Robert E. Lee, in full Robert Edward Lee, (born January 19, 1807, Stratford, Westmoreland County, Virginia, U.S.—died October 12, 1870, Lexington, Virginia), Confederate general, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, the most successful of the Southern armies during the American Civil War (1861–65). In February 1865 he was given command of all the Southern armies. His surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, is commonly viewed as signifying the end of the Civil War. Robert Edward Lee was the fourth child of Col. Henry (“Light-Horse Harry”) Lee and Ann Hill Carter. On both sides, his family had produced many of the dominant figures in the ruling class of Virginia. Henry had been a cavalry leader during the American Revolution, a post-Revolution governor of Virginia, and the author of the famous congressional memorial eulogy to his friend, George Washington. Intermarriage was a tradition with most of Virginia’s ruling families, and Robert would eventually marry a distant cousin, Mary Anne Randolph Custis, the great-granddaughter of George Washington’s wife, Martha, an heiress of several plantation properties.
With all his aristocratic connections, Robert lacked the advantages of wealth. His father had no aptitude for finance and, dying when Robert was a child, left in straitened circumstances an ailing widow with seven children. Robert, the youngest boy, was the closest of the children to his mother and was deeply influenced by her strength of character and high moral principles. All reports of his childhood and youth stress that the pinched gentility of his formative years, in such marked contrast to the life on the great plantations of his kinspeople, was a strong influence goading him to excel at whatever task he was assigned. Unable to afford a university education, Lee obtained an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, where his high aspirations and native gifts produced what a fellow cadet and future Confederate general, Joseph Johnston, called his natural superiority. Always near the top of his class, he won the appointment to corps adjutant, the highest rank a cadet could attain, and was graduated second in his class in 1829. With handsome features, a massive head, and superb build, he combined dignity with kindness and sympathy with good humor to win, as Johnston said, “warm friendship and command high respect.”
Commissioned into the elite engineering corps, later transferring to the cavalry because of slow advancement in the engineers, he did the best he could at routine assignments and on relatively uninspiring engineering projects. Not until the Mexican-American War (1846–48), when he was a captain on the staff of Gen. Winfield Scott, did he have the opportunity to demonstrate the brilliance and heroism that prompted General Scott to write that Lee was “the very best soldier I ever saw in the field?”
In October 1859, while on leave at Arlington, Virginia, to straighten out the entangled affairs of his late father-in-law, he was ordered to suppress the slave insurrection attempted by John Brown at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now in West Virginia). Although Lee put down the insurgency in less than an hour, the very fact that it was led by a white man-made him aware of the gathering crisis between the North and the South.
Lee was back at his command in Texas when, on February 1, 1861, Texas became the seventh Southern state to secede, and, with the rest of the U.S. Army forces, he was ordered out of the state. Without a command, he returned to Arlington to wait to see what Virginia would do. On April 18 he was called to Washington and was offered command of a new army being formed to force the seceded states back into the Union. Lee opposed secession, but he also opposed the war and “could take no part in an invasion of the Southern states.” Meanwhile, Pres. Abraham Lincoln called on Virginia to furnish troops for the invasion. A Virginia convention, which had previously voted 2 to 1 against secession, now voted 2 to 1 against furnishing troops for an invasion and to secede, and Lee resigned from the army in which he had served for 36 years. He explained his decision in a letter to his sister Anne Marshall:
Now we are in a state of war, which will yield to nothing. The whole South is in a state of revolution…and though I recognize no necessity for this state of things, and would have forborne and pleaded to the end for a redress of grievances, real or supposed…I had to meet the question whether I should take part against my native state. 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.
As commander in chief of Virginia’s forces, Lee saw it as his first task to concentrate troops, armaments, and equipment at major points where the invasion might be expected. During this period, Confederate troops joined the Virginia forces and subdued the Federal Army at the First Battle of Bull Run. The attempt at a quick suppression of the Southern states was over and, as Lee was one of the first to realize, along all-out war began. Between July 1861 and June 1862, Confederate Pres. Jefferson Davis appointed Lee to several unrewarding positions, the last of which was the trying post of military adviser to the president. Here, however, Lee, working independently of Davis, was able to introduce a coherent strategy into the Confederacy’s defense.
During May 1862, General Johnston was leading a heterogeneous collection of Confederate troops back toward Richmond, Virginia, from the east, before the methodical advance of Union Gen. George B. McClellan’s superbly organized, heavily equipped Army of the Potomac. Lee collaborated with Thomas Jonathan (“Stonewall”) Jackson to concentrate scattered garrisons in Virginia into a striking force in the Shenandoah Valley, where he surprised the Federal forces into retreating and posed a threat to Washington, D.C. Jackson’s threat from the valley caused Lincoln to withhold from McClellan the large corps of Gen. Irvin McDowell, with whom McClellan planned a pincer movement on Richmond from the east and north. On May 31 Johnston delivered an attack on McClellan’s forces seven miles east of Richmond in the indecisive Battle of Seven Pines (Battle of Fair Oaks). The battle became a turning point for Lee: Johnston was seriously wounded, and Lee was at last given a field command.
In three weeks he organized Confederate troops into what became the famed Army of Northern Virginia; he tightened command and discipline, improved morale, and convinced the soldiers that headquarters was in full command. McClellan, waiting vainly for McDowell to join the wing of his army on the north side of the Chickahominy River, was moving heavy siege artillery from the east for the subjugation of Richmond when Lee struck. Combining with Jackson, who moved in from the valley, Lee defeated Gen. Fitz-John Porter’s right-wing and was on McClellan’s supply line to his base on the York River.
