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.
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.