Lee, Robert E.

views updated May 23 2018

Lee, Robert E. 1807-1870



Robert Edward Lee was the most famous general of the Confederate forces during the American Civil War (18611865). Lee served as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and eventually general-in-chief of the entire Confederate Army until the wars completion in 1865.

Lee was born January 19, 1807, in Westmoreland County, Virginia. His father, whom he barely knew, was the famous Revolutionary War hero, Henry Light Horse Harry Lee (17561818). In 1829 Robert E. Lee graduated second in his class without a single demerit at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. In 1831 Lee married Mary Custis (18081873), a great-granddaughter of Martha Washington (17311802). Together they had seven children.

During the Mexican War (18461848), Lee served on the staff of General Winfield Scott (17861866). As an engineer, Lee directed the placement and transport of heavy artillery in the Veracruz landing and subsequent march to Mexico City in 1847. In 1852 he became superintendent of West Point. In 1859 he commanded a force of marines that together with local militia put down John Browns (18001859) raid of the Harpers Ferry armory.

Lee headed the Department of Texas from 1860 until March 1861. In April, in Washington, D.C., he was offered and then declined the command of the Union (North) Army. Within the month, he had joined the Confederate Army. In 1862 he assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia, leading Confederate forces to decisive victories at such battles as Second Bull Run (August 1862), Fredericksburg (December 1862), and Chancellorsville (May 1863). He and his army suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, arguably the turning point of the American Civil War. Shortly after the defeat at Petersburg, Lee surrendered the Confederate forces to Union general Ulysses S. Grant (18221885) on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Courthouse in rural Virginia.

Following the war, Lee served as president of Washington College (later renamed Washington and Lee College) in Lexington, Virginia. He died of pneumonia on October 12, 1870, and was buried underneath the chapel at Washington College.


Much of the literature on Robert E. Lee can be categorized by two historical perspectives. The traditionalist perspective interprets Lee as noble and full of virtue, fighting for the South out of a sense of duty to protect his Virginia homeland and confronted by forces beyond his control that compelled him to serve and fight against the Union. This perspective originated in the 1870s, was reinforced and consolidated over the following decades, and culminated with the publication of Douglas Freemans four-volume biography, Lee (1934). In contrast, Thomas Connellys Marble Man (1977) exemplifies the revisionist perspective, which took a more critical view of Lee as a southerner and as a soldier.

Proponents of these perspectives contest much about Lees life, but three debates remain especially salient. The first surrounds Lees views on slavery (Fellman 2000, esp. chap. 4). Traditionalists resurrected a Lee that was antislavery, and fought for the Confederacy despite this. They cite as evidence Lees letters where he referred to slavery as a moral and political evil and that Lee manumitted slaves held by his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis (17811857), after the latters death. Nevertheless, this did not mean Lee supported abolition; although Lee spoke of slavery as a moral and political evil, in the same correspondence he also claimed that slavery was Gods will, that blacks are immeasurably better off here [enslaved] than in Africa the painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influence of Christianity, than the storms and tempests of fiery Controversy (Freeman 1934, p. 372).

The second debate focuses on Lees responsibility for the Confederate defeat at the crucial Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Many traditionalists, such as Confederate general Jubal Early (18161894), generally blamed General James Longstreet (18211904) for his slow execution of Lees plan to attack Union forces at Cemetery Ridge on July 2, 1863. Revisionist critics, including historical novelist Michael Shaara, author of The Killer Angels (1974), attribute the Confederate loss to Lees poor judgment in attacking a Union force that possessed superior ground and material and a greater quantity of troops.

