A close-up ofGeneral Robert E. Lee's faceRobert E Lee, possibly the most well-known name for the Confederacy side of the American Civil War.  I’ve heard or studied the war on and off for most of my life but I often forget who the Confederate President was.  The names that come to mind when I hear about the southern side of the War Between the States are Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson.  I know that there are a lot of people who lead the soldiers and a lot of soldiers that deserve to be remembered, but those are the two names I always think of and I think that’s how it works for a lot of Northerners.  In researching Robert E. Lee, I was surprised to know that he wasn’t the General-in-chief for the Confederacy until very late in the war.  But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Robert Edward Lee is thought to have been born on January 19, 1807 in Virginia to one of the first families to establish itself in that state after coming from England in the early 1600s.  However, Robert’s childhood was not that of a prominent son of a wealthy family but that of genteel poverty.  His father went to debtor’s prison because of failed investments and they moved to a small house near Robert’s mother’s still wealthy extended family when his father was released a few months later.  In 1812, when Robert was 5 years old, his father was injured in a political rally and, since the father was a Revolutionary War officer, the Secretary of State arranged for him to be sent to the West Indies.  The father never returned, dying there when Robert was 11 years old.  Meanwhile Robert’s mother tried to raise six children to be gentlemen and ladies as befitting their family, not their income.  As a result she visited relatives a lot.  Robert was educated among others living in genteel poverty and a family relative got him accepted into West Point by dwelling on Robert’s family connections more than his education, including his aptitude for math.  He entered the United States Military Academy at West Point the summer of 1825 and graduated second in his class four years later.  Since the leadership of the college at that time were from the Corp of Engineers, most of the cadets were commissioned into the Corps until they were assigned elsewhere.  Robert E Lee was commissioned in the Corps of Engineers June 1829 and remained there until he went back to West Point as its Superintendent in 1852.  In that time he married the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, by her first marriage.

Through her he would inherit the Custis Mansion which would be confiscated by the Union and its lands would become what is now Arlington Cemetery.  He also helped reinforce many forts, map the line between Ohio and Michigan, and map out parts of Florida.  He served under General Scott during the Mexican-American War and worked beside Ulysses S Grant during that war.  He gained commendations during the war and in 1852 he was ordered to West Point, a position he took reluctantly due to the politics involved.  In 1855 he was relieved to be promoted and transferred out of the Corps of Engineers into a Calvary regiment in Texas.  It was his first combat command, the others had all been engineering commands which focused on math and building or finding routes to travel.  His job was to protect the settlers from the attacking natives, but the death of his father-in-law meant he had to take a number of leaves of absences to deal with the debt and poor conditions the lands were in.

A sketch of the three minute attack that Lee used to capture John Brown and his gangIt was during one of these leaves when he was home at the Custis Mansion, which was very close to Washington, DC, that he was commanded to put down John Brown and his gang at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, which he did.  Two years later Lee was part of the Texas command that was surrendered to the Confederacy when Texas seceded.  The general who surrendered the command quickly resigned from the Union Army to become a general in the Confederate Army while Robert E Lee went back to Washington to await further orders.

He was offered a promotion in the Union Army as Washington prepared for war.  However, he feared that command would force him to invade the Southern states, specifically his home state of Virginia.  On April 20, 1861 Robert E Lee resigned from the United States Army, much to the shock of those who knew him.  Most of his immediate family, especially his wife, were strongly Unionist and Lee himself thought that seceding was an insult to the Revolutionary War that his father had fought in, but he would not fight to destroy his home state.  On April 23 Robert E Lee took over command of Virginia’s forces as one of the first five full generals of the Confederacy.  However, he intended to wear only the rank he had possessed when he left the Union Army, not any he gained while in the Confederate Army until it was a legal government.

Robert E Lee was a fascinating man who managed to raise from the son of the family embarrassment to one of the greatest names in the United States of America.  He may not have loved most of his early assignments but in each one he demonstrated his belief that it was the mark of a gentleman to follow the orders of his superiors to the best of his ability.

Filed under: American Civil War factsConfederate MenMen of the WarVirginia

Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!