Robert E. Lee, Man of Honor
Today marks the anniversary of Lee's birth and its worthwhile to consider the legacy of such an iconic American figure.
Today marks the 211th anniversary of the birth of Robert Edward Lee, best remembered as General-in-Chief of the Confederate army during the War Between the States. Living as we do in a day when history is oft forgotten — or deliberately rewritten and its monuments destroyed — it is worthwhile to consider the legacy of such an iconic American figure.
Robert E. Lee was born on Jan. 19, 1807, in northeastern Virginia, to Anne Hill Carter Lee and Revolutionary War hero Colonel Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee. The elder Lee was a cavalry leader under General George Washington who was later elected governor of Virginia, and then to Congress.
Sadly, Henry Lee’s reputation was tarnished by financial troubles, and he traveled to the West Indies when Robert was six years old, never returning. It was under these circumstances that Robert was raised by his mother, who instilled in him a strong sense of honor and duty.
In 1825, Lee received an appointment to West Point, graduating second in his class and entering the distinguished Engineer Corps. In 1831, he married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, great-granddaughter of George Washington’s wife Martha and her first husband, Daniel P. Custis. As a result of the marriage, the Lees inherited both land and slaves.
It was in 1846, during the Mexican War, that Lee first rose to prominence. Serving under Major General Winfield Scott, he received three brevets for gallantry for leading efforts to seize or avoid Mexican strongholds. In September 1852, Lee returned to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as its superintendent.
In 1859, having returned East to settle the estate of his father-in-law, Lee was dispatched by the War Department to retake the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, which had been captured by radical abolitionist John Brown and his followers. Lee oversaw a detachment of U.S. Marines, who recaptured the arsenal with no loss of life.
Though the issue of slavery had been a contentious one for decades, the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 was the breaking point, leading several Deep South states to secede and form a new country, the Confederate States of America.
Lee was offered the rank of brigadier general in the new army of the Confederacy, but he declined. Around the same time, in April 1861, at the recommendation of his former superior, General Winfield Scott, Lee was offered command of the Army of the Potomac by President Lincoln.
This was a time of great anguish for Lee, who opposed both secession (along with Jubal Early and Stonewall Jackson, later generals under Lee) and slavery.
Of slavery, Lee wrote, “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country.” Following the death of his wife’s father, Lee freed more than 100 slaves he’d inherited. Lee and his wife also established a school for slaves, a brave endeavor considering it was illegal to do so in Virginia.
Of secession, he wrote, “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, & I am willing to sacrifice every thing but honour for its preservation…”
It was under this cloud of conflicting loyalties and beliefs that Lee was called upon to choose sides in the coming conflict. In the end, his loyalty was first and foremost with Virginia. As Lee told a friend, “If Virginia stands by the old Union, so will I. But if she secedes (though I do not believe in secession as a constitutional right, nor that there is sufficient cause for revolution), then I will follow my native State with my sword, and, if need be, with my life.”
When Lincoln called for tens of thousands of Union soldiers to head south to preserve the Union by force (something James Madison, during the Constitutional Convention, said would be tantamount to a declaration of war against a state), the decision was made for Lee and thousands of other soldiers who had once worn Union blue. Virginia, which had previously voted 2-to-1 against secession, responded to Lincoln’s call-to-arms by voting 2-to-1 in favor.
Upon reading of Virginia’s secession and entrance into the Confederacy, Lee said to his wife, “Well, Mary, the question is settled.”
He wrote to General Winfield Scott, offering thanks and sincere regret, explaining, “I have, therefore, resigned my commission in the army, and save in defense of my native state … I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword.” Soon thereafter, Lee accepted a commission as a general in the Confederate army. “Let each man resolve to be victorious,” he told his officers, “and that the right of self-government, liberty, and peace shall find him a defender.”
Lee’s brilliance as a military leader is legendary. Like George Washington during the Revolutionary War, Lee fought an army far larger, better armed, better provisioned and better trained than his own. Also like Washington, Lee was revered and loved by his men.
In June 1862, Lee assumed command of wounded General Joseph E. Johnston’s army, renaming it the Army of Northern Virginia. It became the most victorious of all Confederate armies. With sharp and loyal generals like James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart, James Longstreet and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson under his command, Lee’s army continually out-smarted, out-maneuvered and out-fought the Union armies, even when badly outnumbered.
In the early years of the war, Lee’s armies achieved major victories in the Seven Days Battles, Shenandoah Valley, Second Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.
