On 19 January 1807 Robert Edward Lee was born to Henry and Ann (Carter) Lee in Westmoreland County, Virginia. His father, Henry Lee of Revolutionary War fame, left the family when Robert was six years old. He had left for the West Indies where he hoped to recover from ill health In his father’s absence young Robert grew very close to his beloved mother.
In 1825 the well-liked Robert Lee entered West Point to begin his long career in the military. He proved himself an adept student and in all his four years of attendance he accumulated no demerits. It wasn’t until he had been in attendance two years he was allowed a visit home. It was then he met his cousin and future wife, Mary Anne Randolph Custis, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. Back at school, Lee was appointed cadet adjutant, an honor for the would-be soldier. He graduated in 1829 and went on to serve in the Engineer Corps. But sadness followed success. Not long after graduating, Ann Carter Lee died, leaving Lee grief stricken. A month later Lee’s first assignment took him to what is now Fort Pulaski where plans had been made to build a fort in a marshy area. On 30 June 1831 Lee married Mary Custis. Their first child was born in 1832, followed by seven more sons and daughters, the last being born in 1846.
In 1846 war with Mexico broke out and Lee was sent West to do his part. One day while out on a reconnaissance mission Lee and his guide heard the voices of Mexican soldiers nearing them. Lee hid behind a log while many soldiers filled their canteens with water from a nearby spring. At one point a Mexican nearly stepped on Lee, but he remained undetected. When the soldiers finally cleared out Lee headed back for American lines. After nearly two years at war, Lee showed himself to be capable soldier. In June 1848 the weary soldier was headed home. In 1852 Lee became superintendent of West Point, where his eldest son was attending.
On 17 October 1859 Lee rushed to Harper’s Ferry where radical abolitionist John Brown was holed up with other men. Brown and his followers were holding hostages in an engine house. After offering Brown the choice of surrender and being rejected, Lee moved in. The insurgents were either killed or captured. But this wasn’t quite the end. As things began to heat up between North and South and the nation spiraled into war Lee found himself in the middle of it. Both the United States and the Confederate States governments wanted Lee for their own armies. The Confederates offered Lee the rank of brigadier general and the day after this he was promoted to colonel in the US Army. But when Lee was offered the command of forces who would invade the South, Lee declined. On 22 April 1861 Lee resigned from the Federal army. Shortly after he was made major general in the Virginia militia. In April Mary, who had favored the Union, was forced to leave her Arlington home due to a takeover by Federal troops (the home was later confiscated leaving Mary bitter). Lee wasn’t the only member of his family fighting for the Confederacy,. His sons, William Henry Fitzhugh and Robert Jr. had also taken up arms. When General Joseph Johnston was wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines (1862) Lee was appointed commander of the Army of Northern Virginia.
In addition to his other merits as a soldier Lee was also levelheaded. Once he rode out ahead of his staff and returned a short time later. He remarked to the men “a Yankee sharpshooter came near killing me just now”. The bullet had grazed his face. Lee was also popular with the common soldiers who affectionately referred to their leader as “Marse Robert”.
While Lee did relish victories he was also forced to endure defeats. At the Battle of Antietam in Sharpsburg, Maryland (we observed the 150th anniversary of this bloodbath last September) Lee managed to stand up against Union forces but at an enormous cost of lives. Prior to the battle two Hoosier soldiers found Lee’s Special Orders 191 wrapped around cigars and lying on the ground. These plans found their way to Union general, George B. McClellan. Without going into details, Antietam ended in a stalemate. The next month Lee had another blow dealt to him. His adult daughter, Anne, had died in North Carolina after suffering from typhoid. By this time Lee’s health was failing him and his heart had began deteriorating. In addition to fighting Yankees he was also forced to battle sickness.
Lee sometimes underestimated his Yankee opponents which at times proved costly. At the Battle of Chancellorsville he made this mistake by believing a decoded message which had been intercepted by the Confederates. What Lee didn’t know was that General Joseph Hooker had tricked him and had purposefully sent the message in a code the Rebels would know. Lee realized his goof later and hurried to correct it. The Confederates carried the victory but it was dear bought. Casualties ran high and Lee had lost capable officer Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to death. When he learned that Jackson had lost his arm to amputation Lee said “he had lost his left arm but I have lost my right”.
After the Battle of Gettysburg Lee was ready to give up. He wrote Confederate President Jefferson Davis, suggesting he find another commander. But Davis would have none of it. Lee was tired and unwell and it is understandable he would want to call it quits. He was nearing sixty-years-old and he was still ailing from illness. Lee was a steadfast Christian and his faith in God helped to sustain him in the dark days of war.
The war was nearing an end. April 1865 saw Lee’s decision to talk peace with Union general, Ulysses S. Grant. The surrender took place at the McLean House at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Days later Lee left for Richmond where he met with his family, Mary and their two daughters. Sometime after the surrender the Federal government tried to indict Lee for treason, something the surrender had not allowed for as long as Lee and others obeyed the terms. After writing Grant, Lee learned that they would not be going through with it. On October 2, Lee took an oath of allegiance to became a US citizen again. But it wasn’t until 1975 he became one, as his paperwork had gotten separated.
Lee’s post-Antebellum life wasn’t spent in idleness. He became president of the Washington College (later Washington and Lee University). In 1870 Lee toured the southeastern states in an effort to recuperate his health. On the tour he visited the graves of his father and his daughter. Unfortunately, soon after returning home he caught a cold and suffered a stroke He died on 12 October 1870.