Biography: Robert E. Lee

The Confederate General, Robert E. Lee was a man of courage, faith, and wisdom. He is highly respected by North and South alike.

The highly respected and beloved gentleman christened Robert Edward Lee began his life on January 19, 1807 in Stratford, Virginia. Military service was certainly part of his background and his father, General "Lighthorse" Harry Lee had been deemed a hero during the Revolutionary War, but by the time Robert was two years old, the father found himself imprisoned for his debts. He was later released from jail and ended up leaving his family when Robert was six years old. He sailed off to the islands in search of health and most likely wealth, and never returned.

Relatively little is known about Robert's childhood. His mother, Ann Carter Lee was a very religious woman and instilled this and her gentle manners into her children. She taught morals and her son embraced her teachings and held them close to himself for all of his days. Robert remained a faithfully religious man throughout his life. We also know that when he was about 12 years old, his mother's failing health had forced him to become caretaker and the "man of the house" in many respects.

In, 1825, he entered West Point. By the time he was ready for graduation in 1829, he held the ranking of second in his class. He never once received a demerit.

In June of 1831, Robert married Mary Ann Randolph Custis, a descendant of Martha Custis Washington. Robert and Mary made their home near Washington, D.C., across the Potomac River. They parented seven children. Today, their home still stands on the grounds of what has become Arlington National Cemetery.

With the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1845, Lee went to serve his country as an Army Captain. His duty in the beginning was to supervise road construction. It was not long, however, until General Winfield Scott learned of Lee's other skills and sought his assistance and expertise in military matters.

Robert E. Lee served as Superintendent of West Point from 1852 until 1855. In April of 1855, he was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the Second Cavalry and for the following four years spent time in Texas settling disputes with the Indians. Robert did not enjoy this time. He had a great love and devotion for his wife and children, being away from them for long periods of time was extremely difficult for him.

Many things happened in Lee's life in the year 1861. In March, he returned home to his family from his time served in Texas. Two weeks later, he was promoted to Colonel.

Robert Edward Lee also faced a hefty decision in April of 1861. Robert was offered the field command of the Army. One day later, he learned that his native state seceded from the Union. He immediately made the decision to hand in his resignation papers to the U.S. Army.

During the time he was pondering this decision, Lee wrote a letter to a family member, he said, "In my own person I had to meet the question whether I should take part against my native state. With all my devotion to the Union, and the feeling of loyalty and duty [as] an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind and raise my hand against my relatives, my children, [or] my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the Army, and, save in defense of my native state, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called upon to draw my sword."



Lee did not agree with the arguments the Southern states were making for secession, but he found the only choice to be returning to his homeland and taking up arms with his Virginia. Three days after his resignation, Robert E. Lee accepted the offered position of Commander of the forces for Virginia and served as an advisor to Jefferson Davis. In May of 1861, he became General Lee.

In May of 1862, one year later, he became commander of the troops he named "The Army of Northern Virginia."

During the duration of the Civil War, Lee gained the respect from his troops as well as from many other individuals, both northern and southern. He worked intimately with J.E.B. Stuart as well as the president of the confederacy, Jefferson Davis, and with the man Lee was to call his "right arm," Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. Jackson is quoted as having said that he would follow Robert E. Lee into battle blindfolded.

When George McClellan started the march on Richmond, Joseph Johnston was in command but when Johnston was wounded, he was replaced in command with General Lee. In the clash known as the Seven Days Battle, Lee forced McClellan into retreat.

Many victories and defeats were Lee's during the war. His victories at Second Manassas (also known as Bull Run) and Chancellorsville were especially exalted. At Chancellorsville in May of 1863, Lee and Stonewall Jackson had a victory over Joe Hooker's large army.

Robert E. Lee's greatest defeat, (and the one he blamed entirely on himself and never forgave himself for) came at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on July 3rd, 1863. It was the third day of fighting and one of the bloodiest battles in history. Lee ordered a charge directly into the Union lines known as Pickett's Charge. Although the Civil War actually went on for nearly two more years, the turning point occurred at Gettysburg.

Robert E. Lee was given the title of General-In-Chief of All Confederate Armies in February of 1865, but ironically, it was not to be long lived due to his surrender at Appomattox in April of the same year.

Lee lived for only five years after the end of the Civil War. He returned to Richmond as a prisoner of war on parole and had to apply to regain his citizenship in the form of postwar amnesty. Fortunately, the application was misplaced for over 100 years, having been found again and acted upon by Congress in 1975.

For the final five years of his life, Lee served as the president of Washington College, in Lexington. It is the same college now known as Washington and Lee University. He was asked to run as Governor of Virginia in 1867, but declined the offer.

Lee died in October of 1870 at Lexington. Thus ended the life of a man of courage, wisdom, humility, duty, and one who carried his religious faith and love of family with him throughout all his years.

Perhaps the best description of the kind of man Robert E. Lee was comes from a paper written by the man himself. The topic was "Definition of a Gentleman" and the author was Robert Edward Lee: "The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman. The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly--the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light. The gentleman does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He cannot only forgive, he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be but the past. A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others."

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