Robert E. Lee

Robert Edward Lee stands out as one of the most conflicted commanding officers of the Civil War. A dedicated Southerner who turned down command of the Union army to remain faithful to his home state of Virginia, he emerged from the war a hero to the South despite numerous losses and near escapes on the battlefield. Lee managed to rally his army again and again in the face of heavy odds. His remarkable dedication to the war effort typifies everything that made the South such a formidable foe during the four-year conflict.

One of Robert E. Lee's most trusted companions was his horse, Traveller. Lee bought the Confederate-gray stallion during his 1861 western Virginia campaign and rode him in almost every important battle, often relieving stress by taking his horse for an evening ride. He once wrote his wife, “Traveller is my only companion; I may say my only pleasure.”

Born in Virginia in 1807, Lee was descended from a family that had more than its share of influential statesmen and soldiers. His father, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, was a former governor of Virginia and a cavalry officer during the Revolutionary War. However, Henry Lee died when Robert was only eleven years old, leaving the family somewhat impoverished. Robert was raised by his mother, Anne, to whom he was extremely close.

Early Military Career

A good student, Lee entered West Point in 1825, his admittance all but guaranteed by a testimonial letter signed by five senators and three representatives. Lee studied hard and graduated second in his class in 1829. Because of his high grades, he was assigned to the corps of engineers and traveled to a number of different posts over the next seventeen years. During this time, he married Mary Ann Randolph Custis and started a family.

During the Mexican War, Lee was commended for his commitment to the various combat assignments to which he was appointed. In 1852, he was made superintendent of West Point. It was a highly coveted assignment, but Lee found the work unexciting and was transferred to the Second Cavalry Division in 1855, spending much of his time in Texas.

As the tension between the North and South began to heat up, Lee realized that although he wasn't an advocate of either slavery or states' rights, he had to follow his heart and remain faithful to his home state of Virginia. His superiors in Washington tried desperately to keep him as the Southern states began to secede, even offering Lee the command of the Union army, but he refused and resigned his commission. By June 1861, Lee was appointed a general in the Confederate army and advisor to President Jefferson Davis.

General Robert E. Lee Photo courtesy of the National Archives (111-B-1564)

At the beginning of the war, Lee worked hard to bolster the Confederate army. He stopped a Union advance from western Virginia and organized defenses along the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina.

Lee's Service as Confederate General

On May 31, 1861, Lee took command of the Confederate army defending Richmond after General Joseph Johnston was wounded in the Battle of Seven Pines. He renamed the force the Army of Northern Virginia, which is how it is remembered.

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