A third debate centers on Lees involvement with the secessionist movement and his subsequent decision to serve in the Confederate forces in 1861. Proponents of both perspectives agree on two facts regarding this issue: (1) that Lee viewed secession as illegal, and (2) that he was offered, and declined, the position of commander of Union forces by the U.S. government. Traditionalists argue that Lee tortured over the decision to fight for the Confederacy, ultimately deciding to fight out of a sense of duty to Virginia: If secession destroyed the Union, Lee intended to resign from the army and to fight neither for the South nor for the North, unless he had to act one way or the other in defense of Virginia (Freeman 1934, p. 423). Revisionist Connelly, while conceding that Lee equated secession as nothing but revolution, questions the traditionalist interpretation, asking: One wonders why Lee did not endeavor to use his influence within Virginia to squelch the secession movement? He certainly might have been able to do it (1977 p. 198). In addition, almost instantaneously the secession movement which he supposedly abhorred was a holy cause, and the Union he loved had become a deadly enemy (p. 201). In contrast with the tragic hero of Freemans Lee, Connellys is a child of the seventeenth-century New England mind, and not of the later Enlightenment, one whose belief implied an unquestioning spirit which submitted to unseen forces and a denial of the reasoning process (p. 199). Yet no evidence exists that Lee was active in the secessionist movement. His service in Texas immediately prior to Virginias secession makes it difficult to suggest that Lee was a secessionist conspirator.

Scholars and students of history and the social sciences should take special note of Robert E. Lee as a model of historiographyan example of how interpretations of the past may serve the interests of those living in the present.

SEE ALSO Confederate States of America; Davis, Jefferson; Mexican-American War; Secession; U.S. Civil War


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

Fellman, Michael. 2000. The Making of Robert E. Lee. New York: Random House.

Freeman, Douglas. 1934. R. E. Lee: A Biography. New York: Scribners.

Shaara, Michael. 1974. The Killer Angels: A Novel. New York: Ballantine.

Brent J. Steele

Robert Edward Lee

views updated May 11 2018

Robert Edward Lee

General in chief of the Confederate armies in the American Civil War, Robert Edward Lee (1807-1870) displayed strategic sense and tactical skill that rank him among the great military captains of history.

Robert E. Lee was born in Virginia's Westmoreland County on Jan. 19, 1807, the third son of Henry ("Light Horse Harry") and Ann Hill Carter Lee. Declining fortunes forced the family's removal to Alexandria, where Robert distinguished himself in local schools. His father's death in 1811 increased responsibilities on all the sons; Robert, especially, cared for his invalid mother.

Lee graduated number two in his class from the U.S. Military Academy in 1829. Commissioned a brevet lieutenant of engineers, he spent a few years at Ft. Pulaski, Ga., and Ft. Monroe, Va. At Ft. Monroe on June 30, 1831, he married Mary Ann Randolph Custis. The Lees had seven children. Lee worked in the chief engineer's office in Washington, D.C., from 1834 to 1837. He was transferred to Ft. Hamilton, N.Y., where he remained until 1846.

Mexican War

In August 1846 Lee joined Gen. John E. Wool's army in Texas. In the battle of Buena Vista, Lee's boldness drew his superiors' attention. Transferred to Gen. Winfield Scott's Veracruz expedition, in the battle at Veracruz and in the advance on Mexico he won additional acclaim. Following American occupation of the Mexican capital, he worked on maps for possible future campaigns. Already a captain in the regular service, he was made brevet colonel for his gallantry in the war.

Lee returned to engineer duty at Baltimore's Ft. Carroll until 1852, when he reluctantly became superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point. In 1855 he was made lieutenant colonel of the 2d Cavalry, one of the Army's elite units.

The years 1857-1859 were bleak. Lee had to take several furloughs to deal with family business and seriously thought of resigning his commission. However, in 1859 he and his men successfully put down John Brown's insurrection at Harpers Ferry, Va. (later, in W.Va.). In 1860 he became commander of the Department of Texas.

Coming of the Civil War

Talk of secession in the South grew strident during Lee's Texas sojourn. No secessionist, he was loyal to the Union and the U.S. Army; yet he had no doubts about his loyalties if Virginia departed the Union. Ties of blood bound him to the South.

Lee accepted a commission as colonel of the 1st U.S. Cavalry in March 1861. But offered command of the entire U.S. Army a month later, he hesitated. If he accepted, he might have to lead the Federal Army against Southern states and, if Virginia seceded, he might have to lead troops across its borders. He could do neither. So, painfully, Lee resigned his army commission in April 1861.

Secession and Virginia Service

Appointed commander of Virginia forces, Lee devoted himself to building an effective state army. He was so efficient that the new president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, asked him to become a full general in the Confederate Army and serve as presidential military adviser. This appointment was confirmed by the Confederate Senate.

