Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee, the fourth son of Colonel Henry Lee and Ann Hill Carter, was born in Stratford, Virginia on 19th January, 1807. After graduating second in a class of 46 from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1829, he was commissioned into the Engineering Corps. He served under Winfield Scott in the US Army and saw action in the Mexican War (1846-48) where he won three brevets for gallantry.

Lee was appointed superintendent at West Point from 1852 to 1855 when he left to become lieutenant colonel in the 2nd Cavalry in Texas. In 1859 he led the company of U.S. Marines that captured John Brown at Harper's Ferry. in October, 1859.

In February, 1861 Winfield Scott recalled Lee to Washington and President Abraham Lincoln offered him the post of field commander of the Union Army. Lee declined the offer and although he opposed slavery and secession, he felt that his first loyalty was to Virginia and resigned his commission. He returned to the South and became military adviser to President Jefferson Davis. In July he was asked to organize the Confederate Army defending the South Atlantic coast.

President Jefferson Davis recalled Lee to Richmond in March, 1862. It was Lee's plan that was carried out by Thomas Stonewall Jackson that prevented reinforcements from reaching George McClellan and the Union Army, whose army was posing a serious threat to the capital of the Confederacy.

General Joseph E. Johnston was badly wounded at Fair Oaks Lee was given command of the Army of Northern Virginia. For the next two years, Lee with inferior numbers, frustrated attempts by the Union Army to capture Richmond.

In April, 1863, General Joseph Hooker, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, decided to attack Lee's army that had been entrenched on the south side of the Rappahonnock River since the battle of Fredericksburg. Hooker crossed the river and took up position at Chancellorsville.

Although outnumbered two to one, Lee opted to split his Confederate Army into two groups. Lee left 10,000 men under Jubal Early, while on 2nd May, he sent Thomas Stonewall Jackson to attacked the flank of Hooker's army. The attack was successful but after returning from the battlefield Jackson was accidentally shot by one of his own men. Jackson's left arm was successfully amputated but he developed pneumonia and he died eight days later.

Joseph Leyendecker, Saturday Evening Post (1940)
Joseph Leyendecker, Saturday Evening Post (1940)

On the 3rd May, James Jeb Stuart, who had taken command of Jackson's troops, mounted another attack and drove Joseph Hooker back further. The following day Lee and Jubal Early joined the attack on the Union Army. By 6th May, Hooker had lost over 11,000 men, and decided to retreat from the area.

Lee now decided to take the war to the north. The Confederate Army reached Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on 1st July. The town was quickly taken but the Union Army, led by Major General George Meade, arrived in force soon afterwards and for the next two days the town was the scene of bitter fighting. Attacks led by James Jeb Stuart and James Longstreet proved costly and by the 5th July, Lee decided to retreat south. Both sides suffered heavy losses with Lee losing 28,063 men and Meade 23,049.

In March, 1864, Ulysses S. Grant was named lieutenant general and the commander of the Union Army. He joined the Army of the Potomac where he worked with George Meade and Philip Sheridan. They crossed the Rapidan and entered the Wilderness. When Lee heard the news he sent in his troops, hoping that the Union's superior artillery and cavalry would be offset by the heavy underbrush of the Wilderness. Fighting began on the 5th May and two days later smoldering paper cartridges set fire to dry leaves and around 200 wounded men were either suffocated or burned to death. Of the 88,892 men that Grant took into the Wilderness, 14,283 were casualties and 3,383 were reported missing. Lee lost 7,750 men during the fighting.

After the battle Ulysses S. Grant moved south and on May 26th sent Philip Sheridan and his cavalry ahead to capture Cold Harbor from the Confederate Army. Lee was forced to abandon Cold Harbor and his whole army well dug in by the time the rest of the Union Army arrived. Grant's ordered a direct assault but afterwards admitted this was a mistake losing 12,000 men "without benefit to compensate".

Grant now headed quickly towards Richmond and was able to take Petersburg before Lee had time to react. However, Pierre T. Beauregard was able to protect the route to the city before the arrival of Lee's main army.

