Robert E. Lee
American Experience: Robert E. Lee
American Experience Robert E. Lee PBS Documentary.
Robert Edward Lee (January 19, 1807 – October 12, 1870) was an American soldier best known for commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War from 1862 until his surrender in 1865. The son of Revolutionary War officer Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee III, Lee was a top graduate of the United States Military Academy and an exceptional officer and combat engineer in the United States Army for 32 years. During this time, he served throughout the United States, distinguished himself during the Mexican–American War, served as Superintendent of the United States Military Academy, and married Mary Custis.
When Virginia declared its secession from the Union in April 1861, Lee chose to follow his home state, despite his personal desire for the country to remain intact and despite an offer of a senior Union command. During the first year of the Civil War, Lee served as a senior military adviser to President Jefferson Davis. Once he took command of the main field army in 1862 he soon emerged as a shrewd tactician and battlefield commander, winning most of his battles, all against far superior Union armies. Lee’s strategic foresight was more questionable, and both of his major offensives into the North ended in defeat. Lee’s aggressive tactics, which resulted in high casualties at a time when the Confederacy had a shortage of manpower, have come under criticism in recent years. Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s campaigns bore down on the Confederacy in 1864 and 1865, and despite inflicting heavy casualties, Lee was unable to turn the war’s tide. He surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. By this time, Lee had assumed supreme command of the remaining Southern armies; other Confederate forces swiftly capitulated after his surrender. Lee rejected the proposal of a sustained insurgency against the North and called for reconciliation between the two sides.
After the war, as President of what is now Washington and Lee University, Lee supported President Andrew Johnson’s program of Reconstruction and intersectional friendship, while opposing the Radical Republican proposals to give freed slaves the vote and take the vote away from ex-Confederates. He urged them to rethink their position between the North and the South, and the reintegration of former Confederates into the nation’s political life. Lee became the great Southern hero of the War, a postwar icon of the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy” to some. But his popularity grew even in the North, especially after his death in 1870.
Early Life and Career
Lee was born at Stratford Hall Plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia, the son of Major General Henry Lee III (Light Horse Harry) (1756–1818), Governor of Virginia, and his second wife, Anne Hill Carter (1773–1829). His birth date has traditionally been recorded as January 19, 1807, but according to the historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor, “Lee’s writings indicate he may have been born the previous year.”
One of Lee’s great grandparents, Henry Lee I, was a prominent Virginian colonist of English descent. Lee’s family is one of Virginia’s first families, originally arriving in Virginia from England in the early 1600s with the arrival of Richard Lee I, Esq., “the Immigrant” (1618–64), from the county of Shropshire. His mother grew up at Shirley Plantation, one of the most elegant homes in Virginia. Lee’s father, a tobacco planter, suffered severe financial reverses from failed investments.
Little is known of Lee as a child; he rarely spoke of his boyhood as an adult. Nothing is known of his relationship with his father who, after leaving his family, mentioned Robert only once in a letter. When given the opportunity to visit his father’s Georgia grave, he remained there only briefly yet, while as president of Washington College, he defended his father in a biographical sketch while editing Light Horse Harry’s memoirs. In 1809, Harry Lee was put in debtors prison; soon after his release the following year, Harry and Anne Lee and their five children moved to a small house on Cameron Street in Alexandria, Virginia, both because there were then high quality local schools there, and because several members of her extended family lived nearby. In 1811, the family, including the newly born sixth child, Mildred, moved to a house on Oronoco Street, still close to the center of town and with the houses of a number of Lee relatives close by. In 1812, Harry Lee was badly injured in a political riot in Baltimore and traveled to the West Indies. He would never return, dying when his son Robert was eleven years old. Left to raise six children alone in straitened circumstances, Anne Lee and her family often paid extended visits to relatives and family friends. Robert Lee attended school at Eastern View, a school for young gentlemen, in Fauquier County, and then at the Alexandria Academy, free for local boys, where he showed an aptitude for mathematics. Although brought up to be a practicing Christian, he was not confirmed in the Episcopal Church until age 46.
Anne Lee’s family was often supported by a relative, William Henry Fitzhugh, who owned the Oronoco Street house and allowed the Lees to stay at his home in Fairfax County, Ravensworth. When Robert was 17 in 1824, Fitzhugh wrote to the Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun, urging that Robert be given an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Fitzhugh wrote little of Robert’s academic prowess, dwelling much on the prominence of his family, and erroneously stated the boy was 18. Instead of mailing the letter, Fitzhugh had young Robert deliver it. In March 1824, Robert Lee received his appointment to West Point, but due to the large number of cadets admitted, Lee would have to wait a year to begin his studies there.
