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The Life of Robert Edward Lee

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Robert Edward Lee, born on January 18th, 1807 and died on October 12th, 1870, is regarded as one of the most successful generals of the Civil War era. Lee enrolled to the “…United States Military Academy at West Point on July 1, 1825 in which he graduated second of his class in 1829.” and, upon graduation, Lee “…chose service in the Corps of Engineers, regarded as the most prestigious branch of the US Army.” (Weigley). Lee’s reputation was formed by his numerous victories in fighting the Army of the Potomac, the Union’s main army, as well as his marriage to Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the great-granddaughter of George Washington’s wife, Martha Washington; thus, he secured a stable financial position, a feat his father did not gain, and being associated with George Washington has provided Lee with a remarkable reputation. With this, he was assigned to various positions, ranging from Georgia to New York, and became the leading general to the Army of Northern Virginia, the Confederacy’s army. Lee won many battles, his most popular being the Battle of Chancellorsville; however he lost two major battles with Ulysses S. Grant and George Meade in Northern soils, the most notable defeat was the Battle of Gettysburg where Lee surrendered to Grant on April 9th, 1865. The legacy Lee left stayed with the Southern states and he became an icon; however this assumption is based on his credentials and rank rather than his personality and character outside of the field.

Lee’s Adult Personality

Lee’s father, “…‘Light-Horse Harry’, formally known as Colonel Henry Lee, served in the army as a cavalry leader during the Revolutionary War, where he earned recognition as one of the war’s many heroes.” (Weigley). Ancestral wealth was not promised to Robert Lee, as his father received many penalties due to “…financial carelessness and poor health” (Weigley); Lee’s childhood predominantly consisted of the negligence and absence of a father who was attempting to escape his creditors and improve his health simultaneously. As a result, Lee’s mother, Ann Hill Carter, financed her family with her family’s legacy. She raised Robert with a strong sense of duty and responsibility, which most likely influenced his decision of participating in the military. Another factor being his father’s excellent rank during his military days inspired Lee to continue his family’s legacy. Lee’s strong, dominant personality is reflected in his scarce interactions with his youngest son, Robert E. Lee Jr., whom notes in his memoir how his father “[passed] over me without any sign of recognition.”(Winn), indicating how Lee mirrored his father’s negligence and absence of being a parental figure; however upon speaking with his father, later in his memoir, Lee addresses to his son to send the men back into their rightful home states with a smile. Lee’s inattention to his youngest son is evident, but on the other hand Lee’s care for his children is represented by his firm demeanor and interactions with them, thus not fully mirroring his father’s lack of interactions.

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Lee’s Tactics and Strategies for War

Lee’s tactics and strategies in war mainly consisted of taking the offensive and invading the enemy’s territory, this being influenced by his involvement in the Mexican-American War, where he entered Mexico as a “…staff engineer in October 12 1846” and “…directed the building and paving of roads and bridges from San Antonio to Saltillo.” (Weigley). According to Weigley, in addition, Lee was given orders on January 16, 1847 “…to join Major General Winfield Scott, who was the commanding general of the US army.”. Scott allowed Lee to have total control, which gave Lee the ability to make and direct commander-like decisions. Lee discovered many routes to overcome the enemy that supplied the United States with ample victories, such as a victory that took place at the Contreras, located near the Pedregal, a lava bed, on August 20. The main enemy position was located at the Churubusco, and Lee found a route to overturn the Mexican forces and defenses. From there, Weigley adds on that Lee joined with “Brigadier Generals Persifor F. Smith and John Cadwaldar in deciding the appropriate procedure in the turning attack of the Mexican forces”; the attack went through and was highly successful, despite the forces calling in new arrivals that threatened its success. Lee crossed over the Pedregal once more with only a few men to gain more troops from Scott, and thus another victory was in the hands of the United States. Lee’s decision to take on the initiative implied the heavy casualties, meaning more manpower would be needed; however the Confederacy lacked such a resource. Furthermore, for Lee to choose such a tactic meant he is willing to adapt the undesirable option to gain a swift victory, in case there was little or no hope in winning the Civil War. Lee concluded that if the Confederate states did not take on such a tactic and simply held its borders, the North would multiply its manpower and resources and defeat the Confederacy; on the other hand if the Confederate states took on this tactic, then they can potentially achieve superior strength to the North and win the war.

Betrayal of the Union

Lee’s reputation, as stated above, distributed across the United States, specifically the Northern states. Upon hearing the seven states’ decision to secede from the United States, Lee informed General Scott that if his home state, Virginia, seceded he would feel obliged to defend it and resign his commission, as Lee felt he should remain loyal to Virginia and not battle with the Commonwealth. Lee refused a potentially war-changing offer, as “…on April 12-14, Francis Preston Blair Sr, on behalf of President Lincoln, asked [him] if he is willing to take command of the Union army…Lee refused and reiterated what he stated to Scott.” (Weigley). On April 20, Virginia seceded and Lee, upholding his promise, “…resigned his position and accepted to command the military and naval forces of the state by Governor John Letcher of Virginia” (Weigley).

Lee’s Regard to Slavery

Lee’s opinion on slavery can be described with ambivalence and full of contradictions. Lee grew up surrounded around enslaved African Americans, but this changed as he joined the Army. Lee opposed the liberty and equality of not only African Americans but also of Mexicans and American Indians who threatened white expansion; however Lee initially supported the enlistment of African Americans in the army, as the Confederacy needed more manpower after their loss at the Wilderness Campaign, but he retaliated at the last minute. In conclusion, Lee takes on a complicated middle ground, as he acknowledges slavery is evil yet claims the evil is greater for whites than blacks without explanation, as well as assuming the peculiar institution will fade away; he does not provide a reason why. Lee regrets the existence of slavery as well, but then claims it is necessary, as “the relation between master and slave…is the best that can exist between the white and black races.” (Guelzo). He continues on and states “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially, and physically.” (Guelzo). Lee then claims that a slave’s condition is up to God, or Providence, not man.

Reconcile of Providence

The mention of Providence and God is used as a last wish of hope, as Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, including his injured men in a wagon train, could not cross the Potomac River as it has risen to unexpected heights, destroying the pontoon bridges. His army traveled 17 miles after their defeat at Gettysburg, which he devastating attack known as Pickett’s Charge created. Stated in his letter to his wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, Lee confides in Providence as he wishes that “…our merciful God, our only help and refuge, will not desert us in this hour of need, but will deliver us by His Almighty hand, that the whole world may recognize His power and all hearts be lifted up in adoration and praise of His unbounded loving kindness.” (A Letter from Robert E. Lee to his Wife). The adrenaline Lee and his army experienced intensified as General Meade’s army slowly and exhaustively approached, however the Confederate Army escaped before interception occurred, as Meade retaliated at the last moment.


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