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General Robert E. Lee (January 19, 1807 - October 12, 1870)
The History of The American Civil War
In the spring of 1861, decades of simmering tensions between the northern and southern United States over issues including states’ rights versus federal authority, westward expansion and slavery exploded into the American Civil War (1861-65). The election of the anti-slavery Republican Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860 caused seven southern states to secede from the Union to form the Confederate States of America; four more joined them after the first shots of the Civil War were fired. Four years of brutal conflict were marked by historic battles at Bull Run (Manassas), Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Vicksburg, among others. The War Between the States, as the Civil War was also known, pitted neighbor against neighbor and in some cases, brother against brother. By the time it ended in Confederate surrender in 1865, the Civil War proved to be the costliest war ever fought on American soil, with some 620,000 of 2.4 million soldiers killed, millions more injured and the population and territory of the South devastated.
CIVIL WAR BACKGROUND
In the mid-19th century, while the United States was experiencing an era of tremendous growth, a fundamental economic difference existed between the country’s northern and southern regions. While in the North, manufacturing and industry was well established, and agriculture was mostly limited to small-scale farms, the South’s economy was based on a system of large-scale farming that depended on the labor of black slaves to grow certain crops, especially cotton and tobacco. Growing abolitionist sentiment in the North after the 1830s and northern opposition to slavery’s extension into the new western territories led many southerners to fear that the existence of slavery in america–and thus the backbone of their economy–was in danger.
In 1854, the U.S. Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which essentially opened all new territories to slavery by asserting the rule of popular sovereignty over congressional edict. Pro- and anti-slavery forces struggled violently in “Bleeding Kansas,” while opposition to the act in the North led to the formation of the Republican Party, a new political entity based on the principle of opposing slavery’s extension into the western territories. After the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Dred Scott case (1857) confirmed the legality of slavery in the territories, the abolitionist John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry in 1859 convinced more and more southerners that their northern neighbors were bent on the destruction of the “peculiar institution” that sustained them. Lincoln’s election in November 1860 was the final straw, and within three months seven southern states–South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas–had seceded from the United States.
OUTBREAK OF THE CIVIL WAR (1861)
Even as Lincoln took office in March 1861, Confederate forces threatened the federal-held Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. On April 12, after Lincoln ordered a fleet to resupply Sumter, Confederate artillery fired the first shots of the Civil War. Sumter’s commander, Major Robert Anderson, surrendered after less than two days of bombardment, leaving the fort in the hands of Confederate forces under Pierre G.T. Beauregard. Four more southern states–Virginia,Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee–joined the Confederacy after Fort Sumter. Border slave states like Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland did not secede, but there was much Confederate sympathy among their citizens.
Though on the surface the Civil War may have seemed a lopsided conflict, with the 23 states of the Union enjoying an enormous advantage in population, manufacturing (including arms production) and railroad construction, the Confederates had a strong military tradition, along with some of the best soldiers and commanders in the nation. They also had a cause they believed in: preserving their long-held traditions and institutions, chief among these being slavery. In the First Battle of Bull Run (known in the South as First Manassas) on July 21, 1861, 35,000 Confederate soldiers under the command of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson forced a greater number of Union forces (or Federals) to retreat towards Washington, D.C., dashing any hopes of a quick Union victory and leading Lincoln to call for 500,000 more recruits. In fact, both sides’ initial call for troops had to be widened after it became clear that the war would not be a limited or short conflict.
THE CIVIL WAR IN VIRGINIA (1862)
George B. McClellan–who replaced the aging General Winfield Scott as supreme commander of the Union Army after the first months of the war–was beloved by his troops, but his reluctance to advance frustrated Lincoln. In the spring of 1862, McClellan finally led his Army of the Potomac up the peninsula between the York and James Rivers, capturing Yorktown on May 4. The combined forces of Robert E. Lee and Jackson successfully drove back McClellan’s army in the Seven Days’ Battles (June 25-July 1), and a cautious McClellan called for yet more reinforcements in order to move against Richmond. Lincoln refused, and instead withdrew the Army of the Potomac to Washington. By mid-1862, McClellan had been replaced as Union general-in-chief by Henry W. Halleck, though he remained in command of the Army of the Potomac.
Lee then moved his troops northwards and split his men, sending Jackson to meet Pope’s forces near Manassas, while Lee himself moved separately with the second half of the army. On August 29, Union troops led by John Pope struck Jackson’s forces in the Second Battle of Bull Run (Second Manassas). The next day, Lee hit the Federal left flank with a massive assault, driving Pope’s men back towards Washington. On the heels of his victory at Manassas, Lee began the first Confederate invasion of the North. Despite contradictory orders from Lincoln and Halleck, McClellan was able to reorganize his army and strike at Lee on September 14 in Maryland, driving the Confederates back to a defensive position along Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg. On September 17, the Army of the Potomac hit Lee’s forces (reinforced by Jackson’s) in what became the war’s bloodiest single day of fighting. Total casualties at Antietam numbered 12,410 of some 69,000 troops on the Union side, and 13,724 of around 52,000 for the Confederates. The Union victory at Antietam would prove decisive, as it halted the Confederate advance in Maryland and forced Lee to retreat into Virginia. Still, McClellan’s failure to pursue his advantage earned him the scorn of Lincoln and Halleck, who removed him from command in favor of Ambrose E. Burnside. Burnside’s assault on Lee’s troops near Fredericksburg on December 13 ended in heavy Union casualties and a Confederate victory; he was promptly replaced by Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, and both armies settled into winter quarters across the Rappahannock River from each other.
