Robert E. Lee

For the author of Inherit the Wind and other works, see Robert Edwin Lee.
Robert Edward Lee, as a U.S. Army Colonel before the war
Robert Edward Lee, as a U.S. Army Colonel before the war

Robert Edward Lee (January 19, 1807October 12, 1870) was a career army officer and the most successful general of the Confederate forces during the American Civil War. He eventually commanded all Confederate armies as general-in-chief. Like Hannibal earlier and Rommel later, his victories against superior forces in an ultimately losing cause won him enduring fame. Lee remains an iconic figure of the Confederacy to this day.


Early life and career

Lee was born at Stratford Hall Plantation, in Westmoreland County, Virginia, the fourth child of Revolutionary War hero Henry Lee ("Lighthorse Harry") and Anne Hill (Carter) Lee. He entered the United States Military Academy in 1825. When he graduated (second in his class of 46) in 1829 he had not only attained the top academic record but was the first cadet (and so far the only) to graduate the Academy without a single demerit. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers.

Lee served for seventeen months at Fort Pulaski on Cockspur Island, Georgia. In 1831, he was transferred to Fort Monroe, Virginia, as assistant engineer. While he was stationed there, he married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. They lived in the Custis mansion, located on the banks of the Potomac River in Arlington, just across from Washington, D.C.. They eventually had three sons and four daughters: George Washington Custis, William H. Fitzhugh, Robert Edward, Mary, Agnes, Annie, and Mildred.


Lee served as an assistant in the chief engineer's office in Washington from 1834 to 1837, but spent the summer of 1835 helping to lay out the state line between Ohio and Michigan. In 1837, he got his first important command. As a first lieutenant of engineers, he supervised the engineering work for St. Louis harbor and for the upper Mississippi and Missouri rivers. His work there earned him a promotion to captain. In 1841, he was transferred to Fort Hamilton in New York Harbor, where he took charge of building fortifications.

Mexican War, West Point, and Texas

Lee distinguished himself in the Mexican War (18461848). He was one of Winfield Scott's chief aides in the march from Veracruz to Mexico City. He was instrumental in several American victories through his personal reconnaissance as a staff officer; he found routes of attack that the Mexicans had not defended because they thought the terrain was impassable.

He was promoted to major after the Battle of Cerro Gordo in April, 1847. He also fought at Contreras, Churubusco, and Chapultepec, and was wounded at the latter. By the end of the war he had been promoted to lieutenant colonel.

After the Mexican War, he spent three years at Fort Carrol in Baltimore harbor, after which he became the superintendent of West Point in 1852. During his three years at West Point, he improved the buildings, the courses, and spent a lot of time with the cadets. Lee's oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, attended West Point during his tenure. Custis Lee graduated in 1854, first in his class.

In 1855, Lee became Lieutenant Colonel of the Second Cavalry and was sent to the Texas frontier. There he helped protect settlers from attacks by the Apache and the Comanche.

These were not happy years for Lee as he did not like to be away from his family for long periods of time, especially as his wife was becoming increasingly ill. Lee came home to see her as often as he could.

He happened to be in Washington at the time of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1859, and was sent there to arrest Brown and to restore order. He did this very quickly and then returned to his regiment in Texas. When Texas seceded from the Union in 1861, Lee was called to Washington, DC to wait for further orders.

Custis's Slaves

As a member of the Virginia aristocracy, Lee had lived in close contact with slavery all of his life, but he never held more than about a half-dozen slaves under his own name — in fact, it was not positively known that he had held any slaves at all under his own name until the rediscovery of his 1846 will in the records of Rockbridge County, Virginia, which referred to an enslaved woman named Nancy and her children, and provided for their manumission in case of his death. [1] (

However, when Lee's father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, died in October 1857, Lee came into a considerable amount of property through his life, and also gained temporary control of a large population of slaves — sixty-three men, women, and children, in all — as the executor of Custis's will. Under the terms of the will, ( the slaves were to be freed, with the executors given five years to arrange the necessary legal processes for manumission:

And upon the legacies to my four granddaughters being paid, and my estates that are required to pay the said legacies, being clear of debts, then I give freedom to my slaves, the said slaves to be emancipated by my executors in such manner as to my executors may seem most expedient and proper, the said emancipation to be accomplished in not exceeding five years from the time of my decease.

