Robert Edward Lee

General in chief of the Confederate armies in the American Civil War, Robert Edward Lee (1807-1870) displayed strategic sense and tactical skill that rank him among the great military captains of history.

Robert E. Lee was born in Virginia's Westmoreland County on Jan. 19, 1807, the third son of Henry ("Light Horse Harry") and Ann Hill Carter Lee. Declining fortunes forced the family's removal to Alexandria, where Robert distinguished himself in local schools. His father's death in 1811 increased responsibilities on all the sons; Robert, especially, cared for his invalid mother.

Lee graduated number two in his class from the U.S. Military Academy in 1829. Commissioned a brevet lieutenant of engineers, he spent a few years at Ft. Pulaski, Ga., and Ft. Monroe, Va. At Ft. Monroe on June 30, 1831, he married Mary Ann Randolph Custis. The Lees had seven children. Lee worked in the chief engineer's office in Washington, D.C., from 1834 to 1837. He was transferred to Ft. Hamilton, N.Y., where he remained until 1846.

Mexican War

In August 1846 Lee joined Gen. John E. Wool's army in Texas. In the battle of Buena Vista, Lee's boldness drew his superiors' attention. Transferred to Gen. Winfield Scott's Veracruz expedition, in the battle at Veracruz and in the advance on Mexico he won additional acclaim. Following American occupation of the Mexican capital, he worked on maps for possible future campaigns. Already a captain in the regular service, he was made brevet colonel for his gallantry in the war.

Lee returned to engineer duty at Baltimore's Ft. Carroll until 1852, when he reluctantly became superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point. In 1855 he was made lieutenant colonel of the 2d Cavalry, one of the Army's elite units.

The years 1857-1859 were bleak. Lee had to take several furloughs to deal with family business and seriously thought of resigning his commission. However, in 1859 he and his men successfully put down John Brown's insurrection at Harpers Ferry, Va. (later, in W.Va.). In 1860 he became commander of the Department of Texas.

Coming of the Civil War

Talk of secession in the South grew strident during Lee's Texas sojourn. No secessionist, he was loyal to the Union and the U.S. Army; yet he had no doubts about his loyalties if Virginia departed the Union. Ties of blood bound him to the South.

Lee accepted a commission as colonel of the 1st U.S. Cavalry in March 1861. But offered command of the entire U.S. Army a month later, he hesitated. If he accepted, he might have to lead the Federal Army against Southern states and, if Virginia seceded, he might have to lead troops across its borders. He could do neither. So, painfully, Lee resigned his army commission in April 1861.

Secession and Virginia Service

Appointed commander of Virginia forces, Lee devoted himself to building an effective state army. He was so efficient that the new president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, asked him to become a full general in the Confederate Army and serve as presidential military adviser. This appointment was confirmed by the Confederate Senate.

A bad brush with field command in western Virginia— in a campaign marked by military rivalries, lack of supplies, wretched weather, and overly ambitious strategy on Lee's part—tarnished the new general's reputation. Davis still regarded him highly and sent him to organize southern Atlantic coastal defenses. Lee pursued this task efficiently until recalled to the Confederate capital, Richmond. In his role as presidential adviser, he tried to smooth the abrasive personalities of Davis and Gen. Joseph E. Johnston and to utilize the daring of Gen. Stonewall Jackson to frustrate Federal plans for sending aid to Gen. George B. McClellan's army, which was approaching Richmond.

Lee's Army

When Johnston was wounded in May 1862, Davis gave Lee command of Johnston's army. Lee renamed his force the "Army of Northern Virginia." The new commander looked the part: 5 feet 10 1/2 inches tall, robust at 170 pounds, Lee had graceful, almost classic features. He attracted men and women alike, was easy in manner, courteous and kind as a friend, and was a loving husband and father.

Though Lee's was the largest Confederate army in the field, it was outnumbered almost 3 to 2 by McClellan's Federal Army of the Potomac, which was preparing for siege operations on Richmond. While Lee struggled to fortify Richmond, he and Jackson planned a daring campaign, which Stonewall executed brilliantly and victoriously in the battles of Cross Keys and Port Republic, June 8-9, 1862. Lee promptly called Jackson to Richmond and added his 18,000-man force to the Army of Northern Virginia.

