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...
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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 General John Pope at the Second Battle of Bull Run in late August. Crossing the Potomac, Lee attempted to gain the support of Marylanders but was stopped by McClellan in the Antientam campaign in September. He concluded the year by repulsing the bloody Union assaults on his well-placed army at Fredericksburg in December.
Lee’s true genius in tactics lay in erecting field fortifications and in his remarkable ability to operate from the interior position—that is, to shift his forces between different points in his lines that were threatened by the larger numbers of the opposing Union armies. This tactic was best demonstrated in his stunning victory at Chancellorsville in May, 1863, when his army was half the size of that of the enemy. His greatest gamble occurred when he invaded Pennsylvania a month later. Frustrated from trying to turn the Union flanks at Gettysburg in July, he tried a frontal assault—“Pickett’s charge”—that was virtually annihilated by the Army of the Potomac under General George G. Meade. As a result of this defeat, Lee was thereafter confined to the strategic defensive.
Lee fought a steadily losing battle against the vastly greater numbers and better-equipped troops of General Ulysses S. Grant’s armies in the Wilderness Campaign during the spring of 1864. Lee’s men, inspired largely by his towering leadership, stopped every bloody assault, but Lee was obliged to retreat each time, lest the larger Union forces turn his flank and cut him off from Richmond. As a result, Lee withdrew into the defenses of that city and adjacent Petersburg, to withstand what turned out to be a nine-month-long siege. Near its end, in February, 1865, he was finally made general in chief of all Confederate armies. It was, by this time, too late. He placed Johnston in command of the only other remaining major army, in the Carolinas, then, in April, attempted to escape a fresh Union offensive at Petersburg to link up with Johnston. Grant cut him off at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, where Lee surrendered on April 9, effectively ending the Civil War. His three sons were with him, two of them major generals, one a captain.
Having lost his home at Arlington, which became the national cemetery, Lee assumed the presidency of Washington College at Lexington, Virginia, in October, 1865. For the next five years, in weakened health, he served effectively not only as a college administrator but also as a quiet symbol of reunion and restoration, burying the passions of the wartime bitterness and thereby setting an example for the defeated South. Following his death, the college was renamed Washington and Lee in his honor.
Robert E. Lee became a legend in his own time, first to the embattled peoples of the South and, eventually, to the nation at large. He symbolized the plain fact that, rather than treason, the cause of the Confederacy had represented the playing out of the final contradiction of the American nation. North and South, geographically, economically, and socially distinct, could no longer coexist within the fabric of the Constitution. The Southern plantation aristocracy, agrarian and founded upon slavery, had become an anachronism in the modern, industrialized Western world. Its ultimate survival could be obtained only by arms, in which contest Lee had been the supreme champion. His stately character, bearing, and professionalism represented the ideal of Southern society. Though he had opposed slavery, secession, and even war as a final political solution, like so many of his generation, he had had to make the tragic, fateful decision to stand by his neighbors in defense of the only way of life they knew. In defeat, he accepted the course of history without rancor.
The contrast between Lee’s conduct and that of his Union counterparts reflected the great shift in social values marked by the Civil War. He ordered his troops to abstain from plundering civilian property, failing to understand—unlike Grant, William T. Sherman, and Philip H. Sheridan—that the modern war which they were all waging was a harbinger of a new age of mass conflict, aimed at breaking civilian resistance with the use of modern industrialized machine weapons, thus destroying the very socioeconomic institutions of an enemy. No better example of the adage that the Civil War was the last great war between gentlemen could be found than in the person of Robert E. Lee himself, the perfect gentleman of the long-past Age of Reason that had spawned his noble family.
His achievements on the field of battle, however, established Lee as one of the greatest army commanders in history. Not merely an inspiring leader, he made correct, informed judgments about his enemy, then struck decisively. As a theater strategist defending his beloved Virginia, he became a master of the mobile feint, thanks largely to several able lieutenants. Stonewall Jackson’s fast-moving so-called foot cavalry thrust into the Shenandoah Valley to draw away troops from McClellan during the Peninsular Campaign. J. E. B. Stuart’s cavalry rode circles around the Union armies in every campaign. Yet both these men were killed, in 1863 and 1864, respectively. Jubal A. Early’s drive up the valley the latter year might have succeeded but for the determined riposte of Grant and Sheridan. In grand strategy, however, Lee was not adept, having misjudged Union intentions along the South Atlantic coast early in the war and never having the authority to mastermind Confederate fortunes until near the end of the struggle. Nor did he attempt to influence Davis beyond the Virginia theater.
Still, had Lee not been outnumbered most of the time, one can only conjecture what might have been the outcome of the war: As a tactician, he had no match in the Union army. The fatal flaw lay in the nature of the Confederacy itself, a politically loose grouping of rebelling states, devoid of effective central leadership. After Gettysburg, observed one of Lee’s generals on the eve of Appomattox, the men had been fighting simply for him.
Connelly, Thomas L. The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977. An excellent interpretative analysis of Lee’s reputation as a Southern and national hero during and since the Civil War.
Dowdey, Clifford. Lee. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1965. The best one-volume treatment of Lee’s career, adding new materials and interpretations of Lee’s performance at Gettysburg.
Flood, Charles Bracelen. Lee: The Last Years. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1981. The best analysis of Lee’s actions and achievements during the last five years of his life, including his reactions to the late war.
Freeman, Douglas Southall. Lee’s Lieutenants. 3 vols. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1942-1944. A masterwork of Lee’s subordinate commanders, revealing his inability to disagree with them, notably James Longstreet.
Freeman, Douglas Southall. R. E. Lee. 4 vols. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934-1935. The definitive biography, which dissects Lee’s career with such detail and careful interpretation as to become the standard work for all students of Lee.
Johnson, Robert Underwood, and Clarence Clough Buel, eds. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. 4 vols. New York: Century Co., 1887. The most comprehensive and reliable source of reminiscences of key Civil War leaders, including many of Lee’s subordinates and opponents, with complete lists of the opposing armies and navies, down to the regimental and ship level. Excellent maps and illustrations.
Lee, Robert E. Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee by His Son Capt. Robert E. Lee. 2d ed. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, Page, and Co., 1924. An invaluable memoir, especially useful for insights into Lee’s family relationships.
Lee, Robert E.. The Wartime Papers of R. E. Lee. Edited by Clifford Dowdey and Louis Manarin. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1961. Primary source material drawn from official records and private sources which offer insights into Lee’s character and abilities as a commander.
Long, Armistead L. Memoirs of Robert E. Lee. New York: J. M. Stoddard and Co., 1886. Perhaps the best of many postwar reminiscences by officers under Lee’s command, Long having served on his staff and as a commander of artillery.
Sanborn, Margaret. Robert E. Lee. 2 vols. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1966-1967. A sound popular history based on the usual abundant primary and secondary sources.