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A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Confederacy, Including the Diplomatic Correspondence, 1861-1865, Volume I/Biographical Sketch of Robert E. Lee

< A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Confederacy, Including the Diplomatic Correspondence, 1861-1865, Volume I
Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee.

Robert Edward Lee was born in Stratford, Westmoreland County, Virginia, January 19, 1807. His father was General Henry Lee, the "Light-Horse Harry" of the Revolutionary War. He attended school at Alexandria, Va., until 1825, when he entered the Military Academy at West Point, from which he graduated in 1829 without a demerit, second in a class of forty-six; was appointed second lieutenant of engineers and assigned to duty at Old Point and on the coasts; was assistant to the Chief of Engineers at Washington in 1834, and the next year was on the commission to mark the boundary line between Ohio and Michigan; was promoted first lieutenant in 1836 and captain of engineers in 1838. In 1837 was ordered to the Mississippi River to make special plans and surveys for its improved navigation; in 1840 was a military engineer; in 1842 was stationed at Fort Hamilton, N. Y., and in 1844 one of the Board of Visitors at West Point. At the beginning of the Mexican War, he was assigned to duty as Chief Engineer of the Army under General Wool, with the rank of captain, and at the request of General Scott was assigned to his personal staff. He rendered conspicuous service throughout that war, particularly at Vera Cruz, Cerro Gordo, Cherubusco, Molino del Rey, and Chapultepec. He was three times brevetted for gallant conduct during the war. the last being colonel of engineers. General Scott, in his official report, said of him, "I am compelled to make special mention of Captain R. E. Lee;" again, of one of his acts, he said it was "the greatest feat of physical and moral courage performed by any individual in my knowledge pending the campaign;" and again referred to him as being "as distinguished for execution as for science and daring," adding that his "success in Mexico was largely due to the skill, valor, and undaunted energy of Robert E. Lee;" and with emphasis he pronounced him "the greatest military genius in America." After the Mexican War, up to 1852, he was with the engineers' corps, headquarters at Baltimore; then Superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point until 1855, when he was promoted and assigned to the Second Cavalry, under Col. Albert Sidney Johnston. He was engaged with this regiment fighting the Indians on the frontier of Texas and Mexico from 1856 to 1861, except that in October, 1859, he was temporarily at Washington during the John Brown raid at Harpers Ferry, and was sent by the President to suppress that movement, a duty promptly discharged by him. He was in command of the Department of Texas in 1860-61, when the Southern States began to secede from the Union, and was called to Washington about the date of the inauguration of President Lincoln. When it became known that war was to follow, he was offered high position in the United States Army, and was the choice of General Scott for the chief command. When told by a prominent gentleman, who was speaking for the President, that he could have the command of the Army, he replied that, "though opposed to secession and deprecating war, he would take no part in the invasion of the Southern States." Promptly — that is, within three days — after his State, Virginia, passed her ordinance of secession, he resigned his commission in the Army, as he said he felt conscientiously bound by the act of his State. In a letter to his sister, written then, he said: "We are now in a state of war which will yield to nothing. The whole South is in a state of revolution into which Virginia, after a long struggle, has been drawn; and though I recognize no necessity for this state of things, and would have forborne and pleaded to the end for the redress of grievances, real or supposed, yet in my own person I had to meet the question whether I should take part against my native State. With all my devotion to the Union, and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have, therefore, resigned my commission in the Army, and, save in defense of my native State — with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed — I hope I may never be called upon to draw my sword."

April 23, 1861, he was made commander in chief of the Virginia State forces, and began the work of organization for the State's defense. On April 25 he said: "No earthly power would give me as much pleasure as to restore peace to my country, but I fear it is now out of the power of man, and in God alone must be our trust. I think our policy should he purely on the defensive, to resist aggression, and allow time to allay the passions, and permit reason to resume her sway."

May 14, 1861, he was appointed brigadier general in the Confederate States Army, and on June 14, 1861, a full general; August 3rd, 1861, was given command of operations in the Trans-Alleghany region of Virginia; November 5, 1861, was placed in charge of the defenses on the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida; March 13, 1862, assigned to duty at Richmond, and charged with the conduct of all military operations of the Confederate States Army, under the direction of the President; June 1st, 1862, was placed in command of the Army of Northern Virginia, which position he held until the surrender of his army at Appomattox, April 9, 1865; January 31, 1865, was made general in chief, and on February 6, 1865, was assigned to the command of all of the armies of the Confederate States.

Not long subsequent to the closing of the war, he said, "All that the South has ever desired was that the Union as established by our fathers should be preserved, and that the Government as originally organized should be administered in purity and truth;" and later he said, "I had no other guide, nor had I any other object than the defense of those principles of American liberty upon which the constitutions of the several States were originally founded, and unless they are strictly observed, I fear there will be an end of Republican government in this country." He devoted his few years after the war to efforts to restore harmony to the people of the whole country, and to the education of young men. He became President of Washington and Lee University, and gave his entire time and talents to that institution. He died at his home, in Lexington, October 12, 1870. When he died, it was said of him: "The grave of this noble hero is bedewed with the most tender and sacred tears ever shed upon a human tomb. A whole nation has risen up in the spontaneity of its grief to render the tribute of its love." Benjamin H. Hill, of Georgia, said of him: "When the future historian shall come to survey the character of Lee, he will find it rising like a huge mountain above the undulating plain of humanity, and he must lift his eyes high toward Heaven to catch its summit. He possessed every virtue of other great commanders without their vices. He was a foe without hate, a friend without treachery, a soldier without cruelty, a victor without oppression, and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices, a private citizen without wrong, a neighbor without reproach, a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guile. He was a Caesar without his ambition, Frederick without his tyranny, Napoleon without his selfishness, and Washington without his reward. He was obedient to authority as a servant, and royal in authority as a true king. He was as gentle as a woman in life, modest and pure as a virgin in thought, watchful as a Roman vestal in duty, submissive to law as Socrates, and grand in battle as Achilles."

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).