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Robert E Lee Biography: A Remarkable Military Career

Robert E Lee Biography: A Remarkable Military Career


Robert E. Lee – today, the mere mention of
his name is enough to arouse passionate debate. In his time, he was loved and respected by
both the Confederate Army and the Southern people. Curiously, following the Civil War, this high
admiration carried over to include the people of the North, and Lee become a cherished figure
for all Americans. During the war, when Abraham Lincoln looked
at a picture of Lee, he remarked that a man with such a compassionate countenance had
to be a ‘good man.’ But the war to which he devoted his every
fiber broke him, if not in spirit, certainly in body and he was only to outlive the conflict
by five years. In this week’s Biographics, we discover
the man who was Robert E. Lee. Early Life Robert E. Lee was born on January 19, 1807
at Stratford Hill Plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia. His father, a wealthy Virginia aristocrat,
had been a hero during the American Revolution. A series of bad investments left ‘Light
Horse Harry’ penniless, and he fled Virginia and his family, never to return. Lee was raised by his mother, a proud, educated
woman. She was to see to it that her son was not
deprived of a proper upbringing because he was fatherless, and that he was well educated
in the arts, languages and philosophy. Young Robert secured an appointment to the
United States Military Academy at West Point in 1825, and he graduated second in his class
to immediately begin his career in the United States Army. A Military Career Lee distinguished himself in the Mexican War,
where he served on the staff of a fellow Virginian, General Winfield Scott. As a captain, Lee was responsible for several
courageous personal reconnaissance missions, which produced intelligence that led to American
victories. During this period, when the military had
no medals for bravery, officers were given ‘brevet promotions’ for brave deeds during
warfare. Captain Lee received three of these brevets
during the Mexican War: to major, lieutenant colonel, and finally colonel. Scott described Lee as ‘the very best soldier
I ever saw in the field.’ Lee progressed through a series of military
assignments in the peacetime army and was in command of the First Cavalry in Texas as
the Civil War was beginning. Lee got caught up early in the political turmoil
that was about to engulf the nation. While he was on leave from his position in
Texas, John Brown attacked the armory at Harper’s Ferry, an event that clearly set the nation
on the road to war. President Buchanan called on Lee to take command
of a small Federal force that would be responsible for bringing the situation under control. Lee and a future subordinate who was also
on leave, J.E.B Stuart, took command of a small group of marines and captured the insurgents
with Brown. As the nation began to fracture, Lee – like
most of his contemporaries in the army – was placed in a difficult situation, as it became
obvious that the southern states planned to defend themselves with arms. General Winfield Scott, the aging patriarch
of the army, urged Lincoln to offer Lee command of the army. Learning of this offer, Lee struggled with
the definition of ‘duty’, a word that had meant everything to him as an officer
in the United States army. A Fateful Decision On the April 19th, 1861 after Virginia had
quit the Union, Robert E. Lee faced the most difficult decision of his life. It kept him up all night, pacing the wooden
floor of his Arlington mansion. Lee’s daughter, Mary Custis Lee, recalled
that, that night, Arlington was like a place where a death had occurred. The death in question was the end of a brilliant
military career. Lee’s wife, Mary, later wrote . . . My husband has wept tears of blood over this
terrible war. But, as a man of honor, and as a Virginian,
he must follow the destiny of his state. It was the severest struggle of his life – to
resign a commission he had held for thirty years. To accept the command would undoubtedly mean
fighting against his native Virginia and the South, something he couldn’t bring himself
to do. Resignation from the army was also a difficult
choice to make, and as he wrestled with his decision, he was attended by the prospect
of bloodshed on either side. Finally, he decided to resign his commission
in the army and attempt to avoid service with either side in the forthcoming conflict. Lee himself wrote . . . 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. Except in the defense of my native state,
