Robert E. Lee was a prominent Confederate army officer who commanded the Army of Northern Virginia throughout most of the Civil War and who also served as General-in-Chief of Confederate forces near the end of the conflict.
Robert Edward Lee was born January 19, 1807, at Stratford, a family plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia. He was the fifth child of Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee and Ann Hill Carter Lee.
Lee’s father was a Revolutionary War hero, a delegate to the Continental Congress, the Governor of Virginia from 1791 to 1794, and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Despite his military and political renown, the Panic of 1796-1797 financially ruined the elder Lee and by 1809 he spent a year in debtor’s prison.
After his release, Lee moved his family to Alexandria, Virginia. While living there, Robert attended local schools. In 1812, Lee’s father traveled to the West Indies and never returned, dying there in 1818. Lee’s mother had to raise her children with the help of relatives.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
In 1824, Lee’s uncle, William Henry Fitzhugh, secured an appointment for Lee to the United States Military Academy. Lee entered the academy in 1825, graduating second in his class in 1829.
U.S. Army Officer
After graduation, Lee received a brevet commission as a second lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers. When Lee returned home while awaiting assignment, his mother died on July 26, 1829.
While at home, Lee also began courting Mary Custis, great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. In August, the army stationed Lee in Georgia. When he was home on leave a year later, Mary accepted Lee’s second marriage proposal, and the two wed on June 30, 1831. Later that year, the army transferred Lee to Fort Monroe in Virginia. For the next fifteen years, Lee was away from his family, performing various engineering duties for the army, including helping to establish the state line between Ohio and Michigan in 1835. During the period, Lee received promotions to second lieutenant in 1832, to first lieutenant in 1836, and to captain in 1838.
During the Mexican-American War (1846 to 1848), Lee first served as an engineer under General John Wool, primarily laying out transportation routes. In 1847, he transferred to the staff of General Winfield Scott, who later stated that Lee was “the greatest soldier I ever saw in the field.” Lee served with distinction at the battles of Veracruz (March 1847), Cerro Gordo (April 1847), and Chapultepec (September 1847), where he was wounded. Lee received a brevet promotion to major after the Battle of Cerro Gordo on April 18, 1847.
Superintendent of the United States Military Academy
After the Mexican-American War, Lee resumed his peacetime engineering duties with the army. In 1852, U.S. Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis appointed him superintendent of the United States Military Academy, where he served until 1855. In March 1855, the army promoted Lee to lieutenant colonel and gave him command of the recently formed 2nd U.S. Cavalry in Texas. His unit’s primary task was to subdue the Comanche Indians.
While serving in Texas, Lee’s father-in-law, George Washington Custis, died in 1857, and Lee returned to Alexandria, Virginia to serve as executor of the estate. Custis’s will stipulated that his slaves receive their freedom within five years of his death. The slaves erroneously believed that they became free at the time of Custis’s death. Lee disagreed, and when some slaves attempted to escape, Lee began hiring them out, sometimes breaking up their families. Lee also filed legal petitions to keep Custis’s chattel enslaved indefinitely. Only when the courts denied his petitions did Lee consent to his father-in-law’s wishes and free his slaves.
John Brown’s Raid
In October 1859, President James Buchanan ordered Lee to lead a detachment of U.S. Marines to Harpers Ferry, Virginia to suppress a raid on the federal arsenal led by Ohioan and abolitionist John Brown. On October 18, after failed negotiations with Brown, Lee ordered his marines to storm the building housing the insurrectionists. In a matter of minutes, Lee’s men crushed the foray and captured Brown. Later that year, Lee stood guard at Brown’s execution on December 2, 1859.
When the session crisis escalated after Abraham Lincoln’s election to the U.S. Presidency in 1860, Lee struggled with performing his sworn duty as a soldier and preserving his allegiance to his home state of Virginia. Serving as the acting head of the Department of Texas during the winter of 1860, Lee refused to cede federal property to local secessionists. In March of the following year, the War Department recalled Lee to Washington and promoted him to full colonel. On April 17, 1861, Virginia seceded from the Union. The next day, Lee declined a promotion to major general in the army being assembled to suppress the Southern insurrection. On April 20, he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army. Three days later Lee accepted the command of Virginia’s forces.
