Kat Smutz summarises the life of the Confederate general, Robert E Lee, who died 12 October 1870, five years after the end of the American Civil War.
Robert E Lee, the ‘E’ being for Edward, was a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Soldiering ran in the family. His father, known as “Light Horse Harry” Lee, had been a hero of the Revolutionary War. Lee’s career as a combat engineer included service in the Mexican-American War, superintendent of West Point and leading the US Marines who arrested John Brown and his band of abolitionists at Harpers Ferry in October 1859.
In 1831, he married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the step-great-granddaughter of America’s first president, George Washington. Of their seven children, all three sons served in the Confederate Army while his four daughters all died unmarried.
Lee’s father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, died, leaving his estate to his only child, Mary, Lee’s wife. The estate was in chaos, with the terms of Custis’ will requiring that all his slaves be emancipated within five years. The estate included hundreds of acres of land and hundreds of slaves. It was also poorly managed and in debt. Still, Lee and his wife managed, in spite of the war, to free all the slaves by 1862.
Besides his determination to free his father-in-law’s slaves, Lee supported his wife’s efforts to relocate freed slaves to Liberia, and supported her illegal school for slaves at Arlington Plantation. Lee further suggested, near the end of the war, that slaves should be enlisted into the Confederate Army and emancipated in return for military service.
The Confederate Army
When war came, Robert E Lee was strongly conflicted. He called secession “revolution” and told his son that it would bring “calamity.” Lee stated that he would never bear arms against the Union, but that he might find himself having to defend his native state of Virginia. Winfield Scott, commander of the Union forces, wanted Lee among his commanding officers. On the day Lee received Scott’s offer, the state of Virginia seceded from the Union. Lee turned down the offer of major-general in the Union Army to accept the same rank in the Confederate Army. It was the end of a 32-year career in the United States Army. Even after being promoted to full general in the Confederate Army, Lee continued to wear three stars on his uniform, the insignia of a colonel, the last rank he held in the US Army.
Lee’s career throughout the war saw a series of successful tactical maneuvers until Chancellorsville in 1863 when a brilliant plan by his general, Stonewall Jackson, was thwarted by Jackson’s accidental death at the hands of his own men. Lee’s next campaign was to take the war north, into Pennsylvania. But when his army faced Union forces near the small market town of Gettysburg, three days of fighting marked a turning point in the war.
Shortly after Gettysburg, Ulysses S Grant was appointed commander-in-chief of the Union forces, and Lee met his match. Grant’s Overland Campaign pushed Lee’s troops back with nowhere to go and nowhere to look for reinforcements, whilst Grant’s generals were keeping Confederate forces busy elsewhere. On April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.
After the war, Lee was not arrested, but did temporarily lose his right to vote. He supported President Andrew Johnson’s efforts to continue Abraham Lincoln’s plans for reconciliation with the South and opposed the Radical Republicans. He supported civil rights, free public schools for African-Americans, and became the icon of reconciliation between the North and South.
Lee had hoped to retire to a farm after the war, but was too high-profile a figure to be left in peace. He was appointed president of the Washington and Lee College in Lexington, VA (the Lee was added later) and served in the position until his death.
Robert E Lee suffered a stroke on September 28, 1870. Two weeks later on October 12, he died of pneumonia, aged 63.
See also Winfield Scott, Civil War general