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Robert E. Lee | Timeline

The Life of Robert E. Lee

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Robert E. Lee at age 31, then a young Lieutenant of Engineers, U. S. Army, 1838. PD.

Robert Edward Lee is the fourth child born to Colonel Harry and Ann Lee, prominent members of the Virginia aristocracy. His mother, Ann Hill Carter, descends from one of the wealthiest families in Virginia, and his father, Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, had served as the Governor of Virginia and had earned the respect and friendship of President George Washington as a commander during the American Revolution. 

April 11, 1809
Although Lee's father is active in Virginia politics, a series of bad financial investments land him in debtors prison. While in prison, he writes his Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department about the Revolutionary War.

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The childhood home of Robert E. Lee in Alexandria, Virginia. Courtesy: Library of Congress

Anne moves her children into a small house in Alexandria after Henry is no longer able to afford the Lee's mansion in Stratford.

July 25, 1812
Henry Lee is severely injured while resisting a mob on his friend, newspaper editor A.C. Hanson, who had publicly opposed the War of 1812. Lee will never recover from the internal injuries he sustains.

To escape his financial troubles, Henry Lee flees to the West Indies. The tarnished reputation of his once-great father will haunt Robert E. Lee for the rest of his life. Robert's older brother Carter goes to Harvard, leaving Robert to care for his invalid mother, and his sickly sister, Ann.

March 25, 1818
While attempting to return home to his family in Virginia, Henry Lee dies in Cumberland Island, Georgia.  Despite his role as a hero in the Revolutionary War, he will be remembered most for once writing George Washington a bad check.

June 1825
At the age of 18, Robert leaves for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which had earned the reputation as one of the best schools in the country.

June 1829
Robert E. Lee graduates second in his class from West Point. While at the military academy, Lee is one of six students in his graduating class to never receive a demerit. His classmates note his drive for perfection and focused, secluded personality with the nickname "Marble Model." As one of the top cadets, Lee is able to choose the branch of service for his first assignment, and elects to work for the Army's Engineer Corps.

July 10, 1829
Ann Carter Lee dies at the age of 56 with Robert by her side.

November 1829
Lee is appointed second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and assigned to Cockspur Island, Georgia. 

Spring 1830
Lee begins courting Mary Custis,  Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter and a member of the Virginia aristocracy. Although Lee was part of the Southern gentry, the reputation of Lee's father was enough for Custis’ father to express initial reservations about the courtship. After finally winning Mr. Custus' approval, the couple married on June 30, 1831.

1832-1835
Mary gives birth to their first child, George "Custis" Washington Custis Lee, and later a daughter, Mary Custis Lee.

September 21, 1836
Throughout the 1830s, Lee earns a reputation as a gifted civil engineer on assignments in Virginia, Michigan, Missouri and New York. In September of 1836, he is promoted to First Lieutenant.

1837-1846
Robert and Mary have five more children: William "Rooney" Henry Fitzhugh Lee, Anne "Annie" Carter Lee, Eleanor "Agnes" Lee, Robert Edward Lee, Jr., and Mildred "Milly" Childe Lee.

Summer 1838
Lee is promoted to captain of engineers, and moves on to his greatest engineering challenge, "moving" the Mississippi River. The Mississippi had been drifting away from the St. Louis shore, and Lee was able to temporarily channel the river back toward the city, allowing St. Louis to remain a river port.

During his extended time away from Virginia, Lee continually writes letters to Mary and the children. Parenting from afar, he instructs Mary how to raise the children and remains engaged in their growth.

August 1846
As the Mexican-American war develops, Lee is called upon to lend his engineering skills to General Winfield Scott's force. Lee assesses routes for attack and completes challenging reconnaissance missions in Cerro Gordo. He wins General Scotts' trust during the battle of Vera Cruz, and Scott comes to rely upon Lee's mathematical skills and innovative battle strategy. 

