- Civil War Confederate General. He is remembered for leading the Army of Northern Virginia to the brink of victory in the Civil War. Born to a Virginia family of nobility but little money, his father was Revolutionary War General, Virginia Governor, and Congressman Light Horse Harry Lee, his mother was Ann Hill Carter Lee of the distinguished Carter family, and his Lee collateral relatives included two signers of the Declaration of Independence. By the time young Robert arrived his father's financial decisions which included extensive fiscal support of the American Revolution and a beyond common generosity to many whom he knew and served alongside had reduced the family to poverty and after Harry spent 1809 in debtor's prison the Lees moved to a small house in Alexandria where they were reduced to living on family charity. Harry was injured in an 1812 Baltimore political political riot and abandoned his family; Lee studied in Fauquier County and at Alexandria Academy and was to develop both studious habits and strong Christian faith, though he was not confirmed in the Episcopal Church until age 46. He also developed an abiding shame over the actions of his father's later years; indeed it is said that Lee lived his own life in an attempt to atone for Light Horse Harry, and whether that be true or not he never named any of his own sons Henry or Harry. In 1824 Lee received an appointment to West Point via the intervention of William Henry Fitzhugh, a relative who had often provided material aid. From the time he entered the Academy in 1825 he had an outstanding record, never being charged with a demerit and graduating second in the class of 1829 to Charles Mason, later a noted attorney but now remembered only as the answer to the trivia question "Who beat Robert E. Lee at West Point?". Following graduation he was assigned to the Corps of Engineers, the norm for students with good academic records, duty carrying prestige but little promotion opportunity. While he was on leave he experienced the trauma of having his mother die in his arms in August of 1829 but he was soon off to build forts on the the Georgia coast. In 1831 Lee was transferred to Fort Monroe, Virginia, and soon married Mary Custis, great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, whom he had been courting since 1829. The wedding took place only after the Custis family relaxed their opposition to Mary's romance with the disgraced Light Horse Harry's son; the Lees were devoted to each other and the union produced seven children though it was in some ways an unhappy match that Lee never objected to temporarily escaping when sent on assignment. Duty at Fort Monroe proved an unpleasant experience marked by staff conflicts and in 1834 Lee was posted to the Washington office of the Chief of Engineers. In 1837 he was sent west where he distinguished himself by vastly improving Mississippi River navigation especially at St. Louis and at the Des Moines Rapids near Keokuk, Iowa. Promoted to captain for his work along the Mississippi he was sent to Brooklyn in 1842 to become post engineer of Fort Hamilton where he worked on improving coastal defense. Lee made a number of structural improvements in the New York City area and earned praise but by 1846 he had 17 years in the Army and was still a captain with a family to support and little chance for advancement. Opportunity, however, was at hand and on August 19, 1846, Lee received his orders to report to General John Wool in preparation for service in Mexico. After traveling by ship to New Orleans, he then moved on to Texas where he joined up with General Wool. Lee and a Captain Fraser were in charge of road building on the advance into Mexico and did their jobs well, though progress was made easier by the lack of enemy contact. On January 16, 1847, he was ordered to report to General Winfield Scott who was then preparing to assault Vera Cruz. When he arrived near Vera Cruz, Lee was made a part of Scott's inner circle of officers; working for him were Lieutenants P.G.T. Beauregard and George McClellan, while other staff officers with whom he had dealings included Joe Johnston, U.S. Grant, George Meade, and Gustavus Woodson Smith, all names that would become well known years hence. Lee participated in the battles of Vera Cruz, Contreras, and Churubusco, then was wounded at Chapultepec, his reconnaissance missions along the way proving essential to ultimate success. Along with Beauregard and McClellan, he assisted in preparing for General Scott's entry into Mexico City; at the end, though he had been acclaimed and had earned three brevet promotions for gallantry, he still held the permanent rank of captain. After the conflict, he was sent to Baltimore as chief engineer then in 1852 returned to West Point as Superintendent with the rank of Brevet Colonel. Lee proved a popular and able executive while gaining experience that was to prove valuable in the post-Civil War years. He had a reputation for interacting well with the students and was to be a particular influence on Cadet and future General J.E.B. Stuart. In 1855 Lee was finally to achieve "real" promotion, a two-grade jump to Lieutenant Colonel, though at the price of leaving the Engineers, when he was posted to Texas as Executive Officer of the Second US Cavalry serving under Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston. Though he was happy and successful, he found himself recalled to Arlington upon the October 10, 1857, death of his father-in-law George Washington Parke Custis. As the health of Mary Lee had steadily declined, Lee was stuck with sorting out the problems of the estate. Mr. Custis had large holdings but even larger debts and further had left a poorly drawn holographic will making financial bequests which there was no money to