Learn all about the man who was
unquestionably the greatest general in the Confederacy, and the finest soldier
in both the North and the South during the Civil War. He was respected in the North and
adored in the South.
General Robert Edward
By John T. Marck
Unquestionably the greatest general in the Confederacy, as
well as the finest soldier in the field on both sides, Robert Edward Lee was
born in Westmoreland County, Virginia on January 19, 1807. Although he was
personally opposed to slavery and succession, he remained loyal to his beloved
Virginia. After Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln offered him a field
command in the United States Army, but Lee resigned from the army and chose not
to accept this position, joining the Confederacy instead.
Robert E. Lee was the fourth child born to "Light Horse
Harry" Lee, his father of Revolutionary War cavalry fame. Years before the Civil
War began, Lee's father was imprisoned for debt, and later died of wounds he
received while attempting to stop a riot in Baltimore. His death was devastating
to the young Robert who was then raised solely by his widowed mother in
Alexandria, Virginia. Lee attended private schools where he was noted for his
extreme intelligence and high character, attributes that seemed to destine him
for command later in life.
In 1825 he accepted an appointment to West Point where he
soon became the corps adjutant, a chief post of honor for a cadet. Upon
graduation, he was ranked second in his class, having received no demerits
during his four years there. After graduation, he was commissioned as a 2nd
lieutenant in the elite Corps of Engineers.
During this time he had met the great granddaughter of George
Washington, Mary Custis, whom Lee married two years later. Mary Custis was the
heiress of several estates in which they lived. Together their marriage produced
seven children, and both Robert and Mary were very devoted parents.
In 1836, Lee was promoted to 1st lieutenant, and
in 1838, to captain. Before the Mexican War, Lee involved himself as a part of
the Corps of Engineers with numerous civil and military related engineering
projects. During the Mexican War, Lee was assigned to the staff of General
Winfield Scott, and was a principal participant in the victory at Cerro Gordo.
He further distinguished himself in the battle at Chapultepec, where he was
wounded. At the end of the Mexican War, Lee returned to the U.S. where he was
promoted to brevet colonel for gallantry.
From 1852 to 1855, Lee served as the superintendent of West
Point. With this, he bought to the academy a revitalized curriculum and formed
lasting affiliations with his students. Over the next few years, his wife Mary
had become ill, and consequently Robert was busy attending to her as well as her
several estates. In 1856 he went to Texas where he served with the U.S. cavalry,
returning in 1857. As Robert and Mary's principal estate was "Arlington" outside
of Washington, D.C., he was there on leave when he was approached to command a
force of marines to recapture Harpers Ferry following John Brown's raid.
When the Civil War began, Lee was again on cavalry assignment
in Texas when that state seceded, so he returned home to Arlington, awaiting
orders. It would be here that he declined the military offer from Abraham
Lincoln. On April 23, 1861, he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army and
accepted a command of the Virginia defenses. That August 31, he was promoted to
full general and assigned as a special military advisor to President Jefferson
Davis. Lee then took a short time away from his position as an advisor to Davis
to oversee the coastal defenses in South Carolina and Georgia, but was unable to
prevent the Union from occupying some of the mountain regions of western
By March 1862, Lee had returned to his advisor position with
Davis. On May 31, 1862, Lee learned that Union Major General George McClellan
and his force of 100,000 soldiers were closing in on Richmond. Because
Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston had been wounded, Lee stepped in and
assumed command of his army, naming them the Army of Northern Virginia. From
this point, this army would achieve an unequaled military record.
After reorganizing his Army of Northern Virginia, he then
called upon Major General Thomas J.
"Stonewall" Jackson, who had
just returned from the Shenandoah Valley, and together, they started the
offensive known as the Seven Days' Campaign. Although Lee suffered significant
casualties, he was able to push McClellan back to the Peninsula, where he gained
protection from his gunboats. Then Lee turned to the north and defeated the
Union army at the Second Battle of Bull Run. As a result, Lee then planned an
all-out attack deep into Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Stonewall Jackson had captured
Harpers Ferry and in the process took more than twelve-thousand Union prisoners.
Because Lee's marching order was lost and had fallen into the hands of the
Union, he took up a position on Antietam Creek, and the Battle of Antietam, the
bloodiest single day in history, took place on September 17, 1862. Although the
Battle of Antietam is viewed as a draw, Lee and the Confederacy actually won a
tactical victory, while losing a strategic one. Unable to move forward, Lee and
his army crossed back over the Potomac River into Virginia.