February 2, 1848
The war ends with a U.S. victory, and Lee returns to Virginia a rising star in the American army. Scott would, in a court martial, declare Lee "the very best soldier I ever saw in the field" based on his work in the Mexican-American War, and told his superiors that in the event of a war to take out an immediate life insurance policy on Robert E. Lee.

1852-1855
Lee returns to West Point as the Academy's superintendent. 

July 17, 1853
At the age of 46, Lee experiences a spiritual awakening and is confirmed at Christ Church. His letters home become more introspective and melancholy and, for the first time, he turns a critical eye toward his accomplishments.

1854
Robert and Mary’s oldest son Custis graduates first in his class from West Point. Lee had tried to talk him out of military service. "I wish I was out of the Army myself," he confided.

Spring 1855
Lee leaves the engineer corps when Secretary of War Jefferson Davis appoints him to the role of Lieutenant Colonel of the newly formed 2nd US Cavalry. Lee moves to west Texas for the position. From his isolated post, he learns in letters that his second eldest son, Rooney Lee, was having difficulties at Harvard.

October 1857
Mary's father, George Washington Park Custis, dies, leaving Robert E. Lee the executor of his estate. Lee returns to Virginia to temporarily manage the family estate, and finds his father-in-law’s finances in terrible shape: the plantations willed to his sons are barely functioning and heavily mortgaged, there is no cash to pay his daughters their promised inheritances, and most of the 195 slaves—who had been promised their freedom in Custis' will— are unwilling to continue to work the farm to pay off the family debt. Lee deals with slave insubordination harshly, paying to have runaways captured and sending insubordinate slaves away from their families. Unable to turn things around, Lee returns to Texas in 1860.

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John Brown. Courtesy: Library of Congress

October 1859
Lee is sent to Harper's Ferry to suppress the John Brown raid. He remains at Harper's Ferry through Brown's arrest, trial, and hanging.

November 7, 1860
Abraham Lincoln, an outspoken critic of slavery, is elected to President of the United States. In response, South Carolina secedes from the Union, closely followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. From his post in Texas, Lee writes home to his son Custis that the secession will lead to war.

February 1861
The seceding states form the original Confederate States of America, with Jefferson Davis as their President. 

April 12, 1861
Confederate forces attack Fort Sumter in South Carolina to ignite the Civil War. Lincoln mandates that all states provide troops to stop the rebellion, forcing those states that had remained neutral to select a side. 

April 17, 1861
Virginia secedes from the Union.  

April 18, 1861
As a rising star in the U.S. Military, Lee is called to a meeting with Francis Blair, a close associate of Abraham Lincoln. Blair offers Lee command of the Union Army, but Lee declines the offer, unwilling to fight against his home state of Virginia. Lee next seeks the advice of his former commander and Director of the War Department, Winfield Scott. Lee explains his divided loyalties to Scott, but his superior refuses to allow him to "sit out" the war.    

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Compiled Military Service Record of Robert E. Lee. Courtesy: NARA

April 20, 1861
After days of deliberation, Lee resigns from the United States Army. He states in a letter to his Union-supporting sister, Anne Marshall, that "with all of my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizens, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home." Just two days later, Lee is assigned by the governor of Virginia to command the Virginia forces for the Confederate Army.

May 24, 1861
Federal troops cross the Potomac and take up positions around Arlington Estate for its confiscation.

 July 21, 1861
The Confederate Army, led by Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston and General P.G.T. Beauregard, defeats Union forces at the Battle of Manassas. Commonly known as Bull Run, this is the first major battle of the Civil War. After this battle yields 2,950 Union and 1,750 Confederate casualties, it is clear that the war will be bloodier than either side had expected.

September 12-15, 1861
Lee oversees an embarrassing defeat at the Battle of Cheat Mountain and his harshly criticized for his failure. 

Winter 1861-62
Lee is relieved of his command and appointed to oversee the fortification of the cities on the southeastern coast. The media criticizes him for his timidity on the battlefield.

March 1862
Jefferson Davis, Confederate President and fellow West Point graduate, appoints Lee to a minor position as his personal military adviser. In a March 14th letter, Lee describes his frustration with the new position and the little influence it brings.

