Robert E. Lee Biography – Famous Confederate General

Robert E. Lee  – today, the mere mention of his name is enough to arouse passionate debate. In his time, he was loved and respected by both the Confederate Army and the Southern people. Curiously, following the Civil War, this high admiration carried over to include the people of the North, and Lee become a cherished figure for all Americans. During the war, when Abraham Lincoln looked at a picture of Lee, he remarked that a man with such a compassionate countenance had to be a ‘good man.’ But the war to which he devoted his every fiber broke him, if not in spirit, certainly in body and he was only to outlive the conflict by five years.


In this week’s Biographics, we discover the man who was Robert E. Lee.

Early Life

Robert E. Lee was born on January 19, 1807 at Stratford Hill Plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia. His father, a wealthy Virginia aristocrat, had been a  hero during the American Revolution. A series of bad investments left ‘Light Horse Harry’ penniless, and he fled Virginia and his family, never to return. Lee was raised by his mother, a proud, educated woman. She was to see to it that her son was not deprived of a proper upbringing because he was fatherless, and that he was well educated in the arts, languages and philosophy.

Stratford Hall, Westmoreland County the family seat, Lee's birthplace

Stratford Hall, Westmoreland County the family seat, Lee’s birthplace

Young Robert secured an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1825, and he graduated second in his class to immediately begin his career in the United States Army.

A Military Career

Lee distinguished himself in the Mexican War, where he served on the staff of a fellow Virginian, General Winfield Scott. As a captain, Lee was responsible for several courageous personal reconnaissance missions, which produced intelligence that led to American victories. During this period, when the military had no medals for bravery, officers were given ‘brevet promotions’ for brave deeds during warfare.

Captain Lee received three of these brevets during the Mexican War: to major, lieutenant colonel, and finally colonel. Scott described Lee as ‘the very best soldier I ever saw in the field.’

Lee progressed through a series of military assignments in the peacetime army and was in command of the First Cavalry in Texas as the Civil War was beginning.

Lee got caught up early in the political turmoil that was about to engulf the nation. While he was on leave from his position in Texas, John Brown attacked the armory at Harper’s Ferry, an event that clearly set the nation on the road to war. President Buchanan called on Lee to take command of a small Federal force that would be responsible for bringing the situation under control. Lee and a future subordinate who was also on leave, J.E.B Stuart, took command of a small group of marines and captured the insurgents with Brown.

Lee at age 31 in 1838, as a Lieutenant of Engineers in the U.S. Army

Lee at age 31 in 1838, as a Lieutenant of Engineers in the U.S. Army

As the nation began to fracture, Lee – like most of his contemporaries in the army – was placed in a  difficult situation, as it became obvious that the southern states planned to defend themselves with arms. General Winfield Scott, the aging patriarch of the army, urged Lincoln to offer Lee command of the army. Learning of this offer, Lee struggled with the definition of ‘duty’, a word that had meant everything to him as an officer in the United States army.

A Fateful Decision

On the April 19th, 1861 after Virginia had quit the Union, Robert E. Lee faced the most difficult decision of his life. It kept him up all night, pacing the wooden floor of his Arlington mansion. Lee’s daughter, Mary Custis Lee, recalled that, that night, Arlington was like a place where a death had occurred. The death in question was the end of a brilliant military career. Lee’s wife, Mary, later wrote . . .

My husband has wept tears of blood over this terrible war. But, as a man of honor, and as a Virginian, he must follow the destiny of his state. It was the severest struggle of his life – to resign a commission he had held for thirty years.

“Never do a wrong thing to make a friend or to keep one.” Robert E. Lee

To accept the command would undoubtedly mean fighting against his native Virginia and the South, something he couldn’t bring himself to do. Resignation from the army was also a difficult choice to make, and as he wrestled with his decision, he was attended by the prospect of bloodshed on either side. Finally, he decided to resign his commission in the army and attempt to avoid service with either side in the forthcoming conflict.

Lee himself wrote . . .

With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore, resigned my commission in the army. Except in the defense of my native state, I hope to never draw my sword again.

This statement was to prove to be prophetic.

