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Learn all about the man who was unquestionably the greatest general in the Confederacy, and the finest soldier in both the North and the South during the Civil War. He was respected in the North and adored in the South.

  General Robert Edward Lee

By John T. Marck

Unquestionably the greatest general in the Confederacy, as well as the finest soldier in the field on both sides, Robert Edward Lee was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia on January 19, 1807. Although he was personally opposed to slavery and succession, he remained loyal to his beloved Virginia. After Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln offered him a field command in the United States Army, but Lee resigned from the army and chose not to accept this position, joining the Confederacy instead.

Robert E. Lee was the fourth child born to "Light Horse Harry" Lee, his father of Revolutionary War cavalry fame. Years before the Civil War began, Lee's father was imprisoned for debt, and later died of wounds he received while attempting to stop a riot in Baltimore. His death was devastating to the young Robert who was then raised solely by his widowed mother in Alexandria, Virginia. Lee attended private schools where he was noted for his extreme intelligence and high character, attributes that seemed to destine him for command later in life.

In 1825 he accepted an appointment to West Point where he soon became the corps adjutant, a chief post of honor for a cadet. Upon graduation, he was ranked second in his class, having received no demerits during his four years there. After graduation, he was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the elite Corps of Engineers.

During this time he had met the great granddaughter of George Washington, Mary Custis, whom Lee married two years later. Mary Custis was the heiress of several estates in which they lived. Together their marriage produced seven children, and both Robert and Mary were very devoted parents.

In 1836, Lee was promoted to 1st lieutenant, and in 1838, to captain. Before the Mexican War, Lee involved himself as a part of the Corps of Engineers with numerous civil and military related engineering projects. During the Mexican War, Lee was assigned to the staff of General Winfield Scott, and was a principal participant in the victory at Cerro Gordo. He further distinguished himself in the battle at Chapultepec, where he was wounded. At the end of the Mexican War, Lee returned to the U.S. where he was promoted to brevet colonel for gallantry.

From 1852 to 1855, Lee served as the superintendent of West Point. With this, he bought to the academy a revitalized curriculum and formed lasting affiliations with his students. Over the next few years, his wife Mary had become ill, and consequently Robert was busy attending to her as well as her several estates. In 1856 he went to Texas where he served with the U.S. cavalry, returning in 1857. As Robert and Mary's principal estate was "Arlington" outside of Washington, D.C., he was there on leave when he was approached to command a force of marines to recapture Harpers Ferry following John Brown's raid.

When the Civil War began, Lee was again on cavalry assignment in Texas when that state seceded, so he returned home to Arlington, awaiting orders. It would be here that he declined the military offer from Abraham Lincoln. On April 23, 1861, he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army and accepted a command of the Virginia defenses. That August 31, he was promoted to full general and assigned as a special military advisor to President Jefferson Davis. Lee then took a short time away from his position as an advisor to Davis to oversee the coastal defenses in South Carolina and Georgia, but was unable to prevent the Union from occupying some of the mountain regions of western Virginia.

By March 1862, Lee had returned to his advisor position with Davis. On May 31, 1862, Lee learned that Union Major General George McClellan and his force of 100,000 soldiers were closing in on Richmond. Because Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston had been wounded, Lee stepped in and assumed command of his army, naming them the Army of Northern Virginia. From this point, this army would achieve an unequaled military record.

After reorganizing his Army of Northern Virginia, he then called upon Major General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, who had just returned from the Shenandoah Valley, and together, they started the offensive known as the Seven Days' Campaign. Although Lee suffered significant casualties, he was able to push McClellan back to the Peninsula, where he gained protection from his gunboats. Then Lee turned to the north and defeated the Union army at the Second Battle of Bull Run. As a result, Lee then planned an all-out attack deep into Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Stonewall Jackson had captured Harpers Ferry and in the process took more than twelve-thousand Union prisoners. Because Lee's marching order was lost and had fallen into the hands of the Union, he took up a position on Antietam Creek, and the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day in history, took place on September 17, 1862. Although the Battle of Antietam is viewed as a draw, Lee and the Confederacy actually won a tactical victory, while losing a strategic one. Unable to move forward, Lee and his army crossed back over the Potomac River into Virginia.