 May 31, 1862
General Joseph E. Johnson is shot off his horse and severely injured in the Battle of the Seven Pines. Robert E. Lee is chosen to replace Johnson and take control of the South's biggest field army, the Army of Northern Virginia. 

Early June 1862
Union General George McClellan's forces come within four miles of Richmond, the capitol of the Confederacy. Richmond civilians make plans to evacuate. Lee plans an aggressive assault against the Army of the Potomac.

June 25-July 1, 1862
The Seven Days Battle is Lee's first engagement with the North and McClellan. In a bold plan, Lee devises a way to cut off McClellan's army and divide it into two. The plan successfully pushes the Union army back 20 miles to the York River. The victory saves Richmond and restores confidence in Lee's leadership, but costs 20,000 Confederate casualties.

August 29-30, 1862
At the Second Battle of Bull Run, Lee pushes McClellan's troops back to Washington and continues his strategy of relentless attack despite heavy casualties.

In a matter of months, Lee has been able to turn the tide of the war in the Confederacy's favor. His army exhibits a high morale and complete confidence in their general, but continually suffers from Lee's tendency to push his men behind logistical capacity.

September 17, 1862
Lee decides to launch an attack on Northern soil and meets Union troops in the Battle of Antietam. Despite rumors of a strong Union army led by McClellan, Lee refuses to retreat. Lee had been thrown from his horse weeks earlier, resulting in two broken wrists, but he insists on moving among his troops, often in the line of fire. Lee's tactical decisions at Antietam save his army and thousands of men, but even so Antietam becomes the bloodiest single day of combat in the war. 2,108 Union soldiers die; Lee's army loses 1,546 men. 

September 22, 1862
President Abraham Lincoln declares Antietam a decisive victory for the Union.  He relieves General McClellan of his duties and issues the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The Proclamation, which frees all slaves in Confederate states that do not rejoin the Union, drastically changes the terms of the Civil War by raising the stakes for both sides. 

October 1862
Lee receives a letter that his daughter Annie has died of scarlet fever. The death of Annie leaves Lee devastated. 

December 13, 1862
Lee achieves one of his greatest victories at the Battle of Fredericksburg. His Army of Northern Virginia inflicts over 12,000 casualties while losing 5,000 soldiers. 

January 1863
As a bitter winter descends upon the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee writes that he only has enough livestock to feed his army until the end of January.

Lee suffers from acute angina, or heart pain, that leaves him incapacitated for months, forcing him to move from his military headquarters to a house in nearby Fredericksburg.

Spring 1863
After suffering heart problems during the winter, Lee's physical stature is never the same. At the age of 56, his peers report that he rarely sleeps and is consumed with preparation for upcoming battles. 

April 30 - May 6, 1863
In the Battle of Chancellorsville, Lee is able to ward off the Union Army despite Union General Hooker's bold plan to divide up Lee's forces. Lee, in what is remembered as his finest hour, identifies the critical moment to attack Hooker's right flank and save his Army. Outnumbered by over 40,000 men, the Confederate army strikes a great moral blow to the Union, but it nonetheless suffers a more substantial number of casualties, including the loss of another famous Confederate, General "Stonewall" Jackson.

End of June 1863
Lee's army is in high spirits and they rally behind their leader, whom they call "Marse Robert." Lee believes that the Confederacy is at its peak but that the Union is getting stronger and wishes for a chance to deal a mortal blow to northern forces. 


July 1863
Lee discovers that his son Rooney had been taken captive and is serving as a prisoner of war at Fort Monroe. He will not be exchanged until March of 1864.

July 1-3, 1863
At the epic Battle of Gettysburg, Union General George G. Meade and Lee meet head-to-head in what would mark the turning point of the war. Lee's bold tactical maneuvers fail due to miscommunication and unfamiliarity with new generals. Three days of continuous battle inflict more than 23,000 Confederate casualties, and deal a psychological blow to the South that it will fail to overcome. Lee is stunned by the defeat.

