Robert Edward Lee was born on January 19, 1807, at Stratford Hall, his family’s estate in Westmoreland County, the youngest son of Henry Lee III and Ann Hill Carter Lee. Called Robert or “Bob” by his family and friends, and signing himself “R. E. Lee,” he never used the moniker “Robert E. Lee,” which was a product of wartime news reporting. Both of Lee’s parents were raised in prominent Virginia families. Henry Lee distinguished himself in the American Revolution (1775–1783), fighting under generals George Washington and Nathaniel Greene. As leader of a light partisan unit, he earned the nickname “Light-Horse Harry” and was commended for valor by the Continental Congress. After the Revolution he served as a congressman (1799–1800) and governor of Virginia (1791–1794).
In peacetime Henry Lee steadily lost money and reputation because of unwise land speculation. He was sent to debtor’s prison while Robert was still an infant. In 1813, badly beaten by a political mob, and dodging his creditors, he skipped bail to sail for the West Indies. Robert never saw his father again.
Now dependent on the generosity of their kin, the family moved to Alexandria. Robert attended a relative’s plantation school and the Alexandria Academy, where he was given a classical education. His boyhood was enriched by a supportive and engaging extended family and academic success, but pinched by poverty and his mother’s failing health.
Misfortune again touched Robert’s life in 1821 with a scandal involving his half brother. Henry Lee IV shocked Virginians by seducing his young ward—her name was Elizabeth “Betsy” McCarty and she was Henry IV’s sister-in-law—embezzling her inheritance, and possibly murdering their child. Believing this disgrace would lead to social isolation, Robert convinced his mother to let him join the army.
Family and Military Life
Lee entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1825, where he excelled both scholastically and militarily. Admired for his geniality and fine presence, he was appointed cadet adjutant. However, he was unable to best Charles Mason, a talented New Yorker who took top honors academically, and who, like Lee, boasted a demerit-free record. (Mason went on to become chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court.) Lee graduated second in the class of 1829 and joined the Corps of Engineers.
Two years later Lee wed Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the witty, artistic great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. The couple had seven children, to whom Lee was powerfully attached. He also became increasingly tied to the Custis family seat at Arlington, with its splendid grounds and historical associations. In Lee’s uncertain army life, Arlington became an important anchor.
For seventeen years, Lee worked to strengthen the nation’s frontier defenses. Assigned throughout the country, he redirected rivers, designed coastal fortifications, and surveyed newly acquired territory. In the army Lee was known for his sociability and attention to detail, but called himself “an indifferent engineer.” Opportunities for advancement were meager and the work required extended absences from his family. Lee considered leaving the service virtually every year. “I would advise no young man to enter the army,” he regretfully admitted in a letter to his wife.
The Mexican War (1846–1848) disrupted the routine of army duty. Though Lee did not approve of the war, he relished the opportunity for action. For several months he laid out transportation routes, but early in 1847 he was put on the staff of General Winfield Scott. Lee admired Scott’s ability to overcome disadvantage by what the general termed “headwork,” by which he meant outthinking the enemy, planning precisely, and reacting to crises intellectually and not emotionally. In addition, Scott depended heavily on his young engineer for reconnaissance and tactical planning. Lee fought with distinction at battles such as Vera Cruz (March 1847), Cerro Gordo (April 1847), and Chapultepec (September 1847). He received two brevet promotions for his performance at Cerro Gordo. Scott would later call Lee “the very best soldier I ever saw in the field.” Although the Mexican War gave Lee valuable battlefield experience, he did not lead troops or design strategic campaigns in this conflict.
After the war, Lee returned to structural engineering until 1852, when U.S. secretary of war Jefferson Davis appointed him superintendent of West Point. Lee had not wanted the post and found it stressful. He was a careful steward of the academy, but found little opportunity for innovation. His rigid belief in the virtue of “duty” was not appreciated by the cadets, among whom he was unpopular. One notable contribution was his focus on equestrian instruction. Under Lee’s leadership some of America’s greatest cavalry officers were trained, among them J. E. B. Stuart, Fitzhugh Lee, and Philip H. Sheridan.