AFTER THE EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION (1863-4)
Lincoln had used the occasion of the Union victory at Antietam to issue a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in the rebellious states after January 1, 1863. He justified his decision as a wartime measure, and did not go so far as to free the slaves in the border states loyal to the Union. Still, the Emancipation Proclamation deprived the Confederacy of the bulk of its labor forces and put international public opinion strongly on the Union side. Some 186,000 black soldiers would join the Union Army by the time the war ended in 1865, and 38,000 lost their lives.
In the spring of 1863, Hooker’s plans for a Union offensive were thwarted by a surprise attack by the bulk of Lee’s forces on May 1, whereupon Hooker pulled his men back to Chancellorsville. The Confederates gained a costly victory in the battle that followed, suffering 13,000 casualties (around 22 percent of their troops); the Union lost 17,000 men (15 percent). Lee launched another invasion of the North in early June, attacking Union forces commanded by General George Meade on July 1 near Gettysburg, in southern Pennsylvania. Over three days of fierce fighting, the Confederates were unable to push through the Union center, and suffered casualties of close to 60 percent. Meade failed to counterattack, however, and Lee’s remaining forces were able to escape into Virginia, ending the last Confederate invasion of the North. Also in July 1863, Union forces underUlysses S. Grant took Vicksburg (Mississippi), a victory that would prove to be the turning point of the war in the western theater. After a Confederate victory at Chickamauga Creek, Georgia, just south of Chattanooga, Tennessee, in September, Lincoln expanded Grant’s command, and he led a reinforced Federal army (including two corps from the Army of the Potomac) to victory in Chattanooga in late November.
TOWARD A UNION VICTORY (1864-65)
In March 1864, Lincoln put Grant in supreme command of the Union armies, replacing Halleck. Leaving William T. Sherman in control in the West, Grant headed to Washington, where he led the Army of the Potomac towards Lee’s troops in northern Virginia. Despite heavy Union casualties in the Battle of the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania (both May 1864), at Cold Harbor (early June) and the key rail center of Petersburg (June), Grant pursued a strategy of attrition, putting Petersburg under siege for the next nine months. Sherman outmaneuvered Confederate forces to take Atlanta by September, after which he and some 60,000 Union troops began the famous “March to the Sea,” devastating Georgia on the way to capturing Savannah on December 21. Columbia and Charleston, South Carolina, fell to Sherman’s men by mid-February, and Jefferson Davis belatedly handed over the supreme command to Lee, with the Confederate war effort on its last legs. Sherman pressed on through North Carolina, capturing Fayetteville, Bentonville, Goldsboro and Raleigh by mid-April.
Meanwhile, exhausted by the Union siege of Petersburg and Richmond, Lee’s forces made a last attempt at resistance, attacking and captured the Federal-controlled Fort Stedman on March 25. An immediate counterattack reversed the victory, however, and on the night of April 2-3 Lee’s forces evacuated Richmond. For most of the next week, Grant and Meade pursued the Confederates along the Appomattox River, finally exhausting their possibilities for escape. Grant accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9. On the eve of victory, the Union lost its great leader: The actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington on April 14. Sherman received Johnston’s surrender at Durham Station, North Carolina on April 26, effectively ending the Civil War.
The best-known of all Confederate flags—the battle flag—is often erroneously confused with the national flag of the Confederacy. The battle flag features the cross of St. Andrew (the apostle was martyred by being crucified on an X-shaped cross), and is commonly called the "Southern Cross." A large degree of the Southern population was of Scottish and Scotch-Irish ancestry, and thus familiar with St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland. The stars represented the eleven states actually in the Confederacy, plus Kentucky and Missouri. This flag is the flap popularly associated with Robert E. Lee, and is the flag under which he fought.
The Army of Northern Virginia was the first to design a flag with the cross of St. Andrew, and Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard proposed adopting a version of it as the standard battle flag of the Confederate army. The Harper's Weekly Image above shows Beauregard's Arkansas troops serving under the "Stars and Bars" flag in 1861. The Army of Northern Virginia can be seen serving under the "Southern Cross" in 1862. One of its virtues was that, unlike the Stars and Bars, the Southern Cross was next to impossible to confuse with the Stars and Stripes in battle. The Confederate battle flag eventually developed wide acceptance 0throughout the Confederacy, but it was by no means the only battle flag.