A bad brush with field command in western Virginia— in a campaign marked by military rivalries, lack of supplies, wretched weather, and overly ambitious strategy on Lee's part—tarnished the new general's reputation. Davis still regarded him highly and sent him to organize southern Atlantic coastal defenses. Lee pursued this task efficiently until recalled to the Confederate capital, Richmond. In his role as presidential adviser, he tried to smooth the abrasive personalities of Davis and Gen. Joseph E. Johnston and to utilize the daring of Gen. Stonewall Jackson to frustrate Federal plans for sending aid to Gen. George B. McClellan's army, which was approaching Richmond.

Lee's Army

When Johnston was wounded in May 1862, Davis gave Lee command of Johnston's army. Lee renamed his force the "Army of Northern Virginia." The new commander looked the part: 5 feet 10 1/2 inches tall, robust at 170 pounds, Lee had graceful, almost classic features. He attracted men and women alike, was easy in manner, courteous and kind as a friend, and was a loving husband and father.

Though Lee's was the largest Confederate army in the field, it was outnumbered almost 3 to 2 by McClellan's Federal Army of the Potomac, which was preparing for siege operations on Richmond. While Lee struggled to fortify Richmond, he and Jackson planned a daring campaign, which Stonewall executed brilliantly and victoriously in the battles of Cross Keys and Port Republic, June 8-9, 1862. Lee promptly called Jackson to Richmond and added his 18,000-man force to the Army of Northern Virginia.

Toward the Battle of Second Manassas

Inexperience and haste led Lee to plan an overelaborate attack on McClellan's lines. Coordination failed, as Lee's campaign stuttered onward in a series of actions. McClellan was defeated in the Seven Days Battles and finally retreated to the Federal gunboats on the James River. Richmond was freed of threat, but Lee's planned annihilation of the Federal force had failed. Lee was unhappy with his results; but his men, almost completely rearmed with superior Federal arms, had developed great confidence in him.

Meanwhile another Federal army appeared in Virginia under Gen. John Pope. Lee sent Stonewall Jackson against Pope early in August. Jackson defeated part of Pope's force, then joined Lee for a combined campaign to destroy the rest. Lee planned more simply this time. Jackson captured Pope's supply base at Manassas Junction. Near the battlefield of First Manassas (Bull Run), Jackson stood off Pope's entire army while Lee's remaining force under Gen. James Longstreet concentrated close to Jackson's lines. On August 30 a sweeping assault by all Confederate troops won the Battle of Second Manassas. Lee had hoped for annihilation, but Pope's remnants escaped.

To Maryland and Sharpsburg

Lee's army could not subsist in war-ravaged northern Virginia, so he determined to carry the war into the North. With Virginia cleared of invaders and his army's morale superb, this seemed a likely time to force European recognition of the South by threatening Washington, D.C., and changing the locale of the war. In a campaign distinguished for daring—Lee broke his army into segments, each with a specific task—he crossed the Potomac River and reached Frederick, Md., sending Jackson's men to capture Harpers Ferry and open a supply route through the Shenandoah Valley. However, McClellan, restored to Federal command, was fighting with unexpected skill. Lee sought to reconcentrate his scattered men near Sharpsburg, Md., behind Antietam Creek. There on Sept. 17, 1862, with badly reduced strength he withstood searing assault; the arrival of Gen. A. P. Hill's division saved him from defeat. Several lessons had been learned, but Lee had lost 13,000 men in Maryland, and replacements were the scarcest commodity in the Confederacy.

Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville

Reorganizing his forces occupied Lee until December 13, when his men, holding high and virtually impregnable ground overlooking Fredericksburg, Va., beat off gallant attacks by the Army of the Potomac (now commanded by Gen. Ambrose Burnside). During the rest of the winter Lee tried to increase ranks and supplies. Jackson and Longstreet, his two corps commanders, improved their commands, new men were elevated to leadership, and Lee's army was ready by the time a new Federal general, Joseph Hooker, started his campaign in April 1863. Jackson clashed with Hooker in Virginia's Wilderness at the end of April. When Hooker withdrew to entrenchments near Chancellorsville, the initiative passed to Lee. He sent Jackson to a flanking position from which he almost destroyed Hooker's force. Jackson might have completed the destruction had he not been wounded, and his death later robbed the victory of any savor as the whole Confederacy mourned. Lee mourned especially, for there were no officers to match Jackson. With the initiative in his grasp, Lee had to decide how to use his army.

