Robert E. Lee

From Citizendium
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This article is developed but not approved.
Main Article
Related Articles  [?]
Bibliography  [?]
External Links  [?]
Citable Version  [?]
This editable, developed Main Article is subject to a disclaimer.
(PD) Photo: Mathew Brady
General Robert E. Lee

Robert Edward Lee (1807-1870) was an American soldier who became the outstanding general of the Confederate army in the American Civil War and a postwar icon of the South's "lost cause." He had a successful but unremarkable career in the U.S. army. One year into the Civil War he took command of the main Confederate combat army, the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee immediately emerged as the swiftest and shrewdest battlefield tactician of the war, as typified by many victories such as at Fredericksburg (1862), Chancellorsville (1863) and Cold Harbor (1864). His strategic vision was more dubious--his invasions of the North in 1862 and 1863 were based on the false assumption that Northern morale was weak and could be shattered by rebel victories. They produced disastrous defeats at Antietam (1862) and Gettysburg (1863), while his failure to protect Vicksburg in 1863 cost the Confederacy control of its western regions. Nevertheless Lee's brilliant defensive maneuvers stopped the Union offenses one after another, as a series of Union commanders failed to win a single major battle in Virginia.

Lee believed in the Napoleonic doctrine of decisive battle--he aimed to destroy entire Union armies and thereby undercut the Yankee will to resist Confederate independence. He won many battles but never destroyed or captured a Union army. In any case the Union will to win was greater than the the Confederate, a differential that grew wider year by year. With his supplies of munition and manpower adequate for a short war of a year or two, Lee had to fight a long war of attrition where the odds overwhelmingly favored the North.

Then in 1864 Ulysses S. Grant took charge. He began the "Overland Campaign," a series of high-casualty battles in the bloody summer of 1864. Lee won each battle, technically, but could not replace his losses, and was forced to retreat into trenches around Richmond. Lee's lines finally collapsed in April 1865, and at Appomattox he accepted Grant's generous terms for surrender. Lee vetoed proposals to engage in guerrilla warfare and instead called on southerners to accept reunion and Reconstruction, especially on the terms offered by President Andrew Johnson. He became a national symbol of devotion to duty and genius in battle.


Lee was born at Stratford, Westmoreland Co., Virginia, on January 19, 1807. His childhood was marked by downward mobility of his prominent father, General "Light-Horse Harry" Lee. On account of business losses and ill health, his father moved the family to Alexandria, Virginia. Here young Robert attended school until appointed to the United States Military Academy at West Point, from which he graduated in 1829, standing second in his class. He was commissioned a lieutenant of engineers and for the next 15 years was engaged in the usual duties of an engineer officer in the United States army, notably being employed on improvements of the harbor of St. Louis and the channel of the Mississippi River. When the Mexican War broke out he was ordered to the Mexican border, where he was assigned to duty as an engineer with the army commanded by General Winfield Scott, which was preparing for its advance from Vera Cruz to the City of Mexico. He distinguished himself in the ensuing campaign by his intelligent and difficult reconnaissance work and was wounded in the storming of Chapultepec, Sept. 13, 1847.

After the war ended, Lee returned to duty in the Engineer Bureau in Washington and was a member of the board of engineers for the Atlantic Coast defenses. From 1852 to 1855, he served as superintendent of the United States Military Academy, after which, as a lieutenant colonel of one of the newly authorized cavalry regiments, he served in Texas until 1860 with the exception of two years, 1857-1859, spent on leave. He was on leave as executor of the estate of his wife's father, which included numerous slaves that were to be emancipated.

Coming of Civil War

While at his wife's home at Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, Lee was detailed to command the force gathered to suppress John Brown's insurrection at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. In Texas in 1861 his commanding general surrendered the entire U.S. army command to the Texas government, then joined the Confederacy. Lee, who disliked slavery and rejected the Confederacy, returned to Washington. With war looming, President Abraham Lincoln wanted Lee. Lee was a colonel of cavalry, but the overall U.S. commander, Scott, offered a senior rank with the suggestion Lee would succeed Scott as commander. Lee accepted on condition that his home state Virginia not join the Confederacy. When it did so after Lincoln called for volunteers to invade South Carolina, he threw his support to his home state.

