On this day, January 19, Robert Edward Lee¹, was born, in 1807. Today is R.E. Lee’s 202nd birthday. No other general officer, on either side, was so beloved by the soldiers he led – or the country he served. Today, a quick drive through Northern Virginia will reveal an endless array of streets, shopping plazas, and schools named after the genial Robert E. Lee.
Robert E. Lee was born into a prestigious family, that of Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee – who served gallantly in the Revolutionary War. His mother was Ann Hill Carter, also coming from a prominent Virginia family. Unfortunately, due poor investments, and speculation, Light Horse Harry would find himself in debtor’s prison for a year. He would be seriously injured, while standing up for his friend, Alexander C. Hanson, who was against the War of 1812. Light Horse Harry would suffer severe facial wounds and internal injuries. He would die, years later, returning from the West Indies, where he had hoped to heal.
Young Robert, his mother, and siblings, would be forced to move to Alexandria, Virginia after losing their house at Stratford to his older half-brother. There he would continue his education, and receive an appointment to West Point, in 1825. He would graduate second in his class, in 1829, with no demerits for his entire four years. He would become a 2nd lieutenant of engineers.
Robert Lee would serve at several locations, after his graduation, including Fort Pulaski, Fort Wool and in St. Louis. He was well known for his engineering skills, especially with waterways and seacoast forts. On June 30, 1831, young Robert E. Lee would marry Mary Custis, daughter of George Washington Parke Custis – a direct descendant of Martha Washington. After the death of his father-in-law, in 1857, Lee would become the owner of Arlington – Mary Custis Lee’s home before her marriage. He and Mary, would have seven children, the three boys would serve in the Confederate army.
Lee would be in San Antonio, in 1846, when he would join General Winfield Scott in his expedition to Vera Cruz. During the coming months, Bobby Lee would earn three brevet promotions, to colonel, for his bravery, and industry, during the Mexican War. Winfield Scott would always maintain a confidence in Lee, that would last until the Civil War.
After the Mexican War, Lee would serve in Baltimore Harbor, where he would supervise the construction of Fort Carroll. He would be appointed superintendent of West Point, in 1852. In 1856, desiring an active command, Lee would be promoted to lieutenant colonel and would transfer to West Texas to command in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry. Lee would continue in this role until the outbreak of the Civil War. While on leave, in 1859, Lee would command the marines that put down John Brown’s Raid of Harpers Ferry.
In February 1861, with Abraham Lincoln preparing to take office, and the secession crisis looming, Winfield Scott would bring Robert E. Lee back east. In March, Lincoln would promote Lee to full colonel of the 1st U.S. Cavalry. With the secession crisis deepening, Lee would be offered command of the Federal army, but would end up resigning his commission, on April 20, after Virginia seceded from the Union. While never an ardent secessionist, Lee sided with his home state. Upon arrival in Richmond, Lee would promptly be assigned commander of all military and naval forces, in Virginia.
In May, 1861, with the introduction of his Virginia forces, into the Confederate service, Robert E. Lee would be appointed, and confirmed as a brigadier general. On June 14, 1861, Lee would be promoted full general, and would be the third highest ranking officer, in the Confederacy.
Lee’s first field assignments, would not hint at his future brilliance. Sent to the northwest counties, of Virginia, he would be unsuccessful defending his state, from the Federal forces pushing through the mountains. He would be sent south, to examine the south Atlantic seaboard defenses, before being brought back to Richmond, in March 1862, to be President Jefferson Davis’s military advisor.
With US Major General George B. McClellan’s initiation of the Peninsula Campaign, in the late spring of 1862, tensions rose in Richmond. Through Yorktown, Williamsburg and to the very gates of Richmond, McClellan’s Army of the Potomac pushed. At the battle of Fair Oaks (Seven Pines), McClellan’s juggernaut army was right outside of Richmond. CS General Joseph Johnston, commanding the Confederate army would be seriously wounded. Robert E. Lee, and President Jefferson Davis, would arrive at the front, to survey the situation. Davis, would ask Lee to temporarily take over command, of the army. Lee, in a tough position, would, in the Seven Days battles push McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, from the Virginia peninsula. Lee would be a hero, and he would take over permanent command of his army – the Army of Northern Virginia.