On Monday, April 22nd, 1861 Lee left his home at Arlington, never to return. Within two weeks, Union troops occupied his house. Mary and their four girls were vagabonds of war. His three sons were soldiers in grey, while Lee was in Richmond planning the defense of Virginia.

The general belief among politicians and militarists in the South was that the war would be short. But Lee believed otherwise, prophetically stating . . .


If it comes to a conflict of arms, the war will last at least four years. Northern politicians do not appreciate the determination and pluck of the South and Southern politicians do not appreciate the numbers, resources and patient perseverance of the North. Both sides forget that we are all Americans. I foresee that the country will have to pass through a terrible ordeal, a necessary expiation perhaps for our national sins.

The Civil War

During the early days of the war, it became apparent to Lee that the South would fight a  defensive war, and that his beloved Virginia would become the major battlefield of that war. He accepted a commission as a commander of Virginia’s troops and was soon commissioned as a brigadier general in the Confederate army. He remained in relatively obscure positions during the first year of the war as he gained his earliest Civil War experience in the mountainous region of western Virginia. Here the poor weather, combined with the political infighting between two of Virginia’s former governors – now generals – resulted in disastrous military failures for the Confederacy.

General Robert E. Lee

General Robert E. Lee

Lee was attacked in Southern newspapers as ‘Evacuating Lee’ and ‘Granny Lee.’ His hair and his new beard turned gray during the tension-filled mountain campaigns.

Lee’s next assignment was on the Carolina sea coast, where he was responsible for  building defenses to prevent large-scale Union army attacks from the sea. He placed his strong defensive positions upstream, where shallow rivers could not be easily navigated by the Union navy.

Lee’s ability as a military engineer was proved by the fact that his defenses were to last for much of the war, but he was nicknamed ‘King of Spades’ because of the construction work he managed. His detractors, however, were soon to realize their mistake in misjudging this aggressive officer.

When his West Point classmate, Joseph E. Johnston, was severely wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines in June, 1862, Lee was placed in command of what was soon to become the legendary Army of Northern Virginia. As Union General George MccLellan advanced towards the new Confederate capital, Lee ordered his men to begin digging defenses for Richmond – giving new credence to one of his nicknames – but he was soon to demonstrate the audacious side of his military personality.

“The education of a man is never completed until he dies.” Robert E. Lee

Lee initiated the Seven Day’s Campaign on June 25th, 1862, and he had soon pushed the Union army from the outskirts of Richmond. By August 29th, he and his army were positioned to do battle at Manassas, Virginia, where he defeated the Union army for a second time before invading Maryland. This new commander of the Confederate army had completely changed the military situation in only a few weeks. In June, the entire Union army had been poised to attack Richmond, but by September, Lee was in a position from which he could threaten Washington, D.C.

Robert E. Lee, around age 38, and his son William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, around age 8, c.1845

Robert E. Lee, around age 38, and his son William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, around age 8, c.1845

Lee’s army fought to a  stalemate at the Battle of Antietam on September 17th and withdrew to the southern side of the Potomac. In December, Lee was able to conclude the 1862 campaign with a major victory over Ambrose Burnside’s Union forces at Fredericksburg, Virginia sending the Northern army reeling back to bases near Washington.

Lee and his hard-marching subordinate, ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, were able to defeat  a larger Union army under Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville in the first campaign of 1863, but the victory was costly. Jackson was fatally wounded by his own men while conducting a personal reconnaissance of the enemy’s lines. This was a common feature of good Confederate commanders; they would conduct their own reconnaissance during lulls in the battle in which they were engaged. Viewed as unnecessary bravado by some historians, this was a key to the successful operations of the Confederate commanders, and Lee himself frequently undertook these hazardous operations. He returned from a  personal battlefield reconnaissance at Second Manassas with a mark on his face where a sharpshooter’s bullet had grazed him.

In 1869, Everett B. D. Julio painted this scene of the Civil War generals and their horses. It depicts their meeting on May 1, 1863, just before the tragic death of Jackson.

In 1869, Everett B. D. Julio painted this scene of the Civil War generals and their horses. It depicts their meeting on May 1, 1863, just before the tragic death of Jackson.

