Robert Edward Lee (January 19, 1807 – October 12, 1870), was a career United States Army officer, an engineer, and among the most celebrated generals in American history. Lee was the son of Major General Henry Lee III "Light Horse Harry" (1756–1818), Governor of Virginia, and his second wife, Anne Hill Carter (1773–1829). He was a descendant of Sir Thomas More and of King Robert II of Scotland through the Earls of Crawford.
A top graduate of West Point, Lee distinguished himself as an exceptional soldier in the U.S. Army for thirty-two years. He is best known for fighting on behalf of the Confederate Army in the American Civil War.
In early 1861, President Abraham Lincoln invited Lee to take command of the entire Union Army. Lee declined because his home state of Virginia was seceding from the Union, despite Lee's wishes. When Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, Lee chose to follow his home state. Lee's eventual role in the newly-established Confederacy was to serve as a senior military adviser to President Jefferson Davis. Lee's first field command for the Confederate States came in June 1862 when he took command of the Confederate forces in the East (which Lee himself renamed the "Army of Northern Virginia").
Lee's greatest victories were the Seven Days Battles, the Second Battle of Bull Run, the Battle of Fredericksburg, and the Battle of Chancellorsville, but both of his campaigns to invade the North ended in failure. Barely escaping defeat at the Battle of Antietam in 1862, Lee was forced to return to the South. In early July 1863, Lee was decisively defeated at the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. However, due to ineffectual pursuit by the commander of Union forces, Major General George Meade, Lee escaped again to Virginia.
In the spring of 1864, the new Union commander, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, began a series of campaigns to wear down Lee's army. In the Overland Campaign of 1864 and the Siege of Petersburg in 1864–1865, Lee inflicted heavy casualties on Grant's larger army, but was unable to replace his own losses. In early April 1865, Lee's depleted forces were turned from their entrenchments near the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, and he began a strategic retreat. Lee's subsequent surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9 1865 represented the loss of only one of the remaining Confederate field armies, but it was a psychological blow from which the South could not recover. By June 1865, all of the remaining Confederate armies had capitulated.
Lee's victories against superior forces won him enduring fame as a crafty and daring battlefield tactician, but some of his strategic decisions, such as invading the North in 1862 and 1863, have been criticized by many military historians.
In the final months of the Civil War, as manpower reserves drained away, Lee adopted a plan to arm willing slaves to fight on behalf of the Confederacy, but this came too late to change the outcome of the war. After Appomattox, Lee discouraged Southern dissenters from starting a guerrilla campaign to continue the war, and encouraged reconciliation between the North and the South.
After the war, as a college President, Lee supported President Andrew Johnson's program of Reconstruction and inter-sectional friendship, while opposing the Radical Republican proposals to give freed slaves the vote and take the vote away from ex-Confederates. He urged them to re-think their position between the North and the South, and the reintegration of former Confederates into the nation's political life. Lee became the great Southern hero of the war, and his popularity grew in the North as well after his death in 1870. He remains an iconic figure of American military leadership.
Lee's father died when Lee was eleven years old, leaving the family deeply in debt. When Lee was three years old, his older half-brother, the heir to the Stratford Hall Plantation, having reached his majority, established Stratford as his home. The rest of the family moved to Alexandria, Virginia, where Lee grew up in a series of relatives' houses. Lee attended Alexandria Academy, where he obtained a classical education along the lines of quadrivium. Lee was considered a top student and excelled at mathematics. His mother, a devout Christian, oversaw his religious instruction at Christ Episcopal Church in Alexandria. He entered the United States Military Academy in 1825 and became the first cadet to achieve the rank of sergeant at the end of his first year. When he graduated in 1829 he was at the head of his class in artillery and tactics, and shared the distinction with five other cadets of having received no demerits during the four-year course of instruction. Overall, he ranked second in his class of 46. He was commissioned as a brevet second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers.
Lee served as an assistant in the chief engineer's office in Washington, D.C. from 1834 to 1837, but spent the summer of 1835 helping to lay out the state line between Ohio and Michigan. As a first lieutenant of engineers in 1837, he supervised the engineering work for St. Louis harbor and for the upper Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Among his projects was blasting a channel through the Des Moines Rapids on the Mississippi by Keokuk, Iowa, where the Mississippi's mean depth of was the upper limit of steamboat traffic on the river. His work there earned him a promotion to captain. Circa 1842, Captain Robert E. Lee arrived as Fort Hamilton’s post engineer.
