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  Name:  Robert Edward Lee
  Born:  January 19, 1807
  Died:  October 12, 1870

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Lee, Robert Edward (January 19, 1807–October 12, 1870)

Robert E. Lee was a career soldier, Confederate commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, and Confederate general–in–chief during the last months of the Civil War.  After the war, he served as president of Washington College (today, Washington and Lee University).

Robert Edward Lee was born at Stratford Hall Plantation on January 19, 1807, to Anne Hill Carter Lee and Henry “Light–Horse Harry” Lee, a Revolutionary War hero, Virginia governor (1792–1795), and U.S. congressman (1799–1801).  His father’s financial difficulties, including bankruptcy and debtors’ prison in 1809, resulted in his frequent absence from home and his wife supporting the family from her modest inheritance.  In 1810, the Lees moved to Alexandria, Virginia.  For a while, Robert attended Eastern View, a private school of his mother’s family, the Carters, near Midland, Virginia.  His father’s ill–fortune had continued, including serious injury from an anti–Federalist riot in Baltimore at the beginning of the War of 1812.  The next year, the elder Lee moved to the West Indies for his health.  He died in Georgia in 1818, while attempting to return home.  From about 1820 to 1823, Robert E. Lee attended Alexandria Academy, where he excelled in his studies, especially mathematics.  Given the absence and then death of his father, the boy assumed the role of male head of household, overseeing tasks such as market purchases and slave labor assignments. 

On July 1, 1825, Lee was admitted to the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he proved his aptitude at both academics and military exercises.  He graduated second in the class of 1829, with no demerits, and was commissioned a second lieutenant with the Army Corps of Engineers.  During a two–month furlough, his mother died (July 10), and he began courting Mary Anne Randolph Custis, a great–granddaughter of Martha Washington.  Lee’s first assignment (1829–1831) was to assist the construction of Fort Pulaski on Cockspur Island at the mouth of the Savannah River, Georgia.  In May 1831, he became assistant engineer at Fort Monroe in southeast Virginia, and on June 30, he wed Mary Custis.  The couple would later have seven children. 

In October 1834, Lee was reassigned as administrative assistant to the Chief of Engineers Office in Washington, D. C., during which he was raised in rank on September 21, 1836, to first lieutenant.  In July 1837, he became the supervising engineer for navigation work at St. Louis harbor and on the upper Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.  A year later, he was promoted to captain.  Lee was transferred in 1841 to Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, to oversee repairs to forts in the New York harbor.  While still officially assigned to Fort Hamilton, he also sat on the annual Board of Visitors for West Point (1844), again assisted at corps headquarters in Washington, D.C. (1844), and began serving on the Board of Engineers for Atlantic Coast Defenses in 1845.

In October 1846, Lee began service in the U.S.–Mexican War under General John E. Wool as a staff engineer supervising road construction and repair over a 600–mile stretch from San Antonio, Texas, into northeast Mexico near Saltillo.  In January 1847, he became chief engineer on the staff of General Winfield Scott, commander of American forces in Mexico.  At Cerro Gordo, Lee convinced Scott to use an alternative route and then led the vanguard troops to victory on April 17–18 for which he won a brevet to major.  At Churubusco, his suggestion of a route and his daring night journey for additional troops helped secure an American victory on August 20 for which he was brevetted a lieutenant colonel.  He again assisted with successful planning and execution of the battle at Chapultepec on September 13 for which he was given the brevet of colonel almost a year later on August 24, 1848. 

Lee returned to Washington, D.C., on June 29, 1848, to resume working on coastal defenses along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.  In April 1849, he headed construction of Fort Carroll on an artificial island off Baltimore.  On May 27, 1852, he reluctantly accepted appointment as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  During his tenure (September 1, 1852–March 31, 1855), Lee imposed a more rigorous disciplinary code and implemented a congressionally approved increase in coursework from four to five years.  In March 1855, Lee resigned from the Army Corps of Engineers to accept the permanent rank of lieutenant colonel (continuing as brevet colonel) with the 2nd Cavalry.  After a brief stay at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis and serving on courts–martial in the Kansas Territory, in April 1856 he reported for duty in Texas, which included skirmishes against Mexican bandits and Indians (Comanche, Kiowa).  While visiting his Arlington home in October 1859, he was ordered to join First Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today, West Virginia) to retake the federal arsenal from abolitionist John Brown.  Under Lee, the troops captured Brown and his cohorts (who were soon tried and executed).  On February 9, 1860, Lee was named commander of the Department of Texas. 

