Biography of Robert E. Lee
Written by: McMurray, Richard M. Posted on: 03/18/2003
Lee, Robert E..
EARLY LIFE AND CAREER
Robert Edward Lee was born on Jan. 19, 1807, at his family's
home, "Stratford," in Westmoreland County, Va. His father,
Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, had been a cavalry officer
during the American Revolution and a close friend of George
Washington. Henry Lee, a compulsive gambler, lost much of the
family wealth in land speculation prior to his death in 1818.
Robert grew up in genteel poverty in Alexandria, Va. Appointed
to West Point in 1825, he graduated (1829) after compiling an
enviable academic record. In 1831, Lee married Mary Ann
Randolph Custis, great-granddaughter of Martha Washington by
her first marriage. During the next 30 years he often lived at
Arlington, the Custis mansion near Washington, D.C.
Commissioned in the Corps of Engineers in 1829, Lee held a
variety of assign- ments, helping with construction work at
several military posts and with river and harbor improvements
at Saint Louis. Promotion was slow, however, and it was not
until 1838 that he was made a captain. In the Mexican War, Lee
was an engineering officer with Winfield Scott's force that
fought its way to Mexico City. Lee's work at the battles of
Cerro Gordo, Churubusco, and Chapultepec was outstanding and
won for him praise and a brilliant reputation. From 1852 to
1855 he was superintendent at West Point. In 1855 he was made
lieutenant colonel of the Second Cavalry, and in 1859 he
commanded the force that suppressed the John Brown raid on
ROLE IN CIVIL WAR
A moderate, Lee was dismayed by the extremists on both sides
of the North-South controversy in the 1850s. Nevertheless,
believing that he owed his first loyalty to his own state, he
declined an offer to command the Federal army, resigned his
commission in the U.S. Army, and offered his services to
Virginia when it seceded in April 1861. Virginia was soon part
of the Confederacy, and Con- federate president Jefferson
Davis appointed Lee a general in the Southern army. After an
unsuccessful effort to repel an invasion of western Virginia,
Lee was sent to prepare Atlantic coastal defenses. In March
1862 he returned to Virginia as an advisor to Davis. After
Joseph E. Johnston was wounded in May 1862 during the
Peninsular Campaign, Lee became commander of the main
Confederate army in Virginia--a force that he soon named the
Army of Northern Virginia.
When Lee took command, the outlook appeared dim for the
Confederacy. Federal troops were slowly gaining control of the
Mississippi Valley, and a large enemy army was within sight of
Richmond. In late June, Lee struck at the Unionists near
Richmond and in the Seven Days' Battles drove them away from
the capital. In August he defeated a Northern army in the
second Battle of Bull Run and chased it into the defenses of
Washington, D.C. Lee followed up this victory by invading
Maryland. During the Battle of Antietam (Sept. 17, 1862) he
fought a drawn battle with the Federals. Lee then withdrew to
Virginia where he inflicted a costly defeat on his opponents
at Fredericksburg in December.
At Chancellorsville (May 1863), Lee won his greatest victory
and suffered his greatest loss. Boldly dividing his army into
three parts, Lee assailed a larger Federal force. The result
was a battle in which the Unionists were thoroughly befuddled
and driven back with heavy casualties. Southern losses were
also high, and among them was Lee's greatest lieutenant,
Stonewall Jackson, who died (May 10) of complications arising
from wounds received a week earlier. Lee was unable to replace
Jackson and never again achieved the degree of success he had
won with the cooperation of Jackson.
In the summer of 1863, Lee launched another invasion of the
North. In early July he attacked a Federal army at Gettysburg,
Pa., and was defeated in the greatest battle of the war. The
Confederates fell back into Virginia, and there, in 1864, Lee
led them into a series of bloody battles against the Northern
army, now commanded by Ulysses S. Grant. Hampered by the loss
of many good officers, such as James Longstreet (wounded May
6) and J.E.B. Stuart (mortally wounded May 11), Lee maneuvered
brilliantly against Grant and inflicted heavy losses on the
Federals. Unable to seize the offensive, he was pushed back to
Richmond and Petersburg and forced to defend those cities
against a semisiege. Over the ensuing months, Lee's strength
steadily declined, and Grant finally broke through the
Southern lines in April 1865. Lee tried to escape with his
army to join other Confederate forces in North Carolina, but
Grant trapped him at Appomattox Court House and forced him to
surrender on Apr. 9. By then Lee had become the symbol of the
Confederacy (and he had finally been appointed general in
chief of all Confederate armies in February); when he
surrendered, other Southern armies soon ceased fighting.
POSTWAR LIFE AND REPUTATION
After the war, Lee became president of Washington College (now
Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Va. Accepting the
results of the war, he devoted himself to education and to
helping rebuild the South. Lee died on Oct. 12, 1870.
Lee had many weaknesses as a general. He was too considerate
of others, and his politeness sometimes obscured the necessity
for quick, total obedience to his orders. He entrusted too
much discretion to subordinates who, except for Jack- son,
were not capable of handling it. He may not have paid
sufficient attention to logistics, and he has been accused of
devoting too much attention to Virginia to the neglect of
other areas. Despite these weaknesses, many historians main-
tain that Lee was the most capable commander of the Civil War.
A great general and a great man, Robert E. Lee was a fitting
symbol of the South as well as an American hero.
RICHARD M. McMURRY
Connelly, Thomas L. - THE MARBLE MAN: ROBERT E. LEE AND HIS IMAGE IN AMERICAN
Davis, Burke - GRAY FOX: ROBERT E. LEE AND THE CIVIL WAR
Dowdey, Clifford - LEE (1965) and, as ed., THE WARTIME PAPERS
OF R. E. LEE (1961)
Fishwick, Marshall W. - LEE AFTER THE WAR (1963; repr. 1973)
Freeman, Douglas S. - R. E. LEE: A BIOGRAPHY, 4 vols.
(1934-35) - LEE'S LIEUTENANTS, 3 vols. (1942-44)
Maurice, Frederick - ROBERT E. LEE, THE SOLDIER (1928)
Miers, Earle S. - ROBERT E. LEE (1956)
Sanborn, Margaret - ROBERT E. LEE, 2 vols. (1966-67).
'Copyright 1987, Grolier Inc, Academic American Encyclopedia,
USED BY PERMISSION, granted January 9, 1988
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