However, for the Confederate army, these victories came with a steep price. Though inflicting huge losses on the Union army, the South suffered losses of their own and, with far fewer soldiers than the Union army enjoyed, it became a war of attrition. Lee knew he needed to act boldly to win the war quickly and decisively.
With many in the North disillusioned after seeing a war they expected to be brief turn into a long and bloody nightmare, and calling for Lincoln to negotiate a peace with the Confederacy, Lee believed that dealing a devastating defeat to the North on its home soil would bring Lincoln to the negotiating table.
Lee’s first attempt turned disastrous when a dispatch with his battle plans was misplaced and fell into the hands of Union General George McClellan. The element of surprise lost, Lee’s army still fought fiercely at Antietam, in what was the single bloodiest day of battle, inflicting 12,400 casualties while sustaining 10,100 of their own. Though McClellan’s forces suffered greater losses, it was considered a loss for Lee, who was forced to turn back south.
Lee’s second and final attempt at victory on Northern soil occurred July 1-3, 1863, at Gettysburg. Though historians have long debated the particulars, the general consensus is that Confederate forces were plagued by poor communication, bad intelligence and the decision by Lee to throw everything he had at the well-entrenched Union army, regardless of the cost.
Lee spent two days trying to break the Union line with artillery bombardment and frontal assaults, leading to massive casualties for his army. Dismissing the objections of General Longstreet (and perhaps more importantly without counsel of the recently killed Stonewall Jackson), Lee ordered continued frontal assaults, resulting in his men being cut down by Union artillery from entrenched positions. The results were devastating.
On the final day of the battle, and again over the objections of Longstreet, Lee ordered Major General George Pickett on a frontal assault of Union General George G. Meade’s heavily fortified position despite having no artillery support. Pickett’s men fought valiantly for Lee, but it was a suicide mission. Those soldiers who did manage to break through the Union line were quickly repelled. At Gettysburg, Lee lost nearly a third of his entire army.
In a moment that displayed his true greatness, however, and why his men adored him, Lee did something that generals rarely do; he accepted blame. Riding among the retreating wounded, he lamented, “It’s all my fault … I am very sorry — the task was too great for you — but we mustn’t despond.” Later that night, speaking to a cavalry officer, Lee said, “I never saw troops behave more magnificently than Pickett’s division of Virginians.”
Gettysburg proved the turning point of the war. Short on arms and supplies, and casualties mounting, Lee was forced to retreat south and fight defensively for the remainder of the war. Later victories came with great loss of Confederate soldiers, and Lee knew he’d reached an end.
Though many of his commanders and soldiers urged him to continue fighting a guerilla war, Lee immediately dismissed such talk, and on April 9, 1865, with less than 10,000 soldiers remaining in his army and unwilling to shed additional blood in a losing cause, Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant (who, ironically, was also a slave-owner before the war) at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.
After the war, Lee became one of the chief proponents of reconciliation between North and South. He was paroled and later served as president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia, a position he held until his death on Oct. 12, 1870.
Lee was a true son of the Old South. Words like “honor,” “loyalty” and “duty” defined the code he lived by, while also making him a man of seeming contradictions.
Though some today condemn Lee for leading the Confederate armies, we would do well to consider how his former enemies saw him. Upon his passing, the following eulogy was published in the New York Herald:
For not to the Southern people alone shall be limited the tribute of a tear over the dead Virginian. Here in the North, forgetting that the time was when the sword of Robert Edward Lee was drawn against us, forgetting and forgiving all the years of bloodshed and agony, we have long since ceased to look upon him as the Confederate leader, but have claimed him as one of ourselves; have cherished and felt proud of his military genius as belonging to us; have recounted and recorded his triumphs as our own; have extolled his virtue as reflecting upon us for Robert Edward Lee was an American, and the great nation which gave him birth would be to-day unworthy of such a son if she regarded him lightly.
He conquered us in misfortune by the grand manner in which he sustained himself, even as he dazzled us by his genius when the tramp of his soldiers resounded through the valleys of Virginia. And for such a man we are all tears and sorrow to-day. … As a slaveholder, he was beloved by his slaves for his kindness and consideration toward them.
In his death our country has lost a son of whom she might well be proud, and for whose services she might have stood in need had he lived a few years longer, for we are certain that, had occasion required it, General Lee would have given to the United States the benefit of all his great talents.“
Robert Edward Lee was revered in his day for his military genius, and loved for his bravery, honor and loyalty. Though leading the fight in a losing cause, there was much about him that is worth emulating today — which is why we remember him still.