"Descended from a long line of illustrious warriors and statesmen,
Robert Edward Lee added new glory to the name he bore, and,
whether measured by a martial or an intellectual standard,
will compare favorably with those whose reputation
it devolved upon him to sustain and emulate."


Jefferson Davis

Robert E. Lee, the great Civil War Confederate general, was born on January 19, 1807 in Stratford, Virginia. The son of the Revolutionary War hero "Light Horse" Harry Lee, he went to West Point and graduated second in his class in 1829. During his years there, he didn't earn any demerits and was highly regarded at the school. His work at the school led him to be hailed as an engineering genius and his bearing led him to rise through the ranks and then serve as adjutant of the Cadet Corps. He was afterward assigned to the engineer corps. He then worked on several engineering and military projects in Georgia, Virginia and New York.

Lee was working with General Wool at the beginning of the Mexican War but was then transferred to General Winfield Scott's staff at his special request. While he occupied this position, he demonstrated such brilliance that General Scott wrote that Lee was "the very best soldier I ever saw in the field." After the war, Lee was assigned to duty with the Corps of Engineers and headquartered in Baltimore. In 1852, he was named to serve as superintendent of the military academy at West Point which he held until 1855. He then became lieutenant-colonel and was assigned to the Second Cavalry. He served frontier duty in Texas from 1856 until early 1861.

Lee happened to be in Washington in October of 1859 when John Brown seized the arsenal at Harper's Ferry. He was assigned to command the detachment which went to supress the uprising. Jeb Stuart was also in Washington at the time and went with him. He arrived at the federal arsenal and ordered that it be taken by storm, which quickly resolved the situation.

Afterwards, he returned to Texas where he would remain until just prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War. He was summoned to Washington in 1861 where he rejected command of the forces which had begun to assemble shortly after Virginia's secession from the Union. However, he did accept command of Virginia's armed forces. As brigadier and later full general, he began to organize the resources of the state and help them transition into a more official Confederate service.

His early field commands in western Virginia were difficult for him; subordinate officers William W. Loring, John B. Floyd and Henry A. Wise were dissenting and didn't help the campaigns. Combined with bad weather, it was very disappointing. Jefferson Davis then appointed him a command on the southern coast. In early 1862 he was called to Richmond as an advisor. Shortly after, when Joseph E. Johnston was severely wounded at Seven Pines, Davis told Lee to take command of what was then called the Army of Northern Virginia.

Almost immediately thereafter, Lee met the Army of the Potomac. He combined forces with Stonewall Jackson who met him from Shenandoah Valley and they overwhelmed one wing of McClellan's much larger army. Fighting at Beaver Dam Creek, Gaines' Mill, Savage Station, Glendale, White Oak Swamp and Malvern Hill, Lee drove the Federal forces from their positions which seriously threatened the Confederate capital.

This campaign earned Lee's status as a legend among southerners and led the Union forces to consider the Confederacy with more seriousness. His meeting with General John Pope at a second Bull Run was a brilliant exercise in maneuvering. He quickly followed this victory with an offensive campaign into Maryland. Unfortunately, a copy of his orders was lost and fell into northern hands and he then met McClellan's army at Antietam where the botched battle caused one of the bloodiest days in the war. Afterwards, Lee's forces were seriously reduced and he had to retreat into Virginia.

General Burnside, McClellan's successor, was defeated by Lee at Fredericksburg, Virginia at the end of the year. His troops were entrenched with good cover and were able to fight off the Union troops' fronal assaults, leading to another viciously bloody day.

In early May of 1863, Lee had one of his most notable successes in the war, at Chancellorsville. Though greatly outnumbered, he again utilized brilliant maneuvering to win. He left two divisions in front of the Union army while marching the rest of his troops around the federal flank. One of the greatest losses to Lee's effort, however, was the death of General Stonewall Jackson, mortally wounded in the battle.

Following the battle at Chancellorsville, Lee again launced an offensive in the North. He pushed north into Pennsylvania, and the federal troops swung west and then came about south to meet Lee at Gettysburg, where the Confederacy suffered defeat after three days of fighting. The last day of fighting, where the battle could have still gone either way, Lee ordered "Pickett's Charge," a frontal assault on the federal center which destroyed Pickett's entire division. Lee was devastated by this loss and retreated into Virginia. He tried to resign, but President Davis wouldn't allow it.

Ulysses S. Grant took over the Union army following Gettysburg, and this change would prove to set Lee on the defensive. He abandoned his earlier innovations in maneuvering tactics and tried employing entrenchments, but his army was on a steady decline. Grant pushed south of the James River in July of 1864 to attack Petersburg. Lee held both Richmond and Petersburg for almost 10 months before Grant drove him out. After this loss, Lee tried to gather the rest of the army in North Carolina, but Grant crushed him and Lee was then forced to surrender at the nearby Appomattox Courthouse.

After the war, Lee was offered a number of positions that would have granted him substantial wealth, but he did not see any honor in accepting them. He was nearly tried as a traitor, but instead had his civil rights suspended. His citizenship wasn't fully restored until 1975 by President Ford.* Instead of taking the positions he saw as dishonorable, he accepted presidency of Washington College, now Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Lee worked hard as an educator, attempting to revitalize the school which had felt the devastating effects of war. He demonstrated a desire to rebuild it was well as his beloved home state as well as reunite the divided country. He died in 1870 at his home near the college of heart disease which he had suffered from since his campaigns in 1863. Robert E. Lee remains a hero to southerners in the United States; he is fondly remembered as a brilliant soldier as well as a kind gentleman.

