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Robert E Lee

Robert E Lee

When states began seceding from the north in the early 1860s and conflict seemed inevitable, the Union called upon the aid of one of its most experienced military commanders: Robert E. Lee. From 1852 to 1855, Robert E. Lee served as superintendent at West Point, training the new generation of officers that would soon fight in the Civil War. Battle-hardened, loyal, and deeply concerned with preserving the Union, Robert E. Lee seemed like a natural choice as commander of Washington DC's defenses at the onset of war.

But Lee took another path, turning away from the Union to become the most renowned general of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Why did Robert E. Lee choose the South, and what was his impact on the devastating war?

Robert E. Lee Facts

Robert E. Lee was born in Westmoreland Country, Virginia, in 1807. To the future general, Virginia was not just a state; it was a home with deep ties to his family. His father, Henry Lee III, had been the Ninth Governor of Virginia and an officer during the American Revolutionary War. His wife Martha Washington was a descendant of President George Washington's family. Lee and his wife had grown on familial estates within Virginia and had great pride in their home state.

Mr. Blair, I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South, I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native State?1

-General Robert E. Lee

General Robert E. Lee Fredericksburg Study SmarterFig. 1 - Art depicting General Lee and Confederate officers at Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Knowing how closely attached Robert E. Lee was to his home state of Virginia, one can understand how distraught the military officer was when he heard that Virginia had also seceded from the North in April 1861. Forced to choose between his ancestral state and the federal government he had loyally served for many years, Robert E. Lee resigned from the US army and traveled to Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the burgeoning Confederacy. When Lee arrived, he was appointed commander of Virginian military forces and was offered George Washington's sword as a symbol of the Confederacy's gratitude. The Union invasion began that same year, 1861.

Robert E. Lee: Biography

From Virginia to West Point, to the American Frontier and battlefronts of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee lived a life as fascinating as its deep connections to American history.

Robert E. Lee: Before the War

As previously stated, Robert E. Lee was born and raised in Westmoreland, Virginia, the same city in which George Washington was born. He grew up on the Stratford Hall Plantation but did not enjoy a life of great wealth. His family owned slaves, but financial issues plagued the family.

Robert E. Lee's aptitude in mathematics led him to the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he focused on engineering. He graduated in 1829 as a brevet second lieutenant. Lieutenant Lee traveled to various forts throughout the country for the next fifteen years, overseeing construction projects. During this time, he met his wife, Mary Anne Randolph Custis. They married in 1831.

General Robert E. Lee Colonel Study SmarterFig. 2 - Portrait of Robert E. Lee as a Colonel in 1855.

Robert E. Lee's Pre-war Military Career

Robert E. Lee took part in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) under the command of General Winfield Scott. He worked alongside fellow officers, such as Ulysses S. Grant, coordinating military tactics. Later, Lee acted as superintendent at West Point from 1852 to 1855, training the next generation of US army officers.

I believe it to be the duty of everyone to unite in the restoration of the country and the reestablishment of peace and harmony.2

-Robert E. Lee

In an event marked by many levels of irony, President Buchanan commanded Robert E. Lee to quell a rebellion at Harper's Ferry in 1859. Abolitionist leader John Brown had taken up arms and hoped to start a mass slave revolt within Virginia. Lee marched upon rebels and quickly ended their efforts, but the evidence was clear: tensions regarding slavery were rising rapidly in the United States.

Robert E. Lee: During the War

When tensions between North and South exploded into violence at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, the formerly pro-Union state of Virginia officially seceded and joined the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee followed his state into war, becoming an officer in the amassing Confederate military.

Lee served under General Joseph E. Johnston and his Army of Virginia in the spring of 1862 when Union commander George McClellan launched his Peninsula Campaign offensive. After Johnston suffered wounds at the Battle of Seven Pines in June, Robert E. Lee took command in his place, renaming the army the "Army of Northern Virginia." Lee successfully defended the city of Richmond from the Union offensive, adding to his reputation as a skilled commander.

General Robert E. Lee Confederate General Study SmarterFig. 3. - Portrait of Robert E. Lee as a General of the Confederate Army.

Subsequent victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run afforded Robert E. Lee a chance to press an offensive at Antietam. The Confederate army failed, but Robert E. Lee proved a point; he was here to win the war, not just endure it. Lee consistently led outmatched, outnumbered Confederate forces to victories against the Union, such as at the Battle of Fredericksburg, but his offensives into the north failed. The Battle of Gettysburg was a disastrous defeat, losing tens of thousands of Confederate and Union soldiers.

As the war progressed, Robert E. Lee assumed complete control of the military, becoming General in Chief of the Armies of the Confederate States. General Lee met his match in General Ulysses S. Grant, his former comrade during the Mexican-American War, as Union forces marched through and razed the South. Seeing defeat on the horizon, Robert E. Lee surrendered his troops in April 1865.

  • Robert E. Lee served as an exemplary officer in the Confederate military during the entire Civil War, achieving significant victories in his defenses of the South but failing to establish an ongoing offensive into Northern territory.
  • Although he was an excellent strategist, the Union military had more men, was better equipped, and possessed the infrastructure necessary to push an ongoing offensive into the South.
  • At his discretion, Robert E. Lee surrendered to his former comrade Ulysses S. Grant in 1865, effectively ending the war.

Robert E. Lee: Death

After his surrender in 1865, General Lee urged all other Confederate forces to give up arms and end the war. Some historians accredit Lee's pleas for surrender with preventing years of costly guerilla warfare in the mountains of the South. Robert E. Lee faced few consequences for his active involvement in the war; Lee did not even serve jail time for participation in an active rebellion.