In March 1855, Lee eagerly accepted a lieutenant colonelship in the newly established 2nd U.S. Cavalry. Assigned to Texas, his unit was responsible for subduing the Comanche and chasing Mexican banditos. It proved a difficult posting. Lee found the work frustrating, and the isolation and harsh landscape oppressive. His beloved mother-in-law and favorite sister died early in the 1850s, causing him to embrace a somber brand of evangelical Protestantism, which left him dejected and self-critical. When his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, died in 1857, Lee willingly returned to Arlington to settle the estate.
The Politics of Slavery
As Custis’s executor, Lee found himself confronted with the political reality of slavery. He disliked the institution—more for its inefficiency than from moral repugnance—yet defended it throughout his life. Custis, however, had liberated his slaves in a messy will that stipulated that they be released within five years. Lee interpreted this to mean that the slaves could be held for the entire period. The slaves, believing they were already free, accosted Lee and escaped in large numbers. Lee responded by hiring out many Arlington slaves, breaking up families that had been together for decades. He then filed legal petitions to keep them enslaved indefinitely. Only when the courts ruled against him did Lee finally free the slaves.
Lee was again exposed to the volatile politics of slavery when ordered in October 1859 to suppress an attempted slave insurrection led by the radical abolitionist John Brown at Harpers Ferry. Commanding a small detachment of marines, Lee led a model operation in which none of Brown’s hostages was injured, and Brown was taken alive. The ramifications of the disturbing incident were reinforced when Lee witnessed Brown’s ominous predictions of the bloodshed to come, and stood guard at his execution.
The Union Divides
The malaise over slavery followed Lee when he returned to full-time duty in February 1860. As acting head of the Department of Texas he refused to allow that state’s secessionists to wrest federal property from him. As the crisis deepened, however, his thinking became increasingly conflicted. Although he did not believe in secession, he also declared that if “the Union can only be maintained by the sword & bayonet … its existence will lose all interest with me.” He particularly hoped that Virginia would remain in the Union so that his various loyalties—to country, army, state, and family—could remain intact. Recalled to Washington, he was promoted in March 1861 to full colonel by the new U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln, and once again swore an oath of allegiance to the United States. A few weeks later, Lee was forced to confront his ambivalence when Virginia seceded and he was offered command of Union forces recruited to protect Washington, D.C.
Mary Lee later called the moment “the severest struggle” of her husband’s life. Faced with a divided family and the collapse of his career, Lee spent two days consulting scripture and quietly considering his future. On April 20, 1861, he resigned from the U.S. Army, telling friends that he could not participate in an invasion of the South. A few days later he accepted command of Virginia’s forces.
As general, Lee was first assigned a desk job, where he undertook a methodical organization of Virginia’s forces. Finally given a field command in western Virginia, he was “mortified” when Union general William S. Rosecrans defeated him at Cheat Mountain in September 1861. Jefferson Davis relieved Lee and sent him to oversee the construction of fortifications along the Carolina and Georgia coasts, then returned him to an advisory position. Although frustrated, Lee later benefited from the connections he built with political leaders in the Confederate capital at Richmond.
On June 1, 1862, Lee began his celebrated relationship with the Army of Northern Virginia when Davis ordered him to temporarily replace Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston, wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines during the Peninsula Campaign. Lee’s immediate task was to check the advance of Union general George B. McClellan, whose Army of the Potomac was threatening Richmond. Devising a strategy that combined bold field maneuvers and defensive earthworks—the latter led to some calling him the “King of Spades”—Lee confronted McClellan from June 25 until July 1 in the Seven Days’ Battles. His men decisively won only one of the contests—Gaines’s Mill—and the plan suffered from overly complicated movements as well as poor communications. Nonetheless, by relentless fighting and skillful use of terrain, Lee was able to frighten McClellan away from the Confederate capital.
The Seven Days’ Battles previewed much of Lee’s battlefield style. They allowed horrific casualties—at Malvern Hill, the Army of Northern Virginia lost 5,300 men killed, wounded, or captured in a fight that included a massive assault that gained nothing—but showcased Lee’s expert use of entrenchments, and how he exploited opportunities through improvisation and sheer brio. The victory also inspired his men, who rallied to their new commander with an esprit that would last throughout the war.
