Back To CourseMiddle School US History: Tutoring Solution
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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.
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.
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.
When that did not work, a massive charge against the Federal center was ordered on July 3; this attack is known famously as Pickett's Charge, which was a devastating defeat for Lee's forces. Lee began his retreat back to Virginia on July 4, having lost 28,000 casualties in three days of battle at Gettysburg. The Confederate Army would never recover from these severe losses. While Lee's aggressiveness had served him well in Virginia, it had cost his army dearly in Pennsylvania.
In 1864, Lee had a new opponent. Ulysses S. Grant was appointed a Lieutenant General and placed in command of all Union forces in March 1864. Grant oversaw the Overland Campaign in 1864, pushing his massive army south directly toward Richmond. In some of the most savage and costly fighting of the war, Grant and Lee bludgeoned each other for several months. By mid-summer, the two armies had settled into a siege near Petersburg, Virginia. The siege lasted several months into 1865.
In January of 1865, in an attempt to revive the ever-weakening Confederate war effort, Lee was appointed General-in-Chief for the entire Confederate Army. Yet, at this point, there was little that Lee could do to stave off defeat. After four years of war, the Confederacy was on its last legs as the spring of 1865 arrived. After Grant captured Richmond in early April, Lee knew the end was near. On April 9, 1865, he surrendered his army to Grant at Appomattox Court House. While many in the North wanted Lee to be tried for treason, Grant oversaw a forgiving surrender. It was not until the 1970s that Lee would have his citizenship restored, but he was never put on trial after the war, thanks to the magnanimous attitude of Grant and Lincoln toward the defeated Confederacy.
After the surrender, Lee could not return to Arlington House because, during the war, the Union government had begun burying dead Union soldiers in the fields around his former home. Thus, Lee needed to find a new place to live and a new profession. He would stay in Virginia for both. In late 1865, Lee took a job as the President of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. There he excelled, building the school and its reputation at a time when much of the South was in ruins from the war. Lee stayed at the college until his death on October 12, 1870, from a combination of heart troubles, a stroke, and pneumonia. After his death, Washington College was renamed Washington and Lee University. Lee was interred underneath the Lee Chapel at the university.
In the years after the Civil War, Lee became a symbol for the Lost Cause mythology. This was a school of thought built by former Confederates to suggest that their cause was righteous and that had it not been for overwhelming Northern numerical strength, the Confederacy would have prevailed. Lee's feelings about slavery have also been controversial in the years after his death. While many claim he never approved of the institution, Arlington House was a working plantation before the war, and the Lee family did own slaves.
To this day, Lee is revered as one of the great generals in American history. He was able to persevere for several years with a Confederate Army that was often outnumbered. While he was ultimately defeated, his army achieved stunning victories that brought the Confederacy to the verge of its independence on several occasions during the American Civil War.
Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) was married to Martha Washington's great granddaughter, Mary Custis, with whom he had seven children. A graduate of West Point and later a superintendent at the Academy, Lee began his military career as an engineer in the Army. He served in the Mexican War alongside Ulysses S. Grant and was recognized for his bravery in battle. When the Civil War erupted, Lee was offered the command of Union forces but chose to serve in the Confederate Army instead.
Lee served as military adviser to Confederate president Jefferson Davis, and his military career took off when he was appointed commander of the Army of Northern Virginia after the Battle of Seven Pines. Lee led Confederate troops in what is considered one of the greatest Confederate victories of the war, the 1862 Battle of Second Manassas, where Lee used flanking maneuvers and counterattacks to defeat Union forces. However, later in the same year at the Battle of Antietam, Lee suffered many losses and was forced to retreat. Lee regained his momentum in what many consider to be Lee's finest victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville, a several-day-long battle with approximately 30,000 casualties. A devastating Confederate defeat followed though at the Battle of Gettysburg, and in 1865, Lee surrendered his army to Union General Ulysses Grant.
After the war and until his death, Lee served as president of Washington College in Virginia, later renamed Washington and Lee University. Lee became a symbol for the Lost Cause mythology, which suggests that the Confederate cause was righteous and that had it not been for overwhelming Northern numerical strength, the Confederacy would have prevailed.
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Back To CourseMiddle School US History: Tutoring Solution
22 chapters | 240 lessons