Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Robert Edward Lee (January 19, 1807 – October 12, 1870) was a career military officer who is best known for having commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War.

The son of Revolutionary War officer Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee III and a top graduate of the United States Military Academy, Robert E. Lee distinguished himself as an exceptional officer and combat engineer in the United States Army for 32 years. During this time, he served throughout the United States, distinguished himself during the Mexican-American War, served as Superintendent of the United States Military Academy, and married Mary Custis.

When Virginia declared its secession from the Union in April 1861, Lee chose to follow his home state, despite his personal desire for the Union to stay intact and despite the fact that President Abraham Lincoln had offered Lee command of the Union Army.[1] During the Civil War, Lee originally served as a senior military adviser to President Jefferson Davis. He soon emerged as a shrewd tactician and battlefield commander, winning numerous battles against larger Union armies. His abilities as a tactician have been praised by many military historians.[2][3] His strategic vision was more doubtful, and both of his invasions of the North ended in defeat.[4][5][6] Union General Ulysses S. Grant‘s campaigns bore down on Lee in 1864 and 1865, and despite inflicting heavy casualties, Lee was unable to force back Grant. Lee would ultimately surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. By this time, Lee had been promoted to the commanding officer of all Confederate forces; the remaining armies soon capitulated after Lee’s surrender. Lee rejected the starting of a guerrilla campaign against the North and called for reconciliation between the North and South.

After the war, as President of what is now Washington and Lee University, Lee supported President Andrew Johnson‘s program of Reconstruction and intersectional friendship, while opposing the Radical Republican proposals to give freed slaves the vote and take the vote away from ex-Confederates. He urged them to rethink their position between the North and the South, and the reintegration of former Confederates into the nation’s political life. Lee became the great Southern hero of the War, a postwar icon of the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy” to some. But his popularity grew even in the North, especially after his death in 1870. He remains an iconic figure of American military leadership and one of the greatest military generals of all time.[7]

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Civil War

Main article: American Civil War

Lee privately ridiculed the Confederacy in letters in early 1861, denouncing secession as “revolution” and a betrayal of the efforts of the founders. Writing to his son William Fitzhugh, Lee stated, “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union.” While he was not opposed in principle to secession, Lee wanted all peaceful ways of resolving the differences between North and South—such as the Crittenden Compromise—to be tried first, and was one of the few to foresee a long and difficult war.[60]

The commanding general of the Union Army, Winfield Scott, told Lincoln he wanted Lee for a top command. Lee accepted a promotion to colonel on March 28.[61] He had earlier been asked by one of his lieutenants if he intended to fight for the Confederacy or the Union, to which Lee replied, “I shall never bear arms against the Union, but it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in the defense of my native state, Virginia, in which case I shall not prove recreant to my duty.”[62] Meanwhile, Lee ignored an offer of command from the CSA. After Lincoln’s call for troops to put down the rebellion, it was obvious that Virginia would quickly secede. Lee turned down an April 18 offer by presidential aide Francis P. Blair to command the defense of Washington D.C. as a major general, as he feared that the job might require him to invade the South. When Lee asked Scott, who was also a Virginian, if he could stay home and not participate in the war, the general replied “I have no place in my army for equivocal men.”[60]

Lee resigned from the Army on April 20 and took up command of the Virginia state forces on April 23.[22] While historians have usually called his decision inevitable (“the answer he was born to make”, wrote one; another called it a “no-brainer”) given the ties to family and state, recent research shows that the choice was a difficult one that Lee made alone, without pressure from friends or family. His daughter Mary Custis was the only one among those close to Lee who favored secession, and wife Mary Anna especially favored the Union, so his decision astounded them. While Lee’s immediate family followed him to the Confederacy others, such as cousins and fellow officers Samuel Phillips and John Fitzgerald, remained loyal to the Union, as did 40% of all Virginian officers.[60]

Early role

At the outbreak of war, Lee was appointed to command all of Virginia’s forces, but upon the formation of the Confederate States Army, he was named one of its first five full generals. Lee did not wear the insignia of a Confederate general, but only the three stars of a Confederate colonel, equivalent to his last U.S. Army rank.[63] He did not intend to wear a general’s insignia until the Civil War had been won and he could be promoted, in peacetime, to general in the Confederate Army.

