Robert Edward Lee (January 19, 1807 – October 12, 1870) was an American career military officer who is best known for having commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War.
Robert E. Lee
Lee, General of the Confederate Army. (1863, Julian Vannerson)
|Birth name||Robert Edward Lee|
|Nickname||"The Marble Man"|
January 19, 1807|
Stratford Hall, Virginia, U.S.
|Died||October 12, 1870
Lexington, Virginia, U.S.
|Years of service||
|Other work||President of Washington and Lee University|
Robert Edward Lee (January 19, 1807 – October 12, 1870) was an American career military officer who is best known for having commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War.
The son of Revolutionary War officer Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee III and a top graduate of the United States Military Academy, Robert E. Lee distinguished himself as an exceptional officer and combat engineer in the United States Army for 32 years. During this time, he served throughout the United States, distinguished himself during the Mexican-American War, served as Superintendent of the United States Military Academy, and married Mary Custis.
When Virginia declared its secession from the Union in April 1861, Lee chose to follow his home state, despite his personal desire for the country to remain intact and despite the fact that President Abraham Lincoln had offered Lee command of a Union Army. During the Civil War, Lee originally served as a senior military adviser to President Jefferson Davis. He soon emerged as a shrewd tactician and battlefield commander, winning numerous battles against far superior Union armies. His abilities as a tactician have been praised by many military historians. Lee's strategic foresight was more doubtful, and both of his major offensives into the North ended in defeat. Union General Ulysses S. Grant's campaigns bore down on the Confederacy in 1864 and 1865, and despite inflicting heavy casualties, Lee was unable to turn the war's tide. He would ultimately surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. By this time, the former had assumed supreme command of the remaining Southern armies; other Confederate forces swiftly capitulated after Lee's surrender. Lee rejected the proposal of a sustained insurgency against the North and called for reconciliation between the two sides.
After the war, as President of what is now Washington and Lee University, Lee supported President Andrew Johnson's program of Reconstruction and intersectional friendship, while opposing the Radical Republican proposals to give freed slaves the vote and take the vote away from ex-Confederates. He urged them to rethink their position between the North and the South, and the reintegration of former Confederates into the nation's political life. Lee became the great Southern hero of the War, a postwar icon of the "Lost Cause of the Confederacy" to some. But his popularity grew even in the North, especially after his death in 1870. He remains one of the most revered, iconic figures of American military leadership.
Lee was born at Stratford Hall Plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia, the son of Major General Henry Lee III (Light Horse Harry) (1756–1818), Governor of Virginia, and his second wife, Anne Hill Carter (1773–1829). His birth date has traditionally been recorded as January 19, 1807, but according to the historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor, "Lee's writings indicate he may have been born the previous year."
One of Lee's great-great grandparents, Henry Lee I, was a prominent Virginian colonist of English descent. Lee's family is one of Virginia's first families, originally arriving in Virginia from England in the early 1600s with the arrival of Richard Lee I, Esq., "the Immigrant" (1618–64). His mother grew up at Shirley Plantation, one of the most elegant homes in Virginia. Lee's father, a tobacco planter, suffered severe financial reverses from failed investments.
Little is known of Lee as a child; he rarely spoke of his boyhood as an adult. Nothing is known of his relationship with his father who, after leaving his family, mentioned Robert only once in a letter. When given the opportunity to visit his father's Georgia grave, he remained there only briefly yet, while as president of Washington College, he defended his father in a biographical sketch while editing Light Horse Harry's memoirs. In 1809, Harry Lee was put in debtors prison; soon after his release the following year, Harry and Anne Lee and their five children moved to a small house on Cameron Street in Alexandria, Virginia, both because there were then high quality local schools there, and because several members of her extended family lived nearby. In 1811, the family, including the newly born sixth child, Mildred, moved to a house on Oronoco Street, still close to the center of town and with the houses of a number of Lee relatives close by. In 1812, Harry Lee was badly injured in a political riot in Baltimore and traveled to the West Indies. He would never return, dying when his son Robert was eleven years old. Left to raise six children alone in straitened circumstances, Anne Lee and her family often paid extended visits to relatives and family friends. Robert Lee attended school at Eastern View, a school for young gentlemen, in Fauquier County, and then at the Alexandria Academy, free for local boys, where he showed an aptitude for mathematics. Although brought up to be a practicing Christian, he was not confirmed in the Episcopal Church until age 46.
Anne Lee's family was often supported by a relative, William Henry Fitzhugh, who owned the Oronoco Street house and allowed the Lees to stay at his home in Fairfax County, Ravensworth. When Robert was 17 in 1824, Fitzhugh wrote to the Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun, urging that Robert be given an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Fitzhugh wrote little of Robert's academic prowess, dwelling much on the prominence of his family, and erroneously stated the boy was 18. Instead of mailing the letter, Fitzhugh had young Robert deliver it. In March 1824, Robert Lee received his appointment to West Point, but due to the large number of cadets admitted, Lee would have to wait a year to begin his studies there.