Lee distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). He was one of Winfield Scott's chief aides in the march from Veracruz to Mexico City. He was instrumental in several American victories through his personal reconnaissance as a staff officer; he found routes of attack that the Mexicans had not defended because they thought the terrain was impassable.
He was promoted to brevet major after the Battle of Cerro Gordo on April 18 1847. He also fought at Contreras, Churubusco, and Chapultepec, and was wounded at the last. By the end of the war, he had received additional brevet promotions to Lieutenant Colonel and Colonel, but his permanent rank was still Captain of Engineers and he would remain a Captain until his transfer to the cavalry in 1855.
After the Mexican War, he spent three years at Fort Carroll in Baltimore harbor. During this time his service was interrupted by other duties, among them surveying/updating maps in Florida, an offer from Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to lead an attack on Cuba (Lee declined), and a brief military assignment out west. In September 1852, Lee became the superintendent of West Point. During his three years at West Point, Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee improved the buildings and courses, and spent a lot of time with the cadets. Lee's oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, attended West Point during his tenure. Custis Lee graduated in 1854, first in his class.
In 1855, Lee's tour of duty at West Point ended and he was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the newly formed 2nd U.S. Cavalry regiment. It was Lee's first substantive promotion in the Army since his promotion to Captain in 1838, despite having been brevetted a Colonel, which was an honorary promotion. By accepting promotion, Lee left the Corps of Engineers where he had served for over 25 years. The Colonelcy of the regiment was given to Albert Sidney Johnston, who had previously served as a Major in the Paymaster Department, and the regiment was assigned to Camp Cooper, Texas. There he helped protect settlers from attacks by the Apache and the Comanche.
These were not happy years for Lee, as he did not like to be away from his family for long periods of time, especially as his wife was becoming increasingly ill. Lee came home to see her as often as he could. Robert's wife was treated by homeopath Alfred Hughes
Lee, with no experience as a large-scale slave owner, tried to hire an overseer to handle the plantation in his absence, writing to his cousin, "I wish to get an energetic honest farmer, who while he will be considerate & kind to the negroes, will be firm & make them do their duty." But Lee failed to find a man for the job, and had to take a two-year leave of absence from the army in order to run the plantation himself. He found the experience frustrating and difficult; some of the slaves were unhappy and demanded their freedom. Many of them had been given to understand that they were to be made free as soon as Custis died. In May 1858, Lee wrote to his son Rooney, "I have had some trouble with some of the people. Reuben, Parks & Edward, in the beginning of the previous week, rebelled against my authority--refused to obey my orders, & said they were as free as I was, etc., etc.--I succeeded in capturing them & lodging them in jail. They resisted till overpowered & called upon the other people to rescue them." Less than two months after they were sent to the Alexandria jail, Lee decided to remove these three men and three female house slaves from Arlington, and sent them under lock and key to the slave-trader William Overton Winston in Richmond, who was instructed to keep them in jail until he could find "good & responsible" slaveholders to work them until the end of the five year period.
In 1859, three of the Arlington slaves—Wesley Norris, his sister Mary, and a cousin of theirs—fled for the North, but were captured a few miles from the Pennsylvania border and forced to return to Arlington. On June 24 1859, the New York Daily Tribune published two anonymous letters (dated June 19, 1859 and June 21 1859), each of which claimed to have heard that Lee had the Norrises whipped, and went so far as to claim that Lee himself had whipped the woman when the officer refused to. Lee wrote to his son Custis that "The N. Y. Tribune has attacked me for my treatment of your grandfather's slaves, but I shall not reply. He has left me an unpleasant legacy. Biographers of Lee have differed over the credibility of the Tribune letters. Douglas S. Freeman, in his 1934 biography of Lee, described the letters to the Tribune as "Lee's first experience with the extravagance of irresponsible antislavery agitators" and asserted that "There is no evidence, direct or indirect, that Lee ever had them or any other Negroes flogged. The usage at Arlington and elsewhere in Virginia among people of Lee's station forbade such a thing." Michael Fellman, in The Making of Robert E. Lee (2000), found the claims that Lee had personally whipped Mary Norris "extremely unlikely," but not at all unlikely that Lee had had the slaves whipped: "corporal punishment (for which Lee substituted the euphemism 'firmness') was an intrinsic and necessary part of slave discipline. Although it was supposed to be applied only in a calm and rational manner, overtly physical domination of slaves, unchecked by law, was always brutal and potentially savage.
