General Robert E. Lee: History and Biography
|General Robert E. Lee
General Robert E. Lee rejected the offer to command Union forces on the grounds that he could not draw
his sword against his beloved home state of Virginia. Lee stated that his "loyalty to Virginia ought to
take precedence over that which is due the Federal Government." He further proclaimed that he had no greater duty than to his native state of Virginia. Lee was a 4th generation Virginian, son of Henry "Light
Horse Harry" Lee (one of George Washington's favorite lieutenants), and Lee's wife, Mary Anne Custis, was the great granddaughter
of Martha Washington.
Robert Edward Lee was born on January 19, 1807, at "Stratford" in Westmoreland
County, Virginia, to Henry and Anne Hill Lee. Robert's father, Henry Lee, was a distinguished cavalry officer who participated
in the American Revolution where he gained the nickname "Light Horse Harry". Due to declining political prospects and financial
problems, the elder Lee moved his family from Stratford to a home in Alexandria, Virginia (adjacent the Potomac River
and across from Washington). Robert E. Lee attended school in Alexandria and enjoyed outdoor activities along the river.
In 1825, the young Lee secured an appointment with the United States Military Academy at West Point. While at the
Academy, he excelled in academics and military exercises. Appointed adjutant of the cadet corps, he graduated in the number
two position of his class in 1829. Lee, to this day, is the only West Point cadet to graduate without receiving a single
As a cadet
at the United States Military
Academy, Robert E. Lee had taken an “oath of allegiance to his respective State [Virginia].”
|General Robert E. Lee in April 1865
|(Photograph by Matthew Brady)
|Robert E. Lee
|(Picture, Library of Congress)
(Right) Robert E. Lee, as a U.S. Army Colonel before the Civil War.
As a young second lieutenant, Lee served at many army outposts and forts.
Lieutenant Lee married Mary Ann Randolph Custis (a direct descendant of Martha Washington) on June 30, 1831, and the
couple had seven children. As an engineer, Lee supervised numerous projects in the Midwest and around Washington, and, with
the outbreak of hostilities with Mexico, Lee served in the army and fought in many battles under General John E. Wool and
General Winfield Scott. Lee distinguished himself during the Mexican American War and he was slightly wounded at the Battle of Chapultepec; consequently, Lee received several promotions after the war. In the 1850s, he briefly served as the superintendent
of West Point and then transferred to a command in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry.
In 1859, Lee took part in a dramatic event that contributed to the growing
division between North and South. He was in Washington when the radical abolitionist John Brown and a small band of followers raided the United States Arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. Brown and his gang seized
weapons and hostages with the objective to spark an uprising among the slaves in Virginia. Robert Lee and his troops were
immediately dispatched to Harper's Ferry, where they eventually cornered Brown in the arsenal engine house, engaged in a bloody
shoot out, and then captured Brown. Within a year, the talk of secession
had become stronger throughout the South. As an army officer, Lee was against secession and never entertained the idea of
a revolt against the United States government. Lee's allegiance,
however, was with Virginia.
to Virginia ought to take precedence over that which is due the Federal Government." —Robert Edward Lee
|General Robert E. Lee mounted on "Traveller"
|(Photo, September 1866, Library of Congress)
|General Robert E. Lee, post Civil War
|(Library of Congress)
(Left) One of the last known photographs of General Robert E. Lee, post-Civil
Lee continued his work in Washington,
living at his wife's ancestral home at Arlington. In 1861, the South did secede and Virginia soon followed. Lee was offered
a command in the Union Army but declined to accept the assignment because of his oath, loyalty, and ancestry to Virginia.
It was a difficult decision for Lee, but his "allegiance was to Virginia" and his strong family roots to
Virginia. With some regrets, Lee resigned his commission and moved his family to Richmond; never to see the home at Arlington
again (Robert E. Lee's Resignation Letter). Lee offered his services to the state of Virginia and was placed in command of all military forces from that
state. He was later assigned as "personal military advisor to President Jefferson Davis," which was a very difficult job.
Lee had to coordinate numerous operations involving officers who were very sensitive about their command positions and obligations.
It was a difficult time, and Lee suffered the brunt of heavy criticism.
In the spring of 1862, the Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by General George McClellan, was poised to strike the city
of Richmond. In a pitched battle at Seven Pines, General Joseph Johnston, commanding the Confederate forces, was seriously wounded.
