General Robert E. Lee History and Biography

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General Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee Biography and History

Robert E. Lee, Confederate Army (1863)
General Robert Edward Lee 1863.jpg
(General Robert E. Lee)

General Robert E. Lee
(January 19, 1807 – October 12, 1870)

General Robert E. Lee History and Biography

"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, and save in defense of my native State, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword...." Robert E. Lee in a letter to his sister, April 20, 1861

       The idol of the South to this day, Virginian Robert E. Lee had some difficulty in adjusting to the new form of warfare that unfolded with the Civil War, but this did not prevent him from keeping the Union armies in Virginia at bay for almost three years. The son of Revolutionary War hero "Light Horse" Harry Lee--who fell into disrepute in his later years--attended West Point and graduated second in his class. During his four years at the military academy, he did not earn a single demerit and served as the cadet corps' adjutant. Upon his 1829 graduation, he was posted to the engineers. Before the Mexican War, he served on engineering projects in Georgia, Virginia, and New York. During the war, he served on the staffs of John Wool and Winfield Scott. Particularly distinguishing himself scouting for and guiding troops, he won three brevets and was slightly wounded at Chapultepec. (See General Robert E. Lee: Compiled Military Service Record.)
       Following a stint in Baltimore Harbor, he became superintendent of the military academy in 1852. When the mounted arm was expanded in 1855, Lee accepted the lieutenant colonelcy of the 2nd Cavalry in order to escape from the painfully slow promotion in the engineers. Ordered to western Texas, he served with his regiment until the 1857 death of his father-in-law, which forced him to ask for a series of leaves to settle the estate.
       In 1859, he was called upon to lead a force of marines, to join with the militia on the scene, to put an end to John Brown's Harper's Ferry Raid. Thereafter, he returned to Texas until summoned to Washington in 1861 by Winfield Scott who tried to retain Lee in the U.S. service. But the Virginian rejected the command of the Union's field forces on the day after Virginia seceded. He then accepted an invitation to visit Governor John Letcher in Virginia. His resignation as colonel, 1st Cavalry--to which he had recently been promoted--was accepted on April 25, 1861.
       His Southern assignments included: major general, Virginia's land and naval forces (April 23, 1861); commanding Virginia forces (April 23 July 1861); brigadier general, CSA (May 14, 186 1); general, CSA (from June 14, 186 1); commanding Department of Northwestern Virginia (late July-October 1861); commanding Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida (November 8, 186 1-March 3, 1862); and commanding Army of Northern Virginia June 1, 1862-April 9, 1865).
       In charge of Virginia's fledgling military might, he was mainly involved in organizational matters. As a Confederate brigadier general, and later full general, he was in charge of supervising all Southern forces in Virginia. In the first summer of the war, he was given his first field command in western Virginia. His Cheat Mountain Campaign was a disappointing fizzle largely due to the failings of his superiors. His entire tenure in the region was unpleasant, dealing with the bickering of his subordinates: William W. Loring, John B. Floyd, and Henry A. Wise. Afterwards, he became known throughout the South as "Granny Lee." His debut in field command had not been promising, but Jefferson Davis appointed him to command along the Southern Coast.
       Early in 1862, he was recalled to Richmond and made an advisor to the president. From this position, he had some influence over military operations, especially those of Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. When Joseph E. Johnston launched his attack at Seven Pines, Davis and Lee were taken by surprise and rode out to the field. In the confusion of the fight, Johnston was badly wounded, and that night Davis instructed Lee to take command of what he renamed the Army of Northern Virginia. He fought the second day of the battle but the initiative had already been lost the previous day. Later in the month, in a daring move, he left a small force in front of Richmond and crossed the Chickahominy to strike the only Union corps north of the river. In what was to be called the Seven Days Battles: the individual fights or battles--Beaver Dam Creek, Gaines' Mill, Savage Station, Glendale, White Oak Swamp, and Malvern Hill--were all tactical defeats for the Confederates. But Lee had achieved the strategic goal of removing McClellan's army from the very gates of Richmond.
       This created a new opinion of Lee in the South. He gradually became "Uncle Robert" and "Marse Robert." With McClellan neutralized, a new threat developed under John Pope in northern Virginia. Initially, Lee detached Jackson and then followed with Longstreet's command. Winning at 2nd Bull Run (aka 2nd Manassas), he advanced into Maryland but suffered the misfortune of having a copy of his orders, detailing the disposition of his divided forces, fall into the hands of the enemy. McClellan moved with unusual speed, and Lee was forced to fight a delaying action along South Mountain while waiting for Jackson to complete the capture of Harpers Ferry and rejoin him. He masterfully fought McClellan to a stand still at Antietam and two days later recrossed the Potomac.
       Near the end of the year, he won an easy victory over Burnside at Fredericksburg and then trounced Hooker in his most creditable victory at Chancellorsville, where he had detached Jackson with most of the army on a lengthy flank march while he remained with only two divisions in the immediate front of the Union army. Launching his second invasion of the North, he lost at Gettysburg. On the third day of the battle, he displayed one of his major faults when at Malvern Hill and on other fields; he ordered a massed infantry assault across a wide plain, not recognizing that the rifle, which had come into use since the Mexican War, put the charging troops under fire for too long a period. Another problem was his issuance of general orders to be executed by his subordinates.
       Returning to Virginia, he commanded in the inconclusive Bristoe and Mine Run campaigns. From the Wilderness to Petersburg, he fought a retiring campaign against Grant in which he made full use of entrenchments, becoming known as "Ace of Spades" Lee. Finally forced into a siege, he held on to Richmond and Petersburg for nearly 10 months before beginning his retreat to Appomattox, where he was forced to surrender. On January 23, 1865, he had been named as commander in chief of the Confederate armies but he found himself too burdened in Virginia to give more than general directives to the other theaters.
       Lee returned to Richmond as a paroled prisoner of war, and submitted with the utmost composure to an altered destiny. He devoted the rest of his life to setting an example of conduct for thousands of ex-Confederates. He refused a number of offers which would have secured substantial means for his family. Instead, he assumed the presidency of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia, and his reputation revitalized the school after the war. Lee's enormous wartime prestige, both in the North and South, and the devotion inspired by his unconscious symbolism of the "Lost Cause" made his a legendary figure even before his death. The South's most beloved general died on October 12, 1870, of heart disease (which had plagued Lee since the spring of 1863) while in Lexington, Va., in the city where he was also laid to rest. Lee's application for restoration of citizenship, however, was mislaid, and it was not until the 1970's that it was found and granted.