Wesley Norris himself discussed the incident after the war, in an 1866 interview printed in the National Anti-Slavery Standard. Norris stated that after they had been captured, and forced to return to Arlington, Lee told them that "he would teach us a lesson we would not soon forget." According to Norris, Lee then had the three of them tied to posts and whipped by the county constable, with fifty lashes for the men and twenty for Mary Norris (he made no claim that Lee had personally whipped Mary Norris). Norris claimed that Lee then had the overseer rub their lacerated backs with brine.
After their capture, Lee sent the Norrises to work on the railroad in Richmond and Alabama. Wesley Norris gained his freedom in January 1863 by slipping through the Confederate lines near Richmond to Union-controlled territory. Lee freed all the other Custis slaves after the end of the five year period in the winter of 1862, filing the deed of manumission on December 29 1862.
Some of the evidence cited in favor of the claim that Lee opposed slavery, are the manumission of Custis's slaves, as discussed above, and his support, towards the end of the war, for enrolling slaves in the Confederate States Army, with manumission offered as an eventual reward for good service. Lee gave his public support to this idea two weeks before Appomattox, too late for it to do any good for the Confederacy.
In December 1864, Lee was shown a letter by Louisiana Senator Edward Sparrow, written by General St. John R. Liddell, which noted that Lee would be hard-pressed in the interior of Virginia by spring, and the need to consider Patrick Cleburne's plan to emancipate the slaves and put all men in the army that were willing to join. Lee was said to have agreed on all points and desired to get black soldiers, saying that "he could make soldiers out of any human being that had arms and legs.
Another source is Lee's 1856 letter to his wife, which can be interpreted in multiple ways:
... In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.|Robert E. Lee|to Mary Anna Lee, December 27, 1856
Freeman's analysis puts Lee's attitude toward slavery and abolition in historical context:
This [letter] was the prevailing view among most religious people of Lee's class in the border states. They believed that slavery existed because God willed it and they thought it would end when God so ruled. The time and the means were not theirs to decide, conscious though they were of the ill-effects of Negro slavery on both races. Lee shared these convictions of his neighbors without having come in contact with the worst evils of African bondage. He spent no considerable time in any state south of Virginia from the day he left Fort Pulaski in 1831 until he went to Texas in 1856. All his reflective years had been passed in the North or in the border states. He had never been among the blacks on a cotton or rice plantation. At Arlington the servants had been notoriously indolent, their master's master. Lee, in short, was only acquainted with slavery at its best and he judged it accordingly. At the same time, he was under no illusion regarding the aims of the Abolitionist or the effect of their agitation.|Douglas S. Freeman|R. E. Lee, A Biography, p. 372
When Texas seceded from the Union in February 1861, General David E. Twiggs surrendered all the American forces (about 4,000 men, including Lee, and commander of the Department of Texas) to the Texans. Twiggs immediately resigned from the U. S. Army and was made a Confederate general. Lee went back to Washington, and was appointed Colonel of the First Regiment of Cavalry in March 1861. Lee's Colonelcy was signed by the new President, Abraham Lincoln. Three weeks after his promotion, Colonel Lee was offered a senior command (with the rank of Major General) in the expanding Army to fight the Southern States that had left the Union.
Lee privately ridiculed the Confederacy in letters in early 1861, denouncing secession as "revolution" and a betrayal of the efforts of the Founders. The commanding general of the Union army, Winfield Scott, told Lincoln he wanted Lee for a top command. Lee said he was willing as long as Virginia remained in the Union. Lee was asked by one of his lieutenants if he intended to fight for the Confederacy or the Union, to which he replied, "I shall never bear arms against the Union, but it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in the defense of my native state, Virginia, in which case I shall not prove recreant to my duty. After Lincoln's call for troops to put down the rebellion, it was obvious that Virginia would quickly secede and so Lee turned down the offer on April 18, resigned from the U.S. Army on April 20, and took up command of the Virginia state forces on April 23.
