Robert E. Lee
“They say you had to see him to believe that a man so fine could exist. He
was handsome. He was clever. He was brave. He was gentle. He was generous
and charming, noble and modest, admired and beloved. He had never failed at
anything in his upright soldier’s life. He was born a winner, this Robert
E. Lee. Except for once. In the greatest contest of his life, in a war
between the South and the North, Robert E. Lee lost” (Redmond). Through his
life, Robert E. Lee would prove to be always noble, always a gentleman, and
always capable of overcoming the challenge lying before him.
Robert Edward Lee was born on January 19, 1807 (Compton’s). He was born
into one of Virginia’s most respected families. The Lee family had moved to
America during the mid 1600’s. Some genealogist can trace the Lee’s roots
back to William the Conqueror. Two members of the Lee family had signed the
Declaration of Independence, Richard Lee and Francis Lightfoot. Charles Lee
had served as attorney General under the Washington administration while
Richard Bland Lee, had become one of Virginia’s leading Federalists.
Needless to say, the Lees were an American Political dynasty (Nash 242).
Lee’s father was General Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee. He had been a
heroic cavalry leader in the American Revolution. He married his cousin
Matilda. They had four children, but Matilda died in 1790. On her death bed
she added insult to injury upon Henry Lee by leaving her estate to her
children. She feared Henry would squander the family fortune. He was well
known for poor investments and schemes that had depleted his own family’s
fortune (Connelly 5).
Henry Lee solved his financial problems by marrying Robert’s mother Anne
Carter, daughter of one of Virginia’s wealthiest men (Nash 242). Henry Lee
eventually spent his family into debt. Their stately mansion, Stratford
Hall, was turned over to Robert’s half brother. Anne Lee moved with her
children to a simple brick house in Alexandria. Light Horse Harry was
seldom around. Finally, in 1813 he moved to the West Indies. His self-exile
became permanent, and he was never seen again by his family (Thomas).
Young Robert had other family problems. His mother became very ill. At the
age of twelve he had to shoulder the load of not only being the family’s
provider, but also his mother’s nurse. When time came for Robert to attend
college, it was obvious his mother could not support him financially. She
was already supporting his older brother at Harvard and three other
children in school. In 1824 he accepted an appointment to the United States
Military Academy. During his time at West Point Lee distinguished himself
as a soldier and a student. Lee graduated with honors in 1829 (Nash 245).
His graduation was dampened by a call to the bedside of his ailing mother.
When he arrived home he found his fifty-four year old mother close to
death. A death caused by struggles and illnesses of her difficult life.
Robert was always close to his mother. He again attended to her needs until
her death. On July 10, 1829, Anne Lee died with Robert, her closest son, at
her side. Forty years later Robert would stand in the same room and say,
“It seems but yesterday” that his beloved mother died (Connelly 6).
While awaiting his first assignment, Lee frequently visited Arlington, the
estate of George Washington Parke Custis. Custis was the grandson of Martha
Washington and the adopted son of George Washington. After Martha’s death
Custis left Mount Vernon and used his inheritance to build Arlington in
1778. Arlington was set on a hill over looking the Potomac river and
Washington D.C. (NPS Arlington House). Custis had only one daughter, Mary
Anna Randolph. Mary had been pampered and petted throughout her life. Lee’s
Courtship with Mary soon turned serious, before long they were thinking of
marriage. However, before Robert could propose he was assigned to Cockspur
Robert returned to Arlington in 1830. He and Mary decided to get married.
The two were married on June 30, 1831(Nash 248). Shortly there after the
Lees went to Fort Monroe. Mary was never happy here. She soon went back to
Arlington. Mary hated army life. She would, for the most part, stay at
Arlington throughout the rest of Robert’s time in the United States Army.
The fact that he was separated from his family, and that he was slow to
move up in rank, left Lee feeling quite depressed a great deal of the time.
Over the next decade Robert became very frustrated by his career and life.
Lee’s life had become a mosaic of dull post assignments, long absences from
family, and slow promotion. Lee began to regard himself as a failure (Nash
248). Lee was on the verge of resigning from the army all together, when on
May 13, 1946, word came that the United States had declared war on Mexico.
The outbreak of war with Mexico provided Lee his first real chance at field
service. In January of 1847 he was selected by General Winfield Scott to
serve with other young promising officers. These officers included: P.G.T.
Beauregard and George McClellan on his personal staff (Connelly 8). During
the Mexican War Lee won the praise and respect of Scott as well as many
other young officers that he would serve with and against later.
As the years passed Mary Lee was left at Arlington. She was left to manage
her fathers grand estate, plantation really, by herself. Time had taken its
toll on Mary Lee. She had become an ageing woman, crippled with arthritis,
and left alone by her career Army officer’s duty assignments elsewhere
(Kelly 39). At the news of his father-in-laws death, Lee was able to take
official leave and hurry home. Upon his arrival he was shocked by the state
of his wife’s health. As she herself had written to a friend, “I almost
dread his seeing my crippled state”(Kelly 39). Lee was able to extend his
leave indefinitely. He became, in essence, a farmer. He was still able to
some duties in the army. These usually involved dull service such as a seat
on a court-martial. However, there was one such duty that proved to be much
more important. In October of 1859 he was sent to quell John Brown’s bloody
raid at Harpers Ferry (Grimsley). In the nations capital, setting just
below Arlington, there were heated debates over states’ rights union verses
disunion, and slavery. All the salons of Congress and in the salons and
saloons of the politically charged capital city, there was debate (Kelly 40).