Less than two months later on December 13, 1862, Lee and his army won a decisive victory at the Battle of Fredericksburg, defeating Union General Ambrose Burnside, and again in May at Chancellorsville, defeating Union General Joseph Hooker. Although Lee won the battle at Chancellorsville, he lost his chief lieutenant, Stonewall Jackson, in an accidental shooting by Jackson's own men. General Lee, who was a genius at strategy, then devised a plan for a second invasion of the North. In June 1863, he had occupied the Cumberland Valley as well as other areas of Pennsylvania. Lee then learned that the Union had replaced General Hooker with General Meade, and that Meade was moving to threaten Lee's communication lines. Lee then moved his army near a little town in Pennsylvania known as Gettysburg.

On July 1 to 3, 1863, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia met in a horrific battle at Gettysburg with the Union's Army of the Potomac, the largest encounter of the war. Now Lee, without his "right arm" of Jackson, suffered his first decisive defeat, causing him to retreat to Virginia. Although the losses on both sides were considerable, Lee, having fewer soldiers to begin with, was now returning to Virginia with his numbers greatly depleted.

With fewer men than the Union, Lee did mount a fine offensive the following spring. Using only 60,000 men, he took on the Union army under General Grant and his force of 120,000, when Grant attempted to move against Richmond. At the Battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna and Cold Harbor, Lee managed to slow Grant, causing him more than 50,000 casualties in the process. However, Lee now found himself backed into the defensive works at Petersburg and Richmond. This combined with Sherman's March to the Sea, and the overwhelming Union numbers, Lee and the South were starting to realize the beginning of the end.

In an attempt to save the Confederacy, President Jefferson Davis appointed Lee general-in-chief of all the Confederate armies, but this appointment came too late. Additionally, in an attempt to gain badly needed soldiers, the Confederate Congress authorized the recruitment of black slaves.

But these attempts to revive the Confederacy came too little too late. Also, Lee's health was poor, having suffered from heart problems his entire life. By March 1865, Lee left his defensive posture at Richmond and attempted to go to North Carolina to assist General Johnston against Sherman. However, en route, Lee met up with Grant at Appomattox Court House, and Lee realizing the cause was now over, surrendered his starving tattered army, now totaling only about 28,000.

Robert E. Lee ranks in history as one of the excellent field commanders who, in battle was levelheaded, and who had the rare ability to command admiration and fondness from his troops. He was an expert at field fortifications, and seemed to also know, though uncanny, what his opponents were planning.

He made precise decisions, and always seized the initiative. Although he had few faults, probably his worst was that he would explain his plan for battle, but then left the execution of his plan up to his subordinate generals. Unfortunately, this custom was part of the blame for his defeat at Gettysburg. Throughout the war, Lee's knack led him to victories in the battles at Seven Days', Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Cold Harbor, whereby all were against greater numbered Union forces. Even at Antietam and Gettysburg, although outnumbered, Lee still managed to hold his ground until he felt retreating was necessary.

After the war, Lee was offered many distinguished positions that came with high-paying salaries, yet he chose to accept the presidency of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia at a salary of $1,500.00 a year. Washington Collage had been closed during the war, because the majority of its students enlisted in the Confederate army in masses.

As president of the collage, Lee expanded and improved the curriculum, created the first departments of journalism and commerce in the country, enlarged its financial resources, as well as the building of the Lee Chapel. Washington College derived its name from George Washington, who donated $50,000 as well as his name. In Lee's personal notes, they indicate that the plans for the chapel were done by George Washington Custis Lee, his son, with assistance from him.

Within the Lee Chapel are significant portraits of men who figured in the early history of the country, such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Lafayette, and George Washington. Many of Lee's personal belongings are displayed there, including textbooks, campaign maps, his piano and his field glasses. The most famous and important item in the chapel is the recumbent statue of Lee. It is housed in an extension build after Lee's death, beneath which Lee himself is entombed along with other members of his family, including his famous father, "Light Horse Harry."

During the years after the war, Robert E. Lee was deprived of his United States citizenship. President Andrew Johnson denied Lee his citizenship, in spite of the fact that he took the "Oath of Allegiance," as well as Johnson denied the restored citizenship of Jefferson Davis and James Longstreet. Lee filed for the restoration of his citizenship, yet his application was apparently misplaced. On July 22, 1975, the US House of Representatives approved a measure to restore Lee's citizenship. On August 5, 1975, President Gerald R. Ford signed the bill that finally restored it.

Robert Edward Lee died on October 12, 1870 at the age of 63, of a heart attack. He truly was a genuine American hero who was dearly respected in the North and adored in the South.

Copyright 1993-2022 by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.