Battle of Gettysburg

Vicksburg, Miss., the South's last bastion on the Mississippi River, was under siege; its loss would cut the South in two. Food supplies in northern Virginia were scarce. However, Europeans were becoming convinced of the South's right to recognition, and peace sentiment was growing in the North. All these factors influenced Lee's summer strategy. Another invasion of the North might relieve Vicksburg, feed his men, and win recognition.

Lee reorganized his army into three corps: one under Longstreet, a second under Richard S. Ewell, the third under Hill. Subordinate commands were shaken up, so a new command structure guided the Confederate Army as it moved toward Harrisburg, Pa. Lee's vanguard encountered opposition near Gettysburg and on July 1 won modest spoils. Lee wanted to push the advantage. But Ewell delayed, and the next day Longstreet, convinced of defeat, also delayed attacking the Federal left. On July 3 Gen. George Pickett charged against the Federal center and was repulsed.

For the first time Lee's army had been defeated. Lee assumed all blame. Questions still arise over why he ordered the attack on July 3. But Lee seems to have had no choice. To miss this chance would have been a miserable compromise. Typically, he did not lament for long; instead, he planned to refit his army and renew the offensive. But the loss of 20,000 men and as many arms was unrecoverable. Vicksburg's loss, with a 30,000-man garrison, on July 4 confronted the South with a double disaster in men and supplies.

Loser's Game

Lee could not resume the offensive; his army was divided, with Longstreet moving west to help Gen. Braxton Bragg and the rest committed to holding Richmond. Lee maneuvered against Gen. George Meade throughout the remainder of 1863, and in spring 1864 he met the advance of Meade and Ulysses S. Grant. A series of bloody engagements followed. On June 3 at Cold Harbor the Federal assault on Lee's entrenchments was repulsed. Meade and Grant moved south of the James River, hoping to take Petersburg and enter Richmond from the south. Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard saved Petersburg, with help from Lee. The formal siege of Petersburg ran from June 18, 1864, to April 2, 1865.

In those months, attrition cut Lee's ranks. Daily casualties and desertion whittled down his strength; dwindling food for men and animals almost immobilized the army. Heavy actions through the summer, combined with the necessity of keeping Richmond's southern rail connections open, sapped Lee's resources.

The Confederacy's military situation worsened throughout the summer as Federal general William T. Sherman forced the Army of Tennessee backward through Georgia to the sea. Lee, appointed general in chief of all Confederate armies in February 1865, could give only general direction to lingering disaster.

Sherman marched upward through the Carolinas, threatening Petersburg. Lee failed to split Grant's front. On April 2 Grant's attack snapped Lee's lines; the Confederates began evacuating Petersburg and Richmond. Lee was compelled to surrender his shadow force of no more than 9,000 soldiers at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.

Last Years

Arlington, the Custis family seat, was gone now; the Lees had no real home. They remained in Richmond, well treated by the Federals. In September Lee accepted the presidency of Washington College, in Lexington, Va., where he remained until his death.

Devoted to education and to resurrecting the South, Lee became a symbol of reunification. He refused to abandon his distressed country, hoped for Southern re-assimilation, and set a lofty example. Without bitterness, he obeyed the law and counseled all Southerners to do the same. Indicted for treason, he never stood trial; and although never granted a pardon, he lived in comfort and in great honor. In September 1870 he was stricken, probably with an acute attack of angina, and died on October 12. Mourning swept the South and the world. Lee was the embodiment of a cause and the symbol of an age.

Assessing Lee

Lee had better strategic than tactical sense. As a logistician, he became a consummate master of troop deployment. He had audacity in abundance; caution he could display when needed, but attack was his way. He inspired men as did few other generals and earned respect from friend and foe. He had one command weakness—an inability to deal with disgruntled subordinates. For example, when Longstreet sulked and dallied at Second Manassas and at Gettysburg, Lee deferred to, rather than commanded, him.