Toward the Battle of Second Manassas

Inexperience and haste led Lee to plan an overelaborate attack on McClellan's lines. Coordination failed, as Lee's campaign stuttered onward in a series of actions. McClellan was defeated in the Seven Days Battles and finally retreated to the Federal gunboats on the James River. Richmond was freed of threat, but Lee's planned annihilation of the Federal force had failed. Lee was unhappy with his results; but his men, almost completely rearmed with superior Federal arms, had developed great confidence in him.

Meanwhile another Federal army appeared in Virginia under Gen. John Pope. Lee sent Stonewall Jackson against Pope early in August. Jackson defeated part of Pope's force, then joined Lee for a combined campaign to destroy the rest. Lee planned more simply this time. Jackson captured Pope's supply base at Manassas Junction. Near the battlefield of First Manassas (Bull Run), Jackson stood off Pope's entire army while Lee's remaining force under Gen. James Longstreet concentrated close to Jackson's lines. On August 30 a sweeping assault by all Confederate troops won the Battle of Second Manassas. Lee had hoped for annihilation, but Pope's remnants escaped.

To Maryland and Sharpsburg

Lee's army could not subsist in war-ravaged northern Virginia, so he determined to carry the war into the North. With Virginia cleared of invaders and his army's morale superb, this seemed a likely time to force European recognition of the South by threatening Washington, D.C., and changing the locale of the war. In a campaign distinguished for daring—Lee broke his army into segments, each with a specific task—he crossed the Potomac River and reached Frederick, Md., sending Jackson's men to capture Harpers Ferry and open a supply route through the Shenandoah Valley. However, McClellan, restored to Federal command, was fighting with unexpected skill. Lee sought to reconcentrate his scattered men near Sharpsburg, Md., behind Antietam Creek. There on Sept. 17, 1862, with badly reduced strength he withstood searing assault; the arrival of Gen. A. P. Hill's division saved him from defeat. Several lessons had been learned, but Lee had lost 13,000 men in Maryland, and replacements were the scarcest commodity in the Confederacy.

Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville

Reorganizing his forces occupied Lee until December 13, when his men, holding high and virtually impregnable ground overlooking Fredericksburg, Va., beat off gallant attacks by the Army of the Potomac (now commanded by Gen. Ambrose Burnside). During the rest of the winter Lee tried to increase ranks and supplies. Jackson and Longstreet, his two corps commanders, improved their commands, new men were elevated to leadership, and Lee's army was ready by the time a new Federal general, Joseph Hooker, started his campaign in April 1863. Jackson clashed with Hooker in Virginia's Wilderness at the end of April. When Hooker withdrew to entrenchments near Chancellorsville, the initiative passed to Lee. He sent Jackson to a flanking position from which he almost destroyed Hooker's force. Jackson might have completed the destruction had he not been wounded, and his death later robbed the victory of any savor as the whole Confederacy mourned. Lee mourned especially, for there were no officers to match Jackson. With the initiative in his grasp, Lee had to decide how to use his army.

Battle of Gettysburg

Vicksburg, Miss., the South's last bastion on the Mississippi River, was under siege; its loss would cut the South in two. Food supplies in northern Virginia were scarce. However, Europeans were becoming convinced of the South's right to recognition, and peace sentiment was growing in the North. All these factors influenced Lee's summer strategy. Another invasion of the North might relieve Vicksburg, feed his men, and win recognition.

Lee reorganized his army into three corps: one under Longstreet, a second under Richard S. Ewell, the third under Hill. Subordinate commands were shaken up, so a new command structure guided the Confederate Army as it moved toward Harrisburg, Pa. Lee's vanguard encountered opposition near Gettysburg and on July 1 won modest spoils. Lee wanted to push the advantage. But Ewell delayed, and the next day Longstreet, convinced of defeat, also delayed attacking the Federal left. On July 3 Gen. George Pickett charged against the Federal center and was repulsed.

