Robert E. Lee


Robert E. Lee    1807 - 1870

    Commander of the Confederate Army       

        during the American Civil War

Robert E. Lee (1807-1870)
Robert E. Lee was a brilliant general and military strategist for the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. He was also one of the most distinguished and respected generals in the United States.

Robert was born on January 19, 1807, at Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County, Virginia. His father was General Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee. Light Horse Harry was an American Revolutionary War hero. He was with General George Washington when the British surrendered in Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781.

United States Military Academy at West Point
In 1825, Robert received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He was 18 years old. Jefferson Davis was also a cadet. Davis would become the President of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War.

The life of a cadet at West Point was difficult. Cadets awoke at 5:00 a.m., attended classes, marched, drilled, and studied. West Point's motto is "Duty, Honor, Country."

Robert was a good student in his studies and in his conduct. West Point had strict rules cadets had to follow. Cadets received demerits every time they broke a rule; this included being late or not having a straight uniform. Most cadets received at least one demerit at some point in their four years at West Point. Robert, however, did not receive any demerits.

In his final year at West Point, Robert was the highest officer in his class. It was the highest honor a cadet could receive. Robert graduated second in his class in 1829. He was 22 years old and a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

It was peacetime in the United States. Therefore, army officers were assigned to peacetime activities. Robert was appointed to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This was the most prestigious assignment in the army.

The Mexican War (1846-1848)
On May 13, 1846, the Mexican War began between the United States and Mexico over a border dispute between Texas and Mexico. James Polk was the U.S. President at the time. Robert had been in the army for seventeen years, but he had never been in combat.

On September 21, 1846, Robert reported for duty in San Antonio, Texas. Robert's assignment was to scout the enemy's position. Being a scout for the U.S. Army was a dangerous assignment because he often came in close contact with enemy troops while scouting their location. Robert also helped build bridges to allow the army and its heavy guns to cross rivers.

In January, 1847, Robert joined General Winfield Scott's army on the Gulf Coast. Scott was the Commander of all the U.S. forces during the Mexican War. Scott would later describe Robert as "the very best soldier in the field" and "the greatest military genius in America." Scott's army attacked Veracruz, and the city surrendered on March 27, 1847.

In April, 1847, the U.S. army marched toward Mexico City. Robert scouted the terrain for the army. Several months later, in September, 1847, the U.S. army invaded and captured Mexico City. This victory brought the war to an end. The United States had defeated Mexico.

In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (gwahd-uhl-OOP hih-DAHL-goh) was signed between the United States and Mexico which ended the Mexican War. The Treaty stated Mexico would surrender Texas and land that later became the states known as California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

Robert served with distinction and won three brevets for gallantry during the Mexican War. A brevet is a honorary rank. Robert also emerged with a reputation as a brilliant military soldier. He was promoted to Colonel.

John Brown's Raid
During Robert's life, the issue of slavery was tearing the United States apart. The North wanted to end slavery, and the South wanted to protect it.

In 1859, John Brown took matters into his own hands. Brown was an abolitionist. He believed if he provided guns to slaves, the slaves would rebel against the slave owners. Brown raided the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry looking for guns. Robert led a unit of U.S. Marines to capture Brown. Robert was successful, and John Brown was arrested.

The American Civil War
The American Civil War began in 1861. The Northern and the Southern states were fighting against each other.

Robert was asked by President Abraham Lincoln to command the Union troops. Robert was from Virginia. He felt loyalty to his home state of Virginia. If Virginia left the Union, Robert would also leave the Union. In April 1861, Virginia seceded. Robert declined the position to lead the Union forces and resigned from the U.S. Army.

Robert Takes Command
Robert commanded the Confederate Army in Virginia. He was an intelligent and courageous military leader. He faced better equipped and larger Union Armies. Sometimes the enemy outnumbered Robert's army by twice as many soldiers. Despite these odds, Robert found creative ways to maneuver his men in the face of the enemy.

Robert won great victories at Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. With the help of his generals, Robert defeated the Union Army for four years.

Robert's skills as general were not enough to win the war. In the end, the South surrendered and rejoined the Union.

Washington and Lee University
After the Civil War, Robert became the President of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. He served as its president from 1865 until his death in 1870.

Robert E. Lee died on October 12, 1870, in Lexington, Virginia. He was 63 years old. His last words were, "Strike the tent." This is a military term meaning to take down the tent.

In 1871, Washington College was renamed in honor of Robert. Today, it is called Washington and Lee University. Robert is buried in the school chapel, called Lee Chapel. Robert's horse, Traveller, is buried outside Lee Chapel.

Remembering Robert
Robert was a legend in his own lifetime. He is known as the Hero of the South and respected by both the North and the South. When Civil War Generals are analyzed, Robert is always at the top of the list.

Today, Robert's home is called the Arlington House. It is a memorial to Robert and is part of the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Robert is also remembered in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California. These parks are home to the giant sequoias which are the largest living things on earth. There are two sequoias named after Robert. One is called the Robert E. Lee Tree, and the other is called the General Lee Tree.

Robert was a brilliant military commander and strategist.

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©  2009 D. K. Malowney