The Golden Year for the Confederacy
After the Seven Days’ Battles, Lincoln placed John Pope in command of a new Army of Virginia, consisting of three corps that already had performed poorly against Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign (1862). Rightly suspecting that he might now face both McClellan’s and Pope’s armies, Lee initiated an aggressive campaign. Under his orders, Jackson confronted Union general Nathaniel P. Banks at Cedar Mountain on August 9, 1862, to win a narrow victory. Ignoring conventional wisdom, Lee then divided his force, tricking Pope into chasing Jackson, who faked a retreat. After a dramatic march, Jackson lured Pope’s overconfident army into a fierce battle at Manassas Junction on August 28. The following day, Lee’s other wing commander, James Longstreet, brought up his men to rejoin the two corps in the heat of fighting—an immensely difficult battlefield maneuver. On August 30, Longstreet hit Pope’s vulnerable left flank, crushed the Union force, and chased them to the horizon. (The three-day battle has come to be known as the Second Battle of Manassas.) Jackson followed the retreating Union troops, but was halted at the Battle of Chantilly on September 1.
Critics complained that Lee took too many risks on the campaign, that luck and Pope’s ineptitude rather than Confederate skill held it together, and that the days had again been shockingly “sanguinary.” Yet the boldness of his actions had given Lee the momentum. In the coming months his agility and elusiveness continually “baffled” superior Union forces, often turning their offensive drives into desperate defensive stands.
In this spirit Lee undertook an invasion of Union territory, a move that was popular with the public and the troops. Lee wanted to spare Virginians the ravages of two armies and he was anxious for his men to live off Maryland’s greener pastures. He and Davis hoped that if the war directly threatened Northerners it would create a political crisis that could topple the U.S. government and attract foreign assistance to the South. They also thought that slaveholding Maryland might be “liberated” and brought to their side.
But the arduous march north was poorly outfitted, and the men arrived in Maryland weakened by hunger and diminished by a high rate of desertion and straggling. (By some estimates Lee lost a third of his army.) Greeted without the expected enthusiasm, for the first time they suffered the disadvantage of being on hostile territory. The invasion had been a high-stakes gamble, but Lee increased the odds against him by again dividing his army, despite his officers’ skepticism. Jackson’s corps was sent to take logistically important Harpers Ferry, and the rest faced McClellan’s advancing men. The two armies clashed at South Mountain on September 14, where Lee was able to delay, but not defeat, the Union forces.
Three days later they met again near the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. McClellan, who had accidentally intercepted Lee’s campaign plans, also had an advantage in artillery and men. But the Union effort on September 17 was badly executed and its numerical superiority never fully exploited. Lee was able to thwart disaster by adroitly shifting forces to meet each of the violent contests that raged along Antietam Creek. At the end of the bloody day, however, the Union held the advantage.
Lee saved his army by deftly retreating across the Potomac River, and a brief fight at Shepherdstown helped convince McClellan not to pursue him. Though the campaign featured a victory at Harpers Ferry and some impressive tactical parrying, Lee had achieved none of his strategic objectives. In addition, Lincoln used his advantage to wrest the moral high ground from the South, issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, and effectively collapsing the possibility of foreign assistance to the Confederacy.
Lee’s army reestablished its formidable reputation at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. This time the Confederates faced a Union contingent a third again its size, under General Ambrose E. Burnside. Concentrating his forces, and establishing positions that took full advantage of the weaponry of the day, Lee allowed the Northern men to fruitlessly attack his defensive strongholds on Marye’s Heights, slaughtering thousands. The Union army survived by escaping across the Rappahannock River, but the defeat badly strained Northern morale.
Early in 1863, Lincoln again changed generals, placing the Army of the Potomac’s military machine under Joseph Hooker. Hooker believed he could trap Lee by attacking him simultaneously from several directions. Facing a Union force double his size at a crossroads called Chancellorsville, west of Fredericksburg, Lee again precariously divided his army. Over the course of the fighting, which lasted from May 1 until May 6 and included another Union charge up Marye’s Heights, Lee was able to squeeze the Union forces from two directions and then reunite his troops. The Confederates captured the most favorable artillery positions, launched a devastating barrage, then pressed the attack until Hooker had to pull back. Through surprise and daring, Lee had turned a vulnerable defensive position into a brilliant tactical offense.
