Robert Edward Lee is considered one of the greatest generals in the history of the United States. Lee was opposed to many views of the south, including succession and slavery, yet his loyalty to his native state of Virginia forced him to fight for the south and refuse command of the Union armies during the Civil War. Because of this, he was respected by every man in America including Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.
Robert Edward Lee was born to parents, Henry Lee of Leesylvania, and mother Ann Hill Carter of Shirley, in Stratford Hall near Montross, Virginia, on January 19, 1807. He grew up with a great love for country living and his state, which would be instilled in him for the rest of his life. He was a very serious boy and spent many hours in his father’s library reading as many books as he could get his hands on. He loved to play with his friends, swim and hunt. Lee looked up to his father and always wanted to know what he was doing. George Washington and his father, “Light-Horse Harry Lee,” were his two heroes and he wanted to be just like them when he grew up.
In 1811 the Lee family moved to a larger home in Alexandria, Virginia. The next year his father received injuries in a Baltimore riot from which he never fully recovered and that also caused his leaving of Alexandria for a warmer climate. He died six years later at Cumberland Island, Georgia when Robert was only 12. Robert was forced to become the man of the family and cared for his mother and sisters because his father and elder brothers had left. Robert would stuff papers to block cracks in the carriage and go driving to help his mother get out during her failing health. Years later, when Robert left for West Point, Ann Lee wrote to a cousin, “How will I ever get on with out Robert, he is both a son and a daughter” ( www.stratfordhall.org/rel.htm 1).
In 1825, at the age of 18, Lee entered the United States Military Academy at West Point where his classmates admired him for his brilliance, leadership, and love for his work. West Point was not his first choice for a school, but there was no money left to send him to Harvard because his older brother, Charles Carter, had used it for his own studies at Harvard. He graduated from the academy with high honors in 1829 and was ranked as Second Lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers at the age of 21. He headed for home at the age of 22 with $103.58 (Thomas 54).
Lee served for seventeen months at Fort Pulaski on Cockspur Island, Georgia. In 1831 the army transferred Lee to Fort Monroe, Virginia, as assistant engineer. While he was stationed there, he married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter. They lived in her family home in Arlington on a hill overlooking Washington D. C.. They had seven children, three sons and four daughters. On September 16, 1832, Mary gave birth to George Washington Custis Lee. Later in 1835 they had their second child, Mary Curtis. They had five more children, William Henry Fitzgerald, Annie, Agnes, Robert and Mildred.
Lee served as an assistant in the chief engineer’s office in Washington from 1834 to 1837 and spent the summer of 1835 helping to lay out the boundary line between Ohio and Michigan. In 1837 he got his first important job as a First Lieutenant of engineers. He supervised the engineering work for St. Louis harbor and for the upper Mississippi and Missouri rivers. His work there earned him a promotion to Captain. In 1841 he was transferred to Fort Hamilton in New York harbor, where he took charge of building fortifications.
When war broke out between the United States and Mexico in 1846, the army sent Lee to Texas to serve as assistant engineer under General John E. Wool. All his superior officers, including General Winfield Scott, were impressed with Lee. Early in the war, Lee supervised the construction of bridges for Wool’s march toward the Mexican border. He then did excellent work on scouting trips. Lee later was helping General Winfield Scott plan a great battle. The Army was about to attack Vera Cruz, a large Mexican town on the sea. Soldiers fired huge guns at the walls of Vera Cruz. One of the men at the guns happened to be Robert’s brother, Smith Lee. When he could, Lee went to stand by his brother’s gun. “I could see his white teeth through all the smoke of the fire” Lee said, in a letter to Mary. The Mexicans soon gave up Vera Cruz. General Scott thanked Lee for his work. Now the Army could move on to the Mexican capital. The march to Mexico City would be hard for the army. General Scott asked Lee to find the best way to go and asked him to see what Santa Anna, the Mexican general, was doing. To get news for Scott, Lee went behind the lines of enemy soldiers. This was dangerous work. Once when Lee was behind enemy lines he heard voices. Mexican soldiers were coming to drink at a spring. Lee jumped under a log while more Mexicans came. They sat on the log and talked, so Lee had to hide there until dark (Thomas 125).