Lee’s first field assignment was commanding Confederate forces in western Virginia, where he was defeated at the Battle of Cheat Mountain and was widely blamed for Confederate setbacks.[64] He was then sent to organize the coastal defenses along the Carolina and Georgia seaboard, appointed commander, “Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida” on November 5, 1861. Between then and the fall of Fort Pulaski, April 11, 1862, he put in place a defense of Savannah that proved successful in blocking Federal advance on Savannah.[1] Confederate fort and naval gunnery dictated night time movement and construction by the besiegers. Federal preparations required four months.[2] In those four months, Lee developed a defense in depth. Behind Fort Pulaski on the Savannah River, Fort Jackson was improved, and two additional batteries covered river approaches.[65] In the face of the Union superiority in naval, artillery and infantry deployment, Lee was able to block any Federal advance on Savannah, and at the same time, well-trained Georgia troops were released in time to meet McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. The City of Savannah would not fall until Sherman’s approach from the interior at the end of 1864.[4]

At first, the press spoke to the disappointment of losing Fort Pulaski. Surprised by the effectiveness of large caliber Parrott Rifles in their first deployment, it was widely speculated that only betrayal could have brought overnight surrender to a Third System Fort.[5] Lee was said to have failed to get effective support in the Savannah River from the three sidewheeler gunboats of the Georgia Navy. Although again blamed by the press for Confederate reverses, he was appointed military adviser to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the former U.S. Secretary of War. While in Richmond, Lee was ridiculed as the ‘King of Spades’ for his excessive digging of trenches around the capitol. These trenches would later play a pivotal role in battles near the end of the war.[66]

Commander, Army of Northern Virginia

Following the wounding of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston at the Battle of Seven Pines, on June 1, 1862, Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia, his first opportunity to lead an army in the field. Early in the war, his men called him “Granny Lee” because of his allegedly timid style of command.[67] Confederate newspaper editorials of the day objected to his appointment due to concerns that Lee would not be aggressive and would wait for the Union army to come to him. He oversaw substantial strengthening of Richmond’s defenses during the first three weeks of June. In the spring of 1862, as part of the Peninsula Campaign, the Union Army of the Potomac under General George B. McClellan advanced upon Richmond from Fort Monroe, eventually reaching the eastern edges of the Confederate capital along the Chickahominy River. Lee then launched a series of attacks, the Seven Days Battles, against McClellan’s forces. Lee’s assaults resulted in heavy Confederate casualties. They were marred by clumsy tactical performances by his division commanders, but his aggressive actions unnerved McClellan, who retreated to a point on the James River and abandoned the Peninsula Campaign. These successes led to a rapid turnaround of Confederate public opinion, and the newspaper editorials quickly changed their tune on Lee’s aggressiveness. After the Seven Days Battles until the end of the war his men called him simply “Marse Robert”, a term of respect and affection.

This stunning Unionist setback – followed by an alarming drop in Northern morale[68] – impelled Lincoln to adopt a new policy of relentless, committed warfare.[69] Three weeks after the Seven Days Battles, Lincoln informed his cabinet that he intended to issue an executive order to free slaves as a military necessity.[70]

After McClellan’s retreat, Lee defeated another Union army at the Second Battle of Bull Run. Within 90 days of taking command, Lee had run McClellan off the Peninsula, defeated John Pope at Second Manassas, and the battle lines had moved from 6 miles outside Richmond, to 20 miles outside Washington. Instead of a quick end to the war that McClellen’s Peninsula Campaign had promised, the war would go on for almost another 3 years and claim a half million more lives, and end with liberation of four million slaves and the devastation of the Southern slave-based society. Lee then invaded Maryland, hoping to replenish his supplies and possibly influence the Northern elections to fall in favor of ending the war. McClellan’s men recovered a lost order that revealed Lee’s plans. McClellan always exaggerated Lee’s numerical strength, but now he knew the Confederate army was divided and could be destroyed by an all-out attack at Antietam. McClellan, however, was too slow in moving, not realizing Lee had been informed by a spy that McClellan had the plans. Lee urgently recalled Stonewall Jackson, concentrating his forces west of Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg, Maryland. In the bloodiest day of the war, with both sides suffering enormous losses, Lee withstood the Union assaults. He withdrew his battered army back to Virginia while President Abraham Lincoln used the Confederate reversal as an opportunity to announce the Emancipation Proclamation[71] which put the Confederacy on the diplomatic and moral defensive, and would ultimately devastate the Confederacy’s slave-based economy.[72]

Disappointed by McClellan’s failure to destroy Lee’s army, Lincoln named Ambrose Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside ordered an attack across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg. Delays in building bridges across the river allowed Lee’s army ample time to organize strong defenses, and the frontal assault on December 13, 1862, was a disaster for the Union. There were 12,600 Union casualties to 5,000 Confederate; one of the most “one-sided battles” in the Civil War.[73] Lee reportedly stated after the Confederate victory, “It is well that war is so terrible–we should grow too fond of it”.[73] At Fredericksburg, according to historian Michael Fellman, Lee had completely entered into the “spirit of war, where destructiveness took on its own beauty.”[73] After the bitter Union defeat at Fredericksburg, President Lincoln named Joseph Hooker commander of the Army of the Potomac. Hooker’s advance to attack Lee in May, 1863, near Chancellorsville, Virginia, was defeated by Lee and Stonewall Jackson’s daring plan to divide the army and attack Hooker’s flank. It was a victory over a larger force, but it also came with high casualties. It was particularly costly in one respect: Lee’s finest corps commander, Stonewall Jackson, was accidentally fired upon by his own troops. Weakened by his wounds, he succumbed to pneumonia.

