was known as an
exemplary military commander when Abraham Lincoln asked him to command
the Union army in 1861. Lee had graduated with distinction from West
Point, served on Winfield Scott's staff during the Mexican American
War, modernized the West Point curriculum in the early 1850s, and led
the recapture of the Harpers Ferry arsenal from John Brown and his army
in 1859. Though he opposed secession and favored an end to slavery,
Lee declined Lincoln's appointment to head the Union army, instead supporting
Virginia and the Confederacy. Under his leadership, Confederate forces
scored important victories, despite the superior numbers and richer
resources of the North. And even after Ulysses S. Grant began his final
assault in 1864, Lee's troops held on for nearly ten months before the
surrender at Appomattox in April 1865. Brady photographed Lee on the
porch of his home in Richmond shortly after the surrender. As he recalled
in 1891, "It was supposed that after his defeat it would be preposterous
to ask him to sit, but I thought that to be the time for the historical
picture. He allowed me to come to his house and photograph him on his
back porch in several situations. Of course I had known him since the
Mexican War when he was upon Gen. Scott's staff, and my request was
not as from an intruder".
Robert Edward Lee
(January 19, 1807 – October 12, 1870) was a career army officer
and the most successful general of the Confederate forces during the
American Civil War. He eventually commanded all Confederate armies as
general-in-chief. Like Hannibal earlier and Rommel later, his victories
against superior forces in an ultimately losing cause won him enduring
fame. After the war, he urged reconciliation, and spent his final years
as a progressive college president. Lee remains an iconic figure of
the Confederacy to this day and an important educational leader.
Early life and
Lee was born at Stratford Hall Plantation, in Westmoreland County, Virginia,
the fourth child of Revolutionary War hero Henry Lee ("Lighthorse
Harry") and Anne Hill (Carter) Lee. He entered the United States
Military Academy in 1825. When he graduated (second in his class of
46) in 1829 he had not only attained the top academic record but was
the first cadet (and so far the only) to graduate the Academy without
a single demerit. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the
Army Corps of Engineers.
Lee served for seventeen months at Fort Pulaski on Cockspur Island,
Georgia. In 1831, he was transferred to Fort Monroe, Virginia, as assistant
engineer. While he was stationed there, he married Mary Anna Randolph
Custis (1808–1873), the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington,
at Shirley Plantation in Charles City County, Virginia, where she had
been born. They lived in the Custis mansion, which today is a National
Memorial on the banks of the Potomac River in Arlington, just across
from Washington, D.C.. They eventually had three sons and four daughters:
George Washington Custis, William H. Fitzhugh, Robert Edward, Mary,
Agnes, Annie, and Mildred.
Lee served as an assistant in the chief engineer's office in Washington
from 1834 to 1837, but spent the summer of 1835 helping to lay out the
state line between Ohio and Michigan. In 1837, he got his first important
command. As a first lieutenant of engineers, he supervised the engineering
work for St. Louis harbor and for the upper Mississippi and Missouri
rivers. His work there earned him a promotion to captain. In 1841, he
was transferred to Fort Hamilton in New York Harbor, where he took charge
of building fortifications.
Mexican War, West
Point, and Texas
Lee distinguished himself in the Mexican 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
He was promoted to major after the Battle of Cerro Gordo in April, 1847.
He also fought at Contreras, Churubusco, and Chapultepec, and was wounded
at the latter. By the end of the war he had been promoted to lieutenant
After the Mexican War, he spent three years at Fort Carroll in Baltimore
harbor, after which he became the superintendent of West Point in 1852.
During his three years at West Point, he improved the buildings, the
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 became Lieutenant Colonel of the Second Cavalry and was
sent to the Texas frontier. 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.
He happened to be in Washington at the time of John Brown's raid on
Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1859, and was sent there
to arrest Brown and to restore order. He did this very quickly and then
returned to his regiment in Texas. When Texas seceded from the Union
in 1861, Lee was called to Washington, DC to wait for further orders.