pay. Arlington Hall itself was left to Lee's eldest son George Washington Custis Lee, known as "Custis", who would one day serve as a Confederate Major General and who in 1882 would successfully sue the federal government and gain financial compensation for the taking of Arlington during the conflict. In the course of the settlement Lee was to make arrangements for the emancipation of Mr. Custis' slaves, though he was to also ensure that they would be able to support themselves once free. In October of 1859 Lee received a message via Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart calling him from Arlington to Washington to deal with the capture of the armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, by anti-slavery activists led by John Brown. Under orders from President Buchanan and taking with him J.E.B. and a detachment of US Marines commanded by Lieutenant Israel Green, Lee departed by train for Harper's Ferry. On the morning of October 18th J.E.B. delivered the final surrender demand then gave the signal for Green's men to take the engine house, which they accomplished rapidly. When Brown was hanged on December 2nd, the event was carried out by Virginia Militia led by David Addison Weisiger, later a minor Confederate Brigadier General, while security was provided by V.M.I. Cadets under the command of Mexican War veteran Major Thomas Jackson, then called behind his back 'Tom Fool' but one day to be written down in history as 'Stonewall'. Lee returned to his duties in Texas but storm clouds were brewing and after Texas seceeded from the Union and U.S. Army facilities were turned over to the Confederacy he was recalled by General Scott to Washington in February 1861, there to be promoted to Colonel and offered general's stars along with command of the Union Army. A staunch Unionist and not a defender of slavery, Lee wanted to see the nation preserved but he was unwilling to invade the South to accomplish that end. Virginia seceeded on April 17, 1861; Lee resigned his commission on April 20th and was appointed Brigadier General in the Confederate Army on May 14th then the next month was named the third senior of the original five officers of four star rank. (The lineal list was Samuel Cooper, Albert Sidney Johnston, Lee, Joe Johnston, and Beauregard with Bragg, Kirby Smith, and Hood to follow later in the war). Initially tasked with training and arming Virginia troops, Lee conducted the essentially failed expedition into the western counties today called the West Virginia Campaign, then was sent to take charge of preparing coastal defenses in the lower southeast, doing a good enough job that his forts essentially held throughout the war. Returning to Richmond where he was already considered a failure after the western operation, he supervised the digging of trenches around the capital, earning himself the derisive title "King of Spades". In February of 1862 he paid $200 for a gray gelding whom he named Traveller (using the British spelling) and rode for the rest of his life, though in periods of illness he sometimes used his smaller and tamer "other horse" Lucy Long, a gift from J.E.B. Stuart. Lee served as miliary advisor to President Davis until General Joe Johnston was wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31, 1862. Command of the Army of Northern Virginia devolved upon General Gustavus Woodson Smith who suffered a nervous breakdown within 12 hours, leading Davis to place Lee in the top spot. He had his work cut out for him; the Confederacy had suffered multiple defeats, the public held no confidence in him, and McClellan was about four miles east of Richmond (at roughly the present location of Richmond International Airport) with an Army far larger and better equipped than anything Lee could muster. He organized the Seven Days Battle, a series of six late June engagements that only contained one clear cut victory, John Bell Hood's June 27th assault at Gaines' Mill, and cost numerous lives but ended with General McClellan bottled-up on the James River and no longer a danger to Richmond. Lee next turned his attention to Northern Virginia where from August 28th to 30th, with much help from Longstreet and Jackson, he routed General John Pope at Second Manassas; during this operation Lee fell and injured his hands, limiting his riding ability. The time of Second Manassas also marks the first recorded appearance of Lee's chest pains, then called "rheumatism", but in retrospect symptoms of the coronary artery disease that was to mark the rest of his life. Lee then moved into Maryland hoping to gather supplies, recruit new troops, and perhaps strike a blow into the northeast that would dampen the North's willingness to fight; his efforts were derailed by the famous Lost Order No. 191 which gave away his plans to McClellan; on September 17, 1862, the armies met at Sharpsburg in the Battle of Antietam which resulted in roughly 26,000 combined casualties, still the greatest one day loss of life in American history. Withdrawing to Virginia after the drawn battle he organized his troops at Fredericksburg to meet the new Army of the Potomac commander Ambrose Burnside; on December 13, 1862, Union troops were sent up the side of Mayre's Heights into a fortified position held by James Longstreet, thus ending thousands of lives and Burnside's brief tenure in command. Longstreet was soon sent to Southside Virginia on a foraging expedition and thus as spring came Lee was missing a third of his Army. In late April he moved toward Cancellorsville, just west of Fredericksburg; between April 30th and May 6th Lee stopped Joe Hooker in the series of conflicts known collectively as the Battle of Chancellorsville, though at the cost of the May 2nd mortal wounding of Stonewall Jackson in a friendly fire incident. Lee