Lee’s immediate reaction to the death of his most trusted officer was that it was God’s will and that the Lord would raise someone else up to take Jackson’s place. In that hope, however, he was mistaken. Lee would just have to do the best he could by himself.

At Chancellorsville, Lee cemented his reputation as a brilliant battlefield commander. It was a battle that seemingly, on paper, he could not win. Outnumbered two to one, he still divided his army in half in the face of the enemy. He won the battle in spectacular fashion and it was, undoubtedly, his most famous victory.

Lee in uniform, 1863

Lee in uniform, 1863

The victory at Chancellorsville cleared the way for another Confederate invasion of the north. Confusion within the Union army combined with the losses of the earlier battle gave Lee the opportunity he longed for; a chance to destroy the Union army in a classic Napoleonic battle that would end the Civil War. This was a high-risk operation, but Lee placed great faith in the ability of his Army of Northern Virginia, for it had done the nearly impossible before.

Battle of Gettysburg

At Gettysburg he would attempt to do it again.

In June of 1863, Lee boldly moved his army of nearly 60,000 men into Union territory. His plan was to destroy as many military posts as he could in Maryland and Pennsylvania as possible while the Union army was  forced to defend Washington, D.C. A key target was Camp Curtin, just outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. This was the largest military supply depot in the north.

Battle of Gettysburg, by Thure de Thulstrup

Battle of Gettysburg, by Thure de Thulstrup

Lee’s main aim was not to defeat the Union army militarily, but to bring the war to an end politically. He believed that a massive defeat in the north would encourage people to lose faith in the war and demand it’s end. However, as the Confederate forces moved north, a skirmish erupted in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania between opposing cavalry units. Lee got word of the skirmish and was startled to be informed that a major Union force was closing in on Gettysburg. Instead of sending a cavalry reconnaissance force to confirm the report, he sent his entire army to mobilize.

This was a colossal mistake.

Lee ordered all of his forces to converge at Cashtown, a small village seven miles from Gettysburg. As the 60,000 Confederates poured in, around 3,000 union soldiers took position on McPherson Ridge. These men tried to hold off the onslaught of Rebel soldiers until help arrived. But reinforcements were miles away toward Washington, D.C. The Union soldiers were forced to withdraw southeast onto Cemetery Ridge, a range of hills on the outskirts of Gettysburg that forms the shape of a fish-hook. This position provided an extremely strong defensive advantage.

“In all my perplexities and distresses, the Bible has never failed to give me light and strength.” Robert E. Lee

Lee immediately saw the danger in the strength of the Union position, but because of his numerical superiority he believed that the enemy was vulnerable. But Union forces soon arrived and strengthened to defensive position.

Though it was nowhere near Lee’s best campaign, much of what happened at Gettysburg was still remarkable from a southern perspective. Lee was outnumbered and without much of his cavalry. The cavalry was used largely for reconnaissance, to find the enemy and establish his size and strength, but Lee’s cavalry regiments were in the process of raiding around the entire Union army rather than gathering information and screening the flanks of Lee’s army. Lee was also without his most trusted officer, General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, who had been killed at Chancellorsville six weeks earlier.

I cannot trust a man to control others who cannot control himself - Robert E. Lee Quote

I cannot trust a man to control others who cannot control himself – Robert E. Lee Quote

Still, Lee failed adjust his strategy to the situation on the ground. He refused to retreat, even when the situation was clearly hopeless. After three days of terrible fighting and unprecedented losses, the Confederates were forced to withdraw from the field and make a hasty retreat from Northern territory. As the survivors of the disastrous attack that history remembers as Pickett’s charge came fleeing back to the Southern position, the General rode among the men trying to console them and admitting that it was all his fault.

In later reflection, Lee admitted that he had simply asked too much of his men at Gettysburg. He wrote . . .

No blame can be attached to the army for its failure to accomplish what was projected by me. I am alone to blame.

Gettysburg was Lee’s greatest wartime disappointment. In its wake, he tendered his resignation to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, writing,

Mr. President,

No one is more than myself of my inability for the duties of my position. I cannot even accomplish what I myself desire. How can I fulfil the expectations of others. In addition, I sensibly feel the growing failure of my bodily strength.

