Robert E Lee will be remembered in History as one of the most honourable of soldiers and example of how to be an officer and a gentleman. Lee was a man of great presence standing nearly six feet tall with a noble bearing, dark eyes and a grey beard and moustache. He has become a symbol of the Southern States struggle and culture and will always have a special place in US History. When he took command of the Army of Northern Virginia on 1st June 1862 he was 55 years old, he had never commanded anything larger than four squadrons of cavalry. Yet this apparent lack of experience didn’t stop him leading the most important Confederate army for three years and achieving results far beyond the resources at his disposal.
Robert Lee was born 19th January 1807 at Stratford in Westmoreland County Virginia. He was the third son of “Light Horse Harry” Lee, who had earned his fame as a cavalry commander during the American War of Independence. His mother Ann Hill Carter Lee mostly raised him; from whom it is said he learned patience, control and discipline, characteristics which would run strong in the adult Robert. In contrast to his mother the young Robert saw his father go from one failed venture to another and was determined to do better. His father’s poor business sense was later to impoverish the family and they moved to Alexandria, Virginia, where Robert spent a lot of his youth.
Robert entered West Point in 1825 and was a model cadet graduating in second place in 1829 and holding the never equalled record of graduating with no demerits! He was commissioned as a brevet second Lieutenant of engineers. He went on to help build the St Louis waterfront and worked on coastal forts in Brunswick and Savannah. It was during this time he married Mary Custis the granddaughter of George Washington and Martha Custis Washington. He was promoted to 1st Lieutenant in 1836 and then made a Captain two years later. As well as various engineering projects as mentioned above he also served for a time in the chief engineer’s office in Washington.
In 1845 the War between American and Mexico broke out and in 1846 Lee was posted to San Antonio, Texas as assistant engineer to the Army of General John E Wool. Captain Lee was given the vital task of mapping the area ahead for the advancing troops and even led some into battle, skills he would need 16 years later. During this Mexican war he also met some of those he would serve with and fight against in the civil war, such people as James Longstreet, Thomas Jackson, George Pickett and U.S Grant. Lee Distinguished himself at Buena Vista by making a courageous reconnaissance of the enemy positions. He was transferred to the Vera Cruz expedition where he made a good impression on General Winfield Scott, another Virginian, due to his manners, professionalism and skill. Scott was old school and took a liking to the well-mannered Captain Lee who had made George Washington his ideal and strove to emulate his hero. Lee continued to make a name for himself during the Mexico City campaign locating heavy batteries at Vera Cruz, providing the intelligence reports upon which the victory at Cerro Gordo (18th April 1847) was founded and sited the batteries before Chapultepec (13th September 1847), in which battle he was slightly wounded.
Lee returned from the Mexican war as an Army engineer and was appointed a Brevet Colonel due to his actions in the conflict. He spent the next few years at Fort Caroll, Baltimore, until in 1852 with a little reluctance he accepted the position of Superintendent at West Point. While in this post he made several improvements to the curriculum and in the instructional methods. In March 1855 he was given the Lieutenant-Colonelcy of the 2nd Cavalry in Texas, by the then Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis. He was much absent from his regiment between 1857-1859 due to family probate problems and his wife’s serious illness. Between February 1860 and February 1861 he was given command of the Department of Texas. He had no sympathy with the secessionist sentiments at that time, but when pressed he admitted that if forced to choose he would side with Virginia. In February 1861 Winfield Scott recalled him to Washington. In March he was made Colonel of the 1st Cavalry and it was obvious he was been prepared for a senior command should war break out. As he spent most of this time near Washington D.C. he moved into Custis mansion which now overlooks the Arlington Military Cemetery. Thus Colonel Lee was available for duty to put down a believed rebellion at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, the site of a United States Arsenal. Colonel Lee, a young aide Lt. J. E. B. Stuart, and a detachment of U.S. marines, were rushed by train to Harper's Ferry where they were able to capture the radical abolitionist John Brown and his followers.
In April he was formally offered the command of the United States Army. History would had been very different if he had not refused. He explained to Scott that he could not bear arms against the Southern States. Scott replied that his resignation was the only answer and on 25th April 1861 he formally resigned following the news of Virginia’s succession and the beginning of the American Civil War.