Custis's will was probated on December 7, 1857. Although Robert Lee Randolph, Right Reverend William Meade, and George Washington Peter were named as executors along with Robert E. Lee, the other three men failed to qualify, leaving Lee with the sole responsibility of settling the estate, and with exclusive control over all of Custis's former slaves. Although the will provided for the slaves to be emancipated "in such a manner as to my executors may seem most expedient and proper", Lee found himself in need of funds, and decided to make money by hiring out the slaves to neighboring plantations and eastern Virginia during the five years that the will had granted him control of them. The decision caused dissatisfaction among Custis's slaves, who had been given to understand that they were to be made free as soon as Custis died. In 1859, a few of his slaves decided to leave and fled for the North; an 1859 letter to the New York Tribune records that they were captured a few miles from the Pennsylvania border and returned to Lee, who had them whipped and returned to his Arlington plantation, after which he hired them out in the area surrounding Richmond. The three slaves turned out to be a man named Wesley Norris, his sister Mary, and a cousin of theirs; in 1866, Norris recounted the incident in an interview:

My name is Wesley Norris; I was born a slave on the plantation of George Parke Custis; after the death of Mr. Custis, Gen. Lee, who had been made executor of the estate, assumed control of the slaves, in number about seventy; it was the general impression among the slaves of Mr. Custis that on his death they should be forever free; in fact this statement had been made to them by Mr. C. years before; at his death we were informed by Gen. Lee that by the conditions of the will we must remain slaves for five years; I remained with Gen. Lee for about seventeen months, when my sister Mary, a cousin of ours, and I determined to run away, which we did in the year 1859; we had already reached Westminster, in Maryland, on our way to the North, when we were apprehended and thrown into prison, and Gen. Lee notified of our arrest; we remained in prison fifteen days, when we were sent back to Arlington; we were immediately taken before Gen. Lee, who demanded the reason why we ran away; we frankly told him that we considered ourselves free; he then told us he would teach us a lesson we never would forget; he then ordered us to the barn, where, in his presence, we were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty; we were accordingly stripped to the skin by the overseer, who, however, had sufficient humanity to decline whipping us; accordingly Dick Williams, a county constable, was called in, who gave us the number of lashes ordered; Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams to “lay it on well,” an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done. After this my cousin and myself were sent to Hanover. —Wesley Norris, interviewed 1866; reprinted in John W. Blassingame (ed.): Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, and Interviews, and Autobiographies. ISBN 0-8071-0273-3

Lee released Custis's slaves at the end of the five year period in the winter of 1862, and had the deed of manumission recorded at the court in Richmond, where it was acknowledged by the judge on December 29, 1862—five years, two months, and nineteen days after Custis's death.

Civil War

On April 18, 1861, on the eve of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, through Secretary of War Simon Cameron, offered Lee command of the United States Army (Union Army) through an intermediary, Maryland Republican politician Francis P. Blair, at the home of Blair's son Montgomery, Lincoln's Postmaster-General, in Washington. Lee's sentiments were against secession, which he denounced in an 1861 letter as "nothing but revolution" and a betrayal of the efforts of the Founders. However his loyalty to his native Virginia led him to join the Confederacy.

At the outbreak of war he was appointed to command all of Virginia's forces, and then as one of the first five full generals of Confederate forces. Lee, however, refused to wear the insignia of a Confederate General stating that, in honor to his rank of Colonel in the United States Army, he would only display the three stars of a Confederate Colonel until the Civil War had been won and Lee could be promoted, in peacetime, to a General in the Confederate Army.

After commanding Confederate forces in western Virginia, and then in charge of coastal defenses along the Carolina seaboards, he became military adviser to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, whom he knew from West Point.

Commander, Army of Northern Virginia

Following the wounding of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston at the Battle of Seven Pines, on June 1, 1862, Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia, his first opportunity to lead an army in the field. He soon launched a series of attacks, the Seven Days Battles, against General George B. McClellan's Union forces threatening Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. Lee's attacks resulted in heavy Confederate casualties and they were marred by clumsy tactical performances by his subordinates, but his aggressive actions unnerved McClellan. After McClellan's retreat, Lee defeated another Union army at the Second Battle of Bull Run. He then invaded Maryland, hoping to replenish his supplies and possibly influence the Northern elections that fall in favor of ending the war. McClellan obtained a lost order that revealed Lee's plans and brought superior forces to bear at Antietam before Lee's army could be assembled. In the bloodiest day of the war, Lee withstood the Union assaults, but withdrew his battered army back to Virginia.

Lee mounted on
Lee mounted on Traveller

Disappointed by McClellan's failure to destroy Lee's army, Lincoln named Ambrose Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside ordered an attack across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg. Delays in getting bridges built across the river allowed Lee's army ample time to organize strong defenses, and the attack on December 12, 1862, was a disaster for the Union. Lincoln then named Joseph Hooker commander of the Army of the Potomac. Hooker's advance to attack Lee in May, 1863, near Chancellorsville, Virginia, was defeated by Lee and Stonewall Jackson's daring plan to divide the army and attack Hooker's flank. It was an enormous victory over a larger force, but came at a great cost as Jackson, Lee's best subordinate, was mortally wounded.

In the summer of 1863, Lee proceeded to invade the North again, hoping for a Southern victory that would compel the North to grant Confederate independence. But his attempts to defeat the Union forces under George G. Meade at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, failed. His subordinates did not attack with the aggressive drive Lee expected, J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry was out of the area, and Lee's decision to launch a massive frontal assault on the center of the Union line—the disastrous Pickett's Charge—resulted in heavy losses. Lee was compelled to retreat again but, as after Antietam, was not vigorously pursued. Following his defeat at Gettysburg, Lee sent a letter of resignation to Confederate President Jefferson Davis on August 8, 1863, but Davis refused Lee's request.