Lee entered West Point in the summer of 1825. At the time, the focus of the curriculum was engineering; the head of the Army Corps of Engineers supervised the school and the superintendent was an engineering officer. Cadets were not permitted leave until they had finished two years of study, and were rarely allowed off the Academy grounds. Lee graduated second in his class behind Charles Mason, who resigned from the Army a year after graduation, and Lee did not incur any demerits during his four-year course of study—five of his 45 classmates earned a similar distinction. In June 1829, Lee was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers. After graduation, while awaiting assignment, he returned to Virginia to find his mother on her deathbed; she died at Ravensworth on July 26, 1829.
|Ancestors of Robert E. Lee|
On August 11, 1829, Brigadier General Charles Gratiot ordered Lee to Cockspur Island, Georgia; plans were to build a fort on the marshy island which would command the outlet of the Savannah River. Lee was involved in the early stages of construction, as the island was being drained and built up. In 1831, it became apparent the existing plan to build what became known as Fort Pulaski would have to be revamped, and Lee was transferred to Fort Monroe at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula (today in Hampton, Virginia).
While home in the summer of 1829, Lee had apparently courted Mary Custis, great granddaughter of Martha Washington whom he had known as a child. Lee obtained permission to write to her before leaving for Georgia, though Mary Custis warned Lee to be "discreet" in his writing, as her mother read her letters, especially from men. Custis refused Lee the first time he asked to marry her; her father, George Washington Custis did not believe the son of the disgraced Light Horse Harry Lee was a suitable man for his daughter. She accepted him, with her father's consent, in September 1830, while he was on summer leave, and the two were wed on June 30, 1831, at the Custis home at Arlington House in the southern portion of the District of Columbia (today in Arlington County, Virginia).
Lee's duties at Fort Monroe were varied, typical for a junior officer, and ranged from budgeting to designing buildings. Although Mary Lee accompanied her husband to Hampton Roads, she spent about a third of her time at Arlington, though the couple's first son, Custis Lee was born at Fort Monroe. Although the two were by all accounts devoted to each other, they were different in character: Robert Lee was tidy and punctual, qualities his wife lacked. Mary Lee also had trouble transitioning from being a rich man's daughter to having to manage a household with only one or two slaves. Beginning in 1832, Robert Lee began a platonic, but close relationship with Harriett Talcott, wife of his fellow officer Andrew Talcott.
Life at Fort Monroe was marked by conflicts between artillery and engineering officers; eventually the War Department transferred all engineering officers away from Fort Monroe, except Lee, who was ordered to take up residence on the artificial island of Rip Raps across the river from Fort Monroe, where Fort Wool would eventually rise, and continue work to improve the island. Lee duly moved there, then discharged all workers and informed the War Department he could not maintain laborers without the facilities of the fort.
In 1834, Lee was transferred to Washington as General Gratiot's assistant. Lee had hoped to rent a house in Washington for his family, but was not able to find one; the family lived at Arlington, though Lieutenant Lee rented a room at a Washington boarding house for when the roads were impassable. In mid-1835, Lee was assigned to assist Andrew Talcott in surveying the southern border of Michigan. While on that expedition, he responded to a letter from an ill Mary Lee, which had requested he come to Arlington, "But why do you urge my immediate return, & tempt one in the strongest manner[?] ... I rather require to be strengthened & encouraged to the full performance of what I am called on to execute." Lee completed the assignment and returned to his post in Washington, finding his wife ill at Ravensworth. Mary Lee, who had recently given birth to their second child, remained bedridden for several months. In October 1836, Lee was promoted to first lieutenant.
Lee served as an assistant in the chief engineer's office in Washington, D.C. from 1834 to 1837, but spent the summer of 1835 helping to lay out the state line between Ohio and Michigan. As a first lieutenant of engineers in 1837, he supervised the engineering work for St. Louis harbor and for the upper Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Among his projects was mapping the Des Moines Rapids on the Mississippi aboveKeokuk, Iowa, where the Mississippi's mean depth of 2.4 feet (0.7 m) was the upper limit of steamboat traffic on the river. His work there earned him a promotion to captain. Around 1842, Captain Robert E. Lee arrived as Fort Hamilton's post engineer.[dead link]
While he was stationed at Fort Monroe, he married Mary Anna Randolph Custis (1808–73), great-granddaughter of Martha Washington by her first husband Daniel Parke Custis, and step-great-granddaughter of George Washington, the first president of the United States. Among his wife's ancestors were Charles II through Lady Charlotte Lee and (as supposed) of George I from Melusina von der Schulenburg, an illegitimate daughter of George I who may have been the mother of Henry Swingate Calvert, illegitimate son by the 5th Baron Calvert whose daughter Eleanor Calvert married George Washington's step-son, John Parke Custis. Mary was the only surviving child of George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington's stepgrandson, and Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis, daughter of William Fitzhugh and Ann Bolling Randolph. They were married on June 30, 1831, at Arlington House, her parents' house just across from Washington, D.C. The 3rd U.S. Artillery served as honor guard at the marriage. They eventually had seven children, three boys and four girls:
Lee was a great-great-great grandson of William Randolph and a great-great grandson of Richard Bland. He was also related to Helen Keller through Helen's mother, Kate, and was a distant relative of Admiral Willis Augustus Lee.
Lee distinguished himself in the Mexican–American War (1846–48). He was one of Winfield Scott's chief aides in the march from Veracruz to Mexico City. He was instrumental in several American victories through his personal reconnaissance as a staff officer; he found routes of attack that the Mexicans had not defended because they thought the terrain was impassable.
He was promoted to brevet major after the Battle of Cerro Gordo on April 18, 1847. He also fought at Contreras, Churubusco, and Chapultepec and was wounded at the last. By the end of the war, he had received additional brevet promotions to Lieutenant Colonel and Colonel, but his permanent rank was still Captain of Engineers and he would remain a Captain until his transfer to the cavalry in 1855.
