Robert Edward Lee



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Reference: Alabama Department of Archives & History. Custodian of the original pictures. Confederate Officers photo album.

Robert Edward Lee, perhaps the most universally revered of American soldiers, was born at "Stratford"  in Westmoreland County, Virginia, on January 19, 1807. He was the fifth child of Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee of Revolutionary War fame and the latter's second wife, Ann Hill (Carter) Lee. Harry Lee destroyed his brilliant prospects by a mania for land speculation, and "Stratford" passed to a son by his first marriage. The family was compelled to remove to a small house in Alexandria, where it existed on the income from a trust fund established for Mrs. Lee by her father. When Robert was eleven, Harry Lee died while en route home from a trip to the West Indies. After receiving his early education in the Alexandria schools, young Lee obtained in 1825 an appointment to West Point, from which he was graduated second in the class of 1829, without a demerit standing against his name for the four years of his course. (In Lee's time, cadets at West Point could "work off" demerits by standing extra guard, and so on.) He was commissioned a brevet 2nd lieutenant of engineers. The seventeen years between his graduation and the outbreak of the Mexican War were passed in discharging with energy and distinction the duties of his profession at Forts Pulaski, Monroe, and Hamilton, and as superintending engineer for St. Louis harbor. The interval was particularly marked by his marriage on June 30, 1831 to Mary Ann Randolph Custis, the only child of George Washington Parke Custis, a grandson of Martha Washington by her first marriage. The Custis estate of "Arlington" on the Virginia shore of the Potomac opposite Washington thus became Lee's home after the death of his father-in-law in 1857. From this union seven children were born; all of the three boys later served in the Confederate Army. George Washington Custis and William Henry Fitzhugh attained the grade of major general, and Robert E., Jr., that of captain. In 1846 Lee, then a captain of engineers, was sent to San Antonio, Texas, as assistant engineer to General John E. Wool, but soon joined General Winfield Scott in the Vera Cruz expedition. On the march to Mexico City his extraordinary industry and capacity won him the lasting confidence and esteem of Scott. During the various engagements leading up to the capture of the Mexican capital, in one of which he was slightly wounded, Lee's regular rank was augmented by three brevets for gallantry and distinguished conduct to that of colonel. He returned to the United States in 1848 and supervised the construction of Fort Carroll in Baltimore Harbor, until his appointment as superintendent of the Military Academy in 1852. Three years later, with the approval of the then Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, Lee transferred from staff to line and was commissioned lieutenant colonel of the 2nd Cavalry and sent to West Texas, where he served from 1857 to 1861. He was at Arlington House on extended leave at the time of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, and was placed in command of the detachment of Marines that stormed the engine-house, capturing Brown and his "garrison" in October 1859. In February 1861, when the lower South seceded, General Scott recalled Lee from Texas. Politically a Whig, Lee was strongly attached to the Union and the Constitution; and the fact that he later manumitted the slaves who came to him through the will of his father-in-law showed that he entertained no special sympathy for the institution of slavery. However, when it became manifest that his native state would withdraw from the Union and that he would be expected to aid in "suppressing insurrection," he promptly resigned his commission in the United States Army on April 20, 1861. He had already refused, on April 18, the offer of the chief command of the U. S. forces made by General Scott at the instance of President Lincoln. Proceeding immediately to Richmond he was designated commander in chief of the military and naval forces of Virginia by Governor Letcher. Upon the transfer of the Virginia troops to Confederate service, he was appointed and confirmed brigadier general in the Regular Confederate States Army on May 14, 1861 (then the highest provided for by law), and subsequently general to rank from June 14, 1861. Lee ably discharged the duties of arming and equipping the Virginia contingents and then passed into a wider field of endeavor. He was first assigned to resist the Federal columns advancing through the trans-Allegheny counties of the state; but his campaign was unsuccessful, principally because of the adherence of the populace to the Union cause. After a short tour of duty examining the defenses of the South Atlantic seaboard, he returned to Richmond in March 1862 to act as military adviser to President Davis. At this time Lee devised a plan—which was magnificently executed by Stonewall Jackson —to prevent reinforcements from reaching McClellan at Richmond. The wounding of General Joseph E. Johnston at the battle of Seven Pines, on May 31, 1862, precipitated Lee into the command of the Army of Northern Virginia. This fortuitous association continued uninterrupted until the end of the war. Lee took the initiative at once and foiled McClellan's threat against Richmond in the Seven Days battles, June 26-July 2, 1861. At Second Manassas, August 29-30, he decisively defeated General Pope, but was checked by McClellan the following month in his Northern thrust in the Maryland campaign. Lee repulsed General Burnside at Fredericksburg on  December 13, 1862,  and General Hooker at Chancellorsville on May 2-4, 1863.  Since the South had to contend against a large superiority in men and materiel, it soon became apparent that even Confederate successes could not be so exploited as to achieve positive results. After the Pennsylvania campaign of 1863, culminating in the repulse at Gettysburg, Lee was forced to turn more and more to defensive measures, both strategically and tactically, always in the hope that  some miraculous recognition of the Confederacy by European powers might take place. Utilizing to the fullest extent the newly-developed art of field fortification, he fought what was in essence a rear-guard action from the Wilderness (May to June 1864) to Petersburg (July 1864 to April 1865), always on the alert for an opportunity to "strike a blow." Casualties of almost three to one in his favor, and the advantage of fighting behind entrenched lines, however, could not compensate for the undiminished resources and determination of the Federals, nor for the steadily waning re­sources at his own command. Lee was ultimately compelled to stretch out too thinly to oppose the masses of Grant, and the in­evitable breakthrough occurred at Petersburg on April 2, 1865. Seven days later, at Appomattox Court House, Lee surrendered the remnant of what had been the Army of Northern Virginia. Two months and a week before, under the act of January 23, 1865, he had been confirmed General in Chief of the Armies of the Confederate States. By signing this act into law President Davis had virtually abdicated his prerogatives as Commander in Chief. Under the provisions of the act Lee manifestly attained the highest rank of any officer in the Confederate military service.

General Lee returned to Richmond as a paroled prisoner of war, and submitted with the utmost composure to an altered destiny. He devoted the remainder of his life to setting an example of conduct for other thousands of ex-Confederates. He refused a number of offers which would have secured substantial means for his family. Instead, he assumed the presidency of Washington College at Lexington, Virginia (now Washington and Lee University). As a result of the war, the college was at that period rather a landmark than a going concern. Lee's enormous wartime prestige, both in the North and South, and the devotion inspired by his unconscious symbolism of the "Lost Cause" made him a legendary figure even before his death. He died at Lexington on October 12, 1870, and is buried there.

Ref: Generals in Gray, Lives of the Confederate Commanders by Ezra J. Warner.  Printed by Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge and London.