Lee was immediately assigned to replace Johnston and he took command of the army, which he renamed the Army of Northern Virginia. Despite some early difficulties, General Lee undertook the new
assignment with vigor and spirit. Directing his troops near Richmond with those of General "Stonewall" Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, Lee met the Union threat on two fronts. After quickly smashing the Union
forces in the Valley, General Jackson rushed his troops to Richmond and joined General James Longstreet's Corps in attacking
McClellan's army. Together, Lee and his officers were able to rout the Union threat during the Seven Days Battles.
"He has lost his left arm; but I have lost my right arm." —General Robert
E. Lee referring to General "Stonewall" Jackson
|Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee
|(Photographed in 1865)
|General Robert E. Lee in 1865
|(National Archives Photo)
What followed was a set of victories against seemingly insurmountable odds.
General Lee's army was always outnumbered, out gunned, and often in a poor position
to attack or defend. General Lee, however, was a practical strategist with an engineer's sense, who was willing
to take risks to outmaneuver his opponents. The support of excellent commanders contributed to repeated victories against
the Union Army. Lee suffered several setbacks during the Maryland Campaign in 1862, which resulted in the Battle of Antietam. Still, General Lee's thin line held most of the battlefield at the end
of America's bloodiest single-day of fighting, giving him a strategic victory. (Photograph to the right: Mathew
Brady portrait of Lee in 1865.) Subsequently, he was forced to retreat across the Potomac River and back to Virginia. After
the Battle of Fredericksburg in December, Lee spent the winter rebuilding his battered army. The Union Army also
rebuilt itself and opened the spring of 1863 with a surprise move against Lee's forces. The Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia, (one of Lee's greatest victories) was at a very high cost when
"Stonewall" Jackson, his most trusted officer, was mortally wounded. Despite the loss of his beloved corps commander, Lee
continued and invaded the North again. His troops successfully marched through Maryland and southern Pennsylvania until
they clashed with Union forces at Gettysburg. The Battle of Gettysburg was a costly defeat for the Army of Northern Virginia; Lee felt a great
and personal responsibility for the loss. Lee even offered his resignation, but the Confederate government displayed
great confidence in the commander and refused his resignation.
Robert E. Lee: Commander, Army of Northern Virginia, 1862–1865;
General-in-Chief of the Confederate States Army, January 31, 1865 – April 9, 1865.
General Lee faced a new antagonist in the spring of 1864. After a succession
of Union victories in Tennessee and Mississippi, General Ulysses S. Grant arrived in Washington where President Lincoln placed
him in overall command of Union land forces. Knowing that Lee must be defeated to end the Civil War, Grant chose to make his
headquarters with the Army of the Potomac in Virginia. The Grant and Lee strategic duel began in the spring of 1864
in the "Overland Campaign," also known as the "Wilderness Campaign." Starting with the Battle of the Wilderness,
May 5-7, 1864, the two armies grappled continuously for many weeks through middle Virginia and the fighting was bitter and
brutal. Lee was able to block every maneuver Grant made and though Lee's forces inflicted heavy losses on the Union
army, Grant continued his pursuit. Lee's losses could not be easily replaced and material shortages became more acute. Despite
Lee's best efforts, Grant had succeeded in continually marching Meade's Union army southward, right to the outskirts of Richmond,
where Lee also had to contend with the Union Army of the James.
|General Robert E. Lee and Family in April 1865
|(Photograph by Matthew Brady)
(Left) Photograph of General Robert E. Lee with son Custis (left) and aide
Walter H. Taylor (right). Photographed at Lee's Richmond, Virginia, residence by Brady on April 16, 1865. Library of Congress.
In mid- June, General Grant shifted
his forces around Richmond to Petersburg, Virginia; an important junction for southern railroads through the Carolinas
and southern Virginia. Once again, Lee's army arrived in the city to halt the Union attacks. Trenches and forts were constructed
by both armies, and the battle became a siege of the city. In an attempt to break this stalemate, Lee sent part of
his army northward to invade Maryland and hopefully draw off a portion of Grant's forces around the Richmond-Petersburg line. This Confederate force under General Jubal "Old Jube" Early succeeded in reaching the outskirts of Washington before
they were forced to retire into Virginia. Later defeated in the Shenandoah Valley, Early's troops relinquished the valley and rejoined Lee's main force around Petersburg. “We didn't take Washington,” Early told his staff officers, “but we scared Abe Lincoln like Hell!”