Less than two months later on December 13, 1862, Lee and his
army won a decisive victory at the Battle of Fredericksburg, defeating Union
General Ambrose Burnside, and again in May at Chancellorsville, defeating Union
General Joseph Hooker. Although Lee won the battle at Chancellorsville, he lost
his chief lieutenant, Stonewall Jackson, in an accidental shooting by Jackson's
own men. General Lee, who was a genius at strategy, then devised a plan for a
second invasion of the North. In June 1863, he had occupied the Cumberland
Valley as well as other areas of Pennsylvania. Lee then learned that the Union
had replaced General Hooker with General Meade, and that Meade was moving to
threaten Lee's communication lines. Lee then moved his army near a little town
in Pennsylvania known as Gettysburg.
On July 1 to 3, 1863, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia met in
a horrific battle at Gettysburg with the Union's Army of the Potomac, the
largest encounter of the war. Now Lee, without his "right arm" of Jackson,
suffered his first decisive defeat, causing him to retreat to Virginia. Although
the losses on both sides were considerable, Lee, having fewer soldiers to begin
with, was now returning to Virginia with his numbers greatly depleted.
With fewer men than the Union, Lee did mount a fine offensive
the following spring. Using only 60,000 men, he took on the Union army under
General Grant and his force of 120,000, when Grant attempted to move against
Richmond. At the Battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna
and Cold Harbor, Lee managed to slow Grant, causing him more than 50,000
casualties in the process. However, Lee now found himself backed into the
defensive works at Petersburg and Richmond. This combined with Sherman's March
to the Sea, and the overwhelming Union numbers, Lee and the South were starting
to realize the beginning of the end.
In an attempt to save the Confederacy, President Jefferson
Davis appointed Lee general-in-chief of all the Confederate armies, but this
appointment came too late. Additionally, in an attempt to gain badly needed
soldiers, the Confederate Congress authorized the recruitment of black slaves.
But these attempts to revive the Confederacy came too little
too late. Also, Lee's health was poor, having suffered from heart problems his
entire life. By March 1865, Lee left his defensive posture at Richmond and
attempted to go to North Carolina to assist General Johnston against Sherman.
However, en route, Lee met up with Grant at Appomattox Court House, and Lee
realizing the cause was now over, surrendered his starving tattered army, now
totaling only about 28,000.
Robert E. Lee ranks in history as one of the excellent field
commanders who, in battle was levelheaded, and who had the rare ability to
command admiration and fondness from his troops. He was an expert at field
fortifications, and seemed to also know, though uncanny, what his opponents were
He made precise decisions, and always seized the initiative.
Although he had few faults, probably his worst was that he would explain his
plan for battle, but then left the execution of his plan up to his subordinate
generals. Unfortunately, this custom was part of the blame for his defeat at
Gettysburg. Throughout the war, Lee's knack led him to victories in the battles
at Seven Days', Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Cold
Harbor, whereby all were against greater numbered Union forces. Even at Antietam
and Gettysburg, although outnumbered, Lee still managed to hold his ground until
he felt retreating was necessary.
After the war, Lee was offered many distinguished positions
that came with high-paying salaries, yet he chose to accept the presidency of
Washington College in Lexington, Virginia at a salary of $1,500.00 a year.
Washington Collage had been closed during the war, because the majority of its
students enlisted in the Confederate army in masses.
As president of the collage, Lee expanded and improved the
curriculum, created the first departments of journalism and commerce in the
country, enlarged its financial resources, as well as the building of the Lee
Chapel. Washington College derived its name from George Washington, who donated
$50,000 as well as his name. In Lee's personal notes, they indicate that the
plans for the chapel were done by George Washington Custis Lee, his son, with
assistance from him.
Within the Lee Chapel are significant portraits of men who
figured in the early history of the country, such as Thomas Jefferson, James
Madison, Lafayette, and George Washington. Many of Lee's personal belongings are
displayed there, including textbooks, campaign maps, his piano and his field
glasses. The most famous and important item in the chapel is the recumbent
statue of Lee. It is housed in an extension build after Lee's death, beneath
which Lee himself is entombed along with other members of his family, including
his famous father, "Light Horse Harry."
During the years after the war, Robert E. Lee was deprived of
his United States citizenship. President Andrew Johnson denied Lee his
citizenship, in spite of the fact that he took the "Oath of Allegiance," as well
as Johnson denied the restored citizenship of Jefferson Davis and James
Longstreet. Lee filed for the restoration of his citizenship, yet his
application was apparently misplaced. On July 22, 1975, the US House of
Representatives approved a measure to restore Lee's citizenship. On August 5,
1975, President Gerald R. Ford signed the bill that finally restored it.
Robert Edward Lee died on October 12, 1870 at the age of 63,
of a heart attack. He truly was a genuine American hero who was dearly respected
in the North and adored in the South.
Copyright © 1993-2022 by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article
and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold,
reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written
permission from the author.