In 1864, the new Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant sought to destroy Lee's army and capture Richmond. Lee and his men stopped each advance, but Grant had superior reinforcements and kept pushing each time a bit further to the southeast. These battles in the Overland Campaign included the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor. Grant eventually fooled Lee by stealthily moving his army across the James River. After stopping a Union attempt to capture Petersburg, Virginia, a vital railroad link supplying Richmond, Lee's men built elaborate trenches and were besieged in Petersburg. He attempted to break the stalemate by sending Jubal A. Early on a raid through the Shenandoah Valley to Washington, D.C., but Early was defeated by the superior forces of Philip Sheridan. The Siege of Petersburg would last from June 1864 until April, 1865.


Missing image
Lee with son Custis (left) and Walter H. Taylor (right).

On January 31, 1865, Lee was promoted to be general-in-chief of Confederate forces. In early 1865, he urged adoption of a scheme to allow slaves to join the Confederate army in exchange for their freedom. The scheme never came to fruition in the short time the Confederacy had left before it ceased to exist.

As the Confederate army was worn down by months of battle, a Union attempt to capture Petersburg on April 2, 1865, succeeded. Lee abandoned the defense of Richmond and sought to join General Joseph Johnston's army in North Carolina. His forces were surrounded by the Union army and he surrendered to General Grant on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Lee resisted calls by some subordinates (and indirectly by Jefferson Davis) to reject surrender and allow small units to melt away into the mountains, setting up a lengthy guerrilla war.

After the War

Missing image
Lee after the Civil War

Following the war, Lee applied for, but was never granted, the official postwar amnesty. After filling out the application form, it was delivered to the desk of Secretary of State William H. Seward, who, assuming that the matter had been dealt with by someone else and that this was just a personal copy, filed it away until it was found decades later in his desk drawer. Lee took the lack of response either way to mean that the government wished to retain the right to prosecute him in the future.

Lee's example of applying for amnesty was an encouragement to many other former members of the Confederacy's armed forces to accept being citizens of the United States once again. In 1975, President Gerald Ford granted a posthumous pardon and the U.S. Congress restored his citizenship, following the discovery of his oath of allegiance by an employee of the National Archives in 1970.

Lee and his wife had lived at his wife's family home prior to the Civil War, the Custis-Lee Mansion. It was confiscated by Union forces, and is today part of Arlington National Cemetery. After his death, the courts ruled that the estate had been illegally seized, and that it should be returned to Lee's son. The government offered to buy the land outright, to which he agreed.

He served as president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia, from October 2, 1865. Over five years he transformed Washington College from a small, undistinguished school into one of the first American colleges to offer courses in business, journalism, and Spanish. He incorporated law into the academic curriculum -- at the time an odd concept, because law was seen as a technical rather than intellectual profession. He also imposed a sweeping and breathtakingly simple concept of honor — "We have but one rule, and it is that every student is a gentleman" — that endures today at Washington and Lee and at a few other schools that continue to maintain absolutist "honor systems."

Final illness and death

On the evening of September 28, 1870, Lee fell ill, unable to speak coherently. When his medical doctors were called, the most they could do was help put him to bed and hope for the best. Although not diagnosed by his doctors, it is almost certain that Lee suffered a stroke. In his last few years, he had complained about chest pain (probably angina pectoris) and often complained about pain in his right arm, which he said often felt numb. Likely he was developing arteriosclerosis or a type of cardiovascular disorder, and it would gradually weaken him the rest of his life. In his last year of his life, an aged and weak Lee confided to friends that he felt like he could die any moment. The stroke damaged the frontal lobes of the brain, which made speech impossible, and made him unable to cough or expectorate, which would prove a fatal problem. He was force-fed food and liquids to build up his strength, but some of these liquids found their way into his lungs, and pneumonia developed. With no ability to cough, Lee died from the effects of pneumonia (not from the stroke itself). He died two weeks after the stroke on the morning of October 12, 1870, in Lexington, Virginia, and was buried underneath the chapel at Washington and Lee University.


  • Traveller, Lee's favorite horse, accompanied Lee to Washington College after the war. He lost many hairs from his tail to admirers who wanted a souvenir of the famous horse and his general. In 1870, when Lee died, Traveller was led behind the General's hearse. Not long after Lee's death, Traveller stepped on a rusty nail and developed lockjaw. There was no cure, and he was euthanized to relieve his suffering. He was buried next to the Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University. In 1907 his remains were disinterred and displayed at the Chapel, before being reburied outside the Lee Chapel in 1971.
  • Despite his presidential pardon by Gerald Ford, Lee's portrayal on a mural on Richmond's Flood Wall on the James River was offensive to some, including African Americans, and was removed in the 1990s in the interest of racial harmony.

External links


de:Robert Edward Lee fr:Robert Lee hr:Robert Edward Lee nl:Robert E. Lee sl:Robert Edward Lee sv:Robert E. Lee zh-cn:罗伯特·爱德华·李


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