Robert Edward Lee (usually known as Robert E Lee) was the most famous general of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War and fought with distinction. Robert E Lee signed the document of surrender to formally end the American Civil War at the Appomattox Court House on April 9th 1865.


Robert E Lee was born on January 19th 1807 in Westmoreland County, Virginia. His father had been a Major General in the Continental Army, served as the Virginia Representative in Congress and had been the 9th Governor of Virginia. Lee’s family had been one of the original colonists in Virginia in the 1600’s. However, despite being born into a privileged family, Lee’s father made a number of disastrous financial investments and in 1809 was put into a debtor’s prison. In 1810 he was released and the family moved into a small house Alexandria, Virginia – somewhat removed from the Stratford Hall Plantation where Lee was born. In 1818, Lee’s father died and his mother was left to bring up six children. She was helped in this difficult situation by a relative, William Henry Fitzhugh. He used his connections to get Lee a place at the West Point Military Academy in 1825. Lee graduated second in his class and was commissioned in the Corps of Engineers. 


Lee then spent time working on the building of what was to become Fort Pulaski. He transferred to Fort Monroe where he experienced the tense relationship between engineering and artillery officers. The situation was such that the War Department moved all engineering officers out of Fort Monroe – expect Lee. He was ordered to live away from the fort.


In 1834, Lee was transferred to Washington DC where he worked as an assistant to General Gratiot. He worked on the building of rail lines and harbours and the development of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers as modes of transport. Lee’s work was so successful that he was promoted to the rank of captain and made the engineer for Fort Hamilton.


Lee fought in the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848. He was made a temporary (brevet) colonel during this campaign but remained a captain until 1855. Lee met and worked with Ulysses Grant during this war.


From 1848 to 1851, Lee worked at Fort Carroll. In 1852, he was appointed Superintendent at West Point Military Academy – an appointment he took up with some reluctance after his experiences at Fort Monroe. Lee spent three years at West Point and spent the time improving the buildings there.


In 1855, Lee was transferred to the cavalry when he was made second-in-command of the 2nd Cavalry based in Texas. This was the transfer Lee had always wanted and it was the task of the 2nd Cavalry to defend settlers against attacks by Apaches and Comanche.


However, Lee’s military career had an unexpected interruption in 1857 when his father-in-law died. Lee had to take time away from the military to bring some form of financial stability to his father-in-law’s will. The estate left in the will was in a mess and Lee was faced with the task of bringing some form of cohesion to it.        


Lee was directly involved in one of the pivotal episodes in the lead up to the start of the American Civil War – the attempted capture of Harpers Ferry in 1859. John Brown and his supporters were captured by Lee and his men after they refused Lee’s offer of surrender. Lee later stated that Brown was either a “fanatic” or a “madman”.


In the immediate days leading up to the American Civil War, Lee was appointed Colonel of the First Regiment of Cavalry (March 1861). Abraham Lincoln signed the papers. Just three weeks later Lee was offered the rank of Major General in the US Army and given command of Fort Mason in Texas, a state that had seceded from the Union in February 1861.


So why did Lee become the most famous Confederate general of the American Civil War? In a letter written by Lee to his son in early 1861, it is clear that he had no time for the Confederacy: “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union.” However, when pressed, Lee did admit that he would take up arms to defend Virginia. When Virginia seceded from the Union, it became obvious and clear to Lee that he would become involved in a military campaign against his own state. He asked the head of the US Army, Winfield Scott, if he could stay at home for the duration of the war. Not surprisingly, Scott refused such a request.


As a result, Lee resigned his commission in the US Army on April 20th 1861 and took command of the forces in Virginia on April 23rd 1861.


Lee was made a full general in the new Confederate States Army – one of just five men to hold this rank at the outbreak of war.


Lee’s baptism of command was a failure – he lost the Battle of Cheat Mountain – and his leadership was blamed for the defeat. Lee was moved to Richmond where he became a military advisor to Jefferson Davis.


On June 1st 1862, Lee was given command of the Army of Northern Virginia. It was with this army that he was to gain great fame. However, his appointment was not well received by the Confederate press who believed that he lack a fighting spirit. Lee’s first test came at the Seven Days Battles against the Army of the Potomac commanded by George McClellan, that was advancing on Richmond. Lee ordered a series of attacks that led to high Confederate casualties. However, the aggressiveness of these attacks took McClellan by surprise and he retreated and called off his advance on the Confederate capital. The opinions expressed about Lee in the editorials of the Confederate press soon changed.


Lee quickly experienced another success at the Second Battle of Bull Run. However, his army suffered heavy casualties at the Battle of Antietam and he withdrew the Army of Northern Virginia to Virginia. Lincoln used Lee’s withdrawal as evidence of a Union victory but it was more of a tactical move by Lee as opposed to an army that was on the run in defeat. Lee then successfully defended the city of Fredericksburg. In May 1863, Lee defeated the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. However, it was at this battle that ‘Stonewall’ Jackson was fatally wounded and Lee lost one of his outstanding corps commanders. Lee’s greatest defeat was at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. Many military historians believe that after this defeat, the Confederacy was doomed to failure. After the battle, Lee admitted that his tactics were wrong – especially a frontal charge up Cemetery Ridge. One explanation put forward to explain his tactics was that Lee was ill at the time and that he had a bad reaction to the medication he had been given. Lee offered to resign but Jefferson Davis would not accept it. To boost the morale of the Confederate forces, Davis promoted Lee to overall commander of all Confederate armies on January 31st 1865.


After Gettysburg, Lee had to fight with fewer experienced men, less equipment and an economic base that simply could not supply his army with what he needed. His opponent, Ulysses Grant, did not suffer such issues as the industrial might of the northern states kept his army well supplied and conscription meant that his armies were fully manned. Lee managed to maintain a resolute defence of Petersburg, which contained a vital rail link to Richmond. But disease, lack of supplies and equipment and desertion meant that on April 2nd 1865, Petersburg fell and Lee knew that the Confederacy could fight no more. On April 9th 1865, Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Court House. On April 10th, Lee gave a farewell speech to his men. 


There were calls for Lee to support some form of guerrilla campaign against the Union ‘invaders’ of the South. But he refused to sanction this and instead supported the whole process of reconciliation.


Robert E Lee died on October 12th 1870.

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