Robert E. Lee – One of America’s Greatest Generals

Lee and surviving Confederate officers meet in 1869

Today, October 12, marks the day that Robert E. Lee passed away in 1870 and Washington College (now Washington and Lee University).  Idolizing Confederate Generals has become politically incorrect in recent years, as is anything connected with the War of Northern Aggression. This is short-sighted and lacks historical integrity.  Some of the Confederate officers were outstanding military and professional men.  Robert E. Lee is such a man…political correctness be damned.

Lee was born at Stratford Hall Plantation in Virginia, the son Light Horse Harry Lee, hero of the American Revolution.  He had the distinction of graduating West Point with no demerits during his time there.  Lee married Mary Custis, great granddaughter of Martha Washington.  He lived in the Custis home, Arlington House, overlooking the Potomac River and Washington City (DC).

Lee was an engineer in his early military career.  During the Mexican War he served as one of General Winfield Scott’s aides.  His service during this war won him promotion and gave him the experience that would serve him later in life.  After the war he served as Superintendent of West Point.  When John Brown led a raid on the Federal Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, it was Lee that led the Federal troops to apprehend him.

When the war broke out Winfield Scott recommended Lee to command the Federal forces.  Lee, for his part, saw secession as a calamity for the nation.  At the same time Lee was offered a chance to command of Virginia’s forces.  Most of us don’t comprehend the loyalty that men like Lee had to their state during this era, and it was this sense of loyalty that compelled him to accept commission in the Confederate forces.

Lee’s first military action was a defeat for him, at Cheat Mountain.  He earned the nickname “Granny Lee,” for a timid style of command.  Lee overcame that nickname and altered his fighting style – becoming highly aggressive and always seizing the initiative – forcing his enemies to react to his actions.

When General Joseph Johnston was wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines outside of Richmond, command fell to Lee.  People’s hopes were not high based on his reputation.

They couldn’t have been more wrong.

The Federal Army had moved up the peninsula outside of Richmond and were so close they could hear the church bells.  Lee struck back viciously, despite being outnumbered and outgunned.  He lashed out at General McClellan in what would be referred to as the Seven Day’s Battles.  Lee struck hard at his foe, despite the odds, using the wilderness to diminish the Federal advantage in manpower.  The Seven Day’s taught Lee what officers he could rely on, and which one’s would have to go.  He lost almost all of the battles, but he succeeded in breaking the will of General McClellan, forcing him to retreat and saving Richmond.

He struck at General John Pope at Second Manassas, demonstrating a trait that stunned his enemies; dividing his army in the face of superior foes.  Unsatisfied with his victories in Virginia, Lee took the fight north into Maryland.  Facing General McClellan at Sharpsburg, Lee was once again outnumbered and outgunned, yet managed to fight the Federals to a stalemate.  Given that McClellan had intercepted a copy of Lee’s orders prior to the battle, it should have been a crushing Union victory.

Lee defended Fredericksburg against the Federal forces under General Burnside, devastating the Union Army.  He saw the battle as so savage he referred to it as murder.

When General Hooker assumed command of the Federal Army he launched potentially the most sweeping move against Lee, swinging around behind the Confederate forces near Chancellorsville.  Outnumbered three to one, Lee once more divided his army…twice…and savaged the Union forces into retreat back across the Rappahannock River.  But it came at a great cost, one of his best subordinates, General Thomas Jackson.

Lee marched north again into Pennsylvania to fight at Gettysburg.  While he lost the battle, he managed to escape with his army mostly intact back into Virginia.  After a series of probes into the autumn of 1863, Lee was about to meet someone that understood his style of fighting…Ulysses Grant.

Starting in 1864 Grant waged a grand strategic war against the Confederate forces.  He understood the advantage of the Union forces in terms of manpower and did not shirk from a fight.  After losing the Battle of the Wilderness, Grant did not retreat like other generals before him, he continued on, forcing Lee to react to his moves.  This marked the twilight of the Confederacy.

At Spotsylvania Courthouse, the North Anna River, and Cold Harbor, Lee fought gallantly, but lacked the manpower or resources to seize the initiative.  He inflicted massive damage to the Federal forces, but Grant did not break off.  He could afford to lose men that Lee simply could not.

Yet despite the odds, Lee clung on, giving the Confederacy with a hint of hope and life.  Besieged at Petersburg, Lee eventually was driven out of his trenches to Richmond and eventually to Appomattox Court House.

At the time of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, his army was in rags and starving, yet some of his officers insisted on fighting a guerilla war.  Lee did not favor this.  There had been enough bloodshed.  He managed what others thought impossible, a surrender with dignity.

The cost of the war for Lee had been great.  His home, Arlington, had been seized by the Federals and turned into a graveyard for the military dead.

Lee encouraged his former men to return home and be good citizens of the United States.  Lee went on to support civil rights and supported President Johnson’s Reconstruction plans.  He sought out obscurity but was convinced to serve as president of Washington College.  Despite offers for amnesty and pardon, Lee’s application was conveniently lost in the process.  It wasn’t until President Gerald Ford granted him his pardon that Lee was considered again a citizen of the United States, one of only a handful of men treated as such.  He spent much of his post-war years attempting to get the United States to reimburse him for the loss of his beloved Arlington House.

Lee suffered a stroke on September 28, 1870 and died on October 12.  He was buried beneath the Lee Chapel at the university.

Lee was not fighting for slavery – instead he was fighting to defend his homeland – Virginia.  While he had the opportunity to drag the war on further as a guerilla conflict, he refused that option in favor of peace.  Constantly fighting against a foe that outnumbered him, Lee managed to wage a successful but eventually doomed war effort for years.

Regardless of his cause, no one can deny that Robert E. Lee was one of America’s greatest military leaders.