The Robinson Library

The Robinson Library >> Civil War Period, 1861-1865 >> Biography, A-Z
Robert E. Lee

Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia

Robert Edward Lee

Robert Edward Lee was born at Stratford Hall, near Montross, Virginia, on January 19, 1807, the son of Revolutionary War General Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee. He entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1825, and soon gained admiration from his classmates for his brilliance, leadership, and devotion to duty. He graduated from the Academy with high honors in 1829, and was commissioned Second Lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers.

Army Engineer

Lee's first assignment was at Fort Pulaski on Cockspur Island, Georgia, where he served for 17 months. In 1831 he was transferred to Fort Monroe, Virginia, as assistant engineer. While stationed there, he married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. The couple lived in her family home, Arlington, which still stands on a hill overlooking Arlington National Cemetery. They had seven children -- George Washington Custis, Mary, William H. Fitzhugh, Agnes, Annie, Robert Edward, and Mildred. George and William grew up to serve as Confederate officers under their father's command during the Civil War.

From 1834 to 1837, Lee served as an assistant in the Chief Engineer's office in Washington, D.C.; he spent the summer of 1835 helping to lay out the boundary line between Ohio and Michigan. In 1837, as a First Lieutenant, he supervised the engineering work for St. Louis Harbor and for the upper Mississippi and Missouri rivers.His work there earned him a promotion to Captain. In 1841 he was transferred to Fort Hamilton in New York Harbor, where he took charge of building fortifications.

Mexican War

Upon outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846, Lee was sent to Texas as assistant engineer under General John E. Wool. In this capacity Lee supervised the construction of bridges for Wool's march toward the Mexican border. Subsequently transferred to General Winfield Scott's command, Lee took part in the capture of Veracruz. His engineering skill made it possible for American troops to cross the difficult mountain passes to Mexico City. During the march he was promoted to Brevet Major, then to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel. He became a Brevet Colonel before the war ended.

Superintendent of West Point

After spending three years at Fort Carroll in Baltimore Harbor, Lee was named superintendent of West Point, in 1852. During his three years in this post he improved the buildings and the courses, and spent a lot of time with the cadets. One of those cadets, "Jeb" Stuart, later served as one of Lee's best cavalry officers during the Civil War.

Pre-Civil War Years

In 1855, Lee became a Lieutenant Colonel of cavalry and was assigned to duty on the Texas frontier, where he helped protect settlers from attacks by the Apache and Comanche. Lee did not like to be away from his family for long periods of time because his wife was becoming an invalid, and he returned to Arlington as often as possible to see her. He happened to be in Washington at the time of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, and was sent there to arrest Brown and restore order; he accomplished both tasks quickly and with little loss of life, then returned to Texas. When Texas seceded from the Union in 1861, Lee was recalled to Washington to await further orders.

The Civil War

Lee did not believe in slavery and did not favor secession. He hated the thought of a divided nation, but he also believed that Virginia was protecting the very liberty, freedom, and legal principles which had been fought for during the Revolutionary War. He had great difficulty in deciding whether to stand by Virginia or remain with the Union, especially after President Abraham Lincoln offered him the field command of the Union Army. He wrote his sister: " my own person I had to meet the question whether I should take part against my native state. With all my devotion to the Union, and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the army, and, save in defense of my native state -- with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed -- I hope I may never be called upon to draw my sword."

For a time after Lee joined the Confederate Army, he had no troops under his command. He served in Richmond, Virginia, as military adviser to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and in May 1861 he was appointed a full General. In the fall of 1861 he took charge of fortifying the coast of South Carolina. Later, he succeeded in halting a threatened invasion from western Virginia. Returning to Richmond in 1862, Lee helped draw up plans for the Confederate forces in Virginia, then under the command of General Joseph E. Johnston. Lee took command of Johnston's army after Johnston was wounded in the Battle of Fair Oaks (Seven Pines), on May 31, 1862.

The Army of Northern Virginia (as Lee named his new command) faced a seemingly impossible task from the very first day of Lee's command. Union General George B. McClellan was within 7 miles of Richmond with 100,000 men; three forces were closing in on the Confederate troops of General "Stonewall" Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley; and a fourth Union force was camped on the Rappahannock River, ready to aid McClellan. In a series of engagements known as the Battles of the Seven Days, Lee forced McClellan to retreat.

In August 1862, Lee, with Jackson's help, won a major victory over General John Pope in the second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas). He then set his sights on Maryland, but his army was intercepted by McClellan (who had intercepted a Confederate battle order) and defeated in the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg).

In December 1862, Lee's troops badly defeated Union forces led by General Ambrose E. Burnside at the Battle of Fredericksburg, but he was unable to capitalize on the victory because he had too few reserves of men and supplies to pursue and engage the retreating Union troops.

Lee's next victory came at Chancellorsville, in the spring of 1863. Unfortunately, the victory came at a terrible cost -- the death of Jackson, who was accidentally shot by his own men when he went ahead of his line of battle to scout.

Determined to take the offensive, Lee moved into Pennsylvania and encountered the Northern army under General George G. Meade, at Gettysburg. After three days of heavy fighting (July 1-3, 1863), both sides had suffered heavy losses, but the Confederates were the ultimate losers of the battle.

Lee's next series of defeats came at the hands of General Ulysses S. Grant, with whom he had served briefly during the Mexican War. In the spring of 1864, Grant pounded Lee's army in a series of battles known as the Wilderness Campaign. He and his men managed to survive a nine-month siege of Petersburg, but extreme fatique and hunger finally forced them to retreat.

Despite the losses, Lee was made General-in-Chief of all the Confederate armies in early 1865. Richmond fell in April 1865, forcing Lee's army to retreat westward. Surrounded at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, Lee was forced to surrender his army to Grant on April 9, 1865.

Post-War Years

Lee applied for a complete individual pardon under the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction of 1865, but failure to include the required oath of allegiance to the United States prevented it from being approved. He signed an oath and sent it to Washington, but the oath was lost in transit, and Lee was not pardoned before his death. A general amnesty of 1868 restored his right to vote, but he was prevented from holding public office.

Lee chose to spend his last years as president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University). He died there on October 12, 1870; he is buried in the chapel he built on the campus.


In 1970, an employee of the National Archives found Lee's oath. In 1975, Congress passed a special bill restoring Lee's full citizenship.


The American Civil War Home Page
Robert E. Lee Memorial Association

See Also

Henry Lee
U.S. Military Academy at West Point
Martha Washington
Mexican War
Winfield Scott
"Jeb" Stuart
John Brown
Revolutionary War
President Abraham Lincoln
Jefferson Davis
George B. McClellan
"Stonewall" Jackson
Ulysses S. Grant
Washington and Lee University

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> Civil War Period, 1861-1865 >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on January 19, 2019.