August 8, 1863
Lee submits his letter of resignation to Jefferson Davis, which Davis promptly refuses. There is no one who could replace Lee. 

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Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Courtesy; Library of Congress

March 1864
Union General Ulysses S. Grant realizes his forces have the advantage of superior numbers of troops and supplies. 

May 5-June 24, 1864
Grant begins his war of attrition with the Overland Campaign, engaging Lee’s forces in over 12 battles in just seven weeks. Never getting more than two consecutive hours of sleep, Lee rides into the midst of the fighting on many occasions to pick up the slack of underperforming commanding officers. He gets little sleep, and on May 25 is confined to his cot despite significant fighting in North Anna. The Overland Campaign wreaks devastation and havoc on the southern forces, but the Confederate army still inflicts over 60,000 Union casualties.

June 15, 1864
Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs appropriates the grounds of Mary Custis’ Arlington property for use as a military cemetery. Today, the cemetery’s Confederate section holds the graves of over 400 Confederate soldiers.

September 1864
In letters home to Arlington, Robert E. Lee continually reminds his children of the importance of self-control and discipline. 

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Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. Courtesy: Library of Congress

November 8, 1864
President Abraham Lincoln wins re-election, defeating the Democratic candidate George McClellan. Lee, like many members of Confederate leadership, realizes the Civil War will soon end in a Southern defeat. 

Winter 1864-1865
The desertion rate in the Army of Northern Virginia soars. Lee proposes enlisting black soldiers to fill the gap in manpower, a terrifying proposition to most southerners. If the Union was using black soldiers to their advantage, Lee argues, then so should the south. 

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Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry. Courtesy: Library of Congress

April 3, 1865
Lee tries to stop the Union Army by transitioning to the offensive. He is, however, unable to break through Grant's army and loses control of the vital Virginian cities Petersburg and Richmond. 

April 9, 1865
In an official ceremony at the courthouse in Appomattox, Virginia, Lee surrenders to General Grant. Lee keeps his emotions under control as he signs a surrender document in Wilmer McLean's parlor inside the Court House. As Lee returns to his tent, soldiers line up alongside the road to salute their commander.

April 10, 1865
Lee drafts General Order Number Nine announcing the surrender to his troops. The document praises the army for a courageous and brave effort, and cites the Union's overwhelming numbers as the cause for surrender.

 April 15, 1865
Lee rejoins his family in Richmond, where Mary has been living since 1861. That summer they will move to the country in Derwent, Virginia.

In a letter to Jefferson Davis, Lee blames the loss of the war on the moral condition of his men. He believes that the troops had been getting letters from home indicating that they no longer supported the war, leading the soldiers to lack aggressiveness and the grit necessary to win battles.

June 13, 1865
Lee sends an application for pardon to President Andrew Johnson.

Fall 1865
The Lee family moves to Lexington, Virginia, where Lee assumes the role of President of Washington College. Lee overhauls the curriculum, requires weekly progress reports for all of the students, and encourages the females in his family to attend church services in the hopes that "if the ladies would patronize it that the students would be more interested in going." The college has since changed its name to Washington and Lee University. 

1866-1869
Lee assembles notes, letters and data in an effort to defend his actions and his Army of Northern Virginia, but never writes. Lee discusses the failures of Gettysburg in conversations with his peers at Washington College, attributing the loss to his commanders J.E.B. Stewart and Richard Ewell.

February 1866
Lee is summoned to give testimony to the Joint Committee on Reconstruction. In his testimony, Lee expresses his concern over the social and political structure of the country and his doubts that African Americans should have civil rights. Above all, he expresses a desire to be left alone.

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Gen. Robert E. Lee. Courtesy: Library of Congress,

October 12, 1870
After suffering a severe stroke, Lee dies in the company of his family.

October 15, 1870
Lee's coffin is paraded through the small town of Lexington, Virginia. The procession, filled with former Confederate soldiers, Washington College students and state politicians, makes its way past the Virginia Military Institute for a small service.

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