At Cerro Gordo he led the first line of men into battle. The Americans won. Lee then wrote to his son, Custis, “You have no idea what a horrible sight a field of battle is.” Then came the biggest battle of the war. The Americans attacked a fort outside Mexico City. Lee planned the attack and for days he worked without sleep. He found out where the Mexican soldiers were. He knew where to put the big guns which made it easier for the Army to take the fort. The American Army marched right into Mexico City. The war was now officially over. Lee’s engineering skill made it possible for American troops to cross the difficult mountain passes on the way to the capital. During the march to Mexico City, Lee was promoted to brevet lieutenant colonel. Scott said that his “success in Mexico was largely due to the skill, valor, and undaunted courage of Robert E. Lee…the greatest military genius in America”(Thomas 125-128).
After three years at Fort Carrol in Baltimore harbor, Lee became the superintendent of West Point in 1852. He would have preferred duty in the field instead of at a desk, but he worked at his post without complaint. During his three years at West Point, he improved the buildings, courses, and spent a lot of time with the cadets. There was one cadet, Jeb Stuart, who later served as one of Lee’s best cavalry officers. Lee earned a very good reputation during his service there as a fair and kind superintendent.
In 1855, Lee became a Lieutenant Colonel of Cavalry and was assigned to duty on the Texas frontier. There he helped protect settlers from attacks by the Apache and Comanche Indians. Once again he proved to be an excellent soldier and organizer. But these were not happy years for Lee. He did not like to be away from his family for long periods of time, mostly because of his wife who was becoming weaker and weaker every minute. Lee came home to see her as often as possible. He happened to be in Washington at the time of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, and was sent there to arrest Brown and restore order. He did this very quickly and returned to his regiment in Texas. When Texas seceded from the Union in1861, Lee was called to Washington D.C. to wait for further orders (http://darter.ocps.k12.fl.us/classroom/who/darter2/relee.html 1)
Unlike many Southerners, Lee did not believe in slavery and did not favor secession. He felt that slavery had an evil effect on masters as well as slaves. Long before the war he had freed the few slaves whom he had inherited. Lee greatly admired George Washington and hated the thought of a divided nation. But he came to feel that his state was protecting the very liberty, freedom and legal principles for which Washington had fought. He was willing to leave the union, as Washington had left the British Empire, to fight what the South called a second war of independence. Lee had great difficulty in deciding whether to stand by his native state or remain with the Union, even though Lincoln offered him the field command of the United States Army. He wrote to his sister,”…in my own person I had to meet the question whether I should take part against my native state. With all my devotion to the Union, and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I had not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the army, and, save in defense of my native state- with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed- I hope I may never be called upon to draw my sword.” Lee grieved at parting from the friends whom he had served with in other wars. He served in Richmond, Virginia, as military adviser to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and in May, 1861 was appointed a full general. In the fall, he succeeded in halting a threatened invasion from western Virginia. Later, he took charge of protecting the coast of South Carolina against invasion. When Lee returned to Richmond in 1862, he helped draw up plans for the Confederate forces in Virginia, then under the command of General Joseph E. Johnston. Johnston was wounded on May 31, 1862, in the Battle of Fair Oaks (Thomas 225).
The next day, Lee took command of Johnston’s army, which he called the Army of Northern Virginia. From his first day of command, Lee faced what looked like an impossible task. Union General George B. McClellan had approached within 7 miles of Richmond with 100,000 men. Three forces were closing in on the Confederate troops of General Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. A fourth Union force was camped on the Rappahannock River, ready to aid McClellan. In the series of engagements, known as the Battle of the Seven Days, Lee forced McClellan to retreat. This campaign taught Lee the need for simpler methods and organization. Jackson had earlier conducted a brilliant campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, and became Lee’s most trusted subordinate. Jackson was so devoted to Lee that he said he would follow him into a battle blindfolded. With Jackson’s help, Lee won a major victory over General John Pope in the second Battle of Bull Run, in August, 1862 (Nolan 89).