Lee knew that his army could not last through a long siege but he tenaciously resisted the relentless pressure
of two Union armies. In March 1865, Lee ordered one last desperate gamble to break the Union siege of the city, an attack
on the center of the Union siege line. Though initially successful, the attack was repulsed by overwhelming Union firepower
and Grant renewed his efforts to take Petersburg by force. The Battle of Five Forks gave the Union control of the last southern railroad into Petersburg, and the
Richmond-Petersburg line was doomed. With time and odds against him, Lee ordered his army to abandon both cities. He moved
his dwindling army west hoping to eventually move south to connect with Confederate forces under General Joseph Johnston in
|General Robert E. Lee, Confederate Army, 1863
|(Photograph, Library of Congress)
|Robert E. Lee in 1869
(Right) Photograph of Lee in 1869 while president of Washington
Disaster followed Lee with every step
of the march. Despite his best efforts, Lee knew that the end was at hand when his remaining forces were blocked near
Appomattox Court House, Virginia. On April 9, 1865, dressed in his finest Confederate gray uniform,
General Lee met with General Grant that afternoon to sign the terms of surrender. Lee left Appomattox and his army
forever and returned to Richmond.
It was a bleak time for the general. Branded a traitor by many who
wished to see him imprisoned and hanged, Lee quietly remained at his home in Richmond caring for his ailing wife. Yet there
were many that highly esteemed Lee and responded with generous offers of financial assistance and employment.
On May 29, 1865, President Andrew Johnson issued a Proclamation of
Amnesty and Pardon to persons who had participated in the rebellion against the United States. There were fourteen excepted
classes, though, and members of those classes had to make special application to the President. Lee sent an application to
Grant and wrote to President Johnson on June 13, 1865:
“Being excluded from the
provisions of amnesty & pardon contained in the proclamation of the 29th Ulto; I hereby apply for the benefits, &
full restoration of all rights & privileges extended to those included in its terms. I graduated at the Mil. Academy at
West Point in June 1829. Resigned from the U.S.
Army April '61. Was a General in the Confederate Army, & included in the surrender of the Army of N. Virginia 9 April
|General Robert E. Lee: "Oath of amnesty"
|(Click to Enlarge)
(Left) Oath of amnesty submitted by Robert E. Lee in 1865.
In the autumn of 1865, Lee accepted a position as president of Washington
College (presently Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia. With the assistance of an enthusiastic faculty,
Lee revived the school and witnessed high standards in education. He also set an example for the South, working to rebind
the wounds of a divided nation by obedience to civil authority. He quietly encouraged his veterans to return to their homes
and rebuild their lives as Americans.
The aged Lee never discussed the war nor wrote about his war-time
experiences. He was given many offers of money for his memoirs, which an adoring public wished to read, but turned everyone
down. Lee was sincere in his feelings in not discussing the war or the results
of it, letting the record of his army speak for itself. On October 12, 1870, General Lee died after a short illness and is
buried in the chapel of the university that bears his name. General Robert Edward Lee will forever be known as the "Beloved
|General Robert E. Lee statue
("Recumbent Statue" of Robert
E. Lee in “Lee Chapel” in Lexington, Virginia, with Lee asleep on the battlefield, sculpted by Edward Valentine.
It is often mistakenly thought to be a tomb or sarcophagus, but Lee is actually buried elsewhere in the chapel.)
Benjamin Harvey Hill of
Georgia, referring to Robert Edward Lee during an address before the Southern Historical Society in Atlanta, Georgia, on February
18, 1874, stated: "[Lee] was a foe without hate; a friend without treachery; a soldier without cruelty; a victor without
oppression, and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices; a private citizen without wrong; a neighbor
without reproach; a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guile. He was a Caesar, without his ambition; Frederick, without his tyranny;
Napoleon, without his selfishness, and Washington, without his reward."
|Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial
(Arlington House, The Robert E.
Lee Memorial, also known as the Custis-Lee Mansion,
is a Greek revival style mansion that once belonged to General Robert E. Lee, and it is surrounded by Arlington National Cemetery.)
