Robert E. Lee

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Robert E. Lee

Born January 19, 1807
Westmoreland County, Virginia
Died October 13, 1870
Lexington, Virginia

Confederate general

As commander of the Army of Northern Virginia,
became the Confederacy's most famous military
leader of the Civil War

General Robert E. Lee ranks as the most famous and beloved Confederate soldier to fight in the American Civil War. As commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, he masterminded many of the South's greatest military victories. Combining clever battlefield strategy with inspiring leadership, he nearly engineered an ultimate Confederate victory. As the conflict progressed, however, improved performance by the larger Union Army proved too much for Lee to overcome. Lee's decision to surrender in the spring of 1865 did not hurt his reputation among his fellow Southerners, though. In fact, the postwar South embraced Lee as its greatest symbol of nobility in defeat.

Raised to believe in duty and honor

Robert Edward Lee was born in January 1807 to a wealthy Virginia family. His father, Harry Lee, was a Revolutionary War (1776–83) hero who had been one of George Washington's best friends. His mother, Anne Hill Carter Lee, also came from a wealthy and privileged background. Robert E. Lee spent his first three years at Stratford Hall, a fine mansion along the banks of the Potomac River that had been home to the Lee family for several generations. In 1810, however, serious financial problems changed the family's living situation. Harry Lee lost the family fortune in a series of poor business decisions. The situation became so bad that he was thrown in debtor's prison (a special jail that held people who failed to pay off financial debts), and the Lee family was forced to leave Stratford.

They moved to a modest home in Alexandria, Virginia. Harry Lee did manage to secure his release from jail, but he did not provide much assistance to his family after his return. In May 1813, he abandoned them, sailing away to the Caribbean on a government-sponsored trip. He died five years later without ever returning to see his wife and children.

When Harry Lee set sail for the Caribbean, he left his wife to raise all five of their children alone. Anne Lee's family provided assistance, though. As her children grew up, Anne Lee did her best to teach them about concepts of duty and honor and sacrifice. Robert E. Lee took these lessons to heart. By young adulthood he was known as a person of deep religious faith and a strong sense of honor and integrity.

Begins life in military

In 1825, Lee managed to secure an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the finest officers' training school in the country. Determined to restore his family's reputation, the young cadet worked and studied very hard. He posted excellent grades and conducted himself so well that he did not receive a single demerit (a critical mark given to students who violate any of the school's many rules on conduct and appearance) in his four years of study at the academy.

In 1829, Lee graduated second in his class. After leaving West Point, he promptly joined the elite Army Corps of Engineers, which was responsible for forts, dams, and other major construction projects across America. Around this same time, his mother died, leaving him a small inheritance that included about ten slaves. In 1831, Lee married Mary Anna Randolph Custis (1806–1873), the great granddaughter ofMartha Washington (1732–1802), the wife of the first U.S. president, George Washington (1732–1799). They had seven children during the course of their long and happy marriage.

Lee's responsibilities with the Army Corps of Engineers took him all around the country during the 1830s and early 1840s. He worked on dams, levees (fortified shorelines designed to prevent rivers from overflowing their banks), forts, and other construction projects during this time, earning a promotion to the rank of captain.

In 1846, Lee's service in the Corps of Engineers was interrupted by the Mexican War (1846–48). This war was a fight between Mexico and the United States for ownership of huge sections of land in the West. Lee spent the next two years on the staff of U.S. general Winfield Scott (1786–1866; see entry). As the war progressed, Lee's understanding of military tactics and his bravery in combat impressed Scott so much that the general stated that "Robert E. Lee is the greatest soldier now living, and if he ever gets the opportunity, he will prove himself the great captain of history." The Mexican War ended in 1848, after the United States forced the Mexican government to give up its claims on California and other western lands in exchange for $15 million.

After returning from Mexico, Lee continued his work with the Army Corps of Engineers. In 1852, he accepted an offer to become superintendent at West Point. He guided the school for the next three years, but resigned in 1855 to accept a lieutenant colonel position in the Texas cavalry. In 1857, Lee took an extended leave of absence from the army in order to take care of legal and financial problems associated with the Arlington, Virginia, estate of his deceased father-in-law. He returned to active military service in October 1859 when abolitionist John Brown (1800–1859; see entry) tried to start a major slave uprising in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Lee commanded the military detachment that captured Brown and ended his raid.

Joins the Confederacy

Lee and many other Americans viewed Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry as a sign that longstanding disagreements within the United States over the issue of slavery might never be settled peacefully. These fears came true in the spring of 1861, when the nation's Northern and Southern regions went to war over the issue.