Lee entered West Point in the summer of 1825. At the time, the focus of the curriculum was engineering; the head of the Army Corps of Engineers supervised the school and the superintendent was an engineering officer. Cadets were not permitted leave until they had finished two years of study, and were rarely allowed off the Academy grounds. Lee graduated second in his class behind Charles Mason, who resigned from the Army a year after graduation, and Lee did not incur any demerits during his four-year course of study, a distinction shared by 5 of his 45 classmates. In June 1829, Lee was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers. After graduation, while awaiting assignment, he returned to Virginia to find his mother on her deathbed; she died at Ravensworth on July 26, 1829.
Military Engineer Career
On August 11, 1829, Brigadier General Charles Gratiot ordered Lee to Cockspur Island, Georgia. The plan was to build a fort on the marshy island which would command the outlet of the Savannah River. Lee was involved in the early stages of construction as the island was being drained and built up. In 1831, it became apparent that the existing plan to build what became known as Fort Pulaski would have to be revamped, and Lee was transferred to Fort Monroe at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula (today in Hampton, Virginia).
While home in the summer of 1829, Lee had apparently courted Mary Custis whom he had known as a child. Lee obtained permission to write to her before leaving for Georgia, though Mary Custis warned Lee to be “discreet” in his writing, as her mother read her letters, especially from men. Custis refused Lee the first time he asked to marry her; her father did not believe the son of the disgraced Light Horse Harry Lee was a suitable man for his daughter. She accepted him with her father’s consent in September 1830, while he was on summer leave, and the two were wed on June 30, 1831.
Lee’s duties at Fort Monroe were varied, typical for a junior officer, and ranged from budgeting to designing buildings. Although Mary Lee accompanied her husband to Hampton Roads, she spent about a third of her time at Arlington, though the couple’s first son, Custis Lee was born at Fort Monroe. Although the two were by all accounts devoted to each other, they were different in character: Robert Lee was tidy and punctual, qualities his wife lacked. Mary Lee also had trouble transitioning from being a rich man’s daughter to having to manage a household with only one or two slaves. Beginning in 1832, Robert Lee had a close but platonic relationship with Harriett Talcott, wife of his fellow officer Andrew Talcott.
Life at Fort Monroe was marked by conflicts between artillery and engineering officers. Eventually the War Department transferred all engineering officers away from Fort Monroe, except Lee, who was ordered to take up residence on the artificial island of Rip Raps across the river from Fort Monroe, where Fort Wool would eventually rise, and continue work to improve the island. Lee duly moved there, then discharged all workers and informed the War Department he could not maintain laborers without the facilities of the fort.
In 1834, Lee was transferred to Washington as General Gratiot’s assistant. Lee had hoped to rent a house in Washington for his family, but was not able to find one; the family lived at Arlington, though Lieutenant Lee rented a room at a Washington boarding house for when the roads were impassable. In mid-1835, Lee was assigned to assist Andrew Talcott in surveying the southern border of Michigan. While on that expedition, he responded to a letter from an ill Mary Lee, which had requested he come to Arlington, “But why do you urge my immediate return, & tempt one in the strongest manner … I rather require to be strengthened & encouraged to the full performance of what I am called on to execute.” Lee completed the assignment and returned to his post in Washington, finding his wife ill at Ravensworth. Mary Lee, who had recently given birth to their second child, remained bedridden for several months. In October 1836, Lee was promoted to first lieutenant.
Lee served as an assistant in the chief engineer’s office in Washington, D.C. from 1834 to 1837, but spent the summer of 1835 helping to lay out the state line between Ohio and Michigan. As a first lieutenant of engineers in 1837, he supervised the engineering work for St. Louis harbor and for the upper Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Among his projects was the mapping of the Des Moines Rapids on the Mississippi above Keokuk, Iowa, where the Mississippi’s mean depth of 2.4 feet (0.7 m) was the upper limit of steamboat traffic on the river. His work there earned him a promotion to captain. Around 1842, Captain Robert E. Lee arrived as Fort Hamilton’s post engineer.
Marriage and Family
While Lee was stationed at Fort Monroe, he married Mary Anna Randolph Custis (1808–73), great-granddaughter of Martha Washington by her first husband Daniel Parke Custis, and step-great-granddaughter of George Washington, the first president of the United States. Mary was the only surviving child of George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington’s stepgrandson, and Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis, daughter of William Fitzhugh and Ann Bolling Randolph. Robert and Mary married on June 30, 1831, at Arlington House, her parents’ house just across from Washington, D.C. The 3rd U.S. Artillery served as honor guard at the marriage. They eventually had seven children, three boys and four girls:
1. George Washington Custis Lee (Custis, “Boo”); 1832–1913; served as Major General in the Confederate Army and aide-de-camp to President Jefferson Davis; unmarried.
2. Mary Custis Lee (Mary, “Daughter”); 1835–1918; unmarried.
3. William Henry Fitzhugh Lee (“Rooney”); 1837–91; served as Major General in the Confederate Army (cavalry); married twice; surviving children by second marriage.
4. Anne Carter Lee (Annie); June 18, 1839 – October 20, 1862; died of typhoid fever, unmarried.
5. Eleanor Agnes Lee (Agnes); 1841 – October 15, 1873; died of tuberculosis, unmarried.
6. Robert Edward Lee, Jr. (Rob); 1843–1914; served as Captain in the Confederate Army (Rockbridge Artillery); married twice; surviving children by second marriage.