Lee as slave-owner
As a member of the Virginia aristocracy, Lee had lived in close contact
with slavery all of his life, but he never held more than about a half-dozen
slaves under his own name—in fact, it was not positively known
that he had held any slaves at all under his own name until the rediscovery
of his 1846 will in the records of Rockbridge County, Virginia, which
referred to an enslaved woman named Nancy and her children, and provided
for their manumission in case of his death. 
However, when Lee's father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, died
in October 1857, Lee came into a considerable amount of property through
his wife, and also gained temporary control of a large population of
slaves—sixty-three men, women, and children, in all—as the
executor of Custis's will. Under the terms of the will, the slaves were
to be freed "in such a manner as to my executors may seem most
expedient and proper", with a maximum of five years from the date
of Custis's death provided to arrange for the necessary legal details
Custis's will was probated on December 7, 1857. Although Robert Lee
Randolph, Right Reverend William Meade, and George Washington Peter
were named as executors along with , the other three men failed to qualify,
leaving Lee with the sole responsibility of settling the estate, and
with exclusive control over all of Custis's former slaves. Although
the will provided for the slaves to be emancipated "in such a manner
as to my executors may seem most expedient and proper", Lee found
himself in need of funds, and decided to make money by hiring out the
slaves to neighboring plantations in eastern Virginia during the five
years that the will had allowed him control of them. The decision caused
dissatisfaction among Custis's slaves, who had been given to understand
that they were to be made free as soon as Custis died.
In 1859, three of the slaves—Wesley Norris, his sister Mary, and
a cousin of theirs—fled for the North. An 1859 letter to the New
York Tribune and an 1866 interview with Wesley Norris record that the
Norrises were captured a few miles from the Pennsylvania border and
returned to Lee, who had them whipped and their lacerated backs rubbed
with brine. After the whipping, Lee forced them to go to work in Richmond,
Virginia, and then Alabama, where Wesley Norris gained his freedom in
January 1863 by escaping through the rebel lines to Union-controlled
Lee released Custis's other slaves after the end of the five year period
in the winter of 1862.
Mathew Brady portrait of Lee in 1865
On April 18, 1861, on the eve of the American Civil War, President Abraham
Lincoln, through Secretary of War Simon Cameron, offered Lee command
of the United States Army (Union Army) through an intermediary, Maryland
Republican politician Francis P. Blair, at the home of Blair's son Montgomery,
Lincoln's Postmaster-General, in Washington. Lee's sentiments were against
secession, which he denounced in an 1861 letter as "nothing but
revolution" and a betrayal of the efforts of the Founders. However
his loyalty to his native Virginia led him to join the Confederacy.
At the outbreak of war he was appointed to command all of Virginia's
forces, and then as one of the first five full generals of Confederate
forces. Lee, however, refused to wear the insignia of a Confederate
General stating that, in honor to his rank of Colonel in the United
States Army, he would only display the three stars of a Confederate
Colonel until the Civil War had been won and Lee could be promoted,
in peacetime, to a General in the Confederate Army.
After commanding Confederate forces in western Virginia, and then in
charge of coastal defenses along the Carolina seaboards, he became military
adviser to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, whom he knew
from West Point.
of Northern Virginia
Following the wounding of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston at the Battle of Seven
Pines, on June 1, 1862, Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern
Virginia, his first opportunity to lead an army in the field. He soon
launched a series of attacks, the Seven Days Battles, against General
George B. McClellan's Union forces threatening Richmond, Virginia, the
Confederate capital. Lee's attacks resulted in heavy Confederate casualties
and they were marred by clumsy tactical performances by his subordinates,
but his aggressive actions unnerved McClellan. 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 that fall in favor of ending the war.
McClellan obtained a lost order that revealed Lee's plans and brought
superior forces to bear at Antietam before Lee's army could be assembled.
In the bloodiest day of the war, Lee withstood the Union assaults, but
withdrew his battered army back to Virginia.
Lee mounted on Traveller
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 an
enormous victory over a larger force, but came at a great cost as Jackson,
Lee's best subordinate, was mortally wounded.
