Robert E. Lee was a Confederate general who led the South’s attempt at secession during the Civil War. He challenged Union forces during the war’s bloodiest battles, including Antietam and Gettysburg, before surrendering to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in 1865 at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, marking the end of the devastating conflict that nearly split the United States.
Who Was Robert E. Lee?
Robert Edward Lee was born in Stratford Hall, a plantation in Virginia, on January 19, 1807, to a wealthy and socially prominent family. His mother, Anne Hill Carter, also grew up on a plantation and his father, Colonel Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, was descended from colonists and become a Revolutionary War leader and three-term governor of Virginia.
But the family hit hard times when Lee’s father made a series of bad investments that left him in debtors’ prison. He fled to the West Indies and died in 1818 while trying to return to Virginia when Lee was barely a teen.
With little money for his education, Lee went to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for a military education. He graduated second in his class in 1829—and the following month he would lose his mother.
Robert E. Lee's Children
After graduation, Lee’s military career quickly took off as he chose a position with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
A year later, he began courting a childhood connection, Mary Custis Washington. Given his father’s diminished reputation, Lee had to propose twice to win approval to wed Mary, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington and the step-great-granddaughter of President George Washington.
The pair married in 1831; Lee and his wife had seven children, including three sons, George, William and Robert, who followed him into the military to fight for the Confederate States during the Civil War.
As the couple were establishing their family, Lee frequently travelled with the military on engineering projects. He first distinguished himself in battle during the Mexican-American War under General Winfield Scott in the battles of Veracruz, Churubusco and Chapultepec. Scott once declared that Lee was “the very best soldier that I ever saw in the field.”
Was Robert E. Lee a Slave Owner?
Lee did not grow up on a large plantation, but his wife inherited an enslaved worker in 1857 from her father, George Washington Park Custis.
Lee executed his father-in-law's will, which included Arlington House near Washington, D.C., a poorly managed plantation with debts and nearly 200 enslaved people, whom Custis wanted freed within five years of his death.
As a result of his father-in-law, Lee became owner of hundreds of enslaved workers. While historical accounts vary, Lee’s treatment of the enslaved peoples was described as being so combative and harsh that it led to revolts.
Lee at Harpers Ferry
During the 1850s, tensions between the abolitionist movement and slave owners reached a boiling point, and the union of states was near a breaking point. Lee entered the fray by halting a raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859, capturing radical abolitionist John Brown and his followers.
The following year, Abraham Lincoln was elected president, prompting seven Southern states — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas — to secede in protest. U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis became the president of the Confederate States of America.
The first attack of the Civil War came on April 12, 1861, when Confederates took control of South Carolina’s Fort Sumter.
Lee’s home state of Virginia seceded less than a week later, creating the defining moment of his career. When he was asked to lead Union forces, he resigned from military service rather than fight against his Virginia friends and neighbors.
General Robert E. Lee
Lee wasn’t a secessionist, but he immediately joined the Confederates and was named general and commander of the South’s fight for secession.
Lee has been widely criticized for his aggressive strategies that led to mass casualties. In the Battle of Antietam, on September 17, 1862, Lee made his first attempt at invading the North in the bloodiest single day of the war.
The battles continued through the cold, harsh winter and into the summer of 1863, when Lee’s troops challenged Union forces in Pennsylvania during the three-day Battle of Gettysburg, which claimed 28,000 Confederate soldiers’ lives and 23,000 casualties on the Union side.
The war dragged on for two more years until a victory for Lee became impossible. With a dwindling army, Lee surrendered to Grant on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War.
At the start of the war, Lee and his family headed South, leaving Arlington House, but they did not reclaim their property.
The federal government seized the estate (now the site of Arlington National Cemetery) and used it for military graves for thousands of fallen Union soldiers, possibly to prevent Lee from ever returning home.
The Lee family residence is now managed by the National Park Service as Arlington House: the Robert E. Lee Memorial, and is open to the public for tours.
As a well-educated man with considerable social and military experience, Lee is known for many of his quotes regarding slavery, duty and military service, including:
- In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any country.
- Whiskey — I like it, I always did, and that is the reason I never use it.
- It is well that war is so terrible — lest we should grow too fond of it.
- So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interest of the South.
- I cannot trust a man to control others who cannot control himself.
- The education of a man is never completed until he dies.
- Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more, you should never wish to do less.
Robert E. Lee Day
In August of 1865, soon after the end of the war, Lee was invited to serve as president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University), where he and his family are buried.
Since his death at age 63 on October 12, 1870, following a stroke, he has retained a place of distinction in most Southern states.
Lee’s January 19 birthday is observed (to varying degrees) on the third Monday in January as Robert E. Lee Day, an official state holiday in Mississippi and Alabama, and on January 19 in Florida and Tennessee.
Robert E. Lee Statues
The Confederate general remains one of the most divisive figures in American history.
Statues and other memorials built in his honor have become flashpoints in cities such as New Orleans, Louisiana, Baltimore, Maryland and Dallas, Texas. Many Robert. E. Lee statues have been removed, but Virginia’s 2017 decision to take one down sparked a violent protest that turned deadly in Charlottesville.
While Lee did not support secession, he never defended the rights of enslaved peoples. Instead, he led the Confederates as they attempted to dissolve the United States that his own father helped create.
Robert E. Lee. PBS American Experience.
Arlington House. Arlington National Cemetery.
Robert E. Lee. Washington & Lee University.
Robert E. Lee. Stratford Hall.
The Civil War. American Battlefield Trust.
Robert E. Lee Quotes. Son of the South.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.