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Robert E Lee - A Legend in His Own Time

Confederate General Robert E Lee
Confederate General Robert E Lee of the Army of Northern Virginia (United States Public Domain)

There’s a saying that old soldiers never die, they just fade away. Not in General Robert E Lee’s case. Without his daring American Civil War tactics as commander of the mighty Army of Northern Virginia, the Confederacy would not have lasted anywhere near the four years that it had during the 1861-1865 North-South conflict.

Virginia-born in 1807 at Stratford Hall, Lee was the son of Revolutionary War cavalry hero Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee III. Second in his 1829 West Point class, Robert E Lee married Mary Custis, a descendent of George Washington, in 1831. Lee fought in the Mexican-American War, then was appointed superintendent of West Point from 1852-1855, where he taught many men who would later serve under him, as well as oppose him during the coming American Civil War. Leaving West Point, he joined the Union cavalry, and it was he who with a force of men captured abolitionist John Brown at Harpers Ferry after Brown’s failed raid on the federal arsenal there in 1859.

Following the firing on Fort Sumter, South Carolina that subsequently sparked the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln offered Lee the command of all Federal forces in April 1861. But Lee’s home state of Virginia had seceded from the Union. A man of honor and loyalty, a true-blue Virginian, Lee turned the offer down, stating that he could not fight against his own people, although he was opposed to secession in principle. Lee resigned two days later from the Union army, accepting a position with the new Confederate army instead.

Meanwhile, Lee and his wife had to flee their family estate situated across the Potomac River from Washington, within sight of the Union capital. The sprawling Lee-Custis mansion called Arlington House was built by John Park Custis, George Washington’s stepson, and was willed to Lee and Mary by Lee’s father-in-law, George Washington Custis. Three weeks after Lee left the capital and the Union army, his estate and grounds were seized by the Federal government and remained that way throughout the war.

Lee commanded forces in the western Virginia interior and the South Atlantic coast, then became a military advisor to President Davis in Richmond until June 1862 when he took command of the newly-named Army of Northern Virginia. It’s there he made his reputation ten-fold as the mastermind behind the early Rebel victories. For almost three years he totally frustrated his adversary, the Army of the Potomac, and embarrassed their Washington-appointed commanders one by one--Generals George McClellan, Ambrose Burnside, and Joe Hooker. All three made ill-fated attempts to take the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, until each one them was fired by Lincoln.

Lee held certain advantages in most of the battlefield situations, although he had inferior numbers. He had excellent scouts, people he trusted who knew the land. His cavalry leader, Jeb Stuart, helped to keep him informed of the enemy’s positions, and his corps commanders, Generals James Longstreet and Stonewall Jackson, executed Lee’s plans when called upon. Lee held his own at the Seven Days Battles, the Second Battle of Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Virginia, and Antietam, Maryland, following his first invasion of the North in 1862. Furthermore, Lee was forced to use deceptive measures and moves that he would not have made had he the superior numbers. An excellent example was Chancellorsville, 2 May 1863.

In command of 60,000 battled-hardened troops, Lee split his force in two, despite outnumbered two-to-one by Hooker’s 130,000. Then he sent Jackson and 28,000 men on a 16-mile, end-run march through a heavily-wooded area known as the Wilderness to attack Hooker’s exposed right flank. At 6 PM, Jackson was in position, thanks to a local guide who knew every available trail through the bush. Jackson attacked and it was a near rout, the advance of nightfall the only thing saving the Federal forces from total annihilation. However, Jackson was shot accidentally in the arm a few hours later while on a scouting mission for a possible night attack. He had the arm amputated, leaving Lee to send a dispatch to Jackson’s doctor, saying, “He has lost his left arm, but I my right.” Jackson died eight days later of pneumonia resulting from the wound.

Although Chancellorsville was a great victory (the Union suffered 17,000 casualties to Lee’s 13,000), loosing Jackson was a terrible blow to Lee. Nevertheless, Lee arranged for his second invasion of the North, hoping that one solid victory on enemy soil would bring an end to the war. This time he had his sights set on Pennsylvania. In a three-day battle beginning 1 July 1863 at Gettysburg, Lee’s 75,000-strong Army of Northern Virginia faced the 90,000-strong Army of the Potomac under new command--General George G Meade.

Robert E Lee's Virginia mansion
Robert E Lee's Virginia mansion occupied by Union Forces in 1864 (Photo Courtesy of United States Public Domain)

After a clear Confederate victory the first day, and a draw the second, Lee went too far on the third day by thinking a mammoth frontal infantry assault led by General George E Pickett on Meade’s center position would break the Union army and send it scurrying. History would record it as “Pickett’s Charge.” Similar tactics worked before in earlier battles when Lee ordered attacks on Union forces on high ground. But not this time. Meade’s men held firm and picked off the exposed Confederates coming head-on at them. Pickett’s men suffered 50 percent casualties. With total casualties at 27,000 for the three days, Lee was soundly defeated and forced to retreat back to Virginia, never to invade the North again. Many Confederate officers believed that they could’ve won had Stonewall Jackson been there. Back in his home state, Lee realized the error of his ways, expecting far too much from his troops during that third day at Gettysburg. He wrote President Davis on 8 August 1863 offering to resign. But Davis wouldn’t hear of it.

It was not until President Lincoln appointed Ulysses S Grant as the commander of all Federal forces that Lee finally met his match. Instead of trying to take Richmond, like the other commanders before him, Grant turned his focus on crushing Lee, something the previous commanders could not do. On 31 January 1864, President Davis promoted Lee to General-in-Chief of all Confederate forces. But it was a lost cause, by now. The tight Union blockade of Southern ports was squeezing the Confederacy of any incoming European supplies and Union General William Tecumseh Sherman was in the midst of his “scorched earth” policies of the South throughout Georgia and the Carolinas.

Prior to Grant, whenever a Union force was trounced by Lee, they would retreat or sit and lick their wounds. With Grant, they pressed on no matter what, which gave the troops a strong belief in their new commander. Grant never let up, until he forced the surrender of Lee’s exhausted, ill-equipped Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on 9 April 1865.

Following the war, Robert E Lee became president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, 140 miles from Richmond, renamed Washington and Lee University in honor of Lee upon his death in 1870.

In 1874, Custis Lee, the eldest son of Robert E Lee sued the Federal government for confiscating the Lee-Custis property during the war and refusing to return it. The family eventually won the house and 1,100 acres surrounding it. Custis didn’t necessarily want the property back, he just wanted the family properly compensated. So, he sold it back to the government for $150,000 (over $3 million in today’s money) in 1883. Lee’s beloved mansion and vast grounds is now hallowed ground. Directly across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial, over 400,000 American soldiers of many conflicts are buried on the famous 624-acres known as Arlington National Cemetery.

One hundred and fifty years after the American Civil War, Lee’s battlefield strategies and maneuvers are taught in military classrooms around the world. In short, he is one of the most revered generals in the history of warfare, especially in the South, where he made his troops feel as though they were invincible.

And for a time, they were.


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