History knows Lee as a man of uncommon devotion, calmness, and goodness. His biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, concludes that Lee was duty's man, "that is all. There is no mystery in the coffin. … ."

Further Reading

Lee's writings were collected in Lee's Dispatches, edited by Douglas Southall Freeman (1915) and revised by Grady McWhiney (1957), and in The Wartime Papers of R. E. Lee, edited by Clifford Dowdey (1961). The outstanding biography is Douglas Southall Freeman, R. E. Lee (4 vols., 1934-1937). Among more recent works are Burke Davis, Gray Fox: Robert E. Lee and the Civil War (1956); Earle Schenck Miers, Robert E. Lee (1956); Clifford Dowdey, Lee (1965); and Margaret Sanborn, Robert E. Lee (2 vols., 1966-1967).

Freeman's Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command (3 vols., 1942-1944) discusses Lee as army commander. A study of Lee's last years is Marshall William Fishwick, Lee after the War (1963). Good studies of the South during the war are Ellis Merton Coulter, The Confederate States of America, 1861-1865 (1950), and Clement Eaton, A History of the Southern Confederacy (1954). A documentary account of the war is Henry Steele Commager, ed., The Blue and the Gray: The Story of the Civil War as Told by Participants (2 vols., 1950). A solid general history is Bruce Catton, The Centennial History of the Civil War (3 vols., 1961-1965). □

Lee, Robert E.

views updated May 23 2018

Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee was a leading general for the Army of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War (1861–65). His strategies and determination gave the Confederacy many victories on the battlefield, but in the end it was he who surrendered to the Union Army in April 1865.

Early life

Lee was born January 19, 1807, at Stratford Hall Plantation, Virginia. He was one of five children born to Henry Lee III and Ann Hill Carter

Lee. Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee was a member of the Virginia upper class and had been a hero in the American Revolution (1775–83), governor of Virginia, and a member of Congress, but his fortunes were in decline at the time of Robert's birth. Henry Lee's debts forced him into prison in 1809 and caused the family to move to Alexandria, Virginia, in 1810.

In 1813, Henry Lee left for the Caribbean to recover his fortune and his health. He would never return, for he died in 1818. Forced to parent alone, Ann Lee raised her children in very modest circumstances, and taught them standards of conduct to help them avoid the mistakes their father had made. These lessons served Robert E. Lee throughout his lifetime.

In 1825, Lee attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He finished second in the class of 1829 and earned an appointment in the U.S. Engineer Corps. His first assignment was at Cockspur Island in the Savannah River in Georgia . He made many friends in Savannah, yet spent every leave in northern Virginia in the company of Mary Custis, step-granddaughter of President George Washington . They were married in July 1831 at the Custis family estate in Arlington, Virginia.

The young couple moved to Fort Monroe, Virginia, the place of Lee's second assignment in the Engineer Corps. They had seven children between 1832 and 1846. The family often lived at the Custis estate in Arlington when Lee's assignments brought him to nearby Washington, D.C. , or called him far away. (This estate still stands today amidst what is now Arlington National Cemetery .)

Military career

Lee served on the staff of General Winfield Scott (1786–1866) during the Mexican-American War (1846–48). He became one of Scott's trusted advisors and proved his talent, energy, and daring during a campaign from Vera Cruz to Mexico City in 1847. Through this, Lee earned both Scott's admiration and the temporary rank of colonel.

In 1852, Lee returned to West Point as superintendent. He transferred from staff assignments to command of cavalry troops on the Texas frontier in 1855. When his father-in-law died in 1857, Lee returned to Arlington to take care of the estate. He remained there until he was called to lead a detachment of Marines against a slave insurrection at Harpers Ferry , Virginia, in 1859. In 1860, he returned to Texas and active duty.

Civil War

By February 1861, several Southern states had announced their secession (withdrawal) from the United States. Lee, who opposed secession, returned to Virginia to help handle the crisis. In April, however, negotiations failed and the conflict erupted into the Civil War.