Lee's first field assignment was commanding Confederate forces in western Virginia, where he was defeated at the Battle of Cheat Mountain and was widely blamed for Confederate setbacks. He was then sent to organize the coastal defenses along the Carolina and Georgia seaboard, where he was hampered by the lack of an effective Confederate navy. Once again blamed by the press, he became military adviser to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, former U.S. Secretary of War.
After McClellan's retreat, Lee defeated another Union army at the Second Battle of Bull Run. He then invaded Maryland, hoping to replenish his supplies and possibly influence the Northern elections to fall in favor of ending the war. McClellan's men recovered a lost order that revealed Lee's plans. McClellan always exaggerated Lee's forces, but now he knew the Confederate army was divided and could be destroyed by an all-out attack at Antietam. Yet McClellan was too slow in moving, not realizing Lee had been informed by a spy that McClellan had the plans. Lee urgently recalled Stonewall Jackson and in the bloodiest day of the war, Lee withstood the Union assaults. He withdrew his battered army back to Virginia while President Abraham Lincoln used the reverse as sufficient pretext to announce the Emancipation Proclamation to put the Confederacy on the diplomatic and moral defensive.
Disappointed by McClellan's failure to destroy Lee's army, Lincoln named Ambrose Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside ordered an attack across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg. Delays in getting bridges built across the river allowed Lee's army ample time to organize strong defenses, and the attack on December 12, 1862, was a disaster for the Union. Lincoln then named Joseph Hooker commander of the Army of the Potomac. Hooker's advance to attack Lee in May, 1863, near Chancellorsville, Virginia, was defeated by Lee and Stonewall Jackson's daring plan to divide the army and attack Hooker's flank. It was a victory over a larger force, but it also came with a great cost; Jackson, one of Lee's best subordinates, was accidentally wounded by his own troops, and soon after died of pneumonia.
As the South ran out of manpower the issue of arming the slaves became paramount. By late 1864 the army so dominated the Confederacy that civilian leaders were unable to block the military's proposal, strongly endorsed by Lee, to arm and train slaves in Confederate uniform for combat. In return for this service, slave soldiers and their families would be emancipated. Lee explained, "We should employ them without delay ... [along with] gradual and general emancipation." The first units were in training as the war ended. As the Confederate army was decimated by casualties, disease and desertion, the Union attack on Petersburg succeeded on April 2, 1865. Lee abandoned Richmond and retreated west. His forces were surrounded and he surrendered them to Grant on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Other Confederate armies followed suit and the war ended. The day after his surrender, Lee issued his Farewell Address to his army.
Lee resisted calls by some officers to reject surrender and allow small units to melt away into the mountains, setting up a lengthy guerrilla war. He insisted the war was over and energetically campaigned for inter-sectional reconciliation. "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 interests of the South.
Before the Civil War, Lee and his wife had lived at his wife's family home, the Custis-Lee Mansion on Arlington Plantation. The plantation had been seized by Union forces during the war, and became part of Arlington National Cemetery; immediately following the war, Lee spent two months in a rented house in Richmond, and then escaped the unwelcome city life by moving into the overseer's house of a friend's plantation near Cartersville, Virginia. (In December 1882, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, returned the property to Custis Lee, stating that it had been confiscated without due process of law. On March 3, 1883, the Congress purchased the property from Lee for $150,000.)
While living in the country, Lee wrote his son that he hoped to retire to a farm of his own, but a few weeks later he received an offer to serve as the president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia. Lee accepted, and remained president of the College from October 2, 1865 until his death. Over five years, he transformed Washington College from a small, undistinguished school into one of the first American colleges to offer courses in business, journalism, and Spanish. He also imposed a simple concept of honor—"We have but one rule, and it is that every student is a gentleman" — that endures today at Washington and Lee and at a few other schools that continue to maintain "honor systems." Importantly, Lee focused the college on attracting male students from the North as well as the South.
