We all know about the general of the Southern States during the Civil War. For a school essay, I had to choose someone to write about, and I chose this man whose name has been and will be known through the ages. He’s Virginia’s man, but he stands as a symbol of the truest patriot. Robert E. Lee fought for Virginia; he fought for his homeland.
A Beloved Commander
Somber silence hung in the spring air. A door opened. A weary looking man, with snow-white hair and beard sauntered out, and down the courthouse steps. His dark eyes held a look of acute trauma and despondency, as he approached a muscular, gray horse. Its ears pricked up as General Robert E. Lee, its master, approached. As this renowned general mounted with a sober air, men clad in blue uniforms raised their caps in grave respect for him. Ragged gray clad soldiers saluted their general, looking with jaded eyes upon their beloved commander, whose repose boosted their low spirits. General Grant appeared on the Appomattox Courthouse veranda, and chivalrously lifted his own ebony hat, and watched as Robert E. Lee, the notable general, rode into the distance atop Traveller—riding away into history.
“I know of no country that can produce a family all distinguished as clever men, as our Lees,” (Commager and Ward 4) commented George Washington of this remarkable family. One 19th century member of this famous patriotic family would make a manifesting mark on history. Robert E. Lee (1807-1869), belonged to this “distinguished” family of Virginia; he was born into a high-class lineage, his relations were many who stood out in the Tidewater Valley. Remarkably his father was, “Light Horse Harry” Lee, a general of the Revolution who had fought alongside George Washington. Another one of his relatives was Meriwether Lewis, the explorer who crossed the American Continent to the Pacific Ocean. Like these famous men, Robert E. Lee made his own mark on history. Because of the impression that stories of George Washington had on him in childhood, Lee grew up to become a man of honor and virtuous character. During the Civil War, Lee, who was a leading general, was admired by both South and North, since his courage and clever strategies were so notable and adequate. How was Lee’s character astutely shaped? Though he was born into a life of opportunity, Robert E. Lee faced hardship as a youth when he undertook burdens far beyond his years by caring for his invalid mother, running the family house and handling business affairs for the family plantation. These responsibilities expedited the molding of young Lee into a principled man. Attending a military college and graduating with honors, Lee began his career as a soldier, acquiring his first taste of army life and warfare during the Mexican-American War, which would prove to be valuable experience for his later role in the Civil War. During that brother against brother struggle, his gallantry and courage as a general for the Confederacy would never be forgotten. Both the harsh childhood and rigorous life as a soldier shaped Robert E. Lee into the general who was so admired because of his dignified appearance and vigorous personality. Robert E. Lee, a boy of responsibility, a soldier of skill, and a general of honor, is a beloved, eminent character in American History.
Responsibility and arduous years in the beginning would shape Robert E. Lee’s later life and character, forming him into an admirable, respectable man who was admired by enemies and friends alike. In a quiet, old plantation home, in Stratford Hall, Virginia, along the Potomac, Anne Carter Lee, the wife of “Light-Horse” Harry Lee, became the mother of Robert E. Lee, who would, in the future, become the South’s greatest hero, and a deferentially remembered figure in America’s history. When Robert was only seven years old, “Light-Horse” Harry, his father, who had just recently been involved in a blatant, malicious brawl between pro-war men, at the time of the War of 1812, left for the Caribbean Islands to regain health and to heal from the terrible injuries he suffered. The day his father left was the last time Robert E. Lee would ever see him again. The next few years were strenuous. Being ill, his mother was unable to oversee running Stratford Hall, and Robert’s siblings were too ill, too young, or too occupied. The task, therefore, was left to young Robert. Impressively, from a very early age, with his father gone, and his mother gradually becoming an invalid, the boy oversaw the plantation’s needs, made purchases no boy of his age would have been expected to achieve, became known as a notable horseman, and performed many other arduous tasks. Young Robert, who greatly admired George Washington, began to model himself after this revered man, the father of our Union. He strove to pattern his everyday life to that of Washington’s, and this helped shape his character. Later, Lee gave his son advice in a letter, and the advice he bequeathed described his character well:
I would rather see you unlettered an unnoticed, if virtuous in practice as well as theory, than to see you the equal in glory to the great Washington… Fame in arms or art is nothing unless bottomed on virtue. Self command is a pivot upon which the character of fame and independence of us mortals hang… (Carter 32)
Robert’s education was not altogether remarkable, for Robert’s father had burdened his family with many debts, which left them only little money to properly educate his children, but nevertheless, the young Lee was able to attend Eastern View, a small school for the Carter family children. Later, when he was 13, Robert E. Lee was sent to Alexandria Academy, where his Irish teacher, William Leary, taught him Greek, Latin and mathematics. Robert E. Lee’s early life was full of hardship, tragedy, and arduous stress, but he took it in stride, and it shaped him into a man of honor and strong character.