President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) offered Lee a command position to suppress the rebellion. Lee's home state of Virginia, however, had seceded at the outbreak of war, so Lee submitted his resignation to the U.S. Army and accepted a command of the armed forces of Virginia. He felt his loyalties lied more with his native state, rather than with the federal government. He organized the mobilization of Virginia troops and gave his men and equipment to the Confederate cause in June 1861. On August 31, Lee became a full general in the Confederate Army.

General Lee's contributions to the Confederate cause were significant both on and off the battlefield. Though he spent the first several months of the war leading troops, in March 1862 Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1808–1889) recalled Lee to Richmond, Virginia, to serve as his chief of staff. In this position, Lee was an invaluable advisor, managing communication between Davis and his generals.

The following June, Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston (1807–1891) was seriously wounded. President Davis placed Lee in charge of Johnston's troops, and Lee was thereafter in the field. His armies fought many noteworthy battles. Lee was a highly effective general who earned many victories for the Confederacy, but his efforts to beat the Union Army ultimately failed. General Lee surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) at Appomattox Courthouse , Virginia, on April 9, 1865. The Confederacy collapsed almost immediately.

Last years

After the war, Lee accepted a post as president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia. He took the position seriously, dedicating himself to leading the next generation of Southerners into the Reconstruction phase it faced. His wartime efforts and leadership as an educator earned him great respect in the South. Lee's health, which had suffered since the war, continued to decline. He died of a stroke on October 13, 1870, at his home in Lexington.

Lee, Robert E.

views updated May 14 2018

Lee, Robert E. (1807–1870), Confederate Civil War general.Born at Stratford, a family plantation in Virginia, Robert E. Lee was the son of Henry Lee (“Light‐Horse Harry”) of the Revolutionary War. He graduated with great distinction from West Point in 1829, and in 1831 he married Mary Custis, daughter of Martha Washington's grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, who was also George Washington's adopted son. The Lees made their home at Arlington, the Custis mansion overlooking Washington, D.C. The marriage produced four daughters and three sons. The sons— George Washington Custis Lee, William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, and Robert E. Lee, Jr.—all served as officers in the Confederate army.

Lee's continuous and distinguished service in the U.S. Army before the Civil War included highly acclaimed action in the Mexican War, the superintendency at West Point from September 1852 to March 1855, and western Indian fighting. Lee was a protégé of Gen. Winfield Scott, general‐in‐chief of the U.S. Army at the outbreak of the Civil War. When Virginia seceded, Colonel Lee resigned his commission in the U.S. Army (he had previously been offered high Federal command, but rejected it) and accepted command of his state's military forces. After service that included a position as military adviser to Confederate president Jefferson Davis, Lee in June 1862 succeeded Joseph E. Johnston as commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia. Three years later, in February 1865, he was also appointed general‐in‐chief of the Confederate forces. In April 1865, having been besieged in the Richmond defenses, he surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia. Lee and his soldiers were paroled by Grant to go home.

After the war, Lee rejected lucrative business opportunities and accepted the presidency of Washington College at Lexington, Virginia. An excellent educational administrator, Lee's leadership was marked by curriculum development in advance of the times. He died there in 1870 and is buried on the campus of the college, subsequently known as Washington and Lee University.

Lee was a man of high personal character and intelligence, charismatic and charming, a natural leader. As a leading actor in the Civil War legend of martial glory, he has become a legendary figure, an American hero of exceptional nobility. The legend rationalizes or rejects characteristics of the man that might lessen his appeal.

Lee's fame rests principally on his leadership of the Army of Northern Virginia. Having driven a numerically superior Federal army from the Virginia Peninsula near Richmond in 1862, Lee, ably supported by “Stonewall” Jackson, won a series of brilliant tactical victories in 1862 and 1863 at the Second Battle of Bull Run, and the Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, and he fought George B. McClellan to a standstill at the Battle of Antietam. These battles were followed, however, by defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Subsequently, Lee conducted a skillful, costly defense against Grant's Overland Campaign in Virginia in 1864–65, but in this he eventually failed.