Many Northerners had become convinced that slavery was wrong. They wanted the Federal government to take steps to outlaw slavery or at least keep it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But the Southern economy had become very dependent on slavery over the years, and white Southerners worried that their way of life would collapse if slavery was abolished (eliminated). They argued that each state should decide for itself whether to allow the practice. By 1861, Southern dissatisfaction with the North had become so great that several states decided to secede from (leave) the Union and form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. The Northern states, however, were unwilling to see the United States split in two. They vowed to force the South back into the Union.

When the Civil War began in early 1861, Lee agonized over what he should do. He felt deep loyalty both to his country and to his native state of Virginia, which had voted to secede. Finally, though, he made up his mind. Turning down an offer to command all Union forces, he submitted his resignation from the U.S. Army in order to join the Confederate military. "With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home," he explained. "I have therefore resigned my commission in the army and, save in defense of my home 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."

Assumes command of Army of Northern Virginia

On April 23, 1861, Lee formally took command of all armed forces in Virginia. He spent most of his time, however, serving as a military advisor to Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1808–1889). He did not receive an important leadership position in the field until June 1862, when General Joseph Johnston (1807–1891; see entry) was wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines. President Davis then told Lee to take command of Johnston's army, which Lee renamed the Army of Northern Virginia.

Once Lee took the field, he quickly reversed the Confederacy's fortunes in Virginia, which had become the most fiercely contested region of the entire war. By the early summer of 1862, Union forces had advanced deep into the state, drawing to within a few miles of the Confederate capital of Richmond. But Lee halted the Northern offensive in a series of bloody clashes with the Yankee (Union) invaders. These clashes—known as the Seven Days' Battles—forced Union general George B. McClellan (1826–1885; see entry) to end his campaign against Richmond.

Lee followed up this success with a decisive triumph at the Second Battle of Bull Run (also known as the Second Battle of Manassas) in late August 1862. This victory over Union forces led by General John Pope (1822–1892) convinced Lee to attempt an invasion of the North. The Confederate general believed that a successful campaign into Union territory might convince Northerners to end their efforts to break the Confederacy. Lee's invasion ended on September 17, however, when Union forces fought his Army of Northern Virginia to a stalemate in the bloody Battle of Antietam in Maryland.

Lee dominates in the East

Lee's Army of Northern Virginia suffered enormous casualties in the Battle of Antietam. As a result, the Confederate commander decided to return to Virginia and rebuild his army over the winter. Eager to smash Lee's weary troops, Northern forces under the command of Ambrose Burnside (1824–1881; see entry) followed Lee to Fredericksburg, Virginia. When Burnside's Army of the Potomac attacked Lee's army on December 13, 1862, however, the offensive was smashed to pieces by Lee's well-prepared defenses. The rebel (Confederate) victory at Fredericksburg forced Burnside to abandon his offensive and cemented Lee's reputation as a brilliant and daring military strategist.

Lee's greatest triumph

In the spring of 1863, the Union Army mounted yet another offensive against Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Northern military and political leaders knew that if they could crush Lee's army, Richmond and other important Southern cities would be vulnerable to Union attack, and the war could be brought to a close. With this in mind, Union general Joseph Hooker (1814–1879) led the Army of the Potomac into Virginia once again.

Armed with a huge force of approximately 130,000 troops, Hooker planned to use flank attacks and superior numbers to crush Lee's 60,000–man army, which remained entrenched in Fredericksburg. By late April, Hooker's army had taken up strong positions around Fredericksburg and the nearby town of Chancellorsville. The Union Army appeared poised to strike. Lee, though, came up with a masterful strategy of countermoves that thoroughly puzzled Hooker. Relying on strong defensive positions, clever troop movements, and deadly attacks against Hooker's exposed flanks, Lee battered the Union force for three solid days. On May 6, the Army of the Potomac finally gave up and retreated to the North.

Lee's victory at Chancellorsville was his greatest triumph yet. "Unquestionably, this latest addition to the lengthening roster [list] of Confederate victories was a great one," wrote Shelby Foote in The Civil War: Fredericksburg to Meridian. "Indeed, considering the odds that had been faced and overcome, it was perhaps in terms of glory the greatest of them all; Chancellorsville would be stitched with pride across the crowded banners of the Army of Northern Virginia."


Encouraged by his victory at Chancellorsville, Lee launched a second invasion of the North in June 1863. He knew that if Northern communities started to worry about their own safety, they would put tremendous pressure on Northern political leaders to negotiate a peace agreement with the Confederacy, even if it meant giving the Southern states their independence.

