Who Was Robert E. Lee?
Robert E. Lee came to military prominence during the U.S. Civil War, commanding his home state's armed forces and becoming general-in-chief of the Confederate forces toward the end of the conflict. Though the Union won the war, Lee earned renown as a military tactician for scoring several major victories on the battlefield. He went on to become president of Washington College, which was renamed Washington and Lee University after his death in 1870.
A Confederate general who led southern forces against the Union Army in the U.S. Civil War, Robert Edward Lee was born on January 19, 1807, at his family home of Stratford Hall in northeastern Virginia.
Lee was cut from Virginia aristocracy. His extended family members included a president, a chief justice of the United States and signers of the Declaration of Independence. His father, Colonel Henry Lee, also known as "Light-Horse Harry," had served as a cavalry leader during the Revolutionary War and earned recognition as one of the war's heroes, winning praise from General George Washington.
Lee saw himself as an extension of his family's greatness. At 18, he enrolled at West Point Military Academy, where he put his drive and serious mind to work. He placed second in his graduating class after four spotless years without a demerit and wrapped up his studies with perfect scores in artillery, infantry and cavalry.
After graduating from West Point, Lee married Mary Custis, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington (from her first marriage, prior to meeting George Washington) in 1831. Together, they had seven children: three sons (Custis, Rooney and Rob) and four daughters (Mary, Annie, Agnes and Mildred).
Early Military Career
While Mary and the children spent their lives on Mary's father's plantation, Lee stayed committed to his military obligations. His loyalties moved him around the country, from Savannah to St. Louis to New York.
In 1846, Lee got the chance he had been waiting for his whole military career when the United States went to war with Mexico. Serving under General Winfield Scott, Lee distinguished himself as a brave battle commander and a brilliant tactician. In the aftermath of the U.S. victory over its neighbor, Lee was held up as a hero. Scott showered Lee with particular praise, saying that in the event the United States went into another war, the government should consider taking out a life insurance policy on the commander.
But life away from the battlefield proved difficult for Lee to handle. He struggled with the mundane tasks associated with his work and life. For a time, he returned to his wife's family's plantation to manage the estate, following the death of his father-in-law. The property had fallen under hard times, and for two long years, he tried to make it profitable again.
In October 1859, Lee was summoned to put an end to an enslaved person insurrection led by John Brown at Harper's Ferry. Lee's orchestrated attack took just a single hour to end the revolt, and his success put him on a shortlist of names to lead the Union Army should the nation go to war.
But Lee's commitment to the Army was superseded by his commitment to Virginia. After turning down an offer from President Abraham Lincoln to command the Union forces, Lee resigned from the military and returned home. While Lee had misgivings about centering a war on the slavery issue, after Virginia voted to secede from the nation on April 17, 1861, Lee agreed to help lead the Confederate forces.
Over the next year, Lee again distinguished himself on the battlefield. On June 1, 1862, he took control of the Army of Northern Virginia and drove back the Union Army during the Seven Days Battles near Richmond. In August of that year, he gave the Confederacy a crucial victory at Second Manassas.
But not all went well. He courted disaster when he tried to cross the Potomac at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, barely escaping the site of the bloodiest single-day skirmish of the war, which left some 22,000 combatants dead.
From July 1-3, 1863, Lee's forces suffered another round of heavy casualties in Pennsylvania. The three-day stand-off, known as the Battle of Gettysburg, wiped out a huge chunk of Lee's army, halting his invasion of the North while helping to turn the tide for the Union.
By the fall of 1864, Union General Ulysses S. Grant had gained the upper hand, decimating much of Richmond, the Confederacy's capital, and Petersburg. By early 1865, the fate of the war was clear, a fact driven home on April 2 when Lee was forced to abandon Richmond. A week later, a reluctant and despondent Lee surrendered to Grant at a private home in Appomattox, Virginia.
"I suppose there is nothing for me to do but go and see General Grant," he told an aide. "And I would rather die a thousand deaths."
Final Years and Death
Saved from being hanged as a traitor by a forgiving Lincoln and Grant, Lee returned to his family in April 1865. He eventually accepted a job as president of Washington College in western Virginia, and devoted his efforts toward boosting the institution's enrollment and financial support.
In late September 1870, Lee suffered a massive stroke. He died at his home, surrounded by family, on October 12. Shortly afterward, Washington College was renamed Washington and Lee University.
Disputed Legacy and Statue
In the decades after the Civil War, Lee came to be regarded by sympathizers as a heroic figure of the South. Several monuments to the late general sprung up before the end of the 19th century, notably in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Dallas, Texas.
Lee's complicated legacy became part of the culture wars that engulfed the country more than a century later. While some sought to have statues of Confederate leaders removed from public view, others argued that doing so represented an attempt to erase history. In 2017, after the City Council of Charlottesville, Virginia, voted to move a Lee statue from a park, Charlottesville became the site of several protests and counter-protests; in August, numerous demonstrators clashed, resulting in one death and 19 injuries.
In late October 2017, President Donald Trump's chief of staff, John Kelly, further fanned the flames of the controversy with his appearance on Fox News. Addressing the topic of a Virginia church's decision to remove plaques that honored both Lee and Washington, Kelly called the Confederate general an "honorable man" and pointed to the "lack of an ability to compromise" as the cause of the Civil War, an analysis that drew the ire of opponents.
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