Over the coming months, Robert E. Lee, surrounded by trusted lieutenants, James Longstreet, and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, would continue to punish the U.S. armies. In August 1862, he would crush US Major General John Pope’s Army of Virginia. In September 1862, he would fight George McClellan’s army to a draw, along a meandering creek, in Sharpsburg, Maryland – Antietam. In December 1862, Lee would bitterly repulse the Army of the Potomac, now commanded by US Major General Ambrose Burnside, at Fredericksburg. Abraham Lincoln, looking for a commander that could beat Robert E. Lee next tapped US Major General Joseph Hooker to command the Army of the Potomac. Lee would again best his opponent, in May 1863, in his most brilliant victory – Chancellorsville. Vastly outnumbered, Lee would divide his already divided army, letting Stonewall Jackson take his Second Corps on a long flanking march. Jackson would so surprise the Federal army that he would push their right flank back several miles. Again, Lee, through cunning, and grit would severely punish the invading army.
Desiring to move the war, away from Virginia, Robert E. Lee, in June 1863, would push his Army of Northern Virginia north. For the first three days of July, he would tarry with the new Union commander, Major General George Gordon Meade, in Gettysburg, PA. Meade, with interior lines, and terrain that could be easily defended, would finally decisively beat Robert E. Lee. However, Meade would not be able to pursue Lee’s retreating army. The Army of Northern Virginia would live to fight again.
In late November, Robert E. Lee, turning the tables on George G. Meade, would have his army well entrenched, south of the Rapidan River, in central Virginia. Meade would send piecemeal attacks, across Mine Run, but they would be easily repulsed. Once again, back in the Confederacy, R.E. Lee would be victorious.
In the spring of 1864, Robert E. Lee had a new Federal commander to deal with. After winning battle, after battle, in the west, Abraham Lincoln would bring his newly commissioned, lieutenant general, Ulysses S. Grant east to command all Union armies. That summer, Grant, making his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac, would go on the offensive. Starting with the battle of the Wilderness, Grant would continue to push around Lee’s right flank. At each battle, in the Overland Campaign, Lee would be waiting for Grant, behind field fortifications. The losses were horrific but Grant pushed on, through Spotsylvania Court House, the North Anna River and Cold Harbor. Lee, trying to protect Richmond, stated to Jefferson Davis, “that if Grant got below the James River,” it would become a siege – and the Army of Northern Virginina would slowly be strangled. This is exactly what happened. From June 1864, through April 1865, Grant would continue to squeeze R.E. Lee. In lines that stretched, from north of Richmond, to south of Petersburg, Grant slowly extended his lines, while Lee shortened his. The outcome was a given. Lee’s smaller Army of Northern Virginia, could not add manpower and was short on supplies. In April 1865, Grant finally collapsed the Confederate lines. Over the coming week, Grant would pursue Robert E. Lee’s fragmented Army of Northern Virginia along the Appomattox River. On April 9, 1865, Lee would surrender his army to Ulysses S. Grant, at Appomattox Court House.
Robert E. Lee was a true southern gentleman. He commanded respect from his soldiers, and they gave it to him. He looked after their needs, to the best of his ability, and they were loyal to him. With all his great military accomplishments, Lee’s greatest victory would be in his defeat. He surrendered humbly and would encourage his soldiers to go back to their homes, and be productive citizens. His men listened to him.
Robert E. Lee would die, on October 12, 1870, after suffering a stroke. Pnemonia, several days after his stroke would be the cause of his death. While his military genius would be his most commonly noted legacy, his desire to heal the wounds, between north and south, would make his a true PATRIOT. Happy Birthday Robert E. Lee!
¹ Generals In Gray, by Ezra Warner, and Robert E. Lee on Wikipedia were used to research this article.