In March, 1865, William Sherman joined Ulysses S. Grant and the main army at Petersburg. On 1st April Sherman attacked at Five Forks. The Confederates, led by Major General George Pickett, were overwhelmed and lost 5,200 men. On hearing the news, Lee decided to abandon Richmond and join Joseph E. Johnston in an attempt to halt Sherman's army in South Carolina.

Lee was only able to muster an army of 8,000 men. He probed the Union Army at Appomattox but faced by 110,000 men he decided the cause was hopeless. He contacted Ulysses S. Grant and after agreeing terms on 9th April, surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House. Grant issued a brief statement: "The war is over; the rebels are our countrymen again and the best sign of rejoicing after the victory will be to abstain from all demonstrations in the field."

After the war Lee became president of Washington College. Although President Andrew Johnson never granted him official amnesty he continued to work for reconciliation.

Robert Edward Lee died on 12th October, 1870.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Robert E. Lee, letter to General Winfield Scott (20th April, 1861)

Since my interview with you on the 18th April I have felt that I ought no longer to retain my commission in the Army. I, therefore, tender my resignation, which I request you will recommend for acceptance. It would have been presented at once but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted the best years of my life and all the ability I possessed.

(2) Robert E. Lee, letter to his sister, Anne Marshall (20th April, 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 land 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.

(3) Mary Boykin Chesnut, Richmond, Virginia, diary entry (1st January, 1864)

One more year of "Stonewall" would have saved us. Chickamauga is the only battle we have gained since "Stonewall" died, and no results follow as usual. "Stonewall" was not so much killed by a Yankee; he was shot by his own men; that is hard. General Lee can do no more than keep back Meade. "One of Meade's armies, you mean," said I, "for they have only to double on him when Lee whips one of them." If General Lee had had Grant's resources, he would have bagged the last Yankee or have had them all safe back in Massachusetts.

(4) General Oliver Howard summarized the state of the Confederate Army after the battle of Chancellorsville in May, 1863.

We could gather little hope from the splendid condition of Lee's army. It had been reorganized. Its numerous brigades were grouped into divisions and the divisions into three army corps, and cavalry. Stonewall Jackson, it is true, was no more, but the three lieutenant generals - Longstreet, A. P. Hill, and Ewell - were not wanting in ability or experience. They were trusted by Lee and believed in by the troops and people.

(5) John Singleton Mosby, Memoirs of Colonel John S. Mosby (1917)

MY first meeting with General Robert E. Lee was in August, 1862, when I brought the news of Burnside's reinforcement of Pope, a story I have told in the preceding pages. The next time we met was at his headquarters in Orange, about two months after Gettysburg. He did not seem in the least depressed, and was as buoyant and aggressive as ever. He took a deep interest in my operations, for there was nothing of the Fabius in his character. Lee was the most aggressive man I met in the war, and was always ready for an enterprise. I believe that his interest in me was largely due to the fact that his father, "Light Horse Harry", was a partisan officer in the Revolutionary War.

After General Stuart was killed, in May, 1864, I reported directly to General Lee. During the siege of Petersburg I visited him three times - twice when I was wounded. Once, when I got out of the ambulance, he was standing near, talking to General Longstreet. When he saw me hobbling up to him on crutches, he came to meet me, introduced me to General Longstreet, and said, "Colonel, the only fault I have ever had to find with you is that you are always getting wounded." Such a speech from General Lee more than repaid me for my wound.

The last time I saw him during the war was about two months before the surrender. I had been wounded again. He was not only kind, but affectionate, and asked me to take dinner with him, though he said he hadn't much to eat. There was a leg of mutton on the table; he remarked that some of his staff officers must have stolen it.

After dinner, when we were alone, he talked very freely. He said that in the spring of 1862, Joe Johnston ought not to have fallen back from the Rapidan to Richmond, and that he had written urging him to turn against Washington. He also said that when Joe Johnston evacuated his lines at Yorktown, in May of that year, he should have given battle with his whole force on the isthmus at Williamsburg, instead of making a rear-guard fight.

(6) General Robert E. Lee, General Order No. 73 (28th June, 1863)

The commanding general considers that no greater disgrace could befall the army, and through it the whole people, that the perpetration of the barbarous outrages upon the unarmed and the defenseless, and the wanton destruction of private property that have marked the course of the enemy in our own country. It must be remembered that we make war only on armed men, and that we cannot take vengeance for the wrongs our people have suffered without whose favor and support our efforts must all prove in vain.

