Robert Edward Lee was born at Stratford in Westmoreland County, Virginia. His father was Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, famed Revolutionary War hero and governor of Virginia. Harry Lee was preoccupied with politics and extricating himself from financial difficulties. He left the rearing of his son to others.
Lee did not have sufficient funds to attend a traditional college, so he enrolled at West Point. In 1829 he graduated second in his class and was much admired by his fellow cadets. His initial service was in the Engineering Corps.
In 1831, Lee married Mary Anne Randolph Custis, a wealthy plantation owner and the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington.
Lee served in the Mexican War (1846-48) and was wounded in the storming of Chapultepec. He won high praise from General Winfield Scott. Lee transferred to the cavalry in the hope of earning faster promotions. From 1852 to 1855, Lee was the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy.
Lee gained national attention in 1859 when, at home on leave, he was summoned to lead marines against John Brown at Harper’s Ferry.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Lee faced a difficult decision. He personally disliked the institution of slavery, opposed secession by Virginia, loved the army, and revered the Union which his father had helped found. Nevertheless, Lee was a Southerner at heart. Refusing to participate in an invasion of the seceded states, he declined to accept a military command offered by Abraham Lincoln.
When Virginia seceded, Lee resigned from the northern army. Initial Confederate appointments confined Lee to inspecting coastal defenses and advising Jefferson Davis. In March 1862, however, Lee was recalled to Virginia to check George McClellan’s move toward Richmond. Three months later, Lee replaced the wounded Joseph E. Johnston as the head of the Army of Northern Virginia—a position he would hold for three years.
Lee experienced early success at the Seven Days’ Battles (June-July 1862), the first major Confederate success since First Bull Run, and at Second Bull Run (August). His fortunes were reversed at the Battle of Antietam (September), but turned again at Fredericksburg (December) and Chancellorsville (May 1863), where Lee’s “right arm,” Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was mortally wounded.
In June and July 1863, Lee attempted his second invasion of the North, a move which ended in defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg. Historians are divided in assessing Lee’s performance there. Some have argued that Lee performed ably, but was thwarted by the failings of James Longstreet. Others have maintained that Lee merited the blame for the defeat because he badly underestimated his opponent and was unable to exert leadership over spirited subordinates. Lee’s offer to resign, however, was not accepted by Jefferson Davis.
In May 1864 U.S. Grant was given command of all of the Union forces and began a protracted campaign that pitted his soldiers against Lee’s. Lee slowed the Union push toward Richmond during the Wilderness Campaign (May-June 1864), but Grant then shifted the bulk of his army to Petersburg where Lee’s intricate fortifications helped the city hold out for 9 months.
Both Petersburg and Richmond fell to Union forces and Lee hurried westward in a hopeless effort to link up with the remnants of another Confederate army. He failed to do so and surrendered to Grant on April 9, 1865.
In his post-war years, Lee supported his family by serving as the president of Washington College (later Washington and Lee) in Lexington, Virginia. Although never enjoying good health, Lee was adept as an educator. He was careful with finances and was an inspiration to the students, many of whom were Confederate veterans. Lee applied for amnesty, but was denied by Andrew Johnson. His citizenship was restored by an act of Congress in 1975.
Robert E. Lee has been one of the most revered figures in the history of the American South, admired equally for his character and his military prowess. Lee deserves the credit for keeping an undermanned, resource-starved war effort under way for four years. Several recent historians have been critical of Lee, however, for his lack of an overall strategy for the war and for his inability to influence his subordinates.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by Robert E. Lee.
Regarding Slavery in America
So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this, as regards Virginia especially, that I would cheerfully have lost all I have lost by the war, and have suffered all I have suffered, to have this object attained.
Statement in 1870
Regarding Civil War
I have fought against the people of the North because I believed they were seeking to wrest from the South its dearest rights. But I have never cherished toward them bitter or vindictive feelings, and have never seen the day when I did not pray for them.
Quotes regarding Robert E. Lee.
By Winfield Scott
Lee is the greatest military genius in America, myself not excepted.
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