The Last Meeting of Two Presidents:

Post War, Ulysses S. Grant's popularity saw him elected as the new President of a reunited United States. By invitation of the new President, Robert E. Lee visited the White House on May 1st, 1869. By then, he was the President of Washington College and wanted to invite Grant to the school. Historians don't know much about their encounters, except that it was very short. A report by a UK ambassador in the same room claims that the two men mentioned the Civil War just once, a joke about destroying more railroads than building them. Lee left the capital and died the following year, never to see President Grant again.1

Lee remained somewhat active in Southern politics but focused the energy of his last years on acting as President of Washington College in Virginia. Many Southerners continued to revere General Lee as a heroic public figure for years after the war. Robert E. Lee died from pneumonia on October 12, 1870.

Robert E. Lee Slavery

Robert E. Lee is a nuanced character in history. In terms of histography, some sympathizers see him as a reluctant leader of the rebel cause; others see him as a prideful, pro-slavery officer. The following list will help clarify the perception of Robert E. Lee, a key figure in an ever-controversial conflict:

  • Robert E. Lee recognized slavery as an evil and unhealthy institution but did so from a lens of superiority. He emphasized that slavery was harmful to White Christian landowners, even African slaves.

  • For five years, Robert E. Lee managed 200 slaves after the death of his father-in-law in 1857. The slaves, by the lawful will of his father-in-law, were set free after five years, but Lee opposed their freedom in court as he needed to pay off debts. Still, he hated direct involvement in slavery.

  • Robert E. Lee was a proponent of establishing a republic in Liberia, Africa, so slaves could leave America and be free.

  • Robert E. Lee often considered African-Americans inferior to White Americans and openly opposed the Abolition Movement.

  • Evidence of Robert E. Lee's disgust of slavery and occasional sympathies for African Americans were used in the Lost Cause myth, a historically inaccurate and refuted pro-Confederacy interpretation of the Civil War that deemphasizes the importance of slavery as a cause in the Civil War.

Robert E. Lee: Accomplishments

Robert E. Lee remains a controversial, if not contradictory, figure in American history. One may read his early personal letters and find his participation in the war to be confusing and unexpected. Yet General Lee felt more loyalty and love to his home state than the federal government and fought for his beliefs.

General Robert E. Lee Surrender Study SmarterFig. 4 - Art depicting Robert E. Lee surrendering to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865.

The general of a losing side in a destructive war, one may claim that General Robert E. Lee did not accomplish much, but that is far from the truth. Lee remained an influential and respected figure in both the South and North long after the war. Given his successes in the battle against the superior Union forces, many historians emphasize Lee's brilliance as a commander. His call for the Confederacy's surrender at Appomattox was timely and prevented all-out warfare in an already costly conflict.

But General Lee, and the Confederacy as a whole, still cast a dark shadow over modern American politics and society. In 2017, protests incited the removal of Robert E. Lee's statue from Lee Circle in New Orleans; in 2021, further controversy saw the removal of a 21-foot statue of General Lee from Richmond, Virginia. Many still consider the Confederacy's legacy a stain on American history, a time when brothers fought against brothers, and men and women fought for unjust causes.

Robert E Lee - Key takeaways

  • Robert E. Lee was a military veteran and West Point graduate turned Confederate General during the American Civil War.
  • Robert E. Lee taught at The United States Military Academy at West Point and fought in the Mexican-American War; many of his students and wartime comrades would become his enemies in the Civil War.
  • Robert E. Lee valued his home state of Virginia more than the sanctity of the Union; he refused an offer to serve the Union and joined the Confederacy as commander of the Virginian forces.
  • General Lee exhibited strategic excellence during the Civil War, but the Union emerged victorious; Lee surrendered in 1865 and called for a swift end to the war after that.

References

  1. John William Jones, Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee
  2. Robert E. Lee (1904). “Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee”
  3. "May 1, 1869: Lee visits Grant at the White House", https://www.nbc12.com/2019/05/01/may-lee-visits-grant-white-house/

Frequently Asked Questions about Robert E Lee

Robert E. Lee was a military veteran and West Point graduate turned Confederate General during the American Civil War. 

Robert E. Lee grew up in a family that owned slaves, and he later inherited 200 slaves after the death of his father-in-law. 

Robert E. Lee died of pneumonia in 1870. 

Robert E. Lee commanded Confederate forces during the Civil War. His successes fueled a personal reputation that lasted long after the war; his influence was felt in both the North and the South, and in coming years his influence was used as a shield in the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War. 

Robert E. Lee is best known for his command of Confederate forces during the American Civil War. 

Final Robert E Lee Quiz

Question

What state was Robert E. Lee born in?

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Answer

Virginia

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Question

After the Mexican-American War and before the Civil War, Robert E. Lee took what position in the field of education?

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Answer

Superintendent of West Point

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Question

Robert E Lee suppressed who's attempted uprising at Harpers Ferry in 1859?

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Answer

John Brown

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Question

What prompted Lee to resign from the United States Army?

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Answer

His home state of Virginia seceded

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Question

After taking command from the wounded Johnston after the Battle of Seven Pines, what did Lee rename his army?

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Answer

The Army of Northern Virginia

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Question

Which Union general did Robert E. Lee surrender to in 1865?

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Answer

General Ulysses S. Grant

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Question

Robert E. Lee became President of which school after the Civil War?

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Answer

Washington College

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Question

After going to Virginia to join with the Confederacy, the Richmond government gave Lee which historical item as a gift?

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Answer

George Washington's sword

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Question

How long did Robert E Lee spend in prison after the war?

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Answer

He was not imprisoned

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Question

When did Robert E Lee and Ulysses S Grant first meet?

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Answer

During the Mexican-American War

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