Robert Edward Lee Jr. was born on October 27, 1843, at Arlington, the Lee family plantation in Alexandria County (later Arlington County). Rob Lee, as he was known to family and friends, was the sixth of seven children and the youngest of three boys. His mother,, was the daughter of , the adopted grandson of . His father, Robert E. Lee, was a U.S. Army officer and the son of . As a young man, Lee Jr. endured his father’s long absences. In the Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee (1904), he wrote that his earliest memory of his father was of the elder Lee returning home from service in the Mexican War (1846–1848) after an absence of nearly two years. In a story that is by turns humorous and sad, Lee Jr. writes that his father didn’t recognize him and kissed Lee’s playmate by accident.
Lee received an excellent education. He first attended school in Baltimore, while his father was serving at Fort Carroll, then moved with the family to West Point, New York, where the elder Lee served as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy. He remembered his father helping him with Latin and teaching him how to ride a horse. “I saw but little of my father after we left West Point,” Lee wrote, noting that in 1855 the elder Lee was made lieutenant colonel of the newly established 2nd U.S. Cavalry. He was ordered to Saint Louis in preparation for duty fighting Comanche Indians in Texas. The family returned to Arlington.
Rather than seek a military education, Lee Jr. attended the University of Virginia from 1860 to 1861, undergoing a spiritual conversion there. “How are you getting along with your God,”his sister Mildred Childe Lee on January 10, 1861. “O! my sister neglect not him. I have suffered much from neglecting him.”
When war broke out, Lee—not yet eighteen years old—was, according to his Recollections and Letters, “wild to go,” but he had to wait until he was of military age. In April 1861, he joined the South Guards, an ad-hoc unit of student soldiers at the. The Guards marched to before Governor ordered them back to Charlottesville. On March 28, 1862, Lee enlisted as a private in the that, with five Virginia infantry regiments, formed the , under the command of Confederate general . He experienced his first fighting in the . Although it was a victory for Confederate troops, the First Conscription Act, passed on April 16, 1862, and the reorganization of the army that followed dampened morale and increased . “The whole army seems very much dissatisfied,” Lee on April 23, 1862. He noted there were “a good many desertions among the militia & the valley men who refuse to leave their homes behind them.” Lee himself was not discouraged, and he looked down upon men of wavering patriotism.
On May 23, 1862, at the Battle of Front Royal, part of the Valley Campaign, Confederates routed a much smaller force of Union troops under Colonel John Reese Kenly. Lee wrote of overrunning Union camps and the men helping themselves to bacon, sugar, coffee, and other luxuries. Hethat he made a “hearty meal” of “bread & butter ginger cakes & sugar wh[ich] helped me out, for I was nearly starved.” Victory, however, did not erase the harsh realities of war. Lee saw one of his friends in the face at Front Royal. As for himself, he was exhausted. “I think I have been through as hard a time as I ever will see in this war,” he told his father. The hard fighting, though, energized him. “I am now as hearty as a buck feeling better than I ever did in my life,” he reassured the general.
Lee did not see his father again until the Seven Days’ Battles, fought nearfrom June 25 to July 1, 1862. By then, the elder Lee had taken command of the and was fighting to drive Union general from the outskirts of the Confederate capital. General Lee had the help of Jackson’s Valley veterans, but in his Recollections and Letters Lee Jr. wrote that by then, “short rations, the bad water, and the great heat, had begun to tell on us, and I was pretty well worn out.” The Stonewall Brigade excelled in the Valley but did little of note during the Seven Days’ Battles.
On October 20, his twenty-three-year-old sister Anne Carter Lee died of typhoid fever in North Carolina. “It is a sad blow to us all,” Lee, before falling upon his religious beliefs for comfort; “but God in his mercy Knows what is best for us all.” About the same time Lee Jr. was commissioned a lieutenant aide-de-camp, serving as a staff officer to his brother William Henry Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee, who led a cavalry regiment. He fought with the regiment at the , in December 1862, and then at Chancellorsville the following spring. Rooney Lee was captured in June 1863, and Lee Jr. left the regiment’s staff and worked instead for the ordnance department in Richmond.
After the Confederate defeat at(July 1–3, 1863) he returned to service with the 13th Virginia Cavalry, commanded by John Randolph Chambliss in a division led by Lee’s brother Rooney. His subsequent letters home document the army’s morale. On July 30, 1863, he that “the men & officers are in very good spirits & very desirous of establishing their fame firmly, which they think has been a little shaken at Gettysburg.” The next spring, as the new Union general-in-chief, , began a renewed push toward Richmond, morale was still high in the Army of Northern Virginia. In a letter to his sister, Eleanor Agnes Lee, , he wrote that soldiers got plenty to eat and that he was impatient to “turn our horses out on the fine grass in Maryland & Pennsylvania.” By that summer, Grant’s advance had in front of . Stationed on the extreme right of the Confederate line, Lee was slightly wounded in the autumn, but again he recovered. By 1865, his outlook on the war and his likelihood to survive it had grown darker. “I don’t know whether I shall ever see you again,” he on February 16, 1865.
In the, on April 2 or 3, Lee Jr. had a horse shot from under him, causing him to be cut off from the rest of the army. In his Recollections and Letters, he recalled being “surprised” when he heard of the news of his father’s . “To say that I was surprised does not express my feelings,” he wrote. “I had never heard the word ‘surrender’ mentioned, nor even suggested, in connection with our general or our army.” Joining a group of cavalrymen led by Thomas Lafayette Rosser, he followed the remnants of Confederate president ‘s government to Greensboro, North Carolina. That was as far as he made it. He eventually returned to Richmond and was paroled there on May 25, 1865.
In theof his grandfather George Washington Parke Custis, who died in 1857, Lee had inherited one of Custis’s three properties, Romancoke, a rundown plantation of about 4,000 acres in King William County, about 40 miles east of Richmond. He set himself up there after the war as a bachelor farmer. A letter from his father, , suggests that he struggled with the intricacies of farm management and looked to the elder Lee for advice. About his son’s labor shortage, the former general suggested Germans, Dutch, and other white men, but argued that Lee Jr. “will never prosper with the blacks … whose sympathies are antagonistic to yours.” The racial upheaval of the period notwithstanding, Lee Jr. took little interest in politics and his views of African Americans were typical of the time in their condescension.
After a long courtship, Lee married Charlotte Taylor “Lottie” Haxall on November 16, 1871, in Orange County. A friend of the Lee family, she died of tuberculosis on September 22, 1872. Lee’s father died in 1870, his mother and sister Eleanor Agnes both in 1873. Lee sought comfort in his family and, in 1875, departed for England with his sister Mildred, staying for a year. Either late in 1890 or early in 1891 he moved from Romancoke to Washington, D.C., where he worked in the insurance business. On March 8, 1894, in Washington, Lee married Juliet Carter, the daughter of Lee’s second cousin Colonel Thomas Henry Carter, of King William County. The couple had two daughters.
Lee had loved his famous father and felt unworthy of being his son. In a letter to his mother,, and a few months after the elder Lee’s death, he lamented his own “selfishness & weakness” and felt he had “done so little for him, tried so little to follow in his footsteps.” The publication, in 1904, of the Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee might be seen as an attempt to assuage this guilt. The book included transcriptions of General Lee’s letters, recollections of his spoken words, and anecdotes drawn from Lee Jr.’s memories and those of his older siblings. The book was well received and remains essential reading for Lee scholars.
Lee and his family eventually returned to Romancoke. In 1909, the Englishman Gerald Smythe, an honorary member of the R. E. Lee Camp of the United Confederate Veterans, visited him there. Lee “had a profound admiration for the ‘plain’ men who went into the ranks of the Confederate armies,” SmytheConfederate Veteran magazine, “such as small farmers and their sons, professors and students at the military institutes and universities, professional men of the three learned classes.” Despite the fact that Lee was General Lee’s son, Smythe believed—correctly—that Lee had not had it easy in the army.
After a prolonged illness Lee died on October 14, 1914, at Nordley, a home he had built in Upperville. He was buried with his family inat Washington and Lee University in Lexington.
- The Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee (1904)