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Robert E Lee - Confederate General

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General Robert E Lee exemplified the idea of an American Southern gentleman, being intelligent, loyal, chivalrous, noble, humble and kind. He idolised George Washington who so represented the American Revolution (and even married a woman who was related to Washington and had ancestors who had signed the Declaration of Independence). Lee ended up symbolizing the Confederate war effort in the American Civil War, and becoming an icon for not only his gentlemanly attitude but also his clever tactics and intelligence in military matters.

He was a man who loved the US Constitution and the Union, and neither particularly liked, nor deplored slavery. Nevertheless, Lee served in the Confederacy, as he was loyal to his friends and family in Virginia.

Pre-Civil War Life

Robert Edward Lee was born on 19 January, 1807 in Westmoreland County, Virginia. He was born to the second wife of his father, 'Light Horse Harry' Lee, an American Revolutionary War hero. He grew up in a time when people still remembered George Washington and the Revolution.

Robert's mother, Ann Hill Carter Lee taught him to be disciplined, patient and a faithful Christian. He strived for success in whatever he did, in part because his father failed in several business opportunities. He was educated in Alexandria, Virginia, and was sent to West Point Military Academy in 1825. Four years later, Lee graduated as second in his class, without a single demerit given to him.

Military Career

Lee became a military engineer following his graduation. On 30 June, 1831 he married Mary Ann Randolph Custis, the granddaughter of George Washington. They would have three sons and four daughters. All three sons would eventually join their father by enlisting in the Confederate Army, with two reaching the rank of Major General and the other becoming a Captain.

When the Mexican-American war broke out in 1845, Lee served as a part of the staff of General Winfield Scott (the overall commander of American forces). His primary job was as a scout. While he was serving in the army, he learned important leadership skills and met many people, including James Longstreet, Thomas Jackson and George Pickett, who would serve with him later in his career. He was promoted to Colonel as the war ended for his good service. He returned to the army engineers after the war, living in Washington DC.

In 1855, Lee accepted a post in the 2nd Cavalry, and served in Texas until 1857, when his service was interrupted with a death in his family, and he had to make several trips back to Virginia.

When John Brown attempted to begin a slave rebellion with a raid on Harpers Ferry, Lee happened to be relatively close. Brown had moved his men and nine hostages into a fire house. On 18 October, 1859 Lee commanded a group of about 100 US Marines to put down the rebellion. His first action was to close the saloon to keep violence low. He waited until the next day before he would attempt to end the conflict.

Early the next morning, JEB Stuart, an aide of Lee's, attempted to negotiate a surrender. That failed, and so Lee sent in a group of men to storm the fire house with bayonets. This attack was successful in ending the raid.

Colonel Lee returned to Texas following this incident, and continued his service there until 1861. At that point, he had been promoted to the 1st Cavalry.

The Civil War

In 1861 the Union was broken as the Confederate States of America were formed, following the election of Abraham Lincoln as President. The Civil War began when Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina was fired upon by Confederates.

By this time Lee had earned a strong reputation in the North and the South. General Winfield Scott summoned him to Washington, DC and asked him to join the Union Army as Chief of Command of US Forces. Lee mulled over this for a short while, but his decision was made the day after Virginia seceded from the Union. Though Virginia was ambivalent about joining the Confederacy, and though Lee loved the Constitution and the Union, he would not fight against his neighbours and homestate, and resigned from the Union 1st Cavalry.

At first, Lee was in charge of organizing Virginia's military strength. However, when the summer rolled around he was given a field command in western Virginia. His time there was somewhat less than climactic, with his campaigns not being very successful and his inferior officers being ineffective.

However, it seems that President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis saw something in Lee, and promoted him. He held the title of Brigadier General for a time, but was sent to Richmond, Virginia (the capital city of the Confederacy) as a military advisor to Davis. From that position, he had a considerable amount of influence on military strategy and operations.

At the Battle of Seven Pines, Confederate General Joseph Johnson launched an unsuccessful and poorly coordinated attack on northern troops led by General George McClellan. Johnson was badly wounded, and subsequently Jefferson Davis gave control of an army he termed the 'Army of Northern Virginia' to Lee. He competently fought a losing battle at Seven Pines the next day.

