General Robert E. Lee, 1865

Robert E. Lee

A Tribute to a Soldier, Educator, Christian Gentleman, Husband, and Father

Early Excellence

Robert Edward Lee was born on January 19, 1807 at Stratford Hall Plantation, Westmoreland County, Virginia, the youngest son of Major General Henry “Lighthorse” Lee, hero of the American Revolution, and Anne Hill Carter Lee. Robert showed early promise, graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York in 1829, second in his class and without a single demerit. While a junior officer in the U.S. Army, he wed Mary Anna Randolph Custis in June, 1831.

Meritorious Service

Captain Lee served in the War with Mexico (1846–48) on the staffs of Generals John Wool and Winfield Scott. He was awarded three brevet promotions and was wounded at the Battle of Chapultepec. General Scott would later call Lee, “the very best soldier I ever saw in the field.” Brevet Colonel Lee was appointed Superintendent of West Point in 1852. In October of 1859, Lee, having now reverted to his permanent rank of Lt. Col., was on leave in Washington, D.C., when he was called upon to lead a contingent of Marines to put down John Brown’s attempted slave insurrection at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. It took Lee only an hour to put an end to Brown’s raid. General Winfield Scott offered Robert E. Lee command of the Union Army in 1861, but he refused. On the day following is his native Virginia’s, secession from the Union, April 20, 1861 he resigned his commission as Colonel, 1st Cavalry after 36 years service in the U.S. Army.

With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the Army, and save in defense of my native State, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword …

—Robert E. Lee

in a letter to his sister

April 20, 1861

Wartime Setbacks

He immediately accepted appointment to lead his native Virginia’s military and, with the formation of the Confederate States Army, was one of the new nation’s original five full generals—though he wore only the three stars of a Confederate Colonel, his last permanent rank in the U.S. Army.  Although General Lee’s early field operations were fraught with setbacks and he was widely criticised, circumstances outside his control—bickering subordinates, the misinformed decisions of superiors, and advances in weaponry—contributed significantly.

Pilloried by the press, Gen. Lee’s abilities were none-the-less recognized and he was appointed military adviser to President Jefferson Davis. That posting placed him on the field at the Battle of Seven Pines with the President on the night of June 1, 1862. It was then that Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia, was severely wounded and President Davis appointed Lee commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia, his first opportunity to lead an army in the field.

Master of the Battlefield

Gen. Lee quickly dispelled early misjudgements concerning his aggressiveness: after strengthening the defenses around Richmond, he launched a series of attacks,  the Seven Days’ Battles, routing the Union Army of the Potomac under General George B. McClellan. The attacks were marred by clumsy tactical performances by his division commanders and the Confederates suffered high casualties, but the ferocity of his offensive unnerved McClellan, and he abandoned the Peninsula Campaign and withdrew from Richmond. The Seven Days Battles won Lee the respect and affection of his men—until the end of the war they would call him simply “Uncle Robert” or “Marse Robert.”

With McClellan out of the way, Lee and turned his attention to the forces of John Pope and launched an offensive campaign that culminated in the Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Manassas.

Realizing that ultimate victory meant taking the war onto Northern territory, Lee conceived a daring plan that involved dividing his forces in a tightly coordinated drive into Maryland. With the North already demoralized by his having routed McClellan from the very gates of Richmond and then defeating Pope at Manassas, he hoped to influence the coming Northern elections toward anti-war candidates. In early September, he crossed the Potomac, threatening Washington, D.C.

Within 90 days of taking command, Lee had run McClellan off the Virginia Peninsula, defeated John Pope at Second Manassas, and moved the battle lines from 6 miles outside Richmond, to 20 miles outside Washington.

However, Lee was about to be dealt a bad hand. Special Order 191, detailing the Confederate plan of attack, was found discarded near Frederick, Maryland and rushed to General McClellan. The Union officer was beside himself with glee. The heretofore cautious and tentative McClellan moved with uncharacteristic dispatch, catching Lee off guard in a series of actions culminating in the battle at Antietam, the bloodiest day of the Civil War. Even with his battle plan in his enemy’s back pocket, Lee’s deft generalship brought the battle to a draw, and the Confederates withdrew to fight another day.

It is well war is so frightful, otherwise we should become too fond of it.

—Gen. Lee

at the Battle of Fredericksburg

In his withdrawal back to Virginia, General Lee once again displayed his mastery of the battlefield, bloodying the Union nose at Fredericksburg and delivering a sound thrashing at Chancellorsville. Despite being outnumbered two to one, the audacious tactician divided his army, outflanked the enemy, and delivered a smashing attack.

A Critical Mistake

Lee once again seized the initiative and went on the offensive. Pushing northward into Pennsylvania, the advancing Confederates were stopped at Gettysburg. Lee, not recognizing that the advent of the rifled barrel had made massed infantry direct assaults too costly, ordered General Pickett to attack the Union center. The Union forces uncustomarily held against their more aggressive Southern foes and the attack was a failure. Lee, recognizing that the battle was lost, ordered his army to retreat.  Taking full responsibility for the defeat, he wrote Jefferson Davis offering his resignation, which Davis refused to accept.

