Robert E. Lee is one of these few characters in history who equally awe friend and foe. Born in one of the oldest and most respected families of Virginia, Lee made career in the U.S. Army only to resign and follow his native state as it became part of the Confederate States of America. During the ensuing Civil War (1861-1865), he served as the most skilful Confederate commander at the head of the Army of Northern Virginia, outmanoeuvring and defeating larger and better equipped U.S. armies. Despite losing the decisive battle of Gettysburg, and consequently the war, Lee is considered one of history’s most-gifted tacticians. His impeccable bearing and chivalry earned him the love of his men, the worship of the Confederates, and the admiration of his foes. 

1# Origins. The cadet of West Point

Robert E. Lee was born in Stratford Hall Plantation on January 9th 1807. His father was Henry Lee III, known as Light-Horse Harry Lee, a hero of the Revolutionary War that led to the birth of the United States of America. A better cavalry commander than head of the family, he left his sons and wife penniless, but Lee’s mother, Ann Carter Lee, managed to scramble enough to send the young Robert to the military academy of West Point. Although a far cry from the prestigious institution of nowadays, in the valuable time spent there, the cadet Lee got acquainted with army life and discipline, and its library first introduced him to the bold and rapidity of Napoleon’s tactics that one day he would so masterfully put into practice. Thanks to his excellent command of maths and exemplary curriculum, he landed a commission into the Corps of Engineers.

Lee, circa 1838. Although he had a flirtatious nature and was prone to laughter when surrounded by friends and family, Lee was a responsible husband and took his duties as father as responsibly as he did in the army. Author: William Edward West. Source

Described as the handsomest officer of the army, in 1831 he married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the great-granddaughter of Martha Custis Washington, wife of George Washington. Since Light-Horse Harry had been a close friend and protégé of George Washington, Lee himself unusually attached to the memory of the Father of the country that was best represented by Arlington, one of the states of his father-in-law that was closely connected to Washington’s memory and which Lee grew to consider his home.  

2# Military career

During his time as army engineer, Lee was often dispatched to construct or reinforce several forts in Georgia, New York, or Virginia; and thanks to his efforts, the wild Missisipi was made more navigable, thus saving the port of Saint Louis. On 1846 he was sent to Texas to take part in the American-Mexican War. There he impressed Winifield Scott, Commanding General of the Army, thanks to his engineering skills during the Siege of Veracruz, and to the vital scouting services he provided during the campaign.  

Despite his being hailed as war hero, the following decade would prove a hard one for Lee. Despite being appointed as superintendent of West Point and later dispatched to fight Apaches and Comanches Indians in 1855, the promotion within the army was excruciatingly slow. Promoted to brevet colonel after the war, Lee feared he’d never become a brigadier general before retiring. Coupled with the difficulties of raising and educating seven children with the modest army wage, were his wife’s increasing disability and the death of his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis. The latter left his properties to his grandsons, but since those had been poorly managed and mucked in debt, Lee was forced to request a leave from the army to put them in order.

Lee and his second son, nicknamed Rooney. Circa 1845. His three sons would serve in the Confederate army during the Civil War, and while three of his four daughters outlived him, none got married. Author: Michael Miley. Source

3# Lee and slavery

During these years, from 1857 and 1860, happened one of the most controversial episodes of Lee’s life. Slavery was a central piece of the economy of the southern U.S. states, including Virginia. The impoverished Lee family had had few slaves during Lee’s lifetime, but his father-in-law left several hundred of them behind under the provision that they ought to be liberated no later than five years after his demise. The growing sentiment of abolitionism in the north, coupled with the lassitude of Custis’ management, led the slaves to resent the strict management of their new overseer, Lee. They had expected to be freed immediately but Lee couldn’t do so before putting Custis’ states in proper order. It was a matter of time before several of the slaves attempted to escape but were recaptured and disciplined. This episode, the Norris case, was advertised in the New York Daily Tribune, which published letters claiming that Lee had had the fugitive slaves scourged as a lesson.

Lee never refuted or replied to the accusations, he was never one to be swayed by public opinion, although scourging being not uncommon altogether in the day, it’s likely that he might have subjected the slaves to flogging. His views on slavery have been often used as a throwing weapon by both defenders and detractors, but although he would be considered racist according to modern standards, he was certainly not by the standards of his. Back on his day the slaves performed as the forced labour to work the fields and plantations, but to many it was becoming increasingly evident that unfree labour was ineffective and costly. Lee himself had expressed the opinion that it was damaging more the white people than the ‘negroes’. His religious, paternalistic view, that of a typical, moderate, Southern landowner, was that white men were educating and preparing the ignorant black men for the day in which God, in his own time, would grant them emancipation. The idea that blacks weren’t equal to whites was widespread dogma in the day, even amongst those most vehement in their demands for abolition of slavery. That Lee provided education to the Custis’ Slaves (going against the law in Virginia in doing so) and that he actually liberated them five years later as stipulated in Custis’ will, must be read in this context too.

