Robert Edward Lee Biography (Civil War and Postwar Life)


Who is Robert Edward Lee? Information on early life, biography, civil war and postwar life of Robert Edward Lee. Robert Edward Lee life story.

Robert Edward Lee;(1807-1870 ) general of the Confederate armies in the American Civil War. One of the truly gifted commanders of all time, he was a near-genius in divining precisely what his opponents were going to do and in reacting to those intuitions with force and daring. The affection of his soldiers was akin to hero worship. And his many military successes—in the face of seemingly overwhelming obstacles—have led writers to praise him as “one of the greatest, if not the greatest, soldier who ever spoke the English language.”

Early Life.

Lee was a product of the South’s most distinguished aristocracy. One of his forebears, Thomas Lee, was a royal governor of the Virginia colony. Two others, Francis Lightfoot Lee and Richard Henry Lee, were eminent statesmen of the Revolution. His father, Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, was a brilliant cavalry leader in America’s war for independence.

Robert E. Lee, a fifth child, was born on Jan. 19, 1807, at the family home, “Stratford,’ in Westmoreland County, Va. While Lee was still an infant, heavy debts forced the family to move to a small house in Alexandria. There Lee spent his youth and received his early education. He was a serious-minded lad who enjoyed long hours in his father’s well-stocked library.

Robert Edward Lee

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In 1825, Lee entered the U. S. Military Academy at West Point. Four years later he graduated second in his class and without a single demerit to blemish his record. Lee received his commission as a brevet 2d Lieutenant of Engineers and then served 17 months at Fort Pulaski, Ga. In 1831 he was transferred to Fort Monroe, Va. Shortly thereafter he married Mary Ann Randolph Custis, whose father was a grandson of Martha Washington. This union produced seven children. All three sons later served in the Confederate army, with two of them—George Washington Custis Lee and William Fitzhugh Lee—attaining the rank of major general.

During the period 1834-1837, Lee was attached to the U. S. Engineers office in Washington, D. C. His most noted service in that tour of duty was in surveying and defining the boundary between Ohio and Michigan. He also supervised engineering projects in St. Louis harbor and along the upper Mississippi River.

Mexican War and Other Service.

Lee first gained nationwide attention by his service in the Mexican War. He performed brilliantly as a bridge builder, scout, and army engineer. On the decisive Veracruz expedition, he was chief of staff to Gen. Winfield Scott, who praised Lee as “the very best soldier he ever saw in the field.” The Mexican War brought Lee three brevet promotions for gallantry and the deep and lasting friendship of his commander, General Scott.

Lee spent three years at Fort Carroll in Baltimore before his appointment in 1852 as superintendent of the U. S. Military Academy. As commandant of West Point he came to know well many of the budding officers who later fought beside and against him. In 1855 he was named lieutenant colonel of the elite 2d U. S. Cavalry. Six years of duty in Texas followed. For Lee, this was not a happy period. Long absences from his family were painful, particularly since his wife was becoming an arthritic invalid.

In 1857, Lee and his wife inherited the Custis estate on Arlington Heights overlooking Washington. (The mansion is now the central office for Arlington National Cemetery.) Lee was there on an extended furlough when, in October 1859, John Brown staged his raid on Harpers Ferry. Lee took command of a detachment of U. S. Marines tjiat succeeded in capturing Brown and the remnant of his force.

Robert Edward Lee

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The year 1861 was the most critical in U. S. history, for the Union dissolved in civil war. Lee found himself caught between opposing loyalties. On the one hand was the nation that he had faithfully served as a soldier for 35 years. On the other side was beloved Virginia, to which Lee owed his very heritage. Complicating the issue even further was Scott’s offer to Lee on April 18, 1861, to assume command of all federal forces.

Lee’s Choice.

Two days later, Lee made his fateful decision. He explained his action in a letter to his sister: “With all my devotion to the Union, and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the army . . .”