It should also be pointed out that there was no uniform Southern Cross flag—throughout the South slightly different versions of the original design were used by different regiments. Even their shape varied: some were square, the traditional shape of battle flags; others were rectangular. Because the South did not have the industrial resources of the North, the creation of flags was handled by a variety of cottage industries throughout the Confederacy, which contributed to the variations.
United States Military Academy at West Point In 1825, Robert received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He was 18 years old. Jefferson Davis was also a cadet. Davis would become the President of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War.
The life of a cadet at West Point was difficult. Cadets awoke at 5:00 a.m., attended classes, marched, drilled, and studied. West Point's motto is "Duty, Honor, Country."
Robert was a good student in his studies and in his conduct. West Point had strict rules cadets had to follow. Cadets received demerits every time they broke a rule; this included being late or not having a straight uniform. Most cadets received at least one demerit at some point in their four years at West Point. Robert, however, did not receive any demerits.
In his final year at West Point, Robert was the highest officer in his class. It was the highest honor a cadet could receive. Robert graduated second in his class in 1829. He was 22 years old and a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
It was peacetime in the United States. Therefore, army officers were assigned to peacetime activities. Robert was appointed to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This was the most prestigious assignment in the army.
The Mexican War (1846-1848) On May 13, 1846, the Mexican War began between the United States and Mexico over a border dispute between Texas and Mexico. James Polk was the U.S. President at the time. Robert had been in the army for seventeen years, but he had never been in combat.
On September 21, 1846, Robert reported for duty in San Antonio, Texas. Robert's assignment was to scout the enemy's position. Being a scout for the U.S. Army was a dangerous assignment because he often came in close contact with enemy troops while scouting their location. Robert also helped build bridges to allow the army and its heavy guns to cross rivers.
In January, 1847, Robert joined General Winfield Scott's army on the Gulf Coast. Scott was the Commander of all the U.S. forces during the Mexican War. Scott would later describe Robert as "the very best soldier in the field" and "the greatest military genius in America." Scott's army attacked Veracruz, and the city surrendered on March 27, 1847.
In April, 1847, the U.S. army marched toward Mexico City. Robert scouted the terrain for the army. Several months later, in September, 1847, the U.S. army invaded and captured Mexico City. This victory brought the war to an end. The United States had defeated Mexico.
In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (gwahd-uhl-OOP hih-DAHL-goh) was signed between the United States and Mexico which ended the Mexican War. The Treaty stated Mexico would surrender Texas and land that later became the states known as California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming.
Robert served with distinction and won three brevets for gallantry during the Mexican War. A brevet is a honorary rank. Robert also emerged with a reputation as a brilliant military soldier. He was promoted to Colonel.
John Brown's Raid During Robert's life, the issue of slavery was tearing the United States apart. The North wanted to end slavery, and the South wanted to protect it.
In 1859, John Brown took matters into his own hands. Brown was an abolitionist. He believed if he provided guns to slaves, the slaves would rebel against the slave owners. Brown raided the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry looking for guns. Robert led a unit of U.S. Marines to capture Brown. Robert was successful, and John Brown was arrested.
The American Civil War The American Civil War began in 1861. The Northern and the Southern states were fighting against each other.
Robert was asked by President Abraham Lincoln to command the Union troops. Robert was from Virginia. He felt loyalty to his home state of Virginia. If Virginia left the Union, Robert would also leave the Union. In April 1861, Virginia seceded. Robert declined the position to lead the Union forces and resigned from the U.S. Army.
Robert Takes Command Robert commanded the Confederate Army in Virginia. He was an intelligent and courageous military leader. He faced better equipped and larger Union Armies. Sometimes the enemy outnumbered Robert's army by twice as many soldiers. Despite these odds, Robert found creative ways to maneuver his men in the face of the enemy.
Robert won great victories at Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. With the help of his generals, Robert defeated the Union Army for four years.
Robert's skills as general were not enough to win the war. In the end, the South surrendered and rejoined the Union.
Washington and Lee University After the Civil War, Robert became the President of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. He served as its president from 1865 until his death in 1870.
Robert E. Lee died on October 12, 1870, in Lexington, Virginia. He was 63 years old. His last words were, "Strike the tent." This is a military term meaning to take down the tent.
In 1871, Washington College was renamed in honor of Robert. Today, it is called Washington and Lee University. Robert is buried in the school chapel, called Lee Chapel. Robert's horse, Traveller, is buried outside Lee Chapel.
Honoring Robert Robert was a legend in his own lifetime. He is known as the Hero of the South and respected by both the North and the South. When Civil War Generals are analyzed, Robert is always at the top of the list.
Today, Robert's home is called the Arlington House. It is a memorial to Robert and is part of the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Robert is also remembered in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California. These parks are home to the giant sequoias which are the largest living things on earth. There are two sequoias named after Robert. One is called the Robert E. Lee Tree, and the other is called the General Lee Tree.
Robert was a brilliant military commander and strategist, and he is a hero in our hearts.
"It is well that war is so terrible--we would grow too fond of it."
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