For the first time, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant met and worked with each other during the Mexican-American War. Both Lee and Grant participated in Scott's march from the coastal town of Vera Cruz to Mexico City. Grant gained wartime experience as a quartermaster, Lee as an engineer who positioned troops and artillery. Both did their share of actual fighting. At Vera Cruz, Lee earned a commendation for "greatly distinguished" service. Grant was among the leaders at the bloody assault at Molino del Rey, and both soldiers were among the forces that entered Mexico City. Close observations of their commanders constituted a learning process for both Lee and Grant. The Mexican-American War concluded on February 2, 1848.
After the Mexican War, Lee spent three years at Fort Carroll in Baltimore harbor. During this time, his service was interrupted by other duties, among them surveying and updating maps in Florida. Lee declined an offer from Narciso López's Cuban rebels to lead their fight against Spain.
The 1850s were a difficult time for Lee, with his long absences from home, the increasing disability of his wife, and his often morbid concern with his personal failures.
In 1852, Lee was appointed Superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point; he was reluctant to enter what he called a "snake pit", but the War Department insisted and he obeyed. His wife occasionally came to visit. During his three years at West Point, Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee improved the buildings and courses and spent much time with the cadets. Lee's oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, attended West Point during his tenure. Custis Lee graduated in 1854, first in his class.
Lee was enormously relieved to receive a long-awaited promotion as second-in-command of the Second Cavalry regiment in Texas in 1855. It meant leaving the Engineering Corps and its sequence of staff jobs for the combat command he truly wanted. He served under Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston at Camp Cooper, Texas; their mission was to protect settlers from attacks by the Apache and the Comanche.
The death in 1857 of his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, created a serious crisis, as Lee had to assume the main burden of executing the will. The Custis estate was in disarray, with vast landholdings and hundreds of slaves balanced against massive debts. The plantations had been poorly managed and were losing money. Lee took several leaves of absence from the army and became a planter and eventually straightened out the estate. On June 24, 1859, Lee was accused by the New York Tribune of having three runaway slaves whipped and of personally whipping a female slave, Mary Norris. One of the captured slaves, Wesley Norris, confirmed the account in an 1866 interview printed in the National Anti-Slavery Standard, though he denied Lee personally whipped Mary Norris. Lee did not respond to the attack until 1866, claiming in a letter the accusation was not true. The Custis will called for emancipating the slaves within five years, but state law required they be funded in a livelihood outside Virginia, and that was impossible until the debts were paid off. They were all emancipated by 1862, within the five years specified.
Since the end of the Civil War, it has often been suggested Lee was in some sense opposed to slavery. In the period following the war, Lee became a central figure in the Lost Cause interpretation of the war. The argument that Lee had always somehow opposed slavery helped maintain his stature as a symbol of Southern honor and national reconciliation.
The evidence cited in favor of the claim that Lee opposed slavery included his direct statements and his actions before and during the war, including Lee's support of the work by his wife and her mother to liberate slaves and fund their move to Liberia, the success of his wife and daughter in setting up an illegal school for slaves on the Arlington plantation, the freeing of Custis' slaves in 1862, and, as the Confederacy's position in the war became desperate, his petitioning slaveholders in 1864–65 to allow slaves to volunteer for the Army with manumission offered as a reward for outstanding service.
In December 1864 Lee was shown a letter by Louisiana Senator Edward Sparrow, written by General St. John R. Liddell, which noted Lee would be hard-pressed in the interior of Virginia by spring, and the need to consider Patrick Cleburne's plan to emancipate the slaves and put all men in the army who were willing to join. Lee was said to have agreed on all points and desired to get black soldiers, saying "he could make soldiers out of any human being that had arms and legs."
A key source cited by defenders and critics is Lee's 1856 letter to his wife:
... In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.—Robert E. Lee, to Mary Anna Lee, December 27, 1856
Freeman's analysis places Lee's attitude toward slavery and abolition in a historical context:
This [opinion] was the prevailing view among most religious people of Lee's class in the border states. They believed that slavery existed because God willed it and they thought it would end when God so ruled. The time and the means were not theirs to decide, conscious though they were of the ill-effects of Negro slavery on both races. Lee shared these convictions of his neighbors without having come in contact with the worst evils of African bondage. He spent no considerable time in any state south of Virginia from the day he left Fort Pulaski in 1831 until he went to Texas in 1856. All his reflective years had been passed in the North or in the border states. He had never been among the blacks on a cotton or rice plantation. At Arlington, the servants had been notoriously indolent, their master's master. Lee, in short, was only acquainted with slavery at its best, and he judged it accordingly. At the same time, he was under no illusion regarding the aims of the Abolitionists or the effect of their agitation.
John Brown led a band of 21 abolitionists who seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859, hoping to incite a slave rebellion. President James Buchanan gave Lee command of detachments of militia, soldiers, and United States Marines, to suppress the uprising and arrest its leaders. By the time Lee arrived that night, the militia on the site had surrounded Brown and his hostages. At dawn, Brown refused the demand for surrender. Lee attacked, and Brown and his followers were captured after three minutes of fighting. Lee's summary report of the episode shows Lee believed it "was the attempt of a fanatic or madman". Lee said Brown achieved "temporary success" by creating panic and confusion and by "magnifying" the number of participants involved in the raid.
