Civil War Profiles: Who was Robert E. Lee?

In recent times, a clamor arose for removing symbols of the Confederate States of America, such as flags and monuments, from public view. Arguably the most prominent figure of that 19th century separatist nation is a Virginia gentleman named Robert E. Lee.

Over the years, as a result of his exceptional leadership as a Southern military commander during the Civil War and his reputation as an upstanding individual, Lee garnered recognition in a variety of ways. Named for him are buildings, coins, stamps, holidays, events, military facilities, monuments, sculptures, parks, roads, schools, towns, ships, universities, colleges, U.S. counties, an army tank and an automobile named the “Robert E. Lee” in the “Dukes of Hazzard” television series.

Removing all public representations of this individual who many people hold in high regard is nearly impossible. A glimpse of his life and heritage will aid in understanding more about this historical figure.

Born to Southern aristocracy at the “Stratford” estate in Westmoreland County, Va., on January 19, 1807, Robert E. Lee was the son of “Light Horse Harry” Lee, who had gained fame in the Revolutionary War. When the elder Lee fell on hard times and fled the country one step ahead of his creditors, Robert E. Lee’s mother and their other children moved to a small home in Alexandria, Va.

Fortunate to obtain an appointment to the Military Academy at West Point in 1825, Robert E. Lee distinguished himself, graduating in 1829 a second lieutenant of engineers and No. 2 in his class, without a demerit on his record — no mean feat. For the next 17 years, he served in his engineering profession at Fort Pulaski, Ga., Fort Monroe, Va., and Fort Hamilton, N.Y., prior to the outbreak of war with Mexico.

Even more fortunate, Lee met and married Mary Ann Randolph Custis, the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis — the grandson of President George Washington’s wife, Martha, by her first husband. Lee sired seven children: four daughters (none of whom married) and three sons (all of whom would serve as Confederate military officers).

As Ezra J. Warner describes in “Generals in Gray,” Lee made his reputation during the war with Mexico, 1846-1848, earning three brevets for gallantry. He was adept at reconnoitering behind the lines, gathering information about the accessibility of enemy positions.

Later, Lee took charge of a detachment of marines that responded to John Brown’s raid in 1859 on Harpers Ferry, W.Va., intending to instigate a slave revolt. The marines captured the raiders, leading to Brown’s trial and execution.

After Southern states seceded from the Union in 1860-1861, newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln offered to make Lee commander of the Union armies in the field. Following agonizing introspection, however, Lee chose to remain loyal to Virginia and resigned his U.S. Army commission.

Taking command of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in June 1862, Lee gained victories over the Union army on the Virginia peninsula. After suffering defeat at Antietam Creek in Maryland in September 1862, Lee’s army rebounded, against considerable odds, and gained victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, Va.

The beginning of the end for the Confederacy occurred when Lee lost the battle at Gettysburg, and engaged in a series of costly engagements during Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign in Virginia. That led to Grant placing Lee’s army under siege at Petersburg and Richmond, then compelling its surrender at the town of Appomattox Court House.

As chronicled in Douglas Southall Freeman’s magisterial four-volume “R.E. Lee: A Biography,” Lee’s fame steadily grew, despite the Confederacy’s collapse and defeat. He is considered the greatest Southern commander, and is compared with Ulysses S. Grant as the Civil War’s best military strategist.

Of all the memorials dedicated to Robert E. Lee, the most impressive is his beautiful family home at Arlington, Va. It is fitting, as well as ironic, however, that it is surrounded by thousands of Union soldiers’ graves — graves of those who died fighting against the owner of that estate, which is now Arlington National Cemetery.

Biographers focus on Robert E. Lee as the most important Civil War-era personality, with one exception — Abraham Lincoln. These writings demonstrate Robert E. Lee’s importance in American history.

Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and at Cardsmart in Milford. His latest book, “Lee is Trapped, and Must Be Taken: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863,” is due out in August 2019, and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.

 

By Tom Ryan

Special to the Coastal Point