Being in charge of the Army of Northern Virginia was important, as it had to protect the Confederate capital city of Richmond. One of Lee's first major battles was the 'Seven Days' battle, which was actually a series of small battles where Lee lost. Overall though, Lee won a strategic victory by stopping a Union advance to Richmond. This earned Lee and his officers - who included Generals 'Stonewall' Jackson and Longstreet - some respect throughout the South.

Second Bull Run

The threat of McClellan was gone, but there were several other Union Generals attempting to destroy Lee and capture northern Virginia. As such, Lee's command became the most important Confederate one, and his success was extremely necessary in defending the south.

John Pope began to move against Virginia, and Lee answered. The two confronted each other at the Second Battle of Bull Run. Lee's army had two major commands - that of 'Stonewall' Jackson, perhaps his favorite troop commander (Lee and Jackson became very close and respectful of each other), and that of James Longstreet. Pope focused on Jackson's troops, but was out-manoeuvred by Lee and was forced to retreat. About one fourth of Pope's army suffered casualties, and one sixth of Lee's army were killed or wounded.


Lee sent Jackson and Longstreet's commands separately into Maryland, as it was his belief that a victory there might induce the state into secession or help bring European support to the Confederate cause. He also needed supplies for his army. Jackson was to capture Harpers Ferry and reunite the armies.

However, one of General McClellan's men found a copy of Lee's plans by chance, and he moved to attack the divided Confederate army. Lee's army without Jackson was less than half the size of McClellan's, so he attempted to delay the Union forces until the other half of his army arrived. Lee, with good strategy and a bit of luck fought McClellan into a standstill around Antietam Creek. On 16 September, 1862 Jackson arrived having captured Harpers Ferry and at dawn the next day his troops faced a ferocious artillery attack. Jackson struck back, and forced the Union to fall back, only to attack again and regain some land. Meanwhile, a bitter battle raged along a sunken road, and huge casualties were made on both sides. Union General Ambrose Burnside's troops temporarily tipped the scales in favour of the north, but a portion of Jackson's command which had stayed behind in Harpers Ferry drove back Burnside and the battle ended.

There were huge casualties on both sides after the Battle of Antietam, and more Americans died on the day of 17 September, 1862 than in any other day in US history. Lee was forced to withdraw his troops into Virginia following the battle, and the Union claimed victory. As a result (he had been waiting for a major Union victory), Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in all Confederate states.


Lee's army was seriously damaged and his aspirations for an invasion of the north were delayed. Meanwhile, Lincoln was growing annoyed with McClellan and replaced him with Ambrose Burnside.

Burnside started a campaign to capture Richmond, by means of the city of Fredericksburg. He raced to take the city, and probably would have very easily, if the pontoon bridge supplies he had ordered to cross the Rappahannock River had arrived on time. He was delayed long enough for Lee to move into a strong position behind Fredericksburg. Burnside sent thousands of men to their death in futile attacks on strong, entrenched Confederate positions on the high ground, and Lee won the battle easily. Union morale reached a low and Confederate morale was at an all-time high. However, it may have been a curse for Lee, who began to take up an unconscious notion that his army was invincible.


In 1863, Lee was still around Fredericksburg, and a new Union General had replaced Burnside - Joseph Hooker. Hooker attempted to surround the Confederates with superior numbers. Then, he made a large advance upon Lee, who had an army half the size of his. Lee did not retreat, however, and sent one part of his army to stop Hooker's attack and one part to guard Fredericksburg. Then Lee made a daring move and sent most of the first part of his army to separate from the rest and attack the right flank of the Union soldiers. This effort was commanded by General Jackson. Two hours before dusk on 2 May, Jackson's soldiers surprised an unsuspecting camp of Northerners.

At dark, after the bulk of the fighting was over for the day, General Jackson and some others were riding when a group of Confederate soldiers mistook them for the enemy and fired upon them. Jackson's left arm had to be amputated, and he died on 10 May from pneumonia while resting from his wound. Lee would famously say that General Jackson lost his left arm but he had lost his right.