Battle of Gettysburg

The critical decisions came in May–June 1863, after Lee’s smashing victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville. The western front was crumbling, as multiple uncoordinated Confederate armies were unable to handle General Ulysses S. Grant‘s campaign against Vicksburg. The top military advisers wanted to save Vicksburg, but Lee persuaded Davis to overrule them and authorize yet another invasion of the North. The immediate goal was to acquire urgently needed supplies from the rich farming districts of Pennsylvania; a long-term goal was to stimulate peace activity in the North by demonstrating the power of the South to invade. Lee’s decision proved a significant strategic blunder and cost the Confederacy control of its western regions, and nearly cost Lee his own army as Union forces cut him off from the South. Lee had to fight his way out at Gettysburg.[74]

In the summer of 1863, Lee invaded the North again, marching through western Maryland and into south central Pennsylvania. He encountered Union forces under George G. Meade at the three-day Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania in July; the battle would produce the largest number of casualties in the American Civil War. With some of his subordinates being new and inexperienced in their commands, J.E.B. Stuart‘s cavalry being out of the area, and Lee being slightly ill, he was less than comfortable with how events were unfolding. While the first day of battle was controlled by the Confederates, key terrain that should have been taken by General Ewell was not. The second day ended with the Confederates unable to break the Union position, and the Union being more solidified. Lee’s decision on the third day, against the sound judgment of his best corps commander General Longstreet, to launch a massive frontal assault on the center of the Union line was disastrous. The assault known as Pickett’s Charge was repulsed and resulted in heavy Confederate losses. The general rode out to meet his retreating army and proclaimed, “All this has been my fault.”[75] Lee was compelled to retreat. Despite flooded rivers that blocked his retreat, he escaped Meade’s ineffective pursuit. Following his defeat at Gettysburg, Lee sent a letter of resignation to President Davis on August 8, 1863, but Davis refused Lee’s request. That fall, Lee and Meade met again in two minor campaigns that did little to change the strategic standoff. The Confederate Army never fully recovered from the substantial losses incurred during the 3-day battle in southern Pennsylvania. The historian Shelby Foote stated, “Gettysburg was the price the South paid for having Robert E. Lee as commander.”

Ulysses S. Grant and the Union offensive

In 1864 the new Union general-in-chief, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, sought to use his large advantages in manpower and material resources to destroy Lee’s army by attrition, pinning Lee against his capital of Richmond. Lee successfully stopped each attack, but Grant with his superior numbers kept pushing each time a bit farther to the southeast. These battles in the Overland Campaign included the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House and Cold Harbor.

Grant eventually was able to stealthily move his army across the James River. After stopping a Union attempt to capture Petersburg, Virginia, a vital railroad link supplying Richmond, Lee’s men built elaborate trenches and were besieged in Petersburg, a development which presaged the trench warfare of World War I. He attempted to break the stalemate by sending Jubal A. Early on a raid through the Shenandoah Valley to Washington, D.C., but was defeated early on by the superior forces of Philip Sheridan. The Siege of Petersburg lasted from June 1864 until March 1865, with Lee’s outnumbered and poorly supplied army shrinking daily because of desertions by disheartened Confederates.

General-in-chief

On January 31, 1865, Lee was promoted to general-in-chief of Confederate forces.

As the South ran out of manpower the issue of arming the slaves became paramount. By late 1864, the army so dominated the Confederacy that civilian leaders were unable to block the military’s proposal, strongly endorsed by Lee, to arm and train slaves in Confederate uniform for combat. In return for this service, slave soldiers and their families would be emancipated. Lee explained, “We should employ them without delay … [along with] gradual and general emancipation.” The first units were in training as the war ended.[76][77] As the Confederate army was devastated by casualties, disease and desertion, the Union attack on Petersburg succeeded on April 2, 1865. Lee abandoned Richmond and retreated west. Lee then made an attempt to escape to the southwest and join up with Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee in North Carolina. However, his forces were soon surrounded and he surrendered them to Grant on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.[78] Other Confederate armies followed suit and the war ended. The day after his surrender, Lee issued his Farewell Address to his army.

Lee resisted calls by some officers to reject surrender and allow small units to melt away into the mountains, setting up a lengthy guerrilla war. He insisted the war was over and energetically campaigned for inter-sectional reconciliation. “So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South.”[79]

Lee’s Civil War battle summaries – See Charts and Tables

The following are summaries of Civil War battles where Robert E. Lee was the commanding officer:[80]

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