Robert E. Lee
January 19, 1807 – October 12, 1870
Born Robert Edward Lee January 19, 1807 at Stratton Hill Station Westmoreland County, Virginia to father Major General Henry Lee lll (Light Horse Harry) and to mother Anne Hill Carter Henry Lee’s second wife. Lee’s father Henry had been a Major General in the Continental Army. Originally assigned as a Captain in the Virginia Dragoon’s he was transferred to numerous units while being promoted along the way. Gen. Henry Lee was a much better soldier than he was a civilian and suffered many failures as a businessman. Those failures served young Robert to try even harder to be a success and he was driven to live up to his father’s military standards. Not a lot is known about Robert E. Lee’s childhood and he never spoke of it to people. We have to pick up his life as he entered the military to see how events were to mold his life and destiny. [Note: I use a lot of Wikipedia links solely for the reason they have proven to be safe links. I try to only use links that are free of problems by scanning them first, but as always use your own judgement. Rebuilding Freedom assumes no responsibility for any problems that may occur. Topshot ]
Lee entered West Point in the summer of 1825 and the main course of study at the time was in engineering. The head of the Army Corps of Engineers personally supervised the course of study and the superintendent of the school was an engineering officer himself. Lee was a diligent student and studied hard and his dedication and hard work paid off at graduation as he finished 2nd in a class of 46. Lee also finished his time at West Point without ever receiving a single demerit along with 5 of his classmates, a record that still stands today. In June of 1829 upon graduation Lee was commissioned as a Brevet 2nd. Lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers.
Lee’s first military assignment found him at Cockspur Island, Georgia where he worked during the early stages of the construction of a fort (later called Fort Pulaski) guarding the outlet of the Savannah River. Lee was then transferred to Fort Monroe, Virginia where he spent time refining his skills as an engineer. Lee during this time started courting his childhood friend Mary Curtis who was the granddaughter of President George and Martha Washington and on June 30, 1881 they were married at the Curtis home. Their marriage was in many respects a difficult one for them both. Although completely devoted to each other they as they say matched to a different drummer. Where Lee was a product of his mother’s teachings and his military training that had him in the habit of being on time and neat Mary was just the opposite and resented the fact that she now had to run a household instead of others doing that job. She was the product of wealth and was used to having others taking care of what she considered menial tasks like they did on the large plantation she grew up on.
The Mexican War 1846-1848
At the start of the war Capt. Robert E Lee was attached to the staff of General Winfield Scott U.S. Army and was assigned the important job of surveying and mapping the countryside ahead of the Army’s advance towards Veracruz and Mexico City. It was during this time that Lee got acquainted with many of the officers he would later serve with and fight against including James Longstreet, Thomas J. Jackson, George Pickett, and U.S. Grant. While serving with these men Lee gained a knowledge and respect for each one that would later play a pivotal role during the upcoming American Civil War. In particular were their job assignments with Lee serving as a engineer in charge of troop and artillery placement and Grant serving as a Quartermaster, experience that would serve them both well when they were pitted against each other. Both men were to get their first real experience in action during this campaign participating in actual combat and the leading of troops. Both men also distinguished themselves as leaders and tacticians while learning the art of war from their superiors. After the war both men went their separate ways as their assignments dictated.
In 1852 Lee was appointed Superintendent of West Point where he served for 3 years and during which time his son Curtis Lee followed in his father’s footsteps and attended West Point graduating in 1854 1st in his class. On October 18, 1859 Col. Lee was dispatched along with Lt. J.E.B. Stewart and a detachment of U.S. Marines to Harper’s Ferry, Virginia to put down an uprising by John Brown and a group of abolitionists that had taken over the arsenal there. After a brief skirmish Brown and his followers were captured being completely outnumbered. During that time Col. Lee and Lt. JEB Stewart formed a close and lasting friendship that would bring the two back together during the Civil War. The Brown episode was seen by southerners as an affirmation that the Government of the United States was against slavery and South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20,1860 and was quickly followed by 6 more states those being Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. The seeds were now planted for the future of Col. Lee and the Union, a country that Col. Lee had sworn his allegiance to. In April of 1861 General Winfield Scott offers Lee command of the Union Army 3 days after Virginia seceded from the Union on April 12, 1861 followed by Lee’s resignation from the Union Army on April 20, 1861. Lee offered his services to President Jefferson Davis who had been unanimously elected President of the Confederate States on Feb. 18, 1861. Davis accepted and Lee was appointed one of 5 Generals in the CSA [Confederate States Army] and on June 1, 1862 General Lee was given command of the Army of Northern Virginia. The pieces of the puzzle were now all in place and the epic struggle between the North and the South and the destiny of America would play itself out. Former fellow officers of the Union would now find themselves fighting against friends and former colleagues. The American Civil War was on and it would not only divide a nation it would also divide family and friends. The Civil War would prove to be the most costly war in history as far as American dead and wounded. Though the nation was now divided all of the combatants were still Americans. At least 618,000 Americans died in the Civil War, and some experts say the toll reached 700,000. The number that is most often quoted is 620,000. At any rate, these casualties exceed the nation’s loss in all its other wars combined, from the Revolution through Vietnam. I will now give a brief list of the battles that General Robert E. Lee was involved in. If the reader would like to see a complete list of Civil War battles you can go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_American_Civil_War_battles for the complete and extensive list.