Arlington House was built by slaves
in 1803 with handmade brick covered with very hard cement referred to as “hydraulic cement,” and the surface was
scored and painted to look like marble and sandstone, a faux finish. These faux finishes were very popular in the early 19th
century, just as they are now. The back or West side of the house was left unfinished with the brick exposed until 1818. It
overlooks the Potomac River, directly across from the National Mall in Washington, D.C. During
the Civil War, the grounds of the mansion were selected as the site of Arlington
National Cemetery, in part to
ensure that Lee would never again be able to return to his home. However, the United
States has since designated the mansion as a National Memorial to its former opponent, a
mark of widespread respect for him in both the North and South. Today, the mansion is managed by the National Park Service
as a memorial to Robert E. Lee while the land surrounding the mansion, known as Arlington National Cemetery, is managed by
the Department of the Army.
In 1900, Lee was one
of the first 29 individuals selected for the Hall of Fame for Great Americans (the first Hall of Fame in the United States),
designed by Stanford White, on the Bronx, New York, campus of New York University, now a part of Bronx Community College.
The USS Robert E. Lee was a submarine named for Lee, built in 1958. Robert E. Lee remains an iconic figure of American military
|Equestrian Statue of Robert E. Lee, May 29, 1890
(Photograph of the unveiling of
the Equestrian Statue of Robert E. Lee, May 29, 1890. Richmond, Virginia. Library
This large equestrian statue of
Lee, by French sculptor Jean Antonin Merciť, is the centerpiece of Richmond,
Virginia's famous Monument Avenue,
which boasts four other statues to famous Confederates. The monument to Lee was unveiled on May 29, 1890, and more than 100,000
people attended this dedication.
The Lee Family:
(Sources listed at bottom of page.)
Lee, by Douglas Southall Freeman. Description: Douglas
Southall Freeman's multi-volume "R. E. Lee" may have been published nearly three-quarters of a century ago, but this abridged
version remains the best single biography ever written about the legendary Confederate general. Although there have been numerous
books written about Lee, none have come as close to capturing Lee's military genius, or why so many Southerners enthusiastically
fought and died under his banner, as does Freeman's work. When it was first published "Lee" was a sensation, and in the 1930's
only Margaret Mitchell's wildly fictionalized "Gone With the Wind" surpassed it in sales and publicity. Senator Harry Truman
read every volume, as did other famous political and military leaders. Freeman's work did much to spread the "Lee Legend"
outside the South and made Lee into a national, and not merely regional, icon. Continued below...
In Freeman's elegant prose, Robert Edward Lee is nearly perfect in every
respect - he is a modest, deeply religious man who dislikes slavery and secession but reluctantly agrees to side with his
native state of Virginia when the Civil War begins. If the rest of Freeman's story sounds familiar it is
because this book made it so. Lee, despite facing constant shortages of men and supplies, meets the overwhelming forces of
the Northern States and defeats them in battle after battle. Yet after each defeat the Northerners simply recruit new soldiers,
resupply their vast armies, and come after Lee's valiant but shrinking forces again and again. In the end not even Lee's tactical
genius can save the outnumbered and outgunned Confederates from eventual (and in Freeman's opinion, inevitable) defeat. Naturally,
some historians have not agreed with this view of the Old South's greatest icon, and later books on the "Gray Fox" have disputed
Freeman's assertions that Lee was opposed to slavery and secession, or that his military decisions were always correct. There
have been numerous books written about Robert E Lee, but none have done so well at portraying his life or in explaining why,
even today, Lee’s legend thrives and his tactics are studied at military academies throughout the world. A genuine "must-read"
for any Civil War buff or student of military history.
Recommended Reading: General
Lee: A Biography of Robert E. Lee, by Fitzhugh Lee (Author), Gary W. Gallagher (Introduction). Description: A soldier, politician, and author, General Fitzhugh Lee (1835–1905)
had attended West Point and proved to be a boisterous challenge to the superintendent of the Academy, who was also his uncle:
Robert E. Lee. (Gen. Lee commended Fitzhugh as ”an excellent cavalry officer. . . . I feel at
liberty to call upon him—on all occasions.”) The book covers Robert E. Lee’s early service in the Mexican
War through his masterful command during the Seven Days Battle, Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville,
and the High Water Mark of the war--the Battle of Gettysburg. Fitzhugh vividly describes Lee's surrender and latter
years. Continued below...
He also allows the reader an insight into the mind of the South’s greatest hero and permits
them to relive the immense achievements that "Marse Lee" accomplished. This book even covers Lee's family history, lineage
and genealogy, which compliment the life of the beloved general.
