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The bicentennial of the Jan. 19, 1807, birth of revered Civil War commander Robert E. Lee, a Westmoreland County native,
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee poses for a portrait during the Civil War.
Gen. Robert E. Lee sits astride his faithful war horse, Traveller. Both are interred at Lee Chapel in Lexington.
"IKNOW OF no country that can produce a family all distinguished as clever men, as our Lees." So said George Washington. It was no more than the truth. Lees had been governors of Virginia, members of the Royal Governor's Council, signers of the Declaration of Independence, congressmen, and so on and on. All were part of a Tidewater gentry that had brought with them from England a tradition of leadership and an easy assurance of high political and social standing, and they assumed that Virginia was to have a corresponding pre-eminence in the new nation, as it indeed did for a time.
Robert Edward Lee, the heir to all this ancestral glory, grew up in Alexandria tending to his invalid mother, Ann Carter Lee of Shirley. He was born on Jan. 19, 1807, at Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County, the property of a much older half brother, and was only 3 years old when the family left the place.
"Light Horse Harry," Lee's father, had been a brilliant general under Washington, but after the war his life had been one disaster after another, marked by a succession of failed land speculations that ate up his resources. Caught in a savage political riot in 1812, he was knifed and brutally beaten. From 1813 until 1818, the year of his death, he wandered about the Caribbean in a vain search for health. At last, realizing the end was near, he set out for home. He never arrived. Terminally ill, he was put ashore on Cumberland Island, Ga. Under the care of an old comrade's family, he died and was buried there. It was a sad and depressing story, but nevertheless Robert grew up to love and admire the father he had seen so little of, and to revere his old commander, George Washington.
Robert Lee spent his school years in Alexandria, and in 1825 was nominated for admission to West Point by no fewer than eight members of Congress. Among his fellow cadets were some destined to occupy important positions in the Southern Confederacy, such as Jefferson Davis, both Johnstons (Joseph E. and Albert Sidney), and Leonidas Polk. He graduated second in his class in 1829 and two years later married Mary Custis. She was the only child of George Washington Parke Custis of Arlington, himself the adopted son of President Washington.
Lee's professional duties as an engineer carried him to posts from Georgia to the upper Mississippi and points between. Although he did well everywhere, his first chance for distinction came in 1846 with the outbreak of the Mexican War. Outstanding service on the staff of Gen. Winfield Scott during the campaign from Vera Cruz to Mexico City greatly enhanced his reputation in the Army and even beyond it.
After the war, Lee received the honorific appointment as superintendent of West Point, from 1852 to 1855; then came the lieutenant-colonelcy of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry. In 1859, happening to be in Washington, he led a contingent of Marines to put down John Brown's attempted insurrection at Harpers Ferry, an omen of the coming civil war.
By the time of the secession movement in 1860-61, Lee had been an officer in the Army for 31 years; it was his life. He regarded disunion as a calamity and secession as "nothing but revolution." Nevertheless, his first allegiance was to Virginia, and when offered command of the U.S. Army, the pinnacle of a soldier's ambition, he declined. He resigned his commission after Virginia seceded, expecting to return to civilian life, but felt compelled to accept an invitation to take command of Virginia's military forces. The troops he raised were later transferred to the Confederate service when Virginia joined the new nation, and Lee soon followed them with the rank of general.
As his first field assignment he was dispatched to retrieve the deteriorating situation in western Virginia. Insuperable logistical difficulties, weeks of unending rain, and unreliable subordinates prevented anything from being accomplished. President Jefferson Davis then sent him to examine the coastal defenses in Georgia and South Carolina, where he could draw upon his prewar engineering experience. After that, in March 1862, he returned to Richmond to act as Davis' military adviser.
This kind of desk work was not to Lee's liking, but he soon had a change. On May 31, Joseph E. Johnston was severely wounded while leading the Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Seven Pines, just east of Richmond, and Davis ordered Lee to take command of this most famous of all Southern armies.
Confronting it was the Army of the Potomac, more than 100,000 men under George B. McClellan, who was preparing to lay siege to Richmond. The only way to counterbalance the North's superior resources was to fight a war of maneuver, and so a siege had to be prevented.
Lee laid his plans carefully, brought down from the Shenandoah Valley the army of Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, fell upon the Union right flank and drove McClellan into an entrenched camp 20 miles from Richmond. This threat to Richmond eliminated, Lee then marched north and defeated John Pope at the Second Battle of Manassas, sending Pope's army streaming back into the streets of Washington.
The Southerners then crossed into Maryland, mainly to find food. McClellan marched out of the Union capital with a powerful force and attacked Lee's attenuated ranks along Antietam Creek on Sept. 17, 1862. After a battle that proved to be the bloodiest single day of the war, with more than 23,000 dead or wounded, the Confederates fell back into Virginia.
For the next five weeks both armies rested and refitted. Then late in October Ambrose Burnside, who had replaced McClellan, crossed the Potomac and moved toward Fredericksburg. Lee paralleled his opponent's march and occupied the high ground west of the town. Although Lee was, as usual, heavily outnumbered (113,000 to 72,000), he little thought Burnside would attack such a strong position, but he did, on Dec. 13. Repeated courageous assaults were blasted to tatters with very little loss to the defenders.
The next Union offensive came 41/2 months later when Joseph Hooker, Burnside's successor, shifted up the Rappahannock and attempted to sweep around Lee's left flank and cut him off from Richmond. Since he had 133,000 men to Lee's 60,000, Hooker's prospects of victory seemed excellent. Instead, the result was the Battle of Chancellorsville (May 1-4, 1863), Lee's masterpiece and Stonewall Jackson's finest hour.
The latter, in a crushing assault on Hooker's right, saved the day at the cost of his life. "I have lost my right arm," said Lee. Jackson's death was acutely felt two months later when Lee failed at Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), and the Army of Northern Virginia once again retreated across the Potomac.
For the next 91/2 months, there was no major battle on the Virginia front. In March 1864, U.S. Grant was promoted to general in chief of all Union armies and made his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac. George G. Meade, who had defeated Lee at Gettysburg, retained titular command, but in fact Grant would personally direct this army's movements for the rest of the war.
In May, the Federals crossed the Rapidan and headed for Richmond. Then began a month of brutal attacks by Grant that ranged from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor, from the Rapidan to the Chickahominy. Although outnumbered 2-to-1, Lee parried every thrust and in a month's time inflicted on the enemy losses equal in number to the strength of his own army at the beginning of the campaign--about 60,000 men.
After a pause, Grant crossed the James and struck swiftly at Petersburg, a rail center about 15 miles south of the Confederate capital. If it fell, so would Richmond. After the repulse of his first attacks on the Petersburg defenses, Grant began to prolong his left flank toward the railroads. Both armies settled into entrenched lines that steadily extended month after month toward the south and west as Grant endeavored to cut Lee's lifeline.
The war was no longer a war of maneuver, at which Lee excelled. Now it was a static war of resources. Lee had said that, should it come to this, the defeat of the Confederacy was "only a matter of time" A war of movement might wear out the North's patience; a war of resources the South could not survive. As the months ground on, with rail lines cut or worn out, the Army of Northern Virginia became ever feebler. Food rations fell to starvation levels, soldiers' clothes were virtually in rags, and as winter came, the freezing mud of the trenches was a daily misery.
Worst of all were the letters from wives and children struggling just to stay alive in the devastated countryside. These letters, together with the growing conviction that the war was lost, contributed to a growing drift of deserters going home to save their families. Deaths and disease thinned the ranks still more.
Finally, the gray lines were stretched too far. On April 2, 1865, Grant broke through. Forced to abandon Richmond and Petersburg, Lee tried to reach Joseph Johnston's little army in North Carolina. But the weakness of the men and animals and the final failure of all supplies did not allow him to escape Grant's energetic pursuit.
Finally, at Appomattox Court House, on April 9, his troops surrounded by overwhelming numbers, Lee surrendered. President Davis, then with his refugee administration in North Carolina, wept when he received the news. Surrender after surrender followed, and before the end of May the war was over.
Lee rode Traveller, his favorite mount, from Appomattox to Richmond, where his family was then living. He arrived exhausted and for days slept long hours. This was not to be wondered at, in light of what he had been through. More than that, however, it is now known that he had suffered a heart attack in March 1863, from which he had never fully recovered. His carrying the heavy burden of command through the rest of the war was a phenomenon of courage, self-mastery and devotion to duty.
In Richmond, he found it hard to get the rest he desperately needed, so determined were the people to show him their respect and affection. Offers of assistance and employment poured in, some seeking merely to buy the use of his name; he declined them all. Instead, he longed to retire to a small farm where he and his family could live in peace and quiet.
Then came a proposal he felt he could not refuse--the presidency of Washington College, a small, struggling institution in Lexington. He believed that the fortunes of his beloved Virginia depended in no small part on the education of her youth. His acceptance immediately enhanced the reputation and prosperity of what was to become Washington & Lee University.
During the remaining five years of his life, he was as loved and respected throughout the South when in charge of a handful of faculty and a few score students as he had been when he directed the movement of an army of 70,000 men that was the pride and hope of its people.
In the autumn of 1869, Lee became acutely aware that his health was failing. At the urging of friends, in the spring he undertook a long tour through Georgia and the Carolinas. The vacation brought him anything but rest, so enthusiastic was the welcome that greeted him wherever he went. He visited his father's grave on Cumberland Island, Ga., and his mother's old home, Shirley Plantation on the James.
"Taking the waters" at Hot Springs after his return to Lexington could do no more than afford him temporary minor relief. To retire from the college and take a complete rest might have prolonged his life, but to do so was not in his nature.
Lee entered his final illness on Sept. 28, 1870. The nature of his disorder remains somewhat obscure, but was probably a form of stroke. He was not paralyzed and remained conscious and responsive, though he spoke very little. As Stonewall Jackson had done, in his final delirium he wandered back in memory to the battlefield. "Tell Hill he must come up," he said, and later, "Strike the tent." On the morning of Oct. 12, the last battle ended, and the bells began to toll.
This is the first in an occasional series of essays in Town & County in 2007 in connection with the 200th anniversary of the birth of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Regional historians will discuss various aspects of the life and legacy of Lee, a Westmoreland County native son.
This first essay is written by Ludwell H. Johnson of Williamsburg. Johnson grew up in Richmond, served in the Navy Reserve from 1945 to 1946, received a doctorate in history from Johns Hopkins University in 1955 and taught history at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg until 1992. He is the author of books and articles on the period 1861-65 and is currently working on a campaign atlas of the Civil War, when not catering to the whims of Prince Hal (a mature cat). Send e-mail to his attention to firstname.lastname@example.org.