The first year of the Civil War was not kind to Lee or his reputation. In an uncoordinated attack hampered by rain, fog, and mountainous terrain, Lee’s forces were defeated at the Battle of Cheat Mountain (September 12 to 15) in western Virginia. Confederate President Jefferson Davis relieved Lee of his field command and sent him east to supervise the construction of coastal defenses in Georgia and the Carolinas. Davis then recalled Lee to Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, where he served as a military adviser to the Confederate president. While acting in that capacity, Lee ordered his men to dig a network of defensive trenches around the Confederate capital. That operation earned him the derogatory sobriquet, “King of Spades.”
Army of Northern Virginia
The spring of 1862 marked a change in Lee’s military fortunes. By late May, Major General George McClellan had advanced the Federal Army of the Potomac to the outskirts of Richmond during his Peninsula Campaign. On June 1, General Joseph E. Johnston was severely wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines, and Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Seven Days Battles
As McClellan planned for a siege of Richmond, Lee prepared to take the initiative. On June 25, he launched the first of six assaults on Federal troops in seven days, collectively known as the Seven Days Battles (June 25 to July 1, 1862). Although the Battle of Gaines Mills was the only engagement in the series that produced a tactical Confederate victory, the offensive achieved Lee’s strategic objective of driving McClellan away from Richmond.
Northern Virginia Campaign
The Army of the Potomac retreated down the peninsula until U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and General-in-Chief-of-the-Army Henry Halleck recalled it on August 3, to support Major General Pope’s Army of Virginia operating near Washington. With McClellan’s army off of the peninsula, Lee turned his attention to Pope and scored a major victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28 to 30, 1862), opening the way for a Confederate invasion of the North.
In September 1862, Lee moved the Army of Northern Virginia into Maryland. His Maryland Offensive had three major goals: relieve Virginia from the ravages of war, resupply his army through foraging in the North, and erode Northern morale enough to influence upcoming midterm elections in the North. McClellan dispatched the Army of the Potomac to Maryland to check Lee’s advance. The two armies met at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, near Sharpsburg, Maryland. During the bloodiest day of fighting in the Civil War, the armies fought to a standoff. With his advance stalled and supplies running low, Lee withdrew to Virginia.
Disappointed with McClellan’s failure to pursue Lee’s retreating army, President Lincoln placed Ambrose Burnside in command of the Army of the Potomac on November 7, 1862, and urged him to mount an offensive. A reluctant Burnside crossed the Rappahannock River on December 12. The next day he ordered a disastrous series of frontal attacks against Lee’s well-positioned army near Fredericksburg, Virginia. After suffering more than 12,000 casualties, Burnside called off the offensive and re-crossed the river. Lee’s reputation and his army’s morale soared with the decisive Confederate victory at the Battle of Fredericksburg.
On January 26, 1863, Lincoln replaced Burnside with Major General Joseph (“Fighting Joe”) Hooker in his quest to find a Union officer who could out-general Lee. On April 27, Hooker led the Army of the Potomac back across the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers. He soon found one near Chancellorsville, Virginia on May 1. Outnumbering Lee’s army by a ratio of two to one, Hooker planned to use his numerical superiority to flank and entrap Lee’s army. Lee expected Hooker’s plan, however, and boldly split his outnumbered army to check the Federal flanking movements. After five days of intense fighting, Hooker withdrew his army from the field. Many consider the Battle of Chancellorsville to be the zenith of Lee’s military career. Once again he had fended off an advance by a much larger force, raising the already high morale of his army and prompting him to lobby for another invasion of the North.
While Lee was defeating Hooker at Chancellorsville, Major General Ulysses S. Grant was besieging the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi on the Mississippi River. With Hooker’s army in retreat, many Confederate officials proposed sending some of Lee’s army west to relieve Vicksburg. Reluctant to reduce the number of troops protecting Virginia, Lee instead proposed another invasion of the North. With his stature at an all-time high, Lee’s views prevailed, and Jefferson Davis authorized him to launch another offensive.
On June 3, 1863, Lee began moving portions of his army northwest toward the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Rebels crossed the mountains and moved north through the Shenandoah Valley, capturing the Union garrison at Winchester, Virginia, in the Second Battle of Winchester (June 13 to 15, 1863). Lee’s army then began moving into Maryland and Pennsylvania.
By that time, Hooker realized Lee’s movements and dispatched the Army of the Potomac to stop Lee’s advance. As the Federals sought to locate Lee’s forces, Hooker engaged in a heated dispute with his superiors and rashly offered to resign as commander of the Army of the Potomac. President Lincoln quickly accepted the resignation, and on June 28, he replaced Hooker with Major General George Meade. Three days later, Meade’s army engaged Lee at the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.