Meanwhile, as General JEB Stuart, who took command after Jackson was shot, pushed through the Union line, Lee was distracted by a group of Federal troops at Fredericksburg. When he returned from there, Hooker had retreated. The Battle of Chancellorsville, so named because of a small tavern at the centre of the fighting, cost the Union 17,000 casualties and the South 14,000, with the Confederates being vastly outnumbered. It is often considered to be Lee's finest work.


The most famous battle of the Civil War was the battle of Gettysburg, which some also consider to be Lee's worst blunder. It was his second attempt to bring the war into the North, for several reasons. He wanted to force a peace treaty with a strong, successful battle and to legitimize their war enough to bring European support to the Confederacy (the Europeans generally supported the independence of the south in principle, but did not give any military support).

Lee was attempting to take Harrisburg, Pennsylvania when he met with a large Union army led by General George Meade outside the town of Gettysburg. He didn't have the benefit of the thoroughly competent General Jackson, and had under him the over-cautious Longstreet. He had 75,000 men to Meade's 97,000 soldiers. However, it should be noted Lee had several advantages. His troop's morale was higher, he was more experienced and Meade wasn't a great general.

Fighting began on 2 July, 1863, and through that day Lee performed effectively, but the Union troops weren't budging. They held onto their flanks, due to a heroic effort at Little Round Top, a strategically important hill to the south.

And so, on 3 July, Lee ordered some extraordinary attacks. For whatever reason, he believed that a large scale attack on the centre of the Union line at the aptly named Cemetery Ridge would break the Union line. Despite the protest of several leaders under him, the most senior among them being Longstreet, Lee ordered George Pickett to lead his division into the centre. 15,000 men went into the charge, and were attacked by a barrage of Union artillery and guns, which a long Confederate barrage had failed to destroy. Very few men reached the top of the ridge, and couldn't break the line. In less than an hour, 10,000 men were killed or wounded. This poorly planned attack became known as Pickett's Charge. It ended the battle of Gettysburg, and set a cloud over General Lee's proud military career.

On 4 July, Lee began his retreat back into the south, and so the end of the Confederacy began. Lee would be unable to undertake any significant campaign from then on and had to work primarily on defence. He accepted full responsibility for the disaster at Gettysburg, and offered a resignation to Jefferson Davis, who refused it.

After Gettysburg

The Army of Northern Virginia was crippled by Gettysburg, and Lee had to work on strategic defence as the Civil War began to come to an end in favour of the Union. Jefferson Davis appointed him as the general commander of all Confederate forces, but it was too little, too late.

For the first time, in 1865, Lee's army and General Ulysses S Grant's armies met. However, this did not start a battle. Instead, Lee who was vastly outnumbered simply accepted the inevitable and surrendered to avoid further bloodshed. On 9 April, Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House. Grant offered generous terms of surrender, as President Lincoln had ordered.

After this, Lee went to Richmond, Virginia to begin a civilian life again. His family estates were either burned or possessed by the Union1. He didn't have any army. But he still had an enormous influence on southern men, and pleaded that the south didn't prolong the war by attacking the north since Lincoln had died of an assassin's bullet and the Union was in chaos.

He took the Presidency of Washington College (later renamed in his honour as Washington-Lee College). For his service for his nation, he became a living legend - and an icon for ex-Confederates and even for some opposed to the ideas of the Confederacy. After the war ended and he lost his military command, Lee was in church on a Sunday. A black man kneeled to receive communion, and the church was stunned - though slavery was dead, segregation and racism was still alive. Lee walked up and kneeled next to the black man, and the entire church followed his example. Today, many people - in the north and south - respect Lee for his honour, intelligence and graciousness in defeat.

Lee died on 12 October, 1870, and was buried in Lexington, Virginia. His last words were 'Strike the Tent', a military term meaning that it is time to move on.

Further Reading

1In fact, the land where Arlington National Cemetery, where many Union men are buried, now is, belonged to Lee. His property was seized by the Union early in the war to protect Washington, DC.

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