General Robert E Lee and some of his Battles with the Union Army
Following is a list and a brief description of his major battles:
Battle of Cheat Mountain : This was Lee’s first engagement against the Union Army in command of Confederate troops. Although Lee had a numerical advantage of 2 to 1 his plan of attack was too complicated for his inexperienced troops and Lee, recognizing the fact that the Union Army was receiving reinforcements and the Union position was almost impregnable Lee withdrew his troops. The casualties were light on both side with 100 Confederate and 21 Union soldiers being killed or wounded. Lee received a lot of criticism for his withdrawal and was nicknamed “Granny Lee”, a name that would soon be proven ill advised as Lee was an aggressive and competent leader. Lee did learn an important lesson though and that was the key to winning a battle was to have well trained and disciplined troops under his command and he took steps to rectify that situation immediately.
Seven Days Battles: This battle would prove to be a turning point and a vindication for Lee. The Union Army of more than 100,000 well supplied union soldiers were in position to attack and capture Richmond, Virginia. They were under the command of General George B. McClellan who was a brilliant engineer but was not cut out for command because he was timid and indecisive. This flaw was to be taken advantage of by Confederate forces time and again and turned what should have been a Union victory into a defeat. In this particular battle Lee took the offensive by attacking the union forces on many different fronts eventually forcing McClellan’s numerically superior forces to withdraw. Although not a clear victory for Lee it did remove the threat on Richmond and it was safe from attack until the end of the war when it was again attacked and captured. Lee learned another important lesson during the battle and that was the union army could be forced to either surrender or withdraw if subjected to a strong aggressive offensive action. The north would be plagued with indecisive commander until Lee’s old colleague Grant would employ the same tactics against him in future engagements.
Second Battle of Bull Run: Also known as the The Battle of 2nd Manassas would prove to be one of the most important battles of the civil war. The Union’s plan was to move McClellan’s Army of the Potomac into position north of Fredericksburg to join with General John Pope’s new army and with their combined forces destroy Lee’s forces with an overwhelming number of union soldiers. Lee anticipated this maneuver and positioned General James Longstreet and his command alongside that of General Thomas “StoneWall” Jackson. After an attack by Pope the confederates counter attacked in what was to be the largest counter attack of the civil war involving 28,000 soldiers. Pope and the union army was eventually pushed back to the defensive lines around Washington D.C.. Lee had effectually driven the union army out of the south for the time being.
Battle of Antietam (also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg): Antietam would once again show the weakness of General McClellan and turn what could have been the defeat of Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. McClellan’s habit of indecision and lack of aggression would prove to be devastating in this battle. While McClellan was actively pursuing Lee he was hesitant to engage in a major confrontation so once again Lee took the offensive and made a stand at Antietam Creek just outside the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. Lee positioned his 30,000 soldiers among the rocks and stone walls and other advantageous land features on the high ground. These were things he had learned early in his career when he was involved in the Mexican War. Although McClellan was in possession of intelligence that his troops outnumbered those of Lee’s, [McClellan had 60,000 active troops with 15,000 in reserve against Lee’s 30,000] McClellan refused to believe it and didn’t use those superior numbers to crush Lee when he had the chance and ended up attacking only after Lee had positioned his smaller force in a place of tactical superiority. The resulting battle resulted in basically a stalemate with 22,000 combined casualties that destroyed a full 25% of Lee’s army. The final result was that McClellan once again missed his chance to end the war and although Lee was forced to retire his forces back south he survived to continue the fight. The tragedy of such great lose of life brought President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation 5 days later.
Battle of Fredericksburg: President Lincoln had his fill of McClellan’s indecision and relieved him of command and replaced him with Major General Ambrose E. Burnside . Unfortunately Burnside suffered from the same ailments that McClellan had and missed at every opportunity to defeat Lee and end the war. Being pressed hard by President Lincoln and the War Department General Burnside planned a late fall offensive against the town of Fredericksburg with a diversionary maneuver towards Culpeper Court House. Burnside’s plan was finally approved and on November 15, 1862 his army by rail to the town of Falmouth, Virginia opposite of Fredericksburg having accomplished the move to the surprise of Lee. Once again indecision and hesitation would cause victory to be lost. Burnside refused to let union forces ford the Rappahannock River that separated the two towns denying union forces the chance to occupy the high ground and allowed General Longstreet to instead. With reinforcement from Gen. Stonewall Jackson and Major General George Pickett. The resulting battles proved to be costly to both sides with the Army of the Potomac 1,284 killed, 9,600 wounded, and 1,769 captured/missing. For the Confederates, casualties were 608 killed, 4,116 wounded, and 653 captured/missing. Following Burnsides failures Lincoln was forced to again this time relieve Burnside from command and appoint Major General Joseph Hooker.
