Skip to content


Confederate Leaders: Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee (1807-1870)

Scion of a prominent Va. family, Lee served at Forts Pulaski, Monroe, and Hamilton, before being superintending engineer for the St. Louis harbor. In 1846 he was sent to San Antonio as assistant engineer but soon joined GEN Scott in the Vera Cruz expedition. During the Mexican War (1 wound, 3 brevets) Lee’s extraordinary industry and capacity won him the lasting confidence and esteem of Scott and he emerged from the war with a brilliant reputation. He then supervised the construction of Fort Carroll in Baltimore Harbor, until his appointment as superintendent at West Point (1852-1855). Being in Washington when John Brown made his raid on Harpers Ferry (1859), Lee was sent to capture the raiders with a force of Marines from the Navy Yard.

At the beginning of the Civil War, at Scott’s urging, Lincoln offered Lee command of the Federal armies (18 Apr ’61). Lee declined, and resigned two days later to take command of Virginia troops. After his first campaign in the field led to failure at Cheat Mountain, West Virginia (10-15 Sep ’61), Lee commanded forces along the South Atlantic coast before being recalled to Richmond to serve as military advisor to President Davis. On 1 Jun ’62, Lee succeeded J. E. Johnston (wounded during the Peninsula Campaign) in the command of the force that then became known as the Army of Northern Virginia.

Lee then embarked upon an offensive campaign known as the Seven Days Battles in which the Federal Army of the Potomac fell back from Richmond. With the immediate danger to the Confederate capitol ended Lee moved against a second Federal army, the Army of Virginia under John Pope. After defeating Pope at Second Manassas (29-30 Aug ’62) Lee was determined to retain the initiative and crossed the Potomac into Maryland in his first invasion of the North. McClellan, having been placed in command of the combined troops of his own and Pope’s forces, moved to counter the Confederate maneuver. When McClellan came into possession of Lee’s march orders Lee was forced to concentrate his army along Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Md. In the Battle of Antietam (17 Sep ’62) the two armies fought to a bloody stalemate and Lee recrossed the Potomac two days later.

After McClellan was replaced by Ambrose Burnside the new Federal commander attempted to move on Richmond by way of Fredericksburg. In the Battle of Fredericksburg (13 Dec ’62) Lee successfully blocked the maneuver and both armies went into winter quarters.

In the spring, Lee achieved his military masterpiece at Chancellorsville (1-4 May ’63), but his army was too weakened by the death of Jackson and dwindling supplies of manpower and material ever to recover its former combat effectiveness. Furthermore, the Federal armies were increasing in strength and proficiency and competent military leadership was finally being found. The high tide of the Confederacy was reached when Lee was unable to destroy the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg (1-3 Jul ’63) and was forced to retreat into Virginia.

Coming East from the simultaneous and equally decisive victory at Vicksburg, Grant assumed command of all Federal armies, formulated an over-all strategic plan, and then proceeded to destroy Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in a costly 11-month campaign of attribution. It was not until Feb ’65 – two months before his surrender – that Lee was given over-all command of all Confederate armies. Accepting the presidency of Washington College, after the war, Lee served until his death (22 Oct ’70) at the age of 64, and was buried there. (The name was later changed to Washington and Lee University.)

Note: Biographical information comes from the U.S. Army Center for Military History Gettysburg Staff Ride book.

Posted in Civil War.

Read Comments