Robert E. Lee (1807–1870)


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.

Early Years

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.

Robert E. Lee and Son

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.

Battle of Vera Cruz

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.

West Point

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

Robert E. Lee and the Custis Slaves

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

Arlington House

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

General John Pope

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.

Robert E. Lee's Boot and Spur

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.

Proclamation to the People of Maryland

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.

Robert E. Lee in Illustrated London News

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.”

The Last Meeting

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.

Confederate Dead at Gettysburg

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

The following day, Lee stubbornly continued his attack. Confederates nearly seized Culp’s Hill but fell back when Union troops rallied in a do-or-die defense. Late in the afternoon, Lee ordered a massive assault against the Union center, again overriding his subordinates’ objections. Poorly organized and facing formidable defensive works, the 12,500 men in Pickett’s Charge were repulsed at tremendous cost. As the routed Confederates streamed back to their lines, Lee acknowledged his responsibility. “It is all my fault,” he told his shattered men. The next day he began a tortuous ten-day retreat to Virginia, and, to Lincoln’s chagrin, was able to salvage his army.

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.

Robert E. Lee's Saddle

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.

General Robert E. Lee's Headquarters Flag

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.”

General Robert E. Lee's Surrender

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.”

Later Years

Robert E. Lee's Amnesty Oath

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.

Death of General Robert E. Lee

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.