7. Mildred Childe Lee (Milly, “Precious Life”); 1846–1905; unmarried.
All the children survived him except for Annie, who died in 1862. They are all buried with their parents in the crypt of the Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.
Lee was a great-great-great grandson of William Randolph and a great-great grandson of Richard Bland. He was also related to Helen Keller through Helen’s mother, Kate, and was a distant relative of Admiral Willis Augustus Lee.
On May 1, 1864, General Lee was at the baptism of General A.P. Hill’s daughter, Lucy Lee Hill, to serve as her godfather. This is referenced in the painting Tender is the Heart by Mort Künstler.
Lee distinguished himself in the Mexican–American War (1846–48). He was one of Winfield Scott’s chief aides in the march from Veracruz to Mexico City. He was instrumental in several American victories through his personal reconnaissance as a staff officer; he found routes of attack that the Mexicans had not defended because they thought the terrain was impassable.
He was promoted to brevet major after the Battle of Cerro Gordo on April 18, 1847. He also fought at Contreras, Churubusco, and Chapultepec and was wounded at the last. By the end of the war, he had received additional brevet promotions to Lieutenant Colonel and Colonel, but his permanent rank was still Captain of Engineers and he would remain a Captain until his transfer to the cavalry in 1855.
For the first time, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant met and worked with each other during the Mexican–American War. Both Lee and Grant participated in Scott’s march from the coastal town of Vera Cruz to Mexico City. Grant gained wartime experience as a quartermaster, Lee as an engineer who positioned troops and artillery. Both did their share of actual fighting. At Vera Cruz, Lee earned a commendation for “greatly distinguished” service. Grant was among the leaders at the bloody assault at Molino del Rey, and both soldiers were among the forces that entered Mexico City. Close observations of their commanders constituted a learning process for both Lee and Grant. The Mexican–American War concluded on February 2, 1848.
After the Mexican War, Lee spent three years at Fort Carroll in Baltimore harbor. During this time, his service was interrupted by other duties, among them surveying and updating maps in Florida. Cuban revolutionary Narciso López intended to forcibly liberate Cuba from Spanish rule. In 1849, searching for a leader for his filibuster expedition, he approached Jefferson Davis, then a United States senator. Davis declined and suggested Lee, who also declined. Both decided it was inconsistent with their duties.
Early 1850’s: West Point and Texas
The 1850’s were a difficult time for Lee, with his long absences from home, the increasing disability of his wife, troubles in taking over the management of a large slave plantation, and his often morbid concern with his personal failures.
In 1852, Lee was appointed Superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point; he was reluctant to enter what he called a “snake pit”, but the War Department insisted and he obeyed. His wife occasionally came to visit. During his three years at West Point, Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee improved the buildings and courses and spent much time with the cadets. Lee’s oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, attended West Point during his tenure. Custis Lee graduated in 1854, first in his class.
Lee was enormously relieved to receive a long-awaited promotion as second-in-command of the Second Cavalry regiment in Texas in 1855. It meant leaving the Engineering Corps and its sequence of staff jobs for the combat command he truly wanted. He served under Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston at Camp Cooper, Texas; their mission was to protect settlers from attacks by the Apache and the Comanche.
Late 1850’s: Arlington plantation and the Custis slaves
In 1857, his father-in-law George Washington Parke Custis died, creating a serious crisis when Lee took on the burden of executing the will. Custis’s will encompassed vast landholdings and hundreds of slaves balanced against massive debts, and required Custis’s former slaves “to be emancipated by my executors in such manner as to my executors may seem most expedient and proper, the said emancipation to be accomplished in not exceeding five years from the time of my decease.” The estate was in disarray, and the plantations had been poorly managed and were losing money.
Lee tried to hire an overseer to handle the plantation in his absence, writing to his cousin, “I wish to get an energetic honest farmer, who while he will be considerate & kind to the negroes, will be firm & make them do their duty.” But Lee failed to find a man for the job, and had to take a two-year leave of absence from the army in order to run the plantation himself. He found the experience frustrating and difficult; some of the slaves were unhappy and demanded their freedom. Many of them had been given to understand that they were to be made free as soon as Custis died. In May 1858, Lee wrote to his son Rooney, “I have had some trouble with some of the people. Reuben, Parks & Edward, in the beginning of the previous week, rebelled against my authority—refused to obey my orders, & said they were as free as I was, etc., etc.—I succeeded in capturing them & lodging them in jail. They resisted till overpowered & called upon the other people to rescue them.” Less than two months after they were sent to the Alexandria jail, Lee decided to remove these three men and three female house slaves from Arlington, and sent them under lock and key to the slave-trader William Overton Winston in Richmond, who was instructed to keep them in jail until he could find “good & responsible” slaveholders to work them until the end of the five-year period.