In the winter of 1860–1861, Southern slave states began seceding from the Union to form the Confederate States of America.  At the time, Lee rejected secession as revolutionary, and disliked slavery (his few slaves had died or been freed by that time).  In mid–February 1861, he reported to General Winfield Scott in Washington, D.C., and on March 16 was promoted to full colonel and given command of the 1st Cavalry.  On April 18, four days after the surrender of Fort Sumter to the Confederacy marked the beginning of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln through his emissary Frank Blair Sr. offered Lee field command of the U. S. Army.  He turned it down, and two days later, following Virginia’s secession, resigned from the U.S. Army (formally accepted on April 25).  Lee first accepted command of Virginia’s military forces on April 22 and then command of Confederate forces in Virginia on May 10 at the rank of brigadier general, effective May 14 (Virginia state troops were absorbed into the Confederate army on June 8).  Lee was selected as a military advisor by Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and named a full general on August 21.

Dispatched to western Virginia (today, West Virginia), Lee’s first campaign met with defeat at Cheat Mountain (September 12–15, 1861) and accomplished little.  He was recalled to Richmond in October and then assigned to head coastal defenses on the South Atlantic.  He arrived at Charleston on November 7, the day Port Royal, South Carolina, fell to the Union, giving it a better position to launch offensives and enforce the blockade against Confederate ports.  By early 1862, the Confederate hold on Tennessee was deteriorating and Union General George B. McClellan was preparing a campaign to the Confederate capital of Richmond.  On March 2, President Davis ordered Lee to return to Richmond to act as military advisor.  Lee approved General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s bold Valley Campaign (March–June), which kept the Shenandoah Valley under Confederate control and diverted Union troops from reinforcing McClellan.  Lee ended the Union general’s Peninsula Campaign by leading Confederate forces in the Seven Days Battles (June 25–July 1). 

Lee then moved into northern Virginia, where he defeated Union General John Pope at the Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) on August 29–30, 1862.  Lee continued northward into Maryland, hoping that a victory on Union soil would compel the Lincoln administration to seek a peace settlement recognizing Confederate independence.  Lee’s forces had been weakened by heavy casualties at Seven Days (20,000) and Second Bull Run (9,000), so that he had only 34,000 under his command when they engaged 71,500 Union troops at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg on September 17.  It was the bloodiest day in the entire war with over 10,000 Confederate and 12,000 Union casualties.  Afterward, Lee retreated back to Virginia, where he requested reinforcements for another offensive, but Davis refused.  In October, Lee reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia into two corps under Generals “Stonewall” Jackson and James Longstreet.  The three successfully defended Fredericksburg against the Union’s botched invasion on December 13.  Four months later, Lee defended against a second Union offensive by defeating General Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville on May 2–5, 1863.

Because “Stonewall” Jackson had been mortally wounded (by friendly fire) at Chancellorsville, Lee reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia, naming General Richard Ewell to replace Jackson and A. P. Hill to command a new third corps.  Without allowing time for the new officers and troops to become familiar with each other, Lee went on the offensive with another invasion of the North.  By doing so, he hoped to strengthen the peace element in the North and possibly undermine the Union siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, if Federal troops were transferred to the Eastern Theater.  Lee moved west to the Shenandoah Valley and then north through Maryland and into Pennsylvania.  Union troops, initially under Hooker and then General George Meade, moved parallel to the Confederates.  On July 1–3, 1863, near Gettysburg, up to 97,000 Union and 75,000 Confederate soldiers engaged in intense battle.  Several Confederate attacks, including General George Pickett’s ill–fated attempt on the afternoon of July 3, were unable to dislodge the Union force.  The next day, Lee started withdrawing his troops, the same day that Vicksburg surrendered to the Union.  The double loss was a severe blow to Confederate morale and a boost to the North.

