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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Soldier Who Left His Country

By Tom Morrow

He spent most of his military career as a U.S. soldier; He was commandant of the U.S. Military Academy when Abraham Lincoln offered him command of the Army, but from 1862 to 1865, Robert E. Lee chose to return to his native Virginia and command Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

Lee was born at Stratford Hall Plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia, the son of Major General Henry Lee III (Light Horse Harry) (1756–1818), Governor of Virginia, and his second wife, Anne Hill Carter (1773–1829).

Robert Edward Lee was born Jan. 19, 1807. He was an American soldier best known for commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War from 1862 until his surrender in 1865. As the son of Revolutionary War officer, he was a top graduate of the United States Military Academy. Robert E. Lee was an exceptional officer and combat engineer in the United States Army for 32 years. During this time, he served throughout the United States, distinguished himself during the Mexican–American War, served as Superintendent of the United States Military Academy, and married Mary Custis.

When the state of Virginia declared its secession from the Union in April 1861, Lee chose to follow his home state, despite his personal desire for the country to remain intact and despite an offer of a senior Union command. During the first year of the Civil War, Lee served as a senior military adviser to President Jefferson Davis. Once he took command of the main field army in 1862 he soon emerged as a shrewd tactician and battlefield commander, winning most of his battles, all against far superior Union armies. Lee’s strategic foresight was more questionable, and both of his major offensives into the North ended in defeat. Lee’s aggressive tactics, which resulted in high casualties at a time when the Confederacy had a shortage of manpower, have come under criticism in recent years. Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s campaigns bore down on the Confederacy in 1864 and 1865, and despite inflicting heavy casualties, Lee was unable to turn the war’s tide. He surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. By this time, Lee had assumed supreme command of the remaining Southern armies; other Confederate forces swiftly capitulated after his surrender. Lee rejected the proposal of a sustained insurgency against the North and called for reconciliation between the two sides.

After the war, as President of what is now Washington and Lee University, Lee supported President Andrew Johnson’s program of Reconstruction and intersectional friendship, while opposing the Radical Republican proposals to give freed slaves the vote and take the vote away from ex-Confederates. He urged them to rethink their position between the North and the South, and the reintegration of former Confederates into the nation’s political life.

Lee was not arrested or punished although he was indicted, he did lose the right to vote as well as some property. Lee’s prewar family home, the Custis-Lee Mansion, was seized by Union forces during the war and turned into Arlington National Cemetery, and his family was not compensated until more than a decade after Lee’s death.

Lee somewhat supported President Andrew Johnson’s plan of Reconstruction. In 1866 Lee counseled southerners not to resume fighting, of which Grant said Lee was “setting an example of forced acquiescence so grudging and pernicious in its effects as to be hardly realized.” Lee joined with Democrats in opposing the Radical Republicans who demanded punitive measures against the South, distrusted its commitment to the abolition of slavery and, indeed, distrusted the region’s loyalty to the United States. Lee supported a system of free public schools for blacks, but forthrightly opposed allowing blacks to vote.

Lee had become a suffering Christ-like icon for ex-Confederates. President Grant invited him to the White House in 1869, and he went. Nationally he became an icon of reconciliation between the North and South, and the reintegration of former Confederates into the national fabric.

Lee became the great Southern hero of the War, a postwar icon of the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy” to some. But his popularity grew even in the North, especially after his death in 1870.

Today, despite all of the protests to tear down Confederate statues and commemorations, Lee’s numerous remembrances around the South have been somewhat left alone.