Even the Union prisoners cheered when Lee rode in front of his troops in this moment of triumph. Yet in many ways it was an empty victory. More than 20 percent of his soldiers lay on the gory fields, or were maimed or missing. Stonewall Jackson, wounded accidentally by his own men, died on May 10. Lee himself complained that “our loss was severe, and again we had gained not an inch of ground and the enemy could not be pursued.”
Lee risked his scarce resources in such large and costly battles because he hoped to destroy the enemy’s army—or to discourage Northerners so profoundly that they would demand an end to the conflict. In each contest he attacked with ferocity, hoping for a final annihilation of the Union forces. In addition, much of the Southern public was buoyed by theatrical successes such as Chancellorsville and anxious for quick victory. But this Napoleonic style of warfare was less effective against improved weaponry and technology, such as railroads, that allowed troops to be easily reinforced. Even the fanatical Confederate Edmund Ruffin noted that such “great & bloody battles” led to “no important results whatever, except to damage, weaken, & impoverish both the contending powers.” Later historians have also questioned Lee’s strategy and debated whether the Confederacy might have been more successful in a war of attrition, wearing down the North by using irregular tactics on the difficult Southern terrain, much as Washington and Lee’s own father did against the British.
Gettysburg to the End of the War
Lee’s reputation had now grown to the point that he and his army had become a major source of national unity in the Confederacy. Civilians as well as soldiers looked to him for leadership and inspiration, rather than to Davis’s problematic government. With his authority at its height, Lee convinced Confederate officials to approve another northward excursion. Always reluctant to fight on fronts not directly related to Virginia’s defense, he argued against sending his men to reinforce besieged Vicksburg, Mississippi. In June 1863, after reorganizing his army, he moved up the Shenandoah Valley (where he fought and won the Second Battle of Winchester), through Maryland, and into Pennsylvania. Lee welcomed the fresh foraging, and again hoped to cripple Union morale by delivering a knockout punch that would win peace on Confederate terms.
The battle that resulted was fought at Gettysburg for three days from July 1 until July 3, 1863. The first day’s contest began as an incidental cavalry encounter and escalated as both sides augmented their forces. By evening, Lee’s men—including forces under Confederate generals A. P. Hill, Richard S. Ewell, and Jubal A. Early—had driven their opponents outside Gettysburg, but the Union troops made a prescient decision to retreat to high ground south of town. Lee also recognized the value of these heights and ordered Ewell to take a critical rise called Culp’s Hill, but he failed to provide Ewell with either the precise instructions or the reinforcements needed to gain a success.
The next day, Lee determined to attack the Northern forces, despite the misgivings of his lieutenants, including Longstreet, in particular. He had two serious disadvantages. Under generals George G. Meade (who had taken command of the Army of the Potomac a few days earlier) and Winfield Scott Hancock, the Union line had been strengthened overnight by entrenchments and an ingenious fish-hook formation that allowed for easy reinforcement of its weaker sections. Lee’s second problem was a lack of information. Cavalry general J. E. B. Stuart, who served as the eyes and ears of Lee’s army, was absent (with Lee’s approval) on an extended expedition, foraging and harassing Union troops away from the front lines. Lee had hoped for an early morning attack on both the Union right and left flanks, but the shortage of reliable intelligence caused delays, misguided marches, and unexpected exposure to Union fire. Despite spirited fighting by Longstreet’s corps at critical spots such as Little Round Top and Devil’s Den, the Union line held.
Casualties During Pickett’s Charge
Lee hoped to recoup the Army of Northern Virginia’s pride that autumn during the Bristoe Campaign, but Meade refused to be enticed into another major engagement, and the Confederates had little success. Still determined to “strike them a blow” Lee eagerly awaited the spring season, undaunted by the appointment of Ulysses S. Grant as general-in-chief of Union armies. Grant, the victor at Vicksburg, came east to lead the Army of the Potomac personally.