I hope to never draw my sword again. This statement was to prove to be prophetic. On Monday, April 22nd, 1861 Lee left his home
at Arlington, never to return. Within two weeks, Union troops occupied his
house. Mary and their four girls were vagabonds of
war. His three sons were soldiers in grey, while
Lee was in Richmond planning the defense of Virginia. The general belief among politicians and militarists
in the South was that the war would be short. But Lee believed otherwise, prophetically
stating . . . If it comes to a conflict of arms, the war
will last at least four years. Northern politicians do not appreciate the
determination and pluck of the South and Southern politicians do not appreciate the numbers,
resources and patient perseverance of the North. Both sides forget that we are all Americans. I foresee that the country will have to pass
through a terrible ordeal, a necessary expiation perhaps for our national sins. The War During the early days of the war, it became
apparent to Lee that the South would fight a defensive war, and that his beloved Virginia
would become the major battlefield of that war. He accepted a commission as a commander of
Virginia’s troops and was soon commissioned as a brigadier general in the Confederate
army. He remained in relatively obscure positions
during the first year of the war as he gained his earliest Civil War experience in the mountainous
region of western Virginia. Here the poor weather, combined with the political
infighting between two of Virginia’s former governors – now generals – resulted in disastrous
military failures for the Confederacy. Lee was attacked in Southern newspapers as
‘Evacuating Lee’ and ‘Granny Lee.’ His hair and his new beard turned gray during
the tension-filled mountain campaigns. Lee’s next assignment was on the Carolina
sea coast, where he was responsible for building defenses to prevent large-scale Union army
attacks from the sea. He placed his strong defensive positions upstream,
where shallow rivers could not be easily navigated by the Union navy. Lee’s ability as a military engineer was
proved by the fact that his defenses were to last for much of the war, but he was nicknamed
‘King of Spades’ because of the construction work he managed. His detractors, however, were soon to realize
their mistake in misjudging this aggressive officer. When his West Point classmate, Joseph E. Johnston,
was severely wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines in June, 1862, Lee was placed in command
of what was soon to become the legendary Army of Northern Virginia. As Union General George MccLellan advanced
towards the new Confederate capital, Lee ordered his men to begin digging defenses for Richmond
– giving new credence to one of his nicknames – but he was soon to demonstrate the audacious
side of his military personality. Lee initiated the Seven Day’s Campaign on
June 25th, 1862, and he had soon pushed the Union army from the outskirts of Richmond. By August 29th, he and his army were positioned
to do battle at Manassas, Virginia, where he defeated the Union army for a second time
before invading Maryland. This new commander of the Confederate army
had completely changed the military situation in only a few weeks. In June, the entire Union army had been poised
to attack Richmond, but by September, Lee was in a position from which he could threaten
Washington, D.C. Lee’s army fought to a stalemate at the
Battle of Antietam on September 17th and withdrew to the southern side of the Potomac. In December, Lee was able to conclude the
1862 campaign with a major victory over Ambrose Burnside’s Union forces at Fredericksburg,
Virginia sending the Northern army reeling back to bases near Washington. Lee and his hard-marching subordinate, ‘Stonewall’
Jackson, were able to defeat a larger Union army under Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville
in the first campaign of 1863, but the victory was costly. Jackson was fatally wounded by his own men
while conducting a personal reconnaissance of the enemy’s lines. This was a common feature of good Confederate
commanders; they would conduct their own reconnaissance during lulls in the battle in which they were
engaged. Viewed as unnecessary bravado by some historians,
this was a key to the successful operations of the Confederate commanders, and Lee himself
frequently undertook these hazardous operations. He returned from a personal battlefield reconnaissance
at Second Manassa s with a mark on his face where a sharpshooter’s bullet had grazed
him. Lee’s immediate reaction to the death of
his most trusted officer was that it was God’s will and that the Lord would raise someone