4# The Confederate States of America

The rift between states created by slavery was widening at a startling pace, making secession a probable outcome. Lee remained close to the events, as he was tasked with capturing John Brown during the Harper’s Ferry incident. A known pro-abolitionist, Brown’s execution further fanned the flames between pro-slavery states and abolitionists. However, Lee remained impervious to the elation of the former as they begun to secede in mass in late 1860, and were later conflated into the brand-new Confederate States of America (C.S.A). Lee’s admiration of Washington and army service made him see the secession as a rebellion, but his first loyalty was and would always be to Virginia, and when the latter seceded on account of Fort Sumter, he resigned the army with the heaviest of hearts, even though he had been offered the office of commanding general by President Lincoln.

Lee swore not to take arms against the U.S., unless the latter was to attack Virginia, and leaving his beloved Arlington behind―never to see it again―he travelled to Richmond to take command of Virginia’s state forces and militias as its major general. When Virginia joined the Confederacy in June, Lee chivalrously accepted a necessary demotion to enter the Confederate Army with the rank of brigadier general. For the time being, he acted on an unofficial capacity as military adviser and chief of staff of the C.S.A President Davis.

5# The American Civil War and the King of Spades

When the Confederate capital was moved from Montgomery to Richmond, it was clear that because of the proximity with Washington, this would be the main theatre of the war. Although Lee didn’t command any of the armies during the first stages of the war, he oversaw its supplies and reinforcements, cleverly moving and transferring them from one end of the front to the other as the need arised. His was the idea to rush Johnston’s army from Shenandoah Valley to aid Beauregard’s army in Manassas Junction, where they defeated the Union Army of McDowell advancing against Richmond in the First Battle of Bull Run (also known as Battle of First Manassas); and the system of earthworks built around Richmond under his orders would save the city more than once.

Lee wasn’t credited at these early stages. In fact, he was disliked and scorned because of the constant trench-digging he imposed on the soldiers (he was dubbed Granny Lee, or King of Spades). Moreover, his first command of small forces in Western Virginia, begun with an inauspicious defeat, and he was, for the time being, sent to reinforce the defenses of Charleston and Savannah, the main Confederated ports. His military genius wasn’t lost on President Davis though, and when General Johnston was wounded in June 1st 1862, Davis appointed Lee as the new commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Nobody, not possibly even Davis himself, expected that Robert E. Lee would lead it with a mastery worthy of Napoleon himself.  

General Robert E. Lee in 1863. Despite the hardships and scarcities he shared with the rank-and-file through personal conviction, Lee never lost the elegance and distinguished bearing of a true gentleman. Author: unattributed. Source

6# Robert E. Lee. The Confederate hope

Thanks to uncontested naval supremacy, the Union landed an army on the Virginia peninsula, east of Richmond, hoping to bypass Confederate resistance in Northern Virginia and capture its capital. Commanded by George B. McClellan, Union Army of the Potomac advanced well into the outskirts of Richmond and it seemed as though the end of the war within reach of his fingers. Unfortunately for the Union, it was then that Johnston was wounded and replaced by Lee, who had already come up with the audacious idea to pull Stonewall Jackson’s men from the Shenandoah Valley and use them to flank McClellan’s army. The plan had its risks, for bringing Jackson meant leaving Richmond unprotected from the northwest. The move didn’t pay off on account of poor coordination, the ambiguity of Lee’s command, and the exhaustion of Jackson’s men at the time. It was the Confederate’s fortune however, that due to poor intelligence, McClellan believed them to be 180.000 strong, when in fact it was less than half of that, versus 115.000 Union soldiers.

It was around this time that the venerable image of grey bearded gentleman on top of Traveller, his predilect horse, took root as the people’s favourite image of General Robert E. Lee. Traveller became very famous and accompanied Lee for most of the war and even in death, for nowadays its bones rests nearby his master’s grave. Author: Michael Miley. Source

During the Seven Days Campaigns, Lee pushed McClellan against the James River and away from Richmond, commiting several mistakes, winning some battles, and loosing others, but moving so fast that McClellan didn’t have time to think and react. The Army of Northern Virginia suffered around 20.000 casualties during the campaign, nearly a third of its strength, but ultimately managed to force the evacuation of the Army of the Potomac.

With news of a new Union army marching under General Pope from the north, Lee hurried to prevent him to join forces with McClellan (who at the time was still wedged against the James River) and pushed the former north of the Rappahanock River. Scoffing at Napoleon’s military maxim of never splitting the army on the eve of a battle, Lee sent the corps of the swift Stonewall Jackson around Pope’s back, to cut his retreat. And in another genius (or mad) stroke, he hurried with his other corps, that of Longstreet, through a gap in the Bull Run Mountains to join Jackson at the back of Pope’s line. Holding the Union charges on his own, Jackson allowed for Longstreet to attack their exposed left, like two jaws closing on the Union bulk. The Second Battle of Bull Run, or second Manassas, was a great Confederate victory, however, Longstreet’s reticence to attack when Lee ordered him, probably costed them the chance to annihilate Pope’s army. Regardless of Lee’s tactical abilities, he couldn’t bring himself to be stern or dress his subordinates down whenever required. This flaw would cost much to the Confederacy in the future.

7# First Invasion of the North

In common with all great generals, Lee wasn’t one to wait for his opponent to take the initiative. He was an attacker, and he judged that the best hope for the Confederacy to endure was to bring the war to the enemy’s lands. Maybe then France or Britain would recognise the new state and lend them support, or maybe it would force a war-weary Union to sit down and negotiate. At the head of 65.000 hungry and mostly, shoeless men, he invaded Maryland. There’s also the fact that the war-ravaged Virginia was unable to feed his army and so it made more sense to live off the enemy land. Lee overestimated his army’s combat capabilities, it’s true they had fought and persevered against greater odds and enemy numbers, but he should have known better than to expect them to turn all bad situations around through perseverance and endurance. He also underestimated McClellan, once more back at the head of the Army of the Potomac, who contrary to his over-cautious nature marched so fast that intercepted the dispersed Army of Northern Virginia in Sharpsburg. His 75.000 soldiers caught with Lee’s 38.000, and although the former suffered more casualties than the latter (12.000 vs 10.000) it forced Lee to retreat back to Virginia to lick his wounds. The first invasion of the north was over with little to show for.

With McClellan replaced by General Burnside, the Army of the Potomac resumed their Virginian campaign, crossing the Rappahanock and taking Fredericksburg, itself a throwing-stone away from Richmond. Lee anticipated this, and arrived in Frederickbsurg on November 20th, and by December 11th, Burnside crossed the Rappahannock. The Confederate line was well-dug on Marye’s Heights, and resisted wave after wave of costly and useless Union charges that costed Burnside more than 12.000 casualties for half that number of Confederates. But with a shortage on food, ammunition, and forage, Lee found himself unable to pursue Burnside as he retreated. Once more he had won a victory, but one insufficient to bring the enemy to the negotiate.

8# The Battle of Gettysburg

During the 1863 winter, Lee begun experiencing a severe decline in health, the most likely suspect being a heart attack or an angina. By then it was clear even to those most optimistic, that he was the last hope of a Confederation that crumbled elsewhere to the advance of Union troops. He proved himself once more by defeating another army sent to confront him, this time under General Hooker. In another brilliant but risky manoeuvre, Lee sent his best general and right hand, Stonewall Jackson, with a force of 32.000 to outflank Hooker’s troops that had secured an advantageous position on Fairview Hill, in the thick forested area known as the Wilderness. Jackson, who was known for his relentless and swift marches that made it almost impossible for the enemy to pinpoint him, was felled by friendly fire and would die shortly after. The Battle of Chancellorsville went to the Confederate side at a great cost then, but it readied the stage for a second northern invasion. This time in Pennsylvania.

Thomas J. Jackson, nicknamed Stonewall for his valiant actions during the First Battle of Bull Run. Regarded by many to be only second to Lee in tactical skill and daring, his untimely death deprived Lee of his best general. In fact, Lee compared his loss to the losing of his right hand. Author: Nathaniel Routzahn. November 1862. Source

Like in Sharpsburg, Lee once more overestimated the capabilities of his hungry and ill-equipped men, and underestimated the speed of his opponent (this time it was George G. Meade) in following him suit. The upcoming Battle of Gettysburg has been since studied and analyzed from all possible angles to try and explain Lee’s most famous defeat, including the absence and tardiness of Stuart, his favourite cavalry commander; or the lethargy and even disobedience of his generals, notoriously A. P. Hill and Ewell. But ultimately, it was Lee’s decision and only his, to launch a suicidial charge against the Union centre, the fateful Pickett’s Charge, which ended in carnage for his men. It’s still fiercely debated whether Gettysburg was the decisive defeat that doomed all Confederate prospects of enduring, or wheter a hypothetical Confederate victory would have changed anything. One thing is clear, it was a resounding defeat for Robert E. Lee, and the man himself admitted it openly and to everyone.  