When Texas seceded from the Union in February 1861, General David E. Twiggs surrendered all the American forces (about 4,000 men, including Lee, and commander of the Department of Texas) to the Texans. Twiggs immediately resigned from the U. S. Army and was made a Confederate general. Lee went back to Washington and was appointed Colonel of the First Regiment of Cavalry in March 1861. Lee's colonelcy was signed by the new President, Abraham Lincoln. Three weeks after his promotion, Colonel Lee was offered a senior command (with the rank of Major General) in the expanding Army to fight the Southern States that had left the Union. Fort Mason, Texas was Lee's last command with the United States Army.
Lee privately ridiculed the Confederacy in letters in early 1861, denouncing secession as "revolution" and a betrayal of the efforts of the founders. Writing to his son William Fitzhugh, Lee stated, "I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union." While he was not opposed in principle to secession, Lee wanted all peaceful ways of resolving the differences between North and South—such as the Crittenden Compromise—to be tried first, and was one of the few to foresee a long and difficult war.
The commanding general of the Union Army, Winfield Scott, told Lincoln he wanted Lee for a top command. Lee accepted a promotion to colonel on March 28. He had earlier been asked by one of his lieutenants if he intended to fight for the Confederacy or the Union, to which Lee replied, "I shall never bear arms against the Union, but it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in the defense of my native state, Virginia, in which case I shall not prove recreant to my duty." Meanwhile, Lee ignored an offer of command from the CSA. After Lincoln's call for troops to put down the rebellion, it was obvious that Virginia would quickly secede. Lee turned down an April 18 offer by presidential aide Francis P. Blair to command the defense of Washington D.C. as a major general, as he feared that the job might require him to invade the South. When Lee asked Scott, who was also a Virginian, if he could stay home and not participate in the war, the general replied "I have no place in my army for equivocal men."
Lee resigned from the Army on April 20 and took up command of the Virginia state forces on April 23. While historians have usually called his decision inevitable ("the answer he was born to make", wrote one; another called it a "no-brainer") given the ties to family and state, recent research shows that the choice was a difficult one that Lee made alone, without pressure from friends or family. His daughter Mary Custis was the only one among those close to Lee who favored secession, and wife Mary Anna especially favored the Union, so his decision astounded them. While Lee's immediate family followed him to the Confederacy, others, such as cousins and fellow officers Samuel Phillips and John Fitzgerald, remained loyal to the Union, as did 40% of all Virginian officers.
At the outbreak of war, Lee was appointed to command all of Virginia's forces, but upon the formation of the Confederate States Army, he was named one of its first five full generals. Lee did not wear the insignia of a Confederate general, but only the three stars of a Confederate colonel, equivalent to his last U.S. Army rank. He did not intend to wear a general's insignia until the Civil War had been won and he could be promoted, in peacetime, to general in the Confederate Army.
Lee's first field assignment was commanding Confederate forces in western Virginia, where he was defeated at the Battle of Cheat Mountain and was widely blamed for Confederate setbacks. He was then sent to organize the coastal defenses along the Carolina and Georgia seaboard, appointed commander, "Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida" on November 5, 1861. Between then and the fall of Fort Pulaski, April 11, 1862, he put in place a defense of Savannah that proved successful in blocking Federal advance on Savannah. Confederate fort and naval gunnery dictated night time movement and construction by the besiegers. Federal preparations required four months. In those four months, Lee developed a defense in depth. Behind Fort Pulaski on the Savannah River, Fort Jackson was improved, and two additional batteries covered river approaches. In the face of the Union superiority in naval, artillery and infantry deployment, Lee was able to block any Federal advance on Savannah, and at the same time, well-trained Georgia troops were released in time to meet McClellan's Peninsula Campaign. The City of Savannah would not fall until Sherman's approach from the interior at the end of 1864.
At first, the press spoke to the disappointment of losing Fort Pulaski. Surprised by the effectiveness of large caliber Parrott Rifles in their first deployment, it was widely speculated that only betrayal could have brought overnight surrender to a Third System Fort. Lee was said to have failed to get effective support in the Savannah River from the three sidewheeler gunboats of the Georgia Navy. Although again blamed by the press for Confederate reverses, he was appointed military adviser to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the former U.S. Secretary of War. While in Richmond, Lee was ridiculed as the 'King of Spades' for his excessive digging of trenches around the capitol. These trenches would later play a pivotal role in battles near the end of the war.
Following the wounding of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston at the Battle of Seven Pines, on June 1, 1862, Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia, his first opportunity to lead an army in the field. Early in the war, his men called him "Granny Lee" because of his allegedly timid style of command. Confederate newspaper editorials of the day objected to his appointment due to concerns that Lee would not be aggressive and would wait for the Union army to come to him. He oversaw substantial strengthening of Richmond's defenses during the first three weeks of June. In the spring of 1862, as part of the Peninsula Campaign, the Union Army of the Potomac under General George B. McClellan advanced upon Richmond from Fort Monroe, eventually reaching the eastern edges of the Confederate capital along the Chickahominy River. Lee then launched a series of attacks, the Seven Days Battles, against McClellan's forces. Lee's assaults resulted in heavy Confederate casualties. They were marred by clumsy tactical performances by his division commanders, but his aggressive actions unnerved McClellan, who retreated to a point on the James River and abandoned the Peninsula Campaign. These successes led to a rapid turnaround of Confederate public opinion, and the newspaper editorials quickly changed their tune on Lee's aggressiveness. After the Seven Days Battles until the end of the war his men called him simply "Marse Robert", a term of respect and affection.
