Who Was General Robert E. Lee? - History & Civil War Facts

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  • 0:04 Robert E. Lee: Early Years
  • 2:14 Secession, War & Rise…
  • 4:04 Victories & Defeats
  • 8:38 Post-War Years & Lee's Impact
  • 10:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia for three years during the American Civil War. He achieved several stunning victories and is remembered as one of the great generals in American history.

Robert E. Lee: Childhood & Early Years

The history of the United States is filled with names of great generals and military leaders. Among them are George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, George Patton, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. The name of Robert E. Lee is also often included in this pantheon of American military greatness. Yet, Lee actually fought against the United States. So, why is he so famous?

Born on January 19, 1807, Robert E. Lee was seemingly destined for greatness. His father, Colonel Henry Lee, or Light Horse Harry Lee, was an American officer in the Revolutionary War as well as a former governor of the state of Virginia. Young Robert was raised largely by his mother, because his father died when he was only eleven. Lee attended several schools for young men in Virginia and was appointed to West Point in 1824, beginning his time there in 1825. He graduated second in his class in 1829, and was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers.

Lee's early career in the army saw him working on many projects at several different posts. He served in both Georgia and Virginia as an engineer. In 1831, he married Mary Custis, Martha Washington's great-granddaughter. Custis lived in her family home, Arlington House, just across the Potomac River from Washington D.C. This would eventually become Lee's home. Robert and Mary eventually had seven children together; all three of his sons served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.

When the Mexican War broke out in 1846, Lee found himself in the midst of the action. Serving on the staff of the acclaimed General Winfield Scott, Lee found his own fame through reconnaissance and staff work that was crucial in establishing methods of attacking Mexican positions on difficult terrain during the American campaign for Mexico City. While in Mexico, Lee was noted for bravery and heroism, and he served alongside several future Civil War generals, including Ulysses S. Grant. By the end of the war, Lee had received several promotions, and his career began to skyrocket. During the 1850s, Lee was the Superintendent at West Point for three years, from 1852 to 1855, when he was transferred to the cavalry.

Secession, War, and Rise to Command

In 1859, the country began to descend deeper into the sectional conflict that eventually led to war. In October, abolitionist John Brown staged a raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, hoping to seize enough weapons to arm slaves in Virginia and begin an uprising. After Brown and his supporters took over part of the town, a squad of U.S. Marines was sent to Harpers Ferry from Washington to stop the insurrection; the squad was led by Colonel Robert E. Lee.

This was only the beginning of Lee's involvement in the sectional fight over slavery. In April of 1861, after the firing on Fort Sumter, the secession of several Southern states, and the start of the Civil War, Lee was offered the rank of Major General and the command of Union forces in the attempt to subdue the rebellious Confederacy. Rather than fight against Virginia, which joined the Confederacy soon after the hostilities commenced, Lee resigned from the United States Army. He soon accepted command of the forces of the state of Virginia and, by the summer of 1861, had become a Confederate general.

Though he is now known for being a legendary field commander, Robert E. Lee's first year in the Confederate Army was rather inconspicuous. He suffered setbacks commanding Confederate forces in western Virginia, oversaw coastal fortifications in Georgia and South Carolina, and became a military adviser to Confederate president Jefferson Davis. However, on June 1, 1862, at the Battle of Seven Pines, the course of Lee's life and the course of the Civil War changed dramatically.

At Seven Pines, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston was wounded outside of Richmond, attempting to defend the Confederate capital from the advance of Union forces under the command of Major General George McClellan. Lee was ordered to take Johnston's place, and thus, he was thrust into history. Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia, a post that he held for the rest of the war.

Victories & Defeats

Lee's first year in command of the Army of Northern Virginia was one of the most remarkable years any commander has had in military history. In late June of 1862, the Confederates launched a series of fierce attacks against George McClellan's Army of the Potomac (the force which Lee fought against in the East for the remainder of the war) outside of Richmond. While several of the battles were tactical defeats for Lee, their overall effect was to push Federal forces away from Richmond.

By Mid-August of 1862, Lee had successfully forced McClellan to withdraw back to Washington D.C., ending the Peninsula Campaign. Lee then moved his army north and achieved a stunning victory by thoroughly defeating Union forces under the command of Major General John Pope at the Battle of Second Manassas, one of the greatest Confederate victories of the war. Lee used brilliant flanking maneuvers to catch Pope's army off guard and lure the Union commander into unwise attacks. On the third day of the battle, Lee launched a devastating counterattack that drove the Federals from the field.

Following his victory at Second Manassas, with momentum pushing his army toward success, Lee decided to move north into Maryland to achieve a possible war-winning victory. In Maryland, Lee boldly divided his forces in the face of superior numbers. He gathered his men together just in time to fight the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, which was a Union victory. Due to heavy losses, Lee was forced to retreat back into Virginia.

Despite this setback, Lee had more victories ahead. On December 13, 1862, his army successfully fended off attacks by the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Fredericksburg in Fredericksburg, Virginia, dealing Union commander Ambrose Burnside a severe defeat. Several months later, in May of 1863, Lee achieved what many consider to be his finest victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville. While Union commander Major General Joseph Hooker tried to outflank Lee's position with his numerically stronger force, Lee divided his army and sent his trusted subordinate Thomas Jonathan 'Stonewall' Jackson on an audacious flanking march around the Union Army. Jackson caught Hooker off guard, and the Federal forces were soundly defeated. Chancellorsville was a several day long battle that resulted in 30,000 casualties, among which was Jackson himself.

The stunning victory at Chancellorsville again gave Lee the momentum he desired, and he soon tried to capitalize on his success by moving north. On the first three days of July 1863, Lee met the Union Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Gettysburg in southern Pennsylvania, the largest and costliest battle ever fought on the North American continent. At Gettysburg, Lee took the offensive on each day of the three-day fight. After driving Federal forces back through the town on July 1, Lee launched attacks on the Federal flanks on July 2.

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