Robert E. Lee’s career as a soldier would later mark him as one of the most well known men in history; he would be remembered for his character, for his leadership, for his dignified appearance. In 1824, Lee applied for the military academy—West Point—which he chose because many sons of southern gentlemen attended there to purse a martial profession. In addition, his mother could not afford to send him to any grand college, and West Point did not cost anything, since the attendants would later serve the country in return. Applicants were required to bring along letters of recommendation from friends and other relations who would reinforce the applicant’s chance of being accepted. Fortunately, Lee had many friends who eagerly penned these needed letters; in fact, even five senators and 3 congressman, who admired and respected Lee’s honorable qualities, sent inscriptions to the Secretary of War with endearing accounts of the hopeful claimant. Because he so esteemed Robert, William H. Fitzhugh wrote to Calhoun an appealing dispatch:
An intimate acquaintance, & a constant intercourse with him, almost from his infancy, authorize me to speak in most unqualified terms of his amiable disposition & his correct and gentlemanly habits. He is disposed to devote himself to the profession of arms. But his final determination on this subject, must, of course, depend on the result of his present application, and you will find him prepared to acquiesce in whatever decision, circumstances may require you to make his case. (Carter 45)
Meeting all of the requirements and being highly recommended, Robert was accepted, and he expressed his pleasure and honor at being able to attend this prominent academy in a letter to his mother. Robert E. Lee, because of his resilient stature and solid character, soon adjusted to the hardships and strenuous conditions at West Point. He befriended Jefferson Davis, and others who he would encounter again, divided by the forthcoming nationwide crisis, the Civil War. Joseph E. Johnston, another fellow classmate, spoke of his friendship with Lee—
We had the same intimate associates who thought as I did that no other youth or man so united the qualities that win warm friendship and command high respect. For he was full of sympathy and kindness, genial and fond of gay conversation, and even of fun, while his correctness of demeanor and attention to all duties, personal and official, and a dignity as much a part of himself as the elegance of his person, gave him a superiority that every one acknowledged in his heart. (Commager and Ward 23)
Robert E. Lee graduated in 1829; 2nd in his class, with no demerits, and hurried home, for his mother was dying, and he was determined to spend the last days with her. He nursed Anne Carter Lee faithfully and dotingly, never leaving her side. On July 26, 1829, she died; her death a great loss to Robert. But his gray moods were lifted when he visited Arlington estate, home of George Washington Parke Custis, adopted son of George Washington, and one of the wealthiest men in Virginia. He soon found a reason to visit Arlington frequently. Custis had a daughter. Her name was Mary Anne Custis. Robert soon fell head over heels in love with young Mary Anne. The couple was married on June 30, 1831. At this time, Lee was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers. In 1846, when Lee was 39, war broke out between America and Mexico. Robert E. Lee was commissioned, since he was an engineer, to oversee the construction of roads in the South-west, so troops could maneuver through the wilderness with balky wagons and horses without being detained by nature’s power of mud, rain and other troublesome terrains. General Winfield Scott, noticing Lee’s abilities and durable build, appointed him to serve as a scout, and at times he had the young soldier tracking the notorious Mexican general Santa Anna. Because of his perseverance, Robert E. Lee was able to cover dispatches from American general to general, that greatly aided their cause, and as a result, many battles fought, were won by the U.S. After the Mexican-American War, Lee once again settled back down into the dull routine of an engineer, carrying out commissions made by the government. In 1859, however, Lee, now colonel lieutenant, was sent to subdue an uprising at the Harper’s Ferry arsenal in Virginia. An avid anti-slavery group, led by abolitionist fanatic John Brown, had attacked the arsenal and Robert E. Lee had orders to lead troops to Harper’s Ferry and recapture the artillery battery. This task, he carried out successfully, though this blatant disturbance sent a chill down the nation’s spine, foreshadowing the tragic war that was to come. Lee’s military career, one of color and of some adventure, was to be always remembered, because of his amazing leadership powered by a noble character.
