert’s half brother. Anne Lee moved with her

    children to a simple brick house in Alexandria. Light Horse Harry was

    seldom around. Finally, in 1813 he moved to the West Indies. His self-exile

    became permanent, and he was never seen again by his family (Thomas).

    Young Robert had other family problems. His mother became very ill. At the

    age of twelve he had to shoulder the load of not only being the family’s

    provider, but also his mother’s nurse. When time came for Robert to attend

    college, it was obvious his mother could not support him financially. She

    was already supporting his older brother at Harvard and three other

    children in school. In 1824 he accepted an appointment to the United States

    Military Academy. During his time at West Point Lee distinguished himself

    as 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 to

    death. A death caused by struggles and illnesses of her difficult life.

    Robert was always close to his mother. He again attended to her needs until

    her death. On July 10, 1829, Anne Lee died with Robert, her closest son, at

    her 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, the

    estate of George Washington Parke Custis. Custis was the grandson of Martha

    Washington and the adopted son of George Washington. After Martha’s death

    Custis left Mount Vernon and used his inheritance to build Arlington in

    1778. Arlington was set on a hill over looking the Potomac river and

    Washington D.C. (NPS Arlington House). Custis had only one daughter, Mary

    Anna Randolph. Mary had been pampered and petted throughout her life. Lee’s

    Courtship with Mary soon turned serious, before long they were thinking of

    marriage. However, before Robert could propose he was assigned to Cockspur

    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 the

    Lees went to Fort Monroe. Mary was never happy here. She soon went back to

    Arlington. Mary hated army life. She would, for the most part, stay at

    Arlington 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 to

    move 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 from

    family, and slow promotion. Lee began to regard himself as a failure (Nash

    248). Lee was on the verge of resigning from the army all together, when on

    May 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 field

    service. In January of 1847 he was selected by General Winfield Scott to

    serve with other young promising officers. These officers included: P.G.T.

    Beauregard and George McClellan on his personal staff (Connelly 8). During

    the Mexican War Lee won the praise and respect of Scott as well as many

    other young officers that he would serve with and against later.

    As the years passed Mary Lee was left at Arlington. She was left to manage

    her fathers grand estate, plantation really, by herself. Time had taken its

    toll 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 take

    official leave and hurry home. Upon his arrival he was shocked by the state

    of his wife’s health. As she herself had written to a friend, “I almost

    dread his seeing my crippled state”(Kelly 39). Lee was able to extend his

    leave indefinitely. He became, in essence, a farmer. He was still able to

    some duties in the army. These usually involved dull service such as a seat

    on a court-martial. However, there was one such duty that proved to be much

    more important. In October of 1859 he was sent to quell John Brown’s bloody

    raid at Harpers Ferry (Grimsley). In the nations capital, setting just

    below Arlington, there were heated debates over states’ rights union verses

    disunion, and slavery. All the salons of Congress and in the salons and

    saloons of the politically charged capital city, there was debate (Kelly 40).

    After three years at home, Lee finally had to return to full time Army

    duty. He was posted in Texas. While Lee was in Texas the controversy over

    states’ rights grew worse. On January 21, 1861 five Southern Senate members

    announced before a packed audience in the Senate galleries that their

    respective states had seceded. With that, each gathered their things and

    departed. Soon Texas seceded too, and Lee was ordered home to Washington,

    to report to the Army’s ranking officer, General Winfield Scott. Lee

    arrived at Arlington on March 1st. He now faced a very momentous personal

    decision. After the firing on of Fort Sumpter, the first shots of the Civil

    War, Lee was offered command of the Federal Army by Abraham Lincoln. Lee

    was offered command of an army that was charged with the duty of invading

    the South. A south that included Virginia, a Virginia that Lee truly loved.

    On the morning of April 19th, Lee returned from nearby Alexandria with news

    that Virginia to had seceded. The Lees had their supper together. Lee then

    went, alone, to his upstairs bedroom. Below, Mary listened as he paced the

    floor above, then heard a mild thump as he fell to his knees in prayer.