Although able to consistently outfight his northern opponents, the southern general could ill afford the casualties and capture of his troops. With General Grant taking command of the Federal armies, prisoner exchanges were halted. The drain on Lee’s manpower had a telling effect. Despite an adroit retiring campaign against Grant from the Wilderness to Petersburg, Lee was finally forced into a siege.

The End of the War

General Lee held on to Richmond and Petersburg for nearly 10 months. During that time he continued forays into the Shenandoah Valley, including strikes across the Potomac, but Grant refused to be distracted.

On January 23, 1865, General Lee was named Commander-in-Chief of the Confederate armies but his operations in Virginia prevented him from giving more than general directives to the other theaters.

Unable to hold onto Richmond and Petersburg, he moved toward in North Carolina on the evening of April 2 to join with Joseph E. Johnston Army of Tennessee, and was surrounded at Appomattox a week later. After a final attempt to break out on the morning of April 9, 1865, was rebuffed, Lee was forced to surrender what remained of his army. This effectively ended the Civil War.

A Steady Hand

Following the war, Robert E. Lee was paroled to Richmond by the United States government for his participation in War. He applied for restoration of his United States citizenship, but his Oath of Amnesty was lost in the National Archives in 1865.  It was discovered a century later and Lee’s United States citizenship was posthumously reinstated by President Ford in 1975.

Without income and having an invalid wife and three daughters, the former General nonetheless refused offers of large sums of money for the use of his name, saying, “… it is the heritage of my parents … and it is not for sale.” Unbeknownst to him, the leadership of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University)  had elected him unanimously to serve as it’s President. He accepted the appointment and moved his family to Lexington, Virginia, where he set to turning the nearly bankrupt institution around.

All that the South has ever desired was that the union, as established by our forefathers, should be preserved; and that the government, as originally organized, should be administered in purity and truth.

—Gen. Robert E. Lee

in a letter to a constitutional scholar

October 6, 1866

Lee turned out to be as adept at managing a university has he had been at outmaneuvering Union generals. Under his steady leadership funds were raised, a faculty hired, the curriculum updated and revitalized. A new course was set and the college was well on it’s way to a new future when, in the midst of his daily duties, it’ s new President suffered stroke. He never recovered and died at the age of 63 on at 9:30 the morning of October 12, 1870. His last words were, “Strike the tent,” a military command reflective of his Christian belief that he was merely moving on to another place. He is buried on the University campus at Lee Chapel.

Honoring An Honorable Man

Robert E. Lee is one of the most admired men in history of the United States. His tactics on the battlefield are studied to this day. His heritage at Washington and Lee University continues strong. His is a rare star that rose even in defeat, due in this writer’s opinion, to his example of humility in greatness.

Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.

—Matthew 23:12

The many tributes to Robert E. Lee tell the great the impact he has had on the South, on our whole nation, and even the world. Here are listed a few of those memorials. Make plans this month to visit a memorial to General Lee located near you — many go each year to honor and learn more of the Commander-in-Chief who was simply “Marse Robert” to his men.

One of the noblest Americans who ever lived.

—Sir Winston Churchill

Speaking of Gen. Lee

  • A portrait of Robert E. Lee adorns the Georgia State Capitol where the Sons of Confederate Veterans held their first Lee birthday celebration in 1988.

  • The Georgia Division Sons of Confederate Veterans sponsor an annual Robert E. Birthday in Milledgeville, Georgia on the actual day of Lee’s birthday. The group marches from the Old Governor’s mansion to Georgia’s Old State Capitol.

  • General Robert E. Lee is forever memorialized and remembered along with Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General Stonewall Jackson on the larger-than-life carving at Stone Mountain Memorial Park near Atlanta, Georgia.

  • The Stonewall Brigade Camp 1296 Sons of the Confederate Veterans of Lexington, Virginia commemorates Lee-Jackson Day each year with special events. Visit their site for more details.

  • Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower both displayed a portrait of General Lee in their presidential offices.

  • Arlington House, in Arlington, Virginia, is maintained as a memorial to General Lee by the National Park Service.

Be part of an event honoring General Lee near you! Or make one of your own, visiting one of the many places that honor this great Southerner and American.

If you know of an event, monument, portrait, or display honoring General Lee, e-mail us with the specifics at so we can add it to our list. Be sure to include the sponsoring organization’s name and contact information so we can provide accurate information.


  1. Robert E. Lee, (accessed on Jan 8, 2013 at 12:24 p.m.) [RECOMMENDED]
  2. Robert E. Lee, ( accessed on Jan 7, 2013)
  3. Robert Edward Lee (1807-1870) (accessed on Jan 7, 2013)
  4. Robert E. Lee, General, January 19, 1807 – October12, 1870, (accessed on Jan 7, 2013)
  5. General Robert E. Lee and John Brown 1859, (accessed on Jan 7, 2013) [RECOMMENDED]
  6. Special Order 191, (accessed on Jan. 7, 2013)
  7. Calvin E. Johnson, Jr., Robert E. Lee’s 202nd Birthday, Jan 15, 2009, (accessed on Jan 8, 2013 at 12:13 p.m.)
  8. Brevet (military), (accessed on Jan 7, 2013)