January 19, 1807
Robert E. Lee is born at Stratford Hall, Westmoreland County.
The Lee family—including Henry Lee III, his wife Ann Hill Carter Lee, and their son Robert—moves to Alexandria.
Badly beaten by a political mob and dodging his creditors, Henry Lee III skips bail to sail for the West Indies, abandoning his family. His son Robert never sees him again.
Henry Lee IV shocks Virginians by seducing his young ward, Elizabeth "Betsy" McCarty, embezzling her inheritance, and possibly murdering their child. His disgrace in part motivates his half brother Robert to join the army.
June 1825
Robert E. Lee enters the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.
June 1829
Robert E. Lee graduates second in his class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, behind only Charles Mason. He enters the Army Corps of Engineers as a brevet 2nd lieutenant.
November 1, 1829
Robert E. Lee reports to his first military assignment at Cockspur Island, Georgia, near Savannah.
May 7, 1831
Robert E. Lee reports to Fort Monroe.
June 30, 1831
Robert E. Lee marries Mary Anna Randolph Custis, Martha Washington's great-granddaughter, at Arlington, the Custis family seat.
July 19, 1832
Robert E. Lee is promoted to 2nd lieutenant, shedding his brevet, or honorary, designation.
September 16, 1832
George Washington Custis Lee, son of Robert E. Lee and Mary Randolph Custis Lee, is born.
November 1834
Robert E. Lee reports to the Chief Engineer's Office in Washington, D.C.
May 1835:
Along with his superior officer Andrew Talcott, Robert E. Lee surveys the boundary between the Ohio and Michigan territories to resolve a border dispute.
July 12, 1835
Mary Custis Lee, the daughter of Mary Randolph Custis Lee and Robert E. Lee, is born. Mary Lee suffers serious illness at the birth.
September 21, 1836
Robert E. Lee is promoted to 1st lieutenant.
May 31, 1837
William Henry Fitzhugh "Rooney" Lee, the son of Robert E. Lee and Mary Randolph Custis Lee, is born.
August 5, 1837
Robert E. Lee arrives in Saint Louis, Missouri, where he heads a project to unblock the city's silted port and develop a navigable route through the rapids on the Mississippi River at Keokuk, Iowa, and Rock Island, Illinois.
August 7, 1838
Robert E. Lee is promoted to captain.
June 18, 1839
Anne Carter Lee, the daughter of Robert E. Lee and Mary Randolph Custis Lee, is born.
Autumn 1840
Robert E. Lee travels south to inspect coastal fortifications.
February 27, 1841
Eleanor "Agnes" Lee, the daughter of Robert E. Lee and Mary Randolph Custis Lee, is born.
April 10, 1841
Robert E. Lee reports to Fort Hamilton, New York.
October 27, 1843
Robert Edward Lee Jr., the son of Robert E. Lee and Mary Randolph Custis Lee, is born.
February 10, 1846
Mildred Childe Lee, the daughter of Robert E. Lee and Mary Randolph Custis Lee, is born.
August 11, 1846
Robert E. Lee is on a boat from New Orleans, Louisiana, to Texas, on his way to serve in the Mexican War.
January 16, 1847—June 29, 1848
Robert E. Lee serves on Winfield Scott's staff during the Mexican War. He earns brevet promotions to major and lieutenant colonel.
November 5, 1848
Robert E. Lee is assigned to work on harbor fortifications in Baltimore, Maryland, but winter weather prevents work from beginning until the spring of 1849.
September 1, 1852
Robert E. Lee reports to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, where U.S. secretary of war Jefferson Davis has assigned him to serve as superintendent.
March 3, 1855
Robert E. Lee is promoted to lieutenant colonel and is assigned to the 2nd Cavalry then stationed in Texas. He is responsible for subduing the Comanche and chasing Mexican banditos, but actually spends much of his time serving on courts-martial.
November 11, 1857
Robert E. Lee, on leave from army duty in Texas, arrives at Arlington in Virginia to administer the estate of his father-in-law.
As executor of his father-in-law's estate, Robert E. Lee files an appeal with the Supreme Court of Virginia to keep slaves in bondage "indefinitely" that were to be freed within five years. Slaves at Arlington rebel, accosting Lee and running away in large numbers.
October 17, 1859
A contingent of ninety U.S. Marines, under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, arrives in Harpers Ferry at 11 p.m. to put an end to John Brown's raid.
Winter 1860
Robert E. Lee serves as the acting head of the U.S. Army's Department of Texas and refuses to cede U.S. property to local secessionists.
March 1, 1861
Recalled from Texas, Robert E. Lee arrives in Washington, D.C., where President Abraham Lincoln promotes him to full colonel.
April 17, 1861
Delegates at the Virginia Convention in Richmond pass an Ordinance of Secession by a vote of 88 to 55. Thirty-two of the "no" votes come from trans-Allegheny delegates, who are more firmly Unionist than representatives from other parts of the state.
April 20, 1861
Following Virginia's secession, Robert E. Lee resigns from the U.S. Army.
April 23, 1861
Robert E. Lee accepts command of Virginia forces.
September 12—15, 1861
Union general William S. Rosecrans defeats Confederates under Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Cheat Mountain in western Virginia.
November 1861—March 1862
Robert E. Lee, who is "mortified" by his defeat at the Battle of Cheat Mountain, is relieved of his command and sent to oversee the construction of fortifications along the Carolina and Georgia coasts.
March—June 1862
Confederate general Robert E. Lee serves as an advisor to Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
June 1, 1862, 2 p.m.
Confederate president Jefferson Davis assigns Confederate general Robert E. Lee to command the Army of Northern Virginia after Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston is wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines—Fair Oaks.
June 25—July 1, 1862
In the Seven Days' Battles near Richmond, Robert E. Lee defeats George B. McClellan in a series of fierce engagements. In contrast to the Shenandoah Valley campaign, Confederate general Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's movements are slow, sparking controversy among contemporaries and subsequent historians over the reasons for Jackson's performance.
August 28—30, 1862
At the Second Battle of Manassas, Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia defeats Union forces under John Pope.
September 17, 1862
In the bloodiest single day of the war, George B. McClellan attacks Confederates under Robert E. Lee at Antietam Creek in Maryland. The battle ends in a stalemate, but Lee is forced to retreat south to Virginia.
September 20, 1862
The Battle of Shepherdstown ends in a tactical stalemate, but Confederate general Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia is saved from destruction as it retreats from Maryland.
December 13, 1862
Confederate general Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia crush Union general Ambrose E. Burnside and the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Fredericksburg in one of the most lopsided defeats of the war.
May 1—6, 1863
Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia defeat Joseph Hooker's Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Chancellorsville. The brilliant victory comes at great cost when Confederate general Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson is mortally wounded by friendly fire.
July 1—3, 1863
Union general George G. Meade defeats Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg, forcing the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to retreat toward Virginia.
Autumn 1863
Following his defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate general Robert E. Lee fails to maneuver Union general George G. Meade into another major engagement during the Bristoe Station Campaign.
May 5—7, 1864
Confederate general Robert E. Lee clashes for the first time with the new Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant at the Battle of the Wilderness during the Overland Campaign. Casualties are heavy for both armies, but unlike his predecessors, Grant refuses to retreat.
May 8—26, 1864
At the battles of Spotsylvania Court House and North Anna River during the Overland Campaign, Confederate general Robert E. Lee again clashes with Union general Ulysses S. Grant and the Army of the Potomac. Grant continues to maneuver south.
May 31—June 12, 1864
Confederate general Robert E. Lee stalls Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant's drive southward during the Overland Campaign at the Battle of Cold Harbor, where the Union suffers 7,000 casualties on the morning of June 3 alone.
June 16, 1864—March 25, 1865
The Union Army of the Potomac lays siege to Petersburg. The siege is characterized by 30 miles of trenches stretching Confederate defenses thin, and occasional pitched battles, including the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864, and the more-decisive Battle of Five Forks on April 1, 1865.
February 6, 1865
Confederate president Jefferson Davis appoints Robert E. Lee general-in-chief of all Confederate forces.
April 2, 1865
After Union forces break through Confederate lines around Petersburg at the Battle of Five Forks a day earlier, Richmond is evacuated.
April 9, 1865
Confederate general Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia surrender to Union general Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House.
September 1865
Robert E. Lee becomes the president of Washington College in Lexington. During his tenure, he expands the school's scope and size.
August 1868
Robert E. Lee signs a petition recommending denial of political power to African Americans.
December 25, 1868
Former Confederate general Robert E. Lee regains his United States citizenship through the Christmas amnesty proclaimed by President Andrew Johnson.
October 12, 1870
Robert E. Lee dies of a probable stroke at Lexington.
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APA Citation:
Pryor, Elizabeth. Robert E. Lee (1807–1870). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/lee-robert-e-1807-1870.
MLA Citation:
Pryor, Elizabeth. "Robert E. Lee (1807–1870)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 17 May. 2024
Last updated: 2022, April 20
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