next marched into Pennsylvania to meet the Union Army under its new commander George Meade. The entire operation which culminated in the Battle of Gettysburg was controversial at the time and will likely remain so forever, with whole books written about each day and questions asked as to whether he should have replaced Jackson with Richard Ewell, whether he should have followed Longstreet's suggestions, whether he should have ordered Pickett's Charge, and indeed whether he should have gone north in the first place. In the aftermath Meade was unable to persue as the victorious army was in virtually as bad a condition as the defeated one. Once back in Virginia, Lee's health was poor, and knowing he bore the onus of failure, he offered to resign. The President, however, had nobody to replace him with. Interestingly, Gettysburg was not then seen as "final" in the way later generations viewed it thus Lee again reorganized and in the spring of 1864 staged the Wilderness Campaign, initially without Longstreet who after Gettysburg had been temporarily detached to General Braxton Bragg in Tennessee. Victories he won, albeit with the loss of men and supplies he could not replace; his main problem, however, was that the Union Army was now under the command of General U.S. Grant, thus denying to Lee the advantage of fighting the timid or incompetent. Forced into a nine month siege at Petersburg, he held out until finally compelled to retreat on April 2, 1865. During the stalemate, Lee was named General-in-Chief of the Confederate States Army on January 31, 1865, and pushed for the integration of black soldiers into the Army. The Cause, however, was lost and Lee finally had to abandon the line at Petersburg. Over the next week as he moved west, he attempted to obtain food and supplies and to link up with what little was left of the Army of Tennessee, now under Joe Johnston in North Carolina. Finally on April 9, 1865, Lee was out of alternatives and surrendered to General Grant at the McLean House in Appomattox, Virginia. He delivered the surrender himself rather than send a subordinate as he knew of the sense of insult his father had felt when the British made their capitulation at Yorktown via the most junior officer present, and that only after a sergeant had been rejected by George Washington. After the war, the men had to get back to whatever life they could salvage; the South had to be rebuilt, and Lee had to feed his family. His respect in the South was undiminished and though he faced the threat of legal action job offers came in, some of which could have made him wealthy. Desiring, however, to help restore the country's prosperity in October 1865 he accepted the presidency of the then-small Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. Revered by students, faculty, and the local populace, he proved an effective administrator; in 1868 a move was made to have him run as the Democratic candidate for Governor of Virginia. Lee knew he could win but he enjoyed his job and desired to remain where he was preparing a new generation. Further, he probably suspected that his heart was not up to the rigors of political office. He kept active when he could, walking and riding his horses, but as time went on it became obvious that Lee was aged beyond his years; he was able to travel some, going to Baltimore and visiting President Grant at the White House in the spring of 1869. In late March of 1870 Lee undertook a two month trip thru the South during which he visited the graves of his father and of his daughter Annie and bade farewell to old friends. Upon his return he consulted with doctors in Richmond and Baltimore who did for him what little they could; he also spent time with Edmund Valentine who was in the process of creating the statue that would cover his tomb. The sculptor had wanted to meet with Lee in the fall, but apparently sensing that his final deployment was at hand the General instructed him not to wait. When the fall school term began Lee was at his post; during his years in Lexington he had worshipped and served as a vestryman at Grace Episcopal Church which was pastored by his old Chief of Artillery General William Nelson Pendleton. On September 28th he was in his capacity as Senior Warden conducting a vestry meeting when he suffered a stroke. The General made it home on his own but was obviously quite ill; over the ensuing days he was cared for by physicians and seemed to rally at times, though at others he was unable to speak coherently. On October 12th Lee uttered the last words, "Strike the tent", and died. His wife Mary, in poor health for years, followed him to the grave in 1873, while at his death his son Custis became president of what would one day be Washington and Lee University. After the war Lee had taken the Oath of Allegiance and applied for his pardon, but for some reason his paperwork was lost and remained so until 1970; in 1975 his American Citizenship was posthumously restored by President Gerald Ford. Today Fort Lee, Virginia, carries his name, as does a multitude of counties, schools, towns, bridges, and city streets. Statues of him adorn his grave, Stone Mountain, Georgia, Monument Avenue in Richmond, and numerous other public places, while his image has been on a Virginia license plate, several US postage stamps, and continues to hang in thousands of homes. Lee has been the subject of countless biographies ranging from works for small children to those intended for academics, with the definitive being Douglas Southall Freeman's four volume "R.E. Lee" (1934-1935). For a quiet man General Lee left a large number of quotes and while no single one can define him perhaps this comes close: "Do your duty in all things...you cannot do more...you should never wish to do less."
Bio by: Bob Hufford