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Robert E. Lee | Article

Biography: General Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee at Chancellorsville. Courtesy: Library of Congress

No man proved a more worthy opponent to Ulysses S. Grant than Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Lee was born the fourth child of Colonel Henry Lee and Ann Hill Carter on January 19, 1807. Lee's father, also known as "Light-Horse Harry," had been a cavalry leader during the Revolutionary War. Henry Lee had also served as governor of Virginia.

Despite their position in Virginia's ruling elite, the Lee family did not enjoy fantastic wealth. Without the money to attend a university, young Robert E. Lee instead entered the United States Military Academy at West Point. There, he quickly rose in the ranks and graduated second in the class of 1829.

Lee first saw battle in the Mexican War, fought in 1846-48. He served as captain under General Winfield Scott. Later, Scott would write about Lee's remarkable performance in that war, calling him "the very best soldier I ever saw in the field." In October of 1859, Lee was called upon to stop John Brown's attempted slave insurrection at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. It took Lee only an hour to put an end to Brown's raid.

Such early successes made Lee a leading candidate to command Union forces against the South once it decided to secede. Reluctant to engage in a war against the South, Lee turned down an offer of command of the Union forces. On April 18, 1861, the Virginia Secession Convention, made up of the state's ruling elite, voted to join the Southern states in secession. As practical issues, Lee did not oppose either slavery or secession. Although he felt slavery in the abstract was a bad thing, he blamed the national conflict on abolitionists, and accepted the pro-slavery policies of the Confederacy. He chose to fight to defend his homeland. He resigned from the army he had served for 36 years, and accepted the command of Virginia's forces.

After an initially unsuccessful foray as a field commander in western Virginia in 1861, Lee supervised the preparation of coastal defenses along the South Atlantic seaboard before being called to Richmond to serve as military advisor to President Jefferson Davis. He assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia in May 1862, replacing the seriously wounded Joseph E. Johnston, and immediately embarked on a series of skillful offensive operations that repelled the Union forces outside Richmond in the Seven Days Battles in June and July 1862. Lee followed this with an offensive drive northward that culminated in victory at Second Manassas in August 1862.

However, his effort to carry the war across the Potomac nearly led to disaster when he barely fended off Union assaults at Antietam. Retreating back to Virginia, Lee again displayed deft generalship by checking Union offensives at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville; in the latter battle he prevailed, despite being outnumbered two to one, by dividing his army, outflanking the enemy, and delivering a smashing attack.

Lee followed up this triumph with another invasion of the North, this time suffering a major defeat at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, from July 1 through July 3, 1863. Skilled as he was in repelling Union offensives and outfoxing his Northern counterparts, Lee's preference for battle cost his army dearly. By the time he confronted Ulysses S. Grant in 1864, the drain upon his manpower was noticeable. Despite waging an adroit defensive campaign, he was unable to halt Grant's drive southward or to prevent him from laying siege to Richmond and Petersburg by the summer of 1864. Efforts to divert Union forces with operations in the Shenandoah Valley, including several strikes northward across the Potomac, forced Lee to contemplate how best to continue the war by abandoning the Confederate capital.

By the beginning of April 1865, Grant's armies broke through what remained of the Confederate defenses, and Lee evacuated Richmond and Petersburg on the evening of April 2. A week later, he surrendered what remained of his army to Grant at Appomattox Court House. After the war, Lee accepted the presidency of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, where he died on October 12, 1870.

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