The idol of the South to this day, Virginian Robert E. Lee had some difficulty in adjusting to the new form of warfare that unfolded with the Civil war, but this did not prevent him from keeping the Union armies in Virginia at bay for almost three years. The son of Revolutionary War hero “Light Horse” Harry Lee-who fell into disrepute in his later years attended West Point and graduated second in his class. During his four years at the military academy he did not earn a single demerit and served as the cadet corps’ adjutant. Upon his 1829 graduation he was posted to the engineers. Before the Mexican War he served on engineering projects in Georgia, Virginia, and New York. During the war he served on the staffs of John Wool and Winfield Scott. Particularly distinguishing himself scouting for and guiding troops, he won three brevets and was slightly wounded at Chapultepec.
Following a stint in Baltimore Harbor he became superintendent of the military academy in 1852. When the mounted arm was expanded in 1855, Lee accepted the lieutenant colonelcy of the 2nd Cavalry in order to escape from the painfully slow promotion in the engineers. Ordered to western Texas, he served with his regiment until the 1857 death of his father-in-law forced him to ask for a series of leaves to settle the estate.
Military & Civil War
In 1859 he was called upon to lead a force of marines, to join with the militia on the scene, to put an end to John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry Raid. Thereafter he served again in Texas until summoned to Washington in 1861 by Winfield Scott who tried to retain Lee in the U. S. service. But the Virginian rejected the command of the Union’s field forces on the day after Virginia seceded. He then accepted an invitation to visit Governor John Letcher in Virginia. His resignation as colonel, 1st Cavalry-to which he had recently been promoted-was accepted on April 25, 1861.
“With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have 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 on to draw my sword…..” Lee in a letter to his sister, April 20, 1861
In charge of Virginia’s fledgling military might, he was mainly involved in organizational matters. As a Confederate brigadier general, and later full general, he was in charge of supervising all Southern forces in Virginia. In the first summer of the war he was given his first field command in western Virginia. His Cheat Mountain Campaign was a disappointing fizzle largely due to the failings of his superiors. His entire tenure in the region was unpleasant, dealing with the bickering of his subordinates-William W. Loring, John B. Floyd, and Henry A. Wise. After this he became known throughout the South as “Granny Lee. ” His debut in field command had not been promising, but Jefferson Davis appointed him to command along the Southern Coast.
Early in 1862 he was recalled to Richmond and made an advisor to the president. From this position he had some influence over military operations, especially those of Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. When Joseph E. Johnston launched his attack at Seven Pines, Davis and Lee were taken by surprise and rode out to the field. In the confusion of the fight Johnston was badly wounded, and that night Davis instructed Lee to take command of what he renamed the Army of Northern Virginia. He fought the second day of the battle but the initiative had already been lost the previous day. Later in the month, in a daring move, he left a small force in front of Richmond and crossed the Chickahominy to strike the one Union corps north of the river. In what was to be called the Seven Days Battles the individual fights-Beaver Dam Creek, Gaines’ Mill, Savage Station, Glendale, White Oak Swamp, and Malvern Hill-were all tactical defeats for the Confederates. But Lee had achieved the strategic goal of removing McClellan’s army from the very gates of Richmond.
This created a new opinion of Lee in the South. He gradually became “Uncle Robert” and “Marse Robert.” With McClellan neutralized, a new threat developed under John Pope in northern Virginia. At first Lee detached Jackson and then followed with Longstreet’s command. Winning at 2nd Bull Run, he moved on into Maryland but suffered the misfortune of having a copy of his orders detailing the disposition of his divided forces fall into the hands of the enemy. McClellan moved with unusual speed and Lee was forced to fight a delaying action along South Mountain while waiting for Jackson to complete the capture of Harpers Ferry and rejoin him. He masterfully fought McClellan to a stand still at Antietam and two days later recrossed the Potomac.
Near the end of the year he won an easy victory over Burnside at Fredericksburg and then trounced Hooker in his most creditable victory at Chancellorsville, where he had detached Jackson with most of the army on a lengthy flank march while he remained with only two divisions in the immediate front of the Union army. Launching his second invasion of the North, he lost at Gettysburg. On the third day of the battle he displayed one of his major faults when at Malvern Hill and on other fields-he ordered a massed infantry assault across a wide plain, not recognizing that the rifle, which had come into use since the Mexican War, put the charging troops under fire for too long a period. Another problem was his issuance of general orders to be executed by his subordinates.
Returning to Virginia he commanded in the inconclusive Bristoe and Mine Run campaigns. From the Wilderness to Petersburg he fought a retiring campaign against Grant in which he made full use of entrenchments, becoming known as “Ace of Spades” Lee. Finally forced into a siege, he held on to Richmond and Petersburg for nearly 10 months before beginning his retreat to Appomattox, where he was forced to surrender. On January 23, 1865, he had been named as commander in chief of the Confederate armies but he found himself too burdened in Virginia to give more than general directives to the other theaters.
Following the War
Lee returned to Richmond as a paroled prisoner of war, and submitted with the utmost composure to an altered destiny. He devoted the rest of his life to setting an example of conduct for other thousands of ex-Confederates. He refused a number of offers which would have secured substantial means for his family. Instead, he assumed the presidency of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia, and his reputation revitalized the school after the war. Lee’s enormous wartime prestige, both in the North and South, and the devotion inspired by his unconscious symbolism of the “Lost Cause” made his a legendary figure even before his death. He died on October 12 1870, of heart disease which had plagued him since the spring of 1863, at Lexington, Va. and is buried there. Somehow, his application for restoration of citizenship was mislaid, and it was not until the 1970’s that it was found and granted.
- Major General, Virginia’s land and naval forces (April 23, 1861)
- Commanding Virginia forces (April 23 July 1861)
- Brigadier General, CSA (May 14, 1861)
- General, CSA (from June 14, 1861)
- Commanding Department of Northwestern Virginia (late July-October 1861)
- Commanding Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida (November 8, 186 1-March 3, 1862)
- Commanding Army of Northern Virginia (June 1, 1862-April 9, 1865)