    Hours later he showed her two letters he had written. In one he resigned

    his commission in the United States Army. In the other, he expressed

    personal thoughts to General Scott. Later, his wife would write: “My

    husband has wept tears of blood over this terrible war, but as a man of

    honor and a Virginian, he must follow the destiny of his State” (Kelley 41).

    Only two days after his resignation from the United States Army, Lee

    travelled to Richmond to accept his commission as a General in the

    Confederate army J. Davis-Papers). Lee’s impact was felt immediately on the

    confederacy. As a seasoned military strategist, he brought the most

    comprehensive, technologically advanced knowledge of warfare to bear

    against his own former army (Nash 257).

    General Lee’s first campaign in what was to become West Virginia was not a

    great success. Command of the Eastern Army was divided between the hero of

    Fort Sumpter, P.G.T. Beauragard, and Joseph Johnston who together won the

    first big battle of the East, Bull Run. Thus Joseph Johnston was in command

    when George B. McClellan started his march on Richmond. When Johnston went

    down with wounds it was easy for Davis to replace him with General Lee. Lee

    immediately took charge and attacked, trying to make up for his numbers

    with audacity. He drove the Union army back about 25 miles, but was unable

    to destroy it in a series of continuous battles known as the Seven Days

    In September of 1862, McClellan attacked Lee at the Battle of Antietam.

    McClellan attacked Lee but failed to break his lines. Lee, realising that

    he was in a dangerous position and far from his supplies, retreated and

    took up a defensive position behind the Rappangonnock River in northern

    Virginia. Here General Ambrose E. Burnside, who succeeded McClellan,

    attacked Lee in December at the Battle of Fredricksburg and met a bloody

    repulse. As the year of 1862 closed, Lee had given the Confederacy its

    greatest 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 his

    most trusted lieutenant, General “Stonewall” Jackson, divided their forces

    and 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 would

    win the war, an invasion of Pennsylvania. This led to the greatest land

    battle in the Western Hemisphere, Gettysburg. The Army of Northern Virginia

    led 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 Lee

    hoping to end the war ordered the great frontal assault popularly known as

    Pickett’s Charge. The attack was a huge failure (Brinkley 405). Lee blamed

    For the next two years, Lee commanded an Army that was poorly supplied and

    getting increasingly smaller. Lee had to go on the defensive. He inflicted

    heavy losses on Grant at the battles of The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and

    By April 9th 1865 Lee had no choice but to surrender to Grant. Lee met

    Grant at Appomatox Courthouse. As Grant walked in the meeting room, wearing

    a dusty privates uniform, he must have been humbled by the man who rose to

    greet him. Lee was wearing a noble grey uniform with a polished sword at

    his side. Grant and Lee then decided on the terms of the surrender. Lee

    asked Grant if his soldiers could keep their horses. Grant answered, “I

    insist upon it.” As Lee rode back to his camp, Confederate troops

    surrounded him saying, “General are we surrendered? They vowed to go on

    After the war many men came to Lee and said: “Let’s not accept this result

    as final. Let’s keep the anger alive.” Lee answered by saying, “Make your

    sons Americans.” When the war was lost Robert E. Lee took a job as

    president of Washington College, a College of forty students and four

    professors. 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 to

    prepare forty of them for the duties of peace (Redmond).

    ————————————————————————

    Brasington, Larry, The American Revolution-an HTML project.

    Http://odur.let.rug.nl~usa/B/relee/htm, 11/23/97.

    Brinkley, Alan, American History. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995.

    Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia. Computer Software. Compton’s NewMedia,

    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:

    Nash, Roderick, and Graves, Gregory. From These Beginnings. New York:

    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.

    Http://xroads.virginia.edu/~CAP/LEE.lifle.html, 11/17/97.

    ————————————————————————

    Works Citied

    Brasington, Larry, The American Revolution-an HTML project.

    Http://odur.let.rug.nl~usa/B/relee/htm, 11/23/97.

    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.

    Http://xroads.virginia.edu/~CAP/LEE.lifle.html, 11/17/97.

     

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