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Robert Edward Lee
1807 - 1870
 

 

 

Robert Edward Lee was born on January 19, 1807 at "Stratford" in Westmoreland County, Virginia, to Henry and Anne Hill Lee. 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 on the Potomac River across from Washington. Robert E. Lee was raised there, attended school and enjoyed outdoor activities along the river. In 1825, the young Lee secured an appointment to West Point where he excelled in his studies and in the military exercises. Appointed adjutant of the cadet corps, he graduated in the number two position of his class in 1829.

As a young second lieutenant, Lee served on many army outposts and at several army forts. Lieutenant Lee married Mary Ann Randolph Custis, a direct descendent of Mary Washington, in 1831. The couple had seven children. Lee was home only briefly as he was assigned to engineer many projects in the midwest and around Washington. With the outbreak of hostilities with Mexico, Lee was assigned duty with the army and fought in many battles under General John E. Wool and General Winfield Scott. Slightly wounded at the Battle of Chapultepec, Lee distinguished himself during the war and received several promotions in rank after the war ended. In the 1850's, he briefly served as the superintendent of West Point and then went on to a command in the 2nd US Cavalry.

In 1859, Lee took part in a dramatic event that contributed to the growing division between North and South. By chance 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, seizing weapons and hostages with the objective to spark an uprising among slaves in Virginia. Lee was immediately sent with his troops to Harper's Ferry, where they eventually cornered Brown in the arsenal engine house and took him prisoner after a bloody shoot out. 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 government to which he had sworn an oath. Only if Virginia would secede would he then have to make a decision.

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 ancestry and loyalty to Virginia. It was a difficult decision for Lee to give up his career and his country, but his personal allegiance was to his family and his roots that were in Virginia. With some regrets, Lee resigned his commission and moved his family to Richmond, never see the home at Arlington again. 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 for him 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. Co-ordinating his troops near Richmond with those of General "Stonewall" Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, Lee met the Union threat on two fronts. Quickly driving back Union forces in the Valley, General Jackson rushed his troops to Richmond and joined with General James Longstreet's Corps in attacking McClellan's army. Together, Lee and his officers were able to throw back the Union threat during the Seven Days Battles.

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. Yet General Lee was a practical strategist with an engineer's sense, who was willing to take risks to outmanoeuvre his opponents. The support of excellent commanders contributed to repeated victories against the Union Army again and again. Lee suffered several setbacks during the Maryland Campaign in 1862, which resulted in the Battle of Antietam. Still, Lee's thin line held most of the battlefield at the end of a single day of fighting, giving him a strategic victory, though one he could not take advantage of. He was forced to retreat across the Potomac River and back to Virginia. After the Battle of Fredericksburg that December, Lee spent the winter rebuilding his battered army. The Union Army rebuilt itself as well and opened the spring of 1863 with a surprise move against Lee's forces. The Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia turned out to be Lee's greatest victory, but at a very high cost when "Stonewall" Jackson, his most trusted officer, was mortally wounded. Despite the loss of his beloved corps commander, Lee carried on and invaded the North once again. His troops successfully marched through Maryland and southern Pennsylvania until they came together at Gettysburg. The Battle of Gettysburg was a costly defeat for the Army of Northern Virginia and Lee felt a great personal responsibility for the loss, but the Confederate government displayed great confidence in the commander of so many men and refused to allow him to resign.

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 war, Grant chose to make his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac in Virginia where his challenge with Lee in a strategic duel began in the spring of 1864 in the "Overland Campaign", also known as the "Wilderness Campaign" by its participants. 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 manoeuvre Grant made and though Lee's forces inflicted heavy losses on the Union army, he knew that time was running out for his own. His losses could not be easily replaced, material shortages became more acute, and, despite his 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.

In mid-June, General Grant shifted his forces around Richmond to Petersburg, Virginia, an important junction for southern railroads through the Carolinas into 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 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 gave up the valley and rejoined Lee's main force around Petersburg.

Lee knew that his army could not last through a long siege but he tenaciously held on against 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 join up with Confederate forces under General Joseph Johnston in North Carolina.

Disaster followed Lee with every step of the march. Despite his best efforts, Lee knew that the end was at hand when his surviving 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 to save the lives of his last 7,500 remaining soldiers. 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 who held a high regard for Lee and responded with generous offers of financial help and employment. In the autumn of 1865, Lee accepted a position as president of Washington College (today called Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia. With the help of an enthusiastic faculty, Lee brought the school up to a high standard of 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.
 


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"With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the Army, and save in defense of my native State, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword....." Lee in a letter to his sister, April 20, 1861

The idol of the South to this day, Virginian Robert E. Lee had some difficulty in adjusting to the new form of warfare that unfolded with the Civil war, but this did not prevent him from keeping the Union armies in Virginia at bay for almost three years. The son of Revolutionary War hero "Light Horse" Harry Lee-who fell into disrepute in his later years attended West Point and graduated second in his class. During his four years at the military academy he did not earn a single demerit and served as the cadet corps' adjutant. Upon his 1829 graduation he was posted to the engineers. Before the Mexican War he served on engineering projects in Georgia, Virginia, and New York. During the war he served on the staffs of John Wool and Winfield Scott. Particularly distinguishing himself scouting for and guiding troops, he won three brevets and was slightly wounded at Chapultepec.