Lee's Army of Northern Virginia advanced into Pennsylvania, where they were met by the Union's Army of the Potomac and its new commander, General George Meade (1815–1872; see entry). On July 1, the two armies clashed outside of a little town called Gettysburg. The battle continued for three days. Again and again, rebel troops crashed against Meade's defenses in hopes of smashing through and seizing victory. But the Army of the Potomac fought bravely, refusing to cave in to the rebel attacks.

The battle finally ended on July 3, when Lee ordered a disastrous charge at the heart of the Union defenses. This attack—known as "Pickett's Charge" after one of the Confederate officers who led the offensive—ended in complete failure for the South. Union weaponry easily shattered the advance. Shocked by this disastrous turn of events, Lee gathered his battered army together and retreated back to Virginia.

Lee faces a new enemy

In the days following the Battle of Gettysburg, Lee expressed great sadness and disgust with his performance in Pennsylvania. "It was all my fault," he told his troops. Lee even offered his resignation to President Davis, saying "no blame can be attached to the army for its failure to accomplish what was projected by me. I am alone to blame." Lee also pointed out that illness had begun to affect his ability to command (many historians believe that Lee began to suffer from heart disease around this time). Davis refused to accept the resignation, though, because Lee remained his finest general.

Lee worked hard to strengthen his Army of Northern Virginia throughout the winter of 1863–64. He wanted his army to be ready for the upcoming spring, when Northern armies would resume their efforts to restore the Union. When the spring of 1864 arrived, however, Lee found himself pitted against a tough new opponent in Union general Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; see entry).

Over the previous two years, Lee had defeated many different Union commanders, from George McClellan to Joseph Hooker. U.S. president Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry) had begun to believe he would never be able to find a general who could neutralize Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. In March 1864, however, Lincoln placed General Ulysses S. Grant in charge of Union forces.

Grant had been the Union's most successful general in the war's western theater (the region of the country between the Mississippi River and the Appalachian Mountains). When he arrived in the East in 1864, he took control of the Army of the Potomac and marched into Virginia in search of Lee. Grant hoped to use his superior force to smash the Army of Northern Virginia once and for all.

Lee and Grant clashed throughout the early summer of 1864. Fighting in engagements that ranged from bloody battles to small but deadly skirmishes, the two armies marched across the Virginia countryside in a desperate battle for survival. Lee avoided all of Grant's attempts to trap the Confederate Army and crush it. But Grant continued his steady pursuit of Lee's tired army. By mid-June, Lee's army had been forced to retreat to defensive positions around Petersburg, a city on the outskirts of Richmond.

In June 1864, Grant began a siege (a military effort to prevent food and other supplies from being delivered to a city or other location) of Petersburg. The siege did not starve Lee and his army into submission, but it prevented the Army of Northern Virginia from participating in the war. Lee and his men could only stand by helplessly as other Union armies marched across the South in triumph. "It must have been tragic for Lee to find himself ultimately bottled up at Petersburg because he loved the open fight and the war of maneuver," wrote Brian Pohanka in Civil War Journal. "With his army pinned down and besieged, he realized the end was in sight."

In April 1865, the Confederate defenses at Petersburg and Richmond finally began to crumble. Lee organized a desperate evacuation of his battered army. Grant quickly gave chase, however, and within a week he had surrounded Lee and his men. Lee surrendered his army on April 9. After signing the terms of surrender at the home of Wilmer McLean in Appomattox County, Virginia, Lee returned to his camp and told his loyal soldiers that "I have done the best I could for you. Go home now, and if you make as good citizens as you have soldiers, you will do well, and I shall always be proud of you."

College president and legend

After the war, Lee became president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia. He spent five years at the school, where he helped introduce the country's first educational departments of journalism and commerce. He also reshaped the school's curriculum to provide more training in subjects like science and engineering.

Lee also emerged as the war's most beloved and respected figure in the South. His fabulous military record and his lifelong emphasis on personal honor and dignity made him very attractive to Southerners, who remained angry and upset over their defeat. "Southerners needed Lee to prove that good people can and do lose and to demonstrate that success in battle or elsewhere does not necessarily denote superiority," wrote historian Emory M. Thomas.

Lee died in October 1870, after suffering a stroke. News of Lee's death triggered a tremendous outpouring of grief all across the South. Ordinary citizens and thousands of devoted soldiers who had served under him offered testimonials (public statements declaring a person's merit) about his leadership and courage. Lee's funeral service in Lexington was attended by thousands of mourners, many of whom traveled for hundreds of miles to pay their respects. Today, more than a century after his death, Lee's status as a legend of the American South remains unchanged.

Where to Learn More

Archer, Jules. A House Divided: The Lives of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E.Lee. New York: Scholastic, 1995.