else up to take Jackson’s place. In that hope, however, he was mistaken. Lee would just have to do the best he could
by himself. At Chancellorsville, Lee cemented his reputation
as a brilliant battlefield commander. It was a battle that seemingly, on paper,
he could not win. Outnumbered two to one, he still divided his
army in half in the face of the enemy. He won the battle in spectacular fashion and
it was, undoubtedly, his most famous victory. The victory at Chancellorsville cleared the
way for another Confederate invasion of the north. Confusion within the Union army combined with
the losses of the earlier battle gave Lee the opportunity he longed for; a chance to
destroy the Union army in a classic Napoleonic battle that would end the Civil War. This was a high-risk operation, but Lee placed
great faith in the ability of his Army of Northern Virginia, for it had done the nearly
impossible before. Gettysburg At Gettysburg he would attempt to do it again. In June of 1863, Lee boldly moved his army
of nearly 60,000 men into Union territory. His plan was to destroy as many military posts
as he could in Maryland and Pennsylvania as possible while the Union army was forced to
defend Washington, D.C. A key target was Camp Curtin, just outside
of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. This was the largest military supply depot
in the north. Lee’s main aim was not to defeat the Union
army militarily, but to bring the war to an end politically. He believed that a massive defeat in the north
would encourage people to lose faith in the war and demand it’s end. However, as the Confederate forces moved north,
a skirmish erupted in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania between opposing cavalry units. Lee got word of the skirmish and was startled
to be informed that a major Union force was closing in on Gettysburg. Instead of sending a cavalry reconnaissance
force to confirm the report, he sent his entire army to mobilize. This was a colossal mistake. Lee ordered all of his forces to converge
at Cashtown, a small village seven miles from Gettysburg. As the 60,000 Confederates poured in, around
3,000 union soldiers took position on McPherson Ridge. These men tried to hold off the onslaught
of Rebel soldiers until help arrived. But reinforcements were miles away toward
Washington, D.C. The Union soldiers were forced to withdraw
southeast onto Cemetery Ridge, a range of hills on the outskirts of Gettysburg that
forms the shape of a fish-hook. This position provided an extremely strong
defensive advantage. Lee immediately saw the danger in the strength
of the Union position, but because of his numerical superiority he believed that the
enemy was vulnerable. But Union forces soon arrived and strengthened
to defensive position. Though it was nowhere near Lee’s best campaign,
much of what happened at Gettysburg was still remarkable from a southern perspective. Lee was outnumbered and without much of his
cavalry. The cavalry was used largely for reconnaissance,
to find the enemy and establish his size and strength, but Lee’s cavalry regiments were
in the process of raiding around the entire Union army rather than gathering information
and screening the flanks of Lee’s army. Lee was also without his most trusted officer,
General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, who had been killed at Chancellorsville six weeks
earlier. Still, Lee failed adjust his strategy to the
situation on the ground. He refused to retreat, even when the situation
was clearly hopeless. After three days of terrible fighting and
unprecedented losses, the Confederates were forced to withdraw from the field and make
a hasty retreat from Northern territory. As the survivors of the disastrous attack
that history remembers as Pickett’s charge came fleeing back to the Southern position,
the General rode among the men trying to console them and admitting that it was all his fault. In later reflection, Lee admitted that he
had simply asked too much of his men at Gettysburg. He wrote . . . No blame can be attached to the army for its
failure to accomplish what was projected by me. I am alone to blame. Gettysburg was Lee’s greatest wartime disappointment. In its wake, he tendered his resignation to
Confederate President Jefferson Davis, writing, Mr. President, No one is more than myself of my inability
for the duties of my position. I cannot even accomplish what I myself desire. How can I fulfil the expectations of others. In addition, I sensibly feel the growing failure
of my bodily strength. This was no idle self pitying. The Civil War, and in particular the battle
of Gettysburg, broke Lee physically. There is good evidence that, just before the
