One of history's greatest commanders, Robert E. Lee led the Army of Northern Virginia from July 1, 1862, to the Confederacy's end at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865. For nearly three years, the brilliant, daring, and resourceful Virginian fought the always larger, more powerful Union Army of the Potomac to a draw.
Born into Virginia's aristocracy, he was the son of the improvident Revolutionary War hero "Light Horse Harry" Lee, whose irresponsible financial dealings nearly ruined the family. When the elder Lee died, care of the invalid widow fell to young Robert. The boy shouldered the responsibility and continued to excel at his studies. He accepted the offer of a place at West Pointa free education and guaranteed employment upon graduation in 1825, and made a brilliant record in his four years there, graduating second in his 1829 class of forty-six cadets.
In seventeen years in the prewar army, he saw varied service at outposts around the country. Lee fought in Mexico in 1846 to 1847 and was wounded there. He was superintendent of West Point from 1852 to 1855. In 1859 he commanded the detachment that captured the insurrectionary John Brown at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. On the outbreak of the Civil War, his superiors graded him the outstanding officer in U.S. service.
President Lincoln offered Lee command of Union forces after the attack on Fort Sumter. Though Lee opposed secession, Virginia's decision to leave the Union forced him to choose between his officer's oath and loyalty to his state. 'I cannot raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, my children,' he wrote a friend. In May 1861 he accepted a brigadier general's commission in the Confederate Army. His career as a commander started slowly. His first field campaign, in western Virginia later in 1861, ended a failure. After a brief service as President Jefferson Davis's military advisor, he assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia in June 1862.
The Lee legend began to take shape almost at once, for he proved to be a commander of barely restrained boldness and audacity. The chances of battle stirred him to his depths."It is well that war is so terrible," he once said, "or we should grow too fond of it."
With Union forces in sight of Richmond, Lee launched the counteroffensive known as the battles of Seven Days
(June 25- July 1, 1862) that drove the Federalize away from the capital. Lee followed the Seven Days with an overwhelming success at Second Bull Run in late August. In September his first invasion of the North, a daring operation with political and diplomatic, as well as military aims, came to grief in the drawn battle of Antietam. Victory at Fredericksburg in December 1862 restored Lee's aura of invincibility.
In May 1863, he conducted the brilliant battle of maneuver that yielded his greatest triumph, Chancellorsville. Responding to a Federal offensive, he boldly divided his army, attacked the larger enemy force in groups, and drove the Federalize back to their positions beyond the Rappahannock. Lee's reputation reached its zenith after Chancellorsville. The army retained an almost absolute faith in him. "We looked forward to victory under him as confidently as to successive sunrises," one of his officers, the artillerist Edward Porter Alexander, observed.
Lee's second great gamble, the Pennsylvania campaign of June-July 1863, ended in a decisive repulse at Gettysburg. The battle opened by accident, with an unplanned clash near Gettysburg on July 1. Lee concentrated his forcesonce again, he had divided his armyand, against the advice of some of his leading lieutenants, decided to attack Gen. George Meade's army in a strong defensive position south of the town.
The consequence was largest, bloodiest battle ever fought in North America. The sound of the guns at Gettysburg could be heard as far as Pittsburgh 150 miles west. It ended with Pickett's disastrous charge up Cemetery Ridge on the afternoon of July 3. Lee himself met the tattered survivors of the charge. "It is all my fault," he said as he rode among them. "It is I who have lost this fight."
Lee withdrew the army into Virginia, and from then on the Confederates fought on the defensive. By mid-1864, the Federal commander, Ulysses S. Grant, had forced the once-nimble Army of Northern Virginia into static lines covering Richmond and Petersburg.
"This army cannot stand at siege," Lee remarked to one of his officers, and in due course events bore him out. The army slowly disintegrated during the cold, hungry winter of 1864-1865. Grant's final campaign was short and decisive. By the morning of April 9, Union forces had trapped Lee' s once-vaunted army near the village of Appomattox Court House. "There is nothing left for me to do but go and see General Grant," Lee told his staff, "and I would rather die a thousand deaths."
Even in his own day, Lee attained mythic stature. Handsome, courtly, unfailingly kind in matter, and legendary for his tenderness to animals, he inspired in his troops deep confidence and devotion. A religious man, he became for many the ideal of a Christian soldier. As a tactical commander, Lee knew no peer. Critics have faulted him, however, for a strategic short-sightedness that placed the defense of his beloved Virginia above all else.
The U.S. authorities left Lee alone after the war. He applied for a parole in July 1865, in part as an example to diehard Confederates. In the Autumn of 1865 he accepted the presidency of Washington College(now Washington and Lee) in Lexington, Virginia. He died there of a heart ailment on October 12, 1870.