Robert E. Lee

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Lee, Robert E. (Edward)

(1807–70) soldier; born in Westmoreland County, Va. (son of Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee). His father, a Revolutionary War hero, had fallen into debt and Robert grew up in modest circumstances in Alexandria, Va. Graduating second in his West Point class of 1829 (and without a single demerit), he married a great-granddaughter of Martha Custis Washington and seems to have consciously emulated George Washington in several respects. He held assignments with the Army Corps of Engineers and then distinguished himself in combat during the Mexican War (1846–47) where he fought alongside many of the officers he would later fight against in the Civil War. He returned to duty as an engineer, served as superintendent of West Point (1852–55), transferred to the cavalry and served on the Texas frontier, and commanded the troops that put down John Brown's raid in Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859. Lee opposed secession in 1861, but resigned from the U.S. Army in order to fight with his state of Virginia, having turned down Lincoln's offer to command U.S. forces in the field. He held a variety of posts with Confederate forces until July 1, 1862, when he succeeded Gen. Joseph E. Johnston in command of the troops soon known as the Army of Northern Virginia. He then proceeded on a series of campaigns and battles that—because of their sheer boldness, dynamism, flexibility—continue to be admired by all students of military history: the Seven Days' battles that forced the federals to retreat down the Virginia peninsula; the victory at the Second Bull Run (August 1862); the invasion of Maryland that ended in the standoff Battle of Antietam (September 1862); the great defensive victory of Fredericksburg (December 1862); and the battle known as his masterpiece, Chancellorsville (May 1863). After the latter victory he resolved upon a bold gamble, a second invasion of the North that he hoped would end the war; after three days of savage fighting at Gettysburg (July 1863), he conceded the gamble had failed and led his badly damaged army back to Virginia. With diminishing resources, Lee fought Ulysses S. Grant's forces in a series of brilliant but costly defensive struggles; these continued through the winter of 1864–65, and by the beginning of Grant's spring offensive, Lee commanded an army doomed by the overwhelming numbers and resources of the Union; finally trapped at Appomattox Courthouse, Va., Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, effectively ending the Confederacy's fight. Although indicted for treason, he was never tried, and he urged all Southerners to take the oath of allegiance to the United States and get on with the rebuilding of one nation. Decisive and willing to run large risks to get at "those people," as Lee called his opponents, he ranks among the greatest of battlefield commanders, although he has been faulted for a strategic short-sightedness that placed his native Virginia at the center of importance. After Appomattox he became president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee) in Lexington, Va. He died there of a heart ailment, already an object, as he would remain, of his countrymen's veneration; because of the way he conducted himself in defeat as well as in victory, he became many Americans' ideal of the gentleman Christian soldier. Among his many notable words were those as he looked over the forces at Fredericksburg before the carnage: "It is well that war is so terrible—we would grow too fond of it."
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.