Lee was appointed commander of the Virginia State forces immediately on his resignation. He organised the mobilisation of the militia and the fortification of key positions with his normal great energy and skill, drawing on his engineering experience to select good strong points. In August 1861 he became a General and was named as a military advisor to President Davis. Lee found the next nine months frustrating - he had a high title but little real power while Confederate organisation was in a chaotic mess, co-ordinated action nearly impossible. Lee found himself caught between the clash of personalities of Jefferson Davis and the South’s military commander Joseph E. Johnston. This was to change in May when Johnston was wounded and Lee became his replacement, renaming the army under his command the Army of Northern Virginia.
General Lee found himself in a very difficult position, the Union General McClellan was threatening Richmond with 100,000 men (Peninsula Campaign), while three other Union Armies threatened General Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, while yet another was waiting to support McClellan at the Rappahannock River. General Lee summoned Jackson so he could join him in an offensive while he sent General Magruder to keep the union forces away from Richmond. Jackson fought a skilled withdrawal from the Shenandoah Valley and joined Lee for an offensive in late June which was known as the Seven Days’ Battle. This was a sound strategy but the Confederate forces lacked the experience to properly carry out such a complex plan, the Confederate supply and logistics was also not able to cope. Despite this and many mistakes from the top down, and nearly all the Confederate attacks failing the campaign did drive the Union forces away from Richmond and pinned them at a position on the James River known as Harrison’s Landing. Lee’s Army had been blooded and gained stocks of weapons, which the South badly needed, confidence and morale also improved. Lee made changes to the command structure learning from his experience and carefully watched how the Union armies manoeuvred.
In August General Lee lead his 55,000 strong army against General Pope, skilfully drawing the two Union armies apart and sending Jackson around the rear to raid the supply depots. Pope fell back to engage Jackson and on 30th August was caught between Jackson and Lee at the Second Battle of Bull Run. Lee’s great weakness demonstrated itself here. Lee was the perfect gentleman but when faced with a stubborn subordinate, in this case General Longstreet, he lacked assertiveness as he found such arguments distasteful. Lee also believed that his role was to bring the army to battle in the most favourable conditions and tactical direction on the battlefield was best left to divisional commanders. Considering the inexperience of many Southern commanders this was a bad mistake. This led to victory at the Second Battle of Bull run being under exploited and was to lead to a serious defeat a year later at Gettysburg.
In early September Lee invaded the North in the hope to encourage the European powers to recognise the Confederacy, by demonstrating military strength. Lee spilt his army into 3 parts over 25 miles possibly in an attempt to emulate a Napoleonic strategy. McClellan’s army was fully aware of the plan after a copy of Lee’s orders had been captured but proved too slow to make use of the scattered Confederate deployment, giving the Confederates two days to regroup at Antietam Creek. The battle, which followed on 17th September 1862, was one of the bloodiest of the war with over 12,000 casualties on each side in a single day. The battle was a tactical victory as Lee held the line but the invasion of the North had been halted and the chance of a strategic victory slipped through his fingers.
In the aftermath the Army in Virginia was reorganised into two corps, one under Jackson and one under Longstreet. In November the Army of the Potomac threatened Fredericksburg but was driven back with great loss on 13th December. In April 1863 under a new commander, General Hooker it crossed the Rappahannock River determined to find and destroy General Lee’s forces. The main Army crossed north of Fredericksburg with a secondary attack led by General Sedgwick striking through the town itself. Lee’s able cavalry commander Jeb Stuart kept him informed for the enemy’s movements, so Lee decided to strike against General Hooker, leaving Jubal Early with 10,000 men to defend the town he took his remaining 43,000 to engage Hooker. They met at Chancellorville on 1st May and Lee decided to gamble, dividing his forces yet again, facing Hookers 73,000 with only 17,000 while Jackson with 26,000 swept around the right flank of the Union forces. The plan was successful with Jackson smashing the right flank but being fatally wounded during the battle, a great personal and professional loss to Lee. Lee had to rush to Early’s aid as he faced superior numbers but Hooker had been forced to withdraw again. If Early had held without aid then the loss to the Union would have been even greater.