After three years at home, Lee finally had to return to full time Army
duty. He was posted in Texas. While Lee was in Texas the controversy over
states’ rights grew worse. On January 21, 1861 five Southern Senate members
announced before a packed audience in the Senate galleries that their
respective states had seceded. With that, each gathered their things and
departed. Soon Texas seceded too, and Lee was ordered home to Washington,
to report to the Army’s ranking officer, General Winfield Scott. Lee
arrived at Arlington on March 1st. He now faced a very momentous personal
decision. After the firing on of Fort Sumpter, the first shots of the Civil
War, Lee was offered command of the Federal Army by Abraham Lincoln. Lee
was offered command of an army that was charged with the duty of invading
the South. A south that included Virginia, a Virginia that Lee truly loved.
On the morning of April 19th, Lee returned from nearby Alexandria with news
that Virginia to had seceded. The Lees had their supper together. Lee then
went, alone, to his upstairs bedroom. Below, Mary listened as he paced the
floor above, then heard a mild thump as he fell to his knees in prayer.
Below, she also prayed (Kelly 41).
Hours later he showed her two letters he had written. In one he resigned
his commission in the United States Army. In the other, he expressed
personal thoughts to General Scott. Later, his wife would write: “My
husband has wept tears of blood over this terrible war, but as a man of
honor and a Virginian, he must follow the destiny of his State” (Kelley 41).
Only two days after his resignation from the United States Army, Lee
travelled to Richmond to accept his commission as a General in the
Confederate army J. Davis-Papers). Lee’s impact was felt immediately on the
confederacy. As a seasoned military strategist, he brought the most
comprehensive, technologically advanced knowledge of warfare to bear
against his own former army (Nash 257).
General Lee’s first campaign in what was to become West Virginia was not a
great success. Command of the Eastern Army was divided between the hero of
Fort Sumpter, P.G.T. Beauragard, and Joseph Johnston who together won the
first big battle of the East, Bull Run. Thus Joseph Johnston was in command
when George B. McClellan started his march on Richmond. When Johnston went
down with wounds it was easy for Davis to replace him with General Lee. Lee
immediately took charge and attacked, trying to make up for his numbers
with audacity. He drove the Union army back about 25 miles, but was unable
to destroy it in a series of continuous battles known as the Seven Days
In September of 1862, McClellan attacked Lee at the Battle of Antietam.
McClellan attacked Lee but failed to break his lines. Lee, realising that
he was in a dangerous position and far from his supplies, retreated and
took up a defensive position behind the Rappangonnock River in northern
Virginia. Here General Ambrose E. Burnside, who succeeded McClellan,
attacked Lee in December at the Battle of Fredricksburg and met a bloody
repulse. As the year of 1862 closed, Lee had given the Confederacy its
greatest victories and had become an idol of the Southern people (Comptons).
Lee’s Greatest victory was the Battle of Chancelorsville in May of 1863.
Lee was faced with a larger army led by fighting Joe Hooker. Lee and his
most trusted lieutenant, General “Stonewall” Jackson, divided their forces
and through a forced march around General Hooker fell on his exposed flank,
rolling it up, and defeating the Union forces yet again (Brinkley 404).
After Chancellorsville, Lee started an offensive movement he hoped would
win the war, an invasion of Pennsylvania. This led to the greatest land
battle in the Western Hemisphere, Gettysburg. The Army of Northern Virginia
led by Lee, and the Army of the Potomac led by General George Meade,
hammered each other for three days. On the 3rd day of battle General Lee
hoping to end the war ordered the great frontal assault popularly known as
Pickett’s Charge. The attack was a huge failure (Brinkley 405). Lee blamed
For the next two years, Lee commanded an Army that was poorly supplied and
getting increasingly smaller. Lee had to go on the defensive. He inflicted
heavy losses on Grant at the battles of The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and
Cold Harbor (Brasington).
By April 9th 1865 Lee had no choice but to surrender to Grant. Lee met
Grant at Appomatox Courthouse. As Grant walked in the meeting room, wearing
a dusty privates uniform, he must have been humbled by the man who rose to
greet him. Lee was wearing a noble grey uniform with a polished sword at
his side. Grant and Lee then decided on the terms of the surrender. Lee
asked Grant if his soldiers could keep their horses. Grant answered, “I
insist upon it.” As Lee rode back to his camp, Confederate troops
surrounded him saying, “General are we surrendered? They vowed to go on
After the war many men came to Lee and said: “Let’s not accept this result
as final. Let’s keep the anger alive.” Lee answered by saying, “Make your
sons Americans.” When the war was lost Robert E. Lee took a job as
president of Washington College, a College of forty students and four
professors. Over his time he had trained thousands of men to be soldiers,
and had seen many of those thousands killed in battle. Now he wanted to
prepare forty of them for the duties of peace (Redmond).
Brasington, Larry, The American Revolution-an HTML project.
Brinkley, Alan, American History. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995.
Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia. Computer Software. Compton’s NewMedia,
Connelly, Thomas L. The Marble Man. New York: Knopf, 1977.
Davis, Jefffers, The Papers.http://www.ruf .edu/~pjdavis/lee/htm, 11/6/97.
Grimsley, Wayne. “The Differences Deepen.” Starkville, MS, 11 Nov. 1997.
(Class lecture delivered at Mississippi State University.)
Kelly, Brian. Best Little Stories From The Civil War. Charlottesville, VA:
Montpelier Publishing, 1996.
Nash, Roderick, and Graves, Gregory. From These Beginnings. New York:
National Park Service. Http://www.nps.gov/gwmp/arl_hse.html., 11/6/97.
Redmond, Louis. He Lost a War and Won Immortality.
Http://www-scf.usc.edu/~herron nva.html, 11/6/97.
Thomas, Emory. Robert E. Lee.