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Robert E. Lee

Robert Edward Lee
(1807-1870)
Confederate General

Robert E. Lee, through strategic brilliance and inspired leadership, turned the Confederate States of America from a hollow boast into a viable threat to the Union. Lee’s innovations in maneuver and use of field fortifications – always against larger, better-equipped units – allowed him to gain victory consistently against superior forces. The loyalty and affection he earned from his soldiers and Southern compatriots extended beyond the war and the lost cause, and Lee remains today one of America’s most revered military leaders in both the South and the North.

Lee was born on January 19, 1807, at Stratford, Virginia, the son of a Revolutionary Way hero and into one of his state’s most distinguished families. He graduated second in the West Point class of 1829, never receiving a demerit. An officer of great presence, Lee stood nearly six feet tall. He did not smoke, drink, or swear; he placed his religion and honor above all.

During his initial engineer assignments of developing forts and harbors, Lee performed well but exhibited no exceptional talents. It was not until the outbreak of the war with Mexico that he experienced his first combat and distinguished himself under fire. As a member of the stall of Gen. Winfield Scott, Lee personally made the reconnaissance that discovered a flanking route against the enemy at Cerro Gordo in 1847 that led to a victory. In the operations against Mexico City, Lee planned the disposition of the American artillery and suffered a slight wound in the Battle of Chapultepec on September 13, 1847. Scott would later write that Lee “was the best soldier I ever saw in the field.”

Following the Mexican War, Lee served in various cavalry regiments before becoming the superintendent of West Point in 1852. Although he made improvements in the academy’s curriculum and instructional methods, Lee’s best-known action during his three years there was his dismissal of future artist James McNeill Whistler for academic deficiencies.

In 1859, Lee led a small force to Harpers Ferry to put down the “rebellion” instigated by John Brown. A year later, he took command of the Department of Texas and remained there until the outbreak of the Civil War, in 1861. In April of that year, Scott, now commander of the entire army, recalled Lee to Washington, where President Abraham Lincoln offered him command of the Union field forces. Despite more than thirty years’ service in the U.S. Army and his personal objections to slavery and secession, Lee rejected the offer, stating that he could not take up arms against his home state, Virginia.

Lee resigned from the U.S. Army on April 25, 1861, and accepted an appointment as commander of the state of Virginia’s forces. He did not, however, immediately become involved in combat operations. For several months he supervised the mobilization of the militia and the fortification of key sties. In August he joined the staff of Confederate President Jefferson Davis as a personal adviser. It was not until the wounding of Joseph E. Johnston in May 1862 that Lee took command of what he renamed the Army of Northern Virginia.

For the duration of the war, Lee displayed his extraordinary talents in maneuvering his forces and in recognizing his enemy’s intentions and weaknesses. He orchestrated the deployment of his advance forces, the commitment of his limited reserves, the use of interior lines of communication, and the distribution of supplies with such a skill that military students still study his techniques of maneuver and logistics today. With his engineering expertise, Lee also developed and employed field fortifications to gain defensive advantages and to force the enemy to move against Confederate strengths.

Lee’s greatest asset was his demeanor as a calm man who rarely raised his voice or expressed anger. It was also his greatest liability. With his quiet approach, Lee generated loyalty and confidence among his soldiers, who held him in almost godlike esteem. Yet this same style limited his control over subordinate officers, such as James Longstreet and J. E. B. Stuart, whose insubordination and independence on occasion caused Lee’s plans to go awry or fail.

In Lee’s initial victory, he turned back George McClellan and his numerically superior Union army when they threatened Richmond. After moving north and routing the Union force at the Second Battle of Bull Run on August 29-30, 1862, Lee decided not to maneuver against Washington, D.C., but, rather, to take the war into the Northern states, believing that the only way the Confederacy could maintain its independence was to directly attack and defeat the Union army.

Lee’s first venture into northern territory failed miserably. At Antietam Creek, Maryland, on September 17, 1862, the North and South met in the war’s bloodiest single day. Although Union casualties outnumbered Confederate by seventeen thousand to twelve thousand, his losses forced Lee to withdraw back to Virginia.

Lee’s skills in fortifications produced a defensive victory at Fredericksburg in April 1863, and his brilliant counterattack, led by Stonewall Jackson’s flanking movement, again defeated the Union army at Chancellorsville the next month. Encouraged by his victories, Lee, despite the mortal wounding of Jackson at Chancellorsville, ordered his second invasion of the North. At Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Lee, out of contact with his cavalry and without total support of his subordinate generals, who were reluctant to attack, ordered his army across a mile-wide open field again the strength of the Union army. By the end of the battle, on July 2, more than twenty-five thousand Confederates were dead, wounded or missing. Lee turned what remained of his army back to Virginia, where he offered his resignation to President Davies, who refused it.

The Confederacy had reached its apex before Gettysburg, but Lee and the South were far from defeated. In a brilliant series of defenses in 1864 at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor, Lee made successful stands against attacks by the new Union commander Ulysses. S. Grant. Lee’s skills in anticipating Grant’s moves and in deploying the diminishing Confederate reserve prolonged the war and the life of the Confederacy.

By April 1865 the Union controlled the Mississippi River, occupied Atlanta, and had Lee’s army surrounded at Petersburg. Although Lee managed a breakout and retreated westward, Grant paralleled the withdrawing Confederate army and finally stopped it at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, and within a month the remaining southern forces also capitulated.

Under the generous terms of the surrender, lee returned home. In the fall of 1865 he assumed the presidency of Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia. He died there at age sixty-three on October 12, 1870, of heart disease. In 1975 the U.S. Congress finally voted to posthumously restore Lee’s citizenship.

Lee remains a military hero respected and studied for his strategic skills in fighting a larger, better-supplied enemy and his leadership abilities in gaining the respect and adoration of his subordinates. He is the icon of American military dignity. Yet despite the South’s romanticized immortalization of their leader, lee ranks far below the victor Grant in actual long-term influence. Lee left a legacy that makes him a symbol of Southern pride, but the cause he represented so well was truly a lost one.

Despite the dignity, professionalism, and military skills exhibited by Lee, he represented a country that enslaved an entire race and traded and sold human beings like livestock. Although the Confederate leaders insisted that they fought for “states rights,” one of the “rights” was the continuation of slavery. In a simple effort of fairness, African Zulu king Shaka rates above the rebel General Lee, who possessed approximately equal skills on the battlefield.