For the first time Lee's army had been defeated. Lee assumed all blame. Questions still arise over why he ordered the attack on July 3. But Lee seems to have had no choice. To miss this chance would have been a miserable compromise. Typically, he did not lament for long; instead, he planned to refit his army and renew the offensive. But the loss of 20,000 men and as many arms was unrecoverable. Vicksburg's loss, with a 30,000-man garrison, on July 4 confronted the South with a double disaster in men and supplies.

Loser's Game

Lee could not resume the offensive; his army was divided, with Longstreet moving west to help Gen. Braxton Bragg and the rest committed to holding Richmond. Lee maneuvered against Gen. George Meade throughout the remainder of 1863, and in spring 1864 he met the advance of Meade and Ulysses S. Grant. A series of bloody engagements followed. On June 3 at Cold Harbor the Federal assault on Lee's entrenchments was repulsed. Meade and Grant moved south of the James River, hoping to take Petersburg and enter Richmond from the south. Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard saved Petersburg, with help from Lee. The formal siege of Petersburg ran from June 18, 1864, to April 2, 1865.

In those months, attrition cut Lee's ranks. Daily casualties and desertion whittled down his strength; dwindling food for men and animals almost immobilized the army. Heavy actions through the summer, combined with the necessity of keeping Richmond's southern rail connections open, sapped Lee's resources.

The Confederacy's military situation worsened throughout the summer as Federal general William T. Sherman forced the Army of Tennessee backward through Georgia to the sea. Lee, appointed general in chief of all Confederate armies in February 1865, could give only general direction to lingering disaster.

Sherman marched upward through the Carolinas, threatening Petersburg. Lee failed to split Grant's front. On April 2 Grant's attack snapped Lee's lines; the Confederates began evacuating Petersburg and Richmond. Lee was compelled to surrender his shadow force of no more than 9,000 soldiers at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.

Last Years

Arlington, the Custis family seat, was gone now; the Lees had no real home. They remained in Richmond, well treated by the Federals. In September Lee accepted the presidency of Washington College, in Lexington, Va., where he remained until his death.

Devoted to education and to resurrecting the South, Lee became a symbol of reunification. He refused to abandon his distressed country, hoped for Southern re-assimilation, and set a lofty example. Without bitterness, he obeyed the law and counseled all Southerners to do the same. Indicted for treason, he never stood trial; and although never granted a pardon, he lived in comfort and in great honor. In September 1870 he was stricken, probably with an acute attack of angina, and died on October 12. Mourning swept the South and the world. Lee was the embodiment of a cause and the symbol of an age.

Assessing Lee

Lee had better strategic than tactical sense. As a logistician, he became a consummate master of troop deployment. He had audacity in abundance; caution he could display when needed, but attack was his way. He inspired men as did few other generals and earned respect from friend and foe. He had one command weakness—an inability to deal with disgruntled subordinates. For example, when Longstreet sulked and dallied at Second Manassas and at Gettysburg, Lee deferred to, rather than commanded, him.

History knows Lee as a man of uncommon devotion, calmness, and goodness. His biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, concludes that Lee was duty's man, "that is all. There is no mystery in the coffin. … ."

Further Reading on Robert Edward Lee

Lee's writings were collected in Lee's Dispatches, edited by Douglas Southall Freeman (1915) and revised by Grady McWhiney (1957), and in The Wartime Papers of R. E. Lee, edited by Clifford Dowdey (1961). The outstanding biography is Douglas Southall Freeman, R. E. Lee (4 vols., 1934-1937). Among more recent works are Burke Davis, Gray Fox: Robert E. Lee and the Civil War (1956); Earle Schenck Miers, Robert E. Lee (1956); Clifford Dowdey, Lee (1965); and Margaret Sanborn, Robert E. Lee (2 vols., 1966-1967).

Freeman's Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command (3 vols., 1942-1944) discusses Lee as army commander. A study of Lee's last years is Marshall William Fishwick, Lee after the War (1963). Good studies of the South during the war are Ellis Merton Coulter, The Confederate States of America, 1861-1865 (1950), and Clement Eaton, A History of the Southern Confederacy (1954). A documentary account of the war is Henry Steele Commager, ed., The Blue and the Gray: The Story of the Civil War as Told by Participants (2 vols., 1950). A solid general history is Bruce Catton, The Centennial History of the Civil War (3 vols., 1961-1965).

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