Reading: General Lee's Army: From Victory
to Collapse. Review: You cannot say that University of North Carolina professor Glatthaar
(Partners in Command) did not do his homework in this massive examination of the Civil War–era lives of the men in Robert
E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Glatthaar spent nearly 20 years examining and ordering primary source material to ferret
out why Lee's men fought, how they lived during the war, how they came close to winning, and why they lost. Glatthaar marshals
convincing evidence to challenge the often-expressed notion that the war in the South was a rich man's war and a poor man's
fight and that support for slavery was concentrated among the Southern upper class. Continued below...
Lee's army included the rich, poor and middle-class,
according to the author, who contends that there was broad support for the war in all economic strata of Confederate society.
He also challenges the myth that because Union forces outnumbered and materially outmatched the Confederates, the rebel cause
was lost, and articulates Lee and his army's acumen and achievements in the face of this overwhelming opposition. This well-written
work provides much food for thought for all Civil War buffs.
Recommended Reading: Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command (912 pages). Description: Hailed as one of the greatest Civil War books, this exhaustive study
is an abridgement of the original three-volume version. It is a history of the Army of Northern Virginia from the first
shot fired to the surrender at Appomattox - but what makes
this book unique is that it incorporates a series of biographies of more than 150 Confederate officers. The book discusses
in depth all the tradeoffs that were being made politically and militarily by the South. Continued below...
The book does an excellent job describing the battles, then
at a critical decision point in the battle, the book focuses on an officer - the book stops and tells the biography of that
person, and then goes back to the battle and tells what information the officer had at that point and the decision he made.
At the end of the battle, the officers decisions are critiqued based on what he "could have known and what he should have
known" given his experience, and that is compared with 20/20 hindsight. "It is an incredibly well written book!"
Robert E. Lee on Leadership : Executive Lessons in Character, Courage, and Vision. Description: Robert E. Lee was a leader for the ages. The man heralded by Winston Churchill
as "one of the noblest Americans who ever lived" inspired an out-manned, out-gunned army to achieve greatness on the battlefield.
He was a brilliant strategist and a man of unyielding courage who, in the face of insurmountable odds, nearly changed forever
the course of history. "A masterpiece—the best work of its kind I have ever read. Crocker's Lee is
a Lee for all leaders to study; and to work, quite deliberately, to emulate." — Major General Josiah Bunting
III, Superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute. Continued below...
In this remarkable book, you'll
learn the keys to Lee's greatness as a man and a leader. You'll find a general whose standards for personal excellence was
second to none, whose leadership was founded on the highest moral principles, and whose character was made of steel. You'll
see how he remade a rag-tag bunch of men into one of the most impressive fighting forces history has ever known. You'll also
discover other sides of Lee—the businessman who inherited the debt-ridden Arlington plantation and streamlined its operations, the
teacher who took a backwater college and made it into a prestigious university, and the motivator who inspired those he led
to achieve more than they ever dreamed possible. Each chapter concludes with the extraordinary lessons learned, which can
be applied not only to your professional life, but also to your private life as well.
Today's business world requires
leaders of uncommon excellence who can overcome the cold brutality of constant change. Robert E. Lee was such a leader. He
triumphed over challenges people in business face every day. Guided by his magnificent example, so can you.
"A splendid and inspiring
book, Robert E. Lee on Leadership offers enormously valuable lessons for all of us today, and should be required reading in
the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon, at least."
— Caspar Weinberger, former
Secretary of Defense, chairman of Forbes magazine
"As Harry Crocker reminds
us, the principles that guided Robert e. Lee were grounded in the finest traditions of American values. Robert E. Lee on Leadership
is a timely and valuable reflection on character, and on the personal and spiritual convictions that make for great leaders."
— S. Patrick Presley, director
of Federal Government Affairs, British Petroleum
"A moving and illuminating
look at Lee the man, so that thoughtful people can learn from him how to succeed in the business of life."
— Dinesh D'Souza, author
of Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader
"Harry Crocker has provided
a great service by reminding us through this moving and tightly written biography that winning isn't the only thing: faithfulness
and honor live in our memories after the guns are silent."
— Marvin Olasky, author
of the bestselling Renewing American Compassion and The American Leadership Tradition
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Michael (2000), The Making of Robert E. Lee, Random House, ISBN 0-679-45650-3; Freeman, Douglas S. (1934), R. E. Lee, A Biography,
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