Robert E. Lee

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For the author of Inherit the Wind and other works, see Robert Edwin Lee.
Robert Edward Lee, as a U.S. Army Colonel before the war
Robert Edward Lee, as a U.S. Army Colonel before the war

Robert Edward Lee (January 19, 1807October 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 sectional reconciliation, and spent his final years as a devoted college president. Lee remains an iconic figure of the Confederacy, and in some senses of the Southern United States, to this day.


Early life and career

Robert E. 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 (née 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 (18081873), 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 (18461848). 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 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 colonel.

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. [1]

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 of manumission.

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 Robert E. Lee, 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 to pay his father-in-law's debts and repair the properties he had inherited; he decided to make money during the five years that the will had allowed him control of the slaves by hiring them out to neighboring plantations and to eastern Virginia (where there were more jobs to be found).

Lee released Custis's other slaves after the end of the five year period in the winter of 1862.

Lee's views on slavery

Since the end of the Civil War, it has often been suggested that Lee was in some sense opposed to slavery. In the period following the Civil War and Reconstruction, Lee became a central figure in the Lost Cause interpretation of the war, and as succeding generations came to look on slavery as a terrible wrong, the idea that Lee had always somehow opposed it helped maintain his stature as a symbol of Southern honor and national reconciliation.

The most common lines of evidence cited in favor of the claim that Lee opposed slavery are: (1) the manumission of Custis's slaves, as discussed above; (2) Lee's 1856 letter to his wife in which he states that "There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil," and (3) his support, towards the very end of the Civil War, for enrolling slaves in the Confederate army, with manumission as an eventual reward for good service.

Critics object that these interpretations mischaracterize Lee's actual statements and actions to imply that he opposed slavery. The manumission of Custis's slaves, for example, is often mischaracterized as Lee's own decision, rather than a requirement of Custis's will. Similarly, Lee's letter to his wife is being misrepresented by selective quotation; while Lee does describe slavery as an evil, he immediately goes on to write:

"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 Anne Lee, December 27, 1856

In fact, the main topic of the letter—a comment in approval of a speech by President Franklin Pierce—is not the evils of slavery at all, but rather a condemnation of abolitionism, which Lee describes as "irresponsible & unaccountable" and an "evil Course".

Finally, critics charge that whatever private reservations Lee may have held about slavery, he participated fully in the slave system, and does not appear to have publicly challenged it in any way until the partial and conditional plan, under increasingly desperate military circumstances, to arm slaves.

Civil War

Mathew Brady portrait of Lee in 1865
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.

Commander, Army 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
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 request.

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).
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.

After the War

Lee after the Civil War
Lee after the Civil War

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 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, Lee focused the college on attracting as students men from the North as well as the South. The college remained racially segregated, however; after John Chavis, admitted in 1795, Washington or Washington and Lee would not admit a second black student until 1966.

Final illness and death

Burial Monument of Robert E. Lee in Lee Chapel in Lexington, Va.
Burial Monument of Robert E. Lee in Lee Chapel in Lexington, Va.

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 had 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.


  • According to J. William Jones. Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee, Lee spoke his last words on October 12, 1870, shortly before his death: "Tell Hill he must come up. Strike the Tent."
  • Traveller, Lee's favorite horse, accompanied Lee to Washington College after the war. He lost many hairs from his tail to admirers who wanted a souvenir of the famous horse and his general. In 1870, when Lee died, Traveller was led behind the General's hearse. Not long after Lee's death, Traveller stepped on a rusty nail and developed lockjaw. There was no cure, and he was euthanized to relieve his suffering. He was buried next to the Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University. In 1907 his remains were disinterred and displayed at the Chapel, before being reburied outside the Lee Chapel in 1971.
  • The General Lee, the souped-up 1969 Dodge Charger used in the television program The Dukes of Hazzard was named after Robert E. Lee.
  • Despite his presidential pardon by Gerald Ford, Lee's portrayal on a mural on Richmond's Flood Wall on the James River was offensive to some, including some African Americans, and was removed in the 1990s in the interest of racial harmony.
  • Robert E. Lee was 5' 11" tall and wore a size 4-1/2 boot, equivalent to a modern 6-1/2 boot.
  • In the movie Gods and Generals, Lee was played by actor Robert Duvall, who is descended from Lee.

Monuments to Robert E. Lee

Robert E Lee Monument, Charlottesville, VA, Leo Lentilli, sculptor, 1924
Robert E Lee Monument, Charlottesville, VA, Leo Lentilli, sculptor, 1924
Robert E Lee, Virginia Monument, Gettysburg, PA, William Sievers, sculptor, 1917
Robert E Lee, Virginia Monument, Gettysburg, PA, William Sievers, sculptor, 1917

Lee County, Alabama is also named in his honor.

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