Civil War: 1861

He was commissioned major general in the Virginia state forces, and was one of the five general officers commissioned in 1861 by the Southern Confederacy. In the fall of 1861 he was assigned to command in the mountains in western Virginia (now West Virginia), but failed to overcome the chaos of Confederate supporters and the superior organization of Union armies. He misunderstood the politics of the region (which was intensely hostile to plantation owners like himself), lacked men and materials, and poorly coordinated his jealous subordinate commanders. He returned to Richmond, the Confederate capital, in October 1861, but was soon given command the southeast coast of the Confederacy; politicians distrusted him. Nevertheless President Jefferson Davis had full confidence in Lee and his ability, making Lee his chief military adviser, based in Richmond.

Civil War: 1862

General George B. McClellan, heading a large and well-equipped invasion force, was approaching Richmond in late May 1862. When the Confederate commander General Joseph E. Johnston was severely wounded, Lee was given the command. For the next three years he defended Richmond, as the survival of the Southern cause rested largely on his judgment, skill, and ability. Within a month Lee stopped McClellan and bottled him up on the Yorktown peninsula southeast of Richmond.

After a rest of a month or so to reorganize, equip, and reinforce his army, Lee led it northward toward Washington, expecting that McClellan would withdraw his forces from Yorktown to reinforce Washington. By the last week in August, Lee encountered General John Pope some 25 miles south of Washington. Lee won the "second battle of Bull Run." Washington was too heavily defended so Lee decided on a raid into Maryland to plunder supplies and to encourage recruiting for his army. Lee's forces were divided three ways, with Stonewall Jackson successfully capturing the Union arsenal at Harper's Ferry. Lee's secret plans accidentally fell into McClellan's hands. Usually McClellan was highly reluctant to attack, primarily because his overestimated Lee's strength by a factor of two. This time he knew Lee's forces were divided, but he wasted time while Lee, hearing news of the lost plans, frantically concentrated his forces[1]. September 17, 1862 saw the bloodiest single day of the war at the battle of Sharpsburg (or Antietam[2].) Jackson's reinforcements arrived just in time to make the battle a standoff, but Lee had to retreat to Virginia. On Dec. 13, 1862, the Union army, now commanded by General Ambrose E. Burnside, crossed the Rappahannock River river from Fredericksburg in an attempt to defeat and destroy Lee's army, but the attacks were thrown back with heavy losses, and no further hostilities occurred during the winter.

Civil War: 1863


In late April 1863, the Union army, this time commanded by General Joseph Hooker, faced Lee along the line of the Rappahannock. at the battle of Chancellorsville, May 6, 1863, by brilliant maneuvering and skillful direction of his smaller army, Lee won a classic victory. His best subordinate, General "Stonewall" Jackson, was killed, a major loss for Lee.


Although Ulysses Grant was closing in on uncoordinated Confederate armies in the Vicksburg campaign, Lee ignored this strategic threat. Instead he turned to Northern politics for a miracle cure. Lee had never been interested in politics and misunderstood what was happening by relying on Copperhead papers that gloomily proclaimed the Union effort was doomed. To help that doom come faster Lee decided on an invasion of Pennsylvania. The raid promised large stories of desperately needed supplies, and Lee expected it would shock the Yankees into realization that the Confederacy had a superior moral fiber and commitment to win. A psychological victory would quickly end the war. Lee was dreaming--and he seems not to have consulted any Confederate politicians (or Yankee prisoners) who could have explained politics to him. Lee's movement started on the first of June and within a short time was well on its way through Maryland, with General George Meade, the new Union commander, moving north along parallel lines. Lee's cavalry, under General Jeb Stuart had the primary mission of gathering intelligence on where the enemy was position, but Stuart failed and instead raided some supply trains. He did not rejoin Lee until the battle was underway. Lee's armies threatened Harrisburg, Washington, Baltimore and even Philadelphia. Local militia units hurriedly formed to oppose Lee, but they were inconsequential in the face of a large, battle-hardened attack force. Gettysburg was a crossroads junction in heavily wooded areas. Over three days, July 1-3, Confederate forces arrived piecemeal from the northwest, while Union forces arrived piecemeal from the east. By July 1 Meade was to the south of Lee--Lee's retreat was cut off and he had to fight, and had to win. On July 1, 1863, the fighting began, with a Confederate advantage in manpower. The Union forces fell back on a fishhook position on hills to the southeast of town. see Gettysburg Campaign The bloody combat in very hot July weather climaxed in the spectacular but fruitless charge of General George E. Pickett's brigades into a trap set by Union forces atop Cemetery Ridge. Pickett failed, and Lee was out of reserves (and out of artillery ammunition). After this decisive defeat, Lee was trapped, but Meade failed badly in not pursuing. Lee's escape was one of his greatest achievements. By the end of July Lee's depleted army was back in its camps around Orange Court House, Virginia. There was little important action the rest of the year.