This stunning Unionist setback—followed by an alarming drop in Northern morale—impelled Lincoln to adopt a new policy of relentless, committed warfare. Three weeks after the Seven Days Battles, Lincoln informed his cabinet that he intended to issue an executive order to free slaves as a military necessity.
After McClellan's retreat, Lee defeated another Union army at the Second Battle of Bull Run. Within 90 days of taking command, Lee had run McClellan off the Peninsula, defeated John Pope at Second Manassas, and the battle lines had moved from 6 miles outside Richmond, to 20 miles outside Washington. Instead of a quick end to the war that McClellen's Peninsula Campaign had promised, the war would go on for almost another 3 years and claim a half million more lives, and end with liberation of four million slaves and the devastation of the Southern slave-based society. Lee then invaded Maryland, hoping to replenish his supplies and possibly influence the Northern elections to fall in favor of ending the war. McClellan's men recovered a lost order that revealed Lee's plans. McClellan always exaggerated Lee's numerical strength, but now he knew the Confederate army was divided and could be destroyed by an all-out attack at Antietam. McClellan, however, was too slow in moving, not realizing Lee had been informed by a spy that McClellan had the plans. Lee urgently recalled Stonewall Jackson, concentrating his forces west of Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg, Maryland. In the bloodiest day of the war, with both sides suffering enormous losses, Lee withstood the Union assaults. He withdrew his battered army back to Virginia while President Abraham Lincoln used the Confederate reversal as an opportunity to announce the Emancipation Proclamation which put the Confederacy on the diplomatic and moral defensive, and would ultimately devastate the Confederacy's slave-based economy.
Disappointed by McClellan's failure to destroy Lee's army, Lincoln named Ambrose Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside ordered an attack across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg. Delays in building bridges across the river allowed Lee's army ample time to organize strong defenses, and the frontal assault on December 13, 1862, was a disaster for the Union. There were 12,600 Union casualties to 5,000 Confederate; one of the most "one-sided battles" in the Civil War. Lee reportedly stated after the Confederate victory, "It is well that war is so terrible--we should grow too fond of it". At Fredericksburg, according to historian Michael Fellman, Lee had completely entered into the "spirit of war, where destructiveness took on its own beauty." After the bitter Union defeat at Fredericksburg, President Lincoln named Joseph Hooker commander of the Army of the Potomac. Hooker's advance to attack Lee in May 1863, near Chancellorsville, Virginia, was defeated by Lee and Stonewall Jackson's daring plan to divide the army and attack Hooker's flank. It was a victory over a larger force, but it also came with high casualties. It was particularly costly in one respect: Lee's finest corps commander, Stonewall Jackson, was accidentally fired upon by his own troops. Weakened by his wounds, he succumbed to pneumonia.
The critical decisions came in May–June 1863, after Lee's smashing victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville. The western front was crumbling, as multiple uncoordinated Confederate armies were unable to handle General Ulysses S. Grant's campaign against Vicksburg. The top military advisers wanted to save Vicksburg, but Lee persuaded Davis to overrule them and authorize yet another invasion of the North. The immediate goal was to acquire urgently needed supplies from the rich farming districts of Pennsylvania; a long-term goal was to stimulate peace activity in the North by demonstrating the power of the South to invade. Lee's decision proved a significant strategic blunder and cost the Confederacy control of its western regions, and nearly cost Lee his own army as Union forces cut him off from the South. Lee had to fight his way out at Gettysburg.
In the summer of 1863, Lee invaded the North again, marching through western Maryland and into south central Pennsylvania. He encountered Union forces under George G. Meade at the three-day Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania in July; the battle would produce the largest number of casualties in the American Civil War. With some of his subordinates being new and inexperienced in their commands, J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry being out of the area, and Lee being slightly ill, he was less than comfortable with how events were unfolding. While the first day of battle was controlled by the Confederates, key terrain that should have been taken by General Ewell was not. The second day ended with the Confederates unable to break the Union position, and the Union being more solidified. Lee's decision on the third day, against the sound judgment of his best corps commander General Longstreet, to launch a massive frontal assault on the center of the Union line was disastrous. The assault known as Pickett's Charge was repulsed and resulted in heavy Confederate losses. The general rode out to meet his retreating army and proclaimed, "All this has been my fault." Lee was compelled to retreat. Despite flooded rivers that blocked his retreat, he escaped Meade's ineffective pursuit. Following his defeat at Gettysburg, Lee sent a letter of resignation to President Davis on August 8, 1863, but Davis refused Lee's request. That fall, Lee and Meade met again in two minor campaigns that did little to change the strategic standoff. The Confederate Army never fully recovered from the substantial losses incurred during the 3-day battle in southern Pennsylvania. The historian Shelby Foote stated, "Gettysburg was the price the South paid for having Robert E. Lee as commander."
In 1864 the new Union general-in-chief, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, sought to use his large advantages in manpower and material resources to destroy Lee's army by attrition, pinning Lee against his capital of Richmond. Lee successfully stopped each attack, but Grant with his superior numbers kept pushing each time a bit farther to the southeast. These battles in the Overland Campaign included the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House and Cold Harbor.
Grant eventually was able to stealthily move his army across the James River. After stopping a Union attempt to capture Petersburg, Virginia, a vital railroad link supplying Richmond, Lee's men built elaborate trenches and were besieged in Petersburg, a development which presaged the trench warfare of World War I. He attempted to break the stalemate by sending Jubal A. Early on a raid through the Shenandoah Valley to Washington, D.C., but was defeated early on by the superior forces of Philip Sheridan. The Siege of Petersburg lasted from June 1864 until March 1865, with Lee's outnumbered and poorly supplied army shrinking daily because of desertions by disheartened Confederates.