Battle of Gettysburg
From July 1 through July 3, the two armies clashed in the Battle of Gettysburg, the largest battle of the Civil War. Meade’s army arrived at Gettysburg ahead of the Rebels and secured the high ground on the first day of battle. Seeing that the Federals held the better ground, some of Lee’s lieutenant commanders, particularly James Longstreet, advised Lee to move the Confederate army around Gettysburg and face Meade’s army on another day at a place of the Rebels’ choosing. Fearing the effect that withdrawing might have on his army’s morale and, perhaps, placing too much stock in the illusory invincibility of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee instead ordered ill-advised attacks against the Federal lines on the second and third days of the battle.
The results were catastrophic, particularly the assault on the Union center on July 3, later known as Pickett’s Charge. As Lee watched the remnants of his army return from the failed assault on Cemetery Ridge, he acknowledged, “It is all my fault.” That evening, the shattered Army of Northern Virginia began an arduous ten-day march back to Virginia, bringing Lee’s offensive to an ignominious end. Meade did not pursue Lee as he withdrew, and for the rest of the season, both armies were content to recuperate from the battle.
A Formidable Opponent
Meade’s failure to pursue Lee immediately after Gettysburg, coupled with his subsequent inaction in 1863, again prompted President Lincoln to find a general who would use the Union’s dominant resources to defeat the Confederacy. On February 29, 1864, President Lincoln signed legislation restoring the rank of lieutenant general in the United States Army. On March 2, the president nominated Ulysses S. Grant, conqueror of Vicksburg and champion of Chattanooga, for the post. Congress confirmed the nomination on the same day. On March 3, Lincoln summoned Grant to Washington. A week later, on March 10, the president issued an executive order appointing Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. On March 17, 1864, Grant issued General Orders, Number 12, taking command of the armies.
Grant immediately devised a plan to have all Union armies act in concert and then set his sights on defeating Lee. Making his headquarters with Meade’s Army of the Potomac, Grant launched his Overland Campaign in the spring, determined to go where Lee went. Although it took nearly a year, Grant’s strategy eventually prevailed. Against the better-equipped and much larger Union army, Lee held his own at the bloody Battles of the Wilderness (May 5-7, 1864), Spotsylvania Court House (May 8-21, 1864), and Cold Harbor (May 31 – June 12, 1864), endured a prolonged Siege at Petersburg (June 9, 1864 – March 25, 1865).
General-in-Chief of Confederate Forces
By the end of 1864, the Confederacy’s military plight had become dire. Grant had Lee’s army bottled up in Petersburg and William T. Sherman captured Savannah on December 21 after making Georgia howl during his notorious March to the Sea. As the situation worsened, Southerners began questioning President Jefferson Davis’s effectiveness as commander-in-chief. Opposition to Davis reached a crescendo on January 23, 1865, when the Confederation Congress enacted legislation creating the post of General-in-Chief of Confederate forces. A week later, the bedeviled president appointed Robert E. Lee to the post. On February 6, the Confederate War Department issued General Orders, No. 3 announcing Lee’s appointment. On February 9, Lee issued his first general order as General-in-Chief announcing that he had assumed the post.
Surrender at Appomattox Court House
The change in leadership had little effect on the outcome of the war. In March 1865, Lee led his beleaguered forces in a desperate escape attempt that ended at Appomattox Court House. On April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Grant.
The Civil War lingered on for several weeks after the surrender at Appomattox Court House, but it was over for Lee. He returned to Richmond to reunite with his family. On October 2, 1865, Lee became president of Washington University in Lexington, Virginia. On the same day, Lee signed an amnesty oath, swearing his allegiance to the Constitution and to the United States. On December 25, 1868, President Andrew Johnson issued a proclamation that unconditionally pardoned those who “directly or indirectly” rebelled against the United States. Johnson’s pardon ensured that Lee would not face charges with treason. Still, the federal government did not restore Lee’s citizenship during his lifetime. On August 5, 1975, over 100 years after Lee’s death, President Gerald R. Ford signed legislation restoring Lee’s citizenship.
Lee served as president of Washington College for five years. During that time, he supported President Johnson’s Reconstruction plan and opposed the policies of so-called Radicals in Congress. He counseled compliance with federal authority but remained opposed to extending voting and civil rights to freed blacks.
On September 28, 1870, Lee suffered a stroke at his home in Lexington, Virginia. He died two weeks later on October 12. Lee’s remains were buried beneath the Lee Chapel on the campus of Washington University (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington.