American Civil War Biographies: Robert E. Lee (1807-70)


Figure 1.--This early Daguerreotype captured Robert E. Lee before he was well knowm. It was probanly taken about 1845, just before the Mexican War. The boy is Lee's second son, Willian Henry Fitzhugh Lee (1837-91). Rooney as he was known in the family served in the Civil War as a calvalry commander, surrendeing with his father at Appomatox. Rooney looks to be about 8 years old, helping to date the portrait.

Robert E. Lee was born into two of the most prestigious families of Viurginia. His father, 'Light Horse' Harry Lee was a dashing young cavalry officer in the Revolution who served under George Washington. His lack of prudence in financial matters, however, clouded the family future. As a boy, he tenderly cared for his ailing mother. His choice of a military career was virtually by his father's squandering of his inheritance. As a younger brother, there was no money to pay for college. Family connections secured his appoinment to the West Point Military Academy. He led the Cadet Corps in 1829, graduated second in his class. He was the most perfect cadet in West Point history--never receiving a single demerit. He also became one of the most popular cadets in his class. He played an important role in the Mexican War. After that War, Lee returned to the Academy as superintendent. He was one of the the most outstanding superintendents in West Point history. He was affectionately regarded by the cadets for his fairness and moral leadership. As the Southern states began to succeed, Lincoln offered Lee command of the Federal armies. Ideas of pariotism and nationlity were different in ante-bellum America and when Virginia succeeded, Lee tendered his resignation and joined the Confederate Army. Lee is regarded by many as the greatest general to emerge from the Civil War. This is an open question. He may well have been the greatest field commandr. He was known for his audacity and bold strokes. [Alexander] Lee has been questioned about his strategic concept. Even in his great victories, therecwere very substantial Condederate losses. It may have been better foir the South to have hubanded its resources rather than to carry out Lee's two failed and very costly invasions of the North.

Parents

Robert E. Lee was born into two of the most prestigious families of Viurginia. His father, "Light Horse" Harry Lee was a dashing young cavalry officer in the Revolution who served under George Washington. He was elected governor of Virgia after the Revolution. His lack of prudence in financial matters, however, clouded the family future. Harry Lee was commited to a debtors prison (1809). After his release (1819), Harry, his wife Anne, and their five children moved to a small house on Cameron Street in Alexandria, Virginia. These chose Alexandria because there were good schools available there. In addition there were family members nearby. The family after the birth of the sixth child, Mildred, moved to another house still in Alexandris, on Oronoco Street. Robert's father was severely injured in a political riot in Baltimore (1812). He traveled to the West Indies to recuperate. He never returned to the family.

Childhood

Lee rarely mentioned his boyhood as an adult. And there are few accounts, unusual for such a prominent family. We know noting about the relationship between Robert and his father who left the family. As a result the relation appears to have been irreplicaly broken. he had the opportunity to visit his father's Georgia grave, but lingered there only briefly. Late in life as president of Washington College, he defended his father in a biographical sketch while working on Light Horse Harry's memoirs. In shrp contrasy he idolized his mother. As a boy, he tenderly cared for his sick mother. His father, Harry Lee, died when Robert was only 11 years old. This meant that Anne was left to raise six children with few resources. This mean a childhood of genteel poverty. They often paid extended visits to family friends [Thomas, pp. 34-35.] Their strained circustances was a factor. A relative, William Henry Fitzhugh, aided the family. Robert's choice of a military career was virtually determined by his father's squandering of his inheritance. He had few other choices. As a older teen and young man, he tenderly cared for his sick mother. He was brought up to be a practicing Christian, but showed little interest in religion. He was not confirmed in the Episcopal (Anglican) Church until middle age, 46 years old.

Education

Robert proved to be an excellent student. He attended Eastern View, a boarding school for young gentlemen, in Fauquier County. He then attended the Alexandria Academy which offered free tuition for local boys. He excelled in mathematics.

Chilhood Clothing


West Point

As a younger brother, there was no money to pay for college. His older brother Carter had gone to Harvard. Family connections secured his appoinment to the West Point Military Academy. William Henry Fitzhugh, his mother's relative and prominent Virginian wrote a letter to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun. He had Robert deliver the letter personally to Calhoun in nearby Washington. Robert led the Cadet Corps, graduating second in his class (1829). He was the most perfect cadet in West Point history--never receiving a single demerit. He also became one of the most popular cadets in his class.

Mexican War

Lee played an important role in the Mexican War. After that War, Lee returned to West Point as superintendent.

Superintendent of Cadets

He was one of the the most outstanding superintendents in West Point history. He was affectionately regarded by the cadets for his fairness and moral leadership.

Civil War (1861-65)

As the Southern states began to succeed, Lincoln offered Lee command of the Federal armies. Ideas of pariotism and nationlity were different in ante-bellum America and when Virginia succeeded, Lee tendered his resignation and joined Virginia units in the the Confederate Army. His bloody attacks on McClellan's massively supperior forces outside Richmond, known as the seven Days Campaign (1862), probably prevented an early Federal victory. Victories of the army of Northern Virginia (1862-63) came very close to winnining the Civil War for the Confederacy, but ultimately resulted in two failed invasions of the North--stopped by bloody losses at Antitem (1862) and Gettysburg (1863).

Appomattox

Lee had no choice, but to surrender at Appomattox, Longstreet agreed. There was one alternative. Artillery commander Brigadier General Edward Porter Alexander, went to Lee to present his view that if the Army could no longer continue the War, than Lee should order it to disperse and continue the War in small groups by reaching Johnston in North Carolina or reporting to their respective governors. That is what Alexander had planned to do. Lee replied that he had only 16,000 men and that would have been insufficet to do any good with Johnston or the differet governors. At any rate, he thought most men would head home, understandably to see after their families. He agreed that the surrender was in effect the end of the Confederacy, but it had to faced. He feared that if the men were told to disperse wiythout food and control that many would become robbers, brining further harm and suffering on the Southern people. The Federal calvary would persue them and the resulting devetation would require years of recovery. [Alexander] Of course Lee was right and this decission was one of the greatest services he did his country. The soldiers were told after the surrender to go home and become good citizens.

Assessment

Lee is regarded by many as the greatest general to emerge from the Civil War. This is an open question. He may well have been the greatest field commandr. He was known for his audacity and bold strokes. [Alexander] Lee has been questioned about his strategic concept. Even in his great victories, there were very substantial Condederate losses. This was very costly for the Confederacy with its smaller populastion than the North. It may have been better for the South to have hubanded its resources rather than to carry out Lee's two failed and very costly invasions of the North. Longstreet was one, for example, ho disagreed with Lee's strategy. [Grady] One historian writes, "For the war as a whole, Lee's Army had a higher casualty rate than the armies commanded by Grant. The romantic glorification of the Army of Northern Virginia by generations of Lost Cause writers has obscured this truth." [McPherson] Dragging out the War so the Northern public tired of it may well have been the Confederacy's best strategy. It very well could have changed the result of the 1864 election, namely Lincoln's reelection.

Sources

Alexander, Edward Porter. "Lee at Appomattox," The Century Magazine April 1902. Alexander ws the commander of artillery in Longstreet's corps.

Grady, Henry W. "General Longstreet: His Reminiscences of the struggle between the states", Weekly Times (Philadelphia, August 2, 1879. Gradt went on the found the Atlanta Constitution, the single most important Southern newspaper.

Hayes, Ruthorford B. "Grant's Stoicism and Sheridan's Enthusiasm," The Ohio Soldier, September 17, 1888. Hayes was a brigade and division commander in the Federal Army and suceeded Grant as president of the United States.

McPherson, James M. The Mighty Scourge: Perspectives of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2007), 260p.

Thomas, Emory M. Robert E. Lee (W.W. Norton & Co.: 1995).






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Created: January 5, 2003
Last updated: 5:25 AM 10/1/2016