On January 31, 1865, Lee was promoted to general-in-chief of Confederate forces.
As the South ran out of manpower the issue of arming the slaves became paramount. By late 1864, the army so dominated the Confederacy that civilian leaders were unable to block the military's proposal, strongly endorsed by Lee, to arm and train slaves in Confederate uniform for combat. In return for this service, slave soldiers and their families would be emancipated. Lee explained, "We should employ them without delay ... [along with] gradual and general emancipation." The first units were in training as the war ended. As the Confederate army was devastated by casualties, disease and desertion, the Union attack on Petersburg succeeded on April 2, 1865. Lee abandoned Richmond and retreated west. Lee then made an attempt to escape to the southwest and join up with Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee in North Carolina. However, his forces were soon surrounded and he surrendered them to Grant on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Other Confederate armies followed suit and the war ended. The day after his surrender, Lee issued his Farewell Address to his army.
Lee resisted calls by some officers to reject surrender and allow small units to melt away into the mountains, setting up a lengthy guerrilla war. He insisted the war was over and energetically campaigned for inter-sectional reconciliation. "So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South."
The following are summaries of Civil War battles where Robert E. Lee was the commanding officer:
|Battle||Date||Result||Opponent||Confederate troop strength||Union troop strength||Confederate casualties||Union casualties||Notes|
|Cheat Mountain||September 11–13, 1861||Union victory||Reynolds||15,000||2,000||100||21||Lee's first battle of the Civil War. Lee was severely criticized for the defeat and nicknamed "Granny Lee". Lee was sent to South Carolina to supervise fortifications.|
|Seven Days||June 25 – July 1, 1862||Decisive strategic Confederate victory
|Second Manassas||August 28–30, 1862||Confederate victory||Pope||49,000||76,000||9,197||16,054|
|South Mountain||September 14, 1862||Union victory||McClellan||18,000||28,000||2,685||1,813|
|Antietam||September 16–18, 1862||Inconclusive (strategic Union victory)||McClellan||52,000||75,000||13,724||12,410|
|Fredericksburg||December 11, 1862||Confederate victory (Lee's troops and supplies depleted)||Burnside||72,000||114,000||5,309||12,653|
|Chancellorsville||May 1, 1863||Confederate victory||Hooker||57,000||105,000||12,764||16,792|
|Gettysburg||July 1, 1863||Union victory||Meade||75,000||83,000||23,231–28,063||23,049||The Confederate army that returned from the fight at Gettysburg was physically and spiritually exhausted. Lee would never again attempt an offensive operation of such monumental proportions. Meade, who had forced Lee to retreat, was criticized for not immediately pursuing Lee's army. This battle become known as the High Water Mark of the Confederacy. Lee would never personally invade the North again after this battle. Rather he was determined to defend Richmond and eventually Petersburg at all costs.|
|Wilderness||May 5, 1864||Inconclusive (Lee's tactical victory, yet Grant continued his offensive)||Grant||61,000||102,000||11,400||18,400|
|Spotsylvania||May 12, 1864||Inconclusive (although beaten and unable to take Lee's staunch line defenses, Grant continued the Union offensive)||Grant||52,000||100,000||12,000||18,000|
|Cold Harbor||June 1, 1864||Confederate Victory (although Grant was able to continue his offensive)||Grant||62,000||108,000||2,500||12,000||Grant referred to the Cold Harbor assault as his "greatest regret" of the war in his memoirs.|
|Deep Bottom||August 14, 1864||Confederate victory||Hancock||20,000||28,000||1,700||2,901||Union attempt to attack Richmond, the Confederate capital|
|Appomattox (campaign)||March 29, 1865||Union victory, Confederate surrender||Grant||50,000||113,000||no record available||10,780||General Robert E. Lee surrenders to General Ulysses S. Grant. Casualties on Confederate side are enormous. After the surrender Grant gave Lee's army much-needed food rations, made them lay down their arms and return to their homes, never to take up arms against the Union again.|
After the war, Lee was not arrested or punished, but he did lose the right to vote as well as some property. Lee supported President Johnson's plan of Reconstruction, but joined with Democrats in opposing the Radical Republicans who demanded punitive measures against the South, distrusted its commitment to the abolition of slavery and, indeed, distrusted the region's loyalty to the United States. Lee generally supported civil rights for all, as well as a system of free public schools for blacks, but forthrightly opposed allowing blacks to vote. "My own opinion is that, at this time, they [black Southerners] cannot vote intelligently, and that giving them the [vote] would lead to a great deal of demagogism, and lead to embarrassments in various ways," Lee stated. Most of all he became an icon of reconciliation between the North and South, and the reintegration of former Confederates into the national fabric.
Lee hoped to retire to a farm of his own, but he was too much a regional symbol to live in obscurity. He accepted an offer to serve as the president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia, and served from October 1865 until his death. The Trustees used his famous name in large-scale fund-raising appeals and Lee transformed Washington College into a leading Southern college expanding its offerings significantly and added programs in commerce, journalism, and law. Lee was well liked by the students, which enabled him to announce an "honor system" like West Point's, explaining "We have but one rule here, and it is that every student be a gentleman." To speed up national reconciliation Lee recruited students from the North and made certain they were well treated on campus and in town.