Battle of Chancellorsville: General Hooker had reorganized his new command and with the emphasis on training and increased troop strength. The outmaneuvering of Lee allowed Hooker to close on Lee’s left flank and approach the town of Chancellorsville. Lee had however managed to keep Hooker in what was called the “Wilderness” a tangled, brush-choked thickets that covered about 70 square miles around Chancellorsville reducing Hookers ability to maneuver his troops. In what was to be Lee’s greatest victory of the war and was accomplished by his bringing in reinforcements from outlying camps and units. With collaboration from General Jackson they devised a plan of attack. Jackson took 30,000 men and attacked the unions right flank and rear pulverizing the Federal Eleventh Corps and pushing the northern army back a full 2 miles. Unfortunately during the operation Gen. Thomas Stonewall Jackson was shot and killed by mistake by his own troops. The battle finally ended with defeat of Hooker’s army and the threat from the east. Lee again gained more time and confidence in his quest to win the war for the south. The tragedy of Jackson’s death was to have a sobering and saddening effect on Lee and the entire Army of Northern Virginia.
Battle of Gettysburg: The Battle of Gettysburg would start out as a mere probing of lead elements of the opposing armies. It was not Lee’s intention to fight a battle at this time and location but events were to spiral out of control. One of the negative effects of Lee’s continual string of victories was to breed overconfidence in his own abilities and that of his army. Forgetting the lessons he had not only learned but employed he allowed himself and his army to enter into battle with the north holding the preferred position. It was a mistake that would eventually lead to his and the south’s downfall and the loss of the war. This battle would bring many of the former members of the Union Federal Army into direct conflict with each other. Men who had sworn past alliances with their country and with each other. The Battle of Gettysburg is so large and so complicated it would take too much time and space here to cover it all. Let it be said that Gettysburg would prove to be the greatest loss of life that America had or ever would suffer in any war in its history. Total casualties for both side were tragically huge with the Union suffering 3,155 killed, 14,530 wounded, 5,365 missing for a total of 23,040 total casualties that represented 27% of the total force. Confederate losses were 4,500 killed, 12,800 wounded, 5,250 missing for a total of 25,000 total casualties representing 34% of the total force. Although the casualty count seems close one has to consider that Lee lost fully ⅓ of his army and never fully recovered from those losses. Gettysburg would prove to be the final turning point for the south, although they would go on to win other smaller battles the die had been cast for their ultimate defeat.
Overland Campaign: In the spring of 1864 General Ulysses S. Grant was placed in command of the Union Army. Grants main battle plan was two pronged with one being General Sherman’s advance from Chattanooga to Atlanta and Grant’s advance against Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. The two prong attack was constant and very aggressive, never giving the enemy a chance to rest or relax. Grant was a totally different kind of leader and did not suffer from indecision or timidity as his predecessors had. The constant pressure pushed Lee and the entire south back into a ever closing box from which there was no escape ending with the Siege of Petersburg.
Siege of Petersburg: Although not a siege in the normal sense where a objective is surrounded and both defeated through attrition and starvation it none the less accomplished the same result in the end. The siege in reality was a 9 month long battle that was fought from a series of trenches and short but violent engagements. The Union was well supplied with all the things needed for a successful campaign with food, water, ammunition, replacement equipment and constant reinforcements while the Confederate forces were starving to death and were rapidly running out of supplies and men to fight. With General Sherman’s forces approaching from the south Lee was forced to withdraw from Petersburg and Richmond itself. The end would come for Lee and the south at Appomattox.
Appomattox The Battle and surrender: The Battle of Appomattox was Lee’s and the south’s last chance. Lee’s forces were being surrounded and Lee determined he needed to break out and retire to resupply his forces. Lee marshalled his forces and at dawn on April 9, 1865 the Confederates attacked the union lines. After initially pushing the union cavalry back the union infantry arrived and stopped Lee’s advance and then surrounded Lee’s forces on 3 sides. Lee realizing the battle and the cause was lost and not wanting to needlessly waste the lives of his dedicated troops surrendered himself and his army on April 9, 1865. This was to be the final battle in Virginia and the surrender of all Confederate troops would occur on November 6, 1865. General Robert E. Lee ended the war with a record of wins that sealed his fate and standings in history as one of the best generals America ever produced. Lee was in the end happy the war was finally over and the killing had stopped. He would mourn the dead on both sides for the rest of his life.
Citizen Lee after the war
After the war was over and all prisoners were returned Robert E. Lee returned to civilian life. Lee’s pre-war home, the Custis-Lee Mansion had been confiscated by the Union and had subsequently been turned into Arlington National Cemetery. He had hoped to retire to a farm of his own but his name and face were too famous and he ultimately accepted an offer to serve as President of Washington University where he served from October 1865 until his death on October 12, 1870. Robert E. Lee will always be fondly remembered as a man of character, honesty, bravery and humility by both his enemies and colleagues.