Cannon, Marian G. Robert E. Lee. New York: Franklin Watts, 1993.

Connelly, Thomas Lawrence. The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society. New York: Knopf, 1977.

Davis, Burke. Gray Fox: Robert E. Lee and the Civil War. New York: Rinehart, 1956. Reprint, Short Hills, NJ: Burford Books, 1998.

Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative. 3 vols. New York: Random House, 1958–74. Reprint, Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1999.

Freeman, Douglas Southall. R. E. Lee: A Biography. 4 vols. New York: Scribner's, 1934–35.

Harsh, Joseph L. Confederate Tide Rising: Robert E. Lee and the Making ofSouthern Strategy, 1861–1862. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1998.

Kavanaugh, Jack, and Eugene C. Murdoch. Robert E. Lee. New York: Chelsea House, 1994.

Kerby, Mona. Robert E. Lee: Southern Hero of the Civil War. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1997.

Lee, Fitzhugh. General Lee: A Biography of Robert E. Lee. New York: Da Capo Press, 1994.

Marrin, Albert. Virginia's General: Robert E. Lee and the Civil War. New York: Atheneum, 1994.

National Park Service. Arlington House: The Robert E. Lee Memorial.[Online] (accessed on October 15, 1999).

Nolan, Alan T. Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Robert E. Lee Memorial Association. Stratford Hall Plantation: The Birthplace of Robert E. Lee. [Online] (accessed on October 15, 1999).

Snow, William P. Lee and His Generals. New York: Richardson & Co., 1867. Reprint, New York: Fairfax Press, 1982.

Taylor, Walter H. General Lee, His Campaigns in Virginia, 1861–1865: WithPersonal Reminiscences. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

Thomas, Emory Morton. Robert E. Lee: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.

Wilkins, J. Steven. Call of Duty: The Sterling Nobility of Robert E. Lee. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 1997.

Woodworth, Steven E. Davis and Lee at War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.

The Origins of Arlington National Cemetery

In 1857, Robert E. Lee's wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, learned that her father had died and left her his Virginia estate. This property, known as Arlington, included a fine mansion and beautiful grounds, but had fallen into a state of disrepair. Restoration of the estate became General Lee's responsibility, and he quickly took steps to improve the long-neglected land.

By 1861, Lee and his wife had made dramatic improvements in the Arlington estate. But two days after Lee resigned from the Federal Army in order to join the Confederate military, Union forces seized the property. Union officers promptly converted the mansion and surrounding grounds into a headquarters area for their army. The loss of Arlington, meanwhile, forced Lee's wife and other Custis family members to relocate to Richmond and other cities in Virginia. The Union Army officially confiscated (seized) the Arlington estate a short time later by taking advantage of a wartime law requiring property owners in occupied areas to pay taxes in person. Since General Lee could not pay his property taxes in person without being captured, the estate became the property of the federal government.

Arlington was first used as a cemetery for soldiers in 1864, when the Union Army set aside two hundred acres for burial of federal troops. By the end of the war the hills of the estate were dotted with graves marking the final resting place of thousands of Union soldiers. In 1882, Robert E. Lee's son George Washington Custis Lee sued the government for return of the land that had belonged to his ancestors. The government responded by offering him $150,000 to purchase the property. Lee accepted the offer, and the property subsequently became Arlington National Cemetery.

Today, Arlington National Cemetery is the most famous cemetery in the United States. More than 175,000 American soldiers, including troops from every major war in which the United States has fought, are buried within its borders. Arlington is also the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which honors American servicemen who died in World War I (1914–18), World War II (1939–45), the Korean War (1950–53), and the Vietnam War (1955–75). Many famous Americans who devoted their lives to public service are buried at Arlington as well, including President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) and his brother Robert Kennedy (1925–1968).

Lee Predicts a Long War

When the Civil War began, many people in both the North and the South expressed great confidence that their side would achieve total victory within a matter of months. General Robert E. Lee, though, believed that neither side really appreciated the courage and determination of their opponent. In the following letter written by Lee on May 5, 1861, he expresses deep concerns about the toll that the war might take on the two sides:

[Politicians who predict an easy victory] do not know what they say. If it comes to a conflict of arms, the war will last at least four years. Northern politicians do not appreciate the determination and pluck [bravery] of the South, and Southern politicians do not appreciate the numbers, resources, and patient perseverance of the North. Both sides forget that we are all Americans. I foresee that the country will have to pass through a terrible ordeal, a necessary expiation (atonement or apology) . . . for our national sins.

As events turned out, Lee's prediction of a long and bloody conflict proved accurate. The Civil War lasted almost exactly four years and cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men.