Lee was born in Stratford Hall, near Montross, Virginia, on January 19, 1807. He grew up with a great love of all country life and his state. This stayed with him for the rest of his life. He was a very serious boy and spent many hours in his father’s library.
He loved to play with some his friends, swim, and he loved to hunt. Lee looked up to his father and always wanted to know what he was doing. George Washington and his father, “Light-Horse Harry Lee,” were his heroes. He wanted to be just like his father when he grew up. In the 1820’s, the entrance requirements for West Point were not close to as strict as they are now. It still was not that easy to become a cadet.
Robert Lee entered the United States Military Academy at West Point where his classmates admired him for his brilliance, leadership, and his love for his work. He graduated from the academy with high honors in 1829, and he was ranked as a second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers at the age of 21.Unlike many Southerners, Lee did not believe in slavery and did not favor secession. He felt that slavery had an evil effect on masters as well as slaves. Long before the war, he had freed the few slaves whom he had inherited.
Lee greatly admired George Washington, and hated the thought of a divided nation. But he came to feel that his state was protecting the very liberty, freedom, and legal principles for which Washington had fought. He was willing to leave the union, as Washington had left the British Empire, to fight what the South called a second war of independence.
Lee had great difficulty in deciding whether to stand by his native state or remain with the Union, even though Lincoln offered him the field command of the United States Army. He wrote his sister, “…
in my own person 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 had 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 upon to draw my sword.”4 Lee grieved at parting from the friends whom he had served with in other wars. The break with General Scott was especially hard because they were two very close friends. For a time after Lee joined the Confederate Army, he had no troops under his command.
He served in Richmond, Virginia, as military adviser to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and in May 1861, was appointed a full general. In the fall, he succeeded in halting a threatened invasion from western Virginia. Later, he took charge of protecting the coast of South Carolina against invasion. When Lee returned to Richmond, in 1862, he helped draw up plans for the Confederate forces in Virginia, then under the command of General Joseph E.
Johnston. Johnston was wounded on May 31, 1862, in the Battle of Fair Oaks (Seven Pines). The next day, Lee took command of Johnston’s army, which he called the Army of Northern Virginia.5From his first day of command, Lee faced what looked like an impossible task.
Union General George B. McClellan had approached within 7 miles of Richmond with 100,000 men. Three forces were closing in on the Confederate troops of General Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. A fourth Union force was camped on the Rappahannock River, ready to aid McClellan. In the series of engagements, known as the Battle of the Seven Days, Lee forced McClellan to retreat. This campaign taught Lee the need for simpler methods and organization.
Jackson had earlier conducted a brilliant campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, and became Lee’s most trusted subordinate. Jackson was so devoted to Lee that he said he would follow him into a battle blindfolded. With Jackson’s help, Lee won a major victory over General John Pope in the second Battle of Bull Run, in August, 1862.
He was then free to invade Maryland. Unfortunately, McClellan intercepted a battle order which a Confederate staff officer had carelessly lost. Knowing Lee’s plan in advance, McClellan halted him in the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg). Lee returned to Virginia to reorganize his army.General Ambrose E. Burnside led an attack against Lee in December, 1862, at Fredericksburg, Virginia. It was on this occasion that Lee made a statement that has since become very famous.
Fog covered the battlefield early in the morning before the battle began. As it lifted and the Confederate command saw thousands of troops, Lee remarked, “It is well that war is so terrible- we would grow too fond of it.”6Lee’s troops badly defeated the Union forces.
Lee could not take advantage of his victory. The Northern troops had been too cleverly placed, and could fall back without breaking any of their lines of communication. The Confederates had few reserves of men and supplies. Lee felt that his army could not win the war by fighting defensively, and that it was too costly simply to hold the enemy without destroying it. First he had to fight another defensive battle. General Joseph Hooker, who had taken over from Burnside, attacked Lee at Chancellorsville in the Spring of 1863.
The Confederate forces won a great victory, but they paid a horrible price for it. Stonewall Jackson died there. He was accidentally shot by his own men when he went ahead of his line of battle to scout.
Determined to take the offense, Lee moved into Pennsylvania and encountered the Northern army which was now under General George G. Meade, at Gettysburg. Hard fighting continued for three days, from July 1-3, 1863. The Confederates met their defeat in what proved to be a turning point of the war. Always generous to those under him, Lee insisted on taking the blame for the failure of the campaign.In the Spring of 1864, Lee first faced General Ulysses S.
Grant. In a series of fierce and very bloody battles called the Wilderness Campaign, Grant pounded the army of northern Virginia to pieces with this larger army and guns. Lee held out for nine months in the siege of Petersburg, but his tired hungry men finally had to retreat. Early in 1865, Lee was made general in chief of all the Confederate armies.
Richmond fell in April, 1865, and Lee’s ragged army retreated westward. Northern forces cut off and surrounded Lee’s troops at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, where Lee surrendered to Grant, on April 9, 1865. Grant tried to make the surrender as easy as possible, and allowed the Confederate troops to take their horses home for Spring plowing. As Lee made his last ride down the lines on his famous horse Traveler, he told his army, “Men, we have fought through the war together. I have done my best for you; my heart is too full to say more.”7 Lee’s defeat at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, marked the end of his brilliant military career.Bibliography: