Robert Lee


Robert Lee Essay, Research Paper

Robert E. Lee

They say you had to see him to believe that a man so fine could exist. He

was handsome. He was clever. He was brave. He was gentle. He was generous

and charming, noble and modest, admired and beloved. He had never failed at

anything in his upright soldier’s life. He was born a winner, this Robert

E. Lee. Except for once. In the greatest contest of his life, in a war

between the South and the North, Robert E. Lee lost” (Redmond). Through his

life, Robert E. Lee would prove to be always noble, always a gentleman, and

always capable of overcoming the challenge lying before him.

Robert Edward Lee was born on January 19, 1807 (Compton’s). He was born

into one of Virginia’s most respected families. The Lee family had moved to

America during the mid 1600’s. Some genealogist can trace the Lee’s roots

back to William the Conqueror. Two members of the Lee family had signed the

Declaration of Independence, Richard Lee and Francis Lightfoot. Charles Lee

had served as attorney General under the Washington administration while

Richard Bland Lee, had become one of Virginia’s leading Federalists.

Needless to say, the Lees were an American Political dynasty (Nash 242).

Lee’s father was General Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee. He had been a

heroic cavalry leader in the American Revolution. He married his cousin

Matilda. They had four children, but Matilda died in 1790. On her death bed

she added insult to injury upon Henry Lee by leaving her estate to her

children. She feared Henry would squander the family fortune. He was well

known for poor investments and schemes that had depleted his own family’s

fortune (Connelly 5).

Henry Lee solved his financial problems by marrying Robert’s mother Anne

Carter, daughter of one of Virginia’s wealthiest men (Nash 242). Henry Lee

eventually spent his family into debt. Their stately mansion, Stratford

Hall, was turned over to Robert’s half brother. Anne Lee moved with her

children to a simple brick house in Alexandria. Light Horse Harry was

seldom around. Finally, in 1813 he moved to the West Indies. His self-exile

became permanent, and he was never seen again by his family (Thomas).

Young Robert had other family problems. His mother became very ill. At the

age of twelve he had to shoulder the load of not only being the family’s

provider, but also his mother’s nurse. When time came for Robert to attend

college, it was obvious his mother could not support him financially. She

was already supporting his older brother at Harvard and three other

children in school. In 1824 he accepted an appointment to the United States

Military Academy. During his time at West Point Lee distinguished himself

as a soldier and a student. Lee graduated with honors in 1829 (Nash 245).

His graduation was dampened by a call to the bedside of his ailing mother.

When he arrived home he found his fifty-four year old mother close to

death. A death caused by struggles and illnesses of her difficult life.

Robert was always close to his mother. He again attended to her needs until

her death. On July 10, 1829, Anne Lee died with Robert, her closest son, at

her side. Forty years later Robert would stand in the same room and say,

“It seems but yesterday” that his beloved mother died (Connelly 6).

While awaiting his first assignment, Lee frequently visited Arlington, the

estate of George Washington Parke Custis. Custis was the grandson of Martha

Washington and the adopted son of George Washington. After Martha’s death

Custis left Mount Vernon and used his inheritance to build Arlington in

1778. Arlington was set on a hill over looking the Potomac river and

Washington D.C. (NPS Arlington House). Custis had only one daughter, Mary

Anna Randolph. Mary had been pampered and petted throughout her life. Lee’s

Courtship with Mary soon turned serious, before long they were thinking of

marriage. However, before Robert could propose he was assigned to Cockspur

Island, Georgia.

Robert returned to Arlington in 1830. He and Mary decided to get married.

The two were married on June 30, 1831(Nash 248). Shortly there after the

Lees went to Fort Monroe. Mary was never happy here. She soon went back to

Arlington. Mary hated army life. She would, for the most part, stay at

Arlington throughout the rest of Robert’s time in the United States Army.

The fact that he was separated from his family, and that he was slow to

move up in rank, left Lee feeling quite depressed a great deal of the time.

Over the next decade Robert became very frustrated by his career and life.

Lee’s life had become a mosaic of dull post assignments, long absences from

family, and slow promotion. Lee began to regard himself as a failure (Nash

248). Lee was on the verge of resigning from the army all together, when on

May 13, 1946, word came that the United States had declared war on Mexico.

The outbreak of war with Mexico provided Lee his first real chance at field

service. In January of 1847 he was selected by General Winfield Scott to

serve with other young promising officers. These officers included: P.G.T.

Beauregard and George McClellan on his personal staff (Connelly 8). During

the Mexican War Lee won the praise and respect of Scott as well as many

other young officers that he would serve with and against later.

As the years passed Mary Lee was left at Arlington. She was left to manage

her fathers grand estate, plantation really, by herself. Time had taken its

toll on Mary Lee. She had become an ageing woman, crippled with arthritis,

and left alone by her career Army officer’s duty assignments elsewhere

(Kelly 39). At the news of his father-in-laws death, Lee was able to take

official leave and hurry home. Upon his arrival he was shocked by the state

of his wife’s health. As she herself had written to a friend, “I almost

dread his seeing my crippled state”(Kelly 39). Lee was able to extend his

leave indefinitely. He became, in essence, a farmer. He was still able to

some duties in the army. These usually involved dull service such as a seat

on a court-martial. However, there was one such duty that proved to be much

more important. In October of 1859 he was sent to quell John Brown’s bloody

raid at Harpers Ferry (Grimsley). In the nations capital, setting just

below Arlington, there were heated debates over states’ rights union verses

disunion, and slavery. All the salons of Congress and in the salons and

saloons of the politically charged capital city, there was debate (Kelly 40).