In an interview in May, 1866, Lee said, "The Radical party are likely to do a great deal of harm, for we wish now for good feeling to grow up between North and South, and the President, Mr. Johnson, has been doing much to strengthen the feeling in favor of the Union among us. The relations between the Negroes and the whites were friendly formerly, and would remain so if legislation be not passed in favor of the blacks, in a way that will only do them harm.
In 1868, Lee's ally Alexander H. H. Stuart drafted a public letter of endorsement for the Democratic Party's presidential campaign, in which Horatio Seymour ran against Lee's old foe Republican Ulysses S. Grant. Lee signed it along with thirty-one other ex-Confederates. The Democratic campaign, eager to publicize the endorsement, published the statement widely in newspapers. Their letter claimed paternalistic concern for the welfare of freed Southern blacks, stating that "The idea that the Southern people are hostile to the negroes and would oppress them, if it were in their power to do so, is entirely unfounded. They have grown up in our midst, and we have been accustomed from childhood to look upon them with kindness. However, it also called for the restoration of white political rule, arguing that "It is true that the people of the South, in common with a large majority of the people of the North and West, are, for obvious reasons, inflexibly opposed to any system of laws that would place the political power of the country in the hands of the negro race. But this opposition springs from no feeling of enmity, but from a deep-seated conviction that, at present, the negroes have neither the intelligence nor the other qualifications which are necessary to make them safe depositories of political power.
In his public statements and private correspondence, however, Lee argued that a tone of reconciliation and patience would further the interests of white Southerners better than hotheaded antagonism to federal authority or the use of violence. He repeatedly expelled white students from Washington College for violent attacks on local black men, and publicly urged obedience to the authorities and respect for law and order. In 1869-70 he was a leader in successful efforts to establish state-funded schools for blacks. He privately chastised fellow ex-Confederates such as Jefferson Davis and Jubal Early for their frequent, angry responses to perceived Northern insults, writing in private to them as he had written to a magazine editor in 1865, that "It should be the object of all to avoid controversy, to allay passion, give full scope to reason and to every kindly feeling. By doing this and encouraging our citizens to engage in the duties of life with all their heart and mind, with a determination not to be turned aside by thoughts of the past and fears of the future, our country will not only be restored in material prosperity, but will be advanced in science, in virtue and in religion.
Lee attended a meeting of ex-Confederates in 1870, during which he expressed regrets about his surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, given the effects of Republican Reconstruction policy on the South. Speaking to former Confederate Governor of Texas Fletcher Stockdale, he said:
Governor, if I had foreseen the use those people [Yankees] designed to make of their victory, there would have been no surrender at Appomattox Courthouse; no sir, not by me. Had I foreseen these results of subjugation, I would have preferred to die at Appomattox with my brave men, my sword in my right hand.
Lee sent his request for a complete individual pardon, along with an oath of allegiance, to President Andrew Johnson in 1865, and his application for amnesty encouraged many other former members of the Confederacy's armed forces to accept restored U.S. citizenship. However, the application was delivered to the desk of Secretary of State William H. Seward, who, assuming that the matter had been dealt with by someone else and that this was just a personal copy, filed it away. Lee took the lack of response to mean that the government wished to retain the right to prosecute him in the future. (Lee's right to vote was restored in 1888.) Elmer Oris Parker, an employee of the National Archives, found the oath of allegiance in 1970 among old State Department records.
In 1975 after a five-year campaign by Senator Harry F. Byrd, a resolution to restore Lee's full rights of citizenship passed by a unanimous April U.S. Senate vote and a 407-10 July U.S. House of Representatives vote, with the resolution effective June 13, 1975. President Gerald R. Ford signed the resolution on 5 August 1975 on the portico of the Lee mansion, with a dozen of Lee's descendants attending (including Robert E. Lee V, great-great-grandson).
On September 28, 1870, Lee suffered a stroke that left him without the ability to speak. Lee died from the effects of pneumonia, a little after 9 a.m., October 12, 1870, two weeks after the stroke, in Lexington, Virginia. He was buried underneath Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University, where his body remains today. According to J. William Jones' Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee, his last words, on the day of his death, were "Tell Hill he must come up. Strike the tent," but this is debatable because of conflicting accounts. Since Lee's stroke resulted in aphasia, last words may have been impossible. Lee was treated homeopathically for this illness.