The only bright spot was the Confederates systematically looted Pennsylvania and in retreat brought back enough captured food, wagons, hardware, horses and cattle to keep Lee supplied for months to come.[3] The looting indeed was part of Lee's plan, but the 28,000 casualties permanently weakened his army, leaving it no chance to take the initiative in the future.

Civil War: 1864

In the spring of 1864, Lee was faced by yet another commander, General Ulysses S. Grant, the triumphant commander of the western armies. Lee had repeatedly failed to achieve a knockout victory, but his opportunity for another strategic offensive was gone, for Grant's army was nearly double in size and much better equipped. The Union generals, colonels, captains, sergeants and privates had learned to fight as well as Johnny Reb, and were even more highly motivated, for they saw victory at hand and Lee could only postpone defeat. On May 4, 1864, Grant began moving across the Rapidan River, and for two days a battle raged, with heavy losses on both sides. Lee forced Grant from his direct line of march into The Wilderness, where the going was slow and the fighting bloody. At a critical moment in the battle, Lee was again deprived of the services of his principal and most competent lieutenant, by the wounding of General James Longstreet, who later recovered. Defeat did not bother Grant; instead of licking his wounds, turning north, and blaming the defeat at the Wilderness on his subordinates, Grant electrified his men by orders to march south. Grant knew he had the stronger army, and knew that Lee could not replace his losses. Moving in force by Lee's right flank, Grant slowly forced Lee back through Spotsylvania Court House, across the North Anna River, to Cold Harbor on the north of Richmond and across the James River to Petersburg, Virginia, 30 miles south of Richmond. Battle after battle was a "victory" for Lee, as Grant's attrition campaign whittled down his bedraggled army. Lee stabilized the situation by digging trenches,[4] and Grant settled down to a siege of attrition.

Public opinion in the North was alarmed at Grant's massive losses but Grant promised Lincoln, "I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer," and Lincoln mobilized the North to replace the losses. It took Grant all summer and all fall and all winter. By fall Lee's men were on short rations, and there was no fodder for the horses, so he sent the cavalry away.

Civil War: 1865

By the early part of 1865 the military affairs of the Confederacy had so deteriorated that Lee, on Feb. 6, 1865, was made commander in chief of all the Southern armies, but the assignment was merely a gesture of despair. Lee demanded, and got, congressional approval to raise black combat regiments (realizing this meant the end of slavery). The first black Confederate units were in training as the war ended. White soldiers deserted en masse, in order to directly protect their homes and families as Union armies were invading from all directions. Union General William T. Sherman, having devastated Georgia and South Carolina, was fighting his way through North Carolina to surround Lee from the South. Grant's overwhelming force was too much for Lee's shrunken battalions. Grant broke through at Petersburg, as Lee raced to the west and the Confederate government fled Richmond in total confusion. On April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House, Lee surrendered his remaining forces of fewer than 30,000 men to Grant and his force of over 100,000 men. This was soon followed by the surrender of all organized Confederate forces elsewhere in the South. The war was over, and Lee wisely insisted there be no guerrilla warfare.


On May 29, 1865, President Andrew Johnson issued a proclamation of amnesty, but General Lee and others of rank were excluded, and there was talk of treason trials and executions of Confederate leaders. Johnson rejected all such talk and offered moderate terms of Reconstruction that Lee welcomed publicly. On June 7, 1865, a federal court indicted Lee for treason, but no action was taken. There were no treason trials anywhere, although Jefferson Davis was imprisoned for two years. In October, Lee, after refusing many lucrative offers, became president of Washington College, a small school in Lexington, Virginia. Here, for the next five years, he labored to develop the school, now Washington and Lee University, reduce Southern hatred of Yankees, and to unify his country. He died at Lexington on Oct. 12, 1870.

Memory and legacy

North and South reconciled in the 1880s and 1890s--there were even joint reunions of the two armies at Gettysburg. Lee became the favorite hero of the South, and then of the North as well. The U.S. Congress restored his American citizenship in 1975.


  1. One of Lee's couriers accidentally dropped the plans, wrapped around some cigars. An Indiana soldier found them and his colonel took them to McClellan, who exclaimed before a local delegation that he had Lee trapped. One visitor slipped away and reached Lee by midnight. McClellan had decided to sleep on his secret and did not issue orders until the morning.
  2. . Confederates named battles after the nearest town, Sharpsburg, while the Union named them after the nearest river, Antietam.
  3. They also captured some free blacks and made them slaves.
  4. The slaves did the digging.