Sources:

*Thanks Jizz. =)
http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/B/relee/relee.htm
http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~pjdavis/lee.htm
http://americancivilwar.com/south/lee.html
http://www.civilwarhome.com/leebio.htm
http://www.historyplace.com/civilwar/cwar-pix/lee-1.jpg — picture of the general

Robert E. Lee, famous Confederate (Southern) general during the Civil War.

Most people think of Lee as a brilliant commander (which he was) and a fearless, pious soldier (which he also was), but he had a gentler side, as the following anecdote indicates:

After the war ended, Lee eventually became president of Washington College. A regular churchgoer, he became acquainted with a four-year-old boy at his church who liked to sit on Lee's lap during services. Come graduation day, when Lee was sitting on the podium ready to hand out the diplomas, the same little boy was in the audience. He caught sight of the elderly general and ran up onto the stage to sit on Lee's lap. The boy proceeded to fall asleep. Lee, not wanting to disturb his small friend, handed out the diplomas sitting down with the boy slumbering on his lap.

I thought that was interesting. We all think of military leaders as soldiers, perhaps political figures, but rarely as men and women with a capacity for gentleness as well as steely resolve and determination.

Perhaps the greatest General of the Civil War on either side of the conflict, Confederate "Gray Fox" Robert E. Lee was engaged in his own inner battle before the war was even declared. Lee was one of the many United States soldiers faced with the painful choice between the Union they had served all their lives- and their Southern home state. Having been born in Virginia, Lee had close ties to his fellow Southerners and was reluctant to lead the charge against them.

A Virginian gentleman in title only, Lee was not for the secessionist cause, and he was no more supportive of the institution of slavery. He had once declared, when fighting in the Mexican Wars, "I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union, and I am prepared to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation." These were not the words of a man who planned to aid the Confederates in their split from the Union! As for slavery, Lee’s opinions on this issue were just as firm. He believed that slavery was a "political and moral evil." He did own slaves himself, but would free them before the end of the Civil War.

Even Lee’s father had left his militant son with a legacy of support for the Union. A planter of the First Families of Virginia, Lee’s father was a Revolutionary war hero. He had been present when Patrick Henry had tried to persuade Virginians to vote against the ratification of the Constitution. Uncowed by Henry, Lee’s father had declared, "The people of America, sir, are one people. I love the people of the North... because I fought with them as my countrymen... In all local matters I shall be a Virginian; in those of a general nature, I shall never forget that I am an American."

Like his father, Lee felt strong ties with all Americans. And like his father, Lee was a potent force on the battlefield. Thus, at the urging of Winfield Scott, Lincoln offered Lee command of the Union Army. The offer reached Lee on April 18th. The same day, however, Lee learned that Virginia, his beloved home state, had seceded from the Union.

Were Lee to accept the commission, he would be leading the Union forces to "subdue" the South. Torn between his conflicting loyalties, Lee stayed up all night trying to decide what to do. Yet despite all of his pondering, Lee knew his decision had been truly made when Virginia had left the Union. He felt that, "I cannot raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, and my children." He declined the offer of commander of the Union Army, and also resigned from the army entirely. Lee had vowed that, "...I shall return to my native state, and share the miseries of my people. Save in her defense, I will draw my sword no more."

Lee had now determined to enlist in the Virginia regiment of the Confederate Army. When he informed Winfield Scott, a fellow Virginian who stayed allied with the Union, of his decision, the US General in Chief was disappointed. He said to Lee, "You have made the greatest mistake of your life, but I feared it would be so."

Would time prove Scott correct in his view that Lee had made the mistake of his life by taking the side of the Confederates? It is certainly true that the Confederates lost the war, despite having the great general Lee on their side. And it is quite probable that were Lee to have accepted the commission as general of the Union forces, the war would have been more expedient, with fewer casualties on both sides. The moral effect on Lee from his decision must also be considered. He had chosen to fight in the name of causes he did not, and could not, believe in. How many nights might he have stayed awake in his tent, questioning his decision and hating the collapse of the Union he helped to fight for? Evidence of his inner conflict may well have manifested in some of his wartime actions, such as freeing all of his own slaves.

Yet this is mere speculation. Whether Lee had made a tremendous error in his decision or not, the fact remains that he had returned to Virginia. Indeed, "perhaps the greatest asset that Virginia brought to the cause of southern independence was Robert E. Lee." (McPherson 280) On April 23rd, Lee was accepted as commander in chief of Virginia’s forces, and but three weeks latter he was made a brigadier general in the main Confederate Army. His rank would only rise as the war progressed...

Works Cited
  • Freeman, Douglass Southall. Lee. Touchstone Press, 1997.
  • Lee, Robert E. (Captain)Letters and Recollections of General Robert E. Lee. 2002.
  • McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom. Oxford University Press, 1998.

This text is also archived for academic purposes on my personal website at http://www.geocities.com/warfacts

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