For the rest of 1863, Lee and Meade maneuvered against each other inconclusively in northern Virginia.  That dynamic altered radically in March 1864 with the appointment of a new Union commander, General Ulysses S. Grant, who was determined to pursue Lee aggressively to end the war.  With General William T. Sherman moving toward Atlanta, Grant inaugurated a strategy to corner Lee in Virginia.  In the Overland Campaign (May–June 1864), Union and Confederate troops first clashed on May 5–6 in a densely wooded area called “the Wilderness,” resulting in 10,800 Confederate casualties and 18,000 for the Union.  Grant continued to press Lee through battles that included Spotsylvania Court House (May 8–21) and Cold Harbor (May 31–June 12), Lee’s last major victory.  His skill as a field commander resulted in heavy Union casualties (40–65,000) and forced Grant to end the campaign.  Although Confederate losses were lower (20–35,000), they seriously sapped Lee’s manpower.

Following the Union defeat at Cold Harbor in June 1864, Grant decided the best route into Richmond was from the southeast through Petersburg, a major transportation center.  Lee sent reinforcements to General P. G. T. Beauregard, who was able to stave off initial assaults by the Union, which then began what became a 9–month siege of the town.  Meanwhile, Lee dispatched General Jubal Early to hold the Shenandoah Valley and to threaten Washington, D.C.  By July 11, Early had reached within seven miles of the White House, but Union reinforcements pushed him back to Virginia.  To stop Early, Grant ordered General Philip Sheridan into the Shenandoah Valley, where he won two battles in September and began burning the area in October.  After a winter respite, Sheridan restarted the Union offensive, gained control of the Shenandoah Valley on March 2, 1865, and then reinforced Grant at Petersburg.

On February 6, 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis designated Lee general–in–chief, while he retained the position as head of the Army of Northern Virginia.  With Union General William T. Sherman’s troops marching northward through the Carolinas, Lee made a final effort to break through Grant’s line at Fort Stedman on February 25, but suffered heavy losses.  Four days later, Grant launched the final Union offensive, which forced Lee to evacuate Petersburg and Richmond on the night of April 2.  The Confederate commander then headed west, hoping to steer south and join General Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina, but was blocked by Sheridan’s Union cavalry.  On April 6, Lee’s troops became separated and were defeated at Sailor’s Creek, resulting in the capture of thousands of Confederate soldiers and several generals.  With his remnant force, Lee retreated northward, reaching the town of Appomattox Court House on the evening of April 8.  An attempt on the next morning to pierce the line of the Union troops surrounding them was unsuccessful. 

On the afternoon of April 9, 1865, Lee and Grant met at the home of Wilmer McLean, where the Confederate commander surrendered.  Although sporadic fighting occurred into June, the surrender of Lee’s force marked the end of the American Civil War.  He and his men were designated paroled prisoners of war.  Although indicted for treason by a grand jury at the U.S. District Court in Norfolk, Virginia, he was not prosecuted.  On the other hand, he was not given an individual pardon.  In August 1865, he accepted the presidency of Washington College (today, Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia.  He suffered what was probably a heart attack on September 28, 1870, and died two weeks later on October 12.  After his death, Robert E. Lee was held in even higher regard by many white Southerners for his loyalty to his state and leadership to the Confederate cause.

Sources consulted:  Russell F. Weigley, “Lee, Robert E,” American National Biography Online,–04–00622; D. S. F., “Lee, Robert Edward,” Dictionary of American Biography, pp. 120–129; “Before the Civil War, Robert E. Lee Served for 26 Years as an Officer in the Corps of Engineers,” U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Office of History, No. 33,; Emory M. Thomas, Robert E. Lee:  A Biography (W. W. Norton & Co., 1995).


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