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Robert E. Lee
Civil War Encyclopedia >> People - Confederate Military
Robert E. Lee
The 38,000 man Army of Northern Virginia was completely surrounded by Ulysses S. Grant's 125,000 man Army of the Potomac as Robert E. Lee rode his horse Traveler to the surrender house at Appomattox Court House. When Traveler stopped at a stream to take a drink Lee tapped his neck, leaned over and said "Go ahead, boy," while more than 150,000 men and two nations waited for an outcome of his meeting with Grant. Beloved by his men and respected by his enemy, Lee illustrated the relationship between the common man and the aristocracy more than any other person, including his Commander-in-Chief, Jefferson Davis.
His father, Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee, captured Fort Augusta, Georgia during the American Revolution with a scant 280 men, then helped free the state before beginning the chase that ended with the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown. In 1793 "Lighthorse Harry" married Ann Carter and Robert E. Lee was the fourth child of the marriage, born January 19, 1807. Unfortunately, Lighthorse Harry had many problems, including financial, and the family suffered as a result early in Robert's life. Robert was almost 6 and a half years old when he said goodbye to his father for the last time. Lighthorse Harry left Alexandria, Virginia to avoid his problems.
While he didn't have a father nearby, Lee grew up with an extended family of aristocrats in addition to his mother and five siblings in Stratford Hall, the Lee's ancestral home built in 1730. Young Robert wanted to become a West Point cadet, a fact that led to a meeting in 1824 between Lee and the father of nullification, Southern nationalist John C. Calhoun. Then Secretary of War, Calhoun approved Lee's application to West Point.
After passing an entrance exam administered by Col. Sylvanus Thayer in June, 1825, Lee joined the other cadets at Camp Adams, the city of tents students called home for their first summer on the Hudson River. John Quincy Adams won the Election of 1824 and the designation was intended to honor him. Joseph E. Johnston was a classmate and Jefferson Davis was in the previous class. Lee's schooling through childhood paid off handsomely for the young man - he was well ahead of his peers in all subjects when classes began that fall.
West Point cadets were judged both as soldiers and as students. Because of a rule change at the prestigious school, Lee's conduct as a soldier allowed him to be the first cadet to be named sergeant at the end of his first year (normally cadets could only become corporals). The position proved to be a foretelling of later success: Lee was selected to be adjutant of the corps (the most respected student position at West Point) for the 1828‑29 school year. He also proved to be an excellent student, ending his four years at the academy second, allowing him to select his branch of service. Lee chose the Engineering Corps as his assignment.
Although the Engineering Corps was considered to be one of the better assignments, Robert E. Lee's first duty proved otherwise - he was ordered to Georgia's Cockspur Island to begin work on Fort Pulaski, the massive Third System fort that would protect the Savannah River from foreign invaders. Little did he know that the first invaders on this land would be the Union Army in 1862. Joined by a trustworthy slave, Lee traveled to Savannah to the home of Jack Mackey, a fellow graduate of West Point.
Aware that the mosquitoes of summer brought disease, Robert E. Lee returned to Virginia in the summer of 1830. He courted Mary Custis, returning to Cockspur Island that fall to continue work on the foundation of Fort Pulaski. Very little of his work on Fort Pulaski remains. In 1831 Lee was reassigned to Fort Monroe at Hampton Roads, closer both to home and Mary Custis. Here he worked on Fort Calhoun (later Fort Wool) and proposed marriage to Mary shortly after being reassigned. They were married on June 30, 1831, over the objections of Mary's father, George Washington Parke Custis. They moved to plain quarters in Fort Monroe, Virginia.
A slave uprising in Southampton County that August brought artillery reserves to Fort Monroe and Lee met with his friend from West Point, Joe Johnston. The lieutenants would continue to renew their friendship throughout that winter. Technically a brevet second lieutenant, Lee was promoted to second lieutenant in 1832, in the midst of the Nullification Crisis. While he continued to do some technical design, Lee's skill at managing projects grew while he was stationed at Fort Monroe.
November, 1834 brought renewed opportunity for young Lee with a transfer to Washington, D. C.. He and Mary went looking for an apartment but were quickly dismayed that none was available for a family on his meager salary. Robert would ride the 12 miles to work each day from Arlington, Mary's home, and George Custis grew to know (and like) the lieutenant. A territorial border dispute between Ohio and Michigan drew him away from Washington in May, 1835. Lee was promoted to first lieutenant in November, 1836. In spite of spending significant time away from his wife and her repeated illnesses, they had 7 children over a span of 14 years.
St. Louis, Missouri would become a turning point in Robert E. Lee's life. Catching a commercial steamer in Pittsburgh, Lt. Lee rode the vessel down the Ohio River to Paducah, then headed north on the Mississippi to St. Louis. Afraid that the mighty river would create a channel on the Illinois side and render the Missouri side unusable as a port, the citizens had Congress appropriate money to correct the problem. The Army chose Lee to inspect the river. In six months Lee submitted a plan to prevent the river from rerouting. It was considered to be "pioneer work" (the first of its kind), keeping the commercial channel of the river on the St. Louis side of Bloody Island.
Work began the following year with Lee in charge, but the unpredictable Mississippi was running high. Lee built a dike between Bloody Island and the Illinois shore, which would have the most immediate effect. The river quickly rechanneled, opening the ports to the south of the city, but money was running out and Lt. Lee found himself in the middle of a war of words between Democrats and Whigs in the St. Louis papers. In the midst of the controversy in August, 1838, he became Captain Robert E. Lee.
Work continued with public funds for the rest of the year, but by 1838 the Panic of 1837 turned into a depression and Congress was not in the mood to appropriate funds the following year. Additionally, the project had been a favorite of General Gratiot, whose strong ties to St. Louis were well known. Gratiot was removed by Andrew Jackson and replaced with Col. Joseph Totten. Finally, a resident of Brooklyn, Illinois, opposite St. Louis, filed suit in state court to stop Lee. Captain Lee returned, working with limited funds and support. Nonetheless, work continued until October, 1840, when the government considered the project complete. (Modern channeling operations made this work worthless and it has long been destroyed).
During this assignment in St. Louis many of the captain's superiors including General Winfield Scott, who remembered him from his duty in Washington, noted his ability not only as an engineer but as an administrator. His ability to work with city officials, the public and handle controversy were also recognized. The young lieutenant who arrived in St. Louis in 1837 left a proven captain in 1840.
In spite of the recognition Robert E. Lee received for his work at St. Louis the next five years in the army were uninspiring. After a stint at the coastal forts in North Carolina including Fort Macon and Fort Fisher, Lee went to New York City accompanied by his wife and children. It was here that he began a close association with Scott, with whom he shared a two-week duty at West Point. In 1845 Lee's family returned to Arlington, the ancestral home his wife had inherited. The following year the seventh (and last) child was born.
Early in 1846 War with Mexico began and Robert E. Lee waited 3 months for orders. When they finally came, Captain Lee was ordered to report to John Wool at San Antonio de Bexar. Arriving on September 21, 1846 he met Irvin McDowell, Wool's aide-de-camp, who informed Lee of Wool's desire to reach the Rio Grande. Gathering equipment and supplies Lee led Wool's two brigades southwest where they bridged the Rio Grande on October 12. The crossing brought a Mexican officer under a flag of truce. The officer informed Wool of an 8-week armistice Zachary Taylor signed after the battle of Monterrey 3 weeks earlier.
While the enlisted men drilled and relaxed, Robert E. Lee prepared for the job he would be doing in 5 weeks, scouting and preparing a route to move Wool's troops through enemy territory. Lee lead the force of some 6,000 men, first to Parras and then to Satillo to reinforce General Worth, but reports of Mexican activity at both cities were exaggerated.
Shortly after arriving in Satillo, Lee received orders from Winfield Scott directing him to proceed to the coast and join him in planning an expedition south. He joined General Scott at Brazos Island east of present-day Brownsville on the command vessel Massachusetts, along with his old friend Joe Johnston, with whom he shared a room. Also on the boat was Lieutenant George Gordon Meade who would command the Army of the Potomac for the final two years of The Civil War. Others of note included 1st Lt. P. G. T. Beauregard, Gustavus W. Smith, 2nd Lt. George B. McClellan and a naval officer named David Farragut.
Early in March the Massachusetts arrived at Vera Cruz, which had been subject to a naval blockade since shortly after the war started. Lee's ship headed to a natural harbor three miles south of the Mexican city. For a month Lee and the other engineers worked on forcing the garrison at Vera Cruz to surrender and when they finally did, General Scott credited Joseph Totten, Lee and others with the seizing of the city with a minimum loss of life.
Winfield Scott chose to move inland along the National Road and Robert E. Lee led the engineers. West of the Plan de Rio the road entered the mountains at Cerro Gordo, a large, plateau-topped hill. Santa Anna took a high ridge with his right flank anchored against the river, overseeing miles of the National Road. The position appeared impregnable except by frontal assault, an expensive proposition for an army already outnumbered.
Shown a forgotten road uncovered by Lt. Beauregard who then became ill, Lee found it was exactly what the U. S. forces needed, a route to the top of Cerro Gordo. Leading a brigade of infantry, Lee and his men cut off the Mexican path of retreat from a frontal assault by General David Twiggs. They were discovered just before reaching the top of the hill, but by then it was too late and the U. S. Army took Cerro Gordo. As a result of the battle the Mexican Army left in disarray, retreating as quickly as possible. By the time the Mexicans finally came to a stop the Americans were halfway to Mexico City. Lee was brevetted major for his work at Cerro Gordo.
At Churubusco the Mexicans made another stand, and Lee led his engineers on more missions: building a road through the lava rock known as the Pedregal, advancing to Contreras (Padierna), scouting the heights of Chapultepec, near Mexico City. Lee favored a southern approach to the capital as did all the other engineers except Beauregard. The Creole lieutenant pitched a western approach at a council of war and by the end of the night, Scott, Twiggs and Franklin Pierce agreed. The attacks were successful and as a result of Lee's actions he was awarded a brevet to lieutenant colonel for Contreras-Churubusco, and brevet colonel for Chapultepec.
Santa Anna surrendered as Robert E. Lee was recovering from his wounds. As Scott and Gideon Pillow became embroiled in a feud following the war, Lee returned to Vera Cruz, heading home when the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo was signed. He had learned a number of lessons from the Grand Old Soldier of the United States Army and General Scott had great respect for the colonel.
The glory days of the Mexican War quickly ended and Lee returned to professional work with an assignment to Baltimore to construct a new fort replacing the hopelessly outdated Fort McHenry. He considered filibustering in Cuba, but rejected the idea thanks to the advice of the senator from Mississippi, his old friend Jefferson Davis. He continued work on the Baltimore fort (now known as Fort Carroll), although once again challenged by a spendthrift congress.
In 1850, Lee's eldest son, Custis Lee, entered West Point, rooming with 7 other cadets. In May, 1851, liquor was found in their room during inspection, a violation of the Code punishable by expulsion. Custis claimed the liquor was not his and that he did not know it was there. Lee wrote a letter supporting his son's story, but before the letter arrived the commandant ruled in the boy's favor, meting out a punishment of 8 demerits. During the summer of 1852 Robert E. Lee was reassigned, moving from Fort Carroll to a familiar place, West Point, to become the academy's superintendent.
The school Lee returned to was not the one he left in 1829 nor the one he visited in the 1840's. The Mexican-American War had shown the academy's value to politicians, who responded with an influx of money. At first, Lee was not that happy with the position of Superintendent of West Point. Secretary of War Charles Conrad would overrule him on suspensions or expulsions of the sons of politicians, and if Conrad didn't, Millard Fillmore might. That changed on March 4, 1853, when Franklin Pierce was inaugurated President and Jeff Davis became Secretary of War.
During his time at West Point, Robert E. Lee saw many of the men he would command, and many of his foes, graduate. He also saw his nephew, Fitzhugh Lee, found absent without leave. Fitz, who would command Lee's cavalry at Appomattox, proved to be a thorn in his uncle's side, nearly getting discharged later for additional infractions.
Life changed dramatically for Robert E. Lee in 1855. He moved west to become second-in-command of the Second Cavalry under Albert Sidney Johnston. The unit was replete with some of the best talent of the day including William Hardee, George Thomas, George Stoneman, Earl Van Dorn, Kirby Smith, and John Bell Hood and was assigned to Texas "Hill Country" following a training period at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis. While he was in Texas, he became something of a father figure to John Bell Hood, riding through the hills in search of Comanche. It was while he was stationed here that word of George Custis' (his wife's father) death reached him.
When Colonel Lee returned home he found the Custis estate in shambles physically as well as financially. He was forced into managing the estate, raising a crop and overseeing the slaves, tasks with which the military man had never done before. With General Winfield Scott's permission the time grew from months to years. Lee was an unwilling slaveholder, forced to lease the slaves out to recover the means to maintain Arlington. In June, 1859 Lee became a topic of discussion when the New York Tribune printed letters from "A Citizen" on the way Colonel Lee was treating slaves.
Then, on October 17, 1859, Jeb Stuart arrived with a message: an insurrection was being mounted in Harper's Ferry. After visiting the White House, Lee headed for the town on the Virginia border with Maryland.
At the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, Harper's Ferry lay in a valley almost entirely surrounded by mountains. When he arrived, Lee not only took command of the situation, he took a personal interest because one of the hostages was his grandnephew. After reporting that an agitator from Kansas, one John Brown, had taken a position in the federal arsenal, Lee had Stuart approach the arsenal and demanded surrender. When the demand was rejected Stuart used a prearranged signal and a group of Marines stormed the building. Within minutes the ordeal was over and Lee ordered Brown taken to a nearby hotel for questioning.
The Harper's Ferry incident aroused northern sympathy for Brown and the abolitionist cause. Threats against just about everyone involved in the case forced Virginia governor Henry Wise to request that President James Buchanan reassign Lee, along with 4 companies of men, to the town for protection. The trial and execution of Brown came off without a problem in spite of the threats. Shortly after his return to Arlington Lee received orders to report to Texas as temporary commander of the 2nd Cavalry.
While in Texas he learned of Joe Johnston's promotion to quartermaster. The prestigious appointment appeared to have a touch of nepotism, since Secretary of War John Floyd and Johnston had common family members, but Lee reflected on his life in the Army. The melancholy this caused in July was swept away by the campaigning for The Election of 1860. Texas seemed firmly in the John Breckenridge camp, just as Virginia was, but the Southern Democrat would not be able to top Lincoln in the Electoral College. Lee watched as South Carolina and other states withdrew from the Union peaceably.
In mid-January, secession forces in Texas began a push to join the other states of the Deep South. When Robert E. Lee rode into San Antonio he was caught unaware by General David Twiggs' surrender of the U. S. Army to state troops on February 16. Lee felt a great deal of anguish at Twiggs betrayal and contempt for the way he was treated by state troops. Two weeks later he returned to Arlington.
Edwin Vose Sumner, commander of the 1st Cavalry, was promoted to Brigadier General and given command of the U. S. troops in Texas. Lee, who had been brevetted a full colonel 17 years ago now officially became one with his transfer to Sumner's old position. In the meantime, Leroy Walker, Confederate Secretary of War, offered Lee a Brigadier General slot in the Confederate Army. On April 18 Francis Blair offered Lee command of the Union Army and after he declined the colonel went to Winfield Scott's office and told him of his decision. Scott told him it was the greatest mistake of his life. It seemed on the eve of war that everybody wanted Robert E. Lee on their side.
Finally Lee made up his mind, choosing to stay with his state when it seceded, and tendered his resignation on Saturday, April 20th. At 54 he was leaving the United States Army in which he served since entering West Point. The next Monday he took the railroad from Alexandria to Richmond to meet with the governor of Virginia. Arriving the same day from Montgomery, Alabama was Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America.
Democrat Governor John Lechter of Virginia would meet them both. While his business with Lee went fairly quickly, his business with Stephens was much more drawn out, for he was here to discuss Virginia's entry into the Confederate States of America. Lee merely accepted his appointment to Major General and being placed in command of all forces within the state. By May 1 Confederate forces from Alabama and Georgia began arriving, although the state would not officially join the Confederacy until May 23.
One of the few moves Robert E. Lee made was to send Major Thomas J. Jackson to take command of Harper's Ferry, where the arsenal's gun-making machinery was being removed as quickly as possible. An artillery training ground was established near a bivouac of raw recruits being fed to Virginia from other states. Lee would have liked to begun training, but already he was dealing with shortages - in food, small arms, and officers, so Jackson tapped his VMI graduates to instruct the recruits.
Word from Jackson was not good - pro-Union sympathizers in the west were organizing and gaining strength. Union recruiters had already moved east from the Ohio River in force and were in Grafton. On May 6 Lee reinforced a small garrison in Manassas under the command of General P. Saint George Cocke, correctly guessing the Yankees first move two months in advance. By early June Joe Johnston assumed command in Harper's Ferry from Jackson's Virginia militia and P. G. T. Beauregard assumed command of the Alexandria Line. Then bad news came from western Virginia: Colonel Porterfield had lost Philippi, putting Union forces closer to Staunton, Virginia than they were to Harper's Ferry. Lee promoted his adjutant, R. S. Garrett to Brigadier General and sent him to western Virginia. As Virginia turned its troops over to the Confederacy on June 8, only the west appeared to be a problem.
With the Battle of Big Bethel on June 10, 1861, Robert E. Lee realized the United States Army was closer to Richmond than anybody thought. He met with Colonel John Bankhead Magruder in Yorktown, reviewing the coastal defenses and the entrenchments Magruder was constructing, as if the forces were still under the Virginia authority. Magruder quickly incorporated Lee's recommendations into his defenses.
Lee's military role transitioned rather quickly from adviser to Governor Lechter to adviser to President Davis, although Lee wanted active duty. With Manassas and Winchester in the capable hands of Beauregard and Johnston, Lee concentrated on the situation in the west, which was deteriorating rapidly. In the Battle of Rich Mountain Lieutenant Colonel John Pegram lost a small force of men when George McClellan and William S. Rosecrans [US] surrounded them. Then, having been separated from the main body of his army, Brigadier General Robert Garrett was killed in a rear-guard action at Carrick's Ford on the Cheat River.
With the death of Garrett, Lee placed Confederate forces under the command of W. W. Loring ["Old Blizzards"] and ordered John B. Floyd and Henry Wise to support Loring's command. In the meantime, the federal rout at Manassas buoyed Lee's spirits - he had stayed in Richmond while Davis rode north to the battlefield. He would not be in Richmond long - he rode the Staunton that week to take operational command of the forces in western Virginia.
At the end of August, while in the muddy hills of today's West Virginia, Lee found he had been promoted to full general, behind Samuel Cooper and Albert Sidney Johnston but ahead of P. G. T. Beauregard and Joe Johnston. His first battle came on September 12, 1861 at Cheat Mountain at the head of the Army of the Northwest. Three days earlier troops were being repositioned and troop movement towards Cheat Mountain began on September 10. The next day the skirmish line of Lee's column drove off a federal outpost at Conrad's Mills, making this engagement his first of the Civil War.
At Cheat Mountain Lee had ordered two columns, under Colonel Albert Rust and Henry R. Jackson, to attack a federal outpost (Cheat Summit Fort/Fort Milroy)in an area known as White Top. The attack was to come at daybreak on the north side of the mountain and would indicate the start of battle. Fog covered both the mountain and the pass and Lee waited anxiously for the signal to begin. When the fog lifted about 8:00 am Rust's column had not yet initiated the attack. General S. R. Anderson, meanwhile, had been moving a third column through heavy brush to the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike that ran through the pass below Cheat Mountain. He had been ordered to cut the line of retreat/reinforcement for the federal camp up the highway while General Henry Jackson advanced to the fort from the east.
Rust's attack would never come because captured Union guards convinced him that the fort held a numerically superior force. Rust also failed to report his change in plans to Lee, who struggled to come up with a secondary plan over the next couple of days. The Battle of Cheat Mountain was a dismal failure.
That November, 1861, Lee moved to the southeast coast in preparation for the coming Union assault, one of the worst-kept military secrets in history. There was little he could do to prevent the coastal landings of Union marines or the navies that would naturally follow, but Lee work with local militia to strengthen existing defenses, especially near major rivers, train troops to defend coastal railroads away from the destructive power of ocean-going gunboats and protect major shipping points with inland fortifications. The task brought Lee in contact with men who were openly negative on him and his performance, but the general admirably worked on his goals.
Lee made note of the disastrous turn of events at the start of 1862 from his post in the Southeast. The loss at Fort Donelson and of his old commander Henry Wise at Roanoke, NC. Lee was told to stop defending a large portion of Florida and forward all available troops to Albert Sidney Johnston. On March 2, 1862 Lee himself was summoned to Richmond by President Davis.
Secretary of War Benjamin Judah had come under attack for his failure to send adequate munitions to Wise on Roanoke Island and many people simply assumed Lee was on his way to Richmond to replace Judah. Instead, Davis kept Lee as chief-of-staff.
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Robert E. Lee was last changed on - September 29, 2008
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