Several glowing appraisals of Lee's tenure as college president have survived, depicting the dignity and respect he commanded among all. Previously, most students had been obliged to occupy the campus dormitories, while only the most mature were allowed to live off-campus. Lee quickly reversed this rule, requiring most students to board off-campus, and allowing only the most mature to live in the dorms as a mark of privilege; the results of this policy were considered a success. A typical account by a professor there states that "the students fairly worshipped him, and deeply dreaded his displeasure; yet so kind, affable, and gentle was he toward them that all loved to approach him... No student would have dared to violate General Lee's expressed wish or appeal; if he had done so, the students themselves would have driven him from the college." Elsewhere, the same professor recalls the following:
To a recalcitrant student, who was contending for what he thought his rights as a man, I once heard General Lee say: "Obedience to lawful authority is the foundation of manly character," in those very words.
While at Washington College, Lee told a colleague that the greatest mistake of his life was taking a military education.
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 '65.
On October 2, 1865, the same day that Lee was inaugurated as president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, he signed his Amnesty Oath, thereby complying fully with the provision of Johnson's proclamation. Lee was not pardoned, nor was his citizenship restored. The fact that he had submitted an amnesty oath at all was soon lost to history.
Apparently Secretary of State William H. Seward had given Lee's application to a friend as a souvenir, and the State Department had pigeonholed the oath. More than a hundred years later, in 1970, an archivist at the National Archives discovered Lee's Amnesty Oath among State Department records (reported in Prologue, Winter 1970). For 110 years Lee remained without a country, as the Confederacy had dissolved and Lee's United States application and oath were lost and disregarded.
President Andrew Johnson, in a proclamation dated December 25, 1868 (15 Stat. 711), gave an unconditional pardon to those who "directly or indirectly" rebelled against the United States.
... unconditionally, and without reservation, to all and every person who directly or indirectly participated in the late insurrection or rebellion, a full pardon and amnesty for the offense of treason against the United States, or of adhering to their enemies during the late civil war, with restoration of all rights, privileges, and immunities under the Constitution and the laws which have been made in pursuance thereof.
Lee, with this full amnesty pardon by President Johnson, could not be held liable for treason or insurrection against the United States. Lee was posthumously officially reinstated as a United States citizen by President Gerald Ford in 1975.
Lee, who had opposed secession and remained mostly indifferent to politics before the Civil War, supported President Johnson's plan of Presidential Reconstruction that took effect in 1865–66. However, he opposed the Congressional Republican program that took effect in 1867. In February 1866, he was called to testify before the Joint Congressional Committee on Reconstruction in Washington, where he expressed support for President Andrew Johnson's plans for quick restoration of the former Confederate states, and argued that restoration should return, as far as possible, the status quo ante in the Southern states' governments (with the exception of slavery).
Lee told the Committee, "...every one with whom I associate expresses kind feelings towards the freedmen. They wish to see them get on in the world, and particularly to take up some occupation for a living, and to turn their hands to some work." Lee also expressed his "willingness that blacks should be educated, and ... that it would be better for the blacks and for the whites." Lee forthrightly opposed allowing blacks to vote: "My own opinion is that, at this time, they [black Southerners] cannot vote intelligently, and that giving them the [vote] would lead to a great deal of demagogism, and lead to embarrassments in various ways." Lee also recommended the deportation of African Americans from Virginia and even mentioned that Virginians would give aid in the deportation. "I think it would be better for Virginia if she could get rid of them [African Americans]. ... I think that everyone there would be willing to aid it."
In an interview in May 1866, Lee said, "The Radical party are likely to do a great deal of harm, for we wish now for good feeling to grow up between North and South, and the President, Mr. Johnson, has been doing much to strengthen the feeling in favor of the Union among us. The relations between the Negroes and the whites were friendly formerly, and would remain so if legislation be not passed in favor of the blacks, in a way that will only do them harm."
In 1868, Lee's ally Alexander H. H. Stuart drafted a public letter of endorsement for the Democratic Party's presidential campaign, in which Horatio Seymour ran against Lee's old foe Republican Ulysses S. Grant. Lee signed it along with thirty-one other ex-Confederates. The Democratic campaign, eager to publicize the endorsement, published the statement widely in newspapers. Their letter claimed paternalistic concern for the welfare of freed Southern blacks, stating that "The idea that the Southern people are hostile to the negroes and would oppress them, if it were in their power to do so, is entirely unfounded. They have grown up in our midst, and we have been accustomed from childhood to look upon them with kindness." However, it also called for the restoration of white political rule, arguing that "It is true that the people of the South, in common with a large majority of the people of the North and West, are, for obvious reasons, inflexibly opposed to any system of laws that would place the political power of the country in the hands of the negro race. But this opposition springs from no feeling of enmity, but from a deep-seated conviction that, at present, the negroes have neither the intelligence nor the other qualifications which are necessary to make them safe depositories of political power."
In his public statements and private correspondence, Lee argued that a tone of reconciliation and patience would further the interests of white Southerners better than hotheaded antagonism to federal authority or the use of violence. Lee repeatedly expelled white students from Washington College for violent attacks on local black men, and publicly urged obedience to the authorities and respect for law and order. In 1869–70 he was a leader in successful efforts to establish state-funded schools for blacks. He privately chastised fellow ex-Confederates such as Jefferson Davis and Jubal Early for their frequent, angry responses to perceived Northern insults, writing in private to them as he had written to a magazine editor in 1865, that "It should be the object of all to avoid controversy, to allay passion, give full scope to reason and to every kindly feeling. By doing this and encouraging our citizens to engage in the duties of life with all their heart and mind, with a determination not to be turned aside by thoughts of the past and fears of the future, our country will not only be restored in material prosperity, but will be advanced in science, in virtue and in religion."