Questions have been raised about Lee's leadership. In strategic terms, Lee believed that the South had to defeat the North militarily, that is, by actual combat in the field as distinguished from conducting the contest so that the North would give it up as too costly in blood and treasure. Thus, in a letter to President Davis on 6 July 1864 he wrote that it was necessary for the Confederacy to “defeat or drive the armies of the enemy from the field.” Accordingly, before being besieged, Lee took the offensive whenever possible. Critics argue that in view of the South's manpower and materiel disadvantages, it could not defeat the North militarily. Lee's strategic and tactical aggressiveness produced unnecessarily large and disproportionate Confederate casualties, which the outnumbered South was unable to replace. These casualties significantly reduced the number of troops, increasing the South's disadvantage. This, in turn, deprived his army of mobility and ultimately led to its being caught in the fatal siege.

Lee's defenders reply that a desperate situation required desperate gambles, and that his battlefield successes were perhaps the principal encouragement to the continued Confederate resistance. Whatever his shortcomings, Lee became the white South's greatest hero, and many northern and foreign commentators have praised both the man and the general.
[See also Civil War: Military and Diplomatic Course; Civil War: Changing Interpretations; Petersburg, Siege of; Wilderness to Petersburg Campaign.]


Douglas Southall Freeman , R. E. Lee, 4 vols. 1934–35.
J. F. C. Fuller , Grant & Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship, repr. 1957; 1982.
Thomas L. Connelly , The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society, 1977.
Alan T. Nolan , Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History, 1991.
Emory H. Thomas , Robert E. Lee, 1995.
Joseph L. Harsh , Confederate Tide Rising: Robert E. Lee and the Making of Southern Strategy, 1861–1862, 1997.

Alan T. Nolan

Lee, Robert E.

views updated May 21 2018


(b. January 19, 1807; d. October 12, 1870) Leading Confederate General during the Civil War.

Robert E. Lee was the most notable Confederate commander of the Civil War, and a figure of mythic proportions. Son of "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, a

Revolutionary War hero who had fallen into financial and personal disgrace, Lee was born at the family plantation named Stratford, in the tidewater region of Virginia. When Lee was four, his father fled the country, plunging his family into impoverished dependence on relatives. In 1829, Lee graduated West Point with a perfect conduct record (and a reputation as the most handsome man in the army) and embarked on a long career as an army engineer. In 1831, he married Mary Custis, daughter of George Washington's adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis, and moved to the Custis plantation at Arlington, near Washington, D.C.

In 1861, at the apex of a distinguished army career, including service in the Mexican War and a tour as superintendent of West Point, Lee was offered the most important command in the Union army after the lower South seceded. Instead, choosing to align himself with his state and his slaveholding class, Lee resigned his commission to ally his fortunes with the Confederacy. At first his military record was undistinguished, particularly when he mishandled Confederate forces in West Virginia, and lost that state to the Union. Confederate President Jefferson Davis still valued him, and made Lee his military advisor. When General Joseph E. Johnston was badly injured in battle in June 1862, Davis placed Lee in charge of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Reorganizing the Confederate army, Lee skillfully beat back the offensive of General George McClellan during the Peninsula Campaign, and went on to a year-long series of victories, albeit at the loss of irreplaceable troops and material. Indeed, his military leadership was sometimes marked by unconventional audacity. With the exception of a draw at Antietam in September 1862, his army won every battle until the stunning defeat at Gettysburg in July 1863. There, having grown contemptuous of his opponents and perhaps too prideful of his own forces, as well as ignoring the enemy's solid defensive position, Lee fell into haphazard attacks, ending with the slaughter of Major General George E. Pickett's division.

Falling back to Virginia, Lee waged a tenacious defensive struggle, blocking General Ulysses S. Grant's relentless attacks during the Wilderness Campaign of May and June, 1864. Driven into a line of trenches south of Richmond, the Confederate capital, Lee's army gradually wore out during a prolonged siege. The Army of Northern Virginia finally crumbled in early April 1865, after Lee abandoned his Petersburg defenses and Richmond and fled eastward. Finally, surrounded by Union troops, Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865.

