Article abstract: Perhaps the finest army tactician of his generation, Lee, by his brilliant command of the Army of Northern Virginia, prolonged the life of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Last in the long line of the famous Lees of Virginia and fifth of seven children, Robert Edward Lee was born at the family estate of Stratford. His father, Colonel Henry “Light Horse” Harry Lee, had served with distinction as a cavalryman in the Revolutionary War and later as governor of Virginia, although he was financially insecure. His mother, Anne Hill Carter Lee, belonged to another aristocratic Virginia family. The family moved to Alexandria in Robert’s fourth year, and he attended the local schools there. Because of the long absences and then the death of his father, Robert gradually took over the major care of his invalid mother. This intimate relationship shaped young Lee’s character as one of quiet dignity, high moral integrity, and personal strength.
Desiring to emulate his father and to obtain a free education, Lee attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he performed as an outstanding cadet and was graduated second in a class of forty-six in 1829. Entering the engineer corps, he built and maintained coastal fortifications and river works. In June, 1831, he married his childhood friend Mary Anne Randolph Custis, the great-grandaughter of the wife of George Washington, at the opulent Custis estate at Arlington. Their marriage strengthened Lee’s deep roots in his native state, though his devotion to his country enabled him to resist the temptation to settle down to the life of a country squire at Arlington, which he managed even while posted elsewhere, and where his seven children were reared. He ably performed the mundane tasks of a peacetime army engineer and held the rank of captain at the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846.
Lee’s genius as a field officer emerged during the Mexican War and placed him in the public eye. He received the brevet rank of major for his performance as a staff officer in the early campaigns, after which he transferred to the staff of General Winfield Scott for the major invasion of central Mexico. Lee contributed materially to the capture of Vera Cruz in April, 1847; through his ability and bravery in placing artillery and reconnoitering in several battles, he was promoted to brevet lieutenant colonel. After the attack on Chapultepec, in which he was wounded, he became brevet colonel.
Soon, however, Lee returned to routine duties, constructing fortifications near Baltimore and then, during 1852-1855, improving the course of study at West Point as superintendent. His reward was a transfer out of engineering to the Second Cavalry Regiment, with the rank of lieutenant colonel, policing the Indians in west Texas. In July, 1857, he assumed the colonelcy of the regiment. Home on leave during the fall of 1859, Lee was ordered to subdue John Brown’s force, which had occupied the armory at Harpers Ferry (then part of Virginia) in Brown’s stillborn attempt to incite a slave uprising in the South. After accomplishing the task, Lee returned to his regiment and, in 1860, assumed command of the Department of Texas.
A mild-mannered, even gentle officer with an excellent physique and devoted to the army and the flag, Lee dutifully obeyed his orders to return to Washington upon the secession of Texas from the Union in February, 1861. The next month, he was made colonel of the First Cavalry. By any measure the most able officer in the army, he was the logical choice to command the forces necessary to subdue the Southern rebellion, a command offered him by the Lincoln Administration upon the outbreak of the Civil War in mid-April, 1861. Following the secession of Virginia and considerable soulsearching, however, Lee decided that his loyalty rested with his home state, whereupon he resigned his commission on April 23. He was given command of the Virginia militia and was soon appointed brigadier general in the new Confederate Army. Within months, his normal dark hair and mustache would be replaced by a full beard and hair completely grayed, the result no doubt of his awesome responsibilities.
Promoted to the full rank of general during the summer, one of five initially appointed, Lee first advised President Jefferson Davis in organizing the Confederate Army. He took command of the forces attempting to hold West Virginia in the Confederacy in August, but was soundly defeated the next month at Cheat Mountain. Early in November, he assumed command of the coastal defenses of South Carolina, Georgia, and eastern Florida. Shortages of troops there led him to establish an in-depth defense against potential Union naval and amphibious penetrations. His strategy was faulty, however, because the Union had no intention of invading the interior in that quarter and instead attacked and successfully occupied key coastal positions merely for use as blockading stations for the navy.
Lee was recalled early in March, 1862, to help Davis organize the defenses of Richmond against the advance of General George B. McClellan’s army in the Peninsular Campaign. When the commander of the defending army, General Joseph E. Johnston, was wounded at Fair Oaks, Lee was given command on June 1, and he quickly reorganized his forces into the Army of Northern Virginia, a name he created. He masterfully countered McClellan’s forces in the Seven Days’ Battles, concluded on July 1, then swung north to defeat the army of...
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