battle, he actually had a heart attack. Still, Davis refused to accept his resignation,
knowing that the man was irreplaceable. Following Gettysburg, Lee retreated across
the Potomac, never to return to the north again. The following Spring, a new Yankee general
came to the field to fight Lee. His name was Ulysses Simpson Grant. Finally the North had found a worthy contender
for the Great confederate general. Unlike many of his predecessors, Grant was
not covered by Lee. Both men under-estimated each other, soon
discovering that their opponent was different from anyone else they had ever been up against. Immediately upon taking command, Grant issued
the following command to General Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac . . . Lee’s army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also. Grant relentlessly pursued Lee from the Wilderness
to Spotsylvania and then to Cold Harbor, where a terrible slaughter took place. Throughout the bloody campaign and despite
heavy losses, Lee gallantly led his army. On May 6th, 1864, as his line was wavering,
he himself rode to the front and demanded that his men stand their ground under very
dangerous circumstances. After June, 1864, Lee’s Army of Northern
Virginia had been pushed back into the defenses of Richmond and Petersburg. Effectively Grant had taken him out of the
war, unable to maneuver and nowhere to go. All he could do now was to wait and react
as Grant, circling around him, acted. With his army besieged and pinned down, Lee
knew that the end was in sight. Lee’s anguish while being hemmed up at Petersburg
was heightened with the news that his home in Arlington had been confiscated by the Union
government. Having been seized for unpaid taxes it was
quickly converted into a large soldier’s cemetery. Orders were given for the graves to be placed
as close to the house as possible, so that it could never be used again as a private
dwelling. But the cruellest blow was yet to come. Through the winter of 1864, Lee’s army lacked
forage, rations and supplies. Somehow the men managed to retain their fighting
spirit. But even that was to disappear in April of
1865. With his men at near starvation point, Lee
led his bedraggled army to Appomattox Court House in Virginia, following a last desperate
flight from Richmond. It was there that Lee surrendered his army
and ended the Civil War. The correspondence between Grant and Lee in
those closing hours of the war is enlightening. On April 7th, Grant sent the following message
to Lee . . . General,
The result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance
in this struggle. I regard it as my duty to shift from myself
the responsibility of any further effusion of blood by asking of you the surrender of
the army of Northern Virginia. Very Respectfully,
U.S. Grant. Lee’s reply came swiftly . . . General Grant,
Though not entertaining the opinion you express on the hopelessness of further resistance
on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia, I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless
effusion of blood and, therefore, ask the terms you will offer in condition of its surrender. Very Respectfully,
Robert E. Lee On the morning of April 9th, Lee put on his
best uniform and went to the home of Wilmer McLean where he met General Grant. The two men contrasted sharply – Lee six feet
high and with faultless form and dress and Grant, five foot seven, mud spattered and
in a rumpled private’s uniform. The terms of surrender were unexpectedly generous;
without demand for punishment, the Confederate Army was allowed to go home on the provision
that they would never take up arms against the Federal Government again. Many historians believe that it was a measure
of Grant’s respect for Lee that he handled the terms the way he did. As he exited the McLean House, Lee was cheered
by the Confederates and saluted by the Union troops. The first officer of the Union to remove his
hat and salute Lee was U.S. Grant. After the War After the war, Lee became president of Washington
College in Lexington, Virginia. During those years, he also found time to
write his memoir. In it he stated the following . . . I did only what my duty demanded. I could have taken no other course without
dishonor, and if it all were to be done over again I should act in precisely the same manner. He dedicated his last years to education. On September 28th, 1870, he went to a school
meeting. On the way home, he caught a cold. Fourteen days later he died. The huge funeral service at Lexington was
attended by thousands of Americans from both the North and the South.


