A Biography of General Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee is quite the quixotic character in American history, his should have being the brightest place in the sun, but he was a Johnny Reb and thus he dwells in the shadows of that great nation. He was one of it’s greatest stars but although still an idol to many, he is perceived still as a dark star, a nemesis, an enemy of the state; it’s harsh, for he was in many ways the essence of the old America, before he lost it all and was flung out of the hallowed halls. He was the son of a Revolutionary hero, ‘Light Horse’ Harry Lee, he attended West point, graduated with distinction, coming second in his class and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Engineers.

His father was Governor of Virginia, he was a descendant of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington had being a familiar caller – Lee was as American as you can get, Virginian royalty, his future lay in America. He was a remarkable soldier, serving in the Mexican War, he was three times brevetted for bravery and was instrumental in many American victories through his reconnaissance abilities of locating routes that others had perceived as impassable. He became Superintendent at West Point in 1852 and in 1855 he was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the newly formed 2nd US Cavalry Regiment but upon the death of his father-in-law, he was forced to seek leave to settle the estate. He didn’t take to it, finding it difficult to administer and control the plantation’s slave population. Indeed, some historians write that Lee was not completely at ease with the concept of slavery and was ill at ease when having to deal directly with it.

In many ways Lee, was the antithesis of the typical Southern plantation owner stereotype, he neither smoke nor drank, never swore, was faithful to his wife and prayed avidly. Also, he was never completely content with the idea of secession, viewing it as nothing short of revolution and a betrayal of the founding fathers. However, when called to duty, he did so without question, even though it may have gone against his beliefs. In 1859 he was despatched to Harpers Ferry, Virginia to crush the John Smith led rebellion and when Civil War broke out he took command of all Virginia’s forces. He didn’t have the most auspicious of starts, he was defeated at the Battle of Cheat Mountain and was given the derogatory moniker Granny Lee.

He was moved to the coast of South Carolina where he was tasked to organise coastal defences but once again he failed to complete the task successfully, hampered as he was by the ineffective Confederate navy. He was recalled to Richmond, becoming something of a desk jockey, being made military adviser to the Confederate President Jefferson Davis. It appeared that the glory of the field would by-pass Lee, but he was to be given another chance. With the wounding of General Johnston, he was appointed Commander of the Northern Virginia Army. The Union Army, under the command of McClellan were within striking distance of Richmond, Lee swore they would not take the Confederate capital. Lee didn’t sit back, he hit McClellan first, beginning what became known as the Seven Days Battles. Lee suffered great losses but he remained steadfast in his resolve and managed to push the Union forces back, it was the first emergence of what would become typical Lee. He then went in pursuit of McClellan’s replacement, Pope, defeating him at the Second Battle of Bull Run.

In September 1862, he led forty thousand men across the Potomac River into Maryland, meeting McClellan’s army once again at Antietam, it was to the bloodiest single day in the entire war. The Confederates withstood the pounding of the numerically superior Federal forces, and were able to withdraw back into Virginia. In December, Lee was to meet McClellan’s successor, Burnside, at the Battle of Fredericksburg, with the Union troops attacking the town, Lee’s men however repulsed the them. At the end of Spring 1863, Lee trounced the Union Army under Hooker at Chancellorsville, many consider the event one of his finest hours because of the daring tactics that he employed in beating a much more numerically superior force.

However, he lost his greatest general, Stonewall Jackson been mortally wounded, Lee compared it to been like losing his right arm. Buoyed by this victory, Lee once again invaded the North, he met the Union Army under General Meade at the Battle of Gettysburg. However, Lee was defeated in the bloodiest battle of the war, it was a turning point, the South never looked a good bet after Gettysburg. The fault lay with Lee and he accepted it, offering his resignation, which was refused. Gettysburg marked the peak of Lee’s Southerners. The new commander of the Union Army, Ulysses S. Grant pinned the Confederate forces against Richmond, Lee fought courageously, holding Grant at bay, but all the time he was pushed further and further south-east. Finally he was forced into a siege at Richmond and Petersburg, heroically he held out for ten months but the writing was on the wall, he and the Confederates were beaten.