This was no idle self pitying. The Civil War, and in particular the battle of Gettysburg,  broke Lee physically. There is good evidence that, just before the battle, he actually had a heart attack. Still, Davis refused to accept his resignation, knowing that the man was irreplaceable.

General Lee and his Confederate officers in their first meeting since Appomattox, August 1869. This is the only from life photograph of Lee with his Generals in existence, during the war or after.

General Lee and his Confederate officers in their first meeting since Appomattox, August 1869. This is the only from life photograph of Lee with his Generals in existence, during the war or after.

Following Gettysburg, Lee retreated across the Potomac, never to return to the north again. The following Spring, a new Yankee general came to the field to fight Lee. His name was Ulysses Simpson Grant. Finally the North had found a worthy contender for the Great confederate general. Unlike many of his predecessors, Grant was not covered by Lee. Both men under-estimated each other, soon discovering that their opponent was different from anyone else they had ever been up against.

Immediately upon taking command, Grant issued the following command to General Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac . . .

Lee’s army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.

Grant relentlessly pursued Lee from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania and then to Cold Harbor, where a terrible slaughter took place. Throughout the bloody campaign and despite heavy losses, Lee gallantly led his army. On May 6th, 1864, as his line was wavering, he himself rode to the front and demanded that his men stand their ground under very dangerous circumstances.

After June, 1864, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had been pushed back into the defenses of Richmond and Petersburg. Effectively Grant had taken him out of the war, unable to maneuver and nowhere to go. All he could do now was to wait and react as Grant, circling around him, acted. With his army besieged and pinned down, Lee knew that the end was in sight.

Lee’s anguish while being hemmed up at Petersburg was heightened with the news that his home in Arlington had been confiscated by the Union government. Having been seized for unpaid taxes it was quickly converted into a large soldier’s cemetery. Orders were given for the graves to be placed as close to the house as possible, so that it could never be used again as a private dwelling.

But the cruellest blow was yet to come. Through the winter of 1864, Lee’s army lacked forage, rations and supplies. Somehow the men managed to retain their fighting spirit. But even that was to disappear in April of 1865. With his men at near starvation point, Lee led his bedraggled army to Appomattox Court House in Virginia, following a last desperate flight from Richmond. It was there that Lee surrendered his army and ended the Civil War.

The correspondence between Grant and Lee in those closing hours of the war is enlightening. On April 7th, Grant sent the following message  to Lee . . .


The result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance in this struggle. I regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood by asking of you the surrender of the army of Northern Virginia.

Very Respectfully,

U.S. Grant.

Lee’s reply came swiftly . . .

General Grant,

Though not entertaining the opinion you express on the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia, I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood and, therefore, ask the terms you will offer in condition of its surrender.

Very Respectfully,

Robert E. Lee

Oath of amnesty submitted by Robert E. Lee in 1865

Oath of amnesty submitted by Robert E. Lee in 1865

On the morning of April 9th, Lee put on his best uniform and went to the home of Wilmer McLean where he met General Grant. The two men contrasted sharply – Lee six feet high and with faultless form and dress and Grant, five foot seven, mud spattered and in a rumpled private’s uniform.

The terms of surrender were unexpectedly generous; without demand for punishment, the Confederate Army was allowed to go home on the provision that they would never take up arms against the Federal Government again. Many historians believe that it was a measure of Grant’s respect for Lee that he handled the terms the way he did.

As he exited the McLean House, Lee was cheered by the Confederates and saluted by the Union troops. The first officer of the Union to remove his hat and salute Lee was U.S. Grant.

It is well that war is so terrible - otherwise we would grow too fond of it. Quote by Robert E. Lee

It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we would grow too fond of it. Quote by Robert E. Lee

After the War

After the war, Lee became president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. During those years, he also found time to write his memoir. In it he stated the following . . .

“I did only what my duty demanded. I could have taken no other course without dishonor, and if it all were to be done over again I should act in precisely the same manner.” Robert E. Lee

He dedicated his last years to education. On September 28th, 1870, he went to a school meeting. On the way home, he caught a cold. Fourteen days later he died. The huge funeral service at Lexington was attended by thousands of Americans from both the North and the South.

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