In a series of hard fights, the Seven Days Battles (around Richmond), McClellan withdrew his army to the wharves of Berkeley Plantation, where he was aided by the U.S. Navy. Because it was the first major victory for the Confederacy since Bull Run and because it halted a succession of military reversals, Lee emerged overnight as the people’s hero, and his soldiers developed an almost mystical belief in him.
Lee never believed that the Confederate troops had the strength to win in the field; for the next two years, his objectives were to keep the enemy as far away as possible from the armament-producing center of Richmond as well as from the northern part of the state, where farmers were harvesting their crops, and, finally, to inflict defeats of such decisiveness as to weaken the enemy’s will to continue the war. To nullify the Federals’ superiority in manpower, armaments, and supply, Lee always sought to seize the initiative by destroying the enemy’s prearranged plans.
Until the spring of 1864, he was successful in keeping the enemy away from Richmond and from the northern part of the state, twice expelling the enemy out of Virginia altogether. He inflicted several severe defeats on the enemy, most strikingly at the Second Battle of Bull Run (Second Manassas), August 29–30, 1862. To shift the fighting out of Virginia, Lee crossed into Maryland, where he hoped for support from Southern sympathizers. But his plans fell into Northern hands, and his forces were nearly destroyed at Antietam (Sharpsburg) on September 17, 1862. He was, however, able to withdraw the remnants across the Potomac, to reorganize his army, and to resume his series of victories at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December of that year. At Chancellorsville (May 1–4, 1863) he achieved another notable victory, although outnumbered two to one, by splitting up his army and encircling the enemy in one of the most audacious moves in military history.
But he was producing no more than a stalemate on the Virginia front, while Federal forces won important victories in other parts of the Confederacy, and time was against him. While the Federals always replaced their losses, Lee’s army was dwindling in size, suffering an irreplaceable drain in its command—particularly through the loss of Stonewall Jackson, who had been mortally wounded at Chancellorsville—and increasingly acute shortages of food and clothing, which undermined the physical condition of the soldiers.
Largely to resupply his troops and to draw the invading armies out of Virginia, Lee once more crossed the Potomac. The first invasion had ended with the Battle of Antietam, and the second ended in Lee’s repulse at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (July 1–3, 1863). There, operating for the first time without Jackson, Lee was failed by three of his top generals in using the discretionary orders that had worked so effectively with Jackson, his “right arm.”
Then, in May 1864, Ulysses S. Grant, the newly appointed commanding general of all Union forces, drove at Lee with enormous superiority in numbers, armaments, and cavalry. The horses of the troopers of Confederate Gen. Jeb Stuart were in poor condition, and Stuart was killed early in the campaign. Grant could neither defeat nor outmaneuver Lee, however, and the superb army Grant had inherited sustained losses of 50,000 men in the May and early June battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna, and Cold Harbor.
Grant, however, his losses replaced by fresh recruits, had advanced within seven miles of Richmond, while Lee, his soldiers too weakened physically and his officers too inexperienced to attempt countering maneuvers had lost the initiative. Lee himself was, moreover, physically declining and frequently incapacitated by illness. When Grant, abandoning his advance on Richmond, moved south of the James River to Petersburg, Virginia—Richmond’s rail connection with the South—Lee could only place his starving tatterdemalions in defensive lines in front of Petersburg and Richmond.
Beginning at Spotsylvania Court House, Lee had nullified Grant’s numbers by using his engineering experience to erect fortifications that were in advance of any fieldworks previously seen in warfare. At Petersburg, Lee extended the field fortifications into permanent lines that presaged trench warfare. Although Lee’s lines enabled him to withstand Grant’s siege of the two cities from late June 1864 to April 1, 1865, once his mobile army was reduced to siege conditions, Lee said the end would be “a mere question of time.”
The time came on Sunday, April 2, when his defensive lines were stretched so thin that the far-right broke under massive assaults, and Lee was forced to evacuate Petersburg and at last uncover Richmond. When the survivors of his army pulled out of the trenches, an agonizing week of a forlorn retreat began for him; his men fell out from hunger, animals dropped in the traces, and units dissolved under demoralized officers. At Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, his way west was blocked and there was nothing left except to bear with dignity the ordeal of surrender, which was made less painful for him by Grant’s considerate behavior.
Lee was a surprisingly progressive educator; by employing his lifelong practices in the economy, he placed the institution on a sound basis and awakened in his students—many of whom were veterans of the recent war—the desire to rebuild their state with the goal of good citizenship in a nation that in time would become reunited. He died in 1870 at his home at Washington College.
Although history knows him mostly as “the Rebel General,” Lee was a disbeliever in slavery and secession and was devoutly attached to the republic that his father and kinsmen had helped bring into being. He was, moreover, very advanced in his rejection of war as a resolution of political conflicts—a fact that has been almost entirely ignored by posterity. As a U.S. Army colonel in Texas during the secession crises of late 1860, he wrote, “[If] strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, I shall mourn for my country and for the welfare and progress of mankind.”
As the idol of a defeated people, Lee served as an example of fortitude and magnanimity during the ruin and dislocations, the anguish and bitterness of the war’s long aftermath. In those years, he became an enduring symbol to the Southern people of what was best in their heritage.