Biography Of Robert E. Lee, Gentleman And Confederate General

Biography of the last of the cavaliers, Confederate General Robert E. Lee was the epitome of the chivalrous military commander.

Of all the Confederate officers during the Civil War, General Robert E. Lee probably epitomizes the so-called "Lost Cause". Dignified, white maned, quiet and gentlemanly, Lee oozed gentility. Even his lineage was impressive, as was that of his wife. He was the son of a Revolutionary War hero; she the great-granddaughter of a first lady.

In the South, pedigree was everything. But Lee went far beyond that.

While a fierce fighter in battle Lee was, at the same time, chivalrous to the enemy, even in the face of defeat. When he met General Ulysses S. Grant for surrender at Appomattox, Lee wore a clean, new uniform and polished boots, although most of his own soldiers were in rags. Grant's uniform was dirty and mud-spattered at the historic meeting, but not Lee's. Not ever.

Lee was a model of decorum and honor. And this is the image that the South continues to cherish -- the figure of the kindly old gentleman who, usually outnumbered and out-supplied, held the Union army at bay for almost two years, racking up victory after victory on battlefields all over Virginia.

Few people knew Robert E. Lee. He was enigmatic and seldom open with his true feelings, not even with his own family. "If you watched him closely," writes historian Gamaliel Bradford, "you could see one of the world's great tragedies written in his face. But you had to watch very closely indeed."

Almost 150 years later, Lee comes across nearly unscathed in a world that now attacks nearly everything Confederate. In his time the Radical Republicans in Congress tried to discredit him, but they could not. So they turned their attention to former President Jefferson Davis and subjected him to two years in a Federal prison, under the harshest treatment, without benefit of a trial. President Andrew Johnson denied Lee American citizenship, as he did Davis and former general James Longstreet, but did not harass him personally in any other way except to seize his Arlington estate and turn it into a national cemetery.

Gentleman General Robert E. Lee, the last of the cavaliers, was untouchable. Today his picture still hangs in many Southern homes, not as an act of defiance but one of respect.

Robert Edward Lee was born on January 19, at Stratford, in Westmoreland County, Virginia. His father was Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee, a fierce cavalry commander during the Revolutionary War. Young Lee entered West Point in 1825. When he graduated four years later, Lee had not only attained the top academic record but had earned the distinction of being the first cadet to graduate the Academy without a single demerit!

In 1831, Lee married Mary Custis, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. Although the family settled in the Custis mansion, located on the banks of the Potomac River just across from Washington, D.C., the young husband was gone for much of the time. As an army engineer, he spent years directing harbor and river improvements at St. Louis.

When the Mexican War erupted, Lee was promoted to captain and accompanied General Winfield Scott's expedition to Mexico City. After the war, he became superintendent at West Point. Lee was made a lieutenant colonel and, as such, commanded the force that overturned John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1859.

Lee was a moderate on the issue of secession. However, like many men of the period, his loyalties were first to his state, and then his county. At Virginia's decision to secede from the Union, Lee resigned from the Federal army and headed south.

Lee's chance at command came when General Joseph E. Johnston was wounded during the Peninsular Campaign of May, 1862. Davis appointed Lee commander of the main Confederate army in Virginia.

For two years Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia was a thorn in the side of the North. They won battle after battle. Even the Battle of Antietam, although considered a victory in the North, was actually more of a draw. Lee's military downfall, however, began at a sleepy crossroads town in Pennsylvania in July, 1963 -- Gettysburg.

Up until the third day of battle, Gettysburg had been largely a Confederate victory. Then Lee made a fatal error in judgment. The Federals held Cemetery Ridge and the Confederates held Seminary Ridge. Between the two positions as a mile and a quarter stretch of open field. Lee's plan was to launch a massive infantry charge across open ground in an attempt to overwhelm the Union entrenchments. General James Longstreet disagreed with his commander and advised against the attack. But Lee was adamant. He thought his army was invincible.

After a massive artillery barrage, in which both armies hammered at each other for two hours, 13,000 Confederates, under the command of General Edward Pickett, began to move across the field in formation. The carnage was appalling. Only troops under the command of General Lewis Armistead breached the Union defenses, but they were all either captured, killed, or beaten back. Armistead, himself, was wounded and died two days later.

Pickett's Charge was Lee's first major military blunder and the turning point of the Civil War. Too late, he realized his fatal error. Two thirds of Pickett's forces were either killed or wounded. "It is all my fault," the bedraggled troops heard him wail when he rode out to meet them as they straggled back. That night, under the cover of a drenching rain, Lee withdrew from the field.

Shortly after Gettysburg, Lee tried to tender his resignation to Davis, but the Confederate president refused to accept it. Then Union General Ulysses Grant was named to replace General George Meade after Gettysburg and Grant declared total war on the Confederate States of America -- loot, burn, pillage, and destroy all will to fight. Lee fought back furiously.

The next year and a half saw terrible casualties on both sides as the South was laid to waste. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia fought a good fight, but supplies were low and the army's numbers were decimated. To make matters worse, economic conditions in the South worsened to the point that there was wide-spread hunger and misery. Finally on April 9, 1865, Lee met Grant at Appomattox Courthouse and signed an instrument of surrender. Afterwards, Lee delivered a formal farewell to his troops.

After the war, President Andrew Johnson refused to grant Lee a pardon. But the South was not about to forget its most beloved fighter. Everywhere he was venerated. Lee was appointed president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. He died there on October 12, 1870.

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