Lee was then 54 years old. He was a strikingly handsome figure who stood five feet, ten inches tall and weighed about 170 pounds. His hair and full mustache were then black—although by 1863 they would be snow-white. Strongly compact and straight of posture, Lee had an aura of dignity that commanded both attention and respect. He abstained totally from the use of alcohol, tobacco, and profanity, and he practised his Episcopal faith on a daily basis. A private who fought under him thought that Lee “looked like some good boy’s grandpa,” and he added: “His whole makeup of form and person, looks and manner, had a gentle and soothing magnetism about it. I fell in love with the old gentleman.”

First War Duties.

Late in April 1861, Lee proceeded to Richmond and, at the invitation of Gov. John Letcher, took charge of all military and naval forces in Virginia. Lee demonstrated gifted powers of organization by molding scattered militia and volunteer units into a one-year provisional army and by systematizing procedures for quartermaster and commissary distribution.

Although Lee was appointed a full general in the Confederate army on June 14, 1861, arfull year would pass before he would take command of any large-scale military operations. His first assignment for the Southern nation was to supervise the scattered forces then defending western Virginia. Coordinating the movements of small armies under egotistical and jealous generals was a hopeless task. In the end, Lee was able to do little more than save these Confederate units from complete annihilation at the hands of larger, more efficient federal armies. The western counties in contention were soon lost to the enemy, and Lee returned to Richmond as a scapegoat for the reverses.

Robert Edward Lee

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A short inspection tour of the defenses along the South Atlantic coast provided Lee with no opportunity for improving his reputation. President Jefferson Davis recognized his potential, however, and in March 1862 named Lee his chief military adviser. At first Davis sought the general’s advice only on minor matters. Lee proved a master diplomat by curbing his impatience for field command and by offering counsel only when it was requested. Through tactfulness and courtesy and through keeping the president fully informed of affairs, Lee avoided those clashes with the touchy Davis that ruined such generals as Joseph E. Johnston and P. G. T. Beauregard.

Lee’s brilliance as a military strategist began to emerge that spring. As Gen. George B. Mc-Clellan advanced up the Virginia peninsula with a seemingly invincible Union army of 121,000 men, Lee assisted General Johnston in strengthening the defenses of Richmond. Lee knew that the Confederates could never be the numerical equal of McClellan’s forces; yet a serious blow delivered elsewhere against the North might weaken McClellan’s position. Lee therefore conceived the plan of having Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson carry out heavy diversionary attacks in the Shenandoah Valley. This counter-strategy, known as the 1862 Valley Campaign, proved to be one of the most sterling movements in military history.

Army Commander.

Johnston’s forces brought McClellan’s advance to a halt at the battle of Seven Pines (May 31-June 1), where Johnston fell seriously wounded. Lee was appointed to lead the Army of Northern Virginia. Thus began an association between general and soldiers that lasted the remainder of the war.

Always a master of the unexpected, Lee assumed command of an army that had been retreating for a month—and promptly made plans for a massive counterattack. Lee was an unwavering proponent of maximum concentration of forces against isolated segments of the enemy army. Seeing that McClellan’s right flank was dangerously exposed, Lee hurled his brigades against that flank in two battles—Mechanicsville and Gaines’s Mill—that opened the Seven Days Campaign (June 26-July 1). McClellan rapidly withdrew southward toward the James River. Only faulty staff work and the dereliction of subordinate commanders prevented Lee from winning a decisive victory. Yet with the neutralization of McClellan’s army, Richmond was temporarily spared from capture.

In mid-July, Lee received word that a new federal army under Gen. John Pope was massing along the Rapidan River in northern Virginia. Concluding that Pope was more likely to take the offensive than McClellan was to resume it, Lee dispatched Jackson’s divisions northward to meet the new threat. Lee followed with the remainder of his army when McClellan’s withdrawal from the peninsula became apparent.

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Lee could not allow those two federal armies to unite and bring superior numbers to bear against him. He thus unfolded what became his basic offensive pattern throughout the war: a flanking movement by one segment of his army to divert attention, followed by smashing assaults from both front and flank. Such tactics worked to perfection at the battle of Second Manassas, or Second Bull Run (August 28-30). Pope’s army fled in panic back to Washington.

Battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg.

The moment was now opportune, Lee reasoned, to carry the war into the North. An invasion of northern territory might produce a decisive, war-ending victory; if not, such an offensive could prompt recognition—and aid—from England or France as well as secure Maryland for the Confederacy. In any event, Lee’s army in the North could obtain badly needed supplies while relieving Virginia momentarily of battle pressures. The plan conformed to Lee’s “offensive-defensive” strategy of confounding and dividing his foes by feints and actual movements against the North.

Early in September, Lee’s army splashed across the Potomac River into Maryland. McClellan, reacting desperately, rushed to block Lee’s move. On September 17, the two armies collided at Sharpsburg, Md. The resultant battle of Antietam was the bloodiest one-day engagement of the Civil War as total casualties on both sides exceeded 23,000 men. Lee was forced back to Virginia. When Abraham Lincoln used this battle as a basis for issuing his Emancipation Proclamation—thus elevating the war to a struggle for human freedom as well as for preservation of the Union—the South’s hopes for foreign aid and ultimate victory dimmed.

Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside shortly replaced McClellan as commander of the federal army of the Potomac. Early in December, Burnside pushed southward toward Richmond. Lee quick-y took an impregnable position at Fredericksburg and, in a December 13 battle, won possibly his most convincing victory. It was at the battle of Fredericksburg that Lee made his famous observation: “It is well that war is so terrible—else we would grow too fond of it.”

Battle of Chancellorsville.

Lee’s finest hour as a military strategist came five months later in a densely wooded area of Virginia known as the Wilderness. The federal army, 130,000 strong and then under Gen. Joseph Hooker, advanced southward in two wings, each of which was larger than Lee’s 60,000-man army. Hooker’s plan was to use his forces as a strong pincer and to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia through superior manpower and a 2-pronged attack.

The Confederate commander reacted with moves as dangerous as they were brilliant. Leaving a third of his army to confront Hooker’s left wing at Fredericksburg, Lee hastened westward to block the other federal contingent. He further divided his army by sending Jackson’s corps on a 14-mile (22-km) arc around Hooker’s vulnerable right flank. Then, in typical fashion, Lee struck Hooker’s isolated wing from two directions. The ensuing battle of Chancellorsville (May 1-4, 1863) exacted a total of 29,000 casualties on both sides, including the irreplaceable “Stonewall” Jackson, but Lee once more sent the federal army reeling in defeat.

Battle of Gettysburg.

Lee could not afford to waste the fruits of the Chancellorsville victory. Moreover, his men were desperately in need of supplies, the hope still prevailed for foreign recognition, and an invasion of the North now might force Gen. U. S. Grant to. relinquish his strangling siege of Vicksburg, the South’s last bastion on the Mississippi River. Accordingly, in mid-June, Lee’s 50,000 veterans again crossed the Potomac. Lee was staking everything on one bold thrust.

On this second invasion, however, everything went wrong for the Confederacy. Federal cavalry captured Confederate dispatches announcing Lee’s intentions for a northern movement. Thus the Army of the Potomac followed in close pursuit of Lee. Then Gen. J. E. B. Stuart, perhaps overly anxious to atone for a defeat at Brandy Station on June 9, rode off on a cavalry expedition (June 25-July 2) that left Lee with no reconnoitering force. On July 1, elements of Lee’s army accidentally met federals at Gettysburg, Pa., and the war’s most famous battle began.

The conflict lasted three days. The casualties en both sides totaled 43,000. Not one of Lee’s principal generals acted up to par. Lee himself was guilty of poor staff work, the failure to issue forceful and precise orders, and an overeagerness to continue assaulting strong positions manned by superior numbers. Lee assumed all responsibility for the stunning defeat. His army spent the next ten months guarding northern Virginia against any major federal intrusion.

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Lee versus Grant.

