Robert Edward Lee was born in Virginia, the fifth child of Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee (1756-1818) of Revolutionary War fame, by his second wife. In 1829 he was graduated second in his class at West Point without having incurred a single demerit in his four years there. Commissioned in the Corps of Engineers, he served as a captain under General Winfield Scott in the Mexican War, in which he distinguished himself in the battles of Veracruz, Churubusco, and Chapultepec. He was slightly wounded in that war and earned three brevets to colonel. General Scott declared him to be “the very best soldier that I ever saw in the field.”
In 1852 he was appointed superintendent of West Point. Three years later, with the approval of Jefferson Davis, then secretary of war, he transferred as a lieutenant colonel to the newly raised Second Cavalry and served in West Texas.
Although John Brown’s raid on the U.S. Arsenal and Armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), in October 1859 occurred while Lee was at his home on extended leave in Arlington, Virginia, he was placed in command of a detachment of marines and, with Second Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart, captured Brown and his band.
On April 20, 1861, at the outbreak of the American Civil War, he resigned his commission and three days later was appointed by Governor John Letcher of Virginia to be commander in chief of the military and naval forces of the state. When Virginia’s troops were transferred to the Confederate service, he became, on May 14, 1861, a brigadier general, the highest rank then authorized. Soon after he was promoted to full general.
Lee’s first field command was in the western part of the state, where he failed to hold back invading Union forces in an area of strong pro-Union sentiment. He was recalled to Richmond, and from March 1862 he was military adviser to President Davis. From this position he was able to influence some operations, notably those of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in his Shenandoah Valley campaign.
When General Joseph E. Johnston was wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31, Lee took command of what became the Army of Northern Virginia. He successfully repulsed the efforts of Union general George McClellan in the Peninsular campaign, concluding with the Battles of Seven Days: Oak Grove, Mechanicsville, Gaine’s Mill, Garnett’s and Golding’s Farms, Savage’s Station and Allen’s Farm, White Oak Swamp, and Malvern Hill. Victories were won through Lee’s aggressiveness and daring in the face of McClellan’s timidity rather than by any comprehensive generalship on Lee’s part, for he was unable to exercise control over his subordinate commanders, and the individual battles could be considered tactical defeats.
On August 29-30, he defeated General John Pope in the second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), but when he invaded Maryland he was checked on September 17 by Union forces under McClellan at Antietam. Here, even after the bloodiest day of the entire war, Lee held on and was willing to fight on the same field another day. On December 13, he defeated General Ambrose Burnside at Fredericksburg, and it was here that he made the remark to General James Longstreet that many of his admirers have tried to explain away: “It is well war is so terrible–we would grow too fond of it.” Lee loved fighting a war.
Lee’s most brilliantly fought battle was the defeat of Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville on May 1-4, 1863. It is one of the most elemental rules of generalship, indeed one might feel it elemental common sense, that the general of a numerically inferior force refrain from dividing that force in the face of his enemy. Yet Lee had done that just before Antietam, detaching Jackson to capture Harpers Ferry; at Chancellorsville he did it not merely once, leaving part of his army at Fredericksburg, but twice, for he detached Jackson with the larger portion of his remaining force to come in on the Union right flank while he stood with only two divisions in front of the massive federal army. Such actions seemed so unthinkable to Hooker that he could not take it in. He paused to think about it, and his pause was fatal. The courteous, calm Lee was daring to the point of rashness.
Again invading the North, he was once more checked, this time at Gettysburg, where his haste in insisting on what became known as Pickett’s Charge, a massed infantry assault across a wide plain, cost the South dearly. The rifle, which had largely replaced the musket in the Union armies, had made such attacks hopeless. Lee failed to recognize the effect of improved weapons.
From the Battle of the Wilderness in May-June 1864 until the siege of Petersburg from July 1864 until April 1865, Lee fought what was essentially a rearguard action. In the winter of 1865, President Davis appointed Lee general in chief of the armies of the Confederate states. But by that time the Confederates had lost the war.
Lee has been charged with being too bloody-minded, of fighting on even when he must have known that his cause was lost. Viewed realistically, this was certainly true; but what the mind knows, the heart cannot always accept. Lee was not alone in failing to admit defeat in a cause to which he was emotionally attached. He fought to the bitter end, and that end came on April 9, 1865, when he surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia.
After the war he became president of Washington College (today, Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia. He applied to have his citizenship restored, but the application was mislaid. It was found in 1970 and granted. He died in Lexington of heart disease on October 12, 1870. His last words were said to have been: “Strike the tent.”
In the history of the world perhaps no general who failed so often has been so revered.
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.