Source: Who Was Who In The Civil War, by Stewart Sifakis

Recommended Reading: Lee, by Douglas Southall Freeman. Description: Douglas Southall Freeman's multi-volume "Robert E. Lee" may have been published nearly three-quarters of a century ago, but this abridged version remains the best single biography ever written about the legendary Confederate general. Although there have been numerous books written about Lee, none have come as close to capturing Lee's military genius, or why so many Southerners enthusiastically fought and died under his banner, as does Freeman's work. When it was first published "Lee" was a sensation, and in the 1930's only Margaret Mitchell's wildly fictionalized "Gone With the Wind" surpassed it in sales and publicity. Senator Harry Truman read every volume, as did other famous political and military leaders. Freeman's work did much to spread the "Lee Legend" outside the South and made Lee into a national, and not merely regional, icon. In Freeman's elegant prose, Robert Edward Lee is nearly perfect in every respect - he is a modest, deeply religious man who dislikes slavery and secession but reluctantly agrees to side with his native state of Virginia when the Civil War begins. Continued below.

If the rest of Freeman's story sounds familiar it is because this book made it so. Lee, despite facing constant shortages of men and supplies, meets the overwhelming forces of the Northern States and defeats them in battle after battle. Yet after each defeat the Northerners simply recruit new soldiers, resupply their vast armies, and come after Lee's valiant but shrinking forces again and again. In the end not even Lee's tactical genius can save the outnumbered and outgunned Confederates from eventual (and in Freeman's opinion, inevitable) defeat. Naturally, some historians have not agreed with this view of the Old South's greatest icon, and later books on the "Gray Fox" have disputed Freeman's assertions that Lee was opposed to slavery and secession, or that his military decisions were always correct. There have been numerous books written about Robert E Lee, but none have done so well at portraying his life or in explaining why, even today, Lee’s legend thrives and his tactics are studied at military academies throughout the world. A genuine "must-read" for any Civil War buff or student of military history.

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Recommended Reading: Lee: The Last Years. Review: After his surrender at Appomattox, Robert E. Lee lived only another five years - the forgotten chapter of an extraordinary life. These were his finest hours, when he did more than any other American to heal the wounds between North and South. Flood draws on new research to create an intensely human and a "wonderful, tragic, and powerful... story for which we have been waiting over a century." Continued below.