Reader Comments

  1. "Aging patriarch of the army" do British people just butcher everything about the Civil War or is it just me

  2. General Robert E. Lee was such a beloved General by his men that if he asked them to, his soldiers would charge Hell itself.

  3. You need to do a Bio of Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. He was one of the greatest proponents of civil rights for blacks after the war the nation ever had. Much of what is considered common knowledge about him is just plain wrong. His affiliation with the KKK is an outright lie perpetuated in large part by a five second blurb in Forrest Gump.

  4. Do one on general Sherman and his burning of 🔥Atlanta. May the south never forget of they got their asses kicked.🌬🌪 southern pride.

  5. Note to anyone going down there:
    Read the original posts, but DON'T CLICK ON THE REPLIES. It's all a flamewar down there.

  6. Before the war states held power. People of the time felt fealty to their state and not the federal government. To Lee, to fight his own state was unthinkable. States rights died in 1865. The power of the federal gov has increased ever since.

  7. Just because his side lost doesn't mean that he's a terrible person. I am pretty impressed with Lee, he's an American war hero, even if he's a Southerner.

  8. When R.E. Lee took over as President of Washington College he was asked what were the rules for the students (male). He replied – No rules just that I expect them to act like Christian gentlemen. How far we have fallen?

  9. Ulysses Simpson Grant. 😂

    That wasn’t his name. The ‘S’ came from a clerk’s error at West Point. Most likely because his nickname was ‘Sam’. His actual name was simply Ulysses Grant. He kept the ‘S’ from the clerk’s error because it made his name ‘U.S. Grant’… and he liked it.

  10. As good a soldier as Lee was (and he was very good as a strategist and a tactician), he almost always incurred crippling casualty counts that his army simply could not shake off as there were few replacements to be had. He compounded this problem by continuing to fight (incurring more losses along the way) long after he knew, and had accepted the fact that the Confederacy was doomed.

  11. C'mon, Simon. You issued a warning that you might butcher some names in a vid on the Japanese, but you're butchering ones here too. Potomac isn't pronounced Pot-o-MAC. (Stress the second syllable.) And, perhaps worse, Ullyses has been a name for a loooong time. The stress is on the second syllable. As it's always been.

  12. You don't have to support the south or the Confederate flag to have respect and admiration for Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson

  13. Just a suggestion: You might want to check with an American on the proper pronouncement of Potomac…just saying

  14. The greatness of the man is seen not only in his victories, but in his ability to take blame in his defeat.

  15. As a modern-day Southern American I don't appreciate people tearing down are monuments of our glorious ancestors

  16. Another interesting person who was respected by his enemies would be Salah ad-Din. have you done a biographic on him yet?

  17. It's interesting to note that many of the officers on opposing sides knew each other already from the time of their West Point years and their fighting side by side in the Mexican war. This knowledge greatly influenced their tactics and behavior towards each other and was greatly taken advantage of by Grant.

  18. People on here argue that slavery was not the issue, African Americans being the great majority of slaves, then why so much hate, violence and driving this group to the fringes of society, LONG after the war?

  19. robert e lee was the best military leader in american history he was vastly outnumbered and undersuplyied the whole war but still his army killed almost double the amount of people the northern armies he faced did

  20. What is not mentioned is that Lee wasn’t pardoned for over 100 years for his role. It is not mentioned that Grant only won his campaign against Lee because of conscripting fresh Irish refugees of the Irish Potato Famine. If you look at the numbers, Grant did not care about his men, they were but a tool he used to win…Lee was not a drunk, Grant was. They were polar opposites, and that polarization reflected the differences of North and South. The funny thing is that people seem to associate some kind of moral high ground with the North, guess they never image what life during the American industrial revolution was like for 99.99 percent of people…

  21. "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master." Jackson and Longstreet were also very anti slavery. Longstreet became a Senator after the war.

  22. They should never tear down the monuments of Robert E Lee God bless Robert E Lee the South will rise again

  23. I enjoy your programs, but this particular one on R.E.Lee was full of historical errors. For example, you placed Jackson's death before the battle of Chancellorsville. I hope your research assistants are more thorough in future.

  24. I just learned more about the American civil war from an Englishman in 20 minutes than I ever did in 10 years of doing time in American indoctrination camps (public school)

  25. Well ill be john brown.. My grandpa use to say that.. I never knew Robert e Lee was in charge of malaria that quelled the john brown skermish …

  26. Hope this bastard suffered a LOT for beating and salting the wounds of one of his runaway slaves. I just wish people would STOP trying to make him some kind of saint and look at actually history on Lee.

  27. One part you (somewhat understandably but still) forgot was Lee's treatment of slaves, as in he actually treated them well. Otherwise, very glad to see an unbiased look at one of Americas greatest commanders.

  28. Back then, most people identified as citizens of their home states before that if the USA as a whole. For example, many Virginians saw themselves as Virginians first and Americans second. As a result, there were many who joined the confederacy simply because their home state did, not because they agreed with slavery. There were also those who were against slavery but were also against the methods by which Lincoln and the Republicans sought to end it. All in all, the Civil War was not as morally cut-and-dry as people make it out to be today.

  29. I like how he says "Potomac". pot oh mack. lol it's peh tow muk. Like that. No long A on the end of it…
    Simon, for real, if you want, I am glad to help you with these videos and correct any pronunciations you might miss on them. I speak several languages and am willing to do this for you free of charge. I want the best for your content… I am not criticizing and throwing rocks. My intent is one of improvement, not derision…

  30. My grandfather's grandfather was with Lee at Appomattox. His rifle was a family heirloom, until my grandfather donated the flintlock to a government run steel drive to make munitions during WWII. He was six years old.

  31. Good treatment of General Lee. I know there will be some upset over anything to do with the Confederate States of America because of the slavery issue. But lets not forget, those men in grey were AMERICAN SOLDIERS. American soldiers that held out for four years against a more powerful, better equipped, larger invading army. They should be respected for that.

  32. Just Watch the movie "GETTYSBURG" …. Surprisingly Martin Sheen Plays an EXCELLENT Robert E. Lee !!! Also the Unscripted breaking of the ranks as LEE rode by the troops before the battle, is beyond emotional description. The Re-enactors (extras) were so caught up in the moment, an exceptional film moment happened.

  33. Good video. Robert e lee did a lot to bring the country back together. But let’s not forget he was a traitor. He fought a war against his country so the southern states could have their right to own slaves.

  34. I always hear confederate sympathizers say that the south left because of states right. Then I ask what rights? They go silent. It was for states rights, the states right to own slaves.

  35. Long live the memory of Marse Robert… Had General had half the men and resources, he would have forced the North to the negotiation table.

  36. Had Lee would have won at Antietam, it would have brought in the navy if Great Britain, and chaos would have ensued. It would have been glorious.

  37. Well did this get demonetized for the Southern Cross and Confederate flags? YT is really shitty about that, even when you are giving a history lesson. I saw a General Lee car build series get demonetized over the flag.

  38. Robert E. Lee is like a character of a Greek tragedy. Forced with two terrible choices–bear arms against his home or bear arms against the country–also his home–to which he had sworn and devoted his life–neither choice would for him have produced a good outcome.

  39. Lee didn't fight for slavery he fought for his State. What would you do if your home state was occupied with an army?

  40. Near the very end of the war, the Confederate army stopped taking union prisoners on the battlefield. Many Southern troops deserted the Confederate army because they saw the writing on the wall.

  41. "the Southern states planned to defend themselves with arms" What? Who fired on Ft Sumter? Clear bias from this English Confederate sympathizer

  42. "Lee struggled with the definition of duty". He obviously didn't struggle with the definition of honor, as he had none. Much less struggle with the definition of Country. Duty, Honor , Country.

  43. Lee was a great man. He deserves to be honored for what he did. Not shamed by moronic liberals who have no actual knowledge of what he was like and what he stood for. Hes a hero of the South and one of the best military leaders in US History

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