One of the greatest Americans to ever live was Civil War General Robert Edward Lee (January 19, 1807 – October 12, 1870). His name will forever be remembered as the honorable military commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
But how did this son of a Revolutionary War officer and top graduate of the United States Military Academy find himself leading Confederate forces against United States forces commanded by so many of his fellow graduates and friends during the American Civil War?
The year of 1861 in America was unlike any other we have ever seen. Southern states were seceding from the United States in a rapid manner. When Virginia declared its secession from the United States in April 1861, Lee chose to follow his home state. Lee did this despite his personal desire for the country to remain intact, his opposition to slavery, and the fact that President Abraham Lincoln had offered Lee command of the Union Army.
His decision rested solely on the imminent threat of invasion forces into his homeland of Virginia. During the Civil War, Lee soon emerged as a shrewd tactician and battlefield commander, winning numerous battles against far superior Union armies. His abilities as a tactician have been praised by many military historians throughout the years.
Despite Lee’s battlefield abilities, the South suffered heavy losses as the War progressed. The turning point came in the summer of 1863 when Lee invaded the North, marching through western Maryland and into south central Pennsylvania. He encountered Union forces under George S. Meade at the three-day Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania in July. My great great grandfather, Nathan Fowler, was under Lee’s command at the time.
Fowler and thousands other soldiers would become the assault force known as Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. It would prove to be a tactical and strategic mistake for the General. The assault forces were repulsed and resulted in heavy Confederate losses. (I am grateful that Nathan Fowler survived).
After Pickett’s Charge, the General rode out to meet his retreating army and proclaimed, “All this has been my fault.” Lee was compelled to retreat. Despite flooded rivers that blocked his retreat, he escaped Meade’s ineffective pursuit. Following his defeat at Gettysburg, Lee sent a letter of resignation to President Jefferson Davis on August 8, 1863, but Davis refused Lee’s request.
As Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s campaigns bore down on the Confederacy in 1864 and 1865, and despite Confederate armies inflicting heavy casualties, Lee was unable to turn the war’s tide. He would ultimately surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. At the surrender ceremony, he was saluted by soldiers on both sides.
After the War, Robert E. Lee would move on into civilian life and attempt to bring healing to the battered country. His last notable service was leading what is known today as Washington & Lee University as its President.
Benjamin Harvey Hill summed up the character of General Lee in an address before the Southern Historical Society in Atlanta, Georgia in 1874. Hill described Lee as:
… a foe without hate; a friend without treachery; a soldier without cruelty; a victor without oppression, and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices; a private citizen without wrong; a neighbor without reproach; a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guile. He was a Caesar, without his ambition; Frederick, without his tyranny; Napoleon, without his selfishness, and Washington, without his reward. I cannot think of a better way to describe this great American.