Lee was determined to keep the initiative and force the Union forces to react to him rather than the other way around. He once again invaded the North, his target to raise morale, gain badly needed supplies and drawn Union forces away from the attack on Vicksburg. Lee had divided the army into three corps under Generals Hill, Ewell, and Longstreet, but this reorganisation was still settling in when it came under pressure. As Lee’s forces entered Pennsylvania, Stuart left on a long raid, which left Lee without vital screening cavalry and intelligence. General Hill encountered a strong Union force near Gettysburg on 30th May and defeated it with Ewell’s support. Union reinforcements came to the aid of the now rallying Union forces on 1-2 July and took up position on Cemetery Ridge. On 2 July Lee’s weakness for not keeping tight control on his subordinates meant that Ewell hesitated on the left wing failing to take the vital point of Culp’s Hill while the Union forces continued to strengthen Cemetery Ridge. An early attack by Longstreet could have saved the situation but he was angry over an imagined slight on his abilities by Lee and delayed until the afternoon, leading to his decimation. On the 3rd July they attacked again (the famous Pickett’s charge) and were again driven off with massive casualties. The death toll on both sides was well over 20,000 but Lee with far fewer resources could not afford such losses. His forces fell back to Virginia and he offered his resignation, which was refused.
Between Gettysburg and May 1864 there were no major clashes between the Army of Virginia and the Union forces. Any desire of General Lee’s to go on the offensive again was frustrated by a shortage of men and supplies and requirements of other theatres of war. In May General Grant crossed the Rapidan River and drove towards Richmond. The Confederates were outnumbered two to one and were facing a vastly better equipped and supplied Union force. Lee’s troops were hungry and badly equipped with most horses and men sick, but despite this Lee inspired his men to achieve a series of defensive victories at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbour. Each time Lee predicted Grant’s next move and countered it. The month-long campaign cost Lee around 25,000 men but it cost Grant double that. Yet it was a fighting retreat - although it delayed the Union forces, defeat was now inevitable. Lee never got the chance to attack Grant’s army on the move or to divide it. With Longstreet wounded and Generals Ewell and Hill sick the burden on Lee was immense. Once brought to ground on the Petersburg-Richmond line Lee’s army could do little but be slowly worn away. The Army was drained by hunger and sickness and Union probing attacks as well as the drain of fighting in other areas. A feint towards Washington by Jubal Early at the beginning of 1865 failed. Lee was made General in chief of the Confederate Armies in February 1865 but the Army was past saving.
General Sherman’s advance into North Carolina in March 1865 made Lee’s defensive position untenable and he left with 35,000 men to try and link with General Johnston’s in the West. Grant followed and harried Lee’s disintegrating Army until by the time it was trapped and forced to surrender at Appomattox on 9th April only 7,500 men remained. Robert E Lee was paroled and allowed to return to Richmond. He was well respected by his victorious foes and still much loved by his men even in defeat. In September 1865 he accepted the presidency of Washington College at Lexington, Virginia. His last years were spent in academic work. He prided himself on obedience to civil authority and worked hard to aid the economic and cultural rehabilitation of the Southern States.
It is difficult to assess Lee as a General, he was in many ways fighting a loosing battle from the very start of the war, but achieved a great deal while constantly outnumbered and under resourced. His victories were costly and although he was an inspirational leader he often won only by pushing his forces to an all out effort which left them stretched too thin to exploit any victory. His diplomatic and polite manners lead him to be a democratic / consultative leader in a situation that at times required a more autocratic/ dictatorial style. He was certainly a better strategist than a tactician and with his tactical generals sick, wounded or dead by the end he was under a vast strain. Without doubt Lee was a gentle, pious, decent man who made the best of a doomed command beyond what anyone could have asked for. The death toil he saw weighed heavy upon him. He is almost unique among defeated Generals in a revolutionary war in that he entered retirement with the lasting respect of friend and enemy alike. He died 12th October 1870 at Lexington.
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