The year 1864 brought face to facc, for the first time, the Civil War’s two best generals: Lee and Grant. As the North’s new general-in-chief, Grant resolved to wage a strategy of attrition—to press southward toward Richmond and to hammer unceasingly at Lee’s dwindling forces. The fighting that ensued was the heaviest and most sustained of the war.

Each commander tried to seize the initiative from the other. Yet after a costly victory at the battle of the Wilderness (May 5-6, 1864), Lee realized that his army was too weakened to be again an attacking force. He could only repel Grant’s assaults and hope that mounting federal casualties would lead Northern public opinion to force Grant’s withdrawal from Virginia. If the Army of Northern Virginia ever became pinned down in the defenses of Richmond, the days of that army—and of the Confederacy—were numbered.

Grant was not deterred by his high losses. At Spotsylvania (May 12), North Anna (May 19), and Cold Harbor (June 3), he launched massive attacks that, although unsuccessful, carried him nearer to Richmond while taking a high human toll from Lee’s army. The defensive moves employed by Lee during this campaign were flawless. He predicted and counteracted each of Grant’s thrusts, he masterfully used his interior lines of defense to maximum advantage, and his earthworks and gun emplacements were so skillfully spaced that “he elevated axe and spade to near-equality with musket and howitzer.”

Having failed to take Richmond by direct attack, Grant on June 12-16 shifted his army toward Petersburg, a vital rail junction south of the Confederate capital. Lee managed to keep his army between Grant and Richmond, but the fatal trap had been sprung: Lee was locked in the Richmond defenses. Grant was now content to iise siege operations, for such strategy would erode Lee’s army of its remaining strength.

The siege of Richmond and Petersburg was, for Lee’s ragged warriors, a 9-month ordeal of hunger, cold, disease, and constant federal pressure. An attempt by Lee to create a diversion by sending Gen. Jubal Early’s division on a raid against Washington came to nothing. Desertions mounted as morale sagged.

Last Days of the War. In February 1865, President Davis appointed Lee general-in-chief of all Confederate forces. Lee began planning for a union between his army and Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s, then retreating through North Carolina in the face of Gen. William T. Sherman’s advance. By the spring of that year, Grant was ready for the final blow against Lee. It came on April 1 at Five Forks, and it shattered the thin Confederate defenses. Lee’s army retreated westward, with Grant in close pursuit. At Appomattox Court House, Lee found his march blocked by flanking federal cavalry. On April 9, 1865— Palm Sunday—Lee met with Grant and agreed to terms of surrender.


Lee submitted calmly to defeat and returned to Richmond as a paroled prisoner. For the first time in 40 years he was a private citizen. He received a number of lucrative offers in industry, but he accepted instead the presidency of impoverished Washington College at Lexington, Va.

In just a few months he brought such inspiring leadership and high scholarship to the school that it became known reverentially as “General Lee’s College.” Lee never ceased to do everything within his power to promote nationalism and brotherhood at a time when sectionalism and the bitterness of Reconstruction were prevalent. He died on Oct. 12, 1870, in Lexington and is buried in the chapel on the campus of what is now Washington and Lee University.


Robert E. Lee was pious and courteous as a person, bold and audacious as a general. In the words of Winston Churchill, he was “one of the greatest captains known to the annals of war.” Lee possessed the intellect to foresee enemy movements, the boldness to strike when the occasion presented itself, and the godlike character to inspire both devotion and sacrifice in the face of extreme hardships. Some critics have accused him of being too shortsighted in not seeing the Civil War beyond the boundaries of Virginia. Yet the defense of that state was always his primary responsibility. Other writers fault Lee for being overly combative at times, such as on the third day at Gettysburg. Still, it was this “fighting blood” in Lee that made opponents wary of confronting him. Possibly his greatest weakness was his extreme kindness and humility in dealing with subordinate officers who needed forceful and direct leadership.

Lee’s homes at Arlington and Stratford are now national shrines, and his statue is one of Virginia’s representatives in Statuary Hall of the U. S. Capitol. Through his noble character, Lee gave new life to the South—and to the nation.


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