After three years at home, Lee finally had to return to full time Army

duty. He was posted in Texas. While Lee was in Texas the controversy over

states’ rights grew worse. On January 21, 1861 five Southern Senate members

announced before a packed audience in the Senate galleries that their

respective states had seceded. With that, each gathered their things and

departed. Soon Texas seceded too, and Lee was ordered home to Washington,

to report to the Army’s ranking officer, General Winfield Scott. Lee

arrived at Arlington on March 1st. He now faced a very momentous personal

decision. After the firing on of Fort Sumpter, the first shots of the Civil

War, Lee was offered command of the Federal Army by Abraham Lincoln. Lee

was offered command of an army that was charged with the duty of invading

the South. A south that included Virginia, a Virginia that Lee truly loved.

On the morning of April 19th, Lee returned from nearby Alexandria with news

that Virginia to had seceded. The Lees had their supper together. Lee then

went, alone, to his upstairs bedroom. Below, Mary listened as he paced the

floor above, then heard a mild thump as he fell to his knees in prayer.

Below, she also prayed (Kelly 41).

Hours later he showed her two letters he had written. In one he resigned

his commission in the United States Army. In the other, he expressed

personal thoughts to General Scott. Later, his wife would write: “My

husband has wept tears of blood over this terrible war, but as a man of

honor and a Virginian, he must follow the destiny of his State” (Kelley 41).

Only two days after his resignation from the United States Army, Lee

travelled to Richmond to accept his commission as a General in the

Confederate army J. Davis-Papers). Lee’s impact was felt immediately on the

confederacy. As a seasoned military strategist, he brought the most

comprehensive, technologically advanced knowledge of warfare to bear

against his own former army (Nash 257).

General Lee’s first campaign in what was to become West Virginia was not a

great success. Command of the Eastern Army was divided between the hero of

Fort Sumpter, P.G.T. Beauragard, and Joseph Johnston who together won the

first big battle of the East, Bull Run. Thus Joseph Johnston was in command

when George B. McClellan started his march on Richmond. When Johnston went

down with wounds it was easy for Davis to replace him with General Lee. Lee

immediately took charge and attacked, trying to make up for his numbers

with audacity. He drove the Union army back about 25 miles, but was unable

to destroy it in a series of continuous battles known as the Seven Days


In September of 1862, McClellan attacked Lee at the Battle of Antietam.

McClellan attacked Lee but failed to break his lines. Lee, realising that

he was in a dangerous position and far from his supplies, retreated and

took up a defensive position behind the Rappangonnock River in northern

Virginia. Here General Ambrose E. Burnside, who succeeded McClellan,

attacked Lee in December at the Battle of Fredricksburg and met a bloody

repulse. As the year of 1862 closed, Lee had given the Confederacy its

greatest victories and had become an idol of the Southern people (Comptons).

Lee’s Greatest victory was the Battle of Chancelorsville in May of 1863.

Lee was faced with a larger army led by fighting Joe Hooker. Lee and his

most trusted lieutenant, General “Stonewall” Jackson, divided their forces

and through a forced march around General Hooker fell on his exposed flank,

rolling it up, and defeating the Union forces yet again (Brinkley 404).

After Chancellorsville, Lee started an offensive movement he hoped would

win the war, an invasion of Pennsylvania. This led to the greatest land

battle in the Western Hemisphere, Gettysburg. The Army of Northern Virginia

led by Lee, and the Army of the Potomac led by General George Meade,

hammered each other for three days. On the 3rd day of battle General Lee

hoping to end the war ordered the great frontal assault popularly known as

Pickett’s Charge. The attack was a huge failure (Brinkley 405). Lee blamed

only himself.

For the next two years, Lee commanded an Army that was poorly supplied and

getting increasingly smaller. Lee had to go on the defensive. He inflicted

heavy losses on Grant at the battles of The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and

Cold Harbor (Brasington).

By April 9th 1865 Lee had no choice but to surrender to Grant. Lee met

Grant at Appomatox Courthouse. As Grant walked in the meeting room, wearing

a dusty privates uniform, he must have been humbled by the man who rose to

greet him. Lee was wearing a noble grey uniform with a polished sword at

his side. Grant and Lee then decided on the terms of the surrender. Lee

asked Grant if his soldiers could keep their horses. Grant answered, “I

insist upon it.” As Lee rode back to his camp, Confederate troops

surrounded him saying, “General are we surrendered? They vowed to go on

fighting (Nash).

After the war many men came to Lee and said: “Let’s not accept this result

as final. Let’s keep the anger alive.” Lee answered by saying, “Make your

sons Americans.” When the war was lost Robert E. Lee took a job as

president of Washington College, a College of forty students and four

professors. Over his time he had trained thousands of men to be soldiers,

and had seen many of those thousands killed in battle. Now he wanted to

prepare forty of them for the duties of peace (Redmond).


Works Citied

Brasington, Larry, The American Revolution-an HTML project.

Http://, 11/23/97.

Brinkley, Alan, American History. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995.

Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia. Computer Software. Compton’s NewMedia,


Connelly, Thomas L. The Marble Man. New York: Knopf, 1977.

Davis, Jefffers, The Papers.http://www.ruf .edu/~pjdavis/lee/htm, 11/6/97.

Grimsley, Wayne. “The Differences Deepen.” Starkville, MS, 11 Nov. 1997.

(Class lecture delivered at Mississippi State University.)

Kelly, Brian. Best Little Stories From The Civil War. Charlottesville, VA:

Montpelier Publishing, 1996.

Nash, Roderick, and Graves, Gregory. From These Beginnings. New York:

HarperCollins, 1995.

National Park Service. Http://, 11/6/97.

Redmond, Louis. He Lost a War and Won Immortality.

Http:// nva.html, 11/6/97.

Thomas, Emory. Robert E. Lee.

Http://, 11/17/97.

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