On September 28, 1870, Lee suffered a stroke. He died two weeks later, shortly after 9 a.m. on October 12, 1870, in Lexington, Virginia from the effects of pneumonia. According to one account, his last words on the day of his death, were "Tell Hill he must come up. Strike the tent", but this is debatable because of conflicting accounts and because Lee's stroke had resulted in aphasia, possibly rendering him unable to speak.
Among Southerners, Lee came to be even more revered after his surrender than he had been during the war, when Stonewall Jackson had been the great Confederate hero. In an address before the Southern Historical Society in Atlanta, Georgia in 1874, Benjamin Harvey Hill described Lee as:
... 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 neighbour 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.
Lee's admirers have pointed to his character and devotion to duty, and his brilliant tactical successes in battle after battle against a stronger foe. Military historians continue to pay attention to his battlefield tactics and maneuvering, though many think he should have designed better strategic plans for the Confederacy. However, it should be noted that he was not given full direction of the Southern war effort until late in the conflict.
On September 29, 2007, General Lee's three Civil War–era letters were sold for $61,000 at auction by Thomas Willcox, much less than the record of $630,000 for a Lee item in 2002. The auction included more than 400 documents of Lee's from the estate of the parents of Willcox that had been in the family for generations. South Carolina sued to stop the sale on the grounds that the letters were official documents and therefore property of the state, but the court ruled in favor of Willcox.
On January 30, 1975, Senate Joint Resolution 23, A joint resolution to restore posthumously full rights of citizenship to General R. E. Lee was introduced into the Senate by Senator Harry F. Byrd, Jr. (I-VA). The resolution was to restore the U.S. citizenship to Robert E. Lee effective June 13, 1865. This resolution was the result of a five-year campaign to posthumously restore Robert E. Lee's U.S. citizenship.
On July 24, 1975, after passing the Senate and House of Representatives, the resolution was presented to President Gerald Ford. The resolution, S.J. Res. 23, was signed on August 5, 1975, by the President and became Public Law 94-67 (89 Stat. 380). The signing took place at a ceremony at Arlington House, Arlington, Virginia. The house was formerly known as the Custis-Lee Mansion, and was the home of General Lee. The ceremony was attended by a dozen of Lee's descendants, including Robert E. Lee V, the general's great-great-grandson. Also attending were: Governor Mills E. Godwin, Jr., Senator Harry F. Byrd, Jr., and congressmen M. Caldwell Butler, Herbert E. Harris II, David E. Satterfield III, Thomas N. Downing, and Robert W. Daniel, Jr.
Before signing President Ford spoke at 2:12 p.m. at the signing ceremony:
|“||I am very pleased to sign Senate Joint Resolution 23, restoring posthumously the long overdue, full rights of citizenship to General Robert E. Lee. This legislation corrects a 110-year oversight of American history. It is significant that it is signed at this place.
Lee's dedication to his native State of Virginia charted his course for the bitter Civil War years, causing him to reluctantly resign from a distinguished career in the United States Army and to serve as General of the Army of Northern Virginia. He, thus, forfeited his rights to U.S. citizenship.
Once the war was over, he firmly felt the wounds of the North and South must be bound up. He sought to show by example that the citizens of the South must dedicate their efforts to rebuilding that region of the country as a strong and vital part of the American Union.
In 1865, Robert E. Lee wrote to a former Confederate soldier concerning his signing the Oath of Allegiance, and I quote: "This war, being at an end, the Southern States having laid down their arms, and the questions at issue between them and the Northern States having been decided, I believe it to be the duty of everyone to unite in the restoration of the country and the reestablishment of peace and harmony...."
As a soldier, General Lee left his mark on military strategy. As a man, he stood as the symbol of valor and of duty. As an educator, he appealed to reason and learning to achieve understanding and to build a stronger nation. The course he chose after the war became a symbol to all those who had marched with him in the bitter years towards Appomattox.
General Lee's character has been an example to succeeding generations, making the restoration of his citizenship an event in which every American can take pride.
In approving this Joint Resolution, Congress removed the legal obstacle to citizenship which resulted from General Lee's Civil War service. "Although more than a century late, I am delighted to sign this resolution and to complete the full restoration of General Lee's citizenship."
The birthday of Robert E. Lee is celebrated or commemorated:
Statue of Lee on the grounds of the University of Texas at Austin
Lee serves as a main character in the Shaara novels The Killer Angels, Gods and Generals, and The Last Full Measure, as well as the film adaptations of The Killer Angels and Gods and Generals. He is played by Martin Sheen in the former and his descendent Robert Duvall in the latter. Lee is portrayed as a hero in the historical children's novel Lee and Grant at Appomattox by MacKinlay Kantor. He is a major character in Harry Turtledove's alternate history novel, The Guns of the South, in which he ends up as President of a victorious Confederacy.
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|Superintendent of the United States Military Academy
John Gross Barnard
Gen. Joseph E. Johnston
|Commander, Army of Northern Virginia
June 1, 1862 – April 12, 1865
|End of War|
None, position was created with Lee's appointment
|General-in-Chief of the Confederate States Army
January 31, 1865 – April 12, 1865