The Battle of Gettysburg lasted three days and was full of avoidable mistakes of the Confederate leadership. Like Napoleon at Waterloo, both Lee and his generals weren’t at their finest, but the ultimate responsibility must lie on Lee for being the commanding officer of the Army of Northern Virginia. Map by Hal Jespersen, Source

9# Surrender at Appomattox Court House

The Marble Man, that’s how he was known on account of his impassive exterior, still had plenty of aces up the sleeve as he resisted the new Commanding General of the Union, Ulysses S. Grant. Unlike his predecessors, Grant relentlessly pressed Lee with the knowledge that the latter couldn’t replenish losses as fast as he could. Little by little, Grant fought and pushed Lee back to Richmond, wearing him out, constantly trying to outflank him, and finaly, laying siege to Petersburg, a vital nod that connecting Richmond by railroad to the southern states of the Confederacy.

On February 9th 1865 Lee was appointed commander-in-chief of the Confederate Army. By then such honour was an empty one, the Confederacy was doomed. Desertions, a tight naval blockade, and decisive Union victories in other fronts had strangled it, such as the march of General William Tecumseh Sherman to the sea, which had split the Confederate States in two. Even Lee’s trench lines around Petersburg eventually succumbed to the onslaught of superior Union numbers and guns on April 2nd, and Lee retreated west at the head of the diminished and starved remnants of his army, leaving Richmond to be captured by Grant.

His last hope to find much needed supplies in the railroad junctions westwards were dashed, and after a short battle near Appomattox Court House, Lee unconditionally surrendered to Grant on April 9th 1865. Grant not only allowed him and his men to go free with their personal belongings, horses, and even small weapons for the officers, but also gave them rations. This gesture would earn Grant Lee’s undying respect and gratitude. As commander-in-chief and Confederate icon, his surrender opened the floodgates for other Confederate generals to follow his example across all fronts.

Painting depicting Lee signing the document of surrender of his army in front of General Grant (seated on the right) in McLean’s house. Appomattox Court House village. Photo taken by Frank Kovalchek at the Appomattox Court House National Monument. Source

10# After the war. From hero to legend

The end of the war didn’t extinguish the almost religious admiration the people felt for Lee, specially in the south. On the contrary, it consolidated it. Wherever he went, crowds lined to see and touch him. He was the personification of the southern gentleman, in fact, the very representation of the world for which they had fought and bled for more than four years. That’s why people requested his advice on all matters and did as he advised without demur, even when he vigorously advocated for reconciliation and construction, urging his fellow ex-confederates to put their honour and their hate for the Union aside, and request the general pardon extended by the U.S. government. Himself was initially excluded from such pardon, and his citizenship wasn’t restored until 1975. 105 years after his death in 1870. His five postwar years were spent as President of Washington University, now renamed Washington and Lee University in his honour, and his remains were buried there.

The recumbent statue of Robert E. Lee, by sculptor Edward Valentine, University chapel. His remains and those of his family actually lies in a crypt underground. Photo by: Robert English. Source

Undoubtedly the best general of the Confederacy and perhaps the greatest of the whole of U.S. history, without him the American Civil War would certainly have been a short-lived event. His extraordinary leadership of the Army of Northern Virginia, the negligent support of the Confederate government, and the vast manpower and industrial capabilities of the Union recalls the protracted struggle of Hannibal against the mighty Roman Republic. Both Hannibal and Lee were idolised by their men and respective countries, both showed extraordinary acumen for military strategy, fighting and defeating larger and better equipped armies thanks to swift and bold flanking manoeuvres. And both were nonetheless soundly defeated. However, the question remains, could the Confederacy have endured if Lee had won at Gettysburg? The Union had more industry, resources and manpower than the rural and backward Confederate states, therefore its victory seemed a matter of time. However, President Davis, and specially Lee, seemed to have counted on the Gettysburg campaign to sway Union voters to support the anti-war faction of the Democratic Party, which opposed Lincoln in the 1864 Presidental Elections. Had Lee won in the battlefield, they might have won in the ballots, and then it’s plausible to think that Washington might at least have sat down to negotiate with Richmond. International recognition and even support of Britain might have been achieved, perhaps even an alliance. In conclusion, although we can speculate about the consequences of Lee’s hypothetical victory at Gettysburg, it’s hard to say whether the military success alone (specially when it was confined to a single, narrow front) would have ensured the triumph of a Confederacy that was terribly ill-suited for the task.      

Territorial losses of the Confederation by year. Even if Lee had succesfully defended Virginia, there was little he could do for the other fronts. Author: Office of the Chief of Military History, United States Army – American Military History, Army Historical Series Perry-Castañeda Library Map of the Civil War 1861-1865 Map Collection. Source
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