Lee, Robert E. (1807–1870)

Confederate troops succumbed to Union forces in many battles toward the end of the American Civil War

Confederate troops succumbed to Union forces in many battles toward the end of the American Civil War.

In April 1861, at the outbreak of the American Civil War, President Lincoln offered the command of the United States army to Colonel Robert Edward Lee. Lee declined because he felt unable, in his own words, "to raise my hand against my native state, my relatives, my children, my home". Two days after Lincoln's offer, Virginia joined the Confederacy; Lee resigned from the United States army and volunteered his services to the South.


One of the tragedies of the American Civil War (1861–1865) was that men were forced to decide which was their greater loyalty – to their state or to their country. Robert E. Lee was opposed to the two main causes for which the southern states had gone to war: secession and slavery. About secession he had written, "I cannot anticipate a greater calamity for the country than the dissolution of the Union." To show his dislike of slavery, he freed the 300 slaves which belonged to his family. And yet, when the choice had to be made, he decided to fight for his native southern state, Virginia.


Just as Lincoln is the hero of the northern cause, so is Lee the hero of the southern. Winston Churchill wrote of Lee: "His noble presence and gentle, kindly manner were sustained by religious faith and an exalted character." Robert E. Lee came from a distinguished, well-established family. His father had been a general in the War of Independence. He lived at Arlington, a magnificent house overlooking the new capital of Washington. It belonged to his wife, whose family were closely connected with the Washingtons. The house was full of souvenirs of George Washington – furniture, silver, camp equipment, and the bed in which he died at Mount Vernon.


Lee was already 54 years old when the Civil War broke out. After graduating at West Point, he had served for nearly 20 years in the United States army – in Mexico, against Comanche Indians along the Texan border, and as superintendent of the West Point military academy.


When, on that fateful April day in 1861, Lee resigned his commission, he said goodbye for ever to his beloved Arlington, where his three sons and four daughters had grown up, and across the Potomac bridge for Richmond, the Virginian capitol.


The war

Lee at once became one of the five chief generals of the Confederacy, as the southern states were called, and an adviser to President Jefferson Davis. In the spring of 1862, when the North invaded Virginia, Lee planned a brilliant defensive stategy which not only saved Richmond, the Confederate capitol, but sent the Union forces into retreat. Lee now took full command of the Southern army and proceeded to win the Battle of the Seven Days, at the cost of losing 20,000 men as opposed to 17,000 on the Union side. With the support of such excellent officers as 'Stonewall' Jackson, James Longstreet, and Jeb Stuart, Lee won the second battle of Bull Run and began to invade the North. He was stopped, however, in September of 1862 at the battle of Antietam in Maryland. But in December of the same year he won a decisive victory at Fredricksburg and another the following spring at Chancellorsville.


Lee was now the hero of the Confederacy. His men adored him. They called him 'Marse Robert' and cheered him wildly wherever he went. Lee was a tall, handsome man, his hair and beard turned silver. On his horse Traveller he looked every inch a conquering general. But besides being a good general, he was gentle and kind to his men, and they loved him for these qualities.


In the summer of 1863 the fortunes of the South began to decline. Lee's armies had driven deep into Pennsylvania, but they were driven back at Gettysburg after the bitterest battle of the war. In the spring of 1864 Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant to take charge of the Union army. Several desperate but indecisive battles followed. The resources of the South were far smaller than those of the North; Lee had fewer troops and was running short of supplies. He realized that further resistance would mean needless bloodshed and suffering. On 9 April 1865 Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia.