Biography of Robert Edward Lee

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.

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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).

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Biography of Robert Edward Lee. (2018, Oct 09). Retrieved from