Following a stint in Baltimore Harbor he became superintendent of the military academy in 1852. When the mounted arm was expanded in 1855, Lee accepted the lieutenant colonelcy of the 2nd Cavalry in order to escape from the painfully slow promotion in the engineers. Ordered to western Texas, he served with his regiment until the 1857 death of his father-in-law forced him to ask for a series of leaves to settle the estate.

In 1859 he was called upon to lead a force of marines, to join with the militia on the scene, to put an end to John Brown's Harper's Ferry Raid. Thereafter he served again in Texas until summoned to Washington in 1861 by Winfield Scott who tried to retain Lee in the U. S. service. But the Virginian rejected the command of the Union's field forces on the day after Virginia seceded. He then accepted an invitation to visit Governor John Letcher in Virginia. His resignation as colonel, 1st Cavalry-to which he had recently been promoted-was accepted on April 25, 1861.

His Southern assignments included: major general, Virginia's land and naval forces (April 23, 1861); commanding Virginia forces (April 23 July 1861); brigadier general, CSA (May 14, 186 1); general, CSA (from June 14, 186 1); commanding Department of Northwestern Virginia (late July-October 1861); commanding Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida (November 8, 186 1-March 3, 1862); and commanding Army of Northern Virginia June 1, 1862-April 9, 1865).

In charge of Virginia's fledgling military might, he was mainly involved in organizational matters. As a Confederate brigadier general, and later full general, he was in charge of supervising all Southern forces in Virginia. In the first summer of the war he was given his first field command in western Virginia. His Cheat Mountain Campaign was a disappointing fizzle largely due to the failings of his superiors. His entire tenure in the region was unpleasant, dealing with the bickering of his subordinates-William W. Loring, John B. Floyd, and Henry A. Wise. After this he became known throughout the South as "Granny Lee. " His debut in field command had not been promising, but Jefferson Davis appointed him to command along the Southern Coast.

Early in 1862 he was recalled to Richmond and made an advisor to the president. From this position he had some influence over military operations, especially those of Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. When Joseph E. Johnston launched his attack at Seven Pines, Davis and Lee were taken by surprise and rode out to the field. In the confusion of the fight Johnston was badly wounded, and that night Davis instructed Lee to take command of what he renamed the Army of Northern Virginia. He fought the second day of the battle but the initiative had already been lost the previous day. Later in the month, in a daring move, he left a small force in front of Richmond and crossed the Chickahominy to strike the one Union corps north of the river. In what was to be called the Seven Days Battles the individual fights-Beaver Dam Creek, Gaines' Mill, Savage Station, Glendale, White Oak Swamp, and Malvern Hill-were all tactical defeats for the Confederates. But Lee had achieved the strategic goal of removing McClellan's army from the very gates of Richmond.

This created a new opinion of Lee in the South. He gradually became "Uncle Robert" and "Marse Robert." With McClellan neutralized, a new threat developed under John Pope in northern Virginia. At first Lee detached Jackson and then followed with Longstreet's command. Winning at 2nd Bull Run, he moved on into Maryland but suffered the misfortune of having a copy of his orders detailing the disposition of his divided forces fall into the hands of the enemy. McClellan moved with unusual speed and Lee was forced to fight a delaying action along South Mountain while waiting for Jackson to complete the capture of Harpers Ferry and rejoin him. He masterfully fought McClellan to a stand still at Antietam and two days later recrossed the Potomac.

Near the end of the year he won an easy victory over Burnside at Fredericksburg and then trounced Hooker in his most creditable victory at Chancellorsville, where he had detached Jackson with most of the army on a lengthy flank march while he remained with only two divisions in the immediate front of the Union army. Launching his second invasion of the North, he lost at Gettysburg. On the third day of the battle he displayed one of his major faults when at Malvern Hill and on other fields-he ordered a massed infantry assault across a wide plain, not recognizing that the rifle, which had come into use since the Mexican War, put the charging troops under fire for too long a period. Another problem was his issuance of general orders to be executed by his subordinates.

Returning to Virginia he commanded in the inconclusive Bristoe and Mine Run campaigns. From the Wilderness to Petersburg he fought a retiring campaign against Grant in which he made full use of entrenchments, becoming known as "Ace of Spades" Lee. Finally forced into a siege, he held on to Richmond and Petersburg for nearly 10 months before beginning his retreat to Appomattox, where he was forced to surrender. On January 23, 1865, he had been named as commander in chief of the Confederate armies but he found himself too burdened in Virginia to give more than general directives to the other theaters.

Lee returned to Richmond as a paroled prisoner of war, and submitted with the utmost composure to an altered destiny. He devoted the rest of his life to setting an example of conduct for other thousands of ex-Confederates. He refused a number of offers which would have secured substantial means for his family. Instead, he assumed the presidency of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia, and his reputation revitalized the school after the war. Lee's enormous wartime prestige, both in the North and South, and the devotion inspired by his unconscious symbolism of the "Lost Cause" made his a legendary figure even before his death. He died on October 12 1870, of heart disease which had plagued him since the spring of 1863, at Lexington, Va. and is buried there. Somehow, his application for restoration of citizenship was mislaid, and it was not until the 1970's that it was found and granted.

 

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 12 December, 2008