Robert E. Lee was a Confederate general during the American Civil War (1861–1865) who led the Army of Northern Virginia from June 1862 until its surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Descended from several of Virginia’s First Families, Lee was a well-regarded officer of the United States Army before the war. His decision to fight for the Confederacy was emblematic of the wrenching choices faced by Americans as the nation divided. After an early defeat in western Virginia, he repulsed George B. McClellan‘s army from the Confederate capital during the Seven Days’ Battles (1862) and won stunning victories at Manassas (1862), Fredericksburg (1862), and Chancellorsville (1863). The Maryland and Pennsylvania campaigns he led resulted in major contests at Antietam (1862) and Gettysburg (1863), respectively, with severe consequences for the Confederacy. Lee offered a spirited defense during the Overland Campaign (1864) against Ulysses S. Grant, but was ultimately outmaneuvered and forced into a prolonged siege at Petersburg (1864–1865). Lee’s generalship was characterized by bold tactical maneuvers and inspirational leadership; however, critics have questioned his strategic judgment, his waste of lives in needless battles, and his unwillingness to fight in the Western Theater. In 1865, his beloved home at Arlington having been turned into a national cemetery, Lee became president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington. There he promoted educational innovation and presented a constructive face to the devastated Southern public. Privately Lee remained bitter and worked to obstruct societal changes brought about by the war, including the enfranchisement of African Americans. By the end of his life he had become a potent symbol of regional pride and dignity in defeat, and has remained an icon of the Lost Cause. He died on October 12, 1870.
Author: Elizabeth Brown Pryor
Mary Randolph Custis Lee (1807–1873)
Mary Randolph Custis Lee was an artist, author, and early antislavery activist. The great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, she enjoyed virtually unequalled social status throughout her life. Tutored in history and philosophy, she became acquainted with the early republic’s leaders, who visited her father’s estate, Arlington. Following her mother’s lead, she fought slavery, and helped to ease the lives of her own family’s slaves. Her uncle’s death in 1830 prompted a religious awakening, and marriage the next year to Robert E. Lee put her in the position of being an army wife, a somewhat uncomfortable role for someone of her background. She followed her husband to his various outposts, sketching her travels and becoming an artist of some note. While her connection to Lee did not immediately augment her social standing, when he led the Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War (1861–1865), she was accorded further deference. Mary Custis Lee had not supported secession, but she was a devoted Confederate, her grace under pressure making her a symbol of quiet strength in wartime Richmond. At the end of her life, she was embittered by the Union occupation of her beloved Arlington and felt betrayed by her family’s former slaves. She died in 1873.