Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) was one of the most talented and successful generals of the Civil War. After graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1846, Lee fought in the Mexican-American War, where he showed his excellent leadership skills. In 1859, he was in command of the force that captured abolitionist John Brown at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. Though he was against secession, he declined Lincoln's offer to command the Union Army, instead declaring his allegiance to his home state of Virginia. Lee commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia until his surrender to General Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.
Given the almost impossible task of defeating a larger and better-equipped northern army, Lee used brilliant and aggressive tactics to defeat his enemies. At the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, he daringly divided his army and won a decisive victory, paving the way for his second invasion of the North. The ensuing Battle of Gettysburg, however, turned into a disaster when Lee ordered a huge frontal assault at the middle of the northern line, a doomed attack known to history as Pickett's Charge. The South never recovered from the losses of that day, and Lee spent the remainder of the war doing his best to hold off the inevitable. His surrender after the nine-month siege of Petersburg ended all major southern resistance.
In April 1865 Lee faced his final decision of the war. The tattered remnants of his army were on the verge of disintegration, hounded by vastly larger forces under Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Lee seemed to face a stark choice—surrender or destruction. But there was a third way. One of his closest aides, Gen. Porter Alexander, passionately argued that the army could “scatter like rabbits and partridges in the woods” as a prelude to taking up guerilla warfare against invading Northern forces.
It was not an isolated thought. The Confederacy had embraced guerilla raiders such as Mosby, Morgan, and Quantrill, and many in the South preferred any sort of resistance over the humiliation of surrender. Among them was President Jefferson Davis, even then on the run from Union forces, and hoping to continue the war by any means possible.
Lee rejected the idea out of hand. “The country would be full of lawless bands,” he told Alexander, “(and) a state of society would ensue from which it would take the country years to recover.” Instead, he dressed himself in his best uniform, complete with sword and sash, and surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Va. He wrote to President Davis explaining his decision. “A partisan war may be continued … causing individual suffering and the devastation of the country, but I see no prospect by that means of achieving a separate independence.”
Lee’s decision may have saved the country an even greater trial than the one it had just experienced. The smoldering fire of guerilla warfare, once ignited, is difficult to stamp out. Had Lee decided differently, the agony of the Civil War might have dragged on decades, with catastrophic results for the entire country. Such was Lee’s prestige that his example paved the way for other Confederate generals to surrender, and helped put the divided nation on the long road to healing.
Lee is still remembered as a great hero of the southern cause.