What ensued was the Overland Campaign, some seven weeks of brutal, relentless fighting. The armies first met on May 5 and 6, 1864, in the scrubby woods, known locally as the Wilderness, near the old Chancellorsville battlefield. Lee knew his resources were too limited to force Grant back to Washington, D.C., but he had not expected the Union to push onward after its appalling casualties in a stalemated contest at the Battle of the Wilderness. Some of the heaviest fighting of the war took place the following week near Spotsylvania Court House, particularly around a Confederate breastwork known as the Bloody Angle. Lee, outnumbered two to one, was able to hold his own through swift tactical maneuvering and his forceful personal role in rallying the ranks. Still, Grant edged southward. Lee forestalled the drive when on June 3 the Union flung itself against the zigzagged Confederate fortifications at Cold Harbor, suffering 7,000 casualties, many of whom fell in an ill-conceived assault. Nonetheless, Grant continued the forward movement, maneuvering past Lee a few weeks later and into a siege at Petersburg.
Lee’s inspirational leadership of his soldiers was notable throughout the war, but in this campaign it became legendary. The men looked up to Lee because of his splendid bearing, his courage on the field, his fair dealings, and his willingness to share their hardships. He also led them to victory, and to many he became the embodiment of the Army of Northern Virginia’s alleged invincibility. During the campaigns of 1864 he was conspicuous on the field—rallying the troops, directing battle maneuvers, plugging gaps, and sometimes acting more like a brigade commander than the general in charge. This hands-on role is one reason Lee was able to frustrate Grant’s powerful machine for so long. It also reinforced his soldiers’ worshipful regard. “You are the country to these men,” General Henry A. Wise reportedly told Lee at the end of the conflict. “They have fought for you.”
Diminished by some 35,000 casualties during the Overland Campaign—the most famous of whom, J. E. B. Stuart, was killed at the Battle of Yellow Tavern—the Army of Northern Virginia held on in miserable trench conditions for nearly nine months. Always a reluctant politician, Lee was unable to wrest critical supplies from the Confederate authorities. His army quashed a Union attempt to exploit the huge explosion of a mine dug under its fortifications at the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864, but various efforts at offensive action failed. After a final repulse at Fort Stedman on March 25, 1865, Lee’s defeat was only a matter of time. Hoping to move the remnant of his army southward to join Joseph Johnston’s troops, Lee signaled Davis that Petersburg and Richmond must be abandoned. On April 6, during the Appomattox Campaign, the Confederates suffered a costly defeat at Sailor’s Creek, which left them desperately short of men and supplies. Cornered, Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House. “I fought the enemy at every step,” he told a confidant in what amounted to a final assessment of his war efforts. “I believe I got out of [my army] all they could do or all any men could do.”
Despite his defeat, Lee was hugely admired in the postwar South. Counseling his soldiers to return home peaceably, Lee showed by example how to accept loss with dignity. The war had taken a terrific personal toll on the Lees: death had claimed numerous family members and Arlington had been confiscated for use as a national cemetery. Penniless, Lee accepted an offer to be president of Washington College, a small, nearly destitute school in Lexington. His stated goal was the instruction of the rising generation and the rebuilding of his state. Lee proved to be an able educator, though he did not relish the work. He added practical subjects such as engineering and journalism to the traditional classical studies, attracted funding from both the North and the South, and introduced a rigorous disciplinary code. Publicly he counseled Southerners to face the future with stoicism and hard work.
Privately, he was far from content. Although Lee was granted parole at Appomattox, his personal fate was uncertain until his citizenship was returned with the amnesty of 1868. After this time, though still maintaining a low public profile, he worked to establish a conservative state government, wrote angry private diatribes against the principle of majority rule, and advocated disenfranchising the newly liberated African Americans. Racial conflicts also plagued Washington College, to which he responded ambivalently. He considered writing his memoirs but decided they could become provocative and edited his father’s reminiscences instead. Saddened and embittered, Lee told a friend that the “great mistake” of his life had been “taking a military education.” Lee died of a probable stroke on October 12, 1870.
The South went into universal mourning and Lee became a charismatic symbol of honor and sacrifice in the region. In the nineteenth century, proponents of the Lost Cause view of the Civil War used both myth and fact to mold a public image of Lee as a titan of personal virtue and military genius. Early in the twentieth century, several national figures, including U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, praised him as a unifying personality, citing his efforts to pacify the South after the war. Recent scholarship has more-closely probed Lee’s motives and battlefield decisions, as well as his support for a racially stratified society. Since his decision to withdraw from the Union in 1861, his actions have provoked controversy. Yet Lee remains a significant historical figure, whose importance lies as much in the questions he prods Americans to ask about patriotism and loyalty as it does in his battlefield prowess.