Teaching through our historic sites


Robert Edward Lee (1807-1870)

Robert E. Lee was born on January 19, 1807 at Stratford Hall Plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia. He was the son of Revolutionary War officer Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, who died when Lee was eleven years old. Lee grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, living with relatives. He attended Alexandria Academy and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1829. He was second in his class and was distinguished by having no demerits in his entire four years at the academy.

Lee was first assigned as a 2nd lieutenant in the Engineer Corps and stationed at Fort Pulaski in Savannah, Georgia. From 1831 to 1834 he was posted at Fort Monroe, Hampton Roads, Virginia. On June 30, 1831 Lee married Mary Anna Randolph Custis. The couple eventually had seven children. In 1834, Lee started a three year stint as an assistant in the chief engineer's office in Washington, D.C., after which he was promoted to 1st lieutenant and sent west to work on the St. Louis harbor and improvements to the upper Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. For his work there, he received another promotion, in 1838, to captain. In 1842, he became the post engineer at Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, New York.

During the Mexican War (1846-48), Lee served as a chief aide to Gen. Winfield Scott. He was also a staff officer and participated in at least four major battles, being wounded at the Battle of Chapultepec (September 12-13, 1847). After the war, he was posted to Fort Carroll in Baltimore, Maryland, with some excursions to Florida for surveying duty. In September 1852, Lee was appointed superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he served for three years. After completing his term at West Point, Lee left the engineer service and, in 1855, was appointed lieutenant colonel of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry, serving under Col. Albert Sidney Johnston. This marked Lee's first promotion since 1838. In October 1859, Lee commanded troops that were sent to Harper's Ferry Arsenal to put down an insurrection by radical abolitionist John Brown and his followers.

March and April 1861 were whirlwind months for Lee. In March he was promoted to colonel of the 1st US Cavalry and on April 18, turned down a promotion to major general and an offer to command the US Army. Two days later, on April 20, he resigned his commission in the army as his home state of Virginia seceded from the Union. Finally, on April 23, he took command of Virginia state troops. Though he was a reluctant secessionist, he could not take up arms against his native state, and his transformation from one of the U.S. Army's rising stars to Confederate officer was rapid.

Lee was appointed one of five full generals in the Confederate army and briefly commanded troops in western Virginia before being sent to organize coastal defenses in the Carolinas and Georgia. He returned to Richmond in late 1861 or early 1862 to serve as military advisor for Pres. Jefferson Davis. Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia on June 1, 1862, following the wounding of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. During the Seven Days Battles (June 25 – July 1, 1862) he pushed Union general George B. McClellan back down the Virginia peninsula. In late August, he scored another victory at the Second Battle of Manassas. His first attempt to carry the war to the north was turned back when he suffered a tactical defeat at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, but his luck rebounded with victories at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11-15, 1862) and Battle of Chancellorsville (May 1-6, 1863).

Lee's second attempt to carry the war into the north was disastrous, culminating in the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863). The Confederates never recovered from this defeat, which culminated in what historians have called the "high water mark of the Confederacy." From May through June 1864, Lee held off Union forces led by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in the Overland Campaign. Though the Union scored no victories, the boundaries around Lee's forces were shrinking. Lee's forces went into their trenches around Petersburg, Virginia and were under siege from June 1864 to March 1865. On April 2, 1865 Lee was finally forced to abandon Petersburg and Richmond, and he surrendered his army on April 9 at Appomattox Courthouse.

After the war, Lee served as president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia from October 2, 1865 until his death. He suffered a stroke on September 28, 1870 and died two weeks later from pneumonia. He was buried in a crypt under Lee Chapel at the university.

Return to Narrative

Return to top of page

Return to home page