(7) Carl Schurz wrote about the relative merits of Robert E. Lee, William Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant in his autobiography published in 1906.

In the opinion of many competent persons, he was the ablest commander of them all. I remember a remarkable utterance of his when we were speaking of Grant's campaign. "There was a difference," Sherman said, "between Grant's and my way of looking at things. Grant never cared a damn about what was going on behind the enemy's lines, but it often scared me like the devil." He admitted, and justly so, that some of Grant's successes were owing to this very fact, but also some of his most conspicuous failures. Grant believed in hammering - Sherman in maneuvering. It had been the habit of the generals commanding the Army of the Potomac to cross the Rappahannock, to get their drubbing from Lee, and then promptly to retreat and recross the Rappahannock again in retreat. He sturdily went on, hammering and hammering, and, with his vastly superior resources, finally hammered Lee's army to pieces, but with a most dreadful sacrifice of life on his own part. Now, comparing Grant's campaign for the taking of Richmond with Sherman's campaign for the taking of Atlanta - without losing sight of any of the differences of their respective situations - we may well arrive at the conclusion that Sherman was the superior strategist and the greater general.

(8) Brigadier General Horace Porter recorded General Robert Lee's surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant on 9th April, 1865.

The contrast between the two commanders was striking and could not fail to attract marked attention as they sat ten feet apart facing each other. General Grant, then nearly forty-three years of age, was five feet eight inches in height, with shoulders slightly stooped. His hair and full beard were a nutbrown, without a trace of gray in them. He had on a single-breasted blouse, made of dark-blue flannel, unbuttoned in front, and showing a waistcoat underneath. He had no sword, and a pair of shoulder straps was all there was about him to designate his rank. In fact, aside from these, his uniform was that of a private soldier.

Lee, on the other hand, was fully six feet in height and quite erect for one of his age, for he was Grant's senior by sixteen years. His hair and full beard were a silver-gray, and quite thick, except that the hair had become a little thin in front. He wore a new uniform of Confederate gray, buttoned up to the throat, and at his side he carried a long sword of exceedingly fine workmanship, the hilt studdied with jewels

(9) Robert E. Lee, farewell message to the Army of Northern Virginia (9th April, 1865)

After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources. I need not tell the survivors of so many hard-fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, and I have consented to this result from no distrust of them; but, feeling that valor and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that would have attended the continuation to the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen.

(10) Robert E. Lee, letter to Josiah Tattnall (7th September, 1865)

The war being at an end, the Southern states having laid down their arms and the questions at issue between them and the Northern states having been decided, I believe it to be the duty of everyone to unite in the restoration of the country and the re-establishment of peace and harmony. These considerations governed me in the counsels I gave to others and induced me on the 13th June to make application to be included in the terms of the amnesty proclamation.

(11) Robert E. Lee was cross-examined by Jacob Howard, the senator from Michigan, as a Congressional committee held on 17th February, 1866. Howard asked Lee if he believed the "colored population" should vote in elections.

My own opinion is that, at this time, they cannot vote intelligently, and that giving them the right of suffrage would open the door to a great deal of demagogism, and lead to embarrassments in various ways. What the future may prove, how intelligent they may become, with what eyes they may look upon the interests of the state in which they may reside, I cannot say more than you can.

(12) Robert E. Lee was cross-examined by Jacob Howard, the senator from Michigan, as a Congressional committee held on 17th February, 1866. Howard questioned Lee about what happened at Andersonville Prison Camp.

I suppose they suffered from want of ability on the part of the Confederate States to supply them with their wants. At the very beginning of the war there was suffering of prisoners on both sides, but as far as I could I did everything in my power to establish the cartel (of prisoner exchange) as agreed upon. I made several efforts to exchange the prisons after the cartel was suspended. I offered to General Grant, around Richmond, that we should ourselves exchange all the prisoners in our hands. I offered to send to City Point all the prisoners in Virginia and North Carolina over which my command extended, provided they returned an equal number of mine, man for man. I reported this to the War Department, and received an answer that they could place at my command all the prisoners at the South if the proposition was accepted. I heard nothing more on the subject.