After the war, Lee went on to become president of Washington College (later renamed Washington and Lee College) in Lexington, Virginia, where he also played a vital, behind-the-scenes role in the rebirth of conservative white rule in his state. During this period, and even more after his death, Lee became the chief symbol of the nobility of the Lost Cause.

Ever since the Civil War, historians have debated General Lee's military leadership, particularly in contrast to Grant. At the moment of his surrender, Lee began the narrative that the Union had won only because of superior material resources. While it is true that the Union had had far better resources, it also had talented generals and tenacious soldiers of its own, and so material inferiority was only part of the explanation for Confederate defeat. Lee squandered his limited resources through willingness to commit his army to bloody battles. He believed that only by defeating the Union army on the battlefield could the South gain independence. However, one could also argue that the South needed only to keep from losing the war until horrified Northern public opinion turned against it and elected a government that would allow Southern independence. This nearly happened in the Union elections of 1864, but the aggressive tactics of Grant, and, even more importantly, defeats of other Confederate generals led Southern popular opinion to wear out first, even while Lee continued to hold off Grant. Lee's focus on defending Virginia and winning victories in the eastern theatre proved insufficient in a far vaster conflict. Yet Lee's determined leadership doubtless enabled the South to hold out for as long as it did.

After the war, Lee also gained wide national admiration as the perfect Christian general, the calm stoic gentleman always doing his duty for a cause that he supposedly did not support—the defense of slavery. In fact, Lee was at the core of the pro-slavery leadership cadre of the Confederacy. The values of that class, white supremacy included, now seem less attractive to most Americans, and therefore Lee's reputation as the ideal American is fading somewhat. Nevertheless, as the naming of the college in Lexington symbolizes, the great hero of the Revolution, Washington, and Lee's romanticized heroism in defeat have been linked as icons of honor that are used to define American character and national identity.


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

Fellman, Michael. The Making of Robert E. Lee. New York: Random House, 2000.

Freeman, Douglas Southall. R. E. Lee: A Biography. 4 vols. New York: Scribners, 1934–36.

Michael D. Fellman

See also:Lost Cause.

Robert E. Lee's Farewell to his Army (10 April 1865)

views updated May 23 2018


Robert E. Lee's surrender to U.S. Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse on 9 April 1865 effectively ended the American Civil War. A well-respected military strategist and organizer with experience in the war with Mexico, in 1861 Lee was asked by General Winfield Scott to take command of the armies of the Union to put down a rebellion by a number of southern states. An avowed anti-secessionist who had freed his slaves long before, Lee nonetheless remained loyal to his native Virginia and refused, instead offering his services to the newly elected president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis. Following the war, he became president of Washington University, later renamed Washington and Lee in his honor. In many parts of the north and south today, Robert E. Lee remains a much-admired figure, not only for his military acumen, but also as a model of grace and poise, even in defeat. Oddly enough, his petition for reinstatement of citizenship was somehow inadvertently mislaid, and it was not until more than a hundred years later, during the administration of Gerald Ford, that Robert E. Lee once again became a citizen of the United States of America.

Laura MMiller,
Vanderbilt University

See also Army, Confederate ; Army of Northern Virginia ; Virginia ; Civil War .

Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia,

April 10, 1865.

After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to over-whelming numbers and resources. I need not tell the survivors of so many hard-fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to this result from no distrust of them; but, feeling that valour and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that would have attended the continuation of the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen. By the terms of the agreement, officers and men can return to their homes and remain there until exchanged. You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed; and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you His blessing and protection. With an increasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration of myself, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

R. E. Lee, General.

SOURCE: Lee, Robert E., Jr. Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee. New York: Doubleday, 1904.

Lee, Robert E.

views updated May 29 2018

Lee, Robert E. ( Edward) (1807–70) Commander of the Confederate forces in the American Civil War and military adviser to Jefferson Davis. In 1862, Davis appointed Lee as commander of the Army of Virginia, the main Confederate force. Lee successfully defended Richmond and won the Second Battle of Bull Run. Although checked at Antietam (1862), he defeated the Union forces at Fredericksburg (1862) and Chancellorsville (1863). His invasion of the North ended in defeat at Gettysburg in July 1863. He was finally trapped by Ulysses S. Grant and surrendered in April 1865.