Lee's last five years were not years of unabated bliss. His health declined steadily, his wife was an invalid, his brother died, and his reputation suffered from some unjust attacks in Northern newspapers. Lee, however, held his head high and maintained his dignity, his character, and his principles -- and strived to unite a shattered nation. A SOLID 5 STARS.
 

Recommended Reading: General Lee: A Biography of Robert E. Lee, by Fitzhugh Lee (Author), Gary W. Gallagher (Introduction). Description: A soldier, politician, and author, General Fitzhugh Lee (1835–1905) had attended West Point and proved to be a boisterous challenge to the superintendent of the Academy, who was also his uncle: Robert E. Lee. (Gen. Lee commended Fitzhugh as ”an excellent cavalry officer. . . . I feel at liberty to call upon him—on all occasions.”) The book covers Robert E. Lee’s early service in the Mexican War through his masterful command during the Seven Days Battle, Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and the High Water Mark of the war--the Battle of Gettysburg. Fitzhugh vividly describes Lee's surrender and latter years. Continued below.

He also allows the reader an insight into the mind of the South’s greatest hero and permits them to relive the immense achievements that "Marse Lee" accomplished. This book even covers Lee's family history, lineage and genealogy, which compliment the life of the beloved general.

 

Recommended Reading: The Lee Girls. Publishers Weekly Review: Raised in aristocratic luxury, Confederate leader Robert E. Lee's four daughters--Mary, Anne, Eleanor and Mildred--were forced to adjust to privation caused by the Civil War. Including photos, this gentle book tells the story of their struggle to maintain their gracious lifestyle. It is at once a sunny and poignant tale, for the childhood days at Arlington were idyllic, but when Lee rode off to war they ended abruptly and never were recaptured. The book stresses the passivity Southern society imposed on women of the era, particularly unmarried women. Continued below.

None of Lee's daughters married, and Coulling's theory is that they were unable to find suitors who could hold a candle to their noble father. As for Lee himself, the Confederate icon appears here in unexpected guise from time to time. A great teaser of his daughters, he suggested, for example, that their mischievous pet squirrel be turned into soup. Coulling is a Virginia-based freelance writer.

 

Recommended Reading: Mrs. Robert E. Lee: The Lady of Arlington (400 pages). Description: Many know about her husband, Robert E. Lee, and her great-grandmother, Martha Washington; many have visited the cemetery that now occupies her family estate. But few today know much about Mary Custis Lee herself. Chronically ill and often in excruciating pain, Mary raised seven children, faithfully witnessing to her husband for years before his conversion. Continued below...

She retained her dignity and faith throughout a fruitless, heartbreaking attempt to win compensation for the confiscation of her home and possessions. History is never more powerful than when it provides a role model for enduring hardship with sturdy and radiant faith. Mary Custis Lee is such an example.

 

Recommended Reading: Robert E. Lee: A Biography, by Emory M. Thomas. Review From Publishers Weekly: Thomas, a distinguished historian of the Civil War (The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience), has written a major analytical biography of Robert E. Lee. Synthesizing printed and manuscript sources, he does not present Lee as the icon of Douglas Southall Freeman nor the flawed figure presented by Thomas Connolly. Lee emerges instead as a man of paradoxes, whose frustrations and tribulations were the basis for his heroism. Lee's work was his play, according to the author, and throughout his life he made the best of his lot. Continued below.

Believing that evil springs from selfishness, he found release in service to his family, his country and, not least, to the men he led. One of history's great captains and most beloved generals, he refused to take himself too seriously. This comic vision of life ultimately shaped an individual who was both more and less than his legend. Highly recommended.
 

Recommended Reading: General Lee's Army: From Victory to Collapse (Hardcover). Review: You cannot say that University of North Carolina professor Glatthaar (Partners in Command) did not do his homework in this massive examination of the Civil War–era lives of the men in Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Glatthaar spent nearly 20 years examining and ordering primary source material to ferret out why Lee's men fought, how they lived during the war, how they came close to winning, and why they lost. Glatthaar marshals convincing evidence to challenge the often-expressed notion that the war in the South was a rich man's war and a poor man's fight and that support for slavery was concentrated among the Southern upper class. Continued below.

Lee's army included the rich, poor and middle-class, according to the author, who contends that there was broad support for the war in all economic strata of Confederate society. He also challenges the myth that because Union forces outnumbered and materially outmatched the Confederates, the rebel cause was lost, and articulates Lee and his army's acumen and achievements in the face of this overwhelming opposition. This well-written work provides much food for thought for all Civil War buffs.

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