Thursday, October 12, 2006
Robert E Lee Dies, October 12, 1870
Today in 1870, Robert Edward Lee died in Lexington, Virginia. Lee is today remembered as a Confederate General during the American Civil War, although his military career began long before then. For many Americans, Robert E. Lee's image is one of impeccable character, tactical genius and perseverance against incredible odds.
Lee was born on a plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia in January, 1807. His father was Henry "Lighthouse Harry" Lee, a Revolutionary War hero. After he turned 18 in 1825, Lee entered the US Military Academy at West Point. When he graduated in 1829, he did so with the highest grades in his class and no demerits, a feat that was almost unheard of. He was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers.
While stationed at Fort Monroe on Chesapeake Bay, Lee married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, a great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. The couple had seven children, three boys and four girls. Lee's in-laws (and later Lee himself) owned Arlington, an impressive plantation near Washington, D.C. It was this place that would one day cause him much heartache and would become the focal point of a divided nation's grief.
Lee severed at various posts, overseeing many engineering projects. In 1846, he was called to action in the Mexican-American War as an aide to General Winfield Scott. Already a captain, he was promoted to major after the Battle of Cerro Gordo in April, 1847. He fought in several other battles and was wounded once. By the end of the conflict, he had risen to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
Lee became the Superintendent of West Point in 1852, a position he held for three years. He ordered improvements to the grounds and oversaw an overhaul of the academy's coursework. Lee's oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, was at West Point during his father's time there. He graduated first in his class in 1854. He would later serve in the Confederate Army as a Major General and aide to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
After leaving West Point, Lee was assigned to the 2nd US Cavalry, which was stationed on the Texas frontier. It was during this time that Lee's father-in-law passed away and Lee, as executor of the will, came to oversee Arlington and its 63 slaves. Much has been made of the fact that Lee was a slaveholder; in his defense, many people have found quotations in which he spoke of his desire to see the institution come to an end. Most likely, Lee's views on the matter were similar to many in the South before the Civil War who considered themselves to be both religious and enlightened. In short, this belief held that slavery existed as a result of God's will and that only He would determine the best time for the practice to end. Also, it was believed that slaves were intellectually and morally inferior to whites and could not just be handed their freedom. It should be noted that Lee did eventually free the slaves of Arlington.
After Texas' secession from the Union in February, 1861, Colonel Lee returned to Washington, where he was promptly offered a senior command position in the Army. General Winfield Scott remembered Lee from their days in Mexico together and wanted to keep him close by. Lee said that he would accept the position if Virginia remained in the Union. He had no desire to fight against his country; in fact, he had denounced secession as a betrayal of all for which the Founding Fathers had fought. But he would stand in defense of Virginia, and so in the second week of April, 1861, as Virginia's secession became evident, Lee resigned from the US Army after 36 years of service. He was immediately placed in command of all Virginia state forces, but would soon be named one of five full generals in Confederate service. Despite this high rank, Lee continued to wear the rank insignia of a colonel, the rank he had last held in the US Army.
Hundreds of volumes have been written about Lee's generalship during the Civil War; we will not further analyze those battles here. It is worth noting that Lee maintained his command of the Army of Northern Virginia throughout the war and was eventually made the general-in-chief of all Confederate forces. By comparison, President Lincoln replaced numerous generals throughout the conflict. It is interesting to consider what might have happened if Lee had taken the command position offered him by the Union.
After the war, Lee found himself a man without a home. Union forces had seized Arlington Plantation during the war and used it as a cemetery for fallen soldiers, a practice that continues to this day. After living in Richmond for a few months, Lee was offered the position of president of Washington College, now known as Washington and Lee University. He accepted and in October, 1865 assumed the office he would hold for the rest of his life. He worked tirelessly to turn the school into a nationally known institution that attracted students from both north and south. Washington and Lee was one of the first American universities to offer courses in business, journalism and Spanish.
At the end of September, 1870, Lee suffered a stroke that left him unable to speak. He subsequently developed pneumonia and died two weeks later. He was buried underneath Lee Chapel at the University he served so well. He remains there today.