During the era of the Civil War, a time of gruesome brother against brother, son against father, and friend against friend combat, Robert E. Lee would make his mark on American History. In 1860, turmoil struck, and divided the nation, dividing Lee’s heart as well. Rapidly, southern states began to secede, beginning with South Carolina, the most avid of the slave states. Their fervency for ‘states rights’ was triggered when Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected to office. He was quite unpopular with many southerners who feared that their liberties and entitlement to slavery would be challenged. Because he had been born in Virginia, and also because his family had deep roots in the “Old Dominion”, Lee felt an ardent sense of loyalty to his home state. Agonizing over his equally intense devotion to the U.S., Lee struggled to make a decision over which side to support. Lee had to make his decision. Country or state? In a letter to a relative, Lee sorrowfully stated the turmoil in his heart with these words—“I wish to live under no other government, and there is no sacrifice I am not ready to make for the preservation of the Union save that of honor. If a disruption takes place, I shall go back to my native state, and save in her defense there will be one soldier less in the world than now.” (Commager and Ward 67) He felt it his duty to remain with his “native state”, though he did not agree with all of the reasons she used for separating from the Union. Slavery, for one thing, was something he despised, and was firmly set against it. In fact, when his wife’s father died, entitling the couple to 200 or more slaves, they freed them all promptly. Nevertheless, Lee now believed that he would stand with Virginia and faithfully defend her. To make matters worse for him, a new problem arose that wreaked havoc in his saddened heart. Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the United States army, under the president of course, now deemed it the right time to find someone else to take over his position, for he was old and in poor health. Robert E. Lee, he decided, would make the ideal candidate. Former editor of the Congressional Globe, Mr. Francis Preston Blair summoned Lee to his office in Washington D.C., and told him of Scott’s hopes for Lee’s acceptance of the favorable position. Lee later gave his account of the conference:
I never intimidated to anyone that I desired the command of the United States Army; nor did I ever have a conversation with but one gentleman, Mr. Francis Preston Blair, on the subject, which was at his invitation, and, as I understood, at the instance of President Lincoln. After listening to his remarks, I declined the offer he made me, to take command of the army…I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern states. (Roddy 74)
Lee gave this same reply to General Winfield Scott, who was quite dismayed by his decision, mournfully declaring that this might very well be Robert E. Lee’s “worst mistake of his life”. On Marcy 23, 1861, Virginia seceded from the Union and Lee with it. During his engagement with Scott, he asked for permission to resign from the United States Army, and was granted it by a very flustered Winfield Scott. Soon afterwards, Governor Letcher of Virginia offered Lee the position as major-general of the Confederate army, and Robert E. Lee accepted after making sure to announce that he had vacated the U.S. military. Lee took an active role in many Civil War battles. His prolific, cunning and innovative military strategies resulted in numerous Confederate victories, and were one of the reasons why the Rebels had a chance of triumph in the Civil War. Moreover, Lee’s character was honorable and principled—both North and South admired him greatly. Throughout the war, Robert E. Lee’s favorite mount was Traveller, who he held in high esteem as a courageous military steed. The weight and strain and stress of the war, however, bore heavily down on Lee’s heart. He was a man most affected by the war’s tribulations. A vivid example of this profuse trauma was illustrated in his features. At the beginning of the war, his hair and beard were graying partially, and his face still maintained its youthful look. But by the end of the bloody confrontation, his face had aged intensely, and his hair had turned to the color of snow white—so that he looked quite elderly and tired. The downward slope during the Civil War for the Confederacy began with Shiloh, but Lee was especially devastated when right before the battle of Antietam, a copy of his plans were dropped and left in an abandoned Rebel camp. Yankees discovered it, and hence the most macabre battle of this massive conflict ensued—the Battle of Antietam. Later the grisly fray at Gettysburg marked the profound beginning of the Confederacy’s end. During this battle, Lee made one of the worst mistakes in his entire career, Lee ordered General George Pickett to lead a charge up Cemetery Ridge, as the Union cannons blasted the advancing Rebels. This resulted in the loss of thousands of Confederates, for General Lee’s men were outnumbered and had a disadvantage, for they could be merely picked off by the Yankee batteries stationed on the rise. Because of this horrible loss of men, Lee was forced to retreat. Therefore, this battle won by the Union was the turning point which initiated the unraveling of the Confederacy. Despite the Confederates’ defeat during the Civil War, Robert E. Lee’s name has been remembered—his life, his words, and his character have established him as a hero—and he never shall be forgotten so long as America shall survive.
Although Robert E. Lee faced immense tragedy in his childhood years, bearing an incomprehensibly heavy burden upon his young shoulders, and taking on vast responsibility, he inadvertently prepared himself for the years ahead. The trials and problems of these later years did not strike him as difficult, because of his experiences as a boy. Faithfully, he served his country as a soldier in the Mexican War, fighting alongside many friends and working as a scout, aiding the U.S considerably in the struggle. Since Lee had obtained his first taste of leadership in a gruesome battle; he was prepared for the later Civil War, where he would become the ultimate American hero, despite his ultimate surrender. Gallantly, he led the Confederates into battle, against Union forces, against all odds, and many times, he headed them to victory, and emboldened them. He uplifted his men, when times looked bleak, and chance of triumph was dark. Though the Confederacy died, Robert E. Lee still remains a figure, not faded in America’s past. He is still living in history. His impact on the U.S, then and now, is bold and intense, and everyone who knew him, would never be without a bit of admiration for this man. His courage, his ethical morals, and his venerable countenance engraved an eternal picture in their minds—a portrait of a genuinely exceptional general; a man, of the “Old Dominion.” Robert E. Lee took on the pressure and was pressed beneath the immense strain of leading his troops into battle, and though his health later failed, he served his part well, and with incredible valor and perseverance, he led his men through the turbulent years of the Civil War. Truly, Robert was born into an eminent family, and died a distinguished general—proving beyond measure that George Washington’s assessment of the Lee family was correct—they are indeed “a family all distinguished.”
Robert E. Lee, the beloved commander of the South, has never been forgotten. His gallantry and remarkable leadership was admired by his own countrymen and those of the opposing north. Even during his surrender at Appomattox, Lee inspired respect and even reverence, as soldiers on both sides saluted him. America was inspired by this ethical commander—this stanch Virginian.