Happy 202nd birthday, Robert E. Lee (1-19-1807 / 10-12-1870)
Friday, January 16, 2009
Beloved General of the South
By William Connery
For some the man Robert E. Lee is an almost god like figure. For others he is a paradox. Robert E. Lee was born on January 19, 1807 at Stratford, Virginia. Robert was the fourth child of a Revolutionary War hero Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee and Ann Hill Carter Lee. Young Robert, the son, was raised mostly by his mother. From her he learned patience, control, and discipline. As a young man he was exposed to Christianity and accepted its faith. In contrast to the strong example of his mother Robert saw his father go from failed enterprise to failed enterprise. In part the young Robert was led to try harder and succeed.
Robert was accepted to the United States Military Academy and graduated 2nd in his class. But perhaps greater than his academic success was his record of no demerits while being a cadet which today has still not been equaled. Following his graduation Lee, like most top classmen, was given a commission as an engineer. Lt. Lee helped build the St. Louis waterfront and worked on coastal forts in Brunswick and Savannah. It was during this time he married Mary Custis the granddaughter of George Washington and Martha Custis Washington.
In 1845 the War between U.S. and Mexico erupted. General Winfield Scott, overall U.S. Army commander, attached Captain Robert E. Lee to his staff. Lee was entrusted with the vital duties of mapping out the terrain ahead, dividing the line of advance for the U.S. troops, and in one case leading troops into battle. Lee was learning skills he would need 16 years later. There in Mexico Lee also met, worked with, and got a chance to evaluate many of those he would later serve with and against; James Longstreet, Thomas J. Jackson, George Pickett, and U.S. Grant.
Following the Mexican War Lee returned to service as an army engineer. He spent most of this time near Washington D.C. and moved into Custis mansion (now overlooking the Arlington Cemetery). Thus was Colonel Lee was available for duty to put down a believed rebellion at Harper Ferry, Virginia the site of a United States Arsenal. Colonel Lee, and a young aide Lt. JEB Stuart, and a detachment of U.S. marines, were rushed by train to Harper’s Ferry where they were able to capture radical abolitionist John Brown and his followers.
Brown’s attempt seemed to confirm all the worst fears of the Deep South and when Abraham Lincoln was elected President South Carolina seceded and was quickly followed by 6 more deep southern states: Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. The old warrior General Winfield Scott asked Colonel Robert E. Lee to take command of the United States Army to put down the rebellion.
Lee, however, offered his services to the newly elected President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis. Mr. Davis accepted them and Lee was made a general in CSA service. At first General Lee was more or less advisor to President Davis and the Secretary of War.
General Lee’s first campaign in what was to become West Virginia was less than a success. Command of the Eastern Army was divided between the hero of Fort Sumter, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Joe Johnston who together won the first big battle of the East — Manassas. Thus Joe Johnston was in command when George B. McClellan started his march on Richmond. When Johnston went down with wounds it was easy for Davis to replace him with General R.E. Lee who immediately took charge and attacked, trying to make up for his numbers with his audacity. In a series of continuous battles known as the 7 Days Battle Lee forced McClellan to retreat.
Thus began the career of the Army of Northern Virginia which rose and fell with Lee’s star. His boldness and grasp of strategy made him more than a match for every General President Lincoln sent against him until U.S. Grant defeated him through the Battle of Attrition.
Lee’s greatest victory was the Battle of Chancellorsville in May of 1863. Lee was faced with a larger army led by fighting Joe Hooker. Lee and his most trusted lieutenant, Gen. Stonewall Jackson, divided their forces and through a forced march around General Hooker fell on his exposed flank, rolling it up, and defeating the Union forces yet again.
This victory led Lee and Davis to consider a second invasion of the North. Lee’s army would hopefully bring the Federal forces to bay and destroy them. They would then march on Washington to hand Lincoln a letter asking for recognition of the CSA. So with desperate hopes, and while still mourning the loss of Stonewall Jackson, Lee and Davis crossed the river and invaded Pennsylvania.
The greatest land battle in the Western Hemisphere was fought at Gettysburg, Pa., on July 1, 2, & 3. The Army of Northern Virginia led by Lee, and the Army of the Potomac led by newly appointed General George Meade, hammered each other. On the 3rd day of battle General Lee hoping to end the war ordered the great frontal assault popularly known as Pickett’s Charge. After the failure of the attack General Lee blamed only himself, but Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia fought on for 2 more years. General Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. This effectively brought the American Civil War to an end as other Confederate field commanders followed Lee’s example
Following the war Lee was almost tried as a traitor, but was only left with his civil rights suspended. Lee was offered the post of President of Washington University where he served until his death in 1870. The school was later renamed Washington and Lee. As a final note President Gerald Ford had Lee’s citizenship restored.