Robert E. Lee was the leading Confederate General during the U.S. Civil War and has been venerated as a heroic figure in the South.
Born on January 19, 1807 in Stratford, Virginia, 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 towards the end of the conflict. Though the Union won the war, Lee has been revered by many while others debate his tactics. He went on to become president of Washington College.
Confederate General who led southern forces against the Union Army in the American Civil War, Robert Edward Lee was born January 19, 1807, in Stratford Hall, 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 gone on to become 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 was one of just six cadets in his graduating class who finished without a single demerit, and wrapped up his studies with perfect scores in artillery, infantry and cavalry.
After graduating from West Point, Lee met and married Mary Custis, the great-granddaughter of George and Martha Washington. Together, they had seven children: three sons (Custis, Rooney and Rob) and four daughters (Mary, Annie, Agnes and Mildred).
Early Military Career
But while Mary and the children spent their lives on Mary's father's plantation, Lee stayed committed to his military obligations. His Army loyalties moved him around the country, from Savannah to Baltimore, St. Louis to New York.
In 1846, Lee got the chance he'd been waiting his whole military career for when the United States went to war with Mexico. Serving under General Winfield Scott, Lee distinguished himself as a brave battle commander and 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 U.S. 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 1859 Lee returned to the Army, accepting a thankless position at a lonely cavalry outpost in Texas. In October of that year, Lee got a break when he was summoned to put an end to a slave 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 short list 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, when Virginia voted to secede from the nation on April 18, 1861, Lee agreed to help lead the Confederate forces.
Over the next year, Lee again distinguished himself on the battlefield. In May 1862, he took control of the Army of Northern Virginia and drove back the Union Army in Richmond in the Seven Days Battle. 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, just barely escaping at the bloody battle known as Antietam. In it, nearly 14,000 of his men were captured, wounded or killed.
From July 1 to July 3, 1863, Lee's forces suffered another round of heavy casualties in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The three-day stand-off, known as the Battle of Gettysburg, almost destroyed his army, ending Lee's invasion of the North and helping to turn the war around for the Union.
By the summer of 1864 Ulysses S. Grant had gained the upper hand, decimating much of Richmond, the Confederate'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."
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 a small college in western Virginia, and kept quiet about the nation's politics following the war.
In October of 1870, he suffered a massive stroke. He died at his home, surrounded by family, on October 12.