He was then free to invade Maryland. Unfortunately, McClellan intercepted a battle order which a Confederate staff officer had carelessly lost. Knowing Lee’s plan in advance, McClellan halted him in the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg). Lee returned to Virginia to reorganize his army, General Ambrose E. Burnside then led an attack against Lee in December, 1862, at Fredericksburg, Virginia. Fog covered the battlefield early in the morning before the battle began. As it lifted and the Confederate command saw thousands of troops, Lee remarked, “It is well that war is so terrible- we would grow too fond of it.” Lee’s troops defeated the Union forces, but Lee could not take advantage of his victory because the Northern troops had been too cleverly placed and could fall back without breaking any of their lines of communication. Lee felt that his army could not win the war by fighting defensively, and that it was too costly simply to hold the enemy without destroying it, but first he had to fight yet another defensive battle(Nagel 179).
General Joseph Hooker, who had taken over from Burnside, attacked Lee at Chancellorsville in the Spring of 1863. The Confederate forces won a great victory, but they paid a horrible price for it. Stonewall Jackson unfortunately died there. He was accidentally shot by his own men when he went ahead of his line of battle to scout the Union troops.
Determined to take the offense, Lee moved into Pennsylvania and encountered the Northern army which was now under General George G. Meade, at Gettysburg. Hard fighting continued for three days, from July 1-3, 1863. The Confederates met their defeat in what proved to be a turning point of the war. Always generous to those under him, Lee insisted on taking the blame for the failure of the campaign in which the United States suffered 55,000 casualties, making it the bloodiest battle in the history of the United States.
In the Spring of 1864, Lee first faced General Ulysses S. Grant. In a series of fierce and very bloody battles called the Wilderness Campaign, Grant pounded the army of northern Virginia to pieces with this larger army cannons and guns.
Lee held out for nine months in the siege of Petersburg, but his tired hungry men finally had to retreat. Early in 1865, Lee was made General in Chief of all the Confederate armies. Richmond fell in April, 1865, and Lee’s ragged army retreated westward. Northern forces cut off and surrounded Lee’s troops at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, where Lee surrendered to Grant, on April 9, 1865. “There is nothing left to do, but to go see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths”. Grant tried to make the surrender as easy as possible, and allowed the Confederate troops to take their horses home for Spring plowing. As Lee made his last ride down the lines on his famous horse Traveler, he told his army, “Men, we have fought through the war together. I have done my best for you; my heart is too full to say more.” Lee’s defeat at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, marked the end of his brilliant military career (Nolan 121)
At the end of the Civil War Lee set an example for all of the Ex-Confederate soldiers and officers, by his refusal not to show bitterness to the Union. “Abandon your animosities, and make your sons Americans”. He than set out to form a permanent and stable union of the states(www.stratfordhall.org/rel.htm 2).
On June 13, 1865, Robert E. Lee applied for a pardon from the United States government. When Robert returned to his home in Arlington, he found it had been turned into a national cemetery as punishment to him for abandoning the Union and fighting against them.
Robert E. Lee than applied for citizenship to the United States. His citizenship papers were misplaced and in 1975, a century later, Robert E. Lee was awarded citizenship in the United States. Lee had worked tirelessly for a strong peace in the United States.
On August 4, 1865, Robert was elected to President of Washington College, Lexington, Virginia. He hesitantly accepted, and strove to equip students with the character and knowledge necessary to restore the war ravaged south. On February 4, 1867, Robert E. Lee declined to be a candidate for governor of Virginia (www.microd.com/~aetic/theman.htm 3).
Then in 1870, Robert E. Lee went to Georgia in search of good health. Sadly on October 12 Robert E. Lee died of heart problems in Lexington. After his death, his name was joined with that of his lifelong hero, and Washington College became Washington and Lee University.
Thomas, Emory M. Robert E. Lee A Biography. New York: W.W. Norton &
Nagel, Paul C. The Lees of Virginia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Nolan, Alan T. Lee Considered. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press,
Saundra N. “Robert E. Lee”
http://darter.ocps.k12.fl.us/classroom/who/darter2/relee.html (23 March 1999)
Robert E. Lee Memorial Association. “Robert Edward Lee”
http://www.stratfordhall.org/rel.htm (23 March 1999)
“Robert E. Lee, Beloved General of the South”
www.microd.com/~aeric/theman.htm (23 March 1999)