In the summer of 1863, Lee proceeded to invade the North again, hoping
for a Southern victory that would compel the North to grant Confederate
independence. But his attempts to defeat the Union forces under George
G. Meade at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, failed. His subordinates did not
attack with the aggressive drive Lee expected, J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry
was out of the area, and Lee's decision to launch a massive frontal
assault on the center of the Union line—the disastrous Pickett's
Charge—resulted in heavy losses. Lee was compelled to retreat
again but, as after Antietam, was not vigorously pursued. Following
his defeat at Gettysburg, Lee sent a letter of resignation to Confederate
President Jefferson Davis on August 8, 1863, but Davis refused Lee's
In 1864, the new Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant sought to destroy
Lee's army and capture Richmond. Lee and his men stopped each advance,
but Grant had superior reinforcements and kept pushing each time a bit
further to the southeast. These battles in the Overland Campaign included
the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor. Grant eventually
fooled Lee by stealthily moving his army across the James River. After
stopping a Union attempt to capture Petersburg, Virginia, a vital railroad
link supplying Richmond, Lee's men built elaborate trenches and were
besieged in Petersburg. He attempted to break the stalemate by sending
Jubal A. Early on a raid through the Shenandoah Valley to Washington,
D.C., but Early was defeated by the superior forces of Philip Sheridan.
The Siege of Petersburg would last from June 1864 until April, 1865.
Lee with son Custis (left) and Walter H. Taylor (right).
On January 31, 1865, Lee was promoted to be general-in-chief of Confederate
forces. In early 1865, he urged adoption of a scheme to allow slaves
to join the Confederate army in exchange for their freedom. The scheme
never came to fruition in the short time the Confederacy had left before
it ceased to exist.
As the Confederate army was worn down by months of battle, a Union attempt
to capture Petersburg on April 2, 1865, succeeded. Lee abandoned the
defense of Richmond and sought to join General Joseph Johnston's army
in North Carolina. His forces were surrounded by the Union army and
he surrendered to General Grant on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court
House, Virginia. Lee resisted calls by some subordinates (and indirectly
by Jefferson Davis) to reject surrender and allow small units to melt
away into the mountains, setting up a lengthy guerrilla war.
Lee after the Civil
Following the war, Lee applied for, but was never granted, the official
postwar amnesty. After filling out the application form, it 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 until it was found decades later in his
desk drawer. Lee took the lack of response either way to mean that the
government wished to retain the right to prosecute him in the future.
Lee's example of applying for amnesty was an encouragement to many other
former members of the Confederacy's armed forces to accept being citizens
of the United States once again. In 1975, President Gerald Ford granted
a posthumous pardon and the U.S. Congress restored his citizenship,
following the discovery of his oath of allegiance by an employee of
the National Archives in 1970.
Lee and his wife had lived at his wife's family home prior to the Civil
War, the Custis-Lee Mansion. It was confiscated by Union forces, and
is today part of Arlington National Cemetery. After his death, the courts
ruled that the estate had been illegally seized, and that it should
be returned to Lee's son. The government offered to buy the land outright,
to which he agreed.
He served as president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee
University) in Lexington, Virginia, from October 2, 1865. 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 incorporated law into the academic
curriculum -- at the time an odd concept, because law was seen as a
technical rather than intellectual profession. He also imposed a sweeping
and breathtakingly 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 absolutist "honor systems." Importantly,
he focused the college on attracting students from the north.
Final illness and
On the evening of September 28, 1870, Lee fell ill, unable to speak
coherently. When his medical doctors were called, the most they could
do was help put him to bed and hope for the best. Although not diagnosed
by his doctors, it is almost certain that Lee suffered a stroke. In
his last few years, he had complained about chest pain (probably angina
pectoris) and often complained about pain in his right arm, which he
said often felt numb. Likely he was developing arteriosclerosis or a
type of cardiovascular disorder, and it would gradually weaken him the
rest of his life. In his last year of his life, an aged and weak Lee
confided to friends that he felt like he could die any moment. The stroke
damaged the frontal lobes of the brain, which made speech impossible,
and made him unable to cough or expectorate, which would prove a fatal
problem. He was force-fed food and liquids to build up his strength,
but some of these liquids found their way into his lungs, and pneumonia
developed. With no ability to cough, Lee died from the effects of pneumonia
(not from the stroke itself). He died two weeks after the stroke on
the morning of October 12, 1870, in Lexington, Virginia, and was buried
underneath the chapel at Washington and Lee University.
January 19. was born at Stratford, Westmoreland County, Virginia: Parents,
Henry Lee ("Light-horse Harry" Lee) of Leesylvania, and Ann
Hill Carter of Shirley.
Removed to Alexandria with his family.
His father received injuries in Baltimore riot from which he never recovered
and which necessitated his leaving Alexandria for a warmer climate.
He died six years later, at Cumberland Island, Georgia, March 25, 1818.
Robert was reared by his mother. He spent his holidays and vacations
at Stratford and Shirley.
His father died while Lee was in the midst of his schooling.
Entered West Point.
Graduated from West Point second in his class. His mother died at Ravensworth,
Virginia. He was assigned to duty at Hampton Roads, Virginia.
June 30. Married Mary Randolph Custis of Arlington.
Served as Assistant to Chief Engineer of the Army.
Took charge of improvement of Mississippi at St. Louis.
Made Captain of Engineers.
In charge of defense at Fort Hamilton, New York.
Appointed Visitor to West Point.
Rendered distinguished services in Mexican War.
January to June. Stationed in Mexico.
At work on the defenses of Baltimore.
Superintendent of West Point Academy.
April. Appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the Second Cavalry.
Saw service against Indians in Texas.
October. Suppressed the John Brown insurrection.
February. Took charge of Department of Texas where he stayed one year.
March 1. Returned to Arlington to his family.
March 16. Appointed Colonel of First Cavalry.
April 16. Offered command of United States Armies.
April 20. Resigned commission in army.
April 23. Accepted command of Virginia forces.
May - July. Organized troops and advised President Davis in Richmond.
August - October. Was in charge of abortive campaign in Western Virginia.
November. Had charge of coast defense in South Carolina and Georgia.
March. Became military advisor to President Davis.
June 1. Assumed command of Army of Northern Virginia.
June 26 - July 2. Commanded Confederates in Seven Days' fighting around
August 30. Defeated Pope at second Manassas.
September 5. Crossed the Potomac. Began advance into Maryland.
September 12. Drew Battle of Antietam or Sharpsburg. Abandoned campaign
December 13. Won a victory over Burnside at Fredericksburg.
December. In winter quarters until March.
May 2 - 3. Won a victory over Hooker at Chacellorsville.
May 10. His great liutenant, "Stonewall" Jackson, died.
June.. Began movements leading up to second invasion of the North.
July 1 -3. Defeated at Gettysburg.
July 4 - 13. Made a masterly retreat and recrossed the Potomac.
October - November. Conducted the ineffective campaign of Mine Run.
December. Lay in winter quarters on the Rapidan until April.
May 5 - 6. Fought the Battle of the Wilderness against Grant.
May 8 - 18. Conducted fighting about Spotsylvania Courthouse.
May 21 - June 1. Conducted operations on interior lines.
June 2 - 3. Fought a fierce battle at Cold Harbor.
June 18. Joined Beauregard at Petersburg. Siege of Petersburg began.
July 30. Fought the Battle of the Crater.
February 9. Issued his first general order as Commander-in-Chief.
April 2. Retreated from Petersburg. End of the siege.
April 3. Richmond fell.
April 9. Surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.
April 10. Issued his Farewell Address to the Army of Northern Virginia.
June 13. Applied for Pardon.
August 4. Elected President of Washington College, Lexington, Virginia
(now Washington and Lee University.)
February 4. Declined to be a candidate for the governorship of Virginia.
March - April. Visited Georgia in seach of health.
October 12. died at Lexington.