1902 Encyclopedia > Robert Edward Lee (Robert E. Lee)

Robert Edward Lee
(Robert E. Lee)
American soldier

ROBERT EDWARD LEE (1807-1870), general of the Confederate States army, and one of the greatest of modern commanders, was born at Stratford, in Westmoreland county, Virginia, on January 19,1807. His father, General Harry Lee, better known in the War of Independence as "Light-Horse Harry Lee," and afterwards governor of Virginia, was the son of a cousin of the subject of last article. Robert Lee entered the military academy at West Point in 1825, and graduated in 1829, when he received a commission in the corps of engineers. When the Mexican war broke out Lee, who was then captain, served in the army under General Scott. He distinguished himself greatly throughout the campaign, and was brevetted as colonel for his conduct at the siege of Chapultepec, where he was wounded. In 1852 he was appointed superintendent of the academy at West Point, and in 1855 he was promoted lieutenant-colonel of the second regiment of cavalry, with which he served in Texas, In March 1861 he was made colonel of the first regiment of cavalry, but in the following month, learning that his native State had withdrawn from the Union, he resigned as an officer of the United States army, and was forthwith put in command of the Virginian forces. When Virginia joined the Confederacy he was the third of five generals appointed by the Southern Congress. No adequate opportunity of gaining distinction was afforded him, however, until the beginning of June 1862, when he received command of the army of northern Virginia, and commenced the series of operations the result of which before the month had closed was to compel M'Clellan to abandon the siege of Richmond. Following up this advantage and Jackson's victory at Cedar Run on August 9, Lee advanced in person to lead the army that was being formed on the south bank of the Rapidan; after crossing that river he inflicted upon Pope at Manassas the disastrous defeat by which the Federal army was compelled to retire within the fortified lines of Washington. Lee now decided on the invasion of Maryland, and advanced to Frederick City, but, being compelled to divide his forces, he sustained a check in the passes of South Mountain (September 16, 17) which compelled him to recross the Potomac. After a few weeks' breathing time he found himself again face to face with the Federal army near Fredericksburg early in November ; on December 13 the enemy, having crossed the Rappahannock on the previous day, assailed his position in strength, but was defeated with great loss. In the following spring the hostile armies still faced one another on the Rappahannock, but the brilliant strategy of Lee, as exhibited in the battles at Chancellorsville (May 24), against vastly superior forces, resulted in the retreat of the enemy, while Lee was left free to resume his old policy of throwing the Federal forces on the defensive by an advance into Pennsylvania. He encountered the enemy near Gettysburg on July 1, and decided advantages were gained, but the struggle was renewed on the two following days with disastrous consequences to him; he retreated, however, in good order, and reached Virginia on the 12th, when the campaign of the year practically closed. That of 1864 began on May 4, when Grant crossed the Rapidan ; the passage itself was unresisted, but his subsequent progress was hotly contested in a series of wellfought battles which did not prevent the Federal general, from reaching the south side of the Appomattox. The siege of Petersburg began in June, and lasted until April 2, 1865. A week afterwards Lee surrendered with his whole army, thus virtually terminating the war. In the same year he was elected president of Washington and Lee university at Lexington, Virginia, which office he retained until his death on October 12,1870.

The events of Lee's military career briefly indicated in this notice belong to the history of the United States, and will call for further notice in that connexion. To do justice to his extraordinary ability as a general, displayed under circumstances of extreme difficulty, when his movements were continually hampered by political necessities, as well by the lack of material resources, would require an elaborate military biography; it was never more nobly displayed than in the last hopeless stages of the fatal struggle. The personal history of Lee is lost in the history of the great crisis of America's national life; political friends and foes alike acknowledged the